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Self-drive Mexico: Discover Baja California and the Sea of Cortez

12 days from £1,824pp

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Self-drive Mexico: Discover Baja California and the Sea of Cortez:
Trip Dossier

The skeletal Baja Peninsula, separated from the Mexican mainland by the narrow Gulf of California (Sea of Cortez) consists of the bare bones of crinkled mountains sliced through by parched canyons. This pitiless landscape, infused with an ethereal beauty, has always been a challenge to human settlement, from the indian hunters of millennia ago to the Jesuit colonists of the Spanish era. Farmers still scratch a living in miniscule oases and fishermen scour the seas off the bays and cliffs of the craggy coast.

In modern times development has centred on the southern coast which attracts millions of visitors every year lured by the luxury resorts of Cabo. However, away from the fleshpots, you can explore the real Baja, its exquisite, other-worldly interior, its quiet colonial towns, the uninhabited flour-white beaches and aquamarine bays. What better way than in by self-drive car-hire: travel the trans-peninsula Highway 1, completed only in 1973, and discover along it or within easy reach the lesser-known delights of Baja. You’ll find prehistoric cave paintings, abandoned missions and national parks - home to a surprisingly robust wildlife. Stop off at the slow-paced towns San Ignacio and Loreto, both recalling the style and elegance of the Spanish era and from where, January to April, you can view whales and dolphins up close.

Short itinerary

Holiday itinerary

Day 1

Arrive Mexico City, transfer to hotel in historic core.

Day 2

Guided tour of Mexico City and Teotihuacan Pyramids.

Day 3

Fly to La Paz, collect car, drive to Loreto.

Day 4

At leisure in Loreto, optional blue-whale watching expedition.

Day 5

Drive from Loreto to San Ignacio.

Day 6

Grey whale-watching expedition.

Day 7

Day at leisure, optional visits to cave paintings and El Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve.

Day 8

Drive back to Loreto.

Day 9

Drop off your car and fly to La Paz.

Day 10

Day at leisure to enjoy beach club.

Day 11

Optional kayaking or visit to Todos Santos.

Day 12

Fly from La Paz to Mexico City to transfer to your international flight.

Detailed itinerary

Day 1

Arrive Mexico City, transfer to hotel in historic core.
 
Mexico City

Your hotel is centrally located right next to the Zócalo, the capital’s massive main square dominated by the monumental Spanish cathedral. Mexico City, known by Mexicans simply as ‘DF’ (Distrito Federal), was built on the site of Tenochtitlan, the focal point of the Aztec empire, and it lies at 2,250m above sea level. Vast, chaotic and vibrant, this sprawling megalopolis of more than 20 million people has a multitude of attractions.

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Mexico City

Day 2

Guided tour of Mexico City and Teotihuacan Pyramids.
 
Teotihuacán

The arrival of the Spanish conquistadores was seismic event in the story of the Aztec people.  Their magnificent causewayed city was razed, and the invading Spaniards rebuilt it in their own style; the development fuelled by silver mining.  This is all reflected in the cultural vestiges apparent all over the modern-day city which you’ll see during your guided tour. Visit the zócalo, or main square, monumental metropolitan cathedral and national palace with its murals by Diego Rivera.

Later, head into the countryside, driven towards the megalithic archaeological site Teotihuacan. Dating back over 2,000 years, it was once one of the largest cities in the world. It is hugely influential in the historical narrative of modern Mexico and, although abandoned by the time of the Aztecs, even this great empire held it in awe. Stroll along the imposing Avenue of the Dead, leading to the vast Pyramid of the Sun, and climb its vertiginous steps for a panorama of the ruins.

If you have time we suggest you visit the world-class Museum of Anthropology, exhibiting remarkable, well displayed Aztec artefacts alongside items from other ancient civilisations. It’s a fantastic introduction to the superb and sometimes grisly artistic achievements of Mexico’s early inhabitants.

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Teotihuacán

Day 3

Fly to La Paz, collect car, drive to Loreto.
 
loreto

Following a flight of around 2.5hrs from Mexico City airport to La Paz, the capital of the Baja Peninsula, you will collect your self-drive car – a mid-sized Chevrolet Aveo or similar. Head north to Loreto on the Trans-Peninsula Highway, you can’t get lost as it is the only significant road to traverse the whole peninsula from Tijuana in the north to Cabo on the southern tip: over 1,800km. Immediately on leaving La Paz behind you the scenery is characteristically arid, featuring plains pitted with vigilante cacti on either side of the road while the mountains of Sierra Escondida to the right are an impressive backdrop.

