Here I am, albeit a whole year late, to tell you about why I am sat writing my ultimate guide to Mexico on return to the central American country only 12 months later…that’s not normal for me at least.
Beyond its palm fringed package-holiday beaches of the east coast, Mexico presents an abundance of culture & class that I may well have overlooked in the quest to find authentic travel experiences in the past. From the misty Mayan jungle ruins of Palenque to the cactus-lined ranches of Oaxaca, Mexico has a vast repertoire of vistas to get your ultimate culture fix. In 2022 I was captivated by its regional gastronomy, bohemian Pacific surf towns, vibrant city streets lined with mezcaleria’s, intriguing ancient civilisations, and most significantly the mind-blowing underwater world which got me dreaming every-night for the last year.
To categorise one state as being my ‘favourite’ would be wrong; I would rather identify each as fulfilling a separate and unique travel need. So I shall start with where I have spent most of my time in Mexico and the place that has left a mark on my soul for the rest of my life: Baja California Sur (getting emotional as I write this).
BAJA BEST FOR DIVING & ADVENTURE •$$$ • Nov-April • Dry climate 21º•
Baja California Sur, part of the second-longest peninsula on the planet, evokes a raw, wild & rugged landscape that separates the Mexican mainland from the vast Pacific Ocean. At it’s most southern tip, Cabo San Lucas is a hot-bed of tacky American tourism, but don’t let that fool you. A stone’s throw into the ocean just off the chaotic coastline, the underwater world is brimming with one of the most diverse pelagic ecosystems on the planet. This point in the ocean has thousands of species all fighting for the spotlight. As the least populated state in Mexico, you will also find dry arid desert dotted with cacti for miles and miles as you navigate the dirt roads of Baja.
On the Pacific coast you have the rough active ocean that is vast and wild, full of adventure for surfers, divers and fisherman alike. Curling round into the protected Sea of Cortez, the gulf of Mexico, you will find calmer protected waters where beautiful pelagic marine life takes refuge and you will come across the most beautiful beaches in all of Mexico. Combine epic encounters with nature with colourful colonial towns, and you have Baja California Sur in a nutshell.
Let’s start with the chaotic epicentre of BCS; the infamous American holiday destination Cabo San Lucas, aka ‘Cabo’ or ‘Los Cabos’.
I am going to cut to the chase; if I could wave a magic wand over the coastline of Cabo and erase the American sports bars, strip clubs, all-inclusive hotels and game-fishing charter boats, you would be left with an incredibly magical raw landscape. Cabo is the ultimate ‘spring break’ party destination and within a few hours flight from the USA it is where the world of the Uber-rich and spring-breaker collided, vomiting all over what would’ve once been a stunning rugged terrain. The worst thing is, the majority of visitors have zero knowledge or interest in what I went there for…
Cabo began as a sleepy fishing village, as most do, and because of it’s geographical situation at the most southern tip of the peninsula (the famous arch rock formation) the ocean is nutrient rich inviting every type of marine species imaginable: marlin, pelagic sharks, killer whales, sea lions, humpback whales, dolphins, mobula rays, to name a few. Within an hours boat ride out of the marina, which is said to be the second wealthiest in the world, you will struggle not to see something pop up out of the ocean….even if it’s the famous resident sea lion Pancho hitching a lift on the way back in.
Expect everyone to speak ‘American’ English (not a Mexican accent in sight) and the US dollar to be king. The prices of which, match that. You won’t get far down the street without being offered a tour, drugs, or a free shot on entry to a neon-lit night club. The luxury resorts that line the coastline from the airport in San Jose, are those which upon entering, its guests won’t be leaving until their return flight departs.
So why go? As I said, I first came to Cabo in 2022 for one important reason, to discover what the ocean had to offer and it not only didn’t disappoint, it brought me back to this part of the world for more in 2023. Cabo is close to the biggest international airport in BCS and is a great start to your journey through the state.
