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.

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!

Then we watched a pod of dolphins as they frolicked in the water.

The campground was on a pretty beach with some tents and a compost toilet. This time of year is too cold at night for me to tent camp, but it looked like a sweet place to spend a few days.

We spent a couple of hours on the beach. The guides served a nice lunch of ceviche, bean burritos, guacamole and tostadas and we took it easy for a bit.

They had kayaks and SUPs available so we took two kayaks out. Unfortunately, they were old kayaks with seats whose back was really loose. They were uncomfortable so we didn’t take them out as far as we had hoped to which was a disappointment. But we did get to a couple of rock outcrops nearby where there were lots of birds, including Hector’s favorites, the pelicans.

Back on the beach, we walked around for a bit along with some others. The water was crystal clear and some ladies spotted a huge sea star that we ran over to look at. So beautiful!

The island was covered in beautiful desert vegetation. It looked like a great place to hike.

After our time on the beach, we headed back out towards the other end of the island where there is a frigate bird colony. We’d never seen frigate birds on the ground, apparently they can’t walk, they can only perch and fly.

They also can’t land of the water, so they have to pluck their fish out of the water. Some of the males were in full display and there were lots of juveniles with their white heads.  This area also had the ruins of a pearl farm that’s part of the history of La Paz. Very cool.

I told the guide that I was interested in seeing blue footed boobies and he said they were not normally on the tour. But he asked the captain to go by a smaller island where they sometimes perch, alas there were none there.

On the last leg of our trip the captain spotted some whale sharks. They were moving really slowly through the water while feeding so we got a really good look at their dorsal fin and their tails on top of the water. The captain got a bit closer and one of the whale sharks swam up to and right under our boat.

A beautiful sight! That made up for not seeing the blue footed boobies.

All in all a pretty good day on the water.

 

 

Chilling at Playa El Tecolote

Our next stop was north of the city of La Paz, written up as the best boondocking spot in all of Baja California! Back to the Sea of Cortez, which is now one of our favorite bodies of water. It was time for chilling at Playa El Tecolote. Check out my review of  the  beach here.
This was another wide beautiful beach but with several beachfront restaurants in the middle. There were quite a few RVs parked on the east end of the beach but there was lots of open space. We parked about 100 yards away from the next RV in a nice private spot.

We took a walk on the beach and decided to have an early dinner. As we returned, the RV looked so close to the water that Hector kept checking to make sure that high tide wouldn’t reach us.

That evening we were treated to a spectacular sunset. And the next morning we awoke to a commanding view of the south end of the island of Espíritu Santo amidst beautiful turquoise water.

We hadn’t had much downtime and had covered many many miles so we decided to take it easy and relax and read for a couple of days.

The next afternoon a couple that we’d met at the RV park in Bahia de los Angeles drove in to spend the night.

We hung out with Chuck and Teri and their cute dog, Kokanee. They brought a little firepit and lit a nice fire that evening and we enjoyed another fabulous sunset.

Later that night Hector and I came back out to watch the stars which were beautiful.

The next day we walked over to one end of the beach where there’s a little trail up a hill and hiked up to a road that took us around the bend. And what was over the bend? Another beautiful little beach cove of course. That was the extent of our activity for the day.Some may have noticed that we’ve been wearing hoodies and coats. It’s been unusually cold in Baja but seeing the weather in the States we haven’t dared to complain. Here we finally found the warm weather! On a nice, calm and warm day we went for a paddle. 


There were fish jumping out of the water and of course pelicans and gulls. There were also a lot of frigate birds flying above us which are so interesting with their forked tails.

The water was a beautiful turquoise and swimming pool clear. Just like the pictures we’ve seen that made us want to come to Baja in the first place.

It was a relaxing paddle and a great way to end our restful stay at this lovely beach but  the time had come to hit the big city and their Carnaval celebration.

 

Loreto and the Start of the Camino Real

After yet another beautiful drive along the shores of Bahia Concepcion and across more beautiful desert scenery, we reached lovely Loreto and the start of the Camino Real. Loreto is one of the Mexican towns that has been designated as a Pueblo Mágico.

Pueblos Mágicos offer visitors a “magical” experience by reason of their natural beauty, cultural richness, traditions, folklore, historical relevance, cuisine, art, crafts and great hospitality.

Set alongside the stunning Sea of Cortez, Loreto has much going for it. A beautiful plaza where the first mission in Baja California was founded. Other lovely colonial structures. Lots of fine restaurants and shops.

There are beautiful lanes with trees manicured into archways. In fact, this town was the capital of the Californias (Baja and Alta) from 1697 to 1777.

Our first visit was to the mission church, Misión Nuestra Senora de Loreto Conchó, founded as a simple structure in 1697. This was the first mission in California.

 

The stone structure that stands today was built from stone and mortar in 1740. Its bells resonate through the town every hour. It was also the first of what would be an astonishing collection of missions along the second Camino Real (the first went from Mexico City to Santa Fe) that extended beyond San Francisco in present day California.

 

Next to the church is the Museo de los Misiones, with many beautiful artifacts depicting the history of the mission, the town, and the missionary efforts across the Californias. It was beautifully presented with excellent interpretive panels, the nicest museum that we’ve visited in Baja.

The community’s pride in the town was evident as we drove around and saw people constantly painting and repairing structures and cleaning the streets.

During our visit, there was a small farmers market in the morning where we bought quite a lot of produce for almost nothing.

And there was an arts and crafts fair in the evening with live music and performers.

That night we enjoyed walking along the beautiful malecón, with its many pangas ready to take tourists out on the water.

We enjoyed watching an interesting phenomenon the locals call the picazón both from our campground and along the malecón. When the sardines are running, pelicans are drawn to the area for feeding.


We’ve never seen so many pelicans, and they all are participating in a feeding frenzy. It was crazy.

We also had the finest meals to date in Baja. One was in a lovely restaurant called Mi Loreto, right by the plaza where we had a fabulous mushroom ceviche.

To our surprise we were asked if we had reservations when we arrived.  Since we didn’t we were turned away as they were full for the night!  And moments later there was a last minute cancellation.  Lucky for us!

There is a Uruguayan place in town called Mezzaluna where we were treated to a lovely performance by an Argentinean traveler and musician, Martin Bevacua.  A charming fellow with a beautiful voice.

At the other end of the spectrum, we enjoyed some awesome tacos at the famous “El Rey del Taco”. Cheap and fun!

Another great meal was in an enterprising restaurant just outside of town that adopted the name La Picazón as it is on the water in full view of the pelicans. We headed out there on a long bumpy road to what we thought was a casual little place only to find a beautiful restaurant, off grid, but with delicious gourmet dishes including octopus in a tequila reduction.

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That same evening as an extra treat we watched the beautiful full super moon come up over the water.

We stayed pretty close to the center of town at Loreto Shores RV park, steps from the Sea of Cortez. An urban park with pretty tight spaces, it did have an amazing view. Check out our review of the park here.

We’d planned to paddle a couple of times, but one day we’d planned to I woke up feeling under the weather (I felt better later) and another day weather did not cooperate. The famous north winds blew most of the time we were there.

On the last day we were determined to get out on the water and there was a brief period of calm so we did take our kayaks out but the wind kicked up shortly thereafter. But we did see some dolphins and as we returned to our campground were treated to the pelicans and their amazing feeding frenzy once more.

Loreto is magical indeed.