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Road Trip the Baja California - East Cape, Cabo San Lucas, Todos Santos, San Jose del Cabo and More

BAJA CALIFORNIA, Mexico—Some roads are worth driving solely for the sake of driving them. Pacific Coast Highway, for one, lures road warriors to cruise its curves, braving skinny lanes painted along cliffs for glimpses of the Pacific Ocean. Though less treacherous, what remains of Route 66 won't get you anywhere fast, but it will get you from Chicago to Los Angeles while satisfying your hunger for nostalgia.

Baja California's Mexican Federal Highway 1 is such a road. Dubbed the Carretera Transpeninsular (Transpeninsular Highway), it spans the entire length of Mexico's left leg and, essentially, it's just two lanes of rough asphalt running through the desert; its mile markers are taco shacks, cactus and stray dogs. But along the length of it, little dirt roads reach out to the water—the Pacific Ocean to the west, the Sea of Cortes to the east, and pretty bays along the way—inspiring side trips to prime whale-watching lookouts, booming sea lion colonies, crystal-clear snorkeling, unparalleled surfing coves and mouthwatering Mexican seafood. The CT possesses PCH's best feature—incomparable ocean vistas—and Route 66's worst—slow-going driving.

Still, people drive it for the sake of driving it. And I wanted to be among those people. Marooned in the Midwest in February, I planned to rent a Jeep in Tijuana, the CT's northern starting point, and commence on a soul-searching adventure of a road trip replete with fish tacos every day and starlit beach camping every night.

But there was a catch: A Baja California tourism agent (as well as the U.S. State Department) advised against travel in northern Baja. There had been a surge in violent crimes against tourists over the past few months, and Tijuana and its northern Baja surroundings were considered off-limits.ted lin

But Southern Baja—Baja California Sur—beckoned. It's literally a different state in Mexico—a more relaxed one. There would be no traversing in Tijuana, which was fine; that city isn't what it used to be, and what it used to be wasn't so great to begin with. There would also not be 1,000 miles of dusty desert and potholes to log from north to south. Instead, I would begin in San Jose del Cabo, on the southern tip, and drive a 350-mile loop around Baja Sur, weaving through small, arty towns and cactus-laden landscapes with idyllic seaside views. There would be boutique hotels instead of campsites; sit-down meals instead of tacos pescados. I would still be driving for the sake of driving . . . just less of it.

Day 1: San Jose del Cabo

I enlisted my photographer sister to sit shotgun, and we started our journey in this historic town. San Jose's dusty, narrow streets reflect its intrinsic colonial vibe; building facades stand proudly on the sidewalks and hide gorgeous, palm-shaded atriums. Our hotel, Casa Natalia, followed suit, its courtyard's strategically placed palms creating pockets of privacy along its long, mod-Mexican landscape. Hotels and shops line Plaza Mijares, which was undergoing a major beautifying project in anticipation of San Jose's annual mid-March festival; and on side streets, tequila bars and galleries mix with residences and restaurants.

We wandered around all day and stumbled upon La Panga, just off the plaza, by chance—its facade giving away nothing of its historic hacienda structure and the lush, graduated terraces within. The prix-fixe lunch here wasn't cheap (we paid about $25 each), but it was worth it: smoked fish tostadas with jalapeno-soy dipping sauce, grilled chicken *** in mole sauce over fried plantains and a curious lavender-infused rice pudding that left us more than satisfied. We lingered for hours, and no one complained. Such is Mexico: There is never, ever a hurry.

Day 2: The Eastern Cape

Fitting, then, that our day trip to Cabo Pulmo, a tiny fishing village on the Eastern Cape, took about 2 1/2 hours longer than expected. This was the one off-roading diversion from Highway 1, and we paid for it. Just east of San Jose del Cabo, asphalt turns into gravel; gravel turns into dirt; dirt turns into sand bars dotted with stray dogs and cattle. We navigated via bumps in the desert, trying to keep a view of the ocean in the passenger's seat window like some kind of compass. There is no signage of any kind—no "Cabo Pulmo – 100 km," no "Turn Right Here Lest You Risk Hitting a Cactus Patch," no "This Is Actually Someone's Very Long Driveway, So Following It Is Fruitless"—which makes forks in the road kind of a cruel lady-or-tiger scenario. This treacherous navigation went on for about 3 hours at a snail's pace.

Cabo Pulmo could have been worth it too. Hardly a village, it's a tiny cluster of businesses, the largest of which is a bare-bones diving resort adjacent to a 25,000-year-old state-protected coral reef, rumored to foster the best snorkeling in North America. But late winter winds made for choppy conditions, less than ideal for studying underwater wildlife.

