A complete guide to visiting Cabo Pulmo National Park in Baja California Sur, Mexico
Just off the East Cape of Baja California Sur, Cabo Pulmo National Park protects a 70-sq-km area within the Sea of Cortez, famously described by French explorer Jaques Cousteau as the “World’s Aquarium”. What may seem like hyperbole is actually the most fitting description available for Cabo Pulmo National Park— a hidden gem whose marine diversity truly rivals that of the Galapagos, southern Thailand, and even the Great Barrier Reef,
Despite being relatively close to several major cities in southern Baja, Cabo Pulmo is still largely unspoilt, little more than a dirt road, half a dozen restaurants, and some of best snorkelling in North America. Here’s everything you need to know to visit Cabo Pulmo National Park, including driving directions along the rough dirt road, camping options, the best snorkelling spots within the park, what to pack, and more!
About Cabo Pulmo National Park
Home to Baja’s largest living coral reef (and the only reef on the west coast of North America!), Cabo Pulmo National Park is an unbelievably magical place —one whose underwater world hosts 14 species of shark, humpback whales, sea turtles, giant stingrays, and shoals of silver jack fish large enough to block out the sun.
Of the 14 species of coral, 11 live here in the Sea of Cortez, supporting a kaleidoscope of marine life and protecting the coast from otherwise damaging hurricanes. To say that Cabo Pulmo National Park is a national treasure would be an understatement.
The history of Cabo Pulmo National Park is equally inspiring: several decades ago in what was, at the time, just a small fishing village on the East Cape, locals recognised the ecological value of their rich oceans, collectively banned fishing, and set to work on what would become one of the most successful marine restoration project of all time.
The area received national park status in 1995, a decade later was recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and now, less than 30 years after its initial protection, the biomass of Cabo Pulmo has increased by nearly 500% due to local conservation efforts. If you needed proof that humans have as much power to heal as we do to destroy, there’s no better example than this gem of a national park.
Facilities in Cabo Pulmo National Park
- There are no grocery stores in Cabo Pulmo and very few restaurants (only 3 were open as of January 2022), so come prepared with all the food, drinks, and other supplies you’ll need for the week!
- Mobile reception is very limited in Cabo Pulmo National Park; you’ll find the best service camping at the Abandoned RV Park right before you get into town, and by the time you get to Los Frailes, it’s entirely gone.
Rules & regulations in Cabo Pulmo National Park
- We’d read online previously that you’re required to purchase a “bracelet” as entrance to the National Park, but when we enquired at the information kiosk in town, we were told that it’s not required if you aren’t joining any tours.
- You are technically required to wear a lifejacket when kayaking or SUPing within the boundary of the National Park, but we found that this was very loosely enforced (i.e. not at all) and we never had any issues. If you did want a chaleco salvavida, they are available for hire in town.
- It’s also a stated rule that you are only permitted to spend 30min snorkelling at each reef, but again, this is never enforced. So long as there’s no other group vying for space and you’re being respectful of wildlife, it seems you can really spend however long you want in the water and no one will be the wiser.
Getting to Cabo Pulmo National Park
Where is Cabo Pulmo National Park?
Cabo Pulmo National Park is located just off the East Cape of Baja California Sur, the southernmost of the two states that comprise Mexico’s Baja Peninsula.
Although it remains off the beaten path and uncrowded with tourists, Cabo Pulmo is actually just 2hrs from Cabo San Lucas and 2.5hrs from the capital of La Paz, which makes for an easy addition to most BCS itineraries!
- If you flew into Baja, I’d highly recommend hiring a car and driving yourself to Cabo Pulmo National Park.
- Compact rental cars aren’t terribly expensive in Baja (no need for 4WD, just go slow) and this region is very poorly connected to public transport, so having your own vehicle will be a major asset if you wish to explore beyond the VERY small town of Cabo Pulmo.
Driving from La Paz to Cabo Pulmo
From La Paz, it’s a fairly easy 2.5hr (160km) drive, primarily on Highway 1, to Cabo Pulmo National Park.
