The margarita-fueled party scene in Cabo San Lucas may claim the limelight, but the Mexican state of Baja California Sur has a wealth of natural and cultural treasures. On the southern half of the Baja California Peninsula, discover an often-wild desert landscape juxtaposed against brilliant blue waters teeming with life. Along the east coast, the Sea of Cortez—dubbed “the world’s aquarium” by Jacques Cousteau—presents underwater adventures from snorkeling with the ocean’s largest fish to diving along a rejuvenated reef, a remarkable environmental success story. When you come up for air, take in sublime sunsets, taste traditional flavors at a taqueria, and track down secluded hot springs. The road less traveled awaits.
Stop 1: Start with art
Less than 10 miles from Los Cabos International Airport, San José del Cabo lies at the south end of Baja California Sur near the confluence of the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Cortez. The quieter, not-so-crazy sister city to Cabo San Lucas, San José del Cabo is known for Spanish colonial architecture, the massive circa-1730 mission cathedral, and the gallery-filled Art District. The city’s convivial Art Walk is held every Thursday evening from November through June, when the weather is practically perfect every day.
Stop 2: Birds of a feather
Just to the south, find the San José del Cabo Estuary wildlife preserve. This peaceful place where the Río San José meets the ocean draws some 200 species of resident and migratory birds including wood storks, pelicans, egrets, herons, ibises, and hawks. Grab your camera or your binoculars, and rent a kayak for a paddle around the coastal lagoon. Or hoof it along the well-marked hiking path. (Discover what Baja California is doing to save its fishing communities.)
Stop 3: Living large
A short drive southwest reveals one of the latest luxury resorts to spring up along the lively oceanfront corridor that stretches from San José del Cabo to Cabo San Lucas. At the Montage Los Cabos resort, edging Santa María Bay, head to the spa—40,000 square feet of bliss—for treatments such as the Baja Desert Cocoon, which harnesses the healthful properties of sage and agave. Then indulge in new takes on traditional fare at Mezcal restaurant before settling into an ocean-view suite.
Stop 4: Beyond the bash
Yes, Cabo San Lucas has a well-deserved reputation as a raucous party town. But it’s easy to ditch the drinking games for outdoor pursuits like parasailing, surfing, and (in winter) whale-watching. Whatever the time of year, don’t miss the striking El Arco rock formation at the tip of the peninsula, appropriately named Land’s End. Now you’ve earned that margarita at rocker Sammy Hagar’s Cabo Wabo Cantina.
Stop 5: Surf’s up
As you motor north along the Pacific Coast, the setting morphs from bustling to bucolic, giving a sense of local life in Baja California Sur. In El Pescadero, the annual Chili and Strawberry Festival, held in March, celebrates the crops grown here. Surfing is popular, with great breaks at Los Cerritos and San Pedrito. Bring a board to hang ten all day, or take a lesson at the Pescadero Surf Camp (boards provided), which offers overnight accommodations ranging from campsites to casitas.
Stop 6: Charmed, I’m sure
Farther up the western coast lies Todos Santos, designated by the Mexican government as one of the country’s Pueblos Mágicos, or magic towns, for its distinctive culture, history, and beauty. Check in to the 11-room Hotel California, not the inspiration for the famous Eagles tune but still a storied destination. Opened in 1950 by a Chinese immigrant who changed his name to Don Antonio Tabasco, the hotel was the first place in town to have ice, and thus cold beer, making it a local hot spot. Explore the galleries and shops of Todos Santos, and end your day at the beach, where sunset brings brilliant hues and, if you’re lucky, dolphin sightings.
Stop 7: Capital romps
Cross the peninsula to laid-back La Paz, the state capital and the gateway to the Sea of Cortez, with its seemingly endless water-focused adventures. Stay for a few days at Costa Baja Resort and Spa, and ask the concierge to arrange a snorkel with whale sharks, gentle giants that can reach 32 feet or more in length. Other options? Scuba diving with hammerhead sharks, moray eels, and sea lions at Isla Espíritu Santo or stand-up paddle boarding at secluded beaches such as Balandra. In town take a stroll along the famed, and newly renovated, Malecón promenade before tucking into tacos at El Sabroso.
Stop 8: Reel it in
Head south to the remote Hotel Punta Pescadero Paradise, overlooking the sea. At this resort, famed for its quiet allure and world-class sportfishing, expect to bag marlin, sailfish, or dorado—with the help of experienced guides—and then dine on your catch that evening.
Stop 9: Breeze please
Windsurfing and kitesurfing rule the waters 10 miles down the east coast at Los Barriles. Gear up at Vela Baja Adventure Sports, ExotiKite Kiteboarding, or Kiteboarding Baja School, which gives helpful tips on how to skim over the waves like a pro.
Stop 10: Finding the source
In the hills surrounding Santiago, embark on a treasure hunt along dirt roads to discover hidden hot springs. The El Chorro springs are easiest to reach, while the Santa Rita prove more challenging. Look for Cañón La Zorra (Fox Canyon) waterfall. Locals can help point the way.
Stop 11: The life aquatic
The big attraction near the tiny town of Cabo Pulmo is the Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park. Established in 1995, the 17,570-acre protected zone—part of a UNESCO World Heritage site—has revitalized sea life along a coral reef thought to be 20,000 years old. Suit up and dive down to meet groupers, turtles, eels, snappers, and sharks. (Where to get up close with wildlife in Magdalena Bay.)
This story was published in the February/March 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine.