Travel and Dining
Eco-tourist Destinations in Baja California
Bahia de Los Angeles. (Photo: Barbara Soldi / Glocaltravel)
The Baja California Peninsula, or Lower California, extends some 775 miles (1250 km) from Tijuana in the north to Cabo San Lucas in the south, separating the Pacific Ocean from the Gulf of California.
Desert, sea, and mountains converge in the peninsula to create an extraordinary natural mosaic, a landscape you will not be able to find anywhere else in the world.
One of the best ways to discover Baja is with your own vehicle, or by bus, since there are no trains, and the only transport route is the long highway running down the whole peninsula from Tijuana to Cabo San Lucas (Carretera Peninsular). There are flights connecting Tijuana to Loreto, La Paz and Los Cabos, and a few small airports along the peninsula with private charter flights.
If you do not feel like driving the whole length of Baja twice (we are talking about 1,600 miles, after all, then a good idea would be renting a car for your north-south journey, and then taking a fight back to Tijuana from Loreto or La Paz, or a ferry from Santa Rosalia or La Paz to the northwestern Mexican coast. If time is not your problem, the bus option is recommended where you can plan your stops in advance.
Baja California is a very popular holiday destination for North Americans living on the west coast, although most tourists concentrate in the areas around Ensenada (just past the border south of Tijuana), and in the Los Cabos region, at the very south end of the peninsula. Here you can find modern tourist facilities which — according to Baja California official visitor's guide — "have been designed to conform to the environment". Most of these facilities however, resulted in creating massive tourist resorts which eventually marred the natural environment, and these areas have been attracting even more investors with tourist development plans which lack strategic long-term thinking and environmental policies.
However, the Baja peninsula offers significant eco-tourism attractions: the region's clear and tranquil waters, its lagoons and wetlands, marine reserves and desert landscape framed by the Sea of Cortez (defined as "The World's Aquarium" by Jacques Cousteau) are only some of its marvelous natural beauties.
We would like to highlight those destinations in which you can experience Baja's untouched scenery, and where operators show an approach to the tourist development based on sustainability and respect for the environment.
The Sierra San Pedro Martir and San Quintin
The first eco-tourist destinations south of Tijuana down the Baja Peninsula are the Sierra San Pedro Martir and the small town of San Quintin, home to Bahia Santa Maria, one of the largest bays on the west coast of Baja.
San Pedro Martir hosts Baja's most notable National Park, with the highest mountains of the region and the National Astronomical Observatory at the University of Mexico, built at an altitude of 9,285 ft (2,830 meters) above sea level, and equipped with a large telescope with a diameter of more than 7 ft (2 meters).
The highest peak is the Picacho del Diablo (Devil's Peak, 10,170 ft), a favorite destination for hikers, rock climbers and rappel enthusiasts.
The whole park offers many adventure opportunities, like mountain biking, trekking, horseback riding and camping. Wildlife lovers have the opportunities to meet mountain lions, condors, desert bighorn sheep, coyotes and eagles, in a landscape of pines, cypresses and aspen trees.
You can hire guides to explore the park, and admire the fantastic views from its peaks, stretching from the west to the east coast of the peninsula.
About 60 miles southwest of the park, you will reach San Quintin, a small town famous for boating, fishing and digging clams, which also offers a good opportunity to fill the car with gas and the wallet with cash at the local bank.
The town is not a big tourist center, although you can find some anonymous motels along the trans-peninsular (but very handy in case you are just breaking-up your bus / car journey on your way south from the border), and there are some more picturesque hotels and restaurants on the beach.
The bay and its inner lagoon are home to a myriad of different birds migrating there from North America, making San Quintin a good spot for bird watching and wildlife viewing. Fishing lovers will not be disappointed either, as they can find a few fishing clubs hiring boats and organizing trips.
The town heritage is quite curious, as there is a strong English influence, due to a big settlement at the end of the 19th century. A few English families moved into this area and there are still some old colonial buildings in the area known as the Old Dock (Muelle Viejo).
The Santa Maria beach is a good place for water sports, and for wind and kite surfing. Please note that the beach is quite far from the highway, and you need a car to reach it through the dirt roads and swamps.
Bahia de Los Angeles
Bahia de Los Angeles is a small fishing village protected by the tranquil and warm waters of the sea of Cortez. The first view of the bay from the road connecting the Trans-peninsular highway to the village is probably the most 'picturesque postcard' you will ever see, and it is likely to remain in your heart forever.
