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.

The Largest Animal on the Planet

Balaenoptera musculus, the largest animal known to have ever existed

Loreto is one of the places where the Eastern Pacific blue whales migrate to in winter. We originally planned a blue whale boat tour during our stop in Loreto on our way south and were really looking forward to the opportunity to see the largest animal on the planet.

But when we arrived we found out that “the whales were late” and the rangers who monitor the area had only spotted one blue whale. I nixed the tour knowing that finding one whale would be extremely difficult. Our second attempt on our way North also had to be nixed due to our detour to Cabo San Lucas to service the RV.

After that 640 mile detour and losing a couple of days to technical difficulties, we were pooped. So with the RV in (hopefully) back in good working condition, we took a day off to rest in La Paz before heading north again.

My not so hidden agenda was to time our return to Loreto for a calm warm day and reserve another blue whale tour. Way larger than the gray whales we spent so much time with this trip, these are pelagic creatures that inhabit all of the oceans and are also much tougher to find.

We reserved a campsite in the La Paz city center at Aquamarina RV park. Check out our review of the RV park here. Then we began our drive North once again headed to Loreto on the day before my target calm weather day.

Happily, when we arrived in Loreto we found out that the rangers had identified nine blue whales in the area. Blue whales are an endangered species, we humans hunted them to near extinction. So the area where they mate and feed is part of the Parque Nacional Bahia de Loreto, where they are protected.The morning we set out to board the panga for our tour was clear and crisp, a bit chilly for me but I knew it would warm up.  And it seemed that Mercury in retrograde affected the tour company as well.

The captain of the boat we were due to go out in found that the engine wasn’t running properly. The company finally located another panga and had him switch us over. Finally we were off!

There were only two others on the boat with us, a guy from Tunisia who was living in Mexico City and a gal from Italy. So we had lots of room to move around on the boat.

The sea was calm and the views of Loreto and the neighboring islands were lovely. The pelicans were still doing their “pelican Air Force” thing.

The location where the blue whales congregate this time of year is in the Sea of Cortez South of Loreto past the end of Isla Carmen and North of Isla Montserrat. It took us the better part of an hour to get to this area of open water between the two islands.

Captain Tequila (I am not making this up), educated us about the differences between whale spouts of the whales found in this area. Humpbacks have shorter, wider spouts, fiin whales more fountain like spouts. Blue whales have the tallest of all spouts. We saw what looked like humpback spouts in the distance but decided to continue on our search for blue whales.We searched for the blue whales in a very large open water area. No spouts, no whales. Two hours passed. We saw a couple of other boats in the distance, but none was stopped so it seemed they hadn’t spotted any blue whales either.

Hector and I know how difficult it can be to find wildlife. During our last attempt to see blue whales in Quebec we spotted lots of different kinds of whales but only one blue whale and it was pretty far away.

One of our companions was getting impatient and complaining a bit. Clearly not a fellow with any experience observing wildlife. Hector put his hand on his shoulder and whispered to be patient.  And I said to both of them, you need to be Zen.

Minutes later we saw our first blue whale!  It was a bit far out so we headed in that direction.

When a whale swims along the surface, the up and down motion of their flukes creates turbulence that leaves circular swirls of calm looking water in its wake. These flat patches of water are a good way to tell the exact location of a whale’s last surface movement.

But before we even had time to look around, a blue whale surfaced directly in front of our boat! The whale’s massive back rolled over the surface of the water and then the whale fluked. Fluking happens when whales dive to deeper waters after having surfaced, pushing their tails completely out of the water as they do so.

 

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The tail pushes water up and releases it as the whale continues its diving motion. The water flowing off this whale’s tail was like a beautiful curtain of glass beads. Magnificient!


We were all in awe of this creature. They are not only the largest animal on the planet, but the largest animal to have ever lived. These whales can reach a length of 82 to 105 feet and weigh up to 200 tons.

Their tongues can weigh as much as an elephant and their hearts can weigh as much as an automobile. They are also the loudest animal of all. It is believed that their low-frequency sounds can travel hundreds of miles in deep water and are thought to image underwater features as they navigate long distances.

