A Very Brief Overview of the Baja Peninsula

After dreaming about it for years we finally made the trip down the length of the Baja Peninsula. It so exceeded our expectations that we believe it’s one of the top trips for RVers in North America. But we found the planning a bit daunting so we decided to post some tips for RVers that plan to drive to Baja in the future. This first post is a very brief overview of the Baja Peninsula. Depending on the time you have available and your interests you can plan widely varying itineraries. Hopefully this will help you formulate your plans.

The Baja Peninsula is about 1,000 miles long comprising two states: Baja California in the north and Baja California Sur in the south.

It varies from hilly wine country to mountains to desert landscape to rocky and sandy beaches. The Pacific and the Sea of Cortez offer whale watching, kayaking, sailing, surfing, kite surfing, SUPing, snorkeling, scuba diving, fishing and more. On land there is hiking, exploring ruins, visiting museums, churches, historical sites, birding, ATVing, 4-wheeling, horseback riding and more.

When we mention each of the main towns the highway passes through we will show the distance in miles from the border (in parentheses). Bear in mind that due to the condition of the road, you should be very conservative in estimating travel time (40 mph is a good average).

For the purposes of this overview we will list the towns in order from north to south although in reality we stopped in some of the places on our way south and others on our way north.

The Transpeninsular Highway

Federal Highway 1 goes from Tijuana on the northern border by San Diego to Cabo San Lucas on the southernmost tip of the Peninsula. Along the way it crisscrosses from the Pacific Coast on the west to the Sea of Cortez on the east of the Peninsula several times.

The Relatively Developed North

The northernmost part of Baja extending 100 miles or so from the border has large cities, pretty landscapes, beaches, and the famous wine country in the Guadelupe Valley. These make for an easy hop from California and Arizona, and there are various expat enclaves in the area.

Just south of San Diego is Tijuana and between there and Ensenada are Rosarito and Puerto Nuevo. These seaside towns are popular day trip destinations for Southern Californians.


We crossed the border in Tecate and then drove 69 miles south and west on Highway 3 to Ensenada where it meets the Transpeninsular Highway. This route goes through the beautiful Valle de Guadalupe which we hope to visit another time.

There is lots to do in Ensenada: restaurants from the exclusive and famous to food trucks, all kinds of shopping, many bars etc.

Lots of large grocery and other stores and service providers make it a good area to provision and make any last minute vehicle checks before heading further south.

There are some great surfing areas on this Pacific shore, a continuation of the California surf beaches.

The Transpeninsular Highway meanders along the coast and is generally in good condition and not too narrow (yet).

The Wild and Remote Center

South of Ensenada the less developed Baja begins. The highway gets narrower with tiny or no shoulders. Grocery and other stores are smaller and scarcer. For the next hundreds of miles the communities are small and often there are long stretches of remote and beautiful nature.

From Ensenada the road heads south along the ocean to the beach town of San Quintin (180 miles). There are some beautiful wide beaches with oceanside camping in this area.

More empty beaches line the road as you continue toward El Rosario (219 miles). At El Rosario the road turns inland (and uphill) towards the center of the peninsula and reaches the southern extension of the Sonoran Desert, with unique and cool endemic plants like the huge cardón cacti.

It is wild and beautiful with incredible views. After El Rosario there is the famous “gas gap”, a 235 mile stretch with no gas stations and no supplies.

Around the tiny town of Cataviña (295 miles) lies the Cataviña boulder field. This is the Valle de los Cirios, the funky looking Boojum trees. There is a small campground at Rancho Santa Ynez.  

This is a great area for hiking, with cave paintings to explore and many enticing 4WD tracks. Another place we hope to return to.

Somewhere in the middle of this stretch there is a turn off (~40 miles one way dead end) to Bahía de los Angeles (399 miles), a gorgeous bay and the first opportunity to head over to the beautiful Sea of Cortez.

