Barely outside the city limits of Los Cabos, the urban sprawl gives way to desert, shopping malls to cactus, and the domesticated coastline of WaveRunners and sunset bars is once again wild. Here you'll find the peninsula's best surfing and snorkeling, some of its best diving and hiking, and a wealth of genuine cultural attractions in Southern Baja's expat arts center, Todos Santos, and bayside state capital, La Paz. And it's nearly all accessible via a well-maintained highway loop that makes the region an easy series of day trips from Los Cabos or a destination of its own using either Los Cabos International airport or La Paz.
Just north of San José and south of La Paz along the Sea of Cortez, the East Cape is a string of spectacularly wild, empty beaches, cut through the rocks where the mountainous desert meets the sea. Its geography is dramatic, and challenging. Where Hwy. 1 cuts inland south of La Paz, at La Ribera, the only access to the East Cape's coast is a dirt road; it takes about 4 hours to cover the 100km (62 miles) between Buenavista and San José -- the remote location for some of Baja's most beautiful coastline, including Cabo Pulmo, the site of a national marine park and the peninsula's best snorkeling.
La Paz, the state capital, spreads across the hills leading down to its spectacular natural Sea of Cortez port. The city is big enough that it has nothing to prove, but still small enough to allow for easy exploration and a friendly, neighborhood feel. Its city charms are legion -- it's the day-trip destination of choice for all those expats in Todos Santos -- and it's the only place in southern Baja where you can go diving and to the ballet in the same day. Offshore islands rich in wildlife above and below the waterline, pristine beaches, and crystalline water are all within easy reach of downtown, and it's easy to spend the day here roughing it on the waves, and the evening at a sophisticated restaurant, listening to jazz.
All that changes when you get to Todos Santos, on the Pacific side. This palm grove and mission town set uphill from the beaches is an oasis both for its underground aquifers and its aboveground civilization. Founded in 1723 by missionaries, it was a buggy outpost for centuries until it was re-colonized by surfers in the 1980s, and more recently by ever-increasing waves of U.S. and Canadian expatriates who continue to expand the town's cultural offerings with a conquistador's zeal. Just about every month sees the opening of a restaurant, cafe, or bar; the town of about 4,000 now has at least 20 art galleries, nine hotels, and a film festival, and tourism is a major earner. Todos Santos was named one of 30 "Pueblos Magicos" ("Magical Towns") by the Mexican government in 2006, a designation that confers official bragging rights to one of Mexico's most picturesque towns, as well as one that imposes restrictions on development.
North of Cabo San Lucas, the Pacific coast is one long, foamy stretch of sand and waves, dotted with surfers and sea lions and golden as the sun goes down. The so-called "Pacific Side" is Southern Baja's original surf destination, a string of wintertime breaks whose names are traded by word of mouth; there have been fishing boats and surf camps here for generations, but little else. While real-estate fever hit here as much as anywhere -- you'll see FOR SALE signs all the way from Cabo to Todos Santos -- this area has remained virtually undeveloped, and the few outposts of tourism, in Cerritos and Pescadero, are still extremely low-key. This is the place for walking the beach, catching a few waves, and sipping a beer as the sun goes down -- and not much else.