The first stop on our backpacking route – San Jose del Cabo/Cabos San Lucas. We only had two nights planned here, mainly just to see what is was about, as the tourist-y, resort style places do not appeal to us very much.
We flew into San Jose del Cabos airport after an early morning start in Portland. Customs was a breeze, which makes sense due to the immense number of Americans that must pass through that airport everyday. It was very modern and clean, and many people spoke good English, which was a nice easy introduction to our next few months of trying to learn Spanish. However, the tourist influence hits you early on, with many resorts and shuttle drivers coming at you as you exit, and a bar being placed right outside the main exit door. The other thing that hit us was the heat. It is insanely hot here – reaching 35+ degree most days.
We were able to grab a shared shuttle/taxi from the airport without too much trouble, and this cost USD$28. Apparently, you can catch a local bus for less, but involves a good 30 minute walk out to the main highway which you want to avoid with packs in that sort of heat. Americans loaded up with their drinks in hand, and we were off.
Things quickly went south. We had booked in at Hotel Posada Senor Manana, which had some good reviews online, and seemed to appeal to travellers like us with nice outdoor spaces and a relaxed atmosphere. Unfortunately, upon arrival, we were told by the owner that a recent hurricane (Lydia) had flooded their hotel, and they could not honour our reservation. Welcome to Mexico guys!
With all the news about Irma, we had seen no info on this hurricane, so hadn’t even considered checking. It happened roughly a fortnight before our arrival, and while it would have been nice to get an email, we totally understood, as the owner was likely focused on trying to return to being operational ASAP. We grabbed our packs and headed toward the coast, but didn’t get far before finding some shade to think about what to do next. After a 3am start, we were both knackered, and neither of us fancied walking around with our packs on much longer. We whipped out our Lonely Planet, picked the closest accommodation (Hotel Posada Terranova) and simply settled in for the night.
San Jose del Cabos is the closest town to the international airport, and while the coast is loaded with resorts, we were parked up in the historical centre, a bit more inland. There wasn’t a whole lot going on here, and with the recent hurricane, there was a lot of damage control going on, making it not all that appealing to stay in.
We decided to move on to Cabos San Lucas (or Cabo as it’s known) for a night to again, simply see what all the fuss was about. This place is pretty much the Mexican equivalent of Phuket in Thailand. All-inclusive resorts, beach bars, shopping malls and massive night clubs everywhere. We stayed at the cheapest place in town (Baja Cactus Hostel), which while very basic, had a great rooftop terrace, free breakfast and lovely staff. We checked out the main beach, grabbed a few brews, took a boat ride out to El Arco, and otherwise just tried to stay out of the heat. If you are into the idea of drinking everyday and partying all night, this place is for you.
The next day we made our way to La Paz. We had heard good things about La Paz, and we had booked an extended stay here of four nights. Getting there from Cabos is easy, and cost 200 pesos per person to catch a very comfortable Aguila Bus direct (about 3 hours).
Once we arrived in La Paz, we instantly felt like we had reached Mexico. While La Paz does have a tourist-y vibe about it, there are no resorts, simple waterfront bars and taquerias, and the malecon is amazing (waterfront path).
We stayed at Pension Baja Paradise, which was outrageously good value. Our private double room had an ensuite, TV, kettle and mini-fridge, and the common area boasted a great little kitchen, filtered coffee and water and a laundry (40 pesos total for wash and dry). If you come to La Paz, stay here.
With four full days in La Paz, we took some time to relax. There was also an incoming hurricane (Norma), so unfortunately the town had abandoned port activities (snorkelling tours etc) and Mexican Independence Day celebrations as a result. Luckily, Norma headed west into the Pacific. While pottering about La Paz, we stumbled across two outstanding restaurants – Dulce Romero & Maria California. Dulce Romero offers European style cuisine, and seemed quite popular with locals. Maria California is a breakfast/lunch cafe, and offers European or Mexican cuisine. However, the best part was that you could get a smoothie or shake in a 1L carafe for around 60 pesos. Bargain.
With Independence Day celebrations cancelled, we decided to check out a local bar, which was playing the Alvarez fight (Mexican boxer). It was great whiling away the evening, watching the sunset, and sitting among some locals while having some beers.
Come Monday, we decided to go and see what the status of the port was, as all reports had Hurricane Norma moving west. The port was open, so we booked in a snorkelling tour for the following day (as we had missed the departure of the boats that day). Because we wouldn’t be snorkelling, we decided to rent a car and go and check out the countryside towards Cabo Pulmo (a national park).
It was awesome just driving along the Mexican countryside, and getting out of a main city for a while. We checked out Playa Ballandra (a beautiful but slightly crowded beach), and headed out to a few small towns and beaches along the coast.
It was a fantastic day, that unfortunately went south when we were pulled over by police. Apparently on our way back into La Paz, we had ‘run an amber’ light. This seemed like a weak excuse to pull over a tourist, as these guys had been following us for about 10 minutes on our way into La Paz. The officer told us that the fine was 3000 pesos, and we needed to follow him to the station.
After about 3 minutes of driving, we pulled over on a random side street, with no station in sight. He came up to the window, and informed us that the station was in fact closed, so he would write a ticket, and we could go to the station tomorrow. We argued that running an amber light seemed like a very minor offence, and that the fine didn’t match the infringement, however it was all done in a mix of broken Spanish and English. He then asked if we would pay the fine now in cash, which we obviously didn’t agree to. He then said it would be less if we paid it now; 1000 pesos. While we were keen to take the ticket and take our chances at the station (and with the tourist police; we were pulled over by the municipal police who are apparently very corrupt), our snorkelling tour was due to leave at 9.30am, and it was already 6.00pm. We coughed up the 1000 pesos, checked he hadn’t written a ticket, and went on our way.
For anybody thinking of visiting La Paz, by all means rent a car. It is very affordable way to see some beautiful parts of the peninsula. Just be aware that La Paz is also notorious for conning tourists in hire cars (you are basically wearing a hi-vis vest asking to be pulled over). We were told later on that if you simply argue it long enough, they will reduce their ‘fine’ to a nominal fee (few hundred pesos), or simply let you go, for fear of being caught by state, federal or tourist police.
Our final day in La Paz was spent snorkelling out at Isla Espiritu Santo. Unfortunately, we had timed our visit a couple of weeks early, meaning there were no whale sharks to see. However, we did get to see some awesome fish in the reef, as well as swimming with sea lions. Sea lions are awesome, they are very playful (especially smaller ones), and swim within a meter of you, which is an incredible experience. Our company also stopped off at a beautiful secluded beach for lunch, which offered picturesque views and crystal clear water to swim in. This tour only cost us 990 pesos each, which was almost half the price of some other tours in the area. If you want to go snorkelling, go with Cantomar.
Overall, Baja Peninsula was an awesome way to kick things off. While incredibly hot, it is easy to see why this area is a favourite with tourists. Despite our run in with the police, I would happily come back here in a heartbeat. Mexican people are very friendly and are generally happy to see foreigners enjoying their country.
Our costs for 7 days here (6 nights):
Food & Drink: $200.00
Transport: $119.75 (+ another $315 to fly from Portland)
Misc: $88.00 ($54.00 was the police bribe)
Total: $743 USD / $1040 NZD
As you can see, Mexico is a lot cheaper than the US, but Baja is still pricey compared to the heartland of Mexico!