In weather like that, the snorkeling shops shut their doors. Such is Mexico. Instead, we ate a simple lunch at Los Caballeros, one of the three restaurants in town (and the only one that was actually serving at the time) and took the longer but faster paved Highway 1 route home.

We returned to civilization feeling a little defeated, but the night's lodgings, at the Cabo Surf Hotel, more than made up for it. It's a boutique resort situated on a beautiful curve of Los Cabos Corridor, the flawless oceanfront stretch of Highway 1 between Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo. Steps lead from the restaurant down to the sand, and the pool's deep end meets the ocean's horizon with a perfect vista for impromptu whale-watching. (I spotted three.) Members of the staff here have the laid-back attitude of surfers, which isn't surprising: Los Cabos Corridor is rumored to be the best surf spot in Baja, so I booked a lesson for first thing in the morning.

Day 3: Los Cabos Corridor & the Central Cape

For those who have surfed, you know how thrilling it is; for those who haven't, do it as soon as possible—ideally in Baja Sur, where the water is (relatively) warm, the waves are big and beautiful, and you can hire a dude named Jose to show you the ropes ... and extract bits of sea urchin spine from your foot should you accidentally encounter one on a wipeout. (Let it be known that as I write this, almost three weeks after the Sea Urchin Incident, I have just extracted the final bits. They are stubborn.)

Injuries aside, it was an incredible experience. Jose taught me, in broken surfer English, how to pop up on the board and stay standing once I'd caught a wave. And it totally worked: I was up for a while (well, 6 seconds, but still ...) on my first try. Even though I practically paddled my board straight into a seasoned Cabo vet (it's an incredibly popular spot for local surfers) and swallowed enough sea water to nearly puke, it's still my fondest memory of the trip.

With a souvenir from Los Cabos Corridor planted firmly in my foot, we returned to Highway 1 bound for Baja California Sur's capital, La Paz, located in the crook of its eastern inlet. It's a lengthy drive—about 4 hours—and we stopped along the way for lunch at the modest but popular Hotel Palomar in Santiago, on the edge of the mountainous Central Cape region.

Known primarily for its zoo (which we skipped; a zoo in the middle of the desert is bound to be depressing anyway), Santiago is essentially a small town square surrounded by orange groves and dusty shrubbery. There is no bank; there is no tourism. There are hot springs in nearby Agua Caliente, and we'd received some sketchy dirt road directions back in San Jose, but after the road to Cabo Pulmo, we decided to stay the course.

And that course is rocky. And mountainous. And slow. The lanes are narrow, and passing is prohibited, but the locals do it anyway, barely slowing down for the topes (speed bumps), of which there are many, and the dozens of cattle sauntering to and fro across the highway in search of the most edible weeds. We drove through San Antonio and then El Triunfo, dusty little villages whose decrepit, abandoned bars and cafes sit right up on the Carretera Transpeninsular.

We came upon the sprawling mass of La Paz and its 300,000 inhabitants from miles away, inching toward the heart of it—the mile-long marina and promenade—as the sun inched toward the horizon. It cast a hazy orange glow over the town, mellowing everything, warming it. There's an easy-going vibe to the city and, best as we could tell, few tourists. In their place are street vendors and a bustling night life among the locals. Most of the restaurants are set up patio-style facing the marina, so the adjacent promenade along Paseo Obregon functions with the see-and-be-seen air of a catwalk.

Day 4: La Paz

Since Cabo Pulmo proved fruitless for snorkeling, La Paz—and its Isla Espiritu Santo, tempting explorers with sea lion colonies and snorkeling caves—was meant to be redeeming. But after spending the morning waiting at the abandoned tourist office for nearly an hour (again, such is Mexico), I hit up a half-dozen snorkeling shops, only to learn that most trips require at least four people to fill a boat.

Sensing my disappointment, one of the managers in a snorkeling shop overlooking the marina offered a tip. "Talk to Hector," he said, gesturing out the window to a white-haired guy squinting and smoking on a kelpy fishing boat. "He'll take you."

Hector, it turned out, was more than willing to help. He and his silent, chain-smoking friend told me they'd try to summon three other tourists to fill a boat that afternoon, but that if they couldn't find companions, they'd take me alone to the island for about $100. I was to ride with Hector's friend in his stinky fishing boat, and he'd bring me back before sundown.
Hector offered his card, on which there is a photograph of him hanging upside-down next to a swordfish and, among a few touristy-sounding titles, the words, "LOVE ME." And at that moment, I did love Hector, for he had promised that, one way or the other, I'd go snorkeling that afternoon.

My sister, however, didn't feel the love. "You're seriously going to get on some rowboat by yourself with some random old dude and go snorkeling for the day?" she asked. Only then did it seem irrational. "No," she said. "I will not let you do that."

