24.1426° N, 110.3128° W
There comes a point in every winter season when you start dreaming of warm sunny days, t-shirts and shorts, and the cool, refreshing feeling of ocean waves. For us, that dreaming often comes during the bleak days of January and February. So when we got invited in early February to come down to the southern tip of Baja California we of course jumped at the chance to trade in our winter boots for some sandals.
Our first steps off the small, four-seater plane quickly brought back memories of our time in Thailand: warm, moist air, the smell of the ocean and exhaust fumes, and the excitement that comes before every new adventure.
We were meeting up with Luke’s family: his dad and partner had taken up an apartment in the hip town of La Paz, while his sister was currently studying abroad in the coastal town of Todos Santos.
After making our way through customs, we met up with the family and quickly sped out of Cabo San Lucas - where we had landed - for more remote and authentic Mexican towns and experiences. We realized quickly that southern Baja, or Baja California Sur, is much more than just sandy beaches and open desert. It is rich in biomes, culture, and history. It had a lot to explore.
La Paz itself is a modern city. When driving into town, you first have to pass the industrial park: billowing smoke, metal on metal buildings, large trucks spewing gaseous fumes. As we drove through we began to wonder if La Paz was indeed as cool as we were led to believe.
But once you get through the outer region of the town you quickly realize that there is a lot more to La Paz than what meets the eye. Restaurants, beaches, and artwork. La Paz, the capital of the region, is a truly wonderful place to spend a week soaking up some sun. It is also probably the best place to base yourself for the many adventures to be had in Baja Sur. Including, swimming with sea lions and whale sharks, snorkeling through coral reefs, exploring historic towns, and mountain biking across the sand-colored desert.
Officially known as the Free and Sovereign State of Baja California Sur, this region is the second-smallest Mexican state by population, and the second to last admitted state of the 32 states that make up Mexico. It is bordered by Baja California to the north, the Pacific Ocean to the west and south, and the Gulf of California to the east. The area is primarily made up of mountain ranges and coastal plains. The local name for the main mountain range that parallels the coast is the Sierra de la Giganta, and the highest peak there is Sierra de la Laguna, which rises 2,080 meters (6,824 feet) above sea level. Overall, the state is relatively dry: on average it receives less than 200 millimeters of rain a year. A couple of unique facts about the region is that its coastline measures 2,230 kilometers (1,385 miles), making it Mexico's longest. Baja California Sur also has the most islands, mostly found in the Gulf of California (more on a couple of those later).
We were most excited about exploring the local biomes, especially the areas along the coast, and of course the desert. You might not know this, but we are self-described “desert-rats.” For us, the desert is our happy place - a place we seek out as much as possible. And the Baja California desert was truly a place to behold.
One great place we got to explore was the Santuario de los Cactus or Cactus Sanctuary. This off the beaten path stop was somewhat unexpected. We were driving along one of the few highways in the area when we saw an unobtrusive sign along the road proclaiming the existence of the sanctuary. We of course were intrigued so we turned off the highway and headed down a bumpy dirt road for a mile or two, passing donkeys and cows, until we reached the sanctuary. This place turned out to be one of our favorite stops on the whole trip. Dozens of different cactus, large, small, old, new, green, or colorful. This place was empty except for us, so we took our time and wandered through the maze of plants.
Afterward, we hopped back in the car and headed a bit further south to the historic town of El Triunfo. Here we found an old Mission-style church that looked a bit worse for wear, a couple of restaurants, and a very nice history museum with a café. We decided to forgo the museum and instead take a walking tour of the nearby industrial ruins and cemetery.
El Triunfo is a pretty interesting town, and definitely one worth visiting. Like many other old, now abandoned towns, El Triunfo started out as a mining town. In its heyday, the 1870s, it was the most populous town in the state (10,000+ miners flocked to it in hopes of making it rich). It was also the first town to have electricity and telephones in the region. Due to all of that, it quickly became a cultural hub - instruments were sent from all over the world, and today you can still see many of them in the local piano museum.
But like so many other stories of mining towns, the good times didn’t last. By 1926 most of the townspeople had left to look for work elsewhere, and today only 327 people still call it home. One interesting silver lining though is that El Triunfo is one of the best-preserved 19th and 20th-century mining communities in North America and today it is an important site for archaeological research.
We made a loop through El Triunfo, grabbed a quick bite to eat at the only restaurant that was still open, explored the empty church, and then headed back to La Paz for some relaxation - and maybe a margarita or two.