The yellow and arid desert landscape with its numerous cacti meets the turquoise of the water creating an amazing color contrast. Bahia LA is a place for chill out, fishing, kayaking, sailing, hiking, and enjoying some authentic traditional village life.
The islands facing the bay provide a paradise for divers and snorkelers, a boat tour for a refreshing dip and wildlife watching is a must. You can swim with sea lions and whale sharks, and even spot dolphins, black and blue whales in the channel between the coast and the islands of Coronado, Ventana and Cabeza de Caballo.
Birders will love Bahia: there you can see colonies of seagulls, pelicans, ospreys, and the rare blue footed boobies nesting in the islands.
Other things to do in the area include mountain biking, horse back riding, hiking to the historic Mission of San Borja and to the old gold mines in the area, fossil and gem hunting, and visiting the petroglyph sites of the Cochimi Indians in the surrounding hills.
In town there is a small interesting natural and historical museum, where you can learn a lot about the area.
Do not expect an exciting nightlife in the village, but you can find good restaurants, and great beaches to camp and admire starry skies and breathtaking sunsets.
Fishing is still the main activity in Bahia, and fishing boats (pangas) are available everywhere, although this stretch of sea has been out-fished in the past years, and activities like extensive turtle fishing, which have become a serious extinction threat for many turtle species, are finally illegal and have been replaced by conservation projects like the Sea Turtle Research Station, located on the Brisa Marina beach.
There is a limited supply of fresh water in the village, and electricity in town is provided by a local diesel-powered generator, therefore a responsible attitude in the use of the local resources is essential.
There are no banks or ATM machines in Bahia, so take a good cash reserve with you, as the nearest bank is in Guerrero Negro (2 and half hours drive).
As the northernmost region of the state, Guerrero Negro is the gateway to Baja California Sur and an important eco-tourism destination because of its location within the Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve. (Don't forget to adjust the time on your watch, as Baja Sur is one hour ahead of California and Baja Norte, or you might miss tours or transport in Guerrero Negro!!)
Nature enthusiasts can tour the wetlands that form the habitat of falcons, great egrets, sandpipers, eagles and other birds.
A curious spot in the area is the Malarrimo beach, which owes its fame to the many strange objects found here. Over the centuries, the Japan Current has dragged everything from boat engines to pieces of wrecked galleons across the Pacific, much to the delight of collectors.
However, the main attraction of the area is the gray whale sanctuary in the Ojo de Liebre Lagoon, on the Pacific Coast. The whales migrate here every year form January to March to give birth and raise their young, providing visitors with a fascinating natural spectacle. In boats that seem dwarfed by the whales, visitors can get surprisingly close to these huge mammals, and often to their calves too. The lagoon complex itself offers a spectacular setting, with dunes of fine white sand creating perfect scenery to these thrilling encounters.
Less than a 90 mile drive south of Guerrero Negro is the charming little town of San Ignacio. You can enjoy the region's old traditions and historic buildings, including
the San Ignacio de Loyola mission, one of the most beautiful on the mission route and still in its original state.
Near the town is the San Ignacio Lagoon, another great spot to observe the gray whale migration together with the Laguna Ojo de Liebre (near Guerrero Negro) and Magdalena Bay, further south on the Pacific coast.
This splendid sanctuary is visited from January to March by the whales, which can be seen up-close by visitors with the help of different eco-tourism camp operators, licensed to take them out in their boats.
San Ignacio is not only a main eco-tourism destination in the winter, but also a great cultural tourism center all year long, as it is the gateway to the rock paintings in the nearby Sierra de San Francisco.
In town you will find guides for the long trek to the cave known as La Pintada — which is the most impressive of the sites — as well as to seven other spectacular caves.
This ancient rock art was painted by the pre-Hispanic inhabitants of the peninsula, and archaeologists think some of the paintings could be around 10,000 years old. There are more than 300 sites in the area covering 7,500 sq. miles. The Rock paintings have been declared World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
The Sierra offers also numerous trekking routes, and in the summer the grass covered river turns into fresh water springs and pools, great for paddling and fishing.
There are no banks or ATM machines in San Ignacio, so take good cash reserve with you if you are staying a few days.
The town of Santa Rosalia has a strikingly different look from any other town in the area. The straight street and wooden buildings recall Santa Rosalia's past as an old copper mining center. In 1885 a French company called El Boleo started using the rich deposits of copper reserves in the area, and in exchange had to build a town, the harbor, and establish a maritime route between Santa Rosalia and Guaymas, on the Mexican Pacific coast.
