6 mins

Wilderness through a windscreen: Road tripping through Baja California Sur, Mexico

Boats aren't the only way to enjoy the wildlife and landscapes of Mexico's Baja California Sur. Grab a car and follow Route One for a fast track to whales, cave paintings and friendly locals...

Route One in Baja California Sur, Mexico (Shutterstock)

They circled me menacingly. I couldn’t move a muscle without being eyed with a type of intensity that made me nervous – as though at any minute they might attack and take everything I had.

“Pirates,” said my kayak guide, sensing the uneasy atmosphere and attempting to defuse it. “That’s what we call the frigate birds – they steal food from other birds – and I dare say from us too, given half a chance.”

When I’d told people I was going to drive Mexico alone, people were quick to point out that pirates – or rather bandits – would surely be lying in wait for me.

With President Trump and his followers shouting about the need to build a wall to separate this country from the USA in a more (pardon the pun) concrete way, it seemed everyone had an opinion on the dangers that awaited me if I ventured south of the border.

Sea birds strike in Baja California Sur (Phoebe Smith)

Sea birds strike in Baja California Sur (Phoebe Smith)

Yet here I was on day 11 of 14 and the most menacing behaviour I’d experienced had been from some particularly inauspicious sea birds. This was La Paz, the compact capital of Baja California Sur, the peninsula famed for its real ales, laid back vibes and abundance of easy to reach wildlife.

I had wanted to visit for years, wistfully eyeing up adverts for the expensive boats that sail down the Gulf of Mexico and navigate the Sea of Cortez, but I couldn’t help but feel that if I restricted myself to a vessel, I would somehow be missing out on actually seeing well… Baja.

Looking at land from sea is never the same as actually being on land, finding family-run bars, meeting people serendipitously and tapping into local knowledge.

Taking the wheel

Baja California Sur (Shutterstock)

Baja California Sur (Shutterstock)

And so it was that I found myself behind the wheel of a small Chevy, at dusk, heading quickly past the very Americanised all-inclusive resorts of Los Cabos at the southern tip of the peninsula, bound an hour north up the coast for the much more agreeable cobblestoned streets of the village of Todos Santos.

The first thing I learned about driving in Mexico was that, other than occasional optional toll roads, the highways are usually single lane, which means keeping your wits about you – especially when it’s getting dark.

The second was that if a truck in front of you starts to indicate, it’s not pulling out but rather telling you that it’s safe to overtake.

And the third was that animals in Baja have a death wish. They see your headlights and seem to unanimously decide that this is the perfect opportunity to play a game of chicken with you.

So, slightly frazzled from a couple of hours of cow dodging, I arrived at my first stop, relieved to be able to grab a beer and toast my arrival while colourful flags flapped in the breeze outside in the town’s plaza.

I woke early to explore on foot, wandering into several of the small shops selling handicrafts, before finding the town’s statue of a grey whale – which shifted my focus.

If there is a species that defines the Baja peninsula it’s this friendly marine mammal – famous for approaching the local pangas (fishing boats) and virtually jostling to be scratched, tickled and even kissed by visitors. As star attractions go, they are the unequivocal celebrities.

The perfect storm

A grey whale up close and personal (Dreamstime)

A grey whale up close and personal (Dreamstime)

Eager to meet one, I jumped in my car bound north for Magdalena Bay, a known hot spot. As soon as I stepped out the car, I knew something was wrong. The wind, which had seemed a touch breezy when I left was now so strong, I struggled to open my door.

“Ballena gris?” I enquired in the first store. “Not today Seňorita – look at the weather,” she said bemusedly. I tried several shops and got so desperate I even tried to negotiate with a man towing a panga behind his vehicle to see if I could persuade him to take me out.

Finally I found the one captain in town willing to take me out on the water – Jorge. We battled swells for three hours, and despite the conditions – meaning the whales didn’t come too close – we saw at least 10 spy hopping, fluking and blowing amid the waves. I returned with windburn and a sense that I’d made it through a strange kind of initiation.

“Estás loca,” said the ladies in the café as I arrived back in, a huge grin plastered on my face.

A grey whale in the Baja peninsula (Shutterstock)

A grey whale in the Baja peninsula (Shutterstock)

If you want the friendly grey whales to approach your panga, you can’t practise typical British reserve!

