How to Choose Your Own Adventure in Baja
It’s just south of the border yet entirely a world away from the typical American outdoor experience. Here’s how to camp your way down the Mexican peninsula.
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Want to set up camp on a beach that’s all your own, dip your toes in clear blue, bathtub-temperature water, and catch a fish and turn it into tacos? It may sound like a dream, but I’m hoping this article will turn that into as much of a reality for you as it has been for me over the past few years. Read on for details about everything I know on visiting Baja California so you can start planning a trip of your own.
How Should You Get to Baja?
You’ve got two main options: fly or drive. I prefer to drive, so I can bring a capable truck, all of my camping gear, and my dogs. The times I’ve flown have been fun, too, but relying on a rental car or taxi really limits you to what few towns exist on the peninsula and encourages you to stick around a hotel.
Last year I built the ultimate Baja camping rig: a brand-new Ford Ranger that unfolds into my very own beach cabana. But you don’t need something expensive and fancy to have a good time. On one of my favorite trips, I showed up in San Diego with a hastily packed carry-on full of backpacking gear and hopped into the back of my friend’s 1987 Toyota 4Runner, alongside his son, his dog, and a 100-liter fridge-freezer full of beer, then spent five days beach popping around the northern half of the peninsula with them.
If you want to make the most of it, trucking down to this part of Mexico with a four-wheel-drive vehicle and good all-terrain tires should be considered the bare minimum, as you can then access dirt roads and beaches without having to worry too much about getting stuck or damaging a tire.
What Do You Need to Bring to Baja?
On that trip in my buddy’s 4Runner, I forgot to pack a tent. Bad idea. Sleeping on the open beach one night, I was eaten alive by sand fleas. The bites took months to stop itching. You should pack a tent.
My guides to luxury car-camping gear and all the latest couple’s camping equipment apply in Baja as much as anywhere else. Plan for overnight lows that may sometimes reach the high thirties and daytime highs in summer that can exceed 100 degrees. That 4Runner didn’t have air-conditioning, but it sure would have been nice. A shade structure of some kind—a vehicle awning or a self-supporting item—would be a good idea, too.
The important thing in Baja isn’t necessarily comfort, it’s self-sufficiency. Not only will you be traveling through very remote areas in your vehicle with no cell service, but if you do break down, it’s possible that it’ll take help days to arrive. That means you should head south prepared for vehicle repairs, complete with the parts, tools, and necessary knowledge of how to use them in such a situation, as well as the ability to get your vehicle unstuck from sand, mud, or obstacles. You’ll also want to bring all the stuff you’d need or want while camping on the beach, because running out for a six-pack isn’t exactly easy.
My typical list for vehicle-based adventures on the peninsula includes the following.
- Maxtrax ($300): If you get stuck in sand or mud, shove these under your driven wheels and drive out. I carry two. Avoid imitators, as you’ll only get a single use out of them.
- A DMOS Delta shovel ($239): While Maxtrax can be used as a rudimentary shovel, they’re made of nylon, not metal. So while they’re useful for scooping sand, they aren’t enough to move hard earth. If your vehicle gets lodged on a berm or a rock, you’ll probably need to shovel a lot of dirt to get unstuck. The Delta packs small but is as sturdy and useful as a normal shovel.
- Kinetic recovery strap and shackles (kits $135 and up): If you can find another vehicle for help, you’ll need to have the appropriate equipment for it to tug you out or tow you into town. This stuff gets dangerous real fast, so bring your own kit; that way you’ll know how to use it and can feel sure that it’s safe.
- A tire-repair kit, an air compressor or a Power Tank, Fix-a-Flat (here’s how to use it).
- A factory-service or Hayne’s manual for your specific vehicle.
- Spare parts for any common faults your vehicle may suffer from. Consult the relevant owner’s forum for recommendations.
- Any special tools or service items necessitated by your aftermarket equipment: if your fancy off-road shocks need a special wrench for adjustment, make sure you pack that.
- J-B Weld epoxy, K-Seal coolant leak repair, duct tape, and strong zip ties.
- A jack that’s safe to use off-road. Few vehicles come with an adequate jack. If yours doesn’t, replace it with a quality bottle jack, an ARB jack, a Hi-Lift, or a Pro Eagle. Add a suitable jack base for even more safety.
- A comprehensive, organized tool set that fits your vehicle.
- Any specialized tools your vehicle may require, such as security Torx wrenches.
- An air-down tool.
- A quality two-burner car-camping stove: I recommend the Camp Chef Mountaineer ($299), with the add-on legs ($41).
