I’ve been fortunate to have kayaked in many areas of Baja California. Shaped like a finger, and stretching south from the U.S. state of California, the peninsula is surrounded by water and has thousands of miles of coast. There are many reasons that it is considered one of the world’s most iconic sea kayak destinations, not the least of which is the spectacular scenery. The dramatic mountains of various ranges drop dramatically to the sea, setting a stunning backdrop. Dozens of islands are in the sea, including those of the Islands of Loreto National Park, located near the town of Loreto. Further south is the fabulous Espiritu Santos where crenulated bays invite kayakers with clear turquoise waters. On shore, white sand beaches make for ideal camping, while trails and paths lead the curious to arroyos where subtle desert life is in abundance. Cacti, shrubs and colorful flowers abound along with darting lizards and a variety of birdlife.
Below the sea’s surface is as beautiful as the scenes above. The Sea of Cortez, considered one of the richest marine environments in the world, is a snorkeler’s delight where a rainbow of tropical fish is easy to observe. Swaying corals, sea stars and urchins add to the wonder. At times even the surface is alive as mantas jump, dolphins swim and during the late winter months, whales cruise. This active and fascinating marine ecosystem is a kayaker’s delight.
In addition to the Gulf of California side of Baja, there is also kayaking on the Pacific Coast side, where gray whales come in winter from the cold waters of the arctic to birth their young in three different bays of Baja.
So, what are the best sea kayaking areas of Baja? Luckily there are many choices. Some are easier to access than others, but all offer the paddle rich rewards.
Isla Espiritu Santos Kayaking
The most popular kayak area in Baja would be Isla Espiritu Santos. To reach the island, you take a boat ride for about an hour and a half-hour from the capital of Baja Sur, La Paz. One reason for the area's popularity is that it’s easy to reach by flying to Cabo San Jose and taking a shuttle north about two and a half hours. The west side of the island has numerous deep bays protected from wind, making for ideal paddling conditions. There are many beaches for camping. The Park has marked trails as well, inviting exploration of the interior of this long island with several hundred feet of elevation in the middle. At the north end of the island is Isla Lobos, a popular spot for swimming with juvenile sea lions.
The east side of the island is also one of the best places for kayaking in Baja Mexico, but weather conditions need to cooperate. It’s not a good place to be when there’s a southerly wind. Keep in mind that the island is protected and administered as National Park, and permits for kayaking are required.
Isla San Jose Kayaking
For those seeking a more remote paddling experience, head north of Espiritu Santos to Isla San Jose. This is one of my favorites and another of the best places for kayaking in Baja Mexico. From La Paz, you drive on a mix of paved and dirt road, three to four hours north. The reward is an island that few others visit. The sea kayaking and paddling are incredible, but timing is key. Generally, it’s best to paddle here in October and early November and then from late March through early May. These are times when the weather is good and winds are less likely to cause havoc. The west side of the island has some interesting sites such as an old salt production facility that looks like it quit working yesterday. It also boasts long beaches that are perfect for sunset strolls and beachcombing. On the northern end of the island, magical arches and small grottos invite the paddler to explore. The combination of beauty and solitude clearly makes a kayaking trip around Isla San Jose one of Baja’s best sea kayaking destinations.
Islands of Loreto Bay Kayaking
Moving north to the charming fishing town of Loreto, the paddler finds a paradise of options. The Islands of Loreto National Park are well managed, and camps are assigned for kayaking groups. This is also a more remote paddling experience than Espiritu Santos, in part because Loreto is a little harder to reach. (Nonstop flights from Los Angeles and Calgary are offered throughout the kayaking season, October through April.) For the novice paddler, shorter three-to-six day paddles to the islands of Danzante and Carmen are perfect. For the more advanced paddler, a real gem is an 8-day circumnavigation of Carmen Island. The remoteness and challenge of this paddle make it one of the best kayak tours or routes in Baja Mexico.
For the intrepid paddler, a legendary epic paddle in Baja goes from Loreto to La Paz! Due to wind direction, this is usually done from north to south. There are miles and miles of empty coastline replete with beaches set beneath the towering coastal mountains. A couple of small fishing hamlets dot the way. Not only is this one of the best kayaking trips in Baja Mexico, but one of the best found on planet earth! Typically it takes 8-10 days for this paddle.
North of Loreto are more options for paddling, including routes both north and south from the small town of Mulege. A person could spend a lifetime exploring the Gulf of California by kayak.
Pacific Coast Kayaking, Baja
A very different kayak experience is available on the west coast of the Baja peninsula where the waves of the Pacific roll into shore. Near the town of Lopez Mateos is Magdalena Bay, a long and shallow lagoon where the gray whales spend January to March raising their young in the protected waters of the bay. Long sand dune islands that stretch from north to south, create a barrier between the open sea and the mainland, giving refuge to the whales. They also create an ideal Baja sea kayaking experience!
Paddling south from Lopez Mateos is a channel about 40 miles long that varies in width from a few hundred yards to around ¾ of a mile. Winds are seldom an issue in this protected area. Camps are in abundance, set among the sand dunes. On the mainland side are miles of mangroves, the ecologically important areas where small fish can grow bigger, protected by the tangle of roots in the water. This is also a key area of a number of shorebirds. The water is shallow, and while you can snorkel, life underwater is not nearly as abundant as on the Gulf of California side of Baja. Nevertheless, this area offers the sea kayaker many rewards. Sunsets over the dunes are a kaleidoscope of reds, oranges, and yellows. Early morning fog is magical. The soft sand of the dunes, a delight between the toes. The paddle south ends in the town of San Carlos from where it’s a quick drive back to Loreto. Because it’s so very different than anything found on the Sea of Cortez, I consider Magdalena Bay another one of the best sea kayaking areas of Baja Mexico. If you time your trip from January through March, you can combine it with an amazing whale watching experience as well!
For many North Americans looking to escape the cold of winter, Baja is an ideal vacation area and kayaking is one of the best ways to explore its wonders. By touring with a local kayak company with Mexican staff (*? Link to our guide profile page?) there is also a fun cultural element. Many kayak guides in Baja are marine biologists and can make your experience that much more enriching.
Whether you travel on your own, or with a local guide service, you are sure to love kayaking in Baja!