Driving from the top to the tip of Baja California
About 275km further south, after Highway 1 swings east towards the Sea of Cortez, the road reaches the town of Loreto, home to some of the most beautiful and unspoilt beaches in Baja. Loreto is also the location of the peninsula’s first Spanish missionary, founded by the Jesuits in the late 17th Century. The church, the Mision Nuestra Senora de Loreto , located on Calles Pino Suarez and Salvatierra, is in good condition and the Museo de las Misiones museum beside it illustrates how the indigenous people lived when the Europeans arrived. It also hints at the trouble – disease and forced labour – that faced them and the indigenous Cochimi people as they struggled to establish their mission. The Jesuits played a key role in Spain’s drive to colonize Mexico, and Baja was considered an important piece of land with easy access to the Pacific Ocean as the Spanish established trading routes between Mexico and what ultimately became The Philippines.
Reaching La Paz, 362km south, the modern city is framed with a long oceanfront malecon (promenade), busy with locals walking or jogging as the sun sets. Most visitors venture out with operators like Baja Paradise to see the whale sharks who live in the Sea of Cortez year round, or travel to the pink cliffs on the nearby island of Espiritu Santo, home to a colony of sea lions. The city’s Museo Regional de Antropologia e Historia is worth a stop to delve deeper into Baja’s ancient history and how it changed with the arrival of the Spanish.
Heading south from La Paz, there are two options – go turn right for the ocean-side artistic colony of Todos Santos, home to the original Hotel California, which is still open for business; or go left for the kite-surfing mecca of La Ventana, where the Sea of Cortez serves up ideal winds for about five hours each day. In Todos Santos, stay at the tastefully decorated Posada La Posa, which is situated by a lagoon full of wildlife and has views of the Pacific. In La Ventana, reserve a palapa (a traditional Mexican thatched-roof bungalow) at Palapas Ventanas, where every Friday night, the staff lights up a chipotle-smoked wood barbeque and throws on whatever’s been freshly caught, washing it all down with well-made margaritas.
Whichever way you choose, you will likely end up in Cabo San Lucas, home of luxury hotels and restaurants, and traditionally an A-listers’ party spot. But there is still plenty of traditional Mexico to see, not far from the hotel zone. Fresh tacos, fruit juice, coconuts and fish can be easily found at stalls near Mercado Mexicano (also a good place to purchase a range of Mexican handicrafts), located at Calles Madero and Hidalgo. The beaches are scattered around the tip of the peninsula – Playa Medano, just off the Paseo de la Marina, is within walking distance of the main hotels, while Playa del Amor (Lover’s Beach) and Playa de Divorcio (Divorce Beach) are more easily accessible by boat. There is an endless choice of boat service, so haggling is key as prices can be inflated. The same boats also compete to bring tourists out to the famous natural stone arch where the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Cortez meet.
If you have an extra day, hop over to San Jose del Cabo, Cabo San Lucas’s quieter neighbour, which has an arty vibe and a Saturday organic market. Thursday, open gallery night, is probably the liveliest of the week in the historic town centre.
Baja is still an undiscovered, reasonably priced – and safe – location in Mexico. With the magical mix of spectacular scenery, delicious food and drink and world class sea-life, it is a no-brainer to hire a car and get down there fast.