- A bulk propane canister that’s sized to meet your needs. Some of the valves used in Mexico are of a different spec than we use in the U.S., which may make it difficult to refill a tank there or mean that a tank you buy there may not fit your stove’s hose.
- A solid camp table (I built mine into my Ford Ranger).
- Comfortable chairs.
- A Dometic CFX3 fridge-freezer (from $960) and PLB40 battery ($850). You don’t need my solar-panel setup unless you plan to park and not drive for several days. Dometic’s CFX3 55IM is an ideal size for most couples, plus it makes ice. I carry a two-compartment, 95-liter unit to support the raw-food diet I feed my three large dogs. Compared to a cooler, the fridge-freezer eliminates the need for ice and guarantees that you can transport quality food for extended periods of time without it spoiling.
Where Should You Go in Baja?
Whether you’re crossing the border from Calexico, California, or San Diego, a good first-night destination for any trip to Baja is Guadalupe Canyon Oasis Hot Springs. Not only is this post just 50 miles south of the border, but you can also book a campsite and private hot spring online, so you have assured accommodation. Each spring and campsite offers a decent amount of privacy; even though you’re staying in what amounts to a commercial campground, you won’t be sharing your picnic table with neighbors. The family that manages the complex is very welcoming.
This destination is located about 30 miles from the highway, reached via routes that can quickly become impassible in inclement weather, are rough even at the best of times, and lack much in the way of signage. That creates a good shakedown test for your truck and your navigation skills—not to mention your expectations about traveling the peninsula. It’ll take you longer than you expect to get there, and there will probably be a couple of times when you won’t be sure you’re going the right way.
After you arrive and you’re sitting in the hot spring that evening, think about the drive in. Did your truck ride nicely over all that washboard? If not, would a different tire pressure work better? Were there any squeaks or rattles that you want to address? Did your load feel secure and well-balanced? Did your maps, apps, and other navigation equipment work like you expected? Are you missing anything you wished you’d brought? What kind of fuel economy did you get off-road, and how is that going to change your range estimations?
Some very basic supplies are available at the Oasis, but it’s your next destination to the south that’s going to give you the last real chance to find the kind of stores and services that’ll be familiar to Americans. From the Oasis, you have the choice to head down to either the Pacific coast or the Sea of Cortez. The coast is cooler, with more variable weather. The sea tends to be drier, warmer, and calmer.
Ensenada, to the west, is the larger town. If you go that direction, plan on stopping at El Trailero for its famous al pastor tacos. Farther south, down Highway 1, you’ll find big-box stores like Home Depot, grocery stores like Calimax, and even a Starbucks, if you need reliable Wi-Fi.
If you head down to the Sea of Cortez from the Oasis, you’ll get to San Felipe around lunchtime. You’ll also find a big Calimax there, just as you enter town. Continue east, and you’ll see the promenade along the beach. That’s a great place to stop for fish tacos and a margarita.
South of either town is where your adventure will really begin.
Is It Dangerous in Baja?
When my wife and I drove back from our wedding in Todos Santos a year ago, I had to pay my first-ever bribe. While passing through a little town, looking for access to a remote beach out beyond it, a local cop started following me and eventually pulled us over. He asked if I spoke Spanish, I said no, and he told me in perfect English that there was one price I could pay then and there and another at the station. I asked him how much, and he told me 4,000 pesos, which is about $200. I handed him a $100 bill, we both smiled, shook hands, and said, “Gracias, amigo.” It was one of the friendliest interactions I’ve ever had with a cop anywhere in the world, and it was nice that he didn’t even bother ginning up any sort of accusation of wrongdoing.
There’s no more noticeable crime in Baja than you’ll find here at home. Just like in the U.S., be careful about leaving your vehicle unattended, especially if it’s packed with nice camping gear and expensive electronics.
The real dangers happen on the road and in the water. Even the paved roads in Baja tend to be unpredictable. Brand-new asphalt can turn to dirt around any corner. Vados, or drainage ditches that the road goes down into, are often steeper than you’d expect. Corners are often blind, off-camber, and decrease in radius. Guardrails are few and far between. The farther you go down the peninsula, the narrower the highway gets. In some places, there’s less space than it’ll take to fit oncoming 18-wheelers side by side, but also no shoulders for them to put their outside wheels on. At night, horses, donkeys, and cows roam freely. Slow down and pay attention. Make sure your vehicle is in good shape and not loaded beyond its capacity. Air your tires back up anytime you return to pavement.
In the water, both shore breaks and riptides are common. Avoid swimming, boating, paddling, or surfing by yourself. Avoid the water altogether unless you’re experienced and confident or are in the company of someone who is. In Baja, always assume that help is a long way away at best, and likely not available at all.
