International Adventure Guide 2013: Baja, Mexico

I once knew a man who said you’ve never looked freedom in the eye until you’ve raced through the Mexican desert at 100 mph while naked on the roof of a car.

While perhaps a little extreme, this raw sense of freedom and adventure has attracted adventure travelers to Baja since before the area even had a paved road. A trip to Baja means fishing for Dorado in a wooden panga beneath a sky that is vacant of clouds. It’s winding your way on sandy back roads with three surfboards, two cases of Tecate, and one hope for the perfect wave. It’s staring in wonder at whale sharks as they casually drift through bays that are cohabitated by manta rays and dolphins.

Baja is enchanting. Baja is raw. And it is unmistakably free.

One thing Baja is not, however, is dangerous, and it’s this misconception that continues to keep Baja off of the mainstream adventure travel map.

Instead, we would rather highlight the fact that Baja continues to be one of the best adventure destinations on the North American continent. From surfing to scuba and fishing to sandboarding, the entire peninsula is a desert playground you could spend a lifetime exploring.

Plus, with the media-induced security scares of the past couple of years, prices in Baja continue to be far cheaper than at many adventure destinations you could find in the western hemisphere.

While entire books could be written (and have been written) on the adventure possibilities of “La Baja,” here is a snippet of heart-thumping adventures to help turn your attention south.

Adventure Activities

Baja is crammed full of so much adventure you could pick any letter of the alphabet and find a list of activities starting just with that letter (Adventure racing, Biking, Cliff-Jumping…). For the sake of this guide, however, why not just pick the letter “s”.

Surfing: If you’re a San Diego surfer this isn’t news. Baja has been a surf outpost since Californians realized you could stand up on a board, and to this day it remains a dream destination for legions of surfers who are chasing waves. Although most surfers will elect to bring their own boards to reach remote destinations, places like Cabo Surf Shop in San José del Cabo will rent you boards to the tune of $27-$38/day, and provide lessons for $75.

Closer to the border in Baja Norte, the stretch of coastline from Punta San José to La Fonda is a favorite of the San Diego weekend warrior crowd, with Salsipuedes and Isla Todos Santos standing head and shoulders above the rest. For board rental and lessons in Baja Norte, check out K-38 surf shop between Rosarito and Ensenada.

Finally, for a legendary surf safari, consider making the trek to the remote outpost of Scorpion Bay in the town of San Juanico, located a six hour drive north from La Paz, a five hour drive west from Loreto, or an epic, 15-hour, two-day journey south from the U.S. border. You’ll have to pack your own boards with you since San Juanico is a village of only a couple hundred people, and although there’s a chance you could rent a board off of a fellow surfer at the campground, which fronts the surf break, it’s best to bring your own gear and be prepared.

Scuba Diving: Few bodies of water hold more of a romantic allure than the teeming Sea of Cortez, which runs along the length of Baja’s eastern coast. Steinbeck wrote of its bounty in his epic novel by the same name, Hemingway waxed philosophical of its beauty, and the famed ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau went so far as to name it as the “Aquarium of the World.” While the fabled Sea of Cortez runs for over 800 miles, the best place for accessing the marine environment is from the city of La Paz where the surrounding waters are all a part of a protected marine reserve. Fun Baja Diving and the Cortez Club run introductory diving excursions from $125, as well as a full range of certification programs for those who want to take their diving to the next level. As a bonus, the relatively-warm water temperature ranges from 65°-85° depending on the time of year.

Sportfishing: Anglers from across the planet have been descending upon Baja for years to take part in world-class sportfishing. Summer through fall are the best months for Dorado, and the yellowtail start biting from February through summer, making nearly every month of the year a prime time for baiting a hook. In Loreto you can charter a boat from Baja Big Fish Company from $175-$300, or, for a more low-key experience, charter a panga out of Bahia de Los Angeles from the fish lodge at Camp Daggett. In Cabo San Lucas, the focus switches from Dorado to marlin, and Pisces Sportfishing offers fishing charters from $445 all the way up through luxury yacht rentals. Note that if fishing in Cabo, it’s important to choose a reputable charter, as some of the lower-budget options have been known to fish in illegal areas. Getting stopped by the Mexican Coast Guard is never a fun fishing trip. Trust me, I’ve been there.

