The Best Off-the-Beaten Track Destinations in Baja California

The 300-year-old Mision San Francisco Javier is an easy day trip from Loreto
The 300-year-old Mision San Francisco Javier is an easy day trip from Loreto | © Jessica Vincent
Jessica Vincent

Baja California’s southern party towns, such as Cabo San Lucas, may have been a popular spring break hub since the 50s, but much of the peninsula – partly due to lack of public transportation, tourist infrastructure and off-the-beaten-path tour options – still remains relatively undiscovered by most visitors. From traditional fishermen’s towns to pristine, rarely visited national parks, here are some of Baja’s California’s best-kept secrets.

Puerto Nuevo

If dirt-cheap, straight-off-the-boat lobster sounds like a dream to you, Puerto Nuevo is a worthy off-the-beaten-track stop. This small fishing village, located just five kilometres (three miles) from the touristy beach town Playas Rosarito, is a row of around 70 beach shacks all serving the Puerto Nuevo special: chargrilled lobster with melted garlic butter, hot tortillas, refried beans, guacamole, Mexican rice and an ice-cold margarita. The trick here is to bargain hard (and don’t go for the first place you see): some will go as low as $15–18 all in, especially if you walk further away from the main car park, where restaurants get less traffic. Remember, bartering is all part of the fun.

How to get there

If you’ve got your own wheels and are heading south from Tijuana or Playas Rosarito to Ensenada, this is a great stop to make en route. If you don’t have a car or are not planning on heading further south, you can also do this as a day trip from Tijuana or Rosarito, and you’ll find plenty of local buses heading that way – just don’t go with a tight time schedule in mind!

Feast on fresh lobster in Puerto Nuevo

Valle de Guadalupe

Not everyone knows this (yet), but Baja California produces some excellent wine. The stunning Valle de Guadalupe, just 20 kilometres north of Ensenada, is mile after mile of independent wineries, many offering vineyard tours and tastings for as little as 45 pesos (US$2.30) if you go without an organised tour. LA Cetto, Mexico’s biggest wine exporter, is one of the most established, well-organised and surprisingly, cheapest wineries to visit. If you fancy splashing out, you can also stay in luxury hotels out here, many of which have a winery and farm-to-table restaurant on site.

How to get there

The reason Valle de Guadalupe made it onto the off-the-beaten-track destination list is because, although it is well known, if you don’t have your own car (and don’t fancy forking out $100 for a half-day tour), this can be a challenging place to get to – but not impossible. There are local minibuses (not very comfortable, but they get you there) that go into the Valle from Ensenada’s main bus terminal. The best place to get off is at the main petrol station in the valley. Just tell the driver you want to go to LA Cetto or another nearby winery and they’ll stop here for you. From here, it’s either a 45-minute walk or you can hitchhike (most cars here are headed to LA Cetto anyway). Remember to follow the usual precautions when hitchhiking.

Walking to LA Cetto winery in the Valle de Guadalupe wine region, Mexico

San Quintín

Known as the clam capital of Baja California, the tiny seaside village San Quintín serves up the most delicious plates of steamed almejas that you’ve ever tasted. If you’re in a rush, look out for the roadside stalls as you drive south from Ensenada with huge almeja ahumada (steamed clams) signs. If you’ve got a couple of hours, go into one of the restaurants and treat yourself to a clay pot of fire-roasted clams. If you’ve got a couple of days on your hands, get one of the fishermen to take you out on the water and catch your own clam dinner!

How to get there

If you’re road-tripping through Baja with your own wheels, this is an easy stop to make on your long Ensenada to Guerrero Negro drive, as you’ll be driving right through it on Carretera 1. If you’re travelling by bus, this stop requires a little bit more effort. The Ensenada–Guerrero Negro Aguila bus will stop here, but you’ll have to wait several hours until the next one comes along to continue your journey (and you’ll need to buy a new bus ticket). Whether it’s worth the hassle just depends how much you like clams!

Get a taste for Baja’s best clams in tiny San Quintín

Bahía Concepción

If you arrived in Mulegé from the north, you would’ve passed by miles of stunning green and blue waters and bay after bay of pristine white sands dotted with a tent here and an RV there: this is Bahía Concepción, and you could easily spend several weeks here, exploring each patch of dreamy sand. Unlike beaches in Cabo in the south, or Rosarito in the north, you won’t be met by hoards of margarita sellers or snorkelling tour groups here. Instead, daily scenes in Bahía Concepción consist of campers doing nothing but enjoying the sun, setting up tents and firing up the barbecue for dinner. If you don’t know where to start, Playa Santispac and Playa Perla are local favourites.

