On the Road in Baja

The earth's second-longest peninsula, Baja encompasses more than 700 miles of the mystical, ethereal, majestic and untamed. Some feel the rush of adrenalin as they surf that perfect wave. Others hike in wonder through sherbet-colored canyons or rack up marine mammal sightings. Still others head for the beaches, or the all-night party hotspots. Each year more people arrive in Baja and never get around to going home.

Don’t be afraid to hit the road: Baja's a place where it pays to drive. Base yourself in La Paz or one of the southerly cities of the Cabos, and strike out to discover things for yourself. The Transpeninsular Highway offers stunning vistas at every turn, and side roads pass through tiny villages or wind along the sides of mountains. Hopscotch through colonial mission outposts throughout the peninsula, or hunt for pre-Hispanic cave paintings in the Sierra de San Francisco. You’ll find that the middle of nowhere can be more beautiful than you ever imagined.

Some of Mexico's most jaw-dropping marine life thrives here. In winter and spring, spot breaching gray whales as they linger to calve in Baja's lagoons. Kayak with colossal checkerboard-backed whale sharks at Espíritu Santo, and dive and snorkel in the underwater coral reef wonderland of the Sea of Cortez. Back on shore, watch for frisky sea lions and sage-faced sea turtles.

Surfers can choose from scores of breaks including the Los Cabos Corridor and nearby Todos Santos, as well as San Miguel, Jim Morrison's former hangout north of Ensenada. To catch air instead, windsurf or kitesurf at the wave-free waters of La Ventana and Los Barriles.

Baja’s parks and reserves are some of Mexico’s most varied and beautiful, harboring fragile creatures and plants that exist nowhere else on the planet. Ponder the surreal desertscape of the grand Reserva de la Biosfera El Vizcaíno, or the highland pine forests of Parque Nacional Constitución de 1857 and Parque Nacional Sierra San Pedro Mártir, home to bobcats and bighorn sheep. In the south, amble through ocotillo, cholla and other desert marvels that thrive in areas that might not feel rain for a decade. At the peninsula's southern tip, trek through cardón cacti and palo verde forests in Reserva de la Biosfera Sierra de la Laguna, with jewel-like springs or even waterfalls along the way.

Last but not least, sample a plate of fish tacos - Baja's staple comfort food - and raise your glass. Grape lovers should taste test between Ensenada and Tecate at the vineyards of the Ruta del Vino, where blushing red hills and eerie dolomite landscapes set the backdrop for boutique, award-winning wines. Though if your wild child seeks party central, proceed directly to lovely Cabo San Lucas, home of an iconic seaside arch and a nonstop spring break scene. Or just kick off your shoes before dusk at the nearest stretch of sand, contemplate the salted rim of a chilled margarita and drink in a fiery Pacific sunset.

This article was updated in June 2012.