You probably know Baja for party-hard Cabo, but this Mexican state (yes, it's Mexico's territory) has plenty on offer in the way of sports, family activities, and top-rate food and wine.
Contrary to its name, Baja California is not actually located in California—it's Mexico’s twelfth-largest state. Filled with a heady mix of mountain ranges, beaches, countryside, deserts, and cities, this laid-back peninsula extends from the southernmost point of California into the Pacific Ocean and is just 17 miles from downtown San Diego.
Though it's known primarily for Cabo, the A-list and spring-break destination brimming with lavish hotels and hard-partying tequila bars, Baja offers something for everyone. Bordered by the Pacific Ocean on the west and the Sea of Cortez on the east, water lovers will find a full range of activities, from sport fishing to scuba diving to whale watching. The Mediterranean climate and rich soil also support a thriving wine and culinary scene, and there are plenty of hiking trails and camping spots for those looking to spend time in the outdoors. We rounded up a few things to do in this magical and diverse locale.
1. Swim With the Fishes
The Sea of Cortez, also known as the Gulf of California, separates Baja from the Mexican mainland. One of the most diverse seas in the world, it's home to over 800 marine species. Though swimming is chillier in the winter months, it’s the perfect time to book a whale-watching trip to see the gray, blue, and even humpback whales making their way to the Arctic—and don’t forget the sea lions and dolphins. Anglers should look into a sailing charter for a chance to nab billfish, snapper, yellowfin tuna, wahoo, and grouper—and think about making a stop at one of the many small beaches to fly-fish for roosterfish. For those who want to look at fish instead of catch them, there are many types of boat tours to choose from, allowing snorkelers and divers to commune with the stunning underwater display of colorful marine life and fauna. And you can add kayaking and beach-hopping to round out the adventure.
2. Make It a Family Affair
Want to enjoy all the fun and adventure Baja has to offer and still relax with your family? The Hyatt Ziva (hyatt.com), an affordable, all-inclusive hotel perched on the Pacific side of the peninsula, is the perfect home base. A heated pool with a kid-friendly swim-up bar as well as daily activities, like soccer, basketball, and ping pong, keep the kids engaged. Meanwhile, water-based adult exercise classes offset last night's flowing margaritas. There's also an adults-only pool in case you want to sneak in some quiet time, and because everything is contained within the resort—including five restaurants, snack bars, a Teens Club with games and hangout space and the Kidz Club with a small waterpark and counselors—you can stay worry-free as the kids explore, eat, and drink. The beach is clean and expansive, with plenty of sofas and lounge chairs to relax on, but the undercurrent is strong, so swimming isn’t allowed. However, if you’re visiting during whale season, you might catch a glimpse of these stunning creatures from the sand. The staff is helpful and friendly and the food is excellent, especially the overly abundant breakfast buffet, which includes Mexica entrees and pastries, and made-to-order quesadillas. Ready to venture out? The excursion desk will help you choose your journeys.
3. Hit the Wine Trail
When it comes to West Coast wine, Napa and Sonoma usually get the accolades. But the Valle de Guadalupe, just a 90-minute drive south of the California border, offers a premium, yet low-key and affordable, wine-tasting experience. More than 150 wineries now dot the region, which is green and lush and probably best visited on a weekday—away from the day-tripping crowds. Though wine-tasting is the focus, with a climate similar to a drier Rioja and a blend made from a mixture of French, Spanish, and Italian grapes grown in granite-rich soils, you won’t be disappointed with the seasonal dining and boutique hotels and inns. Stop by Adobe Guadalupe (adobeguadalupe.com) for its cabernet sauvignon and merlot house blends, not to mention pomegranates and olives straight from the property’s trees, then stay in one of six guest rooms named for archangels. You can also take a dip in the pool, go horseback riding, and taste the house olive oil. Though you won’t find many white varietals in this region, the winery Finca la Carrodilla (fincalacarrodilla.mx)offers a crisp, organic chenin blanc, which you can sip in its rooftop garden. The region's dining options are diverse: You can splurge on a five-course meal at Corazón de Tierra (corazondetierra.com), grab a taco from the Troika food truck (facebook.com/TroikaValle), or enjoy a picnic-style meal overlooking the El Mogor winery at Deckman’s (deckmans.com), the only Michelin-starred restaurant in Baja.
