Nikki Goth Itoi has been exploring the Baja Peninsula on land and under the sea for more than a decade. A few years ago, she took over the best-selling Moon Baja and Moon Cabo guidebooks. Here, she shares some tips for planning an unforgettable Baja adventure.
BT: Baja is well known among eco-travelers as a place to see gray whales up close. Where is the best place to catch the action?
Nikki Goth Itoi: The gray whale migration is truly a wonder of Baja. Mothers come into the shallow lagoons on the Pacific side of the peninsula to give birth to their calves. During the January-April season, you can observe the whales breaching offshore from just about any coastal vantage point. A number of companies offer traditional "whale watching" boat trips out of Cabo San Lucas, Ensenada, and other major ports, but the only-in-Baja experience is to observe the whales up close from a small panga boat in one of three lagoons along the central coast: Laguna Ojo de Liebre near Guerrero Negro, Laguna San Ignacio near San Ignacio, and Bahía Magdalena, near Loreto and Todos Santos. Since the lagoons are several hours from the largest tourist destinations and the observation process is carefully regulated to protect the whales, most travelers book an organized trip through a professional outfitter.
BT: Though some travelers worry about food safety abroad, others plan their trips around culinary experiences. What are the must-try foods of Baja, and where do you go to get them?
NGI: Tecate beer and fish tacos are the signature Baja foods, but you can get much more adventurous than that. Ceviche is a seafood cocktail made of fresh white fish marinated in lime juice and often served in a martini glass with a tomato-based sauce. Lobster platters are big in Puerto Nuevo, Baja's lobster capital. The fish tacos are especially tasty at the Mercado de Mariscos in Ensenada, but you can find them on the plaza of any town on the peninsula. (Look for the longest line in the evening and order there.) If you are preparing your own meals, be sure to seek out the local tortillerîa, as nothing compares to freshly made tortillas (corn or flour)—order them by the kilo and enjoy them while they're still warm from the press. My personal favorite, the refreshing michelada, is kind of like a beer margarita, often served spicy like a bloody mary.
The current trend in gourmet Baja dining is to create menus that emphasize "alta cocina Mexicana"—innovative dishes that blend traditional flavors with fresh, local ingredients. Tijuana, Ensenada, La Paz, and San José del Cabo and Cabo San Lucas all have restaurants offering this type of cuisine. Wineries in the Guadalupe Valley make outstanding reds, and these labels are available on the menus of many restaurants, or you can visit them in person if you are planning to be in the Ensenada area.
BT: Mexico is known for its large-scale resorts, like Cancun and Cabo San Lucas. But many travelers want to go to Mexico for a more authentic experience. Which towns in Baja are less crowded and touristy?
NGI: To me, La Paz, the capital city of Baja California Sur, still offers the most authentic and least touristy experience for visitors, although a number of resort developments are taking shape on the outskirts of the city. For other options, Loreto in Central Baja and San José del Cabo at the tip of the peninsula both resemble "real" Mexican towns, as opposed to purpose-built destinations for travelers.
BT: Is Baja a suitable destination for young children? What about food safety and access to emergency medical care?
NGI: Baja is very safe and fun, especially for kids who like the water. Families have many options for a memorable trip, from week-long beach vacations to longer stays that might include Spanish language classes or scuba diving or kayaking instruction. Some of the most family-friendly locations include Loreto, Cabo Pulmo, La Paz, Cabo San Lucas, and Pescadero.
The best way to guarantee food safety for yourself and your kids is to rent a place with a kitchen and prepare meals yourself. The Los Cabos area has organic produce stands and large, modern supermarkets, so you can choose the ingredients you like and then drive to a more remote location. Bottled water is always a good idea; just be sure you don't buy the flavored kind for teeth-brushing, as I once did for my son! San José del Cabo and La Paz both have modern medical facilities, and there are professionally staffed medical clinics in many towns along the peninsula.
BT: For travelers who are based on the east coast of the United States, is it worth going all the way to the west coast of Mexico? What are the benefits of Baja vs. the Mexican Riviera?
NGI: The desert/tropical scenery of Baja is unique and very different from the lush jungle of the Mayan Riviera. If you're looking for a resort experience where you can relax by the pool and take a dip in the sea, then the mainland would be more convenient. But if you plan to explore the surrounding area, learn a new water sport, or get involved in conservation, then I believe Baja is absolutely worth the extra time and effort.
To learn more, pick up a copy of the Moon Baja or Moon Cabo guidebooks online or at your local bookstore.