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Our Baja road trip started in Todos Santos, a designated Pueblo Mágico on the Pacific coast of Baja California Sur. Wow, has it changed in 4 years since we were last here.
A whole raft of incredible farm-to-table restaurants have sprung up in the desert – many since COVID.
Todos Santos is bijou but perfect. It was founded as a mission in 1724. The mission is a well-loved well-preserved landmark building which sits opposite the town square. It is painted sunshine yellow and is draped with colorful flags. The town gained wealth and strategic importance over the 19th and early 20th centuries as the capital of sugarcane production for Baja. However, the fresh water wells dried up in the mid-20th century closing the mills and the town began to wither upon a dry and dusty vine until the 1980’s when a new highway brought money and farming back to the area. Now, of course, it is a very well-known small town attracting ex-pat artists and visitors to the thriving art gallery and food scene. It’s small but perfectly formed!
We stayed at Guaycura Boutique Hotel in the center of Todos Santos for the sole purpose of having easy walkable access to all of the cafes, coffee shops and restaurants but we ended up driving out for every lunch and dinner to explore the new organic out of town farm restaurants.
Other than its location there are two notable attractions to base oneself at Guaycura – the first is their rooftop pool and bar with views over the town and, even better, the second is their El Faro Beach Club and Spa located on a sweeping strip of golden beach (Playa El Faro) between Playa El Chacora and Punta Lobos a few miles outside of town. These beaches are spectacular for their dramatic headlands, pristine waters and undulating swathes of soft sand along which you can wander for hours barely seeing another person. They are not, however, beaches at which you can swim without a death wish … if you have strong legs and can run for your life from sudden massive incoming rollers they are far better suited for paddling … even so you have to have your wits about you to avoid being swept out to Hawaii. Last time we visited Todos Santos we released newly-hatched baby turtles at the turtle sanctuary on Playa la Chacora. Love it there!
El Faro Beach Club and Spa is (unfortunately) popular with instagrammers. Fortunately its popularity lasts for an average of about 5 minutes during which time they do their thing – stroll the grounds pouting and posing against the backdrop of ultramarine and turquoise waters and the golden headlands. Thereafter it was almost entirely ours to enjoy 😃 The Ceviche Todos Santos at the Beach Club and their guacamole was also surprisingly good for lunch. A superbly relaxing place.
A few more art galleries, clothing and gift stores have also sprung up in town for those times when you are in danger of frying to a crisp if you don’t tear yourself away from the coast and seek shade.
The local restaurant scene has evolved considerably in 4 years. However, in Todos Santos town our very first stop after arriving from the airport was at La Morena (a little more low-key) for the first drink of the vacation – we started as we would continue for the following 2 weeks with having the top layer of lip skin removed by one of Baja’s formidable jalapeño margaritas!
Hierbabuena is a 15 minute drive south of Todos Santos in El Pescadero. The restaurant is set in pretty landscaped gardens and is very reasonably priced, hence, popular with families. Also in El Pescadero we ate at the instagrammers paradise of Coyote in the grounds of El Perdido Hotel. The fish tacos were supremely good as well as the passionfruit (maracuya) margaritas. The kitchen itself is based in a shiny silver Airstream surrounded by tables in an exotic trendy desert oasis of flowers and cacti. The whole place oozes rustic boho-chic from the clay pots of burning rosemary perfuming the air (and more crucially deterring the voracious mosquitoes) to the weaver birdsnest-shaped bamboo light fittings. Probably the coolest café in Baja.
Upscale Todos Santos now includes farm to table restaurant Jazamango just out of town on one of the dirt roads. The restaurant is set in a beautiful garden filled with bougainvillea and pink and white desert roses. The farmland is immaculately maintained and the food was superb. The margaritas were mezcal-based so not our favorite but the food more than made up for that.
The highlight of the new culinary scene was, however, Dum, nestled in the jungle undergrowth a minute outside of the centre of town. The owners here have taken boho-chic to an entirely new level with a price to match. The tables are raised on boardwalks on the sand. Macrame light fittings hang low over the tables strung on wires between the palm trees and the ambience is enhanced by huge cream handwoven dream catchers. The bar was lit by cool blue lights and they had no trouble making a perfect margarita. The service was exemplary and the famous chef wandered over to chat through the menu with us since we don’t eat meat. It was at that stage I realized that I’d booked a 7 course tasting menu by mistake. Not our normal meal size obviously and somewhat more concerning since we’d already had a huge lunch at Coyote and had only nipped out for a small salad. No alternative but to endure it all with a stiff British upper lip … thankfully the portion sizes were not wholly overwhelming and overall the experience was phenomenal.
