Road Trip to Baja California Sur
“Do you want to go somewhere warm, play in shallow blue lagoons, watch whales, and eat a lot of tacos?”
“When are we leaving?”
This pretty much sums up how we decided to go on a road trip to Baja California. I mean, how can you say “No” to all these things especially when you can take a break from short cold winter days. Here is some information and what we learned and did during our trip that you might find useful.
We usually spend countless hours researching our destinations to know where to go, what to do, and what we would need to bring. This doesn’t mean that we’ll have everything planned out and no room for the unknown and spontaneous decisions. Trust me, there is always plenty of that. But I like to learn as much as I can beforehand in order to have an idea of places I would like to visit, route to take, and to be able to bring all we need. I like to print out or save information on my phone because we are often without any service when we are traveling plus it’s better to chill on the beach instead of spending hours in town researching on our phones and trying to figure out what to do and where to go next. So I would recommend you to do more research and make your adventure list for the trip, and I hope that you will find some ideas and inspiration in this blog.
Things to take care of before the trip:
Make sure your vehicle is in great shape because breaking down during a road trip in a foreign country is not all that fun. We experienced it firsthand on our drive back north. While car repairs are cheaper in Mexico, they might not have specific parts or expertise you would need. We had to wait one week for a part for our Sprinter van. Because the mechanic was not a Sprinter expert we still had to cut our trip short and drive to San Diego to fix our van completely.
Learn couple of basic phrases in Spanish. Yes, you can get by without it but it will make your experience better if you can speak at least a little. I think locals really appreciated my efforts in speaking their language even if it was far from perfect.
Get Mexican vehicle insurance for the duration of your trip. Check with your US insurance before the trip to see if your vehicle might be covered in Baja California but as far as I know it’s better to have Mexican insurance. We got an inexpensive Mexican “liability only” insurance online and it took only about 10 minutes.
If you are planning to travel south of Ensenada you will need to get a Tourist Visa. Nobody will tell you or ask you about it at the border but it’s your responsibility to get it. You might get away without it. Nobody asked us to show it throughout the trip but if you get in a car accident or some kind of other trouble you most likely will be asked to show it. Right after crossing the border go to the the immigration building where you would need to fill out a form and pay the fee (about $25 per person) in order to get it.
I would recommend exchanging money before crossing the border so that you could just proceed to your destination instead of driving around town and looking for one in Mexico.
When we announced on social media that we are planning to drive all the way to Baja California Sur from the United States we received a number of messages of concern for our safety. Keep in mind that media and news often blow everything out of proportion, and make traveling in Mexico look more dangerous than it actually is. I am not saying that there are no dangers or people that might be looking to take advantage of travelers because you can find those kind of people anywhere in the world. Here are a few safety guidelines we followed on this trip and most of them we actually follow anywhere we travel. I know that these rules are pretty basic and probably what you already know but still a good reminder for those who feels nervous about road tripping in a foreign country like Mexico.
Don’t spend the night near the border or other questionable places.
Try not to travel during night time.
Pay close attention and keep your eyes on the road as there are some sections of the highway that are not in great shape.
Have a safe hidden compartment in your vehicle for your valuable belongings.
Be always aware of your surroundings and people around you.
Don’t bring unnecessary expensive jewelry.
Try to keep your money in two different places to have backup money, and don’t carry all of your cash with you.
Listen to your gut if something seems wrong.
I also want to mention that all the people we met during our trip were really kind, open and generous. When our van broke down we spent one week in Santa Rosalia which is a small town and not very touristy. Everyday we went to a playground in the main square, stopped for tacos, and just walked around town. This actually gave us an opportunity to interact more with locals and see/experience their normal everyday life. A lot of people came to say hi, smiled and waved at us ,of course, mostly because we had a cute smiling blonde hair baby with us but it was still really heartwarming. At the moment it was stressful to deal with van repairs and the wait but looking back this little town has a special spot in my heart now. There will be a mandatory stop for tacos in Santa Rosalia on every trip from now on.
Where to Camp
There is a lot of awesome camping in Baja and most of it is cheap($8-10 per night) or free if you are willing to get off the main road and beaten track a little more. I highly recommend downloading the app iOverlander to your phone because it is a great resource for this area. We used this app to find campsites, water, laundry and gas stations. I’ll share with you some of my favorite areas we stopped at later. Of course, there is always more to explore in Baja California and we explored only a fraction of this stunning area during our trip, and we already can’t wait to go back and explore more.
Important things to note. When wild camping in Baja California please make sure to not litter and take your garbage out. Yes, there are already some trashed areas but that doesn’t mean we should add to it. If you find couple of pieces of garbage at your camping spot please pick them up and leave a place better than it was. I hope that as the tourism increases we can still enjoy these beautiful places in many years to come and set example of good stewardship to locals and other travelers.
Favorite Places We Visited
Cactus Desert near Catavina
We were driving down Highway 1 and at some point we started seeing a number of huge cactuses on each side of the road. I’ve never seen cactuses this big in the wild. We were not originally planning to stop in this area but I am so glad we decided to stop and explore more. It was definitely one of my favorite spots we visited because it’s like nowhere I’ve been before. It felt like being in a desert forest surrounded by all those tall cactuses, The Mexican Cardon. The Cardon is the largest cactus in the world, and our van looked like a little toy car when surrounded by them.This area is also special because it has a concentration of Cirios or Boojum Trees that look like trees from a Dr. Seuss book. There is a number of free wild desert camping spots in this area amongst cactuses and boulders. Just take one of the dirt roads and go explore but pay attention where you are driving as there might be soft sand spots that might get you stuck.
