As I recently wrote in The Best and Most Beautiful Resort in Cabo... Is Free: Beach Camping in Baja, the best possible place to stay on your trip to Cabo is on the beach. For free. You will be treated to a perfect night sky
Believe it or not, the moon was nearly full the night Justin took this photo -- but the moon set around 2am, and Justin had the chance to capture this beauty.
and secluded beaches where you can do anything from singing at the top of your lungs to enjoying a bonfire -- naked! (not saying I did, not saying you should... but one definitely could, if one wanted to) -- or, I dunno. Conceive a child? (I have a friend who was conceived this way.) Or even just listen to the waves.
Anyway. Now that you know where you'll be staying, it's time to start thinking about where you'll be snorkeling and scuba diving while you're down there. You'll probably want to split your time (which I'm assuming will be about 1-2 weeks -- but feel free to ignore my time recommendations) between Cabo San Lucas, Cabo Pulmo, La Paz, and various Pacific coast cities, like Todos Santos and Los Cerritos.
First, some logistics.
1. I went in late November/early December. I wore a 7mm wetsuit for diving, and often (but not always) snorkeling. It is definitely possible to snorkel (and surf) without a wetsuit. Most people do -- but, since I like to stay in for hours and hours, I prefer to wear a wetsuit. My dive buddy wore a 5mm suit, and he was never cold.
2. Around the exact time I went (November), the wind picks up for the winter. (I think this is true for a lot of Central America.) That can mean more chop and less visibility. I would recommend going a little earlier in the fall or spring for better conditions. Especially if you want to see schooling sharks.
3. If you're bringing your own weight belt, there are two things to keep in mind. First, the water in Cabo is super salty. Saltier than most places I've been diving. It has to do with the whole, lots-of-evaporation-but-very-little-rainfall thing. Second, Justin and I brought our weight belts and brought them onto the plane as carry-ons. We've done this many times before without problems. Getting into Mexico, it was no problem. But getting out, the security people insisted that we check the weights, since... I guess they're weapons? So that ended up costing $25. Which, in my opinion, was worth it -- it's nice to always have weights with you for freediving and whatever. But it's something to keep in mind.
4. If you're planning on renting a car, I'd recommend against Europcar. There's always a huge line there, because they let people confirm online, but once you get there, they try to charge you 4x what they said they would. There's also this thing where lots of credit card companies will insure rental cars for you if you pay for the rental car with a specific card. If you're planning on using this insurance to save money on your rental, GET A LETTER FROM YOUR CREDIT CARD COMPANY verifying that they will insure your car. A lot of car rental places will try to rip you off on this. We called Chase WHILE we were at Europcar, and had them send this letter via email three times. Mysteriously, Europcar claimed they never got any of the emails. So be careful whom you rent from, and make sure you bring a copy of your letter thingy.
Cabo Pulmo (Allow 2-4 days, if possible)
A big part of the reason I decided to go to Cabo in the first place was because of an article I'd read in PLoS ONE that called Cabo Pulmo Marine Preserve "the most robust marine preserve in the world." Here's the abstract:
Cabo Pulmo National Park (CPNP) was created in 1995 and is the only well enforced no-take area in the Gulf of California, Mexico, mostly because of widespread support from the local community. In 1999, four years after the establishment of the reserve, there were no significant differences in fish biomass between CPNP (0.75 t ha−1 on average) and other marine protected areas or open access areas in the Gulf of California. By 2009, total fish biomass at CPNP had increased to 4.24 t ha−1 (absolute biomass increase of 3.49 t ha−1, or 463%), and the biomass of top predators and carnivores increased by 11 and 4 times, respectively. However, fish biomass did not change significantly in other marine protected areas or open access areas over the same time period. The absolute increase in fish biomass at CPNP within a decade is the largest measured in a marine reserve worldwide, and it is likely due to a combination of social (strong community leadership, social cohesion, effective enforcement) and ecological factors. The recovery of fish biomass inside CPNP has resulted in significant economic benefits, indicating that community-managed marine reserves are a viable solution to unsustainable coastal development and fisheries collapse in the Gulf of California and elsewhere.