The best coffee shops are Taller 17, a 1 minute walk from our hotel and Doce Cuarenta Cafe (sister restaurant to the coffee shop of the same name in La Paz) at the end of a typical Baja dirt track where you can sip their excellent coffee and munch on freshly baked pastries in their shaded garden surrounded by flowering shrubs and palms. Fabulous ambience.
The best beaches in the area are El Faro and Playa la Chacora. At the southern end of Playa El Faro is Punta Lobos where the local fishermen launch their small fishing boats. It’s a treacherous headland. Very beautiful but it must be a hairy ride launching there. We stopped for a walk a few miles south at the famous surfing beach of Playa Cerritos in El Pescadero which was huge. The prettiest part is the sheltered northern end by the iconic La Mision Restaurant at Hacienda Cerritos.
After 3 nights we had to move on north up the Baja peninsula to another Pueblo Mágico, Loreto. It was founded in 1697 by Spanish priest Juan María de Salvatierra and it became the first permanent settlement in the Californias. The spectacular Mission of Our Lady of Loreto Concho which dominates the landscape of the town was completed in 1703. Loreto was the original state capital until 1777 when the capital moved up north to Monterrey in Alta California (as opposed to Baja) California.
Returning to modern day Loreto – it is a long 5 ½ hour drive through pretty much nothing but desert from Todos Santos. You traverse a winding mountain pass with bone-dry arroyos (are the river beds anything but bone-dry in Baja?!), flowering yellow cacti and giant cardon cacti – their limbs stretching majestically towards the endless blue sky. They are the largest cacti in the world and grow wild in swathes as far as the eye can see in this region.
After the mountain pass there is little else but more dry desert and yet more cacti and the occasional dusty desert town. You finally reach unexpected civilization in the middle of nowhere in Ciudad Constitucion. Only another 2 hours of dusty desert and dry river beds to go! As you start to approach the eastern coast you begin to see glimpses of the Sea of Cortez through the valleys of a large mountain range ahead. This is Sierra de la Giganta. The scenery is once again spectacular with the Cerro de la Giganta (the highest point in Baja at 3858 feet) dominating the landscape as you drop down towards the glistening ultramarine waters of the Gulf of California, also known as the Sea of Cortez.
Loreto is a surprisingly peaceful town for Mexico. None of the usual booming music from locals driving through the streets, barely a rooster crowing within hearing distance and no fireworks or miscellaneous gun fire celebrating a local event … most unusual! Instead, the town is so tranquil that between the laid-back ambience and the jalapeño margaritas it was hard not to be horizontally chilled-out for our 4 days there. We stayed at the historic hotel La Mission Hotel and Spa on the waterfront, a 3 minute stroll to the historic town centre. To be fair almost everything within the town is a 3 to 6 minute stroll. The Plaza Loreto boasts a few cafes and restaurants with a central bandstand. Our favorite restaurant in the plaza was Mita Gourmet with a lovely view over the plaza. The sautéed vegetables and fish with thinly sliced red ajillo chilis (avoid the diablo chili sauce!) was excellent. The chef’s lunchtime fried fish tacos were just as good. We also ate at local institution called Orlando’s which was festooned with colorful flags and brightly-painted wood furniture. Geoff ordered a jalapeño margarita despite the efforts of the waiter to deter him … apparently it was very spicy and not for the average gringo … so it would seem! Geoff all but choked to death so he passed it over to me. It was absolutely divine! He’s such a lightweight 😂
The best coffee shops in Loreto are La Hermosa Cafe on the waterfront with a cool outdoor seating area opposite the town beach and La Route (coffee, cakes and bikes!) in the Plaza. Geoff had a traditional Mexican breakfast at Claudia’s which was good. We tried to sample the apparently unparalleled fish tacos at hole-in-the-wall El Rey de Tacos. We trudged up there in the searing midday heat just to find (as you often do in Mexico) that the owner couldn’t be bothered to open for the day 😉
The main reason we had driven 5 ½ hours north into the relative boonies was to visit Isla Coronado in the National Marine Park in the Sea of Cortez. We booked with Sea and Land Tours in town and met up at 9am under the blue whale sculpture on the harbor front. All boat trips start under the blue whale backing onto the marina!