It is a tiny town in an incredible setting and waterfront camping. One of our favorites.

Dolphins, birds, and sea lions dot the bay. There are several offshore islands, reachable by kayak or boat tours (both recommended). Most people visit in winter because it’s pretty hot in summer there, but sport fishing is popular between June and November and whale sharks come to the area to feed from July to November. 

After the Bahía de los Angeles turn off, the highway meanders through more desert scenery as it turns back west to the Pacific and the border with Baja California Sur.

Shortly after crossing the border to Baja Sur you reach the town of Guerrero Negro (443 miles), a decent size town (the first since Ensenada) that is a great place to shop, do laundry, get gas after the gas gap, fill water containers etc.

The town is a gateway to the Laguna Ojo de Liebre, the first of several lagoons on the way south where you can see gray whales in the winter calving season. Whale watching tours run from December through April.

There are many tour operators in town. The boats depart next to the world’s largest salt mine which is kind of interesting. The experience of being up close to these magnificent animals was so emotional and unforgettable.  We went out multiple times.

Just south of Guerrero Negro there is a lagoon side camping area called Scammon’s Lagoon (464 miles). Beautiful and rustic dry camping with no cell nor wifi, and whale watching tours as well. 

 

 

The highway then turns back inland towards the east, here you pass the cute tiny inland oasis town of San Ignacio (530 miles). This is the access point to the San Ignacio Lagoon, the second gray whale watching destination (we didn’t get to go whale watching here due to windy weather).

The road then continues down an extremely steep and several mile long downhill, named la Cuesta del Infierno (the Incline from Hell), before reaching the mining town of Santa Rosalia (574 miles) on the Sea of Cortez.  On the way north, the Cuesta del Infierno is the steepest climb on the entire drive. We unhooked our tow car prior to climbing it just in case.

The highway then follows the shore to the tiny town of Mulegé (611 miles), another good place to provision. A lovely river runs through town. Mulegé is at the north end of Bahía Concepción, a 20-mile long bay where a number of scenic coves make for some of the best beach camping and kayaking on the Sea of Cortez.

We camped at Playa Santispac (624 miles). A dream spot. Some people spend the entire season and we understand why. Our eight days there felt short. Several other coves also offer beach camping and everyone has their favorite. Vendors came by in the morning with fresh produce, seafood, empanadas, and offering fresh water fills and pump out service.

The highway goes inland at the end of the bay and continues south to the beautiful colonial town of Loreto (695 miles), a Pueblo Mágico also on the Sea of Cortez. This was the site where the Spaniards started the first mission and is the beginning of the Camino Real.  A gorgeous little town.

 

The church in town is historic with a cool little museum about the Spanish missionaries’ history. And near Loreto is Mission San Javier, a stunning and ornate mission up in the mountains.  A worthy and scenic side trip.

 

Loreto is also home to lots of bird life along the shore and is also where a few of the largest animals on earth, the blue whales come to feed between January and March.

Shortly after Loreto, the road turns inland and climbs a giant hill to cross back over towards the west but not quite to the Pacific coast. It crosses the Magdalena plain where there are a few agricultural working towns like Cuidad Constitución (786 miles) with more opportunities to buy provisions. The town is also a gateway to Magdalena Bay, another lagoon where gray whales congregate.

There is a side road near here to the tiny fishing village of Puerto Chalet (832 miles). It is the newest of the official (but not yet well known) whale watching spots with almost no infrastructure (yet). It was absolutely wonderful.

The road then crosses over once again back to the Sea of Cortez and the good sized city of La Paz (915 miles). La Paz is beautiful with a miles-long malecón (boardwalk) facing a lovely bay and a large offshore island named Isla Espíritu Santo, a Natural Protected Area and UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Whale sharks arrive to feed between October and February and several nature outfitters operate tours to swim with them as well as tours to swim with sea lions.

