I remember the day well. It was a cold March morning in Sisters, Oregon. My good friend Rick and I were enjoying a cup of coffee at a shop named after our town. That is what you do when the temperature is below 20 degrees. Pictures of warm days, white sand and glass-like turquoise bays framed our conversation. Rick had just ordered his Four Wheel Camper Hawk. He was excited and wanted to talk about its maiden voyage to Baja, Mexico. The prospect of exploring remote beaches and sampling new tequila would make the wait for his camper tolerable. He had visited Baja before and the pull to return was as good and strong as the dark-roasted coffee.
A middle-aged couple at a nearby table overheard our conversation. They leaned over and seemed to ask in unison ‘Is it safe to travel in Baja, Mexico? We have always wanted to go but were unsure.’ It is a question and statement Gretchen and I hear often. Rick raised the same concern before his first trip to Baja. Our short answer has not changed. ‘We believe so, but some knowledge can certainly reduce the risk.’
We were first introduced to Baja California 20 years ago. An opportunity surfaced to build a casita in a sleepy fishing village an hour from the tip of the peninsula. For more than a decade, we enjoyed the community and made a lot of friends. Sunrises over the Sea of Cortez were always breathtaking and especially memorable while motoring to our favorite fishing grounds. After retirement, we began taking our time driving the length of Baja. What was once a four day 2,200 mile marathon drive from Oregon, quickly extended to four weeks. We started meandering down the peninsula and discovered many previously unseen treasures. We explored Baja rather than just drove it. One day, we traveled only two miles before we saw another quiet cove to land for a day or three. The journey had finally become the destination. Our camper became home.
Each trip to Baja is a little different. One year we may be traveling alone and the next with a group of friends. That keeps it fresh and fun. Three years ago, the wild flower bloom and colorful cactus near the oasis of Catavina was simply captivating. On the Bay of Concepcion, we have witnessed days on end when the only ripple on the water was from a kayak. In Guerrero Negro, the whales have welcomed a boat- side scratch while in Magdalena Bay we have bought fresh blue shrimp and scallops for dimes on the dollar. Mulege, San Carlos and La Ventana are but a few towns in Baja that always surprise. After countless miles and a few trials, we always return to Baja wanting more.
Traveling in Baja for the first time can be a little unsettling, especially while navigating the border towns. The following tips are not meant to be comprehensive or definitive. They are simply a collection of key learnings that have served us and friends well over the years. We have also provided several travel destinations that will give you a good flavor of Baja. Gretchen and I hope they provide some guidance and insight so that you may enjoy Baja as much as we do.
In Baja, you will see everything from tent campers to large diesel-pusher RVs and an occasional Unimog based international overlander. The vehicle type is largely dependent on your travel preferences. If you plan to stay on MX 1 (the main highway which runs the length of the peninsula) or well- known secondary roads, then small or large 2WD vehicles will perform well. However, if your desire is to explore the smaller towns or missions, or camp on pristine beaches then a higher clearance 4WD rig is required.
Aside from early Jeep trips, almost all of our Baja overlanding has been done in a Toyota Tacoma equipped with a Four Wheel Camper (FWC) Fleet. We like this setup for several reasons. It is reliable, lightweight and very capable. We are able to seek out campsites that are off limit to larger rigs. Driving up sand filled arroyos lined with boulders or low limbed mesquite trees to view ancient petroglyphs is part of the adventure. Many of the best beaches require you to travel in and out of washes or over rock rough terrain (that will present a problem for low clearance vehicles). Make sure your rig adequately matches your travel expectations and needs. For example, when a trip calls for kayaks, motorcycles or extra gear, we tow our rugged ‘Baja Buggy’ trailer. However, this configuration can limit our exploration or camping options.
