¡Hola, amigos! We’ve missed you. As promised, we have Baja California road trip tips.
We spent five weeks with our van in Baja California and Baja California Sur seeing striking deserts and underwater aquariums. We also rented an apartment in La Paz to visit Tamara’s dad, get work done and enjoy city livin’.
Enjoying marlin ceviche with our neighbors Aaron (a paceño, or La Paz native), Andrew and Carol
The sun setting over the Pacific on the beach near Todos Santos
Us with Tamara’s dad Chuck, code name Carlos
We’ve visited Baja for years now, but this was our first time visiting by car. If you’re thinking of bringing your car or van for a Baja California road trip, here’s what you need to know. (Stay with us until the end and you’ll get our recommended activities too!)
Crossing the Border into Baja California
When crossing from California, your ports of entry include (from west to east): San Ysidro/Tijuana, Otay Mesa, Tecate, Calexico West, Calexico East, and Andrade.
The San Ysidro/Tijuana crossing is spectacularly busy, sometimes in both directions, but it is also open 24 hours. If you plan on crossing late at night at a different port of entry, do some research to make sure it—and the immigration office—will be open. For example, Tecate is closed from 11pm-5am.
Bring your passport. If you are a U.S. citizen and traveling outside of the border region (approx. 30km south or more) for more than 72 hours, you require an FMM tourist card. You can apply for one online or just fill out the paperwork in person at the immigration office (Instituto Nacional de Migracion / INM) once you cross the border. If you apply online, you still have to have it stamped at the immigration office. The fee is roughly US$25 per person, depending on the exchange rate. Tourist cards are good for 180 days.
When crossing into Baja California Sur, no one asked to see our passports or tourist cards. However, we were charged MXN$10 (about 50 cents) to drive over a pesticide sprayer
You need insurance. If you get in an accident and do not have insurance, you can be taken into police custody until it is determined who is liable. No bueno, people. If you have insurance in the U.S. or Canada, your policy likely does not extend into Mexico. Call your insurer to find out.
Even if your policy doesn’t include Mexico, your insurer might have a partner that offers Mexican insurance. Or, there are plenty of other options you can purchase online, such as Baja Bound.
You can purchase Mexican insurance daily, monthly or for six months. The monthly premium is nearly the same price as the six-month premium. If you plan on traveling outside of Baja, make sure your policy is valid in other Mexican states.
A typical stretch of Highway 1 with a sign for 24-hour roadside support… if you have cell service!
The carretera transpeninsular, Highway 1, is generally in very good condition. Unless you’re going through a populated area, it is two lanes only. There are a few stretches in remote areas where potholes are a concern though, so stay sharp! According to Tamara’s dad, the other hazards to watch for include:
- Cows: Some ranches don’t have fences, so cows, donkeys and other livestock may wander into the road.
- Slow-Moving Trucks: Farm trucks going 40mph are sometimes on the highway, as are slow-moving big rigs. Pass with caution.
- Rocks: The mountainous areas south of Mulegé are prone to rock slides and big trucks can kick up rocks.
Outside the major highways, you’ll encounter paved roads. Many roads to the beach, for example, are unpaved.
Mexico’s gasoline is nationalized, so all gas stations have the same prices and name: Pemex. Stations are full service, so you won’t be pumping your own gas. You have the option of Magna (87 octane, green pump), Premium (92 octane, red pump) and Diesel (black pump). If you typically fill up with regular, don’t freak out when you see the green pump.
Don’t know Spanish? Say, “Lleno (pronounced yay-no) con Magna, por favor,” and the attendant will fill up your tank with regular. Or, you can ask by peso amount, i.e., “Doscientos (MXN$200) de Magna, por favor.”
Make sure you see the counter zero out. If you’re wondering how many gallons you’re getting, there are just shy of four liters in a gallon. A few other tips:
- Payment: Plan on paying in cash. While some stations have credit card machines, they’re not reliable.
- Tipping: You do not have to tip the attendant, but we usually tip 10 pesos if they clean our windshield.
- Keep It Full: Some areas of Baja are very remote, especially between El Rosario and Guerrero Negro. If you’re driving a long stretch and down to half a tank, fill up just in case.
Rolled into this Pemex station with the gas light on just south of Mulegé after hypermiling for two hours in the middle of nowhere. Sadly, there was a power outage and they couldn’t pump us any gas. Some kind people came by to tell us there was another station about five miles away. Phew!
