Sure, the city life in Tijuana is bustling and vibrant with its all-night clubs, soccer games, zonkeys, Lucha Libre matches, cultural museums, and taco alleys. But Baja California Norte has so much more to offer within a three-hour radius.
Round out your vacation with these eight exciting day trips (well, technically seven day trips and one worthwhile multi-day add-on) that will take you from the tip-tops of mountains with panoramic views to the depths of the great white shark-infested Pacific. Along the way, sip world-class wines, dive into decadent lobster dinners, relax with massages or retail therapy, try your hand at surfing and sandboarding down steep dunes, and take in the natural beauty of coastal enclaves like Ensenada and Rosarito Beach or the rustic countryside of Valle de Guadalupe and Tecate. You can even walk to another country.
Tequila may be the beverage most commonly associated with Mexico, but one trip to this esteemed but still mostly under-the-radar wine region and you’ll be making room on your bar cart. Fertile soil and a Mediterranean microclimate encouraged Casa Madero, the oldest operating winery in the Americas, to put down roots in 1597 and more than 150 wineries have followed suit, growing and blending a tremendous range of varietals. Most offer tastings and tours; some boast food pairings and other activities like live music.
Decantos, La Lomita, Vena Cava, and Monte Xanic are great introductory stops. As wine is always better with food, exceptional restaurants have also made their way to the Valle, including Deckman’s (run by a Michelin-starred chef who loves cooking with live fire), Animalón (Javier Plascencia’s seasonal pop-up set up under a 200-year-old oak), and Fauna, the Bruma wine estate’s fine dining arm run by an Ensenada native who returned home after working in the trenches of Eleven Madison Park. Newer businesses and younger owners have brought midcentury-meets-industrial chic design and hip concepts like Agua de Vid’s rooftop DJ bar, eco-spa, and shipping container art gallery. Super sippers should consider overnighting in one of the many fetching properties and glampgrounds.
Getting There: The heart of wine country is less than two hours from Tijuana by car via Mexico 1D. For flexibility, we'd suggest driving yourself but organized tours of all sizes are available.
Travel Tip: Whether you get on the road early or stay overnight, make sure to be around for at least one traditional Sinaloan breakfast at La Cocina de Doña Esthela. Watch ladies make tortillas the old-fashioned way while you wait for hot plates of fresh queso fresco, shredded beef machaca, chilaquiles, coffee spiked with cinnamon and brown sugar, or birria de borrego (wood-roasted lamb) to be delivered.
Although it’s the third largest city in Baja and one of the Pacific Coast’s most popular cruise ports, Ensenada gives off chill vacation vibes with every refreshing and strong margarita, every stall-sold fish taco (the beer-battered crispy style with cabbage, lime, pico de gallo, and crema was invented here), every ramble along the waterfront past old-world architecture and traditional crafters, every burst of La Bufadora (a marine blowhole best seen from a kayak), every prize catch reeled in from the cold-water currents, every gray whale-watching jaunt (December and April), every hike in not one but two national parks (Constitución de 1857 and Sierra San Pedro Martir), every tasting of artisanal beer at Aguamala and Wendlant, every condor sighting, and every dip in a hot spring in the hills surrounding the seaside haunt.
Getting There: Driving from downtown to downtown via 1D usually takes roughly an hour and 45 minutes as they're about 70 miles apart.
Travel Tip: The main highways have multiple toll collection booths so be prepared to stop and have pesos handy.
The only border town to earn the country’s Pueblo Magico (magical city) status enchants with bucolic splendor, sprawling historic ranchos (Rancho La Puerta is consistently ranked among the best wellness/weight-loss retreats in the world), rustic restaurants, and a slow-paced way of life. The wine route begins here and thus vineyards add more eye candy and opportunities for tasting (Vinos Bichi, Vinos Veramendi, and Rosa de Castilla). It affords ancient and outdoorsy experiences aplenty including hiking at El Carrizo Dam or up Montaña Sagrada del Cuchuma (where the Kumiai still carry out devotional rituals to mountain spirits), studying cave paintings at El Vallecito, and rock scrambling or rappelling at the geological oddity La Rumorosa.
Getting There: Tecate is 31 miles east using Mexico 2D and 3. It'll take about 45 minutes and there are tolls.
Travel Tip: Refuel and reward yourself with two of the city’s specialties: bread and beer, the making of which often lends a very yeasty intoxicating scent to the air. International brand Tecate was born here in 1944 and while it’s still the king of beers here, it now has competition from up-and-coming craft breweries like Cervecería Santería.