Regardless of your vehicle, make sure it is serviced before crossing the border. Tires should be new or have plenty of tread left. Change or fill fluids and inspect all hoses. Check the condition of your battery. Although vehicles can be serviced by competent mechanics in Baja, there are long stretches of highway where even small towns are scarce. There are also a few accessories to consider. An air compressor, tire pressure gauge and traction boards are invaluable for washboards, arroyos and the beaches. A spare gas can(s) will get you that extra 30 miles and a tire repair or plug kit can keep you rolling. Diesel #2 is available at almost every Pemex station in Baja. (Make sure when filling up that the attendant [first] resets the gas meter to zero.) If you drive a newer diesel, carry extra DEF as it is rarely found in smaller towns.
When to Travel
After years of traveling Baja, Gretchen and I prefer two seasonal windows. Fall and spring. October and November is a good time for several reasons. The weather is moderate with little wind and the hurricane season has passed. The beaches are quiet. The majority of the annual migration of snowbirds will not arrive for another month. We also like April. The snowbirds head north and the winds begin to subside. There are more glass-like days on the Sea of Cortez. Temperatures are usually in the 80’s. Perfect conditions for kayaking and fishing.
Documents and Border Crossings
A decade or more ago, you could spend a lot of time at the Mexican border filling out visa paperwork, finding a bank to pay the fees and then returning to customs to get your passport stamped. Thankfully, companies like Discover Baja (https://www.discoverbaja.com/) make the border crossing a lot easier. For a nominal annual membership, they will pre-process all your paperwork and fees about a month prior to your departure. At the border, you will only need to have your passport stamped. Discover Baja also offers automobile insurance and provides a help line.
There are three primary border crossings into Baja. If you are more interested in San Felipe and getting south to the Sea of Cortez quickly, then we would recommend going through Mexicali. With a little luck, you could cross the border at 8am and be enjoying a beer in Bahia de Los Angeles by 2pm. If you are interested in Baja’s wine country, the Ruta de Vina is best reached through Tecate. Tecate is an easy border crossing with only two turns and 10 miles before you get into the countryside. Ensenada and the Pacific Ocean are less than two hours away. We hesitate to suggest Tijuana. It is simply too congested.
Before crossing the border, we advise that you leave a copy of your travel documents, passport and Mexican insurance with a friend in the USA. Also, make a good laminated color copy of your driver’s license and carry that with you. If asked by the Policia show them the copy.
Bring a good map of Baja and a GPS loaded with the proper maps. The Baja Almanac, if you can still find one, is the gold standard for overlanding. However, Discover Baja now offers an atlas that is also very good.
Finally, we advise that you obtain several thousand pesos (about $150 USD) prior to crossing the border so that you have some ‘working cash’ at the start of your trip. All along the Baja peninsula there are banks like Banamex or HSBC that have ATMs with reasonable exchange rates.
Obey the Tope and Military Checkpoints
In Mexico, a speed bump is called a Tope (pronounced Toe Pay). They vary from large mounds across the highway or painted stripes. A Tope can also appear in the most remote locations. From a distance it is often difficult to discern what you will encounter. One thing is certain, you will misjudge a tope sooner or later. After a surprise encounter with a rather large tope near Loretto, Gretchen and I were busy for the next hour putting everything back into the camper cupboards.
Each year, the roads in Baja get better. The new highway that runs from Mexicali to MX 1 is well constructed and even includes passing lanes. However, most of MX 1 is a two-lane highway with little to no shoulder and tire pounding potholes. There are also mountainous curves leading in and out of central Baja that require your complete attention. It is not uncommon to see a lone cow or two beside the road. Except for a few lights in the small towns, the Baja desert is dark and lonely. For all these reasons, avoid driving at night.