Although short, the route between La Ventana and Los Barriles is one of the most beautiful drives on the entire peninsula, travelling away from the coast and winding through a lush desert landscape dominated by thick green vegetation and beautiful volcanic mountains; the little town of San Antonio makes a nice stop and El Triunfo (with its amazing bakery) is a short detour off the route before arriving into Los Barriles.
From Los Barriles, the route curves inland again before turning off Highway 1 and heading east past La Ribera, the last stop for fuel, groceries, and strong mobile signal (3G is the best you’ll get in the park).
At this point, you’ll turn onto Camino Cabo Este and start heading south along the east coast; after about 15min, the paved road ends, but it’s only another 20min on dirt road to reach Cabo Pulmo.
Sections of Camino Cabo Este can be very washboard, but all of the routes described here are still drivable in a sedan, 2WD van, or midsize RV— just take it easy and consider airing down your tires to smooth out the ride, if you have an air compressor.
Driving from San José del Cabo to Cabo Pulmo
There are 2 different ways to reach Cabo Pulmo from San José del Cabo:
Option 1: Drive 1.5hrs (100km) north along Highway 1
Head north out of San José del Cabo on Highway 1 for about an hour to reach La Ribera, which is your last stop for supplies before Cabo Pulmo. From here, the route is the same as described above (15min on paved road and then 20min on dirt road to the park).
Option 2: Drive 2hrs (70km) south along Camino Cabo Este
Rather than taking the main highway, you can also reach Cabo Pulmo National Park via the coastal route, Camino Cabo Este (the southern end of the same dirt road you’d drive for 20min if choosing the route described above).
This option is admittedly slower, but it’s actually less distance, still passable for any vehicle, and OH the views you’ll get along the East Cape!
- Google Maps will incorrectly try to direct you along the old Camino Cabo Este right out of San José del Cabo, even though this road has been purchased by a resort and is now closed to public traffic
- Instead, there’s a NEW paved road that runs up and around a sizeable section of the East Cape before connecting with the old dirt road about 10min south of La Fortuna (right at Casa Bellamar).
- To avoid backtracking, keep your eyes open for a roundabout on the outskirts of San José (marked as Point B below) where Google Maps directs you to turn right onto the dirt— instead, stay STRAIGHT and follow the green dots pinned on the map below.
- Just above El Cardón, the new road drops down to the coast to meet the old road and you’ll drive the final 40km to the national park on Camino Cabo Este.
You’ll likely hear horror stories about Camino Cabo Este, but keep in mind that the new paved road out of San José cuts out what used to be the worst of this drive— now, the route is much more tame and, if you go slow and enjoy the view, most any vehicle should be fine (including mid-size RVs).
General tips for driving in Baja
- Before driving anywhere in Baja (and certainly before tackling any rough roads), make sure you have a comprehensive Mexican auto insurance policy. We purchased ours through Baja Bound and have been super happy with their customer service; you can read a more in-depth comparison of policy options in this post: VANLIFE BAJA & MEXICO: HOW TO GET THE BEST MEXICAN AUTO INSURANCE FOR A CONVERTED VAN OR CAMPER
- As a general rule, you should never drive at night in Baja, especially if you’re travelling to a new place. Allow plenty of time to reach Cabo Pulmo before sunset!
- Be mindful of topes (speed bumps) that quite literally jump out at you in Baja— either they aren’t signed, the sign is entirely hidden behind a bush, or you’re in the middle of the highway and just not expecting a speed bump. These things are brutal and often very surprising, so keep your eyes open!
- While road-tripping through remote areas, I’d also recommend carrying a PLB or emergency beacon. With my Garmin In-Reach Mini, I can send a message to family if we’re delayed without service OR if our van breaks down in the middle of no where, receive accurate weather updates, and call for help in case of a true emergency— no matter where you are in the world, Garmin will patch you through to the relevant local authority for support (sheriff, police, SAR, Coast Guard, etc). The unit itself is a few hundred dollars, on top of which you’ll need to pay a monthly subscription fee (we pay $10/month for the cheapest plan), but BOTH of my parents have been injured in the mountains and rescued through use of a Garmin In-Reach, so don’t underestimate the importance of satellite communication!
