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Mexico’s Baja peninsula is a world unto itself. Minimally connected to mainland Mexico or the United States, Baja has its own geologic history, human heritage, and present-day culture compared with any other part of North America – it’s really a destination worth exploring at length if you have the time.
However, most of us don’t have all the time in the world to travel (even me, and it’s my job!), so we have to figure out the best things to do whenever we travel. To that end, I’ve put together my own Baja bucket list, comprised of experiences I’ve had and things I still want to do.
Below you’ll find a number of the best things to do in Baja, taking full advantage of both the land and sea that surround that land. As a bonus, I asked some of the blogger friends I made (and already knew) during my Baja UnCruise to contribute to this post as well as members of the Site School community I run for bloggers – so it’s informed by lots of Baja travel experts.
Listos (ready) to jump into the essential experiences I think you should have in Baja? Here’s my Baja bucket list – and you can share your must-dos in the comments below.
In this post, I promote travel to a destination that is the traditional lands of the Comom’ti-pa (Cochimí), Guyacura, Ko’lew (Kiliwa), Kumeyaay/Kumiais, Monqui, Paipai (Akwa’ala), Pericú, and Xawiƚƚ kwñchawaay (Cocopah) peoples. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.
Stroll on Los Cabos Lover’s Beach
In choosing where to start my Baja bucket list, I though it safe to begin at the bottom (and end at the top in Tijuana, as you’ll see); the southern tip of the Baja Peninsula is the Los Cabos region, which is one of the most populous and popular areas to visit.
Cabo San Lucas (one of two cities in the Los Cabos area) is a popular cruise port, which is how I actually first visited – aboard the Majestic Princess. While there are lots of great adventures to be had in Cabo San Lucas, one must-visit spot – or at least must-see – is Lover’s Beach. Located out on a rocky spit that runs into the water, Lover’s Beach is so-named because at high tide, the waters of the Gulf of California and Pacific Ocean meet here. The two bodies of water – the two lovers – meet on Lover’s Beach.
If you want to set foot on Lover’s Beach, perhaps with a beloved travel companion, it is only accessible by boat; you can arrange a boat tour or water taxi with one of the many operators that offer services in the Cabo Harbor. (Mr. V and I didn’t visit the beach but saw it as part of our Cabo Adventures cruise during our time in port.)
Admire Art & Architecture in San José del Cabo
Neighboring San José del Cabo is the other Cabo in Los Cabos; it has a totally different vibe, so to speak. As San José is not a cruise port, it sees far fewer of the crowds, and has a much bigger expat population. This means you’ll find many of the modern conveniences you expect north of the border, with a delightful flavor of Mexican culture and Spanish colonial influence.
In particular, San José del Cabo is a popular town for artists, and has some stunning architecture. You’ll need to plan your own trip here to take full advantage of it, but a weekend in San José del Cabo is a nice amount of time to see the colorful Spanish Colonial architecture, window-shop the galleries, and enjoy some incredible food and beer/wine (more on all that below!).
I’ve visited San José del Cabo only at the start of my recent UnCruise experience in Baja; it’s my hope to make it back for a weekend trip soon!
Drive Federal Highway 1 (Baja’s PCH)
Did you know that the true Pacific Coast Highway runs all the way from Los Cabos in the south to Homer, Alaska in the north? Yeah – get this: Federal Highway 1 in Baja becomes CA-1(/US 101) in California, which becomes Canada Highway 1 in BC and the Yukon, which becomes AK-1 in Alaska. It’s 4,791 miles in all, making it the Complete Pacific Coast Highway – and part of my life bucket list!
In any case, Baja’s portion of the PCH, called the Carretera Transpeninsular (Transpeninsular Highway), is a great road trip; the route is 1,050 miles long and takes 21 hours if you drive it straight through – but we both know that you’re not going to do that, right?! There are so many incredible stops to make along the way – many of which I’ve featured in the rest of this post. There’s La Paz and all the adventures you can have there; there’s Loreto and its history; the Reserva de la Biosfera El Vizcaíno divides the two states of Baja; and Ensenada is an essential surfing spot… plus so, so much more!
