By Rebecca MacDonald
Beach camping in Baja is one of the many reasons to love living in this magical place. As a reluctant camper, I wasn’t always convinced this would be the case. But a recent weekend spent camping with friends on the beach at El Sargento has changed my tune, and I’m now looking forward to more weekends where perfect seaside days don’t have to end when the sun goes down.
There are so many places to go beach camping in and around La Paz, it’s hard to narrow down the list and pick just one place to go. On a recent trip with friends, we looked into several different options. Our requirements: we wanted a beach that would not be too crowded, where we could camp directly on the beach and swim, snorkel and kayak. That ruled out the Pacific side of the Baja Peninsula. Although the temperatures would certainly be cooler there, the surf and currents are too rough for all but the most experienced swimmers and surfers, and not ideal for snorkeling or kayaking.
On the Sea of Cortez we considered several promising spots, including San Evaristo, just a few hours north of La Paz, and Cabo Pulmo, the national marine preserve to the south. Finally, we settled on El Sargento, a small town just north of La Ventana, an easy hour’s drive from La Paz.
In the winter, the beaches in and around La Ventana can get quite windy, making it an ideal spot for kiteboarding, but not so much for camping. However, in summer the winds calm down, and the forecast looked promising, so off we went.
Full disclosure: As I mentioned, I’ve never been big on camping. Don’t get me wrong – I love nature. I enjoy hiking Baja’s desert trails, kayaking and paddleboarding in La Paz Bay, and taking off for day trips through the mountains in our UTV. I’ve even gotten (mostly) past my pathological fear of drowning, and am learning to love snorkeling, with the help of my (dork alert!) full face snorkel mask. I like to think I’m up for outdoor adventure as long as it’s within reason.
But when it comes to camping…I must admit: hot, smelly tents and mosquitoes buzzing in my ear all night long do not top my list of favorite things. Not to mention the alarming lack of bathroom facilities! I used to joke to my friends that my idea of camping was one of those “express” hotels that lacked a restaurant and full bar.
And yet…there are so many beautiful places in Baja California Sur to see that don’t have a hotel conveniently nearby. As we’ve visited and driven by empty, windswept beaches and calm, tranquil bays, I was surprised to feel the pull of a new adventure – I wanted to go beach camping! I wanted to wake up in the morning, go for a swim and take the kayak out just as the sun was rising.
Maybe Baja is awakening the adventurer in my soul, calling me to push my boundaries and shed the anxieties that have held me back from experiencing more of this world. It’s a little like aging in reverse. Since moving to La Paz, we’ve begun to shed many of those things we thought were necessary when we were busy building our careers and keeping up with the latest “must-haves” in our life.
So when our friends invited us to go with them on an overnight camping trip, my immediate reaction was: Let’s do this! It also happened to be Jim’s birthday that weekend, and I knew it would be a great way to spend it: with good friends at the beach, doing the things he loves to do. One night quickly turned into two, and (deep breath!) before I knew it, we were planning an entire weekend trip.
Fortunately, our friends are experienced campers, and had all the supplies we needed, which saved us from running out to spend a fortune on camping gear. They are also both amazing cooks, and promised we would not go hungry! After agreeing on shopping lists and supplies, we met up on Friday morning fully loaded and ready to camp. At the last minute, we decided to bring the Can Am along for some fun off-road driving.
El Sargento is an easy drive from La Paz, and before we knew it we were bumping along the dirt roads through La Ventana and into the smaller town of El Sargento. We stopped at a Pacifico tienda to stock up on beer and ice, and discovered that, while there was a campground with facilities where we could pay to camp, a little further down the road was a free beach area. Known locally as “hot springs beach,” the spot is home to natural springs that serve as nature’s spa for those willing to dig into the sand and find them.
We arrived midday on Friday and were pleased to see we had the beach to ourselves. Perfect! With temperatures over 90 degrees Fahrenheit, we were also happy to see several palapas along the beach providing much needed shade. We immediately claimed the furthest one. Our friends were able to park their truck camper just behind our site off the beach, and Jim and I pitched our borrowed tent on the soft white sand in front of the palapa, just steps from the water.
The beach was typical of so many we’ve found here in Baja California Sur. A swath of soft, white sand with clear, turquoise water gently lapping the beach. As we entered the shallows, we found the sand became a bit more gravelly, with stones along the bottom, giving it almost the feel of a cool, clear lake.
Once we got in the water we were surprised to find the snorkeling was amazing! Typically when we snorkel, we look for rocky outcroppings to either side of the beach where fish tend to gather. Here, just a few yards into the shallow water, we found a wide swath of coral and rocks along the bottom, running in front of the entire left half of the beach. It was like a mini aquarium, right there for our viewing.
Here, dozens upon dozens of fish were swimming in and out. We encountered large king angelfish, a four-foot long trumpet fish, black and white spotted eels, starfish, dozens of sea urchins, smaller yellow and black striped angel fish, several different varieties of puffer fish, and the biggest prize of all –octopus! The rocks along the bottom provided perfect cover for them, and we each spotted a few darting away as we snorkeled. One even came out and fearlessly engaged in a “dance” with our friend for over 20 minutes. Magic.
After hours of snorkeling, we came in for lunch, then took the kayaks out for a spin. A few more beachgoers were starting to arrive, and the waters were calm enough that several were out paddleboarding. After a much-needed nap under the shade of the palapa, it was time to think about dinner.
Pro tip: when you go camping, it helps to go with people who love food, especially when one of them is a former professional chef! Our first night, we enjoyed homemade pasta and meatballs cooked by our Italian friend. On the second day, we had fresh sashimi, a birthday gift from our friend who runs the Baja Pirates fishing charter, along with gorgeous tenderloin filets, asparagus, and potatoes grilled over our campfire. We of course washed this all down with plenty of cold Pacificos, along with some stellar red wine from the Guadalupe Valley. Our friends even surprised Jim with a luscious chocolate brownie birthday dessert!
On Saturday, a few more local families showed up to enjoy the beach during the day, yet it never really got crowded, and the vibe stayed relaxed and friendly. At night, a few of these visitors stayed to camp, but there was plenty of space in between our chosen spots.
We sat around the campfire, enjoying the last of the evening. Surprisingly, there were no bugs! Yes, the tent was hot at night, and not as comfortable as our own bed, but inflatable mats, topped with yoga mats and a sleeping bag, helped even out the bumpy sand. Next time, we’ll probably invest in a full mesh tent to catch more of the breeze.
The stars came out, and we all went to lay on the sand by the water, gazing at the billions of stars and laughing. I kid you not, we even saw a shooting star. It was everything I had envisioned beach camping could be.
Sunday morning, we packed everything up and headed back into the town of El Sargento, in search of a restaurant with a TV, where we could have breakfast and watch the final World Cup soccer match between France and Croatia. This was part of our plan: since our chef friend is French, the match was a must-see! We found the perfect place at Las Palmas, a 2-story restaurant and bar in El Sargento with stunning views of the ocean from the patios. We ordered delicious grilled fish tacos, along with agua mineral – we’d had enough of beer by then – and watched and cheered France’s second World Cup win.
So now, I know. Camping can be wonderful. All it takes: great companions, careful planning, delicious food and a deserted Baja beach. It was the perfect ending to a beginner’s camping trip. I’ll definitely be trying this again.