Hot Spots

Los Cabos: This should come as no surprise since every spring break college student, sportfisher, scuba diver, honeymooner, and margarita-lover in the northern hemisphere has at one point considered a trip to Los Cabos. International flights arrive at the airport between Cabo San Lucas and San José del Cabo, and all marinas for sportfishing or scuba excursions are within a 30 minute drive from most of the resorts. The best surfing breaks are located between Cabo San Lucas and San José del Cabo, or, for a real adventure, consider booking a multi-day diving excursion out to the remote Socorro Islands for the chance to dive with giant Pacific manta rays.

La Paz: Although there isn’t any surfing on the La Paz side of the peninsula, this tranquil capital of Baja Sur is the regional epicenter of scuba excursions and sea kayaking trips. Sandwiched between low-lying hills and offshore islands, the oceanfront stroll along the town’s malecón is the center of visitor activity. As an adventure bonus, the renowned windsurfing hot spot of “La Ventana” is only a 40-minute drive from the airport and city center. If staying in La Paz, however, dive and snorkeling excursions leave from marinas, which are within a short 5-10 minute taxi ride from downtown.

Bahia de Los Angeles: Unlike Los Cabos or La Paz, this legendary Baja Norte outpost is a long way from everything-it’s a ten hour drive from the California border. The drive through the desert is one of the main highlights of the journey, however, and once you get here the fishing charters are usually located mere walking distance from your thatched hut palapa. Since Bahia de Los Angeles faces directly east the sunrises here create a concert of colors, and the mountains, which form the backdrop of the village, are illuminated each morning in a radiant glow. In addition to sportfishing, you can also snorkel with migrating whale sharks during the months of June-October, and while “L.A. Bay” (as it’s known to many gringos) might not have the nightlife of larger cities like Los Cabos, this is a “hot-spot” where you come to for no other reason than to get away from it all.

Where To Stay

Los Cabos: If there is one thing the Los Cabos area isn’t short on, it’s hotels, and an affordable option, which is conveniently located a five-minute cab ride from the marina and center of nightlife is the Villa del Palmar resort in the heart of Cabo San Lucas. The sprawling swimming pool creates a family resort atmosphere, and the oceanfront location makes it an easy spot for a stroll down the beach into town. While not an adventure-lodge in and of itself, the location is prime for embarking on excursions from offroading tours through the desert to dolphin cruises or scuba charters. From $115-$300. Camino Viejo a San Jose KM 0.5, El Medano, Cabo San Lucas,

For the surfing crowd, Cabo Surf Hotel offers oceanfront accommodations at one of Los Cabos’ best beach breaks, although the rates are definitely higher than other places you can find around town. With only 36 rooms the hotel manages to retain its boutique nature, and the rooms themselves are modern and comfortable and gaze out towards the water and waves. From $250-$400. Playa Acapulquito, KM 28, 23410 San Jose del Cabo,

La Paz: For five-star resort luxury at affordable prices, the CostaBaja resort is literally walking distance from the main marina for snorkeling, sailing, and diving charters. Its convenient location by the marina makes it popular and busy option in town, and the standard-sized rooms gaze out towards the water where sunsets are offered up nightly. Although the resort is on the far end of La Paz it’s still only 15 minutes from the La Paz international airport, as an added bonus, anyone staying for four nights or more is eligible for free transport all the way from the airport in San José del Cabo From $150-$250. Carretera a Pichilingue, Kilómetro 7.5, Lomas de Palmira, 23010 La Paz,

If you’ll be windsurfing in La Ventana, Ventana Windsports has beachfront accommodations where hammocks and palm trees are a tempting reason for simply staying on shore. With only nine rooms the atmosphere is comfortable and laidback, and the mellow shoreline is a rustic getaway where you’re still treated to the comforts of home. From $65-$300. 7km off of Los Planes highway from La Paz,

