Photo: Katie Botwin

Go Here, Not There: Baja California Sur's Mountains Deserve as Much Time as Its Beaches

Baja California Outdoor Camping Adventure Travel
by Katie Botwin Jun 28, 2022

Often mistaken as part of the United States, Baja California is a Mexican state located on the long, skinny peninsula flanked by the Sea of Cortez and the Pacific Ocean just south of California. “Baja” means “short” or “lower” in Spanish, so it literally translates to the land of “lower California.”

Another common geographic mistake? Many travelers assume that the entirety of this narrow peninsula is Baja California, but that’s not the case – the promontory is actually divided in two. Below Baja California is the creatively named state of Baja California Sur. The state of Baja California Sur consists of the southernmost half of the peninsula, the tip of which is home to well-known vacation hotspot Cabo San Lucas.

Most venture to Baja California Sur with the coastline and Cabo nightclubs in mind, but there’s more to this southern state than margaritas, whale watching, and white sand beaches.

Just inland are towering mountains and expansive desert plains, beckoning adventurers eager to explore a more rugged side of Mexico while dodging the crowds that can clog up its more popular coastlines. While everyone loves a good beach day, you may want to cut a few beach days on your next trip to Mexico and instead explore inland Baja California Sur. It’s not very touristy and offers stunning camping in desert canyons, the chance to ride mules alongside local rancheros, treks to historic cave paintings, and more authentically Mexican experiences.

How to get there

To explore inland Baja California Sur, use either the La Paz or Loreto airports. Both locations are cultural hubs perfect for bookending your trip with various accommodations and restaurants. Each location also has car rental availability which, if you aren’t using a guide service, you’ll need to explore the more remote areas of Baja.

In La Paz, the architecturally charming Baja Club Hotel in a good pick. On the malecón (a bustling boardwalk in La Paz’s historical center), the Baja Club Hotel has an interior courtyard that creates a quiet oasis in the center of the city. Next to Hambrusia restaurant, Baja Club is an ideal place to start and end your trip.

loreto, MX

Photo: Andrea Izzotti/Shutterstock

If you’re headed to Loreto, a popular place to stay is the Villas del Santo Niño. It’s within walking distance to a handful of delicious restaurants, the Mission, and the Sea of Cortés.

Guide services like Mario’s Tours make these types of trips easy, and based on the package you choose, they handle everything from transportation to meals. Using a guide service can be a good way to avoid planning if that’s not your thing, or if you’re nervous about figuring out logistics in a foreign country. Planning a trip to inland Baja California Sur on your own is possible, but it’s helpful to have a Spanish speaker in your group. Many of the locations and activities listed above are remote, so being prepared is always a necessity.

Weather-wise, winter months are ideal for trips away from the coast. As with any desert, heat can become a health risk and make a trip especially unenjoyable. If your itinerary allows it, head to inland Baja California in winter for a more comfortable experience.

What to do in Baja California Sur’s mountains

Explore Cave Paintings and Channel Your Inner Ranchero

baja california sur cave paintings

Photo: Katie Botwin

The Sierra de San Francisco mountain range in Baja California Sur is home to exceptionally well-preserved cave paintings that date back to 100 B.C. Their state of preservation and cultural significance earned them a UNESCO World Heritage Site designation. Because of their remote locations as well as the dry climate, the cave paintings have remained largely untouched and intact.

The best way to get a glimpse of these ancient works of art? An old-school but still relevant mode of transportation in Mexico: mule and donkey, locally known as mulas and burros.

Travelers can adventure to the cave painting-rich desert canyons with a caravan of donkeys and mules led by Mario’s Tours. While the donkeys carry food and gear, visitors ride mules (a cross between donkeys and horses). Larger than donkeys but more composed on the rocky trails than horses, the mules are calm and sure-footed and able to descend the rugged paths better than most people would on two feet.

baja california sur horses

Photo: Katie Botwin

Riding mules gives visitors the freedom to bathe in the beauty of their surroundings rather than watching for rocks or cactus that might cause someone on foot to trip. Three rancheros – bona fide Mexican cowboys with well-calloused hands – will keep the caravan on course with hoots of “burro!” and “mula,” occasionally accompanied by the crack of a hand-braided leather whip against their chaps.

After a half-day journey through cliffs and cacti in the hot sun, visitors are met by a lush oasis to rest and rehydrate. And because it’s a guided tour, the snacks are more than just granola bars. Expedition chefs on the journey serve up authentic Mexican dishes of ceviche and empanadas.