Hopefully I’ll be able to plan this as a road trip soon and can add it on to supplement my PCH road trip guide for the contiguous U.S… and then do the Canada part, and the Alaska part, and then keep exploring!
Meet Grey Whales
Whale-watching excursions can prove to be an uncertain proposition in many parts of the world. However, when you visit Baja from late December through March, it’s almost a sure thing that you will be wowed by the whales. (Note: whale watching is highly seasonal, so you have to be here at the right time.)
In fact, just a drive along the Pacific Coast of the peninsula down in Baja California Sur can easily yield an afternoon filled with dozens of close-to-shore sightings.
For the best experience, though, head to Puerto Alfredo Lopez Mateos and take a boat tour in Magdalena Bay to spot the gray whales that come here each year. You’ll head out in a flat-bottom panga boat and spend a couple of hours exploring a prime birthing area for gray whales – where mothers come to give birth and nurse their babies.
I’ve been on a tour in the first week of February and saw dozens of active moms and babes up close as we gently motored around the bay.
–– John from In The Loop Travel, who was also on my 2023 UnCruise in Baja
Scuba in Cabo Pulmo National Park
Jacques Cousteau called the Gulf of California “the aquarium of the world,” so it’s no surprise there are incredible scuba (and snorkeling) opportunities all along Baja’s gulf coast.
Located on the east coast of the Baja Peninsula, Cabo Pulmo initially appears to be a sleepy town. About a 90-minute drive from Los Cabos (SJD) international airport, the miles of uninterrupted coastline offer breathtaking sunrises. Once the heat of the day has settled though, the town comes alive with authentic cuisine grilled beachside and freshly made margaritas. Shoes optional!
The real magic of Cabo Pulmo, however, lies under the waves. A conservation success story, Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park was established in 1995 and has since been listed as a UNESCO heritage site. Once largely depleted by overfishing, the area is now rich in marine biodiversity, famous among divers and snorkelers for enormous mega-schools of fish, bull sharks, and whale shark sightings.
Water enthusiasts must be accompanied by certified guides, which helps support the economy and continue to protect the marine environment.
Swim with Whale Sharks
One of the top nature experiences in Baja California is swimming with whale sharks in La Paz. During the winter months from October to May, whale sharks migrate to the bay here, and half-day tours allow travelers to swim with sharks just minutes off the coast. La Paz is also one of the best places for responsible interactions of this kind, since local tour operators work together with research and conservation groups for sustainable management of the program.
Whale sharks are named for their massive size: adults can reach up to 18-33 feet in length. Despite their size, they are gentle giants and feed only on plankton. Swimming alongside and observing them in their natural habitat is an awe-inspiring experience, and definitely belongs on the bucket list of every adventurous traveler to Baja California.
Explore Espiritu Santo National Park
Located a little off the coast of La Paz in the Gulf of California, Espíritu Santo National Park has been a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site since 2005 and a Mexican National Park since 2007. Much like our parks north of the border, it protects incredible natural beauty and there are good wildlife encounter opportunities – but more on that below.
The national park is comprised of three main island segments (but many, many islands in total): Isla Espíritu Santo (the largest), neighboring Isla Partida, and the Los Islotes at the northern tip. The islands themselves are uninhabited, and access is limited.
One great way to explore Espíritu Santo is by camping and hiking; you can arrange a private water taxi from La Paz to the permitted areas of the islands. Another option is to book a sea kayaking adventure around the islands; some of the top kayaking tour operators in the world offer multi-day camp-and-kayak tours to do this. As for me, I was able to explore all three main areas of the park as part of my UnCruise.