How to get there

There is no public transport or accommodation round here, but that’s the beauty of it. The easiest way to get here is with your own wheels, but if you don’t have any, it’s also possible to get a taxi to take you from Mulege (haggle hard) or, if you’re on a tight budget, time it with an Aguila bus and get the driver to drop you off near Playa Santispac. There are few facilities here, so be sure to bring your own food supplies and camping gear.

Bahía Concepción

El Vizcaíno Biosphere Reserve

The enormous El Vizcaíno Biosphere Reserve is Mexico’s largest protected area. Miles of giant cactus-dotted plains, epic dusty-pink canyons and glistening water holes make this a truly awesome landscape to trek through. However, most who make the journey out here are looking for something in particular. Before Jesuits arrived in Baja California in the 1600s, the Cochimi people had lived a semi-nomadic life across Baja California’s desert for thousands of years. Sadly, most of these inhabitants were killed off by disease brought over by the Jesuits, so little is known about their way of life, traditions and culture. However, they did leave behind something very special: some of the largest – and oldest – concentrations of rock art in the Americas, depicting hunting scenes, shaman rituals and coming-of-age ceremonies.
How to get there
Due to its sheer size (and if you want to find those paintings) visiting El Vizcaíno Biosphere Reserve solo is pretty much a no-go. The paintings can be visited either on a three-day hiking trip from San Ignacio (where you get to see one of the most impressive cave paintings, called La Cueva Pintada) or a day tour from Mulege. Salvador Castro Drew (+52 615 161 4985) offers very affordable tours, and knows just about everything there is to know about the paintings.

Discover 7,000-year-old cave paintings in the Vizcaíno Biosphere Reserve

Mision San Francisco Javier

Just a 45-minute drive away from Loreto lies one of the most beautiful, untouched missions in Baja California. Perfectly preserved, Mision San Francisco Javier looks as it did almost 300 years ago when the Jesuits arrived to convert the Cochimi people. With a stunning mountain backdrop and a pretty square, this sleepy town is well worth spending the afternoon in. Start by checking out the mission and huge 300-year-old olive tree, then finish off with a delicious homemade lunch at one of the small restaurants on the square. There will probably be some locals offering to give you a tour or to take you to see the olive tree (which is just behind the mission and has a sign next to it). Please note that this is not free, and they will expect a tip.

How to get there

There is no public transport up here, and taxis can be pretty pricey. But that doesn’t mean you have to miss out if you don’t have a car. From Loreto, get a taxi to drop you off at the Mision San Francisco Javier turning off the main highway (just 35 kilometres or 22 miles from Loreto). From here, you’ll be able to hitch a ride up the stunning, windy road to San Francisco with no problems. To get back, hang around the car park (or wait with a beer in the bar next to it) and hitch a ride with one of the cars heading back to Loreto.

The 300-year-old Mision San Francisco Javier is an easy day trip from Loreto

Sierra de La Laguna

One of Baja California’s most beautiful yet rarely visited areas, Sierra de La Laguna might just be this region’s best-kept secret. As you climb up to Baj Sur’s highest peak, the Sierra’s rainy microclimate quickly transforms the dry, arid land that lies below into a lush, pinewood forest. Around 10 million years ago, the Sierra used to be an island off the coast of Baja, meaning that today, 33% of the 900 flora and fauna species here are endemic. With hardly any tourist traffic and few amenities, hardcore trekkers come here for a complete wilderness experience. Few leave disappointed.
How to get there
With little infrastructure, poor signage and ever-changing weather conditions, this hike can be challenging without an experienced guide. The easiest access point, a popular hike that takes you to Picacho de la Laguna, is from Todos Santos. This is also where most organised day trips and multi-day treks depart from. If you want to go with a guide, Baja Sierra Adventures is probably your best bet.

Sierra de La Laguna: a paradise for birds such as the acorn woodpecker

Parque Nacional Constitucion de 1857

Snow, in Mexico? Yes! Nestled in the Sierra de Juarez mountain range, Parque Nacional Constitucion de 1857 is one of the few places in Baja California that sees a huge dumping of snow in winter, creating, for just a few months a year, a surreal, Narnia-like forest. In the summer, with its towering pine trees, epic sunsets and stunning lakes, it’s a popular camping, trekking and mountain biking spot for locals. The park became a protected area in the 60s due to its large number of endemic species such as wildcats, grey foxes and coyotes, as well as other smaller mammals such as racoons, squirrels and moles. With plenty of eagles, hawks, owls and herons, this is a great place for keen birdwatchers, too.
How to get there
Parque Nacional is located 154 kilometres (96 miles) east of Ensenada. You’ll need your own (sturdy) car to get here, as the road can be quite challenging, particularly once you pass Ojos Negros.

Golden hour at the stunning Constitucion de 1987 National Park, Baja Norte

Culture Trip Summer Sale

Save up to $1,395 on our unique small-group trips! Limited spots.

Edit article