Baja California road trip tips

¡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’.

 

Ceviche in Todos Santos

Enjoying marlin ceviche with our neighbors Aaron (a paceño, or La Paz native), Andrew and Carol

 

Todos Santos Sunset

The sun setting over the Pacific on the beach near Todos Santos

 

Tamara Papa Chris

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.

Tourist Cards

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.

 

Driving in Baja California

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

 

Insurance

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.

 

Help on Baja highways

A typical stretch of Highway 1 with a sign for 24-hour roadside support… if you have cell service!

 

Highway Conditions

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.

Gas

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.

 

Getting gas in Mexico

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!

 

Military Checkpoints

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.

 

Playa El Arbolito Campground

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”

 

Playa Santispac

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

 

Camping Options

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

 

Snorkeling with whale sharks

Snorkel with whale sharksThey are shark sized (think 30 feet), but only eat plankton. It is a 20-minute boat ride from La Paz into the bay.

 

Whale shark

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.

 

Cabo Pulmo

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.

 

Cabo Pulmo 2

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.

 

 

A video posted by Tamara (@taminacan) on

 

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!

 

Santa Rosalia church

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.

 

La Ventana

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!

 

Rock people

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!

  12 comments for “Baja California road trip tips

  1. 2016-02-14 at 10:46 am

    Wow, great post and fantastic tips. Yet another destination to add to our list!

    • Tamara & Chris
      2016-02-14 at 12:21 pm

      Thanks! Let us know if you decide to go and have any questions — it’s hard to fit everything in one post 🙂

      • 2016-08-27 at 12:31 am

        Hi! I am restoring a 1990 Dodge Ram van and decking it out for a trip like this! Is it safe? I have heard horror stories about drug gangs but generally from people who have not actually been. Anyone I know that has been says it is mostly chilled out and peaceful! Thanks

        • Tamara & Chris
          2016-08-27 at 8:25 am

          Hey Mark: We’ve never felt unsafe in Mexico — the only time we did was when we were walking around a shady neighborhood in Mexico City that we, in hindsight, should have gone to during the day instead. But it wasn’t any more or less safe than a shady neighborhood in a big US city.

          Baja in particular is very mellow and there are some great sites like BajaInsider.com that have tips and travel destinations.

          One thing to know is that Baja is very remote in between towns. Think of it like driving through Nevada: a couple big cities on each end, some small towns, and a whole lot of desert. In those desert areas it can be hard to get cell service, gas if you need it, or car repairs. So just be smart and fuel up before your tank ever gets too low.

          People in Mexico are very friendly and especially appreciate it if you make an effort to speak some Spanish. Have a great trip!

  2. Shannon
    2016-10-25 at 12:43 pm

    Hello! I am researching a road trip to Baja, final destination Cabo, have a friend there. Did a Google search and found your blog, have to say thanks for all the GREAT info! Do you have any insight on crossing the border with a dog? My pup will be with me so I’m trying to find out what paperwork I should have etc… I am now following your Instagram, look forward to your adventures.

    Thanks!
    Shannon
    Shenanigans1313

    • Tamara & Chris
      2016-10-25 at 1:38 pm

      So glad to help!! Re: crossing with your dog, we’ve never crossed into Mexico with our dog by land — only by plane. But here are a couple places to start:

      https://www.aphis.usda.gov/aphis/pet-travel

      http://www.dogjaunt.com

      It’s likely that you only need proof of rabies vaccination and a health certificate but don’t take my word for it! It may have changed since we last traveled. Suerte y buen viaje!

      • Shannon
        2016-10-25 at 2:19 pm

        Gah! You guys are awesome! Thank you for leading me in the right direction.

  3. Isa
    2016-10-25 at 8:10 pm

    Hi,

    We are planning to go to Baja by car over the Christmas break. We have a Toyota Sienna 2006. Our biggest concern is: “Should we buy/rent a Toyota Highlander or not?” We heard a lot of people saying that a SUV was almost mandatory to access all the beaches safely.
    We’ve already been to La Paz and Cabo last year (by plane) so, this year, we’ll stay more north.
    I saw that you had a van for your trip. DId you feel that an SUV would have work better for you? Been safer? Easier? Did you get into any trouble?

    Thanks,
    Isabelle

    • Tamara & Chris
      2016-10-25 at 8:29 pm

      Hey Isabelle: This is a great question because if you plan to camp near the beaches you’ll often be on dirt roads and may even be off-roading a bit. We did bring our van for our trip and didn’t have any problems on dirt roads, even really rutted ones. And we drove on a LOT of dirt roads — pretty much all of Cabo Pulmo, on the east cape of Baja, is dirt road. We also drove into dirt/sand areas for camping or just to hang out on the beach. We even drove a 30-mile stretch on a muddy road out to a remote lagoon to see some whales!

      That being said, I wouldn’t call those drives comfortable. SUVs are definitely a lot better if you want to go fast and not have everything in your van shaking like an earthquake. Our bike rack was bouncing around, it was loud, and we couldn’t go much faster than 15mph. BUT, we were very careful to watch where we were going and never drive into any dirt or sand that looked too loose/deep. And we never had any problems getting in/out of anywhere.

      I’ll also say that we only spent about 10-20% of our total drive time on roads like that. The rest were paved and not a problem. We even saw people with old RVs in the dirt and sand, although they complained too about the slow speeds and bouncing. But they made it!

      That’s a very long way of saying that we think you’ll be fine in your Sienna. Would an SUV work better and be more comfy? Definitely, but certainly not mandatory at the beaches we visited. If you plan to do some serious adventure driving across the desert then a minivan is not a good idea, but you’ll notice Mexicans in small compact cars driving on the dirt roads near the beaches too. Just don’t drive into deep sand and you should be fine. Hope this helps!!

  4. luis
    2017-04-12 at 7:21 am

    hi, i know this is a old post, but i wanted to know if you had any good tips for hitch hiking in baja sur, since there are a lot of deserted places i wanted to know wich places are the best to spend the nigth.

    • Tamara & Chris
      2017-04-12 at 8:03 am

      We don’t know about hitchhiking, Luis, sorry! I’m sure that people do it though. Good luck!

    • derek
      2017-05-21 at 11:58 am

      Check out the budgeteer videos on youtube for hitchiking through Baja.

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