Singing, cheering, clapping and splashing all encourages them to come over to say hello...

Into the blue

Brown pelican on the Baja shore (Shutterstock)

Brown pelican on the Baja shore (Shutterstock)

With the intensifying storm to avoid, thanks to the freedom a car offers I decided to temporarily abandon this side of the peninsula and instead pick up the Mexico Rota One (Route One) that heads east towards the Sea of Cortez and the town of Loreto.

 The pretty Mission and endless rows of taquerias were perfect for a lazy meander. I stopped frequently, gorging myself on food and landscapes, both as mouth-watering as each other, until I reached the ocean once more in time for sunset.

“I can’t promise we’ll see a blue whale, as they have not been as predictable this season,” said my skipper Pato the following morning as I clambered aboard his small boat.

It was nice to let someone else worry about the navigating as we skimmed over the wonderfully flat water only to be greeted almost immediately by a fluking humpback.

Pelicans kept crashing onto the water (on purpose I might add, it’s their unique fishing style in this part of the world) causing an almighty splash as we continued around to the bay where the blue whale – the world’s largest mammal – was last spotted.

On our way we saw a mass gathering of birds and dolphins – an impromptu feeding frenzy.

Pato took us in, and within seconds we were surrounded by the cries of the sea birds and the splashing of common dolphins in a natural cacophony of noise so overwhelming that one of my boat mates began to cry with joy before apologising and reassuring me it was because she was so happy to see it.

Whale watching in Baja California Sur (Phoebe Smith)

Whale watching in Baja California Sur (Phoebe Smith)

Minutes later, the noise subsided and Pato cut the engine, plunging us into silence. We waited. Ten minutes passed before we heard the unmistakable ‘phfrupph’ of a blow.

It was quickly followed by another, then another, and – before long – a pod of four fin whales surrounded our little boat, spraying our delighted faces with their expelled water.

Just when it didn’t seem like it could get any better, two blue whales fluked right in front of us.

“I can’t believe how BIG it is,” said one passenger. “The size of a plane,” said Pato as he showed us an illustration of the gargantuan creature that was just metres from our boat.

Over the course of that afternoon we saw another 10 blue whales, seven more fins and a handful of humpbacks. We picnicked on an island beach, floated to a small atoll to watch some blue-footed boobies (native birds) and, finally, were escorted back to the harbour amid a pod of dolphins – I felt like I’d opened a door into a watery Narnia.


Baja California Sur (Dreamstime)

Baja California Sur (Dreamstime)

But if I thought that was special, I was about to have my whole world blown wide apart. I began early again and headed further north up Route 1, passing through and stopping to explore the winding streets and panoramic views in several of the villages.

I went for a dip in the water at El Requesón bay, walked amid the Caribbean-style houses in the oasis town of Mulegé before being plunged into the scorching desert land of Vizcaíno Reserve where the road concertinaed like those found in Switzerland.

When I reached the town of San Ignacio it was like coming face-to-face with a mirage, a sudden lush cluster of palm trees and date groves amid the sprawling desert.

I spent the evening drinking wine and eating tapas, listening to the kind locals who tried to talk with me – despite my dire Spanish – while sat in the shadow of the Jesuit Mission, which, as the sun faded, gradually disappeared into the inky night.

Mexican oasis

Baja California Sur from above (Shutterstock)

Baja California Sur from above (Shutterstock)

“She’s just a small-town girl, living in a lonely world…” sang the entire boat – a crowd of eight Americans – the following morning, who I’d convinced to sing Journey’s Don’t Stop Believing as we bobbed along San Ignacio Lagoon, hoping to entice the friendly grey whales to our boat.

 “I think you’re having us on,” said one of them. “Keep splashing the water,” I urged, ignoring his complaint, “they’ll be here soon,” I insisted, although I’d started to doubt myself.

“He’s just a city boy…” they continued, and that – it seems – was all we needed. A barnacle encrusted head of a grey calf suddenly emerged from the water thrusting itself onto the side of our boat, while its huge mother seemed to be nuzzling our v-shaped hull underneath, seemingly scratching an itch.

