Los Cabos has become the new Las Vegas. Stars jet in for long weekends. Spring break rages on Médano Beach. Sammy Hagar and friends rock all night long at Cabo Wabo. But Los Cabos is only one small part of the state of Baja California Sur. Keeping the true spirit and culture of this Mexican peninsula alive is a series of small towns scattered in the mountains between the Los Cabos cities of Cabo San Lucas, San José del Cabo, and the state capital of La Paz.
The drive to these tiny villages is worth the trip itself. The twisting two-lane highway to these townships provides 100 miles of spectacular mountain and valley views. Keep an eye out for a handful of lookout spots to pull over and view the amazing vistas. Stop along the way when you see a local vendor selling fresh fruit, coconut water, or nieves (iced treats). If the car in front of yours turns on their hazards, slow down. You are being warned that ahead lie cows, sheep, or horses crossing your path. Be aware that a left turn signal does not necessarily mean the car in front of you is turning, but it could be a courtesy to tell you it is safe to pass a slow-moving vehicle.
Below are some small towns worth the visit in Baja California Sur:
The first town about an hour north of Cabo San Lucas is Miraflores. A quiet, rustic hamlet with authentic Mexican flare. Local handcrafted leather and furniture can be found at modest stores along the main street. Be sure to bring your pesos and some basic Spanish to get a good deal. The leather makers are said to be the only saddlery in Baja California Sur, and offer unique purses, briefcases, belts, and shoes, including authentic Mexican huaraches. Artisan furniture can also be purchased here, without the Los Cabos tourist mark-up. A farm town, unique fresh fruit like pitaya and, of course, papaya can be purchased whole or in jams here. Local beef provides some delicious chorizo and other tasty meats.
Drive through Miraflores to the west toward Boca de la Sierra National Park. This local Mexican favorite is unspoiled by commercial tourism. Here you can hike the mountain, follow the San Bernardo stream to the lake, and splash in waterfalls. Relish in the unspoiled beauty of this stunning natural paradise.
Tropic of Cancer
Fifteen minutes north of Miraflores is the Tropic of Cancer monument noting the 23.5˚parallel of latitude, one of the five major circles of latitude around the earth. Make a quick stop. Light a candle for Mary, take a picture with the globe showing the Tropic, and if you are lucky and their stores are open, visit some of the vendors.
The next city on your stop is Santiago which hosts natural hot springs and a small zoo. The zoo is more of an animal rescue. Not a lot of animals are housed here, but it is free and there is some beautiful foliage to view as well. Finding the Santiago hot springs, or las aguas termales, can be a bit of an adventure. Best to do a little research before heading there as the springs are definitely off the beaten path, but finding the hot springs are half of the fun of going there. Ask for help from the locals and come prepared with a four-wheel drive vehicle, or pay someone to take you to the springs. The springs themselves are beautiful and very rustic. Five different springs are in these local mountains. Some with amenities and overnight camping for a small fee. Some remain natural and free. The water in lower pools runs about 70 F and are full of fish and the occasional water snake. Don’t worry, the snakes are more interested in the fish than your toes, but some of the little fish may try to take a nibble at your legs! The top pools can be 80 F to 100 F the closer you get to the start of the spring. Waterfalls are also found in this area.
East Cape / Los Barriles
No longer one of the hidden gems of Baja California, the coastal town of Los Barriles is worth the stop if you want a break from the mountains. Walk the miles of rocky beaches. Watch or learn kite surfing. Check out the local trinket shops. More Norte Americano-focused than the others listed here, this town can give you a break from speaking Spanish for a bit. If you want your day to be an immersion into the local Mexican culture, you may want to keep driving.
Just 20 minutes north of Los Barriles on Highway 1 is San Bartolo. San Bartolo offers easier-to-find and accessible hot springs. Look for the Ojo de Agua (eye of water) signs. This hot spring has been made into a swimming pool and is lined with food stands. Take some time to wade, feast, and relax. A family favorite, this attraction is not open every day or year-round. On our last drive through San Bartolo in the spring of 2021, we saw Harrison Ford and some friends biking down the highway between San Bartolo and the East Cape.
Drive north of San Bartolo to visit El Triunfo. This small town hosts a music museum and a new cultural center to be opening soon. If you stop by on a Sunday, you can enjoy local specialties at the farmers’ market before heading back down the Baja.
This small colonial town was the site of a prosperous gold and silver mining community founded in the late 18th century by Manuel de Ocio. At its height, El Triunfo was the largest city in Baja California Sur with a population of 10,000. The mine closed in 1926 after a major hurricane left behind a very small group of families and the abandoned mine. The largest smokestack in this town, La Romana, rumored to be designed by Gustav Eiffel of the Eiffel Tower fame, is the perfect place to start your tour. Head toward the abandoned smokestack to see old mining equipment and the brick ruins of the mine. Rent horses to explore the trails or go on foot. Follow the trails to the mirador, or lookout, for an incredible view of the mountains and quaint town. On your way to the mirador, stop at the Panteon Ingles cemetery to see the aboveground mausoleums of English citizens who had worked the mines.
Head north a few miles from El Triunfo to find Santuario de los Cactus. This 124-acre cactus sanctuary is home to many plants and cacti only found in the Baja. One hour further north on the winding mountain roadway is the state capital of La Paz.
If you are not heading up to La Paz, on your drive back to Los Cabos be sure to check out Cabo Pulmo. About 30 minutes down the coast from the East Cape, Cabo Pulmo is the home of a federally protected National Marine Park and is included in the UNESCO World Heritage list. Jacque Cousteau has called Cabo Pulmo “The World’s Aquarium,” and it is. Stingray and colorful fish abound. Swim with the whale sharks, snorkel, or dive an old shipwreck. View the beauty of one of only three living North American coral reefs. Stay the night by renting eco-friendly accommodation and relax in this natural sanctuary.
Whether you head down from La Paz or up from Los Cabos, a trip through the mountain roads to these small towns will provide amazing scenic beauty and adventures off the beaten path.