Pretty impressive. For the huge schools of fish alone, Cabo Pulmo is worth a visit.
But we also saw a couple of turtles
and spotted eagle rays while we were out there.
They've also got a little bit of coral (I mean, it's not Hawaii, but it's something)
Shore diving isn't exactly allowed in Cabo Pulmo -- none of the dive shops will rent you tanks unless you hire a guide. But luckily, the diving here is much better and cheaper than the diving in Cabo San Lucas. $75 will get you a two-tank dive with a dive master. Because the park is highly regulated, so you don't necessarily get to pick the dive sites you visit. There's a monthly limit on how many divers can visit certain sites, and once it's reached, they shut the site down.
Here's a map of some of the more popular sites:
The two best spots are El Vencedor Shipwreck and El Bajo, where you are most likely encounter bull sharks. You might also see schools of big eye trevallies, groupers, snappers, turtles, eels, panamic pork fish, and, seasonally, mobula rays, guitar fish and manta rays. ShipWreck also boasts occasional tiger shark sightings.
But, like I said, there's a possibility you might not be allowed to visit these sites. My advise is to call or email one of the dive shops (you've got about four options) and find out when the monthly quota is reset, and plan your trip around that.
El Islote is also a nice spot -- technically accessible from the shore, if you're willing to go a really long surface swim from Los Arbolitos (which, by the way, also has some great snorkeling close to the shore on the right side of the beach), it has some interesting features and swim-throughs
and pretty clear water -- even on a windy day.
Wherever you go in Cabo Pulmo, if you go in the winter, you're likely to see mobula rays:
We don't know how long mobula rays live, at what age they can reproduce, or why they jump out of the water like this... but it's definitely cool to witness.
To be perfectly honest, I really liked Cabo Pulmo, but I didn't love it. I thought the diving around Isla Espiritu Santo (off La Paz) was equally good, but less expensive. To be fair, I visited Cabo Pulmo between two stretches of windy days, so the visibility was good, but not amazing. But one of the things that bummed me out the most was that dives are only allowed to be 45 minutes long, no matter how much air you have left. (Which, for me, was over half a tank!)
As far as lodging, you only have a few choices. You can book a cheap-ish place near the preserve on Airbnb (use this link to get a $25 credit). You can camp on the beach, either for $5 or for free. Or you can book a dive package at the Cabo Pulmo Beach Resort. That'll cost you about $139/person/night, and includes two dives and either one or three meals per day (for reference, the two-tank dive by itself costs ~$75).
La Paz/Isla Espiritu Santo (2-4 days -- or longer! -- if possible)
La Paz has a couple of liveaboard options, which I did not have the chance to explore. They're slightly pricey, but can get you to sites much further offshore than the pangas can in a day. If you're a serious diver with time and money to spend, you should explore this option.
Otherwise, book a couple of dives when you arrive with the guys who hang out in front of the Burger King on the Malecón.
This, as far as I could tell, is the main guy.
They've got a whole system of pangas and captains and guides who will take you out for about one half to one third of the price that the dive shops charge -- even though, as far as I can tell, the dive shops have contracts with the exact same guys. I saw a guy come out of one of the dive shops with a couple of coolers of ceviche and cerveza. He put one in the panga next to mine and one in mine.
So, same guides, same menu, same everything. Except we paid something like $70 each for two people to do a 2-tank dive, rather than $180 for one person to do the same. Plus, they'll take you on a scenic boat tour on your way out to the island, including stops at the Mushroom Rock at Bahai Balandra
Playa El Tecolote
And the rocks that look like they have a face in them.
So technically, the guy we met, Jorge, originally offered to take us out snorkeling. Because that's what most tourists want to do. But when we told him we wanted to dive, he quickly got on his phone and made arrangements with the local dive shop. They rented him four tanks for $6 each (a cost I'm not 100% sure was passed onto us). He picked them up for us the next morning, and returned them the next evening. (Normally, companies charge a lot more for diving than snorkeling, but not in this case.) So if you want to dive, rather than snorkel, just tell them. They'll hook you up.