What Should You Eat in Baja?
Eat the tacos. Stop at local restaurants and food stands. Stop at little stores in the middle of nowhere and ask the abuela if she has any burritos. The food in Mexico is amazing.
Away from the big Calimaxes, fresh produce and meat can be hard to come by. That’s one reason using a fridge to carry that stuff with you is a good idea. It’s also a great excuse to harvest your own wild protein.
On the Sea of Cortez side, you’ll catch triggerfish by shore-casting with lures. Use those fish to make ceviche on a beach, and turn the parts you don’t eat into bait for larger fish. Here’s my favorite recipe.
- Fish right out of the sea
- A bunch of limes
- Cut the fish up into small pieces, and place in a bowl. Refrigerate unused bits to use as bait.
- Season with salt and pepper, and cover in lime juice. Refrigerate for three to four hours so the acid in the lime juice cures the fish.
- Cut up the vegetables and cilantro, and squeeze some more lime juice on top of them. Refrigerate for one hour.
- When everything is ready, combine all the ingredients, and serve with tortilla chips.
Rocky beaches and cliffs on the Pacific Ocean are home to mussels. Harvest those carefully using a strong knife or small pry bar. Fresh mussels cooked on a beach by my friend Ty Brookhart are my favorite meal of all time. Here’s his recipe.
- Some sort of fatty pork (pancetta, bacon, or sausage)
- Onions or shallots
- Fresh mussels, harvested that day, soaked in fresh water, scrubbed of any barnacles or seaweed, with their beards plucked
- White wine
- Lemon juice
- Crusty bread
- Crushed tomatoes (optional)
- Fennel (optional)
- Chop your pork up into small bits and and cook it in a hot pan over high heat until the fat renders.
- Add the onions, corn, garlic and other vegetables (if using), and cook for 30 seconds.
- With the heat still on high, add the mussels, tossing frequently until they start to open.
- Add the wine (four to six fluid ounces per pound of mussels), and let it reduce.
- The mussels should steam open after a couple of minutes in the wine. If the wine steams away before they open, add more wine.
- Once the mussels have opened, make sure there’s still an ounce or two of reduced wine in the pan, then add the butter and toss to incorporate until fully melted.
- Add lemon juice and pepper, and serve. Do not add salt, as the mussels will already be salty.
- Mop up sauce with bread slices.
Where Should You Stay in Baja?
Beyond the Guadalupe Canyon Oasis Hot Springs, I’m not going to name any precise camping spots. This isn’t to keep them secret—it’s because doing so would spoil your adventure. A big part of the fun is pouring over maps and spending time on Google Earth trying to find remote beaches and other suitable destinations, then plotting routes to them. Or heck, just taking a hunch on a dirt road and finding out what’s at the end of it.
It’s a really good idea to create some rough travel plans ahead of time, along with reasonable travel distances for each day you want to be moving. If you’re just out to have fun camping around, I wouldn’t try to go more than 100 miles in a day, and I’d spend more than a night at places you enjoy. If you’re trying to make time on Highway 1, you’ll definitely want to create firm plans around daily destinations, be they hotels or camp spots. Driving after dark gets sketchy fast, and trying to find a place to sleep once night falls can feel impossible.
On the way to and from our wedding in Todos Santos, my wife and I put in what felt like a solid day of driving, then tried to find a campsite or hotel just before sunset. One night we pulled off the highway, drove a few miles up a wash, and camped in the middle of a cactus forest. Just before sunrise, we were woken by a cacophony of hoots and realized that every single one of those cacti was home to an owl. It was one of the neatest things I’ve ever experienced. On another night, it was pouring rain and we were trying to make it to a hotel in Loreto, which ended up taking a few hours longer than we’d planned. After dark, still miles from town, I came about an inch from hitting a pair of horses standing right in the middle of the highway. At best, that would have totaled our truck, 600 miles south of the border.
As you’re driving back north, the Border Wait Time app is useful for figuring out the best crossing. I’ve waited as long as seven hours to get through border traffic before but have also driven straight up to passport control with no wait whatsoever, thanks to that app. Once you’ve camped on your last beach and then fought traffic through the border and up toward San Diego, you’re going to be tired. Rather than try to put in a bunch of highway miles while you’re exhausted, I like to just book a night in some nice digs. Hotel Solamar in downtown San Diego is part of the Kimpton family, a dog-friendly brand (the policy: if it fits through the door, it’s welcome), and the valets there have never once turned up their noses at one of my filthy trucks. If there’s one thing about camping in Baja that’s universal, it’s that it’s going to give you a newfound appreciation for a hot shower and a comfortable bed.