Great beaches are around as well. Playa Tecolote was the only place where we boondocked and it was absolutely gorgeous.

Although a bit touristy, La Paz retains a very authentic Mexican feel and affordable pricing. We experienced Carnaval there and it was quite the happening.

The Touristy and Beautiful Far South

The last 100 miles or so at the southern end of Baja are once again more developed.  The roads become wider and shoulders reappear as you head south past La Paz and approach the town at the tip of the peninsula, Cabo San Lucas (1010 miles).

Cabo also has the most resources for things like vehicle repair available since Ensenada in the north.

South of La Paz there are a number of small beach towns that sit on the coast. The highway roughly forms a circle all the way around the “cape”. Todos Santos is a cute artsy village near the Pacific.

Time did not permit a visit to Los Barriles which is known for kite surfing nor tiny Cabo Pulmo, site of the largest reef on this coast, part of the Parque Nacional Cabo Pulmo. Both are on the Sea of Cortez.

Cabo San Lucas sits at the very tip where a dramatic rock outcropping and arch marks the end of the Baja Peninsula. A short but amazing boat tour takes you there.

Just to the west of Cabo sits San Jose del Cabo, a picturesque town with a bit more laidback feel than busy Cabo San Lucas.

There are beautiful beaches and many beach resorts in Cabo San Lucas and in the “corridor” between Cabo and San Jose del Cabo, the deep-sea fishing is world class, there are great golf resorts and lots more. Both are quite developed with high prices to match.

There are other areas on Baja that the Transpeninsular highway does not go through and that we did not visit, including the Sierra de San Pedro Mártir, a large national park in the mountains of the north.

So there you have it.  Quite the varied selection of nature, wildlife, history, and culture. Two months wasn’t nearly enough time for us. There are quite a number of places we skipped over or that we could have definitely spent more time in.

Planning our trip

Hector and I are planners and we did our best to lay out the trip in advance. With a major move looming in our future, we decided we had 70 days total for the trip.

Our priorities were: kayaking and snorkeling in the Sea of Cortez, tours to see the gray whales and their babies on the Pacific side and whale sharks and blue whales on the Sea of Cortez side, and exploring historical sites and camping and just relaxing in beautiful settings.

We also wanted to spend time in the towns of Loreto and La Paz and although we weren’t much interested in the congested Cabo area we did want to make a day trip down to the southern tip of the Peninsula.

So Hector created a spreadsheet and we filled in the places we wanted to visit using Google Maps to assure that the drive time and distance between them was reasonable. Whatever drive time Google Maps estimated we adjusted up quite a bit to acknowledge we were in an RV and to allow for poking around along the way

We allocated time to each stop to make sure that we had enough time at each of them while making sure the overall trip ended on time.

But we also wanted flexibility so we didn’t make any camping reservations in advance.

 

Although we did wind up changing both the order of places we visited and the number of days spent in each, we still believe that our spreadsheet was a valuable tool as it kept us focused on our priorities and timeframe.

Each of the places above that we visited are covered in much more detail in the posts that we wrote along the way. To find the posts, use the search box on the upper right of the home page.

This is just Part I of our tips for Rving to Baja. Next up some more details on our preparation logistics and some resources we recommend.

Baby Whales!

Lots has happened since we last posted but here is a catch up post about the last part of our Baja Peninsula adventure.  We last wrote about our stop in Loreto to see blue whales on our journey back north after our RV troubles. Third stop in Loreto was the charm as the seas were calm and we spotted many blue whales on our boat tour. Next up was an attempt to see some baby whales!

A guide on an earlier outing told us that as the gray whale calves get just a little older later in the season, the moms are more likely to bring them for close interactions with people on the boat tours. So we made one last stop to see more whales.

This was our second stop in the Guerrero Negro area where we first saw these beautiful creatures on our way south. Only this time we stayed at a different vantage point that we’d scouted on our first trip, the waterfront campground of Scammon’s Lagoon a few miles south of the town.

