Baja California is one of the most popular destinations in Mexico among tourists from the United States for two main reasons: its location close to the border and its warm temperatures.
Although in some parts it´s hard to avoid the masses, besides beach resorts and party destinations in the very south of the peninsula, there are as well some hidden gems. In fact, I found two of my favorite places of the country in Baja California: Valle Guadalupe in the north and Isla Espiritu Santo in the south.
The peninsula is divided more or less in the middle into the state of the same name “Baja California” to the north and “Baja California Sur” to the south. Our original plan was to rent a car in the very north in Tijuana and drive all the way down to Los Cabos. Although some adventurous people indeed go for this route; we finally decided not to do so for two main reasons:
- Approximately in the middle of the peninsula, there´s a natural protected area where there is literally nothing except from some cactus and sand. That doesn´t only complicate the logistics concerning food, accommodation and fuel, but as there´s only one road without any option to elude, it can get quite dangerous. Raiders use tricks like simulating an accident to stop you or even putting nails on the street to destroy your tires. Therefore, it is not recommended at all to drive at night, which makes the time spent in the anyways quite tiring part of the peninsula even longer.
- Nearly every car company (and I´m writing “nearly” because we didn´t check ALL of them, but I´m quite sure it´s rather “every” than “nearly every”) asks for a fee of about 500€ to drive the car only one way, which makes it economically pretty unattractive to do so. The only people I read about actually driving down there were from the continent of America going in their own van.
As we still wanted to see both the north and the south, we decided to take a flight from Tijuana to La Paz, which cost us around 40€ with hand-luggage.
Although Tijuana is known to be the party city for underaged Americans and is often associated with drugs and danger, I think it´s worth a visit. Not only the border region was pretty interesting to see, but as well there are some nice places in and (especially) around the city.
About ten years ago a big drug delivery to the United States was discovered and seized, putting the respecting cartel in financial problems. Their way to solve that problem was to start kidnapping people and asking for money, undermining tourism and local economy because people didn´t go out anymore.
This led to the closure of the before prevailing red-light establishments. When the situation in Tijuana improved, some “hipster” bars and restaurants opened in the before quite shabby area and some artists started projects to transform the city´s image (here is an article about this, if you´re further interested).
That´s why today in my opinion it´s a quite cool place to go for a day or two. Among the places I recommend you to visit there are the following.
Las Pulgas: a must-see when in Tijuana! A Mexican night club with five different floors including one playing Reggaeton and one with Banda (typical Mexican music). The drinks are cheap, the atmosphere fun and the opening hours forever.
Cine Tonalá: nice, relaxed rooftop bar with live music at times
Reyes Cantina: cantina where you can try a shot of Mezcal, a typical Mexican spirit, with a scorpion in it
Alma Verde: A café and restaurant that seems to be packed the whole day. After some months of Mexican food, which is sometimes quite greasy and excessively sweet, I enjoyed this healthy alternative a lot! I found it pretty hard to find wholesome food in the country and the breakfast we had there was not among the cheapest but definitely among the best!
Casa Cacao: An affectionately designed chocolaterie where you can get everything related to chocolate, including Mexico´s famous “Mole”, a spicy chocolate sauce eaten with meat or tamales. I personally like it, but I know many Europeans who don´t, because the mix of flavors is very different from what we are used to. The staff in “Casa Cacao” is superfriendly and even explains you the history of chocolate, which by the way is originally from Mexico!
And did you know the Caesar salad was invented in Tijuana? You can try it in Hotel Caesar!
PLAYAS DE TIJUANA, ROSARITO, PUERTO NUEVO
Not far from the center of Tijuana (about half an hour to the west) are the “Playas de Tijuana”, the beaches closest to the city. Because the water at this side of the peninsula is pretty cold, I wouldn´t recommend going there for beach holidays. Anyway, renting a car in Tijuana for one or two days to see the following places is quite worth it:
“The wall”: So different from how I thought it would be! The world-famous wall between the United States and Mexico you can visit at the “Playas de Tijuana” seems quite harmless right next to the beach. It only reaches a few meters into the water and is not really high. Still, the memorials and phrases the wall is painted with are quite catching and I found it a great possibility to get a feeling for something the whole world is talking about currently. (PICTURES)
Rosarito: A small town with a nice beach, some cool beach clubs and some very recommendable seafood restaurants. A good place to stay if you don´t mind the fresh temperatures of the Pacific.