Justin and I didn't exactly know what was going on. We thought we'd booked (well, "booked" -- Jorge had asked for a deposit, but we hadn't been comfortable leaving any money with him, since he was just some dude we met outside of the Burger King, and that was fine) some sort of private thing specifically with Jorge, but we ended up going out with a different captain as well as a family that was visiting from Guadalajara. Neither of these things bothered me, though -- the family was very sweet. When a huge grasshopper landed on my mask, the little boy took it to the shore to release it for me.
The only thing about this arrangement is that you have to be comfortable diving without a dive master, because they don't go in with you.
As far as which sites to visit, your best bet is to ask for recommendations, as conditions are always changing. My recommendation is to start with the famous sea lion colony on Isla Espiritu Santo. Even if you're from California and you see sea lions all the time, you should still visit this site. Swim to the arch and spend most of your time in and around that. You'll see lots of fish, sea lions and great coral.
This is where you want to spend most of your dive.
The nearby Fang Ming is a great wreck dive -- and it's actually intact, so you can swim around inside of it. The visibility wasn't great when I went -- the water was chock-full of brine shrimp -- but that only added to the spooky coolness of the wreck.
Whale Island (Isla Ballena) is also a great site. But, like I said, ask around for recommendations from the locals. They'll know more than I do.
Another site you might consider is El Bajo, at the Marisla Seamount. (Not the same El Bajo as in Cabo Pulmo.) This spot, located another 8.2 miles (so maybe another hour or more) out from Espiritu Santo, is a long boat ride from La Paz. I wasn't able to do this dive, due to the fact that I don't have a death wish and didn't want to face eight miles of 20-foot waves in a panga (or even a larger boat). But! It's supposed to be the place to see schooling hammerheads in the Cabo area (there's some talk about hammerheads at Gordo Banks, near Cabo San Lucas, but the divemasters there told me that there haven't seen any in years -- probably due to the indiscriminate killing of local fishermen and their gill nets, as well as Japanese long-line fishermen offshore). I don't promise you'll see anything, because some days they see nothing. Other days, they see this:
So if you get small waves and low winds, I think it's worth trying. At the absolute worst, you'll end up spending four hours on a boat for nothing... except the lovely scenery. I'm pretty sure the panga guys in front of Burger King are all licensed and insured and everything (I saw a cop come and check their papers once). But for this journey, I might suggest going with SunRider Tours. They've got pretty reasonable prices, and a much larger boat than the other vendors, who all use pangas. They require that you pay $30 extra to go out to El Bajo, since, you know, it's super far and everything. But, as far as I could understand, this includes a third tank -- and you'd still get to do two more dives around Isla Espiritu Santo on the way back.
The other thing you absolutely must do in La Paz is snorkel with the whale sharks (tiburon ballenas). For this, you'll want to book with the Burger King guys, who'll charge you $25-$30 (as opposed to $70-$90 at the dive shops) for about three hours with the whale sharks. They won't let you scuba dive here -- it's against the law -- but you won't want to be in scuba gear with the whale sharks, anyway. They move fast, and they tend to hang out near the surface, so you'll want to be free to swim with them. It's an amazing experience. Don't miss it.
Cabo San Lucas (1-3 days)
If the point of your trip is to dive, I would recommend spending less time in Cabo San Lucas and more time in La Paz and Cabo Pulmo. But there is some nice diving in Cabo San Lucas, and I'm sure any dive shop you go with will be good. A lot of the shops basically take you out on shallow dives near Lands End, which I think could also be enjoyed by taking a $10 water taxi out to Lover's Beach and then freediving. (Rent or bring your own weight belt.)
There's also great snorkeling at Chileano and Santa Maria Bays -- which are easily and cheaply accessible by car, and expensively accessible by party boat.
That said, I didn't actually do any scuba diving (just snorkeling and freediving) in Cabo San Lucas, because I'd been told that La Paz and Cabo Pulmo were much better. A two-tank dive here will cost about $75-$90 per person
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