Our next adventure required renting a car - something we would never have done in the States due to the price (we were under 26), but in Mexico, at least in La Paz, it cost us roughly $10 a day. After picking up the car and loading it up with all the essentials, we hit the open road. The goal was to meet up with Luke’s sister down in the small coastal town of Cabo Pulmo, which also happened to be a national park.
The drive was beautiful. We left the city right as the sun started to peek out from behind the mountains, making the desert glow in a nice soft light. We saw no one on the road - just us, hundreds of cacti, and the occasional bird. Soon enough we made it to the town of La Ribera, a small highway stop with a gas station, a grocery store, and a few restaurants. But from there the road turned to dirt, making the last couple of miles quite rough.
After bumping along for an hour we eventually made it to the coast - and the glorious Gulf of California. The water was a beautiful aquamarine color. It called to us as we pulled into the small parking lot and started looking for Holly and her group. We had been invited last minute to join them on one of their class field trips, this time to snorkel through a pristine coral reef, home to dozens of various fish.
Eventually, we found them at their lodgings - coastal bungalows with hammocks and lots of fresh air. After getting the lowdown on the plan for the day we went out in search of snorkeling gear - luckily Cabo Pulmo is an underground snorkeling mecca, so finding the right stuff wasn’t too hard.
By the end of the day, we had snorkeled all along the coastline and spent hours marveling at the beauty of the undersea world. To cap off one of the best days of the year we whiled away the early evening by sipping margaritas and eating fish tacos on a balcony overlooking the water. A wonderful day indeed.
A few days later we decided to head to the other side of the peninsula (the Pacific side), this time to spend the day relaxing on the beach, maybe taking a hand at skimboarding or body surfing, and just soaking up the sun.
Our destination was Cerritos Beach, a happening slice of the coast that promised good waves, snack and drink shacks, and maybe a whale or two. We arrived mid-morning and spent the whole day there, switching off from reading, swimming, skimboarding, and just watching the waves crash in over and over again.
That night we grabbed dinner in Todos Santos, a quintessential beach town if there ever was one. After a dinner of local cuisine - and by that I mean fish tacos and margaritas - we headed out to the beach once again for sunset. As the colors started to fade we were given the chance to catch another natural show, this time put on by the migrating whales that were passing through.
Whale tails, whales jumping out of the water, and whale water spouts for 20 straight minutes. We couldn’t believe our luck or the exceptional beauty that can occur in the most random of places. Again another truly wonderful day.
Eventually, we only had a few days left in Baja. At this point we were still working office jobs so our vacation days were starting to run a bit thin. But we knew there was one last adventure we wanted to do: swim with sea lions.
We joined one of the many tours that head out to one of the dozens of islands that sit right outside of La Paz. While we aren’t often fans of tours, in this case, our options were pretty slim. Our destination was Isla Partida, a dry, somewhat barren outcropping in the Sea of Cortez that was home to a large colony of sea lions.
The boat ride out of the small La Paz harbor was beautiful - a clear, sunny day, calm water and good visibility of the surrounding area. The first stop was to check out an abandoned industrial area that is now a haven for seabirds. Then it was on to the main event.
We strapped on our goggles and flippers and hopped into the chilly water. At first we didn’t see anything. Then out of nowhere five or six sea lions appeared, twisting through the water all around us. They got close - obviously used to us weird four-limbed creatures being amongst them. We were told not to touch them, they are wild animals after all. So we tried to keep our distance and instead let them be the ones swimming around, getting close before turning and gliding away. We floated there, gawking at the acrobatic skills and overall fun the sea lions seemed to be having. It was like watching ocean puppies goofing off together.
Before long it was time to get back in the boat and head off to lunch. With one final glance at the ocean’s most playful occupant, we hopped back aboard and headed towards Playa Ensenada Grande for some beach time and fresh ceviche - and of course another dip in the ocean.
The afternoon along the beach was the perfect ending to a wonderful trip. We spent countless days wandering around Baja Sur, without spending more than an hour in the tourist town of Cabo San Lucas. The state, though rather small, is full of hidden gems, off the beaten path destinations, and a whole lot of adventure - both on land and in the water.
A few other can’t miss places that we didn’t mention was the town of Santiago, a great place to start for hikes into the interior mountains, Playa Balanda, a white sand beach at the end of the road, and the small town of Los Barriles, a kiteboarding mecca along the eastern coast.
Mexico is a big, beautiful, and diverse country. It has dozens, if not hundreds of various biomes and places to explore, and while we haven’t seen all of it (yet) we can say that when it comes to an amazing winter escape, Baja California Sur is tough to beat.