At the junction town Cuidad Insurgentes you’ll turn right to drive east along a solitary paved road which, with sharp curves and tight bends, descends through desolate copper-coloured mountains to the rugged coastline at Ensenada Blanca. With the sea and cliffs on one side and the towering gold-green escarpment of Sierra La Giganta on the other, the landscape becomes less relentlessly desolate as you view canyons and the cobalt sea lapping the coastline. There is still little vegetation though the cacti are ever-present.

Your journey today to Loreto should take around five hours, including stops to take in the views, snap a few photos or just breathe in the pure desert air and enjoy the feeling of the sun on your face.

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loreto

Day 4

At leisure in Loreto, optional blue-whale watching expedition.
 
blue whale

Loreto is a lovely colonial town and port on a gorgeous stretch of the Gulf of California coast. It was the hub for the Spanish mission effort and the first capital of California (which then extended from Cabo to Oregon) until a hurricane in 1829 destroyed much of it and the capital was moved to La Paz, although Loreto retains some graceful Spanish-style buildings. A splendid paved promenade (malecón), guarded and shaded by palms, graces the shoreline and looks out over attractive hilly islands and headlands: at one end is a marshy cape great for bird-spotting.

You can spend a day just enjoying the laid-back ambiance of the town, visiting the restored mission with its gilded altar and museum on the pretty plaza and strolling along the malecón at sunrise or sunset, or taking a boat out to one of the lovely beaches nearby (the town beach has brownish sand and no facilities). There are also several companies selling adventure tours such as hikes, visits to missions (such as the spectacularly sited Jan Javier), canyoning, scuba-diving, fishing, kayaking and whale watching in season. Loreto Bay is one of the best places to view the blue whale, at up to 30m long the largest animal ever known to have existed with an elegant slim shape and a blow-hole which spouts water straight up into the air.

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blue whale

Day 5

Drive from Loreto to San Ignacio.
 
loreto bay

Heading out of Loreto across the coastal plain peppered with beautiful beaches, you pass through a region of dry, knobbly hills which support a smattering of drought-resistant plants as well as the ubiquitous cactus. The undulating road here is paved and in good condition. You might decide to stop off for a swim at El Requison Bay, just short of the town Buenaventura, and continue on to Mulegé which has a Jesuit mission dating back to 1703. One of Baja’s stunningly attractive oases, Mulegé has a view point over Santo Rosalia river which is lush and planted with citrus trees and date palms. The hilltop mission is worth a visit.

Further north is the port Santa Rosalia, built to export copper from the now exhausted mines (you can see abandoned mine paraphernalia scattered around) and now surviving on fishing. It has a central church constructed with the help of Eiffel (of Eiffel tower fame) and, unusually, houses built in French Caribbean style.

Approaching the Vizcaino Reserve, a scalding caldron of desert heat, you’ll be exposed to uncompromising desert all the way until suddenly you hit on San Ignacio, by contrast a lush green and shady place filled with date groves. The town hosts a clutch of Baja’s rare thatched colonial buildings, painted in pastel colours, bedecked with bougainvillea and sheltered by laurel trees. The striking mission here, completed by Dominicans in 1786, is probably the most ornate and interesting in Baja.

If you drive without stops it will take around 3.5hrs to cover the distance (272km) but we are sure you will want topark up to enjoy some of the places of interest en route.

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loreto bay

Day 6

Grey whale-watching expedition.
 
Whale-watching in Los Cabos

Following collection by your guide, you’ll embark on a drive through other-worldly salt pans as you head to the lagoon on the Pacific side of the peninsula. There, you embark a motorised launch to traverse the lagoon with an eye out for the whales, which come here to breed. Trusting and curious, these massive, barnacle-encrusted creatures will approach the boats with their young and you can also observe them spy-hopping (breaking surface to rise out of the water as if standing). The shallows act as a nursery or training ground for the young so mothers and babies alike feel protect from the predators of the open seas, such as killer whales. The experience of witnessing such natural magnificence at close quarters is a privilege and not to be missed.

