Dangling beside the west coast of Mexico, Baja California extends south from the US border. With the Pacific Ocean to the right and the Sea of Cortez to the left, there’s plenty of space for wine production, natural habitats, intriguing colonial towns, and dramatic landscapes cradling prehistoric cave paintings. Here are the best places to visit on the Baja California Peninsula.

Cabo Pulmo

Drive north from Baja California Sur’s most famous city and celebrity favorite, Cabo San Lucas, and 60 miles (97 km) later you’ll reach Cabo Pulmo National Park: a paradise for naturalists and scuba fanatics. Overfished and overexploited in the 20th century, the area is finally enjoying a rebirth ecologically. Among its wonders is the oldest of three reefs off the coast of North America. Estimated to be around 20,000 years old, it’s a vibrant riot of flapping, flickering, and feeding flora and fauna. Among the visitors are giant rays, turtles, and whales.

Rock Paintings of Sierra de San Francisco

The most striking rock-art pictographs along the Baja California peninsula are in the San Francisco mountain range, in the municipality of Mulegé — make for the El Vizcaino bio-reserve, home to around 250 caves. The drawings date back more than a millennium; according to carbon dating, some were created more than 7,000 years ago. Attributed to the indigenous Cochimí people, the silhouetted red (and sometimes black) images of animals, tools, humans and rituals are captivating insights into a mysterious past.

Isla Espíritu Santo

Isla Espíritu Santo, which translates as Holy Spirit Island, is one of the many outcrops in the Sea of Cortez to have been named Unesco World Heritage Biosphere Reserves. Those who know them agree: the most beautiful, hands down, is this one, a biosphere surrounded by clear, fathomless waters that teem with sea lions and shoals of tropical fish. It’s possible to swim, explore by boat or kayak, or simply wander along its numerous untouched beaches, marveling at the empty wonder of the place.

Mulegé

Mulegé is one of those precious things in a vast expanse of arid desert: an oasis. That’s why the town, lodged in the shadow of a river valley, benefits from such an extraordinary bounty of fruit and vegetables. Its old prison is a fascinating place, constructed without bars or defenses. It dates from a time when roads were few and treacherous; when it would’ve been impossible to escape this remote town and live to tell the tale. And so inmates were allowed to access the town — even to raise families — as long as they returned to “captivity” by night.

Balandra

Tell someone you’ve visited Baja California Sur and — if they have, too — they’re bound to ask if you made it to the bay of Balandra. Overlooking the Sea of Cortez, it’s a phenomenon, almost circular and surrounded by dunes. As a result, the sea is even calmer here than it is in the Cortez Gulf beyond. The brilliant blue water is never really more than waist-deep, making crossing from one side to the other — some considerable distance — no effort. On the seabed lurk manta rays, which swim off harmlessly as you splash ahead, kicking up sand.

Laguna de San Ignacio

Welcome to the Whale Sanctuary of El Vizcaino, one of the only spawning areas in the world for the gray whale. It’s safe to say this is the main attraction in the Laguna de San Ignacio where, in the 19th century, the creatures were hunted almost to extinction. It was recently made a protected area, encouraging the few who live here to discard their destructive vocations in favor of preserving the biosphere. Now, in winter, you’ll see not only whales but dolphins, seals, and turtles, too.

El Mogote

Across the bay from La Paz, Baja California Sur’s thriving capital, lies the slender peninsula of Mogote. Knotted with mangroves, the spit is a perfect place to kayak in the tranquil hours of sunrise and sunset. The surrounding bay is a breeding ground for whale sharks — majestic, docile beasts which, in winter, are visible moving in muscular rhythms through the transparent depths. At dusk, take a constitutional along the deserted dunes. Back across the waters of Cortez are spectacular views of low mountains encircling La Paz.

Todos Santos

Todos Santos may be just a small node on the Pacific coast but it is a cultural landmark. Hence its Pueblo Mágico status, awarded officially by the government to recognize a magical town. Founded by early 18th-century missionaries, it has a burgeoning agricultural industry and, in recent years, it has begun to attract creatives who have settled, opening up craft shops and art galleries. Within easy reach of some gorgeous Pacific beaches, now-buzzy Todos Santos is fast becoming one of the most visited towns in Baja.