We saw the whale again, this time getting a closer up look at its two blowholes and its enormous back. And it fluked again! This time the tail had more of a waterfall effect. The whales’ massive size makes their movements seem like slow-motion.

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We saw the blow from another whale and the captain got us closer. This was a different angle that allowed us to appreciate the length of the whale.

Next we watched as a boat approached us. A portion of the fees to the tour companies is for access to the national park. The rangers come around to check that everyone is wearing the bracelet that proves they paid the entry fee. This particular boat had the director on board and we took the opportunity to ask him a few questions.

He told us there were six males and three females in the area at this time. He also showed us a map of th protected area and said that they have a staff of seven plus a few volunteers monitoring the entire area – small but mighty.

And he suggested to the captain that he should turn off his motor so we could better appreciate the sound of the blows. Often you hear the deep and powerful whoosh of their blow before you see them and you really get a sense of the giant volume of their breath.

We continued our search and found several whales, we think in all we saw about four different whales, a couple of them more than once.

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We traveled quite a distance around the Sea of Cortez because once the whales submerge it can be a long time before you see them again. They also may travel a long way from the original area where they are spotted.

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We got closer looks at the face s and mouths of a couple of whales. At one point we were motoring along with a whale swimming along the surface on either side of us! They can really create massive bow wakes as they stick their heads out of the water.

It was so special to have these different viewpoints of different whales. The tops of their faces, their blowholes, their immense thick backs, their tiny dorsal fins and their magnificent tails. The last one we saw was a little lighter and was referred to as the light blue one by the boat captains. We never imagined we would have so many sightings.

Then it was time to head back. I had mentioned to the captain that I was interested in seeing blue-footed boobies and on the way back he cruised to a small island where they sometimes congregate.

There were a lot of boobies on the island and most of them were brown footed boobies, but we found some blue footed ones. Yay!

A great ending to a memorable day. It took three attempts but we finally saw the spectacular blue whales.

Oh and we were greeted by one of the harbor mascots as we returned to the dock …

 

 

 

 

 

The Fairytale National Park

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After our longer than planned stay at Zion National Park due to technical issues, we had to revisit our upcoming schedule and make some tweaks. Our next planned stop was Bryce Canyon National Park, another place I tried to get to previously without success. The weather in Bryce was looking sketchy: windy, rainy with a chance of snow showers in higher altitudes. But Hector was steadfast, he insisted on stopping there, if only briefly, because he really wanted me to see the park. And once there, I realized why he was so insistent, I will always remember this place as the fairytale national park.Bryce-2

Bryce-3The drive from Zion to Bryce was uneventful. Yay! Hector wanted full hookup and he chose a park that he had stayed at on a previous visit which also happened to be the absolute closest to the park. Check out my review of Ruby’s Inn RV Park and Campground here.

Bryce-12Bryce-4Bryce Canyon National Park was established in 1928 and protects 35,835 acres. Technically, it is not a canyon but a series of amphitheaters containing the park’s most distinctive features, the hoodoos. These colorful rock pinnacles were formed by frost weathering and stream erosion. Continue reading

Zion National Park

zion-56zion-54I was finally on my way to Zion National Park, a place I tried to visit a couple of times previously without success. I love all of the National Parks and felt very fortunate to be visiting my 37th!zion-4

zion-5Zion National Park protects 229 square miles and is known for its steep Navajo Sandstone cliffs and narrow canyons. It is hard to believe that 250 million years ago those same cliffs were sand dunes in a vast desert.

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Antelope Canyon

AntelopeCanyon-42Upper Antelope Canyon in Utah has been on Hector’s “photographer’s bucket list” for a while. This slot canyon is in the Antelope washbasin within the Navajo Nation. We have seen many iconic photographs of the dreamy red curved rock and moody shafts of light and we wanted to see it for ourselves.AntelopeCanyon-48

But this place takes some effort to get to. Access to the canyon is via guided tours only, and there are three Navajo owned operators that run the tours.AntelopeCanyon-49

There are two kinds of tours. The regular guided photo tour where tripods and monopods are prohibited. And each company runs one photographers’ tour each day which gives more access and time in the canyon.AntelopeCanyon-37 Continue reading

Lake Powell

Lake Powell-19Lake Powell-1Many years ago, we spent several nights in a houseboat in Lake Powell and fell in love with its multi-colored rock formations and the beautiful light reflecting from the sun into the canyon. So on this visit we were hoping to spend some time on the water once again, kayaking or renting a boat, or hopefully both.

