Sea-to-Sierra Trips in Baja California Sur: A Guide to Surfing and Canyon Trekking Cortez

Trips in Baja California Sur contain charming hospitality, ample adventuring, and mind-blowing scenery. This guide has it all, from where to surf and hike to the best places to chill. Adiós, amigos!

Traveling to Mexico has always been a myopic mission for me: I go to surf. That’s it. Sure, there are wild landscapes, vibrant culture, and tantalizing tacos, but my principal intention has been to score waves. The rest is just a bonus.

Trips in Baja California Sur, Todos Santos
The author near a beach in Todos Santos in his “surf mobile”; (photo/Katie Botwin)

On a recent trip to Baja California Sur, however, my partner and I switched it up. First, we explored the Sierra de San Francisco — a raw, rugged desert range in inland Baja — on a donkey-assisted trek to visit some of the world’s best-preserved cave paintings.

Afterward, we visited the peninsula’s picturesque Pacific and Sea of Cortez coastlines for surf, seafood, and much-needed siestas.

Trips in Baja California Sur
(Photo/Katie Botwin)

We pieced together a 12-day itinerary that made for a one-of-a-kind trip. If you’re looking for an off-the-beaten-path adventure in Baja that incorporates both grit and luxury, you’re in the right place.

Recommended Itinerary:

  • Day 1: Loreto
  • Day 2: Santa Rosalía or Mulegé
  • Days 3-5: Sierra de San Francisco
  • Day 6: Loreto
  • Day 7: La Paz
  • Days 8-12: Todos Santos

Baja California Sur: Travel Logistics

Trips in Baja California Sur
(Photo/Kate Botwin)

Loreto, Pueblo Mágico

Alaska Airlines offers direct flights from Los Angeles to Loreto. They don’t run daily, so double-check dates and availability before booking lodging and tours.

We flew into Loreto, a small, sleepy city on the Sea of Cortez that’s famous for sea kayaking and whale watching. Loreto is a “pueblo mágico” — a magical town. The Mexican government gave Loreto this prized designation for its historically significant, architecturally stunning, and supernatural locale.

Journeying From Loreto to Sierra De San Francisco

We didn’t stay long in Loreto, but after walking through the town square, we got a taste of the magic. After checking out the mission, grabbing craft beers and tacos at El Zopilote, and bar hopping, we looked forward to returning.

Loreto has a tiny airport. We didn’t encounter the gauntlet of taxi drivers exiting customs, like in Puerto Vallarta, for example. Cabo has more frequent flights and is thus more crowded. It’s also further south and adds significant drive time if you’re hoping to explore Sierra de San Francisco. Another option is to road trip to the Sierra from the U.S. border — about a 10- to 13-hour drive, depending on where you cross into Mexico.

Trips in Baja California Sur
(Photo/Katie Botwin)

If you fly into Loreto, you’ll want a rental car to make the trek north from Loreto to Hostal Buenaventura. This was the starting point for our expedition into the Sierra. It’s a 5-hour-plus drive, much of it along the beautiful Sea of Cortez coastline.

I recommend breaking up the road trip with a night in Santa Rosalía, an old mining town, or Mulegé, a palm-tree-rich oasis. We stayed for a few nights in Mulegé at the Histórico Las Casitas. This esoteric boutique hotel has simple rooms, an enchanting patio, and a funky restaurant with a kick-ass breakfast spread.

Canyons, Cowboys, and Cave Paintings

Trips in Baja California Sur
(Photo/Katie Botwin)

In the morning, we linked up with our guides from Mario’s Tours (your best point of contact if you want to replicate this canyon adventure). Later, we met several weathered, down-to-earth “rancheros” (cowboys). Arguably the most vital expedition member was our exceptionally talented chef. The fresh ceviche and goat empanadas kept us fueled in the desert heat.

We loaded up a caravan of 17 donkeys and mules. These nimble creatures navigated steep switchbacks and endured a long, shadeless descent into the canyon. They made the trip possible as we endured the trek in the summer heat, which I don’t recommend. Spring through fall offers much more accommodating weather, especially if you prefer to hike as opposed to riding. At first, I was happy to hike for the exercise. When I began to overheat, I found the views best enjoyed from the backs of our sure-footed companions.

UNESCO Cave Paintings

UNESCO cave paintings pc KatieBotwin
(Photo/Katie Botwin)

After a long day of descending the craggy, cacti-covered slopes, the fauna cradled in the belly of the canyon was nothing short of shocking. In sharp contrast to the grays and reds of the inhospitable desert above, the gorge was electric with green — chock-full of lush palms fed by trickling desert springs. Rock pools were bright with algae. Flowers bloomed, bugs buzzed, and free-range goats with bells around their necks scampered between boulders. Climbers on our crew dreamed of loading the donkeys with crash pads for a return trip.