I recommend keeping your visit to Cabo short and sweet: head out on an epic ocean safari with ocean lover Alex Sharks, who will give you the most interactive adrenalin-driven experience in the waters just off the coast. On my first day out on the water, I swam with huge pods of dolphins and countless humpback whales. The following day, jump onboard CABO SHARK DIVE to witness pelagic sharks like makos, blues and hammerheads in action. N.B. This is for the shark lover who isn’t afraid of getting into fish chummed water. If you have the time, and more importantly the money, give yourself a once-in-a-lifetime live-aboard dive experience to the Revillagigedo archipelago, also known as the Socorro Islands. You can read more about my diving experiences on my Mexico Diving blog post (coming soon…).
F&D Recommendations: Tropical Kitchen, Cabo Coffee, Chubby Noodle, Mi Casa & The Fish Sushi.
The quainter, quieter and downright prettier of the Los Cabos pair, San Jose del Cabo boasts flag-lined streets of art galleries, mezcal bars, bakeries and boutiques, a far cry from its neighbouring town Cabo San Lucas. At the centre of these colourful colonial streets is the beautiful Plaza Mijares which hosts the famous Thursday night art walk; art galleries stay open late into the night, whilst artists display their work on the street stands in the square.
The historic centre is abundant with eateries, albeit touristy they are a step above those in Cabo. Try Ruba’s bakery for great coffee and real bread (which is hard to come by in Mexico), treat yourself to the stunning flavours of Kitchen Table, and maybe even spend your evening throwing clay at Casa Musa pottery studio. Although there is little to do in this pretty town, is has a much more local feel and is a stones throw away from both the airport and Cabo San Lucas.
Here starts your adventure along dusty unmarked dirt tracks, weaving your way through cacti & stumbling upon the cerulean surf; finally some space to breathe. There is something pretty god-damn-cool and downright sophisticated about this part of BCS, so much so as I pulled up to the infamous surf beach of Cerritos in my 4×4, I questioned whether I was cool enough to be there.
Todos Santos, a breath of fresh air but an air filled with artistry, sophistication, style & interesting expats; a different kind of wanderer to those in Los Cabos. The coastline is similar to that of Cabo, craggy & wild, yet you find local dwellings amongst the occasional stylish hotel. Regarded as some of the best surf in the country, surfers flock to the waves and along with that comes this naturally laid-back vibe. In the town you’ll find cobbled streets, artists, silversmiths, galleries, (frustratingly cool) fashion boutiques, design-forward hotels, and wonderfully restored haciendas. Needless to say I would describe it as an enchanting bohemian town that I wouldn’t hesitate to go back to.
2-3 days in Todos Santos would suffice and enable you to explore the quaint town for shopping as well as hiking the coastline and of course stopping for a surf at Cerritos beach (a 15 minute drive from TD town). Don’t miss Barracuda Cantina for INSANE taco’s & a great vibe; sit at the bar and let those post-surf margarita’s flow. Take a hike up to Punta Lobos, which translates to seal point; it is an easy plod with stunning scenes of the coast and you can watch the whales breach below, dream come true! In Todos Santos, you cannot miss the ‘cruch aguacate’ taco’s (breaded avocado) at the local taqueria Santo Chilote; they were the best I had in all of Mexico. This restaurant is family run, cheap and incredibly delicious. Despite there being countless indulgent boutique shops, all independently run, I would say you cannot miss the boho-mexican Besame Mucho; indulge in their Tulum-inspired boho dresses, cowboy boots, Oaxacan hats, ethnic jewellery & more.
Nestled between the Baja Peninsula and mainland Mexico, the coastal town of La Paz is home to a magical body of water harbouring a rich marine ecosystem which gives it its name “Aquarium of the world”. This underrated BCS gem is also home to breathtaking beaches, to rival those in the Whitsunday Islands, and an immaculate malecón (promenade) that lines the sophisticated town.
La Paz sits on the north-east coast of the Baja peninsula where the Pacific curls round into the protected Sea of Cortez. These placid protected waters bring an abundance of pelagic life making it famous for migrating juvenile whale sharks between October & February, and the all-year-round resident sea lions of Los Islotes.
