The Baja Peninsula has always been a mystery to me. I’ve heard stories about people crossing the desert on motorcycles and using 4 wheel-drive vehicles to access camp sites right on the beach. I’ve also seen photos of vacationers kayaking, kite boarding and snorkeling in the Sea of Cortez, the color and clarity of which rivals the Caribbean. Visions of whale watching and swimming next to a rare whale shark also come to mind, as do expat RV communities living every day as a vacation. Yet as enticing as Baja sounds, I don’t often think of it when I think of Mexico.
Since May, I have been traveling through western North America in a tiny teardrop camper with my boyfriend, Jason, and our dog. We started in Alaska and have seen countless spectacular sites in 13 western states and provinces in an unforgettable summer. From the outset, we intended to explore Mexico, in search of a nice beach town in which to spend the winter. We were already in Southern California, so why not check out Baja? Jason and I learned there is a ferry out of La Paz, near the southern part of Baja California Sur, so we planned to spend two weeks or more driving through small beach towns and interior villages to get to know this part of the country. We expected to find rough roads, beautiful beaches, and a little adventure. What we found was certainly an adventure!
The excitement started the day we crossed the border. We are both avid international travelers and knew what to expect. It was Labor Day weekend and the border crossing in Tijuana was packed with cars. But the crossing wasn’t at all what we expected. The camper was scanned, someone looked inside, and we were sent on our way. No one once asked to see our passports, nor did they ask us to pay for the approximately $40 tourist visitor card. We came out the other side of customs, completely bypassing any kind of immigration, into to the crowded streets of Tijuana. We found driving in the city to be a little stressful but not as bad as we had feared. A couple of hours driving south and west, we found an amazing little RV park on the Pacific Ocean.
El Villarino, a hidden RV park on a peninsula south of Ensenada, was truly a find. We camped right near the white sand beach and listened to the waves at night. The Pacific here is calm, clear and warm. And this beach has hot springs hidden under the sand! At low tide you can find them, dig a hole like you did as a kid, and lay in the hot water. Jason and I camped here three nights, enjoying the taco stands and other earthy flavors of Mexico, while swimming and living the beach life. We explored the coast farther south and found some interesting RV communities comprised of expats – but it’s still the off season so most places were empty. They look like party places in the winter. The two pieces of advice that we heard repeatedly from expats is to keep the gas tank over half full (the gas stations in the desert can be spotty at best, and sometimes it’s someone with a barrel of gasoline in the back of his pickup), and to never drive at night. The semi-trucks take over the roads at night and can drive cars right off the road. There are also many places where cattle graze on the sides of the road and can be standing right on the center lines. It’s easy to see why night driving is not recommended.
Along the route, we inquired at a tourist information office about the missing tourist pass (commonly referred to as a tourist visa, although it’s technically not a visa). He showed us how to pay online and then told us where to find an immigration office. Feeling relieved to get things straightened out, we headed to Baja California Sur (the state south of Baja California), only to find the immigration office closed. A local told us to come back at four pm, so we killed some time and visited the salt flats outside Guerro Negro. There is a popular bird sanctuary here that we regrettably missed to make it to the immigration office in time. Surprisingly, no one was there and a closer inspection showed the office hadn’t been occupied in months. A little defeated we continued southward. The road here crosses to the east side of the Peninsula, taking us from the Pacific to the Sea of Cortez. Without the cooling effect of the Pacific Ocean, the thermostat ticked up and up. Soon we were in sandy desert with forests of saguaro cacti, not unlike southern Arizona, yet in the mountains and plateaus reminiscent of southwest Colorado. It wasn’t long before we realized it was too hot to camp. 98 degrees F and evening approaching, we found a super nice, pet friendly, hotel near a tourist location with prehistoric cave paintings. This Mission Cavalina hotel was immaculate down to every detail. Probably one of the nicest hotels I’ve ever stayed in, Jason and I enjoyed the pool, dined at the fancy restaurant, and enjoyed sleeping in a bed. Save for staying with two friends along our journey, we slept in the five-foot by eight-foot camper for four months!
The next day brought us to the Gulf of California. We expected to find a camping spot near a port town called Santa Rosalía. Boy were we wrong. I have traveled on every continent except Antarctica and I’ve rarely seen a trashier place than San Rosalía. Literally, garbage was stacked head high on what would have been some of the most stunning beaches I’ve come across. Even in town, I wouldn’t have felt safe walking on the streets. The sun was setting and we started getting worried. There was no way we could camp here, even if we found a place. We would have to break one of the two cardinal rules about driving in Baja. Jason and I didn’t talk a lot as I drove south out of town in the waning daylight. Just as the last orange streaks from sunset were lighting the sky, we pulled into San Lucas RV park off the highway and smack on the beach that could have been in the Florida Keys. We were the only ones there! There was no where to pay, nor any information on how much it cost, but we didn’t have much choice. We made dinner in the dark and watched a full moon rise over the mirror-glass water.
