Beach-hopping in Baja California, Mexico
Almost 800 miles long, Baja is scattered with unspoilt beaches and enchanting towns that are more affordable than the Americanised resorts at its southernmost tip. Complete with a thriving culinary scene and a flourishing wine region, this peninsula is ideal for exploration by road and sea.
In two weeks it is possible to soak up winter sun and explore everything the region has to offer, beginning with a taste of mainland Mexico in nearby Mazatlán and ending in rapidly evolving Tijuana. Air-conditioned buses cover the route but there are affordable car-rental deals with companies such as BestDay.com.
Known as the Pearl of the Pacific, Mazatlán is a port in the western state of Sinaloa famed for its seafood and annual carnival (8-13 February this year). With floats, fireworks, dancing, games and pageants, this family-friendly event dates back to 1898, making it one of Mexico’s oldest carnivals. For a quieter experience, admire the neoclassical and French baroque architecture in Mazatlán’s historic centre, though adrenaline junkies could try parasailing and take in spectacular views of the city and its long, palm-fringed beach.
Get a taste of traditional Sinaloa with a stop in El Changuirongo (21 de Marzo 1326, Centro), a seafood joint close to the seafront that serves aguachile, a fiery local speciality made with raw prawns seasoned with lime, chile, onion, cucumber and avocado. It’s also worth visiting La Puntilla on the seafront to try its signature dish, pescado zarandeado: freshly caught fish grilled with a coating of garlic and spices.
When in Mazatlán, I’ve often stayed at Captain Moe’s (rooms from £72), a pet-friendly B&B run by a retired American couple who serve fantastic breakfasts. If you prefer a hotel, then the well-regarded Quality Inn has doubles from £56 B&B.
After a few days in Mazatlán take the overnight ferry across the Sea of Cortez to La Paz. Baja Ferries has departures every Wednesday, Friday and Sunday evening at £50pp, including a meal and basic seating. A cabin with four beds and a private bathroom costs an additional £34, while there’s a £128 charge for bringing a car. The journey takes 13 hours.
A laid-back seaside town with an arid climate, La Paz is a cheaper, more relaxing alternative to the spring-break resorts of Los Cabos, further south. A tour to Isla Espiritu Santo, one of 244 desert islands that form a Unesco biosphere reserve, is recommended. Covered in cacti and set against turquoise waters, this is an uninhabited, alien-looking landscape. Tours also take in the adjacent Isla Partida, home to Playa Ensenada Grande, a glorious cove of white sand and, in my opinion, a contender for Mexico’s most beautiful beach.
It doesn’t take long to see why French explorer Jacques Cousteau dubbed the Sea of Cortez “the world’s aquarium”. On my way to the islands, dolphins leapt alongside our boat and sea lions peered through its glass bottom. Then a whale shark, the world’s biggest fish, surfaced a few metres away. Assured by our guide that these giants are harmless, I grabbed a snorkel and jumped overboard for a closer look. Its great tail fin appeared before me. Awestruck, I managed to trail the shark for a few moments before it disappeared into the depths.
To fill up after a long day at sea, visit unfussy Mc-Fisher, which serves excellent fish tacos, including marlin, swordfish and manta ray. As for accommodation, HBlue Hotel (doubles from £45 B&B) is comfortable and centrally located, with a rooftop pool and bar where you can watch the sunset over the waterfront.
Before continuing up the coast, surfers will want to take a day trip to the windswept town of Todos Santos on the Pacific side of the peninsula. Home to some of Mexico’s best breaks, the surrounding beaches are ideal for beginners and advanced surfers.
A 220-mile journey north of La Paz lies Loreto, a quaint town sandwiched between the Sea of Cortez and the Sierra de la Giganta. Founded in 1697 by a Jesuit missionary intent on evangelising the nomadic indigenous population, Loreto is the oldest settlement on the peninsula. It is one of 111 Pueblos Mágicos (magical towns) that Mexico has recognised for their natural beauty, cultural value or historical significance.