Instead, we went to lunch.

Following the recommendations of two bellhops, we ate the best meal of the trip at a crowded local favorite by the name of Bismark-cito. It's an open-air eatery on Paseo Obregon, shielded from the marina by a cluster of light-strewn trees and plastic tables spilling out onto the sidewalk. At half past two, the place was packed to the gills.
We ordered two rounds of fish tacos and, while we waited, nibbled on a brimming heap of warm, perfectly salted homemade tortilla chips and a sauce that resembled Thousand Island dressing in color and consistency, but tasted like Mexican bliss—a delectable blend of queso, sour cream, salsa and guacamole. It was heaven.
Not quite heaven: The faint smell of rank water came from La Paz's marina, which is polluted. The locals know not to wade, and instead, beach-goers head down the coast a few miles. But there's plenty to do in town, including a variety of shopping and visiting a handful of museums, including the Gray Whale Community Museum, which pays tribute to Baja's largest commuters.

Days 5-6: Todos Santos

After a peaceful night's rest at the charming Posado de las Flores on the east side of the marina, we filled up the Jeep and hit the road. Highway 1 leads inland at San Marcos, due south of La Paz, but we picked up Highway 19 headed southwest toward the only real destination worth stopping for along the Western Cape: the dusty artists' colony of Todos Santos, nestled against the Sierra de la Laguna Mountains. The drive from La Paz down to Cabo San Lucas is wrought with cacti, cattle and little else. But Todos Santos, which sprang from a palm grove in the early 18th Century, is an oasis, a Pueblo Magico (magical town), as it was named a few years back by the folks who run the country's board of tourism.

Artists love it, surfers love it; even British people love it. Our hotel, The Hotelito, was run by a British expatriate named Jenny with an impossibly regal London accent and impossibly tan skin for a limey. We arrived at the uber-modern quartet of cottages just as Jenny was sashaying off to see the whales at Playa La Cachora, the beach down the road. "It's absolutely magical," she crooned, her giant straw hat flapping in the wind. "They're so close, you can see the babies' eyes."

My sister and I let that thought set in as she sauntered away, exchanging a knowing look that said, "Someone's had a few too many margaritas," but decided to head to the beach to see for ourselves. And it's true: During the winter months the migrating whales are so close, you can (almost) see their eyes.

Todos Santos is touted as more of an artist and surfer community than a prime destination for whale watching. But it's got it all, including a rich cultural center, a bajillion fine art galleries and a half-dozen fantastic restaurants, including a wood-fired pizza joint that might do well in Chicago.

Our second night was spent at the Todos Santos Inn, the gorgeous historic home of a former sugar baron that's since been converted into suites furnished with oil paintings, princess-style four poster king beds and deep soaking tubs. There's even a little wine bar serving a handful of regional wines (the whites beat the reds) as well as West Coast and European imports.

There are lots of other amazing things about this town, too—so many, that an entire article devoted to it will run in a few months.

Day 7: Cabo San Lucas

By the end of our stay in Todos Santos, we wanted to make like our British hostess and move there. But Highway 1 (and the flight home) was calling, an hour south in Cabo San Lucas. Everything written about Cabo warned me it was loud, obnoxious and primarily frequented by spring breakers and honeymooners looking for the best swim-up bar in Baja—a scene we had just spent the past week avoiding. It's about as far from traditional Baja as it gets: There is a Hard Rock Hotel; there is a Home Depot; everyone speaks English.

We arrived in the evening and booked a room at the quaint Bungalows Hotel, which was nestled in a quiet residential neighborhood. And while we didn't take advantage of Cabo's booming nightlife, we found a nice authentic dinner spot, once again recommended by a bellhop. (Bellhops, I've decided, can always be trusted for good dinner recommendations.)

El Meson de Zapata is in the thick of Cabo's downtown hoopla, but it's also quite understated, authentically friendly and serves the best flan in the world—or, at least Baja Sur.

True, one might find comparable delicacies in Baja Norte, and perhaps some day I'll scour the length of the peninsula in search of it. But looking back on the trip now, it's apparent that Baja Sur is worth the drive solely for the sake of driving.

from the Chicago Tribune

Planning your trip


There are two main airports in Baja California Sur: Aeropuerto Internacional Los Cabos (SJD), just outside of San Jose del Cabo; and Aeropuerto General Manuel Marquez de Leon (LAP), serving La Paz. Flights to SJD are less expensive and more frequent. There are a handful of non-stop flights from O'Hare to SJD, which tend to be in the $1,000 range. Single-stop flights can be had for closer to $600; another option is to buy one non-stop domestic ticket to San Diego International Airport and a connecting international ticket from there to SJD, as Mexican flights from San Diego are fairly frequent and less expensive.