Where to camp in Cabo Pulmo National Park
Abandoned RV Park
Don’t let that title scare you off— this was actually our favourite free camping in Cabo Pulmo! Right as you’re driving into town, there’s a small rocky beach next to what was once a beachfront RV park (just south of Punta Cabo Pulmo), and this spot boasts excellent water access for kayaking and snorkelling, prime whale watching (we saw about 50 whales from our campsite during the week), decent 3G service, and a 10min walk into town.
This sandy beach just beyond town is incredibly popular with long-term travellers and snow birds, many of whom park their RVs here for 5 months of the year, enjoying weekly food delivery, trash pick-up & even water access from a nearby well. There’s plenty of space available either on the beachfront or across the road in the arroyo; we made it to the beach just fine in 2WD, but aired down our tires considerably & walked the road to scope out the safest route through the sand.
You’ll find great snorkelling around the rocky north end of the beach and a beautiful stretch of pristine sand on the opposite side, just be warned that the bugs can get a bit bad (the only mosquitos we ever saw in Cabo Pulmo were here!)
Playa El Arbelito
This paid beach provides access to some of the park’s best snorkelling (50p per person for day access) and also offers overnight camping in what is essentially just a sandy parking lot (150p per person).
In my opinion, it’s definitely worth paying to access the beach for a day, but the ramshackle facilities aren’t worth the money when there’s so much excellent free camping nearby!
What to do in Cabo Pulmo National Park
Diving in Cabo Pulmo
Cabo Pulmo is highly regarded as home to some of the best diving sites in the entire world!
If you did want to venture a bit farther out and explore deeper sections of the ocean, there are several PADI dive shops in town that offer 2-tank dives for certified divers at ~$180USD. Possible sightings include bull sharks, reef sharks, jack fish, sea turtles, and the occasional whale!
5 best snorkelling spots in Cabo Pulmo
Cabo Pulmo is one of those rare places where you can see just about everything with your own mask and snorkel, no need to sign up for a tour! For reference, these tours typically cost about $50USD and include 30min at 3 different reef sites, some of which are accessible for free from the beach.
If you’re looking for a DIY adenture that doesn’t cost anything, there’s nothing better than hopping into the water with your own gear and exploring the plentiful reefs right off shore. Some of our favourite snorkel sites (north to south):
If you have a kayak or SUP, you can set out into the sea from Punta Cabo Pulmo and eventually you’ll connect with another reef— we loved this area for the massive schools of tuna and even some humpback whale sightings!
The largest continuous reef in the park is located right in front of town and easily accessible by beach entry. We saw an incredible variety of colourful fish, stingrays, puffer fish, parrot fish… and the reef is large enough to warrant several days of snorkelling at this spot alone!
This beautiful and very well-maintained beach charges 50 pesos per person for day use, but it’s absolutely worth it for the snorkelling opportunities right off the sandy shore. We saw 4 sea turtles & about 12 sting rays in one day!
El Rinconcito & El Rincon
At the rocky north end of Los Frailes (a popular free camping site, listed above), there’s a flurry of underwater activity from colourful fish, sting rays, spotted eagle rays, and even sea lions as you round the point (La Lobera).
Kayak/SUP in Cabo Pulmo
One of our favourite activities in Cabo Pulmo was taking our inflatable kayak out every morning to look for humpback whales, who swim right through the bay and sometimes amazingly close to the shore from sunrise until ~9am.
Respecting their space is important, but we had a mother and baby get within a few metres of our kayak just by chance— they played for about 10min in front of us before some tourist boats came blazing in and scared them away. Seasonally, it’s also possible to see mobula ray jumping out of the water in one of the most curious yet delightful mating rituals I’ve ever seen!
Hiking in Cabo Pulmo
More of a walk than an actual hike, I’d recommend checking out the tower on top of the hill that sits just outside of town if you fancy a dry activity. There’s a VERY rough road that winds up the mountain (which I truly can’t believe that anyone would drive) and it only takes about 30min to reach the top for an aerial view of the national park and the lush landscape of Los Cabos in the distance.