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Whale-watching in Los Cabos

Day 7

Day at leisure, optional visits to cave paintings and El Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve.
 
Old Franciscan Church

You might consider just hanging out in San Ignacio, an agreeable little town with a timeless ambiance. Founded by the Jesuits but on a site inhabited for millennia by indigenous tribes, it is surrounded by bleak mountains pitted with caves adorned with prehistoric paintings.  No one knows much about their authors, around which much has been constructed as myth and legend, but some of these works of art depict hunters over 2m tall. You’ll need a local guide to find the art. They are set within the at first sight rather grim Vizcaino desert is Latin America’s largest protected area  which stretches from the Vizcaino Peninsula across to the Gulf of California (Sea of Cortez) and includes all the principal whale calving sites.    

Close to town, the pretty green lagoon, dammed artificially to support the town’s agricultural economy - mostly fruit plantations - has been richly planted with date trees making this a good place for spotting birds. 

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Old Franciscan Church

Day 8

Drive back to Loreto.
 
baja

Follow the main road back to La Paz. You’ll get a different perspective on the scenery driving in the opposite direction!

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baja

Day 9

Drop off your car and fly to La Paz.
 
la paz baja

Drop off your car at the rental agency and fly to La Paz. La Paz is an easy-going port and is a very pleasant base from which to indulge in outdoor adventure activities such as diving, fishing or sea-kayaking. The town has a university and a lively cultural scene as well. The capital of Baja California, it’s home to a quarter of a million inhabitants but still has a small town feel, and maintains a Mexican ambiance somewhat lacking in the other more US-influenced towns. Your hotel is well located so you should have time to explore the town and maybe take an evening stroll along the picturesque seaside promenade – although the town is on the eastern side of the peninsula the coastline wiggles incongruously here allowing for spectacular displays of purple and tangerine as the sun sets over the sea. There is a palm-fringed waterfront promenade (malecón) and there are some lovely unspoilt beaches not far away.

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la paz baja

Day 10

Day at leisure to enjoy beach club.
 
costa baja resort

You have a couple of days based in La Paz. Having looked round the centre you may wish to explore a bit further afield. If relaxation is your aim, just a short taxi ride from La Paz is the Costa Baja Resort and Spa, where for a small fee you can enjoy the Beach Club, with cool bars, loungers, scatter cushions to relax on and a lovely infinity pool. Also within the complex is a marina surrounded by a good selection of restaurants, some with outdoor seating next to the bobbing boats. A golf club is adjacent too.

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costa baja resort

Day 11

Optional kayaking or visit to Todos Santos.
 
todos santos

If you fancy doing something on the water – and it is tempting – an optional guided kayaking trip from La Paz explores the pristine area along the coast arriving at tranquil, turquoise blue waters of Balandra Bay on a prominent headland. Here there are no less than seven powdery white sand beaches. This beautiful setting is framed by deep red volcanic mountains. In the afternoon, continue paddling, stopping several times to snorkel. One stop is in a small cave where only kayaks can beach, where you can swim between huge volcanic boulders. Other kayaking trips can be arranged in town or from the hotel.

Alternatively you might go for a cultural experience and visit the quaint town Todos Santos, an hour’s drive away on the Pacific side of the peninsula. Beloved of bohemian US ex-pats of an arty persuasion, it’s a quiet place; the hordes of tourists who visit Cabo don’t make it here.  Wander round the galleries and craft shops, admire the baroque colonial architecture, lunch in one of a plethora of restaurants or wander down the sandy lane towards the ocean to view a glorious deserted surf beach.

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todos santos

Day 12

Fly from La Paz to Mexico City to transfer to your international flight.
 
If you fancy extending your stay on Espiritu Santo Island, just off the coast of Baja's capital La Paz, we recommend you stay at Camp Cecil  a luxury tented camp on one of the wilderness island's most captivating beaches.
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Essential information

Transport

Three domestic flights. Self-drive car: Chevrolet Aveo or similar with air-conditioning.

Accommodation

We have chosen properties oozing with character and colonial references, with a real Mexican feel. The hotel in San Ignacio is basic but it is the nest available.

Meals

Breakfast daily; lunch days 2,6.

Guides

We carefully select our local partners, some of whom we have worked with for over 30 years. Their English-speaking guides understand the expectations of our clients very well, and are consistently singled out for praise by the latter on their return.