Ejido Benito Juarez is 32 kilometers down a fairly well graded gravel road. The campsites were right on the water with expansive views of the lagoon and whale spouts in the distance.  Whale watching trips were available from the dock on the property and were very affordable and there was a restaurant onsite.

Our morning trip (our 5th gray whale outing) was the topper. Lots of whales and a couple of cute little calves came right up to us to be petted.

Another family was on their first outing on our boat.  We tried to keep their expectations low as they questioned us as we were heading out, but our caution was unfounded.  They hit the jackpot on their first try.

Mom and calf nuzzling

At one point we had a whole whale family by the boat.  Dad, mom, last year’s calf, and this year’s newborn.  CRAZY!

It is fun to see how playful the whales are.  They roll around and obviously enjoy the interaction.  At one point one whale decided to put its head under the boat and push us around. These intimate encounters are so special.  Really something unique in the wild.

We headed back to the RV to chill after the amazing rush. The afternoons are usually windy so we thought we might go again the next morning.  But as we looked out on the water after lunch we noticed that the day was still unusually calm so on a whim we decided what the hell … lets go again!

Most folks know the afternoons are windy and this was late in the season so we were the only customers as we headed out on our private outing.  We were the not only the only customers on the boat but also the only boat on the water.  Awesome!

Alas, you can never predict “wild” life and we were a bit disappointed when no whales came up to the boat.  Apparently, they get tired too.  But all was not lost.  What we realized after being out there a while is that while they weren’t much interested in playing with us, they were out there interacting amongst themselves.

What we missed in terms of up close interaction we made up for in watching these magnificent animals doing their own thing. Some of the behaviors were pretty funny, like blowing lots of bubbles for no apparent reason.

Some breached repeatedly.

We saw one doing what is called logging … where they lay completely still on the surface like a log and nap.

We watched as a mom and her baby gurgled and rolled and played with each other.  Or maybe  mom  was  teaching  baby.

And there was a whole lot of spy hopping going on too.

As we headed back we were treated to a rainbow in a baby whale’s spout.

Not a bad outing at all.

The next morning we decided to continue on our way, as we still weren’t 100% sure that the RV wouldn’t have further issues. And as we left we saw multiple whale spouts out on the lagoon in the distance.  Perfect.

So this concluded our whale watching on the Baja.  We did make one final quick stop to meet some friends from San Diego in Ensenada and to get the RV and car washed before crossing the border. We were very sad to leave this beautiful peninsula that we will never forget but we hope to come back someday!

 

Land’s End

We planned a day car trip to Cabo San Lucas from our campsite in La Paz. Touristy and congested, we really weren’t that interested in Cabo but the main event was a boat ride to see Lands’ End, the very tip of the Baja Peninsula.

A fitting capstone to our trip down the length of Baja.

It is a couple of hours from La Paz to Cabo, with little surfer hangouts like El Pescadero. This town has grown much just as many others in this area. It’s really is popular with beginning surfers and is apparently one of the few places in the West Cape that’s good for swimming.

We arrived in Cabo San Lucas to lots of traffic. Spring breakers were in town, though since it was morning, not many were around. We headed to the marina where a guy immediately approached us asking if we wanted a boat ride. After discussing the rate, he said we’d have to wait about 40 minutes and if no one else showed up, we’d have the boat to ourselves.

When we thanked him and started walking away, he came after us and said one of the boats was leaving immediately and we could have it to ourselves for the same rate. Off we went.

As we headed out a “pirate ship” was headed back in. There is lots of boat traffic here as everyone wants to see the spectacular rock formations and of course, Land’s End.

It is a very short ride out to the amazing rock

 

The boat tours go by the pretty but small Lover’s Beach which straddles the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Cortez. The Pacific side which is too rough for swimming is referred to as Divorce Beach. Divorce Beach is much larger than Lover’s Beach because well, you know.