5 best day trips from Cabo Pulmo National Park
Unsurprisingly, there are heaps of beautiful places within reasonable proximity to Cabo Pulmo National Park, so if you’re travelling to the East Cape for the snorkelling and diving, be sure to check these spots out along the way:
La Fortuna (1hr)
Baja’s East Cape is a wild & unspoilt paradise of sandy beaches and calm waters, and this southern section of the coast offers some of the very best. For swimming, surfing, and just general lazing about in the sun, there’s hardly a better spot than La Fortuna, Shipwrecks, or any of the surrounding beaches about 40km south of the national park.
San José del Cabo (1.5hrs)
Slightly to the east of popular resort destination Cabo San Lucas, San José offers a more appealing alternative to the neon shirts and drunken tourists— instead, you’ll find cobbled lanes, boutique shops, colourful flags waving above the street, and some seriously excellent restaurants.
Ensenada de Muertos (2hrs)
Outside of Cabo Pulmo, this is one of the absolute BEST snorkelling spots on the entire peninsula. The sea wall is directly out front of Restaurant 1535, and this is where the majority of friendly puffer fish, colourful parrotfish, and sly eels seem to hang out!
La Ventana (2hrs)
Although La Ventana is regarded as one of the top kitesurfing destinations in the world, there’s so much more to this small fishing village on the Sea of Cortez than just consistent wind. The town is essentially one long dirt road, opening onto countless beaches on one side and dozens of awesome local eateries on the other, and despite the massive seasonal gringo population here for kiting, La Ventana has retained a distinctly Mexican feel— along with some of the best food!
Snorkelling with whale sharks in La Paz (2.5hrs)
For all the fascinating marine life and incredible creatures who inhabit the Sea of Cortez, perhaps none is more beguiling than the whale shark, a plankton-feeding carpet shark whose calm grace and striking beauty belie its almost incomprehensible size.
The sheltered Bay of La Paz is considered one of the best places in the entire world to swim alongside these gentle giants; during the season from October to May, sightings are practically guaranteed.
Packing list for Cabo Pulmo National Park
- Mask + snorkel | this will enable you to enjoy all of the DIY snorkelling available in the national park without having to join an expensive tour! I’ve dived & snorkelled all over the world with my Tusa mask & it was worth every penny (snorkels are more or less the same, so just grab an inexpensive one anywhere).
- Neoprene strap guard | pick up one of these inexpensive neoprene strap guards to avoid getting long hair painfully tangled in your plastic mask strap (I got mine free from a dive shop when I bought my mask); you can obviously snorkel without it, but this just makes it WAY more comfortable!
- Inflatable kayak or SUP | if you have an inflatable kayak or SUP, you’ll be able to paddle out & access more distant beaches & reefs for snorkelling! We have been very impressed with our Intex Explorer K2 and I’ve even snorkelled right off the boat several times when we see something cool happening beneath us.
- GoPro | the best way to capture amazing photos & video of the underwater action is with a GopPro, just make sure to bring a reliable telescoping pole (so you can get good footage of marine life without invading their space)
- Dry bag | I’d highly recommend a dry bag to store all of your belongings when you walk to the beach for snorkelling or set out into the Sea of Cortez in your kayak
- Waterproof hiking sandals | to protect your feet on the rocky beaches, I’d recommend wearing hiking sandals like Tevas or Chacos, which are also great for walking into town or hiking up to the tower.
- Reef-safe sunscreen | try to limit the application of sunscreen right before you get in the ocean, as even reef-safe sunscreen isn’t a great thing for fragile marine ecosystems!
- Spring suit or shortie wetsuit | even though the Sea of Cortez is plenty warm in the winter, I’m far more comfortable in long sleeves, which also keeps my back from getting burnt while I snorkel & protects my arms from little jelly stings. I LOVE my Londre Bond Rashguard & wore it almost every day in Baja!
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