Puerto Nuevo: A former fisher village that evolved into a small town due to its famous lobsters. Today you find a lobster restaurant at every corner, where you can get a big lobster with side dishes for about 25€.
To be honest I was not really impressed by Ensenada itself. It basically consists of one main street with for Mexican conditions completely overprized low-quality products. As well the vendors seem to have gotten used to the American tourists coming here, only talking English to you even if you ask in Spanish, giving prizes in dollars (obviously not for a very advantageous exchange rate) and sometimes actually trying to fool you. As well the restaurants you find are pretty Americanized, offering burgers and happy hours. While some might enjoy “feeling like home”, I still prefer to experience the real Mexico, which you won´t find there.
One nice thing Ensenada has though – and definitely a reason to enter, if you´re on the way – is a seafood street stand. “Mariscos El Güero” opposite Tequilera Ensenada is always crowded and offers the best, freshest seafood Tostadas I´ve had during my stay in Mexico. The portions are huge and the prices more than fair.
One more thing to see when in Ensenada is “La Bufadora”. The water-spitting gap between two rocks is pretty fun to see and only a puddle jump from the town. Although it´s surrounded by the Americanized shops I personally dislike, you don´t pay anything to enter and it´s fun to watch the water squirting meters high out of nowhere.
Valle Guadaloupe is a region that produces wines that compete with Californian ones. Along its wine road there are countless wineries, all of them with a unique, welcoming atmosphere. Wine lovers could spend weeks here discovering the different wineries.
As well there are some really nice restaurants, bars and accommodations and it seems like people from all over the world ended up in the valley following their passion. We went to four wineries and they were all completely different but so inviting in their own way. Some included little shops, some rooftop whirlpools, others art galleries. The area is a whole universe of self-actualization and relief.
Although there are of course both cheaper and more expensive wineries, it´s a place for connoisseurs and you can leave a lot of money there. What you will get for it are some very individual winery tours, tastings and recommendations. It´s therefore very different from Baja Sur´s “all-inclusive” tourism and the reason why I enjoyed it so much.
If that sounds good to you as well, I would recommend you planning about two or three days to discover the valley and its different wineries, as none of them resembles another. Two of the ones I highly recommend are following.
Vena Cava: The winery Vena Cava was designed by architect Alejandro D’acosta and has an upside down boat as a roof. But not only its exceptional architecture is a must-see, as well its wines are of best quality. In front of it you´ll find “Troika”, basically a food truck that serves amazing, fresh food with a view over the valley.
Finca la Carrodilla: great wine, nice people and amazing snack plates – a place to linger and enjoy!
And, of course, where there´s good wine, there´s as well good food. “Agua de Vid” is a modern restaurant and art gallery with three floors. While in the second and first floor high-quality food is served, the rooftop is a great spot to watch the sunset over the valley while enjoying good cocktails.
The south of the peninsula, called “Baja California Sur”, is famous for its white beaches and pleasant temperatures. While some parts of it, like Cabo San Lucas, are flooded by tourists, you can still find lonely beaches if you search for them. In general, this part of Mexico is recommendable if you´re searching for some relaxed days close to the sea, as culturally there´s not a lot to do or see.
Tip: It´s way cheaper to fly to La Paz and go down to Los Cabos from there rather than flying directly to Los Cabos. From La Paz you can rent a car for somewhat 40€ per day, which in my opinion is worth it to discover some of the many dream beaches not everyone gets to.
The city of La Paz is pretty calm. Although there are some bars and clubs, the city goes to bed early and if you´re not there in the high season you won´t encounter a lot of party. It is the only city I´ve ever been to that has a nice beach right next to the city center where you can actually swim and in its nearby situated neighbor island “Isla Espiritu Santo” I found one of my favorite places in Mexico.