This is a small cute town with palm trees and a nice campground “Huerta Don Chano RV Park” worth stopping at. We stayed here couple of times and really enjoyed this well maintained campsite and the hot shower. This campsite also has WiFi which wasn’t great but enough to take care of some work and look up information online. Muleje has couple of small grocery stores that are good for resupplying some grocery items before heading to the beach for a few days. There is really delicious date bread sold at a little bakery shop right in front of the Purificadora where we filled up on water. I am not a big fan of sweets but it was not too sweet, moist, and simply delicious in my opinion. So if you happen to be there eat some for me and let me know what you think. It’s really cheap and we bought it couple of times and enjoyed it with some almond milk.
You can’t miss this lagoon because you will be able to see beautiful tropical water and white beaches right from the highway. This area is definitely the spot where a lot of people come to spend winter season. It’s a big lagoon and there are a number of beaches all around the lagoon and I suggest you try several of them and find your favorite. It can get pretty busy but since we were there early in the season it wasn’t too crowded. A lot of the smaller beaches had only so many camping spots but we were always able to find a spot and even scored a palapa couple of times. We really enjoyed our time here and socializing with other travelers. On one of the beaches we even participated in a community dinner which was a lot of fun. This lagoon is great for paddle boarding or kayaking. You can paddle and explore nearby islands, and its common to see dolphins in the lagoon. Some spots have little stingrays to watchout for. Vendors come every day and bring freshly caught shrimp and fish. It was our favorite experience just to chill on the beach and grill fresh shrimp.
We really enjoyed this beautiful town. There are several campsites in Loreto and they all looked like good options but we opted for the one right in downtown to be able to leave our van behind and just walk around the old town and try out some restaurants. Loreto has a number of great restaurants, and I had an amazing mole dish at “Mi Loreto” that I will be dreaming about. We did our laundry in Loreto and resupplied with groceries as there are couple of big stores that had pretty much everything we needed. In my opinion Loreto has a perfect central location for a lot of adventures in Baja California Sur and there is a lot of desert and beach to explore within short driving distance from it.
It’s a beautiful beach with clear shallow turquoise water that is also very popular and busy due to its proximity to La Paz. We were there on a weekday and it wasn’t too busy but there were still a number of people there. This is a day use beach as there is no camping on the beach like at Bahia Concepcion. Definitely not a place for solitude or quiet time but we still enjoyed playing in the water on a warm day. I would also recommend going there at high tide as it’s very shallow and you would need to walk a bit to reach ankle deep water. Our daughter really enjoyed playing and running around in warm shallow water. It is a perfect beach for little kids. There are other beaches to explore in this area and places where you can camp. We ended up spending only one night here because it seemed too busy for our liking.
It’s a charming artsy town that I really wanted to visit and I am glad we did because it has a very fun and chill vibe. I love arts and crafts and Todos Santos has a number of art galleries and cute little shops with tons of colorful pottery, art, souvenirs, clothing and ,of course, there is a number of inviting cafes and restaurants everywhere. Our daughter’s favorite stop was at a small store selling handmade ice cream and popsicles that were really delicious. Cute narrow streets and main square are decorated with colorful Mexican flags which really adds to the vibe and cuteness of this town.
We also enjoyed visiting Tortugeros Las Playitas right outside of Todos Santos to see baby turtles being released to the ocean at sunset and learning about their conservation program. I’ve never seen a baby turtles before and it was a very neat experience. If you have enough time you can apply to be a volunteer and participate in the turtle conservation program.
Other Things to Know
There are water purification stations “Purificadora” all over Baja Norte and Sur and they are also marked on iOverlander app. It’s also really cheap and easy to do. We have two portable 7 gallon jugs in the back of our Sprinter which made it easier for us to fill up with filtered water at these shops.
There is a number of military stations along the highway where everyone gets stopped, asked couple of questions, and possibly have the vehicle inspected. It’s really not a big deal and nothing you should worry about. They just usually asked “Where are you coming from?”, “Where are you heading”, “Do you have any weapons?”. We were asked if our van could be inspected a few times. We didn’t have to pull over or vacate the van. They simply would come in and look around and open couple of cabinets. Military guys were always friendly and respectful, and especially entertained by our daughter Zoey who was always happy to have a visitor.
Fill up on diesel or even gas when you have a chance. I’d say this especially applies to diesel vehicles like ours because not every gas station has diesel. There are a few of long stretches of road without anything around or some small towns that have a gas station marked on iOverlanded but it’s not a guarantee it would be open. Also ask what the exchange rate is before you fill up if using card. Some gas stations have a better exchange rate than others so it’s not a bad idea to shop around when possible. Fuel is not cheap in Mexico and it all adds up if you don’t shop around.
Pay attention to what and where you eat, and wash your hands or use hand sanitizer all the time before eating. Getting sick and having diarrhea is not fun while traveling so extra caution is always good. We never got sick until we bought churros from a stand while waiting at the border on the way back (we knew better).
Our road trip to Baja California was such a fun adventure, and I am a little sad that our van broke down and we had to cut our trip short and skip a number of planned activities and locations there. But it leaves me something to dream about and look forward until we go there again. See you soon Baja!
I hope that you will find this information inspiring to go seek your own adventure, and will also feel more prepared and informed about traveling in Baja California. Also, eat an extra taco there for me ;).