Bahia de Los Angeles: If your whole idea of coming to Baja is to escape the resort setting and just get away from everything, pitch a tent beneath a palapa at Camp Daggets and put your cooler and beach chair out in the sun. Situated a five-minute drive from the center of town (which, remember, is a ten-hour drive from the border), sportfishing and snorkeling charters depart from right here on the property. Laidback and rustic, this is as calming an outpost as you can get. Campsites from $10, casitas from $50. 2 km north of Bahia de Los Angeles town,


How To Get There:

By Air: Most visitors to Baja arrive by international airports in La Paz, Loreto, and San José del Cabo. If you are traveling to Baja Norte and will be in need of a rental car, there is an international airport in Tijuana which has multiple rental car agencies. Most of the direct flights into La Paz, Loreto, and San José del Cabo depart from either San Diego or Los Angeles, and the flight from Los Angeles to Los Cabos is approximately two hours. When booking flights, remember to note that the state of Baja Sur is one hour ahead of West Coast time and is in the Mountain Time Zone.

By Car: Many visitors to Baja Norte and those who will be spending an extended period of time on the peninsula will simply choose to drive their own vehicles into Baja. The San Ysidro border crossing between San Diego and Tijuana is the most heavily-trafficked border crossing in the world, and wait times at the border when heading north can often be over two hours, particularly if returning on a Sunday afternoon. For a more low-key border crossing, the Tecate border crossing is located about an hour inland from San Diego, and the drive through the Valle de Guadalupe passes through the heart of Mexico’s burgeoning wine country. This road will reconnect with MEX 1 (the Transpeninsular highway) just north of Ensenada, and the highway is fully paved all the way down to “the tip” in Los Cabos.

Understand that if you’re going to be driving your own vehicle into Baja, will be in the country for longer than 72 hours, or will be traveling further south than Maneadero (30 minutes south of Ensenada), you will need to fill out a $25 Tourist Card which can be obtained at the border crossing. Also understand that most major rental car companies don’t allow their vehicles to travel into Mexico. One company which does and that we highly recommend is California Baja Rent A Car which is based in inland San Diego and specializes in rental cars to Baja.

Driving Tips: The number one rule of road travel in Mexico is not to drive at night. Stick to the roads during the daylight hours and everything should be fine. Since the border areas can still be a little suspect, it’s best to cross with a full tank of gas and minimize your presence in urban stretches around the border (such as putting surfboards inside of your car if at all possible). The Mexican courts work differently than those in the U.S., and at all costs you want to avoid getting in any sort of accident since you’re often considered guilty until proven innocent. Shakedowns by police are common on much of the roadways, and while it really is the wrong thing to do to pay la mordida (the bribe, or literally, “the bite”), a $20 bill in your glove box will save you a lot of hassle of spending hours at the police station trying to call their bluff. For more information on police and bribes, be sure to read the Vagabond Tales column “How To Pay Off The Police While Traveling“. Finally, when the car in front of you is flashing its left blinker without slowing down, it’s indicating to you that it is safe to pass.

Seasonality: Although you can find adventure in Baja during any day of the year, spring, fall, and winter are the best times to be on the peninsula. Although the surf is better on the southern portion of the peninsula during summer, temperatures along the Sea of Cortez can swell to well over 100 degrees, and areas around Los Cabos can be prone to passing hurricanes. Winter is best for surf on the northern half of the peninsula, and since the winter temperatures in Los Cabos can stretch towards 80 degrees it’s a popular time of year with sun-seekers and snowbirds. As a best overall bet, May and June offer shoulder season rates with comfortable weather for outdoor adventure.

Safety: As I mentioned in the 2012 article “I Traveled To Mexico And Came Back Alive“, Baja is comparatively safer than any urban center across America, and I would feel safer in a fishing village in Baja than an American urban center any day. For the doubters out there, the city of La Paz has a lower homicide rate than San Francisco, Sacramento, or Los Angeles, none of which are places I hear much chatter against visiting.

To say that Baja is dangerous is like saying California is dangerous because there are a few bad neighborhoods. Quite frankly, it’s ridiculous.

If you have concerns about the safety of Baja, it’s probably best to make your point elsewhere. I probably won’t hear you anyway over the sound of the wave breaking over me, or the hiss of my undersea regulator.

Want even more Baja? Read our article on 5 Classic Baja Outposts

[Photo by Kyle Ellison]