Continuing south, the beaches just kept getting better. South of a small town called Mulegé we found beach front camping at Santispac beach. The water is so clear and so warm that one could stay in it all day, snorkeling with the fish or just floating under the blue skies. For $150 pesos a night, we rented campsite on the white sand beach with a palapa – a beach hut with a palm frond roof – and swam until we were water logged. From there, the highway climbs into green mountains giving spectacular views of white sand beaches tucked away in hidden bays.
If you’re going to Baja, plan on extra driving time. The distances are deceiving, it takes much longer to get between places because the roads are often washed out or even under water. Cattle or horses can be standing in the road around any corner so it’s not safe to drive at high speeds. It’s not all bad, however, it helped me remember why I’m traveling in the first place. To unplug and slow down.
After days of driving and camping, we finally made it to the tip of Baja, Cabo San Lucas. There are small towns along the way, like Loreto and Todos Santos, that are worth a visit. Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo (together make Los Cabos) are mostly visited by those traveling to luxury resorts. The beaches are gorgeous but the setting is a very sandy dessert without much plant life. The city of Cabo San Lucas was colorful and set up for tourists, but there was a seedy vibe. At best, it felt like Panama Beach Spring Break; every time Jason walked alone, men would approach him to sell him drugs and prostitutes. When we walked together the offers changed to snorkel trips and whale watching tours.
The last place we visited on the Baja is La Paz, the capital city of Baja California Sur. La Paz feels like a big city although it only has 200,000 people. The city borders amazing blue-green water and is known for spectacular snorkeling and kayaking. We planned to stay a day or two and then head to Mazatlan on the mainland via ferry. The ferry, however, was more of a hassle than we anticipated. Not only was it going to cost us over $600 USD to have two people, a dog, and the car with camper on the ferry (even such a small and lightweight camper as ours), our dog would have to be separated from us and in a crate for up to 18 hours. Our dog, Kiji, is 16 years old! She cannot go that long without a walk and bathroom opportunities. We shopped around and another ferry company that caters towards cargo is the same price but would let the dog ride crated in the car, yet wouldn’t let the dog out to go to the bathroom. Driving back up the Baja Peninsula seemed out of the question. It took two weeks to make it down and we didn’t have it in us to turn around and go back. That and we wouldn’t avoid the potentially dangerous border states in Mexico with the most severe US State Department travel warnings. We felt defeated – we had traveled four months and had yet to encounter hurdles this high. To make matters worse, we finally found an immigration office open and they couldn’t help us with our tourist card. The woman at the counter said we had to go back to the border and get it, that they didn’t even have the forms in La Paz. She reminded us that if we get stopped at the many military checkpoints along the road that we could be deported. Although we had already crossed a half-dozen or more checkpoints, for the first time, we drew out the white flag and surrendered.
Lucky for us, La Paz happens to be quite an amazing place to be ‘stuck’! September is still one of the hottest months of the year so we decided to get an apartment for a month rather than continue to camp. Even though we love our teardrop, it’s nice to have a roof over our heads after months of camping. We found a lovely rental downtown, four blocks from the boardwalk, or Malecón. La Paz is a walkable city, safe and clean. Check out my last photo blog of the murals of La Paz. The beaches just a short drive from town are incredible. We have found organic restaurants, pop-up diners, mezcal bars, and the best venue we’ve found anywhere for salsa dancing. Our most frustrating experience was when we were pulled over for no reason by the municipal police and had to pay a bribe. This is called the “mordita” (translated to “little bite” in Spanish), and is unfortunately an unavoidable part of driving in Mexico. Otherwise, we have enjoyed daily walks on the boardwalk, fantastic food, and swimming and snorkeling. Everyone we meet is so nice. Jason and I are undecided if we will stay here all winter or just for a month or two. I guess that’s also part of the adventure.
Baja has it all. From no-man’s desert landscapes, to mountains, to spectacular white-sand beaches. The people couldn’t be friendlier. There is more American influence than other places of Mexico, which is both good and bad. It means American travelers will find more familiarity, but it also means prices are higher. Even still, I feel that our experience here has been authentically Mexican. Baja has a wild west feel to it, but except for Los Cabos is hasn’t been built up like other tourist destinations. If you prefer sitting by a resort pool for vacation, fly directly into Cabo San Lucas or La Paz. But for those looking for adventure, a drive down Baja is sure to ignite a sense of adventure and exploration.