Jacques Cousteau called it ‘the aquarium of the world’. John Steinbeck described it as ‘ferocious with life’, UNESCO lists it as one of the most significant biospheres on the planet. And then there’s the tequila. Baja Mexico, often called Baja California Sur or simply Baja, this is a part of Mexico with a twist. And where exactly is this desert landscape with jagged mountains dipping into turquoise water, cacti lining white sandy beaches and 360 days of sunshine?
Think of a map of North America and it’s the 1,200km long squiggly-chilli-look-alike bit below California. Here are 10 things to do in Baja Mexico, and why it needs to be on your bucket list.
1-Live Like a Movie Star
George Clooney may well have started the trend, but as it’s only a two hour direct flight from Hollywood, names like Jennifer Aninston, Brad Pitt, Cameron Diaz and Jennifer Lopez are all regular Baja visitors. Clooney loves it so much he has his own label of tequila and built an oceanfront home next to his friends Cindy Crawford and Rande Gerber.
Known as the ‘Cabo Corridor’ the 30 kms stretch between Los Cabos San Lucas and San Jose Del Cabo is home to many luxurious resorts set on icing sugar white beaches with water so clear it looks invisible. For the ultimate in swish – check out Las Ventanas al Paraiso that lives up to its translation – ‘windows to paradise’.
2-La Paz Whale Sharks – Snorkel with whale sharks one day and sea lions the next.
Surrounded by tiny islands (islas), the state capital La Paz is perfect for underwater sports. A twenty minute fast boat ride gets you amongst the giants of the ocean.
Snorkelling alongside whale sharks, creatures the size of a bus, is surprisingly calming and totally exhilarating (once you realise they really aren’t the slightest bit interested in eating you).
From the same jetty in La Paz you can head in another direction to the pristine island of Los Islotes where a large colony of sea lions will welcome you with open flippers.
With stringent regulations restricting the number of daily boats, these clowns of the sea have only ever known love. The young pups are as playful as kittens as they turn pirouettes wanting to play tag and hide and seek.
Fun Baja will get even the most reluctant snorkeler (that’s me) sorted.
3-Hug The World’s Largest Cactus
You only have to move a few metres away from the water to know you’re in the desert. Part of the Sonoran desert, Baja is known as the cactus garden of Mexico with more than 120 varieties with many considered endemic.
If you’re into hugging trees, then why not hug the world’s largest cactus (no there’s not any spikey bits). Reaching more than 20 metres in height, the giant cardon, grows in abundance throughout Baja.
4-Tickle Grey Whales
No-one knows why the grey whales swim up to the local tour boats (pangas) and want to be tickled and scratched. But they do. They teach us about forgiveness. Thought to be extinct twice in the last 60 years, not only have they survived, they’ve thrived.
Called devilfish because they used to smash the whaling boats to protect their calves, to look into the eye of these majestic creatures that have inhabited the earth for 30 million years is humbling.
From January to March a series of lagoons protected from the Pacific Ocean on the west side of Baja is their breeding ground. Magdalena Bay is easily accessed for a day trip from Loreto or if you have time to stay longer try an eco camp at San Ignacio.
5-Learn The Art of Drinking Tequila
I thought I didn’t like tequila. I do. I just hadn’t tasted the real stuff. Tequila is more than a drink to the Mexicans – it’s considered the soul of Mexico.
Although all tequila comes from the blue agave plant, to get a grip on the difference between a blanco (young and cheaper) a reposado (rested in wood barrels) or an extra anejo (aged and expensive), it’s best to drink with an expert. And luckily there’s no shortage on hand to guide you through the subtleties of when to suck a lime, sip a spicy chaser or let a piece of dark chocolate melt in your mouth.
Most big hotels have a ‘tequila master’ and there are many tequila bars throughout Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo. Panchos Tequila Bar in Cabo San Lucas has one of the largest collections in the region.
6-Dine in a Desert Garden
If you went to Baja for the food alone, you wouldn’t be alone. Known as the ‘Provence’ of Mexico, freshness bursts from every dish. It’s hard to go wrong choosing where to eat but the one place you can’t miss is Flora Farms.
Lying at the end of a dirt road in the foothills of the Sierra de la Laguna mountain range, 10 minutes from San Jose del Cabo, (best to take a taxi) the farm is a true oasis and the ultimate in organic farming. Family owned and managed, for 12 years the 6 hectares of land has been worked by hand to transform the desert landscape into foodie heaven.
Be warned you will definitely need to book for lunch or dinner (and possibly even breakfast) not to mention the off-the-scale-in-awesomeness cooking classes. Leave time to join a tour of the gardens and visit the produce shop.
Apart from snorkelling and diving, the calm water of the Sea of Cortez is a perfect place to learn how to sea kayak or paddle board.
There’s nothing quite like seeing a humpback whale breaching from water level and if you’re lucky you might even spot a blue whale.
Un-Cruise Adventures offer all inclusive (including all equipment), 7 night cruises around the Sea of Cortez (November –March) geared towards travellers wanting to get their feet wet.
If golf is your thing, there are more than 20 championship courses throughout the region. For a challenge check out Cabo del Sol the Jack Nicklaus signature course sprawling over two kms along the oceanfront.
In La Paz the course at CostaBaja Resort was the first Gary Player signature course built in Mexico and features unique tee markers created by a local artist depicting characters from Baja cave paintings.
9-Become a Bird Nerd
The sea teems with wildlife but so do does the sky. Binoculars are hardly needed as literally hundreds of birds gather along the shoreline and rocky outcrops of the islas.
High on the checklist for bird nerds is a phenomenon of nature –the blue footed booby mating dance. The bluer the feet the more attractive the mate as they strut their stuff.
Look out for the magnificent frigate bird, a large black seabird that attracts a mate by puffing up its throat into a bright red balloon. Brown pelicans are a personal favourite. They defy gravity and there’ something truly beautiful about watching them glide just above the water.
10-Bring Home a Piece of Art
Mexican art is bright, bold and beautiful and Baja is home to many galleries and studios. Specialising in ceramics, glass, oils, tapestry, watercolours one off traditional and contemporary treasures are hard to resist especially when most galleries offer a painless and easy-on-the-pocket shipping service.
A must for art lovers is the small seaside village of Todos Santos (between Cabo and La Paz). Untouched by mass tourism, the population is a mix of artisan creative talent.
Wander the streets lined with historic buildings (including the famed Hotel California), to get a feel of the art vibe of Baja and who knows what will end up on your wall at home.
Alaska Airlines has direct daily flights from LAX to Los Cabos International airport and regular direct flights to Loreto.
Los Cabos International Airport is located between the Los Cabos San Lucas (main touristy area) and San Jose del Cabo (quieter more traditional town).
Transfers from the airport are best arranged prior to arrival and need to be with a licensed transportation provider. No licensed drivers are permitted in the airport – they wait outside the airport exit door.
The distance between Los Cabos and La Paz is around 180km along a four lane highway and several companies offer a shuttle service.