The water was so calm it was almost glassy. As our panga approached Coronado Island it was as if we were looking down into a crystal clear swimming pool with infinite depth. The waters are absolutely pristine here. In the distance we saw a humpback whale breaching the surface but it was moving too fast for us to get closer to. We made our way past the rocky headlands towards the nesting area of blue-footed boobies until we reached a small cove. Even before we turned into the cove the waft of sea lion poop filled our nostrils so we knew we would soon be snorkeling with these incredibly friendly, inquisitive creatures. We’ve swum with sea lions before in the Sea of Cortez but it never gets old to be up close and personal with sea creatures in their natural environment – stinky or not!
The water was warm enough even for Geoff not to complain too vociferously which was an added bonus!
Next stop – the beaches of Coronado Island. The first was a small cove where the skipper and his mate set up shade on the beach and laid out bean burritos with avocado and tomato followed by melon. There were only a few other pangas moored up so plenty of space to swim in the shallow teal waters against a backdrop of red rocks, black volcanic lava rocks, cacti and low-growing scrub greenery. Absolutely beautiful. After lunch we continued on towards Playa Blanca, the most famous beach on the island. Just as spectacular but slightly busier. The final stop took us slowly through a shallow bay where rays were resting on the seabed below us.
It was a fabulous day.
Not such a fabulous day the day following, however. During my extensive pre-vacation research I found countless references to the (allegedly) pristine, blindingly white, soft sand beaches of Bahía Concepción a couple of hours north of Loreto. Obviously we couldn’t miss the opportunity of visiting some of Mexico’s finest beaches when we were so close so we set off bright and early through the mountains and the endless cacti fields until we popped out at the southern end of the Bahía Concepción. First stop Playa El Requeson famous for a tidal sand spit. We drove the dusty pitted dirt track to the beach. It was much less glorious white sand and more grey, dusty shale. This became the defining feature of every beach we stopped at in the Bahía Concepción – each time hoping against hope to find the promised pristine wilderness with soft white sand. To be fair it is a pristine wilderness but it most definitely is not defined by soft white sand. Each stop until our final stop in the town of Mulege was more disappointing. Mulege, at the northern end of the bay, is a very pleasant town on the river but the coastal beaches are certainly nowhere near as lovely as rumor has it.
Lesson learned – the average 20-something blogger living out of the back of a camper van on 200 pesos per day has clearly not seen a real sugar-soft white sand beach. Unless you want to hang out with hippies in tents and camper vans on sand as attractive as a concrete garage forecourt you probably don’t need to waste your time searching for a white sand paradise which doesn’t exist. Having said that if the unspoiled wilderness, peace and tranquility and kayaking on a sea as calm as a lake is your thing then this might very well be the place for you. You might also consider bringing your own lunch since we didn’t find anywhere to eat between Loreto and Mulege! A 5 hour round trip and we were back in Loreto starving, spitting feathers, almost out of gas and in search of a late lunch …
One distinct advantage of booking an oceanfront room at La Mission Hotel and Spa is the utterly peaceful view which we enjoyed from our balcony every morning. Each day we watched sunrise over Isla Carmen which dominates the horizon straight across the sea from the town. Isla Coronado is further left but we could still it from our room. The early morning waters were so glassy that we could see the reflections of pelicans gliding mere inches above the surface and seabirds swooping around the fishing boats out on the sea. Hard not to decompress here, especially when Spa Las Flores is a mere 3 minute stroll from the hotel for those times when you need a Mexican masseuse to dig her elbows into your rhomboids.
But time to move on and head back south again to La Paz. So we retraced our steps through the same dusty towns, past the same fields of giant cacti, over dry riverbeds and through the same mountain passes until we reached the city of La Paz 4 ½ hours later. Last time we visited we snorkeled with whale sharks in the Sea of Cortez which was, in every real sense of the word, awesome. This time we were booked to visit the island of Espiritu Santo with the same company which had taken us out on the whale shark adventure, La Paz VIP Tours. We checked into a small modern hotel called Casa al Mar on the malecón which was perfectly adequate for 2 nights but lacked the amenities for a longer stay.