There are approximately eight military checkpoints along the 1,000-mile-drive of the Baja peninsula. Although they can be a little intimidating for the first time traveler, they exist for good reasons—to prevent movement of illegal substances, weapons and/or persons. It is common to be waived through during the drive south but expect some delays on the return north. You will typically be greeted by a military soldier and asked ‘Where are you coming from and where you are going?’. (‘De donde viene y a donde va?’). You may also be asked to open your camper (‘Abre tu caravan por favor’). We have experienced everything from a cursory inspection to a thorough search of our camper. We have a few recommendations: Be courteous and honest and if traveling alone, request they complete the cab inspection before moving to the camper so you can be present. While we do not condone any form of bribery, if the conditions are hot, offering a bottle of water is a nice gesture. Most of the soldiers are young men from mainland Mexico and they warm to a little kindness and respect.
Finally, learn a few common, situational, Spanish phrases. On a recent trip, a friend was so nervous at the checkpoint that when asked to turn off his engine, his said ‘No hablo English’. (I do not speak any English.) Needless to say, we got some mileage out of that funny moment.
It is early morning in a private pirate cove off the Sea of Cortez. The heat waves from the asphalt of central Baja have been replaced with a single small wave that laps the beach. The rear end of our camper is but a few feet away. I look out the window trying not to wake my wife. Three sailboats are moored off shore. The sun has just peaked over the horizon casting light rays across the water and reflecting off their masts. With each minute, the morning gets older. It is dead calm except for the sound of a few gulls on a nearby island. I wonder what is on the other side. A perfect day for kayaking. I need to remember to put tamales in our lunch.
Food, Water, Propane and Cerveza
One of the delectable delights of Baja is the food. It is plentiful and inexpensive. We often tell first time travelers to pack only enough food to get them to the border and one or two days beyond. There really is no need to stuff your refrigerator and storage compartments with extra food—unless you have special dietary needs. Once below the border towns, we usually do a grocery stop at one of the larger stores like Calimax. They have a large selection of fresh meats and vegetables and their bakery produces some mouth-watering treats. Finding that special item, which you cannot get in the states can be a lot of fun.
Water quality and availability can be another concern of travelers. In general, we avoid drinking water from spigots or similar sources and always ask for bottled water in restaurants. Every grocery store, mini-mercado (small market) or gas station carries small and large bottles of water. Larger cities like San Quintin, Mulege and Constitution (to name a few) have Agua-Purificada stations where you can fill your rig with potable water for pennies a gallon. You will need to look around a little for propane. It is readily available, but filling locations are generally tucked away. Of course, there is always beer. A trip through any Baja town will reveal mini-mercado’s painted in the colors of Tecate, Pacifico, Modelo and Dos Equis. Be sure to ask for their coldest selection… ‘Donde esta tu cerveza que es mas fria?’
The storm had blown through. Our time in Mulege was rich and productive. We pressed through emails while munching through lunch at the local internet café. The camper refrigerator, water and propane tanks were at capacity. But, our pleasant disinterest in time was now capturing our attention. We needed to get down the road. Two hours later, daylight was beginning to wane as we approached a place to camp. The beach looked peaceful but I was not. I had a growing concern over a severely bent suspension support bracket. It would not survive another day of roads rock-washed from arroyos. ‘No Service’ on my cell phone seemed a little larger than usual. At 7pm I contacted Ralph, who lives in Baja, on my Ham radio and explained the situation. He would be at my location the next morning—welder in hand—if I could not get it repaired at a ‘taller de soldadura’ (welding shop). Good communications is invaluable.
Much of Baja now has cell coverage. That was not the case a decade ago. Even today, cell service in cities like Bahia de Los Angeles and stretches of the Bay of Concepcion, or between Constitution and La Paz, is at best intermittent or non-existent. Check with your US-based service provider for MX plans. In recent years, Verizon and AT&T have partnered with MX carriers to improve coverage. When cell service is not available, you should consider alternative solutions—especially in an emergency. A SAT phone or a simple GPS Satellite locator, like a Garmin In Reach can let others know how you are doing or signal for help. Of course, Ham radio is an excellent option but requires a license to operate. (Using an application like Winlink, I can even send emails over my Ham radio.)
