Baja, Mexico
Baja, Mexico
Published September/October 2015

The Other Side of Baja

Not far from the Cabo party scene are quiet bays and beaches on two stunning coastlines

BYBob Cooper
This is a tale of two Bajas. First is the Baja of countless travel-package offers from the beach resorts that connect the coastal towns of San Jose del Cabo and Cabo San Lucas — together called Los Cabos — at the southern tip of Baja California. This is the Baja of bottomless drinks at wade-up pool bars; nightclubs and hotel discotecas that open at 11 p.m.; and brassy, elbow-to-elbow fun.
 
The other Baja nearby is quiet, natural, and authentic. This is the broader region of the southern Baja peninsula that takes in the old city of La Paz, mining and fishing villages slowly turning to tourism, and marine-life sanctuaries on the Sea of Cortez. This side of Baja offers a different sort of fun, with less crackle, but in the deeper sense, more pop.
 
Despite a recession, a hurricane last summer (most damage has been repaired), and unfounded safety concerns (crime is lower in southern Baja than in most U.S. cities), Cabo is as popular as ever. The young party crowd, families, and retirees all flock to the resorts. Around the corner from Cabo Wabo Cantina is a swim-with-the-dolphins theme park and a new performing arts center. But know this: One Cabo is a scene, while the other Cabo is all about the scenery.
 
Fortunately you don’t have to choose between the two Bajas. If you wish, you can stay at an all-inclusive Cabo resort by night and swim with sea lions or visit seaside villages by day. 
 
Exploring the Sea of Cortez
Seventy-five years ago, John Steinbeck was so enchanted by the biodiversity of the Sea of Cortez, which he explored with marine biologist and pal Doc Ricketts, that he wrote a book about it, The Log from the Sea of Cortez. He arrived by boat, but you probably will in a rental car. Looking in one direction from the coastal road, you will swear you’re in southern Arizona, with cordon cacti (similar to saguaro) decorating the hills. Swivel your head the other way and it’s a scene straight out of Hawaii or the Caribbean: marinas and countless white-sand beaches, with a turquoise sea for kayaking, snorkeling, and other water sports.
 
Southern Baja’s most popular day trip operated by a number of tour companies is the boat ride through Espiritu Santo Archipelago National Park (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), past uninhabited Espiritu Santo and Purtita islands to Los Islotes (“the islets”). There, you’ll slip on a mask and snorkel and splash right into the middle of a colony of hundreds of remarkably friendly sea lions. This is no “sea lion experience” in a marine-life park; this is the real deal. Naturally curious and playful, the sea lions will dart toward and right past you almost the moment you enter the water — frightening at first, until you realize they’re just fooling around. Seeing them gleefully twist through the water will change your perspective on which species has it best.
 
Next is a stop to dry off at one of the dozens of cove beaches on the islands for a picnic lunch or fish barbecue — and depending on the excursion operator, possibly some time to hike, kayak, or ride a stand-up paddleboard. Then it’s back to La Paz, but not before you’ll see red-limestone formations where you’ll spot faces in the cliffs; huge flocks of pelicans, cormorants, and graceful “kites;” and maybe even a whale shark (which is harmless despite its status as the world’s largest fish). 
 
The Sea of Cortez is a world-class diving destination, home to more than one-third of the world’s fish. Whale watching on Baja’s ocean shore during winter is another option. 
 
Operators that will transport you from your hotel to their boat for these types of outings include Choya Tours, EcoBajaTours, Fun Baja, ROW Sea Kayak Adventures, The Cortez Club, and Sun Rider.
 
La Paz and Baja’s Villages
In La Paz, a two-hour drive from Cabo, the gathering spot is the Malecon, which translates to “jetty,” but in this case is a long promenade alongside a beach and the coastal road. All ages converge there to stroll, socialize, and admire the sunset. Besides many seafood restaurants, only a few bars (unlike Cabo), and a new stand-up paddleboard rental shop, you’ll see a few small hotels on the Malecon, but most are on nearby beaches and marinas.
 
Other towns are worth visiting, too. Todos Santos, on the Pacific Ocean between Cabo San Lucas and La Paz, boasts an eclectic population of fishermen, artists, surfers, and expats, with annual art, music, and film festivals. The Hotel California in the heart of town is widely regarded as the inspiration for the famous song due to its references to a “dark desert highway” and a “mission bell” (the old mission church is nearby). It is “such a lovely place,” too, with an excellent patio restaurant and bar full of quirky, colorful art pieces. 
 
Also in southern Baja, Cerritos is known for its superb surfing beach; the old mining town of El Triunfo for its piano museum (the Museum of Music) and organic cafes; and well to the north, Loreto for its heavenly kayaking on a calm bay off the Sea of Cortez. 
 
Wherever you go in southern Baja, the people are welcoming, the crime rate is low, and travel costs generally are a bargain. And the opportunities for great scuba diving, snorkeling, boating, sport fishing, and camping are endless. It’s only a two-hour flight from Phoenix, so if you’ve never visited southern Baja — or if you’ve stuck to the Cabo resort strip during past visits — don’t wait for too many mañanas
BOB COOPER’s last published travel features in Highroads were about southern New Mexico and Bordeaux, France.
Marina and shopping district in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico
Marina and shopping district in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico
If You Go 
Getting there: Several U.S. Airways/American Airlines nonstop flights operate daily from Phoenix to San Jose del Cabo. A car rental is as low as $2 a day (really!), which lets you explore while avoiding steep cab fares and unreliable buses.
 
When to go: The lowest rates are in the summer. The coolest weather and best time for seeing whales and marine life is in the winter. The ideal month to visit is October — just after the hurricane season, but before high-season winter rates kick in.
 
Where to eat: La Paz has a restaurant for every palate. Try the ceviche or chocolate clams (named for the color of the shells) at low-key El Bismarkcito on the Malecon or the yellowtail at upscale Steinbeck’s at the Costa Baja Resort. Hotel California is one of several spots with creative cuisine in downtown Todos Santos. 
 
 
Learn More 
To find out more about Mexico vacation packages, call your local AAA Travel agent toll-free at 1-888-870-9392, or visit AAA.com.
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