No matter – we would be out all day on the boat and then the following morning we would retrace steps to the fabulously pristine beach of Balandra a few miles north of town before heading south to San Jose del Cabo. The plans, however, started to go awry before we had actually left Loreto when we received a text from the proprietor of La Paz VIP Tours asking us to move our tour to the following day as no one else had booked the same day and she was concerned that the sea would be choppy particularly in her smaller panga boats. A change of day was impossible since we’d be moving down to San Jose del Cabo and only had one full day available for a boat trip. There followed a barrage of texts and emails the upshot of which our longstanding reservation was unilaterally canceled and we found ourselves high and dry with no boat trip at all. Unimpressed but undeterred we took a risk and walked into the nearest agency on the waterfront in La Paz and booked a day out on the island with Club Hotel Cantamar. I never make unconsidered vacation decisions – all of my research is meticulous – so we had no idea what to expect – but as the sea was, in fact, starting to kick up a little – and they had a large dive boat going out – it seemed like a reasonable option.
We turned up at the office at 8am the following morning. Of course, there was no mention of the slow 30 minute crawl through town stopping at various hotels to collect other tourists – or the equally long tedious 30 minute drag out of town in the cramped minibus along the winding mountainous coastal road to Club Cantamar in Pichilingue miles outside of town. Upon arrival at the marina based at the Club, chaos reigned. We were the only english-speaking tourists out of 20 or so and we fumbled along with my bad Spanish blindly following the crowd until we boarded an ancient, rusty diving vessel which barely looked like it would make the journey out of the harbor. We found a place in the shade on the hard metal benches (every expense had been spared on the luxury facilities – including running water in the toilet), sea water sloshing around our flip-flops and set off out of the harbor hoping the day wouldn’t be a total disaster!
It wasn’t … but it very nearly was … The 16 mile ride across the Gulf of California through the waves towards Isla Espiritu Santo was beautiful. The rocky island was formed by volcanic activity and major earthquakes and the ridges and valleys clearly show the dramatic formation of this rugged island.
At the northern tip of the island we stopped to snorkel with sea lions at Los Islotes. There were small pangas being tossed about in the waves like corks and snorkelers bobbing about in the waters trying to avoid being dashed upon the guano-covered rocks. We were thankful (finally) that we had traveled in the relative safety of a much larger vessel as it was far easier getting in and out of the boat into the churning waters around the island than it would have been getting in and out of the pangas. The water was lovely and warm, and apart from having to follow the herd (which we avoided as far as possible) we set off in search of sea lions but found something so much more spectacular – more fish than we’ve seen in years – Cortez rainbow wrasse, razor surgeonfish, king angel fish, moorish idols and butterfly fish. Best of all we swam the length of the islands through a huge swirling, circling murmuration of silver sardines literally in their billions – another one of my bucket list experiences ticked off! It was a shame Geoff forgot to pack the underwater camera housing (prize idiot 😉) …
Back on the boat and the itinerary was to take us to one of the spectacular white sand beaches of Isla Espiritu Santo for lunch. It didn’t take my eagle-eye long to spot that we were traveling at great speed past the various inlets, coves and beaches and past great swathes of white sand lapped by teal waters. Lunch was hurriedly plated up on a table in the centre of the boat and we all struggled to stand upright as the vessel pounded through the waves at speed. The ceviche went flying in all directions along with the guests. Somewhat perplexed I heard rumors that 2 of the people on board were running late to catch their flight in La Paz. Seriously? What kind of utter dimwit books a day trip on a boat to an obscure island miles from the mainland when they have to catch a flight home on the same afternoon? Once I’d worked out what was going on I honed my Spanish linguistic skills quite significantly and went off to express my concern to the staff who attempted to convince me that the dive boat was too big to get into the shallow waters of the bays on the island and that we would be heading back to the mainland to swim at Pichilinque – right by the marina we had started at hours earlier. Not to be fobbed off I continued to complain vociferously that we had not paid vast amounts of money to be dragged to a sea lion colony and then speed past the island which was the very purpose of the trip to return to a dusty beach next to the marina. Unbelievable! I didn’t let up with my carefully composed complaints.