When traveling Baja in a group, we always use mobile radios. They are great for pointing out sights of interest, identifying road hazards or requesting fuel or food stops. The new class of GRMS and FRS radios perform very well and are inexpensive. Even a CB works well for short distances plus the Mexican truckers love them!
Some Final Tips
Put on your Baja goggles. If you have limited travel experience in poorer countries, it may take a little time adjusting to some of the conditions. We find this is easily offset by the natural beauty of the area and the kind people we meet along the way.
Camping facilities in Baja are commonly referred to as RV Parks. Some have dedicated spots with palapa shade covers, WiFi cafes and clean showers. Others are a dirt lot with suspect water and rudimentary pit toilets. All the locations that we recommend are fairly clean by Baja standards and are routinely frequented by Americans and Canadians. Just remember that the presence of an electrical outlet does not necessarily mean it has power and bathrooms do not always have toilet paper. No problema… bring your own!
Until you are comfortable traveling in Baja, we recommend that you do not camp alone. Simply stated, you will have a more relaxing time. If a potential campsite off the highway looks too good to be true and no one is around, there may be a reason. Gretchen and I have spent many nights boondocking alone in Baja and feel very safe. However, we know the area and always camp where we cannot be seen or easily accessed from a main highway.
A Road Tour of Baja
We have stayed at each of the following places we describe. This list is designed as a starting point for a traveler that is relatively new to Baja. Ensenada and San Felipe are not covered as these towns are close to the border and can be considered a day trip. Similarly, the San Jose/Cabo area is not covered as these areas are easily accessed by flights and tend to have an abundance of tourists. Therefore our focus starts about 200 miles south of the border and extends down to La Paz.
San Quintin is a six-hour drive from the Tecate border. Located near the Pacific Ocean, this community is one of the agricultural hubs of Baja. It is also the town that never ends. Main Street, along MX 1, extends for 10 miles! On the southern end, there are several RV Parks and hotels. The most popular are El Pabellon and Mission Santa Maria. For safety reasons, avoid camping on the beach south of El Socorro.
Catavina is a stunning, boulder strewn, oasis in the Central Baja desert and an archeological gem with numerous petroglyph sites. It is also home to the rare, and the almost comical, cirrio cactus. Many visitors stay at the Rancho Santa Ines RV Park—a large parking area with mesquite trees that provide shade. This park is also the gateway to Mission Santa Maria but be prepared for some serious off-roading to reach the mission ruins. The last downhill stretch is called ‘The Widow Maker’ for good reason! The desert sunsets and night sky are always special. You can cut the Milky Way with a knife. If you prefer some amenities then the Hotel Mission Catavina is a good choice.
Bahia de Los Angeles is only a six hour drive down MX 5 from Mexicali. It is the real deal. A laid back Baja town with just enough conveniences to prolong a visit. The bay is surrounded by islands and peninsulas that jut from both ends. We typically stay at La Gringa Beach on the north end of town, about 2 miles after the pavement ends. Camping should be free but an ‘appointed local’ may request a very small fee to empty trash. Just don’t expect much. More recently, we have preferred Camp Archelon located just beyond the S-turns north of town. It is very well run with good WiFi, clean bathrooms and a small café and lounge. Cost is about $8 per day.
If you are up for a little adventure, take the road to the San Borja Mission located west of town. Established in 1762, this mission is well preserved. Plan an entire day as there are many sights to see and the rough 20 mile road can take some time to navigate. Spending the night there under some cabanas is also a good option.
Guerrero Negro is located at the divide of Baja California Norte and Sur (North and South). Travelers are greeted by a large Mexican flag (which can be seen for miles) and a military base. Guerrero Negro is noted for the annual arrival of gray whales that use the rich lagoons to calve. Tours are offered from several approved vendors. Tourists can usually touch a whale as they approach and roll-over beside the boat. It is a once in a lifetime experience. We like the simplicity of Mario’s RV Park off MX 1 before entering town. The park is very basic but has power, water, hot showers and plenty of spaces. The restaurant is well known for their abundant seafood and lobster dinners. Mario’s Eco whale watching tours leave from the restaurant.