El Tesoro: If you want a little more privacy than right next to the center without renting a car, you can as well walk about twenty minutes along the Malecón and you´ll arrive at “El Tesoro”, a beautiful beach with barely tourists and amazing sunsets!
Isla Espiritu Santo: Famous both for snorkeling and scuba diving. Snorkeling you can play with and even stroke sea lions, diving you´ll find manta rays and if you´re there at the right time of the year you´ll even encounter whale sharks! For about 50€ (that was not the first price, we asked at several companies!) we did a day-tour including the about 1,5h trip to “La Lobera”, where the sea lions are, several stops around the island and fresh Ceviche at an amazing white beach on the island facing turquoise water.
Cerveceria la Mexico: a bar with fair prices right next to the Malecón, recommended by all Mexicans in La Paz
Bismarkcito: a seafood restaurant with amazing quality and huge choice next to the Malecón
This sleepy little pueblo magico (“magical town”, a title the Mexican tourist industry gives to small towns with cultural value) has some really cute, unique shops and restaurants. The “Hotel California” is located there, which is said to be have been the inspiration for the world-famous song of the same name.
As well Todos Santos´ beaches are the go-to place for surfers of every level. I would recommend a visit if you like surfing or you´re anyway on the way down south.
CABO SAN LUCAS
Although the entire world is speaking of “Los Cabos”, a description that actually includes Cabo San Lucas, San José del Cabo and Cabo Pulmo, usually what they mean is Cabo San Lucas. It´s by far the biggest of those three and the most crowded one.
Relating to its atmosphere it feels like an American party town, even more than Ensenada. It basically has all the chains you find in the United States and the visitors of its huge all-inclusive resorts seem to enjoy that. The broad offers for tourists are expensive and (according to our experience) not really worth the money.
We did a boat trip to the famous arc and to lover´s beach. Both are nice to see but because of the wind we couldn´t go to the other side of the peninsula, why we skipped about half of the advertised route. The vendor of course knew that before and didn´t tell us.
Additionally, we did horseback riding, which, in essence, was actually really nice! Until the guys from the range realized we payed for two hours, which they weren´t told by the vendors in advance. Because they were really honest, nice guys, they cancelled their plans for us and did another hour although it was already getting dark. We told them we would be fine with taking back the money of the second hour and they just said we for sure wouldn´t get back the money from the vendors.
What I want to tell you is: Although we know Spanish very well, are not too bad at bargaining and were already used to Mexican customs, the vendors there managed to fool us! Just be careful and ask for details before you buy something to avoid incidents like these. The trips themselves were expensive, but we had fun.
A really nice hostel to stay is “Mayan Monkey”, a cheap and modern chain that aims to improve hostel standards in Mexico and actually one of the nicest hostels I´ve ever been to. They started their first one in Cancun, now they are slowly expanding in the whole country.
What Cabo San Lucas is actually good for is the nightlife. You´ll find tons of bars and clubs, not cheap, but good! “Breathless” for example is a really nice rooftop club on top of a hotel right next to the ocean.
From Cabo San Lucas you can as well easily do a trip to “San Jose del Cabo”, which is a small, as well pretty Americanized town next to it. Although in the town itself there´s not a lot to see, I would highly recommend the close-by beach “Playa Costa Azul”.
If you want to see the third part of Los Cabos “Cabo Pulmo” as well, you´ll need a rental car. The national park is quite isolated and there´s actually pretty much nothing there. If you want the “lonely experience”, you´ll probably find what you´re searching for. Doing a daytrip is not really recommendable though because driving back in the dark is a bad idea and it gets dark really early in this region. Cabo Pulmo supposedly is among the most amazing spots for diving, but going there only for having seen it is probably not worth the effort.
You probably realized my feelings about the Baja California peninsula are mixed. To be honest having seen quite a lot of Mexico, it wouldn´t be the first part of the country I´d go back to.
But if you like diving, surfing, sunbathing, partying or a mixture of them, you´ll find what you were looking for in Baja California and if you don´t, there are some places on the peninsula I would still really recommend!