Snorkel with Sea Lion Pups
Piggybacking on the general advice to visit Espíritu Santo National Park, one must-do is snorkeling with sea lion puppies – and there’s no place better than Los Islotes!
Every spring, the sea lions give birth to their pups, which are generally quite curious little guys and love to interact with snorkelers and scuba divers wha visit the waters around their nursery on the rocky outcroppings that comprise Los Islotes. The pups love to nibble on fins, nip your wetsuit, and try to knaw on GoPros and other camera equipment you might bring – be prepared for a fun and totally organic wildlife encounter unlike many others in the world.
I had my snorkeling experience as part of my UnCruise, contracted out to Cortez Club, who operate from La Paz offering day tours for peninsula visitors as well as cruisers like me.
Hike in Tabor Canyon like Steinbeck
Note (from V): Some of my research suggests Tabor Canyon may be on private property, though there is no indication of this on the hike itself. I’m currently reaching out to a few contacts in Baja to try and investigate so I can better provide suggestions on this hike (or alternatives on public land); I’ll update this section once I have more info.
Half an hour drive south of Loreto is the trailhead for Tabor Canyon. While exploring the Gulf of California in 1940, author John Steinbeck hiked this canyon and recorded the experience in his book The Log From the Sea of Cortez. Today, Tabor Canyon is equally as often referred to as Steinbeck Canyon.
This scenic out-and-back hike takes you through a vast canyon into the Sierra de la Giganta mountains. You’ll climb and crawl over a maze of massive rock scrambles, pass palms and cacti galore, and enjoy the echoing sounds of nature. For an abbreviated version, follow the path of the stream until you come to some natural pools before turning around.
–– Ashley from My Wanderlusty Life, who was also on my UnCruise in Baja
Stargaze at Rancho Cacachilas
Here’s how you know I’m weirdly in love with Baja: I’m including something on my Baja bucket list that nobody else remembers to include… stargazing!
While you might not think of Baja as a stargazing destination, it actually is. Low population density and rugged mountains help protect areas of darkness that make for incredible stargazing.
I had the opportunity to spend a long weekend at Rancho Cacachilas, an eco-resort south of La Paz in BCS, and they had several spots for insanely good stargazing; I have a whole review of my experience plus what you can do during the day at their sprawling estate if you’re looking for a truly off-the-beaten-path adventure in Baja.
Admire Indigenous Rock Art
While you might not think of Baja as an archaeological destination, it most certainly is. Recent research suggests people arrived in Baja some 13,000-14,000 years ago as part of the Kelp Highway hypothesis, there are some amazing sites where you can see the marks left by people who came before – long before.
The Bradshaw Foundation has some incredible resources on the archaeological arts you can find all along the peninsula, including many videos. One place I saw ancient pictographs (rock pictures, rather than petroglyphs, which are rock etchings) was at Rancho Cacachilas – can you see the giant fish that the peoples in this area must have relied on for their diet in this coastal landscape?
Seek History in Loreto
It’s hard to pinpoint just one part of Baja where you can experience history – the whole peninsula has seen many chapters of human heritage, dating back to Time Immemorial and those who left their literal mark on the rocks (as already mentioned).
If you’re looking to explore a different chapter – namely one about Spanish colonization, as uncomfortable as that should make you feel if you think about it deeply –, Loreto is a great option. (As you can tell, I like to push myself out of my comfort zone while traveling – in more ways than one!)
Loreto is a colonial mission town, home to the Misión de Nuestra Señora de Loreto Conchó which was founded in 1697. The historic centro retains much of its colonial “charm,” with beautiful Spanish-style architecture and colorful buildings. There are also some great opportunities to learn more about the colonial period, including at Loreto City Hall and the Museo de las Misiones de Baja California (next to the mission) – as well as through street art that pushes back on the propaganda (as it usually does).
Ride Burros with Rancheros
Part of the heritage of Spanish colonialism is the Ranchero culture; much like the semi-nomadic Bedouin people of Jordan, Rancheros live and work across the land in Baja – herding animals, tending crops and other agriculture, and crafting a subsistence lifestyle in the harsh environment.
