Where to Surf, Sail, and Snorkel With Baby Sea Lions in Mexico's Baja California
"The babies might try to chew on your flippers," Eric Saucedo, our Baja Expeditions guide, warned us as we prepared to jump from our little boat off the coast of Espíritu Santo, an uninhabited island in the Sea of Cortez.
I could hardly hear him over the barking in the distance. We were surrounded by crystal-clear water and jagged rock formations — some dotted with cacti, others covered with sunbathing sea lions.
Just moments later, we were snorkeling beneath a rocky archway, quizzical sea lion pups circling us and pausing to look us straight in the eyes through our goggles. Behind them, schools of colorful fish swayed in unison with the current.
"It's like swimming into a Disney movie!" I yelled as we came up for air. I'd been scuba diving and snorkeling everywhere from the Caribbean to Sardinia and Mykonos, but I had never seen anything like it.
Just about an hour by boat from La Paz, the capital city of Mexico's Baja California Sur, Espíritu Santo is a stunning UNESCO World Heritage Site that's home to endemic wildlife, and it's one of many off-the-beaten-path, outdoor adventures to be had if you stray just a little further from the popular beach resorts of Cabo San Lucas.
Here, how to have a getaway without the crowds and full of sunshine, salt water, fresh air, and animal encounters in and around Los Cabos and southern Baja.
Snorkeling, Diving, and Camping on Espíritu Santo
This archipelago is made up of two main islands, Espíritu Santo and La Partida, along with three islets and so many beaches to explore, you're likely to have one all to yourself. Baja Expeditions is a tour company focused on eco-tourism — as any company taking tourists to a place so pristine and full of unique biodiversity should be — and its knowledgeable guides will take you scuba diving, snorkeling, kayaking, swimming with whale sharks, paddle boarding, and even camping on the shoreline.
Our guide said April is the best time to come and see the marine life, from whales and dolphins to manta rays, but September is the best time for divers looking for warm, clear waters and sea lions. In winter, majestic humpback whales migrate through. Trips leave from La Paz, about two hours north east of Cabo San Lucas.
Surf Lessons (and Surfers' Burritos) at Los Cerritos Beach
Serious surfers love this spot on the Pacific Ocean, 45 minutes north of Cabo San Lucas, but with clean, consistent waves and warm water protected by an outer reef, it's also a great place for learning. Rent your own longboard from one of the tents on the sand and try your luck, or take a private or group lesson with the expert instructors of High Tide. You'll likely be popping up in no time — and while you catch your breath in between, there will be plenty of pros to admire as they carve the big waves further out. After your session, walk over to Barracuda Cantina, where you'll bond with fellow surfers over massive, delicious shrimp or fish burritos and tropical cocktails.
Sailing, Swimming, and Paddle Boarding With Cabo Adventures
El Arco ("the arch") is to Cabo San Lucas as the Empire State Building is to New York City — iconic and instantly recognizable, whether it's your first trip or your 10th. And the only way to see the famous rock formation is by boat. Cabo Adventures will take you on any activity you could possibly dream up in the area, from camel rides and desert ATVs to zip lines and jet skis, but the best way to acquaint yourself with Cabo is to go sailing past its main sights and then jump into its warm, crystal waters for a swim. Even on group tours, Cabo Adventures will supply snorkels, paddle boards, snacks, and drinks and take you to El Arco and beautiful Lover's Beach, but for a truly unforgettable day, book a private sailing experience.
Polaris Rides Around Pescadero
El Pescadero is a small town where farms meet quiet beaches just outside of Todos Santos, a pueblo màgico (magic town) where boutique hotels and cosmopolitan restaurants and bars are popping up among traditional art galleries, shops, and taquerias. El Perdido, a brand-new Pescadero hotel offering outdoor activities of its own, from swimming and volleyball to gardening, will let guests take out its Polaris vehicles for dirt-road rides on stunning beachside cliffs (though please note you can't drive on the beach itself). Take one over to Los Cerritos for a thrilling start to your surfing adventure.
Art Walks Through San José del Cabo
For a relaxed outdoor activity, join an art walk through San José del Cabo, Cabo San Lucas' more laid-back neighbor. Every Thursday evening from November to June, the Gallery District's main drag is closed to car traffic, and visitors mingle with locals while gallery hopping and checking out new exhibits. Don't miss the contemporary art with a side of mezcal at Patricia Mendoza Gallery, where you can also shop for local crafts that support worthy causes.
Where to Stay
This new oasis in the desert has just seven jacales, or huts, where guests have private kitchens stocked with all the ingredients needed for DIY guacamole and more; a deck with a telescope for stargazing; a record player and speaker system; and an outdoor soaking tub.
The resort's design is impeccable, with attention to every detail and a spotlight on local desert flora throughout. The pool is lined with plush day beds, a sombrero on each, and down every cactus-lined walkway is a new surprise, be it a hidden bar, a garden, or a lookout tower with sunset views from above and a jacuzzi below.
The on-site restaurant, Coyote, sets the scene with a retro Airstream and neon lighting and delivers on big flavor with fire-grilled octopus, roasted shrimp with chorizo, and wood-grilled prime strip loin.
Set on 25 acres in the foothills of San Jose del Cabo, Acre was first known for its restaurant and cocktail bar — still a main draw for visitors — which serves up popular cheddar biscuits and fresh salads, chocolate clams, grilled fish, and suckling pig. The resort makes its own mezcal, and its cocktails are inventive while still letting local ingredients shine. But now, travelers can stay overnight at Acre's 12 treehouse suites and wake up among the palms. On the grounds are two swimming pools, pickle ball and bocce courts, a puppy rescue, friendly goats, and private residences. Guests can also mingle with Fausto, the resident peacock, who has a kitschy diner named after him on property.
JetBlue launched daily nonstop service to Los Cabos International Airport to and from both New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) and Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) in June. Flights from LAX start at $76 one way, and flights from JFK start at $144. Book your flight at jetblue.com.
Nina Ruggiero is Travel + Leisure's deputy digital editor. A New Yorker living in Los Angeles, she's happiest on a beach, a cobblestone street, or in a hotel bathtub with a view. Find her on Instagram @ninamarienyc.