Gray whales, land and sea adventures, and beautiful coastline await you in Baja’s best-kept secret vacation spot
In recent years, the travel world has been abuzz with “newly discovered” vacation destinations in Mexico, like Tulum, Todos Santos, San Miguel de Allende, and even Mexico City. We’re here to tell you that we know the next great under-the-radar spot for adventurous travelers: San Ignacio, Baja California Sur. You’ll find nary a fancy hotel or a brightly adorned hipster there (yet), and that’s one of the reasons we love it.
Located in the interior of Baja California Sur, San Ignacio is a tranquil oasis ideal for adventurous travelers and safe enough for solo wanderers and families. In recent years, San Ignacio has become a popular destination for in-the-know whale watchers (read: a niche group), but travel editors have majorly missed the boat on this spot, perfect for a relaxing and outdoorsy vacation in Mexico.
One reason why San Ignacio hasn’t made it into the mainstream is that it’s admittedly hard to reach. To get there, you’ll need to take a direct, two-hour flight from LAX to Loreto, a modern, easy-to-navigate airport on the Sea of Cortez. When you arrive, arrange for a rental car and hit the road. It’s a four-hour drive to San Ignacio, but the route takes you along one of the world’s most beautiful stretches of road, hemmed by aquamarine waters and vast cactus fields.
Flying is the quickest option, but this area is also a popular destination for American road-trippers who drive down from San Diego (it’s about a 12-hour trip) and park their cars on the beach at night. If you follow suit, you will have to pass through a checkpoint with armed Mexican officials (not to worry, they’re just looking for smugglers). But, to be safe, keep all small valuables, such as your phone and wallet, on you.
Get up Close to Gray Whales
If you have heard of San Ignacio, it’s probably because of San Ignacio Lagoon, the ancient breeding and calving grounds of gray whales, and for that reason, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Every fall, Pacific gray whales migrate 6,000 miles down to Mexico from the Arctic so they can give birth in the warm, tranquil waters of San Ignacio Lagoon. The gray whale mothers raise their calves there, and in April, turn around to make their return voyage. (Fun fact: Gray whales travel 12,000 miles per year, one of the longest annual migrations of any animal!)
One of the biggest draws of San Ignacio Lagoon is the ability to get close to gray whales, and we mean close. The gray whale calves, in a show of playfulness and trust, come right up to the whale watching boats. The curious, puppy-like giants spin in the water, spout, roll on their backs, and spyhop, while their protective mothers stand watch at a distance. There is nowhere else in the world where whales seek this type of human interaction, and it is a deeply moving experience.
There is no explanation for why the whale calves come so close to the boats in San Ignacio Lagoon. To prevent the whales from being lured, whale watching in the area is very tightly regulated by the Mexican government, environmental organizations, and the small coastal community. (Important note: major environmental agencies like Oceana, Oceanic Society, NRDC, and National Geographic all endorse the whale watching there).
Photo by Greg Ullery for Gray Whale Gin
During our recent visit to Baja California Sur, we were accompanied by Oceana’s senior scientist, Geoff Shester. Shester believes that the whale calves “come up to the boat in an honest display of curiosity and social behavior.” “Because the calves are raised in the warm, peaceful lagoon, they have no reason to distrust humans,” he claims; Shester even believes that the interactions represent a “rekindling of an ancient bond between humans and whales, which we have done a really good job of screwing up.”
Elliot Clark for Gray Whale Gin
To see the whales, you must book with a local tour company. We really liked our experience with Antonio’s EcoTours, but other companies include: Oceanic Society, Baja Eco Tours, and Pachicos. Many of the tour companies have beautiful, but basic, lodging on the coast, although we chose to stay inland at Ignacio Springs.
A Mix of Outdoor Adventures
In greater San Ignacio, you can find the oceanside activities of any Mexican resort destination: swimming, boating, kayaking, snorkeling, sport fishing, and scuba diving on beautiful beaches with aquamarine water. What sets San Ignacio apart is its inland location—not what you normally think of when you picture a trip toward the equator. That doesn’t mean it’s without water, though.
San Ignacio sits on the Rio San Ignacio, a fresh body of water that moves so slowly it feels more like a giant swimming pool. The river is a perfect place to kayak, swim, stand-up paddleboard, and search for tucked away beaches and rope swings. The river feels strangely like a palm- and cactus-lined Russian River—a perfect place to spend a relaxing, sun-drenched day lounging and exploring.