We were almost at the southern end of the island and I was starting to see red when a small panga owned by the same company roared up alongside us and threw a rope over to the dive boat. The two afore-mentioned idiot passengers disembarked and the panga roared off again towards the mainland. As if by some miracle, the captain suddenly decided that the dive boat wasn’t too big to take into the bay to moor up at the beach at all … what a surprise!
He must have known that if we didn’t get to set foot on the damn island we’d be hotfooting it straight back to the office on the malecon and demanding a refund. The beach was very pretty – I’m sure the northern beaches would have been even more spectacular but we did at least get to sink our toes in the sand. Can’t say I’d exactly recommend the Club Cantamar tour but it did at least get us there when La Paz VIP let us down at the last minute … so it wasn’t all bad!
The following morning I had hoped to revisit Playa Balandra before driving south. It was not to be! A yacht had caught fire in August and sunk leaving a trail of debris and an oil slick which had all but destroyed this beach, one of Mexico’s most celebrated beaches. The beach planned to reopen shortly after our visit.
We revisited a couple of old culinary haunts from our last trip – Nim which has a lovely courtyard for dinner; trendy Cuarenta Doce Cafe coffee shop (sister to the new coffee shop in Todos Santos) which we visited twice for breakfast; and old favorite McFisher which is very popular with locals and has excellent diablo shrimp and fish tacos served with various condiments in colorful plastic boxes – all very authentically low-key!
New finds included CasaMarte Oyster Bar and Grill on the malecon which looked promisingly trendy and appealing from the sidewalk and was buzzing with people. We only wanted a beer and cocktails before heading out to dinner later but right from the start the servers were completely confused by their own menu. The first server told us one of the alcohol-free “mocktails” was off due to lack of ingredients … so I opted for the second option of the 3 available. A second server wandered over to tell me that one was off too so I ordered the third and final option. Geoff had had his beer for sometime and I was spitting feathers. We were seated close to the bar so I kept an eye on progress in the hope my drink would arrive before I passed out from dehydration. Some considerable time passed and then I spotted one of the bar staff constructing something very exotic which seemed to have all the ingredients of the one I had originally asked for … interesting … Once it had been created it sat on the bar unloved and attended. Sometime later the second option arrived (the one I was told I couldn’t have either) delivered by the first server. Not 2 minutes later the second server delivered the first drink I had attempted to order – the one the first server had told me was unavailable – in fact the drink sitting unloved on the bar. The second server wandered over and shouted at the first server that that wasn’t correct and the drink went back to the bar where it continued to melt. Three servers and the front of house girl almost came to blows over where this drink was supposed to go, voices were elevated and they kept looking over at me. We watched on with amusement. Honestly, they need to get their act in order before they go out of business through utter incompetence … again we’d struggle to recommend it although the mocktail was very good – as I’m sure the original one would have been!
We had a somewhat better experience at La Peregrina where we sat in their beautiful courtyard garden and were plied with excellent drinks and food. We would highly recommend it. It surpassed in all of the areas in which CasaMarte dismally failed.
The final part of our 4 destination trip was back in the tourist corridor between San Lucas and San Jose at La Pacifica Hilton Club 20 minutes or so outside of San Jose del Cabo (the posh end of the two Los Cabos!). Here we had no plans to do anything whatsoever other than recline in the shade overlooking the glistening ultramarine waters of the southernmost point of the Gulf of California. 30 minutes west in the somewhat grottier (and very much lower end) town of San Lucas the Sea of Cortez/Gulf of California meets with the Pacific.
La Pacifica boasts a rare commodity for the shores of Baja California Sur – a sandy beach at which you can swim without taking your life too much in your hands. There are still some gigantic rollers which would happily sweep you out to sea but you can at least get a fair shot at running uphill to safer ground if you keep your wits about you. Whatever the advertising says, Baja does not have soft, white sandy beaches (unless they’re miles offshore on an obscure island). For many hotels it doesn’t even have very walkable sand – much of it is a cross between builders-grade gravel and grit. The water is, however, spectacularly clear and fabulously blue. If you find a sandy beach which doesn’t remove the outer layer of skin from your feet then you’re lucky. The renowned small beach Playa Santa Maria is gravel right up until the waters edge where it then becomes beautiful golden sand. It is wedged between 2 gorgeous golden-hued headlands – both of which are now construction sites for hotels – it is about to change immeasurably from our first visit 4 years ago.