La Paz will always hold a special place in my heart: through Sea Lions Dive I experienced my first interaction with whale sharks, which turned out to be an incredibly magical moment when a few dolphins also came to say hello. If you have read into my Philippines dive trip, you’ll know I’ve made many attempts at seeing whale sharks in an ethical manner; the waters of La Paz are highly policed and regulated making it a great way of seeing these magnificent sharks in their natural habitat.
The island of Espiritu Santo, just outside the bay of La Paz, is an uninhabited paradise with pristine white-sand beaches; if I had the time (and money) I would charter a sailing yacht & explore the surrounding waters, which are peaceful, un-commercialised & the best I had seen in all of Mexico. An unmissable La Paz experience close by is the tiny rock formation of Los Islotes; home to a sea-lion colony that is buzzing with activity. Upon arrival to the small island by boat, you will hear the loud barking of hundreds of sea-lions, mostly juvenile who use it as their playground. Whether you are experienced or not, I would highly recommend booking to scuba dive, again from the wonderful Sea Lions Dive, and you can play with these baby sealions in the shallows. Don’t be alarmed by their interaction, they will pull at your fins, grab any part of your dive equipment and liked to be stroked like puppies, that’s until the mum comes barking through the water to tell them to leave (you don’t want to mess with her).
Balandra beach, the famous swirling white sands of La Paz, is a tourist hotspot but not something to be missed. Despite many tour companies on the malecón trying to sell you a boat or bus tour to the beach which has limited access every morning, I have a tried & tested travel hack to avoid the crowds, not be limited to a time schedule AND have access to even more stunning beaches that are empty. Jump on a local ‘playa’ bus from the main bus station in La Paz (costing about £3), head towards Tecolote beach, which is one stop after Balandra beach. Here at Tecolote, which isn’t the most breathtaking of beaches, you will see an unmarked dirt track leading up onto the top of the coastal cliff on the left hand side of the beach. Keeping the ocean to your right, follow this dirt track, trust that you’re going the right way, and you will start to come across cove-after-cove of white sand beaches and calm aqua waters. Walk down onto each beach and soak up the solitude. The best thing of all is that after 3 beaches, you will actually come out at the other end of Balandra beach, which didn’t seem to be policed. By the time you reach the beach, most crowds will be gone. Take in the beautiful swirling sands from the cliff overlooking the beach. You’re welcome!
3-4 days in La Paz is perfect! • Recommended hostel: Hostel Casa Esterito
Magdalena Bay; a magical lagoon with fiery sunset skies, which evokes a lot of emotion for me. The things I experienced here will stick with me for the rest of my life.
The bay of Magdalena, about 5-6 hours drive north-west of Cabo, is a mecca for wildlife and the wildlife-obsessed alike. The tranquil fishing port of San Carlos attracts the famous gray whale, the most interactive whale at the waters surface; no one truly knows why, but they have developed an incredibly curious and most importantly trusting relationship with the boats & humans onboard. At a certain time of year (Feb/March) the gray whale, a pelagic mammal, travels south from Alaska to spend their winters in the warmer lagoons of Baja where they mate, birth, and are (most famously) fascinated by us humans. Despite this area growing in popularity due to the once-in-a-lifetime experiences with these beautiful whales, you won’t actually see crowds of panga’s across the bay because the waters are carefully regulated, as well as it being a remote off-the-beaten-track location & one of many lagoons across the west coast of Baja that you can interact with these whales.
San Carlos, a once quiet fishing town that had never seen any outside visitors, now brings adventure seekers solely in search of the gray whale and it is important to note that there is nothing much else on offer here. As one of the more remote spots I would suggest leaving Mag Bay out of your itinerary if you have no interest in seeing the gray whales or you are outside the season of late February to late March. It is also worth noting that you cannot jump on a bus to Mag Bay, you must have a car or be part of an organised tour including transport.