La Ventana

Kite surfers are emblematic of La Ventana, a fishing village beside a beautiful bay south of La Paz, buffeted by strong winter winds. But it’s not the only activity. Across the water is Isla Cerralvo, known officially since 2009 as Jacques Cousteau Island, in recognition of the world-famous French oceanographer. Opposition across Mexico to the renaming was perhaps understandable, although Cousteau had strong connections with the place, making regular visits in his lifetime. He dubbed the Sea of Cortez “the world’s aquarium” for its extraordinary wealth and diversity of marine life. So, while you’re in La Ventana, don’t pass up the opportunity to kayak, snorkel, or scuba-dive.

Wine route in the Valle de Guadalupe

Baja California produces the lion’s share of wine in Mexico — in particular, the municipality of Ensenada. The Valle de Guadalupe was established, like so many places on the peninsula, by missionaries. During the conquest, Spanish colonists arrived bearing vines, which took to the local soil with unexpected success. Although, unsurprisingly, the Spanish crown soon banned production outright, fortunately, sufficient numbers of those missionaries persevered. Viniculture thrives to this day in the valley and surrounding areas, where a clutch of wineries open their doors to visitors for tasting sessions.

La Bufadora

On the southern side of the Punta Banda peninsula, just south of Ensenada, the Pacific swells enter a wedge-shaped crevice in the rocks. This narrows as it goes, funneling the immense energy of the waves into a single point. Here the water has nowhere left to go but straight up, exploding into a geyser-like plume that soars 100ft (30m) into the air. Find the terrace overlooking the rocks for a bird’s-eye view of the action but get too close and be warned: you will get soaked.

Playa del Amor

Four miles (7km) off the Punta Villela promontory, on one of the isolated Marieta Islands, the ‘love beach’ (aka ‘hidden beach’) is a magic little sandy shore in a sea cave accessed by kayaking or swimming through a long underground tunnel that links it with the Pacific Ocean. (There’s about 6ft/1.8m of headroom, so it’s not too claustrophobic.) You won’t need torches in the cave because the roof has long since collapsed — a result of military experiments conducted on these uninhabited outcrops in the first half of the 20th century. As a result, you have walls encircling you and blue skies above. It’s like being in your own petri dish of paradise.

The Arch of Cabo San Lucas

In a formation that’s strikingly similar to Dorset’s Durdle Door, this wave-carved arch on the southern tip of Baja California is more than big enough for a boat to pass through — as indeed they do. Tours leave from Cabo San Lucas. Alternatively, you can wander beneath it at low tide. Adding to the arch, there’s an oversized sculpture garden of chalk-white limestone, with a cluster of jagged columns. Keep your eyes peeled and you might spot sea lions lounging on the golden sand or humpback whales blowing flumes further out to sea.

Sierra de San Pedro Mártir

This mountain range, in the north of the peninsula, is very evocative of the peaks that rise up around California’s Lake Tahoe and Yosemite National Park. This makes sense because not only do they share the same formative geography (think sculptural granite domes), but the same plant and animal life proliferates in both areas, too. Hardy cypress and aromatic pinyon-pine forests cloak the slopes. Squint and you might glimpse bobcats, California condors, and bighorn sheep.

Las Tres Vírgenes

Rising up out of the dry, cactus-spiked desert that covers the southern half of the peninsula, Tres Virgenes is a complex of three dormant stratovolcanoes. Somewhat confusingly, the youngest and most prominent of them, El Vírgen, is also known as Las Tres Vírgenes, as it’s the one you’ll be able to see from the road. It’s nowhere near the urban parts of the region but nearby there’s a cluster of rustic cabins (Eco Tour Las Tres Virgenes), where you can check in for a night or two, sitting out with a chilled beer to watch the setting sun paint the desert pink.

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