4. Chill, Surf, Shop, Eat, Repeat in Todos Santos
This tiny town north of Cabo San Lucas is Baja’s answer to Tulum. A sleepy, eco-chic hideaway in the foothills of the Sierra de la Laguna Mountains, the town has been dubbed a Pueblo Mágico by the Mexican government—honored for its natural beauty, cultural richness, and hospitality. Most people, however, know it as the home of Hotel California. Surfers come from far and wide to ride the point breaks in San Pedrito Point and La Pastora, though newbies might consider a local surf camp like Mario Surf School (mariosurfschool.com) and stay close to Los Cerritos beach. Families can enjoy the calmer Playa Las Palmas for swimming and collecting shells. Plus there’s plenty on offer in the lively town, where art galleries, local crafts, and shops abound. Hungry? Baja-style fish tacos should not be missed at the La Copa Cocina at the Todos Santos Inn (todossantosinn.com), and can be enjoyed on the garden patio or inside the more stylish Iguana Lounge.
5. Don’t Miss “The Snorter”
Head 20 miles south of Ensenada on a twisty, panoramic road to witness the spectacular marine geyser, La Bufadora. (Bufar is Spanish for “snort.”) The second-largest blowhole in America, created by sucking ocean waves and air into an underwater cave, the geyser is located on the tip of the Punta Banda peninsula and gushes every minute or so—sometimes even multiple times a minute. Watch and listen to the thunderous waterspout from an 80-foot observation ledge, though do keep in mind that it sometimes shoots more than 100 feet above sea level. Guided tours are available and usually include a dramatic telling of the local legend of a baby whale who, stuck in the cave, is doomed to spew water out its blowhole for all eternity. Not the most uplifting story, but this natural treasure is not to be missed.
6. Take a Hike
Need a break from the sun, sand, and surf? Head to the Parque Nacional Sierra San Pedro Mártir mountain region for clean, clear air and Pichaco del Diablo, the highest peak in Baja at 10,154 feet. With more than 140 species of plants, a fir-tree forest, and plenty of fauna to ogle, like muledeer and bighorn sheep, you can hike several marked trails, including the six-mile round-trip to El Altar. In 2002, five endangered California condors were reintroduced to the park, and if you’re lucky, you’ll see one of the 28—out of 410 worldwide—that live there now. Come for the hiking, stay for the stars, which can be seen clearly at the park’s Observatorio Astronómico Nacional. Here you can look through three high-powered deep-space telescopes and get a tour inside this working observatory. Campsites are available to rent at the park entrance, but if glamping is more your speed, check out the four cabins near the ranger station. Another option: Reserve a small adobe cottage in the park with Baja Dark Skies (bajadarkaskies.wordpress.com) or book a room at the Rancho Meling (ranchomeling.com), a 10,000-acre working cattle ranch at the base of the mountain.
7. Rub Shoulders with the Stars(Sorin Colac/Dreamstime)
Yes, it’s overrun with spring-breakers and other vacationers much of the time, but no trip to Baja is complete without a visit to the southernmost point of Cabo. For celebrity sightings, hit the Corridor, the remote, 20-mile stretch between San Jose del Cabo and Cabo San Lucas. Take a drive to view the stunning, cavernous coastline—brimming with small khaki mountains, oceans, golf courses, and private villas, then stop at the Cape, a Thompson Hotel (thompsonhotels.com), for peaceful vistas and a sunset cocktail at the rooftop bar. Dinner should be reserved (weeks ahead, if possible) at Flora’s Field Kitchen at Flora Farms (flora-farms.com), a farm-to-table oasis of organic vegetation and a 150-acre ranch, hidden up a dirt lane past San Jose del Cabo marina. In addition to potential star-spotting and beer crafted at Flora’s Brewery, you’ll feast on seasonal dishes and 15 different types of pizza. Then, if you can muster the energy, hit the town in Cabo San Lucas, which is known for its rows of bars and clubs, including the Van Halen-helmed tequila-centric Cabo Wabo Cantina (cabowabocantina.com), where you can catch live acoustic music every night.