Visiting the Coronado Islands off Baja – Dos and Don’ts

A group of four islands off the coast of Baja – known collectively as the Coronado Islands or, in Spanish, Islas Los Coronados – is close enough to San Diego to be accessible but mired in foreign policy just enough to make the visit into an one-of-a-kind adventure. The Coronado Islands are not to be confused with the city of Coronado, the affluent peninsular community in San Diego County. Instead, the islands are the property of Mexico (they’re actually part of the municipality of Tijuana), and that leads us to our first tip:


Because the Coronado Islands are part of Mexico, traveling into the waters around them means that U.S. Citizens need to carry certain documents. Some tour companies – like Adventure RIB Rides out of San Diego-  will help make the process as painless as possible for you. For example, they might ask you to give them a picture of your passport so that they can arrange for the necessary Mexican visa. No matter how you get to the islands, your U.S. state driver’s license is simply not enough – even though you’re not landing on the beach, and even though the islands are only about 15 miles off the San Diego shore. 


Speaking of not landing on the beach, the Coronado Islands are not only the property of the Mexican government, but a wildlife refuge as well. In other words, you can look, but don’t touch. Visitors are allowed to anchor off shore and swim (snorkel and scuba), but are prohibited from stepping foot ashore. In its history, the islands were used as a meeting place for bootleggers during Prohibition. There was even a casino here, although all that’s left of it now are the pilings. Today, going ashore is not worth the risk of violating a foreign government’s law.


A guided tour of the Coronado Islands should give you more photo-worthy opportunities than you’ll know what to do with. You could potentially see dolphins, sea lions, seals, and even whales, not to mention all types of birds, such as cormorants and pelicans and boobies. The landscape is incredible – it’s a world of seaside cliffs and uninhabited beaches. You might say that visiting the islands is a little bit like visiting Galapagos in that respect.


Many of the ways to visit the Coronado Islands are expensive. One way you might be able to go without breaking the bank is by trading some sweat equity instead. The Cortez Racing Association puts on an annual sailboat race called the Dennis Conner Around the Coronado Isles Race, usually in September. If you’ve never crewed on a racing sailboat before, this probably wouldn’t be the time to break yourself in. However, if you volunteer as crew over the summer on one of the less competitive boats (the “Beer Cans” is a series of races in San Diego Bay from late May until the end of July), and if you show that you can be a valuable team member, your skipper may let you sign up for longer and more demanding races – such as the race around the Coronado Islands. Racing might not give you much time to stop and bask in all the beauty that you see, but it will give you a story to tell. Again, remember that travel documentation is required.


If you’re visiting the islands on a fishing boat, you’ll need to buy a Mexican fishing permit and possibly more – regardless of your age or if you aren’t planning to fish. You can buy the permit online or through the company you plan to book your expedition through. The regulations for fishing in Mexico have historically been known for frequent, sometimes confusing, changes, but companies that offer regular fishing expeditions into Mexican waters are likely to be up-to-date on the requirements, including passport, visa, permit, and biosphere bracelet requirements.

A trip to the Coronado Islands is sure to be a memorable experience, no matter how you get there and what you plan to do once you’re there. With a little preparation, you’ll prepare yourself to have an awesome adventure.