Loreto’s Museo de las Misiones houses a collection of religious artwork, weapons, tools and crafts but the most iconic vestige of the colonial era is the Viggé Biaundó Mission, an hour’s drive south-west of town. Built in 1699, this stone chapel is remarkably well preserved and there is even a gnarled, 300-year-old olive tree still standing in its gardens.
Loreto’s beaches are quiet, with gorgeous views and palm-thatched gazebos for shade. Popular activities include fishing, kayaking, scuba-diving, birdwatching, hiking the surrounding hills or simply strolling the town’s cobbled streets and pristine waterfront.
Almejas Conchó, a palm-roofed shack renowned for its chocolate clams, is one of the best places to eat. Named after the colour of their shells, the clams are a local delicacy. The menu also features ceviche, prawn cocktails and seafood burritos.
Las Cabañas de Loreto has well-equipped studio cabins that sleep up to four for £78 a night (three-night minimum stay). For those planning a shorter visit, Hacienda Suites is a mock-colonial hotel with an inviting pool in its central courtyard and air-conditioned doubles from £56 a night.
Halfway up the peninsula, San Ignacio is a palm oasis town in the desert. Home to about 700 people, the village is beside a lake fed by fresh springs and one of the region’s few rivers. Its clustered date palms and citrus orchards make a refreshing change from their barren surroundings.
The area’s main attraction is the San Ignacio lagoon, which serves as a winter sanctuary, nursery and breeding ground for eastern Pacific grey whales. The whales migrate from northern Alaska every year to mate and give birth in the lagoon’s warm, shallow waters. These enormous creatures often seek human contact, with mothers and calves allowing small boatloads of tourists to touch their barnacle-covered skin. Between December and April is the best time to experience this.
It’s also worth taking a trip into the mountains to see the ancient cave paintings in sites such as the Cueva del Ratón. Depicting humans, deer, hares and mountain lions, these Unesco-listed paintings are thought to be at least 2,000 years old. Kuyima, a local tour operator, offers several excursions to see the whales and cave paintings (from £68pp).
La Huerta, a new hotel with immaculate grounds and spacious doubles (from £34 a night), is a great accommodation option. Elsewhere, Ignacio Springs B&B has a selection of yurts from £51 a night. It’s run by a Canadian couple and guests can make free use of its kayaks. If you fancy a break from Mexican seafood, Tootsie’s Bar and Grill serves barbecue ribs, pizza and a range of vegan and vegetarian options.
Aguila runs two daily coach services from Loreto to San Ignacio for £24. It’s a five-hour journey.
The 10-hour drive from San Ignacio to Ensenada takes in giant boulders, twisted cacti and trees straight out of a Dr Seuss book. Aguila has overnight bus services for £62 but if you’re driving it’s best to travel by day and refuel whenever you pass an infrequent petrol station.
Ensenada is around 60 miles south of the US border and the gateway to Mexico’s booming wine region, the Guadalupe valley. Dirt roads wind through the rolling hills where more than 100 wineries are scattered alongside a growing number of upscale restaurants and eco-lodges. Dozens of wine tours operate from Ensenada, while Uber recently launched its own service, charging £20 for a round trip, plus £8 for every hour that your driver waits as you tour the rustic vineyards.
Ensenada is also at the forefront of “Baja Med”, a burgeoning culinary movement that combines traditional ingredients with Mediterranean and Asian influences. Restaurants such as Finca Altozano, Corazón de Tierra and La Esperanza are trendsetters, with typical dishes including braised octopus, tempura fish tacos, chipotle oysters and beetroot carpaccio. Ensenada’s San Diego-influenced craft beer scene is thriving, too, with the Wendlandt and Aguamala brewpubs among its highlights.
The Coral & Marina (doubles from £72, room only) is a seafront hotel with ocean-view balconies and an award-winning restaurant that pairs the latest Baja Med inventions with local wines. A cheaper alternative is Posada El Rey Sol (doubles from £56), a colonial-style boutique hotel.
Multiple operators run buses from Ensenada to the border city of Tijuana every 30 minutes for about £7. Most rentals will let you drop your car at Tijuana’s airport.
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