You can (and many do) head to the Cabo resorts of Baja California Sur and do nothing more energetic than raise your arm by the pool to order another cocktail – but you’d be missing out on the chance to experience the natural wonders that this part of Mexico has to offer. Marvel at the marinelife and enjoy the water-based activities of the second-longest peninsula in the world with our suggestions for the top places to ditch the all-inclusive.

Sea, sand and cactus - Baja has an enticing coastline. Image by BOISVIEUX Christophe / Getty Images

Swim with the fishes (and sea lions) off Espíritu Santo

You have to have something special for Unesco to award you World Heritage Status and Espíritu Santo certainly does. Lying just off the east coast of Baja California near the town of La Paz, these two islands offer hikes and pristine beaches aplenty, but the real fun is out on the water where you can kayak from bay to bay, snorkel and dive with the fishes, and head to a sea lion colony for a swim with these inquisitive and playful creatures.

Between Espíritu Santo and the mainland lies one of the best places in Mexico for spotting and swimming with whale sharks, the largest fish in the ocean. Despite many sharks’ man-eating reputation, these guys are more interested in eating plankton than humans, meaning you can get amazingly close to these gentle giants without the Jaws theme tune popping into your head.

Many companies offer trips to Espíritu Santo out of La Paz, including Baja Outdoor Activities (kayactivities.com).

Kayakers enjoying the scenery around Espiritu Santo island.

Surfing and turtles at Los Cerritos

If you’ve ever wanted to try surfing there are plenty of worse places to start than the beach at Los Cerritos. This largely undeveloped strip of sand on Baja’s west coast has a school for beginner break-catchers, with a practice session on the beach followed by some actual wave riding. It lies just south of the pretty town of Todos Santos where you can visit the (allegedly) original Hotel California. You can also arrange sea turtle monitoring trips from the town, helping conservationists work with these endangered creatures, and enjoy nerve- and leg-testing mountain bike rides in the rugged and hilly but beautiful countryside nearby.

Surfing, sea turtle monitoring and other local activities can be organised with Todos Santos Eco Adventures (tosea.net).

Pretty Todos Santos is a great base for exploring Baja California Sur. Image by Clifton Wilkinson / Lonely Planet.

Sunsets and more turtles at Magdalena Bay

Another sea turtle monitoring group allows visitors to camp in dunes and go turtle monitoring in Magdalena Bay, northwest of Todos Santos. Enjoy a margarita on the beach as the sun goes down before boarding a boat and heading out into the bioluminescent waters to search for turtles under the starlit sky. Any turtles found are weighed, measured and tagged before being returned to the water. If you’re as lucky as one particularly fortunate travel writer, you might even get a turtle named after you.

To take part in the turtle monitoring at Magdalena Bay join a trip run by Red Sustainable Travel (redtravelmexico.com).

The original Cliff and his newly named turtle counterpart. Image by Clifton Wilkinson / Lonely Planet

Babysitting gray whales in San Ignacio Lagoon

Chances are you’ve never babysat a gray whale before, but head up the west coast of Baja California Sur and you might just get the chance. The San Ignacio Lagoon, part of the vast land and sea Vizcaino Reserve, is a huge whale nursery where at the height of the season (roughly January to March) you can expect to see these spectacular creatures in large numbers. Originally feared because of their occasional propensity to overturn boats (who can blame them when their only experience of humans was being hunted almost to extinction?), this species of whale is now seen as one of the most friendly and curious, displaying an interest in visitors that can’t fail to charm. Mothers often swim up to the boats with their calves, only to then swim away for a few minutes leaving the photo-snapping whale-watchers to ‘babysit’ their young. Dolphins might try to photobomb your pics but they can’t compete with a 15-foot-long, 2000-pound ‘baby’.

Ecoturismo Kuyima (kuyima.com) can arrange stays and whale-watching trips, with accommodation in their tents right by San Ignacio Lagoon.

Gray whales have become used to human interaction in San Ignacio Lagoon. Image by Doug Steakley / Lonely Planet Images / Getty Images

Blue whales watching in Loreto Bay National Park

Jacques Cousteau called the Sea of Cortez (the body of water between Baja and mainland Mexico) the ‘aquarium of the world’ because of the huge diversity of sea life there, and if one creature deserves the title of ‘king of the aquarium’ it’s the blue whale. The largest creature ever thought to have lived, seeing this magnificent whale is a truly memorable experience and the waters off Loreto, the pretty town on Baja’s east coast that’s also home to the first mission church built in all the Californias, offer prime spotting opportunities in season (February to April). Even if you don’t manage to catch sight of this giant of the sea, there’s always the chance to see the acrobatic dolphins and belly-flopping manta rays that live here too.

Go on your search for blue whales with Danzante tours (viajesdanzante.com).

Clifton Wilkinson traveled to Baja California Sur with support from the Baja California Sur Tourism Board. Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.

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