“The authentic fare and the joke-cracking woman who cooked it, Maria, made this experience one to remember, and some of my fondest memories of this experience involved food: learning how to grill nopales (cactus paddles), hand-shaping tortillas, and munching on sweet-bean empanadas in the cool shade of the canyon.” – Writer

Caves like the one Mario’s Tours visits are few and far between. UNESCO notes that “The rock art of the Sierra de San Francisco region of Baja California is one of the most outstanding concentrations of prehistoric art in the world and a dramatic example of the highest manifestations of this human cultural expression.” The cave paintings themselves are hidden— trails are faint and often unmarked, and if it weren’t for knowledgeable guides and rancheros, it’d be easy to walk right past them without ever noticing their presence.

baja california sur ranchero

Photo: Katie Botwin

While the cave paintings themselves were a wonder to behold, this expedition also offers a chance to get to know the people of Baja California Sur. Travelers can learn to cook gorditas in the desert and learn from the tireless rancheros who work from dawn to dusk before laughing and singing around the campfire with them at night, eventually falling asleep under the stars. Traveling with Mario’s Tours is a unique chance to feel like just another creature surviving in the unseen crevices of the desert.

Hazards abound near the Sierra de San Francisco’s cave paintings, and rocky roads, desert heat, a lack of marked trails, and the remoteness of these canyons make logistics challenging. So it’s a smart idea to book a trip with a reputable guiding operation like Mario’s Tours, which specializes in low-impact ecological expeditions. Companies like Mario’s Tours handle the provisions and group camping gear (though guests are encouraged to bring their own sleeping bags), as well as the rancheros and chef. While it’s possible to explore the canyons of your own volition, you’ll give your feet a rest by riding a mule and your back a break by loading donkeys with food and gear.

It’s advised to make longer, more challenging trips like this in the winter, when the weather is more tolerable for outdoor adventures.

More Inland Activities in Baja California Sur

baja california sur desert

Photo: TravelNerd/Shutterstock

Trekking to cave paintings is a beautiful way to have a true cultural experience deep in Baja California Sur’s desert canyons and stark mountain ranges, but it’s not the only adventure available.

Mountain biking

Several companies, Mario’s Tours included, offer mountain bike tours of the Sierra de la Giganta. The mountain range boasts rugged trails and is home to some of the oldest missions on the peninsula. Trails speak to riders of all skill and fitness levels, and if you get tired of pedaling, you can take a break and go for a ride in the support vehicle.

If you’re looking to mountain bike without a guide, Baja is home to a network of ride-worthy 4×4 roads and a handful of trails in both the desert and mountains alike. You can bring your own bike or rent from local bike shops if you fly into Loreto or Cabo San Lucas.

Road biking

Road biking is also prevalent in Baja, and there’s a dedicated industry of locals and travelers focused on biking the entire Baja California Peninsula via Highway 1. December to April is the prime window for ideal weather if you’re looking to explore the desert and mountains on two wheels. You’ll want to bring a device like a Sawyer Water Filtration System as the water isn’t always safe to drink.

Hiking and nature reserves

baja california sur waterfall

Photo: Elizabeth Caron/Shutterstock

Baja California Sur is home to a variety of locally owned and certified tour operators that run tours closely tied to the landscapes, people, and wildlife. Companies like Dharma Expeditions and Good Trips Baja, among others, run inland trips to hike, swim, or otherwise explore the mountains and natural reserves away from the beaches. Booking a trip with a local company like those helps support the local economy and ensures you’re guided by someone intimately familiar with the terrain, culture, and food of the region – which will always ensure a better trip.

Visiting small towns

Visiting the small towns scattered throughout inland Baja California Sur can be a fun way to meet locals and learn how people live away from the modern beach towns. Less affected by tourism and the gentrification that often comes with heavily visited areas, inland Baja feels more authentic and culturally rich than most of the areas around the coast.

The quaint town of Mulegé is a must-visit. Home to the only year-round river in all of Baja (the Santa Rosalia River), Mulegé is a hub for ATVing, hiking, and fishing. Petroglyphs and the Santa Rosalia de Mulegé Mission grant a peek into the town’s history and are steps from restaurants with delicious food owned by locals. For live music, local fare made fresh, and great margaritas, try locally run Histórico Las Casitas — a restaurant and hotel. The courtyard welcomes travelers like a desert oasis, brimming with plants, art, and knowledge from the friendly owner.

hotel in baja california sur

Photo: Katie Botwin

If you’re traveling to Mexico in search of a classic town square surrounded by local shops and restaurants, San Ignacio is the place to go. With the sounds of local kids playing fútbol and the chiming bells of La Mision de San Ignacio, this is a must-stop for a true cultural experience. Many travelers like the simple yet clean Hotel La Huerta, within walking distance of town. For a low-key evening, stop for ice cream at the Edson Ice Cream Shop and stroll the sleepy streets as the sun sets.

Most tourists flock to coastal cities, and prices around Cabo reflect that demand. Inland Baja California Sur, on the other hand, is less explored and, unsurprisingly, less expensive. From riding mules and studying cave paintings to hiking and biking, the desert and mountain landscape delivers rugged, authentic adventures. Come nightfall, charming towns offer flavorful food, local shops, and respite from adventures in the desert. While your first instinct might be to travel to the beautiful beaches of Baja, if you’re one to step off of the beaten path, be sure to explore the gems of inland Baja California Sur on your next trip to Mexico’s west coast.

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