Hence, we were very lucky to be staying in a beautiful oceanfront room at La Pacifica (not only because the hotel is lovely with seemingly endless numbers of infinity pools and jacuzzis dotted about the property facing the ocean from which you can gaze out to sea sipping a cocktail) but mainly because they had the one stretch of real golden sand along the coast which wouldn’t shave a half inch of flesh from the soles of your feet. The water was warm, mainly calm due to the breakwater, and impossibly clear.
It was the perfect place to decompress for 6 nights doing absolutely nothing other than stare out to sea, read a book and sip drinks. We watched sunrise from bed every morning and took early morning strolls along the beach before cooling off in the pool. We took sunset strolls before dinner … all was delightfully civilized.
Still, it wouldn’t be a proper trip to Baja if we didn’t make a visit or 2 to farm-to-table restaurant Flora’s Kitchen at Flora Farms in Las Animas in the (astonishingly) dusty hills outside of San Jose. The food is still exemplary as is the service in this supremely popular restaurant and the homemade wild hibiscus margaritas were only topped by their jalapeño margaritas. Dessert would probably have been equally excellent but I remembered the chocolate ice-cream from their ice-cream cart in the garden and it would have been sacrilege not to have sat in the flower-filled garden watching the bees and butterflies without one.
We managed to squeeze in an hour meandering through the streets of the somewhat pristine San Jose del Cabo but we were more inclined to head back to our sun loungers than wander through the tourist shops and art galleries again … just feeling too lazy …
Not too lazy to venture out for lunch at Acre though! This is another farm-to-table restaurant very close to Flora in Las Animas. We wished we’d had time to eat there for dinner too because it is undoubtedly our new favorite San Jose restaurant. Fine dining in the desert with the typically trendy rustic-chic decor we love in “posh” Mexico. If mangoes are in season you have to try the shrimp and mango ceviche – the mangoes were just picked from their grove and the ceviche was decorated with pansies just picked from their flower garden. This was followed by the lime and basil sorbet with lime “caviar” from tiny finger limes drizzled in fresh basil oil. Everything is organically grown and the farm is extensive and immaculate. We wandered through the grounds after lunch through an oasis of flowers, fruit and vegetables and even got to pet a goat in their animal rescue area. Fab place!
More local to the hotel we strolled down the beach one evening to dine at the somewhat pretentious Sea Grill at Las Ventanas (a Rosewood Hotel) next door to La Pacifica. I have absolutely no idea what we ate (which isn’t a good sign) but we do remember the supremely eye-watering prices which bore no relation to either the quality of the food or the dishes on offer compared to any of the farm-to-table places. The ambience was lovely and we watched sunset over their very posh pools but we wouldn’t necessarily rush back.
We also ate in the various on-site restaurants at La Pacifica which were typical hotel restaurants ranging from very average to surprisingly good – the swim-up pool bars being at the lower end of quality and the top end being Vela which was Italian. Nothing, of course, ever compares with the dusty oases in Las Animas.
On a far more pedestrian but practical matter we had run out of clean clothes after 8 days on the road so when we arrived in San Jose we entrusted our worldly collection of grubby travel gear to Lavanderia Patty’s Dreams laundry somewhere in the back streets of San Jose. If you need a laundry she was great – everything was washed and ironed for first thing the following day -nothing had been lost and, even better, nothing had been died unexpectedly pink!
Another trip to our beloved Mexico over! The bank account was broken by the restaurants in SJDC and we’d both gained 6 pounds courtesy of 2 weeks of margaritas and fabulous food but it was worth every subsequent hour in the gym for the next 6 months 😃
Categories: Bahia Concepcion, Baja California Sur, Cabo San Lucas, Ciudad Constitucion, El Pescadero, Isla Coronado, Isla Espiritu Santo, La Paz, Loreto, Mexico, Mulege, Punta Lobos, San Jose del Cabo, Sea of Cortez, Sierra de la Giganta, Snorkelling, Swimming with Sea Lions, Todos Santos, Travel, Whale-watching