If you choose to go to San Carlos independently, I would recommend staying at one of the only hotels in the area – Mar y Arena. From here they also run Gray whale watching tours which you can quite easily jump onto – it is worth mentioning that this won’t be cheap but money really can’t buy the experience you will have. If you are based in Cabo for your Baja trip, you can also explore the option of going on an expedition with Alex Sharks. Whether you are doing this part of your trip independently or within an organised group, I would suggest giving yourself 2-3 days out on the water looking for the whales (budget dependent), with a day of travel either side. There is also an option to stay on one of the islands in their glamping sites.
La Ventana, most commonly known as a hotspot for kitesurfing through the winter months, has a lot more to offer than just the sport. Where the desert meets the ocean; the road lined with a giant Cardon-cacti forest leading down to the coastal town of La Ventana, was like something from a movie as I rolled in at sundown. As you meet the sea of Cortez, cerulean chop is peppered with kiters from all over the globe.
Brimming with Californians and Canadians that are escaping their northern winters, this kiting paradise will definitely not give you an authentic local-Mexican feel, but the overall vibe of the travellers it attracts makes it one of my favourite places in Baja California Sur. The beautiful beaches are lined with cool kiting bars, cafe’s & hangouts like Playa Central. Sit and soak up the afternoon kites, with your ceviche and margs!
Inevitably, I was actually drawn here for what is beneath the surface of the water. Before the afternoon northerly winds blow into the bay & fill the skies with colourful kites, it is rather unknown that what’s underneath the surface is the most wild pelagic playground in the world. Besides the humpback whales, which populate all of the surrounding waters of BCS during the winter, La Ventana has become pretty well known for migrating mobula rays. Twice a year, you will find thousands of these beautiful rays in the biggest and most spectacular migration they make to the Sea of Cortez and the Pacific Ocean around the most southern tip of Baja California Sur, Mexico. First spotted from the surface making their famous leaps and flips, it’s not until you catch a glimpse of what’s underneath that really does take your breath away. I was lucky enough to be alone in the water totally surrounded by these beauties, as far as my eye could see. Of late, these waters have also become well known to attract killer whales which really is a unique and spectacular thing to spectate.
If you really want to get ‘off-the-beaten-track’, you can quite literally venture down the bumpy dusty dirt roads to the minuscule town of Cabo Pulmo. Worlds away from the overly-commercialised streets of Cabo, if you are seeking real adventure on your Baja trip, Cabo Pulmo national park will really deliver. World-renowned for it’s diving, the three roads that make up the whole town attract the ocean obsessed from all over the world, and for good reason.
This tiny town, with no wifi, hot water or ATM’s, is a fantastic example of sustainable tourism. In the 90’s, when the sleepy fishing town had been over-fished, academics declared the area as a national marine park which saw an astronomical growth in marine life because of it. This evolution meant local families turned to diving and snorkelling as their main source of income. Access to the marine park is now highly regulated to maintain the thriving reef and marine life; the 71 square km area is home to thousands of species including whales, dolphins, bull sharks & the famous clouds of schooling jackfish. Despite my attempt to find the resident bull sharks, I had a surprise visit from a juvenile humpback whale in only 14 metres of water, who was curious enough to stay with us for our whole dive even until we surfaced (much to our captains amazement)!
For the diver, I would highly recommend booking in to do a bull-shark dive & jack-fish dive with Cabo Pulmo Travel, a small locally run dive shop.
Fly into SJD, pick up your rental car.
> Spend 2-3 days acclimatising in San Jose del Cabo.
>Head to Cabo San Lucas for the day. Jump on an ocean safari.
> Drive along the coast to Todos Santos for 2-3 days.
>Venture up to the Magdalena Bay for 2 days if you want to find the gray whales.
>Drive across to the eastern coast, La Paz for 3-4 days for whale sharks, sea-lions and beautiful beaches.
>Carry on southeast to the kitesurfing town & spend 3 days soaking up the cool vibes.
>For your final stop, head to Cabo Pulmo for the day, en route back to San Jose, for a day of diving in the marine park.