They will drop you off and pick you back up on a later boat ride if you’d like but we chose not to stop.

It really is a stunning place, and I couldn’t help but think how sweet it would be to visit in a quieter time if there is one.

El Arco, the famous arch, also called La Finisterra for Land’s End is beautiful as we expected. The tour takes you out around the point into the Pacific side so you can see it from both sides.

The boats all make space for each other and take turns in front of it so that the guides can take a photo without other boats in the background. A neat bit of choreography as it is really packed out there with boats of all shapes and sizes.

What we didn’t expect was to find out that this was not in fact the tip of the Peninsula. Our captain, Ivan, a charming guy, told us that the real end of Baja is a jagged lonely rock. The rock had a seal sleeping on top who refused to be bothered by all of the boaters.

As we headed back, we picked up a few guys from Lover’s Beach. This angle gave us a good view of what’s referred to as “the Corridor”, the area between Cabo San Lucas and the town of San Jose del Cabo. On the Sea of Cortez side, this area has the most beautiful beaches and lots of super expensive resorts.

Once back in the marina, we noticed many huge yachts, party boats and other vessels including some pretty unique ones like two story floating disco platforms and such.

We took a brief walk along the tourist shops, selling lots of wares. Some funny juxtapositions like a T-shirt with a picture of Heisenberg from “Breaking Bad” alongside a T-shirt with a picture of the famous Mexican actor and comedian Cantinflas.

Lots of restaurants and bars with guys asking you to join them. This place was just too crowded for us. Clearly a place set up for massive partying.

We headed east past the corridor towards San Jose del Cabo for lunch. A quick stop just to see it. It has a very pretty colonial square with a big church and more shops. It felt more like a real community but was expensive and full of Americans and Canadians.

Headed back to La Paz we made a very brief stop in Todos Santos. This is another “Pueblo Magico” with a pretty colonial plaza. It’s become an artists’ colony popular with, you guessed it, Americans and Canadians.

It was pretty quiet although it was a Saturday and one of the shops had an “end of season” sale indicating that snowbirds were now heading back home.

We stopped in at the Teatro Marquez de Leon, a historical structure that represents the cultural heritage of the town and is one of the reasons it was designated a “Pueblo Magico”.

One shop we stopped at had gorgeous handmade items including furniture, textiles, sculptures, jewelry and more. They feature a beautiful garden in the back named the “Jardin del Amor”.

There was a wedding in the church and we peeked in along with some other tourists. A lovely church with beautiful stained glass and lots of light.

Our last stop was at the Hotel California (we were looking for a bathroom) and found some of the most creative bathroom gender designations that we’ve seen.

It’s quite a lovely hotel with beautiful crystal chandeliers, although it has no connection to nor was it the inspiration for the Eagles song. But they still play various versions of the namesake song amongst a variety of rock songs.

Then it was back to La Paz and more adventures on our way back north.

 

 

 

 

 

 

La Paz

We really looked forward to visiting La Paz. Besides Playa el Tecolote for kayaking, the diversity of islands and sea life across from its bay and Carnaval, there was the beautiful Malecón Alvaro Obregón, a pretty plaza with its cathedral, a couple of interesting sounding museums and more good food.

We stayed on the north end of town at Campestre Maranatha RV park. Check out my review of the park here.

La Paz is the capital of Baja California Sur, with the largest population in the state and the fourth largest on the peninsula (about 220,000). Perhaps because of this, it felt less overwhelmed by North Americans than some other towns on the peninsula.

The Pericú Indians squashed several attempts at colonization of the town including four missions. Thus, the Spaniards selected Loreto as their base for expansion and the peaceful Cochimí there as their first converts, and later Loreto was declared the territorial capital.

European diseases ultimately wiped out the Pericú. La Paz was settled mostly by fishermen and farmers and only became the capital after a hurricane destroyed much of Loreto.