San Ignacio is an easy two to three hour drive SE from Guerrero Negro. The shaded town square features a beautifully restored mission surrounded by an oasis of old buildings containing small shops and cafes. Whale tours can also be purchased here. There are many places to stay but we usually land at ‘Rice and Beans’. Like many Baja Hotels, they have RV accommodations and a restaurant. Rice and Beans is a Baja 1000 Race favorite and has a lot of race history adorning the walls. The lagoon and palm groves are a just a short walk from the hotel.
Santa Rosalia is the first Baja Sur town you approach, after a thrilling downhill decent, on the Sea of Cortez. It is a wonderful old copper mining town with a lot of history and character. Gustave Effil (of Effil Tower fame) designed the church, erected by a French mining company, in the town square. Uncommon in Baja, most of the buildings are made of wood and contain plenty of balconies and window flower boxes. The European influence from early mining investors is still present. Although the streets are narrow and one-way downtown, a drive through is worth it—providing your rig is not too big. We recommend that you do not leave your rig parked unattended outside of town.
If you are looking to land on a quiet beach, then head south for about an hour to the Punta Chavato turn-off. After a 5 mile drive on a dirt road, you will be treated by a pristine beach with small cabanas.
Mulege is one of our favorite quintessential Baja Towns—very friendly, clean and with essential commerce. There is a small group of ex-pats but they have integrated well with the community and culture. Mulege not only has the feel of a true Mexican town but it serves as the gateway to Bahia Concepcion. Their bakery is outstanding and has good WiFi. Lee’s market can fill propane bottles and their Agua Purificada is easily accessed. In short, Mulege is a great place to resupply. Buy some freshly made tortillas at the local ‘Tortilleria’. You will be jaded forever thereafter! Take a side trip to the Mission. Enjoy some local fruit and seafood. At the south end of town, after the turn, are several RV parks and the famous Hotel Serenidad.
Santespec is a picturesque beach on the Sea of Cortez and is commonly referred to as ‘Canada Sur.’ The number of snowbirds that make the annual trip there is amazing. Expect a crowded beach of RVs from December through March. The local restaurant is very good and a regular stop for adventure motorcyclists. If you end up staying a night or two, do not avoid the local produce and fish vendors that come by each morning. The quality is excellent and the prices are hard to beat. We especially like the hot tamales, fresh vegetables, shrimp and halibut.
Playa Escondida is just a few miles south of Santespec. During the off season, this is one of our favorite camping spots along Bahia Concepcion. It has become a haven for International travelers and musicians alike. We have treasured the memories of several campfires in the evenings surrounded by acoustic instruments and the rhythm of lapping water. The secluded beach is typically calm and perfect for kayaking.
Playa El Requeson, another half-hour south, is one of the most photographed beaches in Bahia Concepcion. The trademark white and narrow sand spit that extends from shore enables you to have a water view from the front and back of your camper! There are additional campsites to the south and a scenic hike that skirts the nearby water edge.
Loretto is a large town by Baja standards where you will find an abundance of RV parks, restaurants, shops and museums. The boardwalk and town square are popular destinations in the evening with plenty of shops to wander about. Many tourists resupply in Loretto but it is a little big for our liking. The local mission, about 10 miles outside of town is a worthwhile side trip. There is good beach camping between Loretto and Tripui. After leaving the Loretto area, MX 1 begins a long climb over the beautiful Sierra de la Giganta Mountains before descending back to the Pacific side of the peninsula.