Greater San Ignacio is home to over 200 painted caves, which date back over 7,400 years. To visit the caves, you must hire a guide, like Kuyima Ecotourism, which offers day trips and multi-day expeditions. These excursions can be as physical as you like–reaching some of the caves requires very intense hiking. Kuyima also offers multi-day, pack-animal assisted hiking trips throughout the region.
A Safe and Tranquil Town
A visit to the city of San Ignacio, Baja California Sur feels like a step back in time. The colonial town is built around a laurel-shaded plaza that sits at the foot of a 300-year-old mission. With a population of only 700, there isn’t a lot going on, and that’s just the way we like it for a relaxing, sun-drenched vacation.
San Ignacio is also incredibly safe—there hasn’t ever been a documented, violent crime against North Americans in the region. The men and women in our travel group felt incredibly safe walking around San Ignacio during the day and at night. Just like anywhere, it’s good to use caution, but San Ignacio is one destination in Mexico where you can really relax and enjoy the local culture.
Margs, Fresh Seafood, and Dates Galore
There are a handful of good restaurants in San Ignacio. We enjoyed eating at Rancho Grande Restaurant & Bar–margaritas, enchiladas, and big helpings of fresh guacamole–and our hosts at Ignacio Springs recommended Franks, also on the plaza.
Date palms cover San Ignacio, so you can indulge in just about everything date-related. We loved the date shake at the local ice cream joint and a handmade date pie from an open-air shop in town.
We enjoyed eating breakfast and dinner at our hotel, Ignacio Springs (more below). The produce, meat, and seafood were all incredibly fresh, delicious, and exceptionally prepared.
Visit a 300-Year-Old Mission
Spanish Jesuits first colonized San Ignacio, home to the aboriginal Cochimí people, in 1706. The Jesuits soon realized that the fresh-water river on the edge of the modern-day town created a rich agricultural oasis, ideal for fueling further expansion on the peninsula. Soon thereafter, construction began on Mission San Ignacio, which was completed in 1728. The formidable, adjoining church (pictured here) was completed by Dominican missionaries in 1786.
The Mission San Ignacio stands strong today. The community does a wonderful job maintaining the mission and its grounds, which holds a cactus garden, stunning bougainvillea, citrus trees, and a couple of grape vines—a nod to the history of Jesuit wine making in the area.
The cavernous, beautifully adorned church still regularly plays host to worship, and when not in use, is open to the public. We highly recommend spending a little time in the church, for its beauty, historic significance, and that cool, distinctly churchy air.
One of the many highlights of our trip was our stay at Ignacio Springs, an eco-friendly yurt hotel on the Rio San Ignacio. Each yurt has its own bathroom, air-conditioning, outdoor table for lounging and games, and a window at the top of the dome for watching the date palms above gently blowing in the wind.
Ignacio Springs sits right on the river’s edge, making it the perfect destination for swimming, kayaking, and stand-up paddleboarding. During our trip, we spent a whole day paddling the waters, bird watching, and chaise lounging.
The food at Ignacio Springs is incredibly memorable, too. In the mornings, our hosts (warm Canadian expats) welcomed us to a hearty breakfast of fresh, local fruit, amazing house-made jam (pineapple! jalapeño!), eggs, toast, tamales, bacon, and potatoes. In the evenings, we feasted on bright, local produce, meat, and seafood, enjoying dishes like fresh-caught prawns and tomato salad. Yum!
San Ignacio sits in the Mulegé Municipality, home to some of the world’s most incredible beaches. During our return trip from San Ignacio to the airport in Loreto, we spent the afternoon splashing in the aquamarine waters of Playa El Burro, an intensely beautiful beach on the Sea of Cortez.
If you have time, we highly recommend spending a night or two in the nearby city of Mulegé. The beach town has a couple of lodging and dining options, and the stretches of coast surrounding it are some of the prettiest in the world.
Another great place to stop is Loreto, Mexico, the most upscale of the coastal towns in the municipality. Loreto has a number of high-end hotels, incredible outdoor adventure opportunities, world-class seafood, and the laid-back attitude that we fell in love with on our journey through Baja California Sur.
Special thanks to Gray Whale Gin, who hosted our trip to San Ignacio, in partnership with Oceana. The two are committed to raising awareness about gray whales and the dangers they face on their migratory journey. Learn more at oceana.org/stopthenets and graywhalegin.co