While walking through town surrounded by French colonial buildings, you have the feeling of being in a different space and time. In front of the town museum you will find one of the mine old locomotives brought there in the 19th century, the ruins of the melting plant, the old bakery El Boleo, and the curious Santa Barbara church, designed and prefabricated in Paris by Gustave Eiffel.
Not far from Santa Rosalia, a favorite site for mountain climbers is the Tres Virgenes Volcano. From its 6,740 ft (2,054 meters) above sea level you have great views over the sea of Cortez. There are trails for mountain bikers and good camping spots. The climb to the volcano is recommended to experienced climbers only.
Mulege is another oasis for eco-travellers: a traditional Baja village surrounded by a lush vegetation of palm trees, is located on the arroyo Rosalia estuary, home to many species of birds and wildlife.
The town was build around the mission of Santa Rosalia de Mulege, and hosted the first 'prison without doors' (now the local museum): the convicts could go to work in the village and even have a social life, and had to go back to their cells in the evening.
From the mission you will enjoy stunning views over a valley filled with palm trees and orchards, and you can admire the vibrant colors of the bougainvillea.
Only a couple of hours driving from Mulege you can see extraordinary samples of cave paintings, like the ones in San Borjita's mountains near the Canyon La Trinidad.
Driving south past Mulege you will meet the magnificent natural scenery of Bahia Conception, with its multitude of white sand beaches lapped by the turquoise waters of the Sea of Cortez, where you can practice any kind of water sports (amongst these Santispac, Playa de Cocos, El Burro, El Coyote, and El Requeson, considered one of the most beautiful beaches all over Mexico). If it is not windy, a kayak trip in the calm waters of the bay is an experience not to be missed.
An hour drive south of Santa Rosalia is the historic town of Loreto, where Juan Maria de Salvatierra founded the first mission of the Californias, Nuestra Senora de Loreto. Stone paved streets, colonial architecture, the mission and its museum turn a drive to town into a worthwhile cultural experience.
But Loreto and its surrounding area is also one of the main eco-tourism destinations in Baja Sur, where you can start amazing kayaking trips along the coast, and to the islands of Coronado, Carmen, Danzantes and Catalana. The islands are a paradise for the water sports lovers, where you can observe marine life, fish, dive, snorkel, or just sunbathe in quiet beaches.
From Loreto you can also join daily whale watching tours, both to Magdalena Bay on the pacific coast to see the gray whales, and to the channel in the Sea of Cortez, where sometimes you can spot black and even blue whales passing between the coast and the islands.
La Paz and the Espiritu Santo Island
Despite being a bigger town more exploited by mass tourism than the other destinations further north the Baja Peninsula, La Paz has also an enviable location, which makes it the perfect place to set off on different eco-tourism excursions, including hiking trips, plant and wildlife observation, camping or mountain biking. In fact, the surrounding desert is an ecosystem filled with countless surprises, with native flora and fauna which have developed unique characteristics due to the relative isolation from the continent.
Several of the most popular beaches are located 15 minutes from the city, on the way to Pichilingue.
One of the most famous eco-tours from La Paz is the kayak expedition to the Isla Espiritu Santo, a natural protected area with beautiful beaches, crystal clear waters, and paradise settings teeming with wildlife. You will see sea lions, mantas and dolphins, and the birders will be happy to meet pelicans, ospreys, herons, and maybe blue footed boobies.
This lovely town is located on the Pacific Coast on a meseta in the folds of the Sierra de La Laguna, 45 miles north of Cabo san Lucas.
Thanks to the fertility of the land and the abundance of water from the springs of the Sierra, Todos Santos became an important center for sugar cane farming back in the 19th century, with a 'bonanza' which lasted another hundred years. Beautiful colonial style buildings, public offices, hotels and theater were constructed, and the town enjoyed a good lifestyle and was eventually able to overcome the economy collapse following World War II.
Todos Santos' lively cultural scene has been attracting Mexican and foreign writers, painters, sculptors and artisans through the years, and many of them have stayed, becoming part of the community.
The fabulous year-round climate, friendly people and art galleries attract many tourists, who walk the stone-paved streets admiring the mix of colonial and early 20th century architecture, and looking for the famous "Hotel California," mentioned by the Eagles and built in 1928.
Todos Santos is a good base to explore the Sierra de La Laguna, a great place for hiking lovers, and the Cactus Sanctuary, a reserve covering 124 acres, where the different species of cacti native to the peninsula are protected.
You would certainly find more amazing spots continuing your trip further down the peninsula; however, if you are interested in eco-tourism and sustainable tourist development, you can set La Paz or Todos Santos as the final destination of your Eco-Baja trip without any regrets.