With just more than 1,600km to traverse, Mexico’s scenic Baja California peninsula is one of the world’s most variety-filled road trips. From Tijuana in the north to Cabo San Lucas at the southern tip, those that take the journey will encounter world famous grey whale watching, ancient cave paintings, high-end vineyards, turquoise bays, endless desert plains of cacti and several missions founded by the Spanish in the 17th Century.
Hitting Highway 1 at Tijuana, the Pacific makes its first appearance on the right hand side and within an hour, the gastronomic haven of Ensenada beckons. Located 112km from Tijuana, the city and its surrounds offer an unrivalled opportunity to sample some of Mexico’s best modern cuisine.
The Spanish first brought grapes to Baja in the 16th Century, and Ensenada is now the centre of Mexico’s wine industry and growing food scene. To see the vines for yourself, pick up a Ruta del Vino guide from the tourist information kiosk located on Boulevard Costero, down by the fishing port, and follow the signs out of town to the vineyards, about 23km away. The many vineyards are spread over two main areas, Valle de Guadalupe and El Porvenir, home to large scale operators such as Santo Tomas and the smaller organic Doña Lupe. If you are tempted to spend a few days tasting, consider basing yourself at the Adobe Guadalupe Vineyard and Ranch, one of the region’s more exclusive producers. They offer just four types of red wine and produce less than 100,000 bottles each harvest. The hacienda (house), designed by Persian architect Nassir Haghighat, has a mix of Iranian and Mexican influences, with an outdoor pool and hot tub offering beautiful views of the surrounding mountains and vineyards..
Back in town, a meal at Manzanilla restaurant, run by chef Benito Molina and his wife Solange, shows off the best of Ensenada’s produce. Open since 2000, the restaurant is located in an old warehouse by the marina, with a huge wooden bar sourced from a 1930s Los Angeles speakeasy. The unpretentious menu has an emphasis on local oysters, clams and abalone; and freshly-made bread and locally-sourced olive oil accompany such dishes as clams with grilled gorgonzola, beef tongue with cactus salad, and grilled trout with rocket salad.
For the region’s best fish tacos, go to the Black Market, where competing stall owners will vie for your business. Located at the city’s fishing port – Puerto de Ensenada – order the fish in a light batter, which is the region’s traditional preparation. A five-minute walk from the Black Market, Hussongs is a cantina that opened in 1892 and claims to have invented the margarita. It is also worth a stop for the historic interior which has hardly changed over the years; there is still sawdust on the floor. While sipping a margarita, watch the locals crowd in for the daily drink specials and the arrival of the nightly mariachi bands.
As Highway 1 goes south, it heads inland, over a stunning mountain range called the Sierra San Pedro Martir, part of the Parque Nacional Sierra San Pedro Martir, and through ever-changing vistas of desert, cacti and ocean. From December to April, most travellers on this route head to the small town of Guerrero Negro, 740km from Ensenada, for the annual grey whale migration. The local fishermen keep a watch for the first sighting of the season and there are many operators, as well as fishermen, that offer trips to the area’s popular Scammon’s Lagoon, where you are nearly guaranteed a sighting of the whales and their newly born calves.
Heading inland again, 150km from Guerrero Negro towards the small town of San Ignacio, the landscape becomes more desert-like and some of the stranger desert plants, like the boojum tree, make an appearance. Guides often take groups of hikers into the Unesco World Heritage site of the Sierra San Francisco mountains to see ancient rock paintings that experts approximate to be about 7,000 years old.
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.