One way to learn about, engage with, and support Rancheros are through touristic activities, if offered. As part of our UnCruise in Baja, other guests and I were able to support the Romero family near Agua Verde; this family offers guided burro, mule, and horse rides on their lands, including along the beach, over the ridges, and through a stunning natural oasis. (Members of the family also offered beautiful handmade souvenirs at the beach where we set out from.)
This is, admittedly, a Baja bucket list item that will take a bit more planning to accomplish on your own – or you could just book an UnCruise and it is included!
Sip Wine in the Valle de Guadalupe
Did you know that the Baja Peninsula has an incredible wine region? While you might not think of southern and dry climates as good for growing grapes, Baja California Alta has one place where it’s possible: the Valle de Guadalupe.
Located a short drive from the coastal town of Ensenada, the Valle de Guadalupe takes advantage of marine climate and inland temperature to create an ideal ecosystem for certain varietals. In particular, southern and hotter climate grapes including Tempranillo, Grenache, Syrah, Malbec, and Merlot, as well as white grapes such as Chenin Blanc and Chardonnay all flourish in this region.
There are now over 100 wineries along the Valle’s Ruta del Vino (Wine Route) and the region accounts for over 70% of Mexico’s wine production – so this is the place for wine in Mexico as a whole! Think of it as Mexico’s país del vino, Wine Country.
Cheers Over Baja Craft Beer
Baja is actually a great spot for craft beer lovers; there are over 70 artisanal breweries on the peninsula! (Source)
If you need help narrowing down that list, consider a visit Zopilote Brewery in Loreto, Mexico. Though opened as a restaurant in 2006, this local spot went through some transitions over the years, starting with wine and eventually adding beer from the Baja Brewing Company.
Though Baja Brewing was a hit, over time, they realized they wanted to brew their own. In 2014, they started serving their very own Zopilote craft beer, made exclusively in Loreto. I should have known their brewmaster was an Irishman when I tasted the Aztec Imperial stout! Delicious! By the way, if you order the Stray Paws brew, a donation is made to care for local pups. That’s a win-win in my book.
You’ll find Zopilote at Calle Davis 13, Centro, not far from Loreto Mission; this makes it an easy one to tick off your Baja bucket list while also visiting Loreto for the history in that city.
–– Kelly from Food, Fun and Faraway Places, who was also on my UnCruise in Baja
Try Tacos & Tequila in Tijuana
Okay, so you can find tacos and tequila all over the Baja peninsula, but here at V&V, I’m a sucker for alliteration… where better then, to try these tasty ‘T’ treats than in Tijuana? (Okay, I’ll stop….)
Depending on where you call home, Tijuana may be your first taste of the Baja Peninsula – figuratively and/or literally! While Tijuana certainly has problems (what big city in North America doesn’t…?), it is also increasingly safe for visitors especially those with common sense and an adventurous spirit.
So if you’re just looking to dip your toes into the best of Baja, Tijuana is a good place to consider planning a short trip – tacos and tequila included, of course.
Enjoy Other Incredible Baja Food Too
It should probably not be a surprise since Baja is surrounded on three sides by water (the definition of a peninsula!) and home to some incredible agricultural land, but I’ve been fortunate to eat very well whenever I visit Baja. Whether it’s fresh ceviche on a cruise around Cabo or charcuterie in a mountain village (El Triunfo, along the CT), there’s a veritable bounty of ingredients and flavors to enjoy.
My advice is this: trust your gut (literally). If a place looks intriguing or interesting, stop there. If a flavor or food sounds delicious, try it. Food is an integral part of how we experience and remember destinations, so there’s no better way to solidify your bucket list memories than with a really great meal.
P.S. Anthony Bourdain visited Baja California (Alta) if you need more suggestions on where to eat during your visit!