Seals in Baja California Sur (Phoebe Smith)

Seals in Baja California Sur (Phoebe Smith)

This was just the beginning of a great many encounters. From spy hopping solos, to playful newborns and wizen mothers obviously looking for someone else to temporarily entertain their charge.

We stroked, tickled and kissed these gentle giants for the best part of a day – we hugged, cheered and smiled so much my face ached. I even chose to skip lunch to squeeze in another ride.

 As I left camp to head back to town at dusk, congratulating myself on such a successful set of encounters, an osprey landed on the signpost right in front of me and proceeded to tear apart a fish it had clenched in its talons.

I wondered for a second if I’d wake up the next day and this had all been a wonderful dream.

Cave art

San Borjita Cave, Baja California Sur, Mexico (Shutterstock)

San Borjita Cave, Baja California Sur, Mexico (Shutterstock)

A cooler front saw in the morning, bringing me back down to earth and forcing me inland to what would be the most northerly point of my trip.

I was bound for Cueva del Ratón, an overhanging cave that’s home to paintings created by the Cochimí people who lived here thousands of years before the Spanish even arrived.

Travelling to it was like heading into the belly of the peninsula. The tarmac climbed high at first, with my only companions being a herd of marauding goats blocking the way.

Prehistoric drawings in a cave, found in Baja California, Mexico (Shutterstock)

Prehistoric drawings in a cave, found in Baja California, Mexico (Shutterstock)

Then the paved road ended and deposited me onto a potholed path where the canyon dropped away to one side. It was hard to know whether to be scared or impressed by my surrounds – perhaps a bit of both.

You have to take a local guide, assigned to you on the day, to visit the artwork, and mine – through English that was almost as bad as my Spanish – told me how the 6,000-year-old paintings were thought to have originally depicted a large rat when a French explorer first happened upon them.

This explains the El Ratón moniker, though anthropologists have since realised it is actually a puma. Among the black and ochre drawings were also shapes of humans, deer and – it’s said on those found deeper in the canyon – whales, showing just how long they’ve been coming to this yawning peninsula.

End of the road

The seals of Baja (Shutterstock)

The seals of Baja (Shutterstock)

The final stop on my Route One road trip was the city of La Paz, the jumping off point for many a water excursion.

I decided to hire a kayak and head to the golden sand of Balandra Bay where my guide and I paddled through the mangroves that protect the land from eroding, watched the frigatebirds circle suspiciously overhead like pirates and ate fresh fruit on a beach only reached by those travelling by boat.

That night I ate tacos on the roof garden of a waterside café while watching the sun set. During mouthfuls, I chatted to locals who told me about a Mezcaleria bar where I should try the favoured Mexican tipple (I did – it was potent), and I genuinely didn’t want the trip to end.

The last two days contained a heady mix of swimming with whale sharks and interacting with some rather cheeky seals at the resident colony at Espirítu Santo Island.

The former required the ability to swim fast while fighting the urge to stop to scream, ‘Look what I’m doing,’ at anyone within earshot. The latter involved keeping a close eye on your fins and GoPro as mischievous pups liked to grab them.

On the way back to land, one final bit of Baja ocean magic took place. As the sky turned pink, an entire fleet of mobula rays began to surround the boat turning the water from blue to near black.

Occasionally they leapt from the water catching at least a whole metre of air, before belly flopping back into it. “We don’t know whether they do it for mating or to remove parasites,” explained on-board naturalist Hector. “Or it could just be for fun.”

Mpbule rays jumping in the waters of Baja California Sur (Shutterstock)

Mpbule rays jumping in the waters of Baja California Sur (Shutterstock)

As I watched these winged fish flying through the air, I had that familiar feeling that I’d got watching the frigate birds, but this time, it wasn’t the birds doing the stealing; it was me.

 I’d made away with something far more valuable. Although I’d been warned against driving, having experienced the peninsula, it’s people and wildlife in this way, I’d uncovered my own hidden treasure.

The trip

The author undertook a self-drive of southern Baja with Journey Latin America (0203 553 9647) who offer a similar 12-day self-drive trip visiting the towns of Todos Santos, La Paz, Loreto and San Ignacio.

Prices from £2,465pp including flights, car hire, car insurance, good quality mid-range hotels, excursions and some meals.

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