Unsurprisingly, the canyons were home to ancient hunter-gatherer civilizations, who stayed sheltered in cool caves lining the canyon walls. After making camp alongside a bubbling spring, the guides and rancheros led us to ancient UNESCO-recognized cave paintings. The paintings are mostly black and red with notes of white and yellow, depicting cave life, hunting scenes, the miracle of birth, and more. Some stretch for hundreds of feet, pristinely preserved thanks to the harsh, dry climate.

The cave paintings were fascinating and are the main draw for the archeologically inclined. But I was most taken with the authentic ranchero experience and the brutal beauty of the desert. It felt like we’d stepped back in time.

Trips in Baja California Sur
Cooking nopales; (photo/Katie Botwin)

As the caravan picked its way across the riverbed, filling canteens with crystalline spring water, we cooled off in the desert pools. Later, we learned to roll tortillas by hand, and grill “nopales” (prickly pear cactus paddles). We cooked “asada” (roasted meat) over an open fire and listened to the crackling fire while the rancheros sang. Then, we fell asleep beneath the starry sky.

It was, undoubtedly, an adventure for the books and a far cry from my usual surf trips.

A Quick Pit-Stop in La Paz

Our stop in La Paz was the definition of short and sweet. We stayed one night at the breathtaking Baja Club Hotel, located smack dab on La Paz’s famous boardwalk. Between the plush rooms, welcoming pool, full-service bar, and prime location, the Baja Club was the perfect place to wash off the desert sweat and grime.

Now, where to eat? Next door to Baja Club is Hambrusia, an upscale restaurant that fuses traditional Mexican techniques with Japanese flavors for a sublime culinary experience. We sat outside to take in the boardwalk and ordered tacos, tostadas, and cocktails. Nothing was off the mark.

Trips in Baja California Sur
(Photo/Katie Botwin)

Surfing in Todos Santos

After regrouping in La Paz, we drove over an hour across the peninsula to Todos Santos. This world-famous surf town is Baja California Sur’s original pueblo mágico. Todos Santos is immediately intoxicating, with colorful “papel picado” (paper flags) crowning quaint streets like fluttering eaves. With 4- to 6-foot surf in the forecast and a handful of quality surf breaks to choose from, I arrived stoked; I’d soon be scratching my surfing itch. But what truly made our trip to Todos Santos out of this world was our stay at Los Colibris Casitas.

Perched on a hill overlooking the Pacific, Los Colibris is a compound of “casitas” (little houses) surrounding lush gardens and a blue-tiled pool. The accommodations are secluded and clean — a blend of classy and unpretentious comfort.

Exploring With Todos Santos Eco Adventures

Los Colibris Casitas is owned and run by Todos Santos Eco Adventures (TOSEA), an environmentally conscious, impact-driven tourism company. They also run glamping operations on Isla Espiritu Santo off the coast of La Paz and at the Sierra La Laguna Biosphere Reserve. While some guests will only stay at Los Colibris, TOSEA pairs folks who want the full experience together with tour guides who handle transport, customize itineraries, and organize a variety of adventures. If you don’t want to rent a car — or don’t want to handle any of the heavy lifting — this option is unbeatable.

 

Within minutes of arriving in Todos Santos, we dropped our bags off in our casita and linked up with our TOSEA tour guide to strategize. With only a few hours of daylight left, my partner explored the town while I got set up with a rental board from Mario Surf School, located at the popular Cerritos Beach. We capped off the first afternoon with a masterfully prepared sunset dinner on the roof of our bungalow, dumbstruck by the view and hospitality at this exceptional lodge.

Todos Santos
Looking toward the beach; (photo/Katie Botwin)

Over the next few days, the TOSEA team made our trip a dream. After breakfast and coffee, we hit the beach. I got my landlocked, out-of-shape ass pummeled by beach break, and my partner got a surf lesson from Mario’s talented instructors. Tip: Never teach your partner to surf; instead, pay the pros to do it.

And just like that, it was time to hit the Cabo airport (an hour-plus drive from Los Colibris) and bid Todos Santos and Baja California Sur adiós. Our stint at Los Colibris, in particular, made us want to extend our trip.

The attention to detail and care we felt in Todos Santos, from the tour guide and the lodge owners to the chefs and instructors, was rare, welcome, and refreshing — much like a cool, burbling spring in the midst of the barren desert.

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