Forget Cabo – these are Baja's best undiscovered gems

Baja isn’t all parties and pina coladas, says Liz Dodd

Liz Dodd
Monday 20 August 2018 19:26 BST
Baja's best undiscovered gems

It’s early evening and tourists are spilling out of Hussong’s Cantina in Ensenada where, according to tradition, the margarita was invented.

Some stagger in the direction of one of the many casinos that dot the Pacific shore; others to their resorts. It’s hard to believe, as I cycle carefully through the rowdy streets, that the town was once a barren mission on the edge of the Mexican desert; a Jesuit outpost where, 400 years on, gringos get drunk on 2-for-1 tequila shots.

Such is the contradiction of Baja, a sparsely populated desert peninsula that stretches into the sea off the coast of southern California, and which became an unlikely playboy paradise during American prohibition. Decades on, it is still synonymous with pleasure-seeking – think bustling Tijuana or the southern resort town jewel Cabo San Lucas. But there is another side to Baja; a secret closely guarded by the adventurous VW-dwellers, motorbike tourers and cyclists who explore its dirt roads, hidden beaches and desert heartland.

There’s more to Baja than big-name beach resorts (Liz Dodd)

Approaching the end of a round-the-world bicycle ride, an American cyclist I joined forces with back in San Diego and I decide to follow in their tyre tracks and endure the busy, trafficked road that runs south from US border through Tijuana and Ensenada as far as the small town of El Rosario, where Highway 1 – Baja’s only highway – turns away from the ocean and into the desert. The contrast is immediate. Traffic dies away immediately; the heat feels like cycling through a blast furnace. Central Baja is spanned by two protected nature reserves – the Valle de los Cirrios in Baja North, and the Biosphere Reserve El Vizcaino in Baja Sur – and as I roll downhill into the former, spaghetti Western music blasting from the speaker mounted to my bicycle, a wide open plain of Giant Segura cactuses and surreal boulder sculptures opens out, bathed in sunset. We use the free app iOverlander to find a wild camping spot beside a dilapidated dome, left to crumble beside the highway like a prop from Mad Max, carefully wheeling our bikes around the plump cactuses that grow out of the sand like little landmines.

The little town of San Antonio de las Minas, where we stop to resupply the next day, is famous for its indigenous cave paintings – some around 7,500 years old – and we break up the ride by following well-marked trails to paintings in the hills around the town. The road veers west, and we are back at the Pacific by the time we cross the border into Baja Sur at the sizeable town of Guerrero Negro, which is famous for whale watching in season. A last, sizzling crossing east brings us to a final desert climb, and it is with relief that we tumble down towards the Sea of Cortez and the pretty mining towns of Santa Rosalia and Mulege, where we camp beside the ocean at La Casa de Pancho Villa, a small family-run restaurant with a soft spot for overheating cyclists.

The harsh desert landscape gives way to pristine beaches (Liz Dodd)

After a day spent snorkelling on the empty beach I’m keen to get back on the road. I’ve been told that the best pina coladas in Mexico come from a small restaurant on nearby Playa Santispac, so we follow gravel paths to a beach that exceeds every white-sand paradise cliche: this is the start of the Bahia Concepcion, a millpond-still bay within the Sea of Cortez. Two magnificent pina coladas at Restaurante Bar Ana make the highway that winds up from the beach look distinctly untempting; luckily the staff say we can camp there, so we roll out our sleeping mats on the sand and fall asleep beneath a canopy of stars.

A few blissful days beach-hopping along the Bahia – stopping off at Playa Coyote to escape the midday sun in a palm-thatched palapa, or beach hut, and at El Requeson to join in a local BBQ – bring us to the Mediterranean-flavoured town of Loreto. It’s the earliest settlement in Baja, and former capital of the Californias, and its 17th-century mission church sits at the end of a palm-lined avenue of cafes and cocktail bars that melts, at its other end, into the Sea of Cortez. We bookend a stroll around its small museum with a trip to the Michoacana Ice Cream bar, famed for its pina colada-flavoured ice lollies, and a lazy afternoon by the pool at the Hotel Santa Fe Loreto. Restored, we climb for a final time away from the Sea of Cortez to spend our last nights camped under cactus before rolling slowly towards La Paz.

Loreto is far quieter than La Paz or Tijuana (Liz Dodd)

Our plan to hitch a cargo boat to the Mexican mainland affords us a few days in this pretty town, and as we ride along the cycle lane that runs the length of its peaceful boardwalk we forget all about our plan to make a day trip south to Los Cabos: how could its crowded beaches live up to the serenity of the Bahia Concepcion? Pina coladas aside, our Baja adventures had been closer to the sparse, rugged experiences of the early missionaries than those of Twenties starlets and playboys. Our nights were spent watching the stars come out between cactus clusters, not downing margaritas at the roulette wheel. But as our cargo boat finally pulled out of the harbour at La Paz and the sunset over the sandy mountains, it was the solitude and the Seguras, not the sangria, that I knew I would remember.

Travel essentials

Getting there

AeroMexico flies to Tijuana from Mexico City for £70 one way.

ABC operates comfortable, air-conditioned buses that run the length of Baja and stop on request.

Staying there

Hotel Santa Fe Loreto is a plush hotel with outdoor pool close to the centre of town. Doubles from £45, room only.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in