There are several military checkpoints along the highways, primarily to thwart drug trafficking. They look intimidating because it’s a bunch of dudes with automatic rifles, but we’ve never had any issues.
- When traveling south: They will typically ask where you are coming from (¿De dónde vienen?), where you are going (¿Adónde van?), and for what purpose (¿Vacaciones?). Just answer the questions honestly and they will wave you through.
- When traveling north: They will ask you the same questions, but it is more likely they will ask for an inspection. The thoroughness varies: Sometimes they will go through nearly everything, other times they’ll look in your glove box and be done with it. They look very closely at plastic baggies.
Getting to Mainland Mexico & Temporary Import Permits
If you want to visit other parts of Mexico by car, that’s great! You can drive over to mainland Mexico on the northern end of Baja or you can take a car ferry. There is a ferry from Santa Rosalía to Guaymas and from La Paz to Topolobampo or Mazatlán.
To bring your car or van to mainland Mexico, you will need a temporary import permit. We have never had to do this, but apparently you can order one online or pay for it before getting on the ferry.
Camping at Playa Los Arbolitos in Cabo Pulmo for US$5 per night — Tamara’s dad stayed in Red Delicious while we stayed in the “guest room”
Morning view from the van camping at Playa Santispac on the north end of the Bahía de Concepción — there’s technically a US$5 fee according to a sign, but no one was there to collect it
OK, we’re finally getting to the good stuff! We did not do much camping in Baja, but here is what we generally observed.
- Private Campgrounds: Campgrounds are privately owned and often not developed, although there may be a bathroom or shower. Public campgrounds, like what you experience at a state or national park, are nonexistent.
- RV Parks: There are lots of RV parks that have hook-ups and showers among other amenities too. Every time we thought about stopping at one of these, we changed our mind. Why? They just didn’t look that great to us. But you can find them all along the highways, mostly near populated areas. Many accept tents.
- ***TOP PICK: The Beach!*** All beaches in Mexico are public, although the road getting there sometimes isn’t. The beach is where you’ll find the best camping. Sometimes there is someone charging a nominal fee, but it may cover access to toilets, for example. There are no designated sites, although think about how high the tide gets when deciding where to park. In some popular camping areas, like around the Bahía de Concepción, vendors will drive by with fresh fish or tamales for sale or to offer boat rides. Plan on bringing your own water.
- Stealth Camping: We met people with an RV who parked in small towns right off the street or near a church and no one would bother them. If your van is totally self-contained and you’re up for stealth camping, no one should give you a hard time.
Things to Do and Places to See
Snorkel with whale sharks: They are shark sized (think 30 feet), but only eat plankton. It is a 20-minute boat ride from La Paz into the bay.
This underwater photo of a whale shark was taken by our guide, Benjamin Duarte, who shared lots of interesting information about whale sharks and snorkeled with us.
Visit a national marine park: Cabo Pulmo is a national park east of San Jose del Cabo and it has the only coral reef in the Sea of Cortez. This is a hike from Los Arbolitos beach and campground.
At Los Arbolitos, you can rent snorkels and fins and explore the coves and the fish in the reef. There are also companies that will take you on snorkeling and diving trips. It’s rough road getting here, but very pretty and peaceful.
Get up close with gray whales: At Laguna San Ignacio, you can take a trip with Pachico’s Eco Tours to go whale watching. You can camp like we did, or they have small cabins for rent. Gray whales spend the winter in this lagoon and have their calves; when the calves get older they sometimes approach the boats!
See what a French Mexican town looks like: Santa Rosalía is a mining town that was settled by the French for a while, so everything is built from wood and in a more French style, rather than the typical cinder block construction. The downtown area is lively and pretty to walk around in.
Check out where the kite surfers go: La Ventana is about an hour south of La Paz along the Sea of Cortez. The strong winds make it a great kite surfing spot. Lots of people are camped along the beach and there are plenty of shops where you can take lessons… or just enjoy the view!
Meet the rock people: The Cataviña boulder field is about an hour south of El Rosario. This doesn’t even begin to capture how many boulders there are out there. There are mountains of them! There’s a spot about half way where you can park off the road in a dry river bed and explore.
More Baja Resources
Lastly, Baja Insider and All About Baja are other helpful sites for exploring towns and attractions in Baja. And, if you need some energetic Spanish-language music for your trip, be sure to check out our second Spotify playlist. ¡Buen viaje!