Gretchen and I were holed up in Puerto Escondido while a deluge of rain pounded the roof of our camper. Water flowed down the road like a river. We were snug and alert and waiting for the sun to break and humidity to rise. Shortly before noon we started the steep mountain climb out of Tripui and headed towards San Carlos on the Pacific. After a three hour visual fiesta, we arrived at Mar y Arena—one of our favorite out-of-the-way stops along the Baja. It felt like a homecoming. Fito, the owner, and his chef Juan came out to greet us. Within minutes, our camper was backed up to the North end of Magdalena Bay and our chairs were pointed West in anticipation of a stunning sunset.
Puerto San Carlos is a several hour drive from Loretto and is located on the northern portion of Magdalena Bay. Puerto San Carlos is a quaint town and a lot of fun to explore. Almost everything is within walking distance. Only a handful of ‘gringos’ reside there. Commercial fishing, power generation and whale watching excursions keep the economy running. A fish processing plant, surrounded by boats, can be seen at the south entrance to the natural harbor. Hours can be spent beach combing on hard-packed sand looking for unique shells and driftwood. The Mar Y Arena Hotel is a great place to land and offers a few beach front parking places for rigs. The meals are so good and inexpensive that you will do little cooking. A margarita and their signature shrimp and octopus cocktail is a perfect appetizer. WiFi is available throughout the property. This is a place where the days drift by easily.
Less than two hours north of San Carlos and Cuidad Constitucion are towns like Lopez Mateos and Valle Santo Domingo that lead to more whale watching and beach camping. If you are feeling a little adventurous, the NE road outside of La Purisima will take you back to Loretto through some beautiful mountain country.
Puerto Cancun is completely unique… and so were the friends we were traveling with! We will never forget our first impressions. After 25 miles on a wash board road we were greeted by a military outpost. We then weaved through a few sandy S-turns and came upon a sea of tents where the local fisherman slept by day and fished by night. The gulls flying overhead were strangely quiet. It must be difficult to squawk with shrimp between beaks. Our campsite was a sliver of sand where the bay came within 5 feet of our backdoor. At low tide, we could walk over a mile on a hard packed ocean floor teaming with sea life. Chocolate clams and hatchet scallops were some of the prizes. From the local fisherman, we bought Mexican Blue Shrimp (the size of a small lobster) and fresh crab. In the evening, we were warmed by a mesquite-fueled campfire and a little tequila as the sound of lonely coyotes rolled over the dunes. Rarely have we seen so many stars.
Puerto Cancun is a remote fish camp located on the south end of Magdalena Bay between Constitucion and La Paz. It is the road less traveled (by gringos) but well worth the experience. There is an unpretentious restaurant on the corner that makes deliciosa empanadas—and the truck drivers of MX 1 will agree. The rough, 25-mile dirt access road takes about two hours to cover. Keep in mind this is a working camp. The tents and shacks are only meant to provide a place of rest for the hard working fisherman scratching out a living. The best beach camping is on the north end of the camp. Puerto Cancun is simple and pure and rich with treasures from the sea. The experience is worth the drive.
Gretchen and I get a lot of pleasure out of sharing Baja with friends. The joy of experiencing a jaw-dropping moment through someone else’s eyes is as good as being there the first time ourselves. Each of the places described in this article have filled us with fond memories. Some are visual, like a defused morning sunrise in Bahia de Los Angeles, while others are remembered simply by sound… a whale fin smacking the water or a kayak paddle quietly dipping into a perfectly flat bay. Baja always stirs in us the joy of a simpler life. We have all we need in our camper.
When traveling in Baja, remember that you are a guest in a foreign country. Some expectations are best left checked at the border. Be courteous and wise and be prepared. On your first visit, travel with a friend. Find that special beach. Don’t drive at night and boondock well off the road. Learn about where you plan to go. Meet the people and embrace their culture. Learn a few new Spanish phrases. Try new foods and sample the tequila. Let Baja dictate your pace. Only then can your journey become the destination.
We wish you fun, memorable and safe travels.