Another interesting part of La Paz’s history is its pearl harvesting which began in the 16thcentury. During the Jesuit mission period, the Spaniards began to cultivate pearls and ultimately the pearl beds were depleted. The beds were attacked by disease and the pearl trade ended around the time of World War II.

Lacking the lovely colonial buildings of Loreto, it still has a sweet little plaza with trees, a gazebo and benches for some peaceful moments.

And, of course there is a cathedral, although it’s modern by mission standards. And although the malecón, the three-mile esplanade along the La Paz waterfront, is the most bustling area of the town, the plaza seems to get plenty of foot traffic.

The malecón gives the town an urban vibe, with people bicycling, roller skating, roller blading, skateboarding and strolling along its length. The restaurants and bars across the street are lively as well.

And of course, the Carnaval parades and other activities all took place along the malecón. Generally, this is not a city that has tons of nightlife but there are some very nice restaurants and bars in town.

We visited the lovely Centro Cultural La Paz where some of the Carnaval costumes were displayed. The Center also had one room devoted to historical panels about the area as well as an exhibition of beautiful whales made of wood and/or paper by local artists.

The art exhibit, Ballenas Morfas (Morphed Whales) included strong cautionary environmental messages by some of the artists. The sculptures were gorgeous and intricate.

The Mercado Maduro is open every day with a great variety of fruits, vegetables, meats, seafood and other food items sold by individual vendors. I had a funny experience there. After buying some fruits and vegetables from a lady, I told her I had my own bags. She stopped what she was doing, looked me straight in the eyes and said in earnest “thank you so much for taking care of our environment. I’ve seen many dead turtles and am really worried.” There are also some very nice once a week farmers markets in town, but we got our fill at the Mercado.

After Carnaval, two snorkeling outings and dealing with some mechanical issues, (more on all of that in later posts), our eight days week in town felt short.

Some continuing mechanical issues forced us to return to the city for a couple of days.

The silver lining in the cloud was that we saw Malecón Alvaro Obregón clear of all of the Carnaval booths and stages.

And we bicycled across the malecón with the locals. Its beauty was fully revealed, with white beaches and turquoise waters, pretty copper sculptures and iron benches.

La Paz has much to offer, a small but charming city in a spectacular setting.  A world away from the tourist frenzy of Cabo to the south.

We will return someday.

 

 

Isla Espíritu Santo

The tour from La Paz to Isla Espíritu Santo is one of the boat tours that we’d read about and signed up for. It’s about six hours long and takes you across to the beautiful island that is rich with marine life.

It took a long time to cruise over to the island and the anticipation was high. After a long boat ride, we finally reached the largest sea lion colony in the Sea of Cortez, Los Islotes, an island inlet at the north end of the island.

When we reached the colony, one of the the park rangers was leading a rescue of a sea lion that had been caught in a net. They didn’t allow us to stick around so we continued.

There was an area on the island closed to snorkeling they called the “kindergarden” where there were lots of sea lion cubs laying around on rocks including juveniles, adults and huge males.

Super cute.

I had snorkeled with sea lions before, and they can be quite curious and cute, in some cases swimming right up to people, so I was excited.

We bought new wetsuits and snorkel gear last year just for the Sea of Cortez but I was still worried about jumping into the cold (68 degree) water. But my new 3mm wetsuit did its job and I was comfortable.

We snorkeled for about half an hour and during that time only a few sea lions decided they wanted to be in the water with the humans. It wasn’t quite the sea lion experience that I had hoped but a few swam near us in the water and one swam between Hector’s legs.

There were lots of tropical fish in the water, a beautiful reminder of our scuba diving days. We look forward to returning to some diving sometime soon.

Next we cruised to the center of the island to a campground that’s run by our tour’s organization. On the way we saw lots of impressive rock formations. As we passed through an opening in one, the guide pointed out a part of the rock that was shaped just like the Baja Peninsula. Very cool!