Lake Powell-4Lake Powell-9We read about a beach that allowed camping right by the water, Lone Rock Beach. We also read that it had several areas with soft sand so we carefully scouted the beach in our car. And we found a lovely site on hard packed sand and gravel. Check out my review of the campground here.

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Monument Valley and the Milky Way

MonumentValley-11MonumentValley-65MonumentValley-32Hector has been interested in photographing the Milky Way for a long time. But we haven’t really been in the right place at the right moment: a place with limited light pollution with a view in the correct direction, on a clear, dark night, at the right time of year – spring or summer. Not easy. Now that spring is here, the galactic center of the Milky Way begins to make its appearance in the sky. So we made a specific plan to go photograph Monument Valley and the Milky Way.
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This is our third time visiting Monument Valley. The first was a brief drive through the area. On the second visit, we drove from Denver in our Airstream, Luna, and camped in the area. Unfortunately, there was a huge sandstorm for several days during our visit, but we finally had a chance to take a guided tour after the storm subsided.

MonumentValley-1MonumentValley-31MonumentValley-40We were hoping to skip the sandstorm this time and happily the forecast was for good weather, either clear or partly cloudy. There were two nights left before the new moon, so we had a good chance for a clear night on at least one of those.
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The Sonoran Desert Garden

sonoran desert-114sonoran desert-25In addition to checking out the city of Tucson, we made sure to get out into the Sonoran desert garden. Tucson is in the Sonoran Desert and is surrounded by mighty saguaros and many other fabulous desert plants. During this visit,we were super excited that we were going to be in the desert during the springtime bloom for the first time ever.sonoran desert-100

sonoran desert-18sonoran desert-19Tucson Mountain Park is a 20,000-acre county park that is adjacent to Saguaro National Park West (there is a Saguaro National Park East on the other side of town). Offering many outdoor opportunities on the West side of town. Hiking and biking are popular.sonoran desert-20
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sonoran desert-40Our friend Jean knows a TON about the native plants and we always learn new things from her about the diverse vegetation that is everywhere.  Our problem is we can’t remember it all!  But we are getting better at it. sonoran desert-38sonoran desert-51
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Touring Tucson

Tucson-90sonoran desert-29Tucson, Arizona marks the beginning of a transition for us, this is one of the towns that we are considering as our next home. Many people know that we planned our walkabout for three years and that last year we extended it for one more year. Well we are now well into that fourth year. So in the month of March, we will be touring Tucson.

We fell in love with Tucson and the Sonoran Desert three years ago when we approached the city from the West and were greeted by so many beautiful Saguaros. I wrote about them in my post Tucson and the Sentinels of the Desert.

Tucson-66Tucson-1So we are here to check out the town once again and compare it to our other final choice. I will write more about how we came up with our “finalists” in later posts.

But back to Tucson – we stayed in the center of town at Sentinel Peak RV Park, so that we could have easy access to the city. Check out my review of the park here.

Our plan was to enjoy some of what the city has to offer, select a realtor, look at some houses, and best of all visit friends.Tucson-6

We began by finding out about the local happenings, and the biggest one was the Tucson Festival of Books at the University of Arizona. In its eighth year, the festival attracts over 100,000 people. Continue reading

To the Arctic Circle and Back in 2015

What a year!  We travelled to the Arctic Circle and back in 2015.

cartoon529-2Be warned, this is a looooong post.  But we hope you enjoy a quick tour back through this most wonderful year with some of Hector’s favorite images.

Island Girl traveled a total of 12,345 miles.

We stayed in 88 campsites (29 of them were overnights and 61 were dry camping).

Visited 10 States, 2 Canadian Provinces and 1 Canadian Territory. And 6 veterinarians in 5 states and 1 Canadian Territory.

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