It’s hard to get bored in this beach town built for vacations. It’s brimming with condos, resorts, seafood and taco joints (get carne asada at Tacos El Yaqui Perrones), sandy shores with every level of surf break (Playa La Misión is the recommended public beach.), spas, golf courses, boutiques, and raucous nightlife. You can even kite surf, zip line, or ride a camel here. If this all sounds too noisy to you, opt instead for a trek up Cerro El Corone,l where it's said that you can see from San Diego to Todos Santos on a clear day or the ghost of an 1800s colonel looking for his stolen gold on a spooky one.
Getting There: It's 19 miles south of downtown. The 1D highway runs parallel with the coast, which makes it slightly more scenic. Mexico 1 is about 5 miles shorter but can take longer depending on city traffic.
Travel Tip: In the late ‘90s, director James Cameron built a studio and massive water tanks to film complicated "Titanic" sinking scenes. It wound up kickstarting the Baja movie industry. Things might look familiar if you’re a fan of "Fear The Walking Dead," "Selena: The Series," or "Jumper."
Folks come from far and wide to this tiny fishing village made up of an entrance arch and a few streets for one thing and one thing only—lobster, and lots of it. Caught in the Pacific waters that surround it for generations, about 100,000 crustaceans are served in 30 lobster houses every year with the traditional sides of beans, rice, and flour tortillas on the side. If you're not interested in the shell game, most restaurants serve other fresh fish and meats as well.
Getting There: It's in the Rosarito Beach Municipality and is a 20-minute drive south of RB's main hotel zone on 1D.
Travel Tip: The main drag has several little stalls and shops hawking silver, crafts, pottery, piñatas, sugar skulls, and knockoff pro sports jerseys, but Tijuana and Ensenada have wider selections of the same trinkets.
Los Algodones: Sandboarding
Sandboarding, which sends riders flying down steep sandy hills on something akin to a snowboard, has become quite popular in Baja of late and the Cuervitos Dunes are one of the only places in the nation to do it. Several companies offer guided outings to the dunes and equipment rentals including Adixion and Baja Excursions. Afterward, head to Los Algodones, which boasts some picturesque views, especially of the Colorado River and the sprawling cotton fields that gave the town its name. (They bloom in September.)
Getting There: Tucked into the northeastern most corner of the state, Los Algodones, listed in Google Maps by its formal name Vicente Guerrero, is almost three and a half hours away via Mexico 2D and BC 8. The dunes are 13 minutes west of the city off the same road.
Travel Tip: Looking for something that requires a tad less adrenaline? Walk along the dune spines or joyride in dune buggies or other all-terrain vehicles.
This 4-mile stretch of sand is the southernmost beach town in California and offers the expected laidback vibes, sunset strolls on the pier, fishing, beach volleyball, and horseback riding. They hold an annual sandcastle festival and have an outdoor surfboard museum. It's also where the Tijuana River meets the ocean to create the largest saltwater marsh in SoCal, the Tijuana Estuary. Given its position under the Pacific Flyway, it's a prime place to post up to watch birds, 370 species of migratory and native birds including six endangered ones to be exact, while they breed, feed, nest, and rest. Explore 4 miles of trails on your own or with a guide on free nature walks on weekends. The 200-acre Otay Valley Regional Park in nearby Chula Vista is another spot where feathered friends flock.
Getting There: Roughly 8 miles north off I5, the drive is not the unknown in this travel equation. That would be how long it takes to cross the border. Often you can cut the wait time dramatically by walking across at PedWest and then getting a rideshare to your destination.
Travel Tip: You'll also see more than a few birds while riding along the Bayshore Bikeway. The 24-mile paved path connects IB to downtown San Diego and Coronado Island and incorporates the sun-soaked Silver Strand isthmus and its wetlands.
Isla Guadalupe: Shark Week IRL
This trip cannot be done in a day as the rugged volcanic island is 210 miles out in the Pacific and takes about 18-20 hours by boat to get. But we're making an exception because you might never be this close to arguably one of the best places in the world to cage dive with great white sharks again. The biosphere ranks so well thanks to its remote location, excellent water visibility, and healthy seal population. So if coming eye-to-eye with Jaws in open water is on your bucket list, add some time to your itinerary to take an all-inclusive live-aboard journey with a company like Horizon Charters or Incredible Adventures.
Getting There: Most trips depart from San Diego or Ensenada, but shuttles from Tijuana or SD are often included in packages. Arriving the day before you're scheduled to set sail is recommended.
Travel Tip: The season typically starts in July when feisty males start showing up. Numbers peak August through October; expect to see double-digit sharks each day. MId-October through December is referred to as the time of the titans as sightings will mostly be of female sharks the size of a Jeep (18-20 feet long).