If you're going the road-trip route, you're obviously going to need a car. Most major rental car companies are represented at SJD, and a few keep satellite offices in major towns like Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo. While the C.T. is paved and in passable condition, it's not uncommon for smaller roads and side streets to be unpaved or in very poor repair. Our advice? Get a Jeep or similar all-terrain vehicle designed to handle rough roads, and wear your seat belt—it's a bumpy ride.


Large-scale beachside resorts are common in Cabo San Lucas and Los Cabos Corridor, but most lodging in Baja Sur consists of boutique hotels and small inns, many of which include a large traditional breakfast. A few recommendations in . . . San Jose del Cabo: Casa Natalia (from $230; 888-277-3814; www.casanatalia.com) is gorgeous and boasts one of the best restaurants in town. Los Cabos Corridor: Cabo Surf Hotel (from $265; 858-964-5117; www.cabosurfhotel.com) is a full-service boutique resort and spa, and operates a surf shack with lessons. La Paz: Posada de las Flores (from $150; 619-378-0103; www.posadadelasflores.com) is wonderfully intimate and right on the marina. Todos Santos: The Hotelito (from $85; 011-52-612-145-0099, www.thehotelito.com) is a modern oasis with British hospitality; Todos Santos Inn (from $125; 011-52-612-145-0040; www.todossantosinn.com) meshes historic architectural details with a lush landscape and traditional suites. Cabo San Lucas: The Bungalows Inn (from $115; 888-424-CABO; www.cabobungalows.com) features simple rooms, warm hospitality, and a DVD library should you opt out of Cabo's noisy nightlife.


Fish tacos are the standard fare in Baja California Sur, but in larger towns, contemporary Mexican has found a niche. A few recommendations in . . . San Jose del Cabo: Mi Cocina (average entree $16; 888-277-3814; www.casanatalia.com/dining.cfm) serves formal modern Mexican entrees with inventive cocktails and incredible desserts; La Panga Antigua (average entree $15; 011-52-624-142-4041; www.lapanga.com) serves pricey contemporary Mexican and seafood cuisine in a gorgeous historic hacienda; French Riviera Restaurant and Bakery (average entree $10; 011-52-624-104-3125;www.frenchrivieraloscabos.com) smells as good as it tastes, and serves sweet and savory crepes and dozens of traditional French and Mexican pastries. Santiago: Hotel Palomar (average entree $8; 011-52-624-142-0604) draws visitors to its orange grove-enclosed patio for traditional Mexican fare. La Paz: Bismark-cito (average entree $10; 011-52-612-128-4900) serves the best fish tacos—and homemade salsas—in town; El Patron Bar & Grill (average entree $22; 011-52-612-125-9977; www.ladivinauva.com) is a traditional Mexican seafood restaurant with incredible coconut shrimp and a great mariachi band. Todos Santos: Cafe Santa Fe (average entree $30; 011-52-612-145-0340) is Italian, upscale, pricey and well worth it; Buena Vida (average entree $11; 011-52-612-134-3100) is a relatively new pizzeria and bar in the historic district. Cabo San Lucas: El Meson de Zapata (average entree $15; 011-52-624-144-3982) is a welcome respite from Cabo's mediocre Mexican food tourist traps and serves amazing flan.
Posted: Saturday, April 5, 2008 1:27 PM by Nick Fong


Rick said:

Do you handle rental homes on the east cape? We're looking for a beach front or ocean view that sleeps 4 comfortably from July 16 thru 26th.

# March 30, 2009 6:45 PM

Darrin and Cheri Jones said:

We just did the same road trip over the Thanksgiving week of 2009. Although we made the Hwy 1 North to the La Ribera turn, and then headed to the Sea and staying on the coastal dirt road until San Jose de Cabo. There were a couple of hours there where we saw cattle, horses but no other people. When it got to rough from washed-out gullies in the road we had to back track just a bit to go over a huge mountain. This trek should have been done in a high-clearance 4 x 4, but we beat up a car pretty good. We had reserved a Jeep Wrangler, even delayed picking it up a day to work with the agency in Cabo San Lucas, but they gave us the car and we made the most of it. There were some spots we had to park in the middle of the road and send out a scout to see if a hill could be climbed or a washout section of the road traversed.

  It reminded my wife of the time we traveled in Southern Belize off the Hummingbird Highway to find Five Blues Lake, (which isn't there anymore), but that is a whole other story. I enjoyed reading of your description of this journey that is still so fresh in my mind(just a few days ago) that I am sure some of the road dust is still in my nose or lungs.

 It makes me want to read all of you trave blogs. Thanks, DJ

# December 1, 2009 8:55 AM
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