Included excursions

• Full-day guided tour of Mexico City and Teotihuacan pyramids.
• Whale-watching expedition in lagoon at San Ignacio (in season).

Summary of nights

12 days, 11 nights: Mexico City 2; Loreto 2, San Ignacio 3, Loreto 1, La Paz 3. 

Included in the journey price

• Services of our team of experts in our London office.
• Services of Journey Latin America local representatives and guides.
• All land and air transport within Latin America.
•  Self-drive car hire for one week.
• Accommodation as specified.
• Meals as specified.
• Excursions as specified, including entrance fees.

Not included in the journey price

• Tips and gratuities.
• Meals other than specified.
• International flights to Latin America.
• Airport taxes, when not included in the ticket
• Optional excursions.
• Fuel for hire car.

Currency

The unit of currency in Mexico is the Mexican peso.

Daily spend

It is very difficult to give a guideline for essential expenses but a budget of around US$40 will cover food, drinks and the odd souvenir. Eat at the best restaurants and you may pay more.. 

How to take it

Cash machines are available in all major cities and towns, and so taking a debit or credit card with a PIN number is the most convenient way of withdrawing money while on your trip, and in most shops and restaurants you can also pay by card. However, since cards can get lost, damaged, withheld or blocked, you should not rely exclusively on a card to access funds. We recommend that additionally you take a reasonable quantity of US dollars cash (no more than is covered by your insurance), which you can exchange into local currency. Dollar bills should be in good condition, soiled or torn bills may be refused. You can take sterling, but the exchange rate is not always competitive or even available, restricting the number of places where you can change money.

Tipping

Local guides and service workers will welcome a gratuity: they often rely on their tip as a significant proportion of their income. It is useful to have spare change for waiters, hotel porters, taxi drivers etc. It is common to leave 10 - 12% in restaurants. Tipping guidelines can be found in our Briefing Dossier.

Insurance

Travel insurance is essential. Details of our recommended policy can be found on our Travel Insurance page. 

For the car, additional Liability and Loss Damage Waiver (CDW without excess and inclusion of theft protection) is included as well as Personal Accident and Third Party insurance.

Airport taxes

If you have purchased your flights through Journey Latin America, the international departure tax is usually included in the ticket.

Journey grade

This holiday is suitable for all able, reasonably fit visitors. . 

Climate

In Mexico City and the mountains towns the climate is temperate all year round and, because of the altitude it never gets too hot. Temperatures can drop to freezing in Mexico City over the winter months.

Baja California enjoys 300-360 days of sunshine a year, year round temperatures in the 20°s and 30°s C tempered by sea breezes, and little rain. The sea is colder on the Pacific side because of cold currents. 

Clothing and special equipment

Bring practical, comfortable clothing and a light-weight jumper. If you plan to eat in smart restaurants in Mexico City, although clothing is not formal (no need for jacket and tie), something quite smart would be appropriate. 

Strong, comfortable shoes or trainers are advisable and you should bring insect repellant, sun block, sun glasses, and swim wear. 

Please get in touch with the office before departure if you have any doubts.

Vaccinations

Preventative vaccinations are recommended against the following; typhoid; polio; tetanus; hepatitis A. For specific requirements you must consult your GP.

You can also find helpful information on the Masta Travel Health website. 

Visas

Holders of a full British passport do not require a visa, although passports must be valid for at least 6 months after the trip begins.   Holders of a full British passport do not require a visa, although passports must be valid for at least 6 months after the trip begins. 

APIS and ESTA - important flight information:

ESTA - if flying to the US, or via the US, you will need to fill in an ESTA application online at ESTA online. You will definitely need one  - or a full US visa - for this holiday as the cruise ends in San Diego, CA. 

This costs $14 per person, and must be applied for by you personally.

Passports must also be e-passports with an embedded digital chip  Avoid locking suitcases when transiting the USA, as their customs authorities retain the right to break into them.

APIS - Many countries now oblige airlines to provide additional information about passengers prior to the flight departure. This Advance Passenger Information (APIS) must be supplied to us promptly in order to issue tickets and avoid fare increases. We will provide the airlines with the relevant details if we are booking your international flights. If the information is not provided you may be denied boarding.

Clients with a different nationality should refer to our Briefing Dossier and check with the Mexican and US Consulates.
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