Across the Border into Baja

In this post we will talk about things you should know once you are across the border into Baja. Some things do work a bit differently in Mexico and Baja tends to be unique in some ways from the mainland of Mexico given its isolation.

As with the last post, links to some helpful websites will be listed at the bottom.

We set out early in the morning to drive across the border and were happy to find that there was a very short line. There was another Class C motorhome in front of us and when the border patrol waved them through, I figured they would not let the next one (us) through. And they did stop us, but they only gave our RV and tow car cursory “inspections”. They asked about food on board and also asked about the contents of our 5-gallon jug (water), since you’re not allowed to carry fuel in containers across the border. It was all very friendly and quick (unlike our return to the US, more on that later).

The Drive

Our route. From Tecate it was easiest to take Highway 3 to Ensenada to connect with the Transpeninsular Highway (Highway 1) which we drove the rest of the way south. Since we approached from the east this short cut to Highway 1 takes you through the scenic wine country and avoids the need to drive all the way west almost to San Diego and then thru Tijuana.

For those who are coming from the east in the future, Highway 5 is “almost completed” and will be the most direct route once that happens. During our trip, Highway 5, which goes through San Felipe, had a section just south of there that was unfinished and extremely rough, recommended for 4-wheel drive vehicles only so basically a dead end.

Road conditions all over Baja can change year over year, so it’s important to check on those conditions prior to traveling. We’re happy to have chosen the route we did because later down the road we met some truck campers who told us that the last portion of Highway 5 was super rough and they wouldn’t drive it again.

But when finished it will connect with the Transpeninsular Highway just north of the turn off for Bahia de Los Angeles thus shortening the trip south considerably.

Narrow roads/Construction. Driving some parts of the Transpeninsular Highway can be challenging. As mentioned before, a large portion is extremely narrow and with no shoulder. And you will alternate between recently resurfaced smooth roads to terrible potholed sections that can rattle your brain.

Combine that with 18-wheelers driving the opposite way that never slow down and it can be scary. The best thing to do when you see a large truck coming is to slow down and pull over to the right as far as possible. Slowing down makes it easier to get closer to the edge safely.

Since there was usually not a lot of traffic, sometimes we even came to a stop. That makes it easier for truck drivers to calculate how not to hit you, especially since they have no intention of slowing down.

A special caution for Class A Rvs. We drove Island Time, our Winnebago View, a class C Sprinter. These are nicknamed a “Skinny Winnie” because it’s only 90” wide, much slimmer than many Class Cs and all Class As.  It’s even more challenging to drive a Class A on these roads.

We met one unfortunate big rig owner whose driver’s side mirror was completely sheared off and had shattered the driver’s side window in the process. If you can, change the alignment of your side mirror to bring the arm in as close as possible to the side of your rig, even at the cost of some visibility (traffic is very light, it is an acceptable risk). We also had one slight mishap but not nearly as bad, a truck (barely) scraped our driver’s side mirror. It cracked a turn signal cover and sounded like a bomb went off.

Some Class A owners drive down with a tour group or create their own “caravan” with friends. They carry walkie talkies and the front person warns the others when a truck is coming, then they all move to the right and slow down. I guess the fact that there are multiple rigs may cause the truckers to be more cautious.

Passing. We opted to drive pretty slowly and take it easy so didn’t have much need to pass. But, sometimes there may be a really slow vehicle on the road in an area where it’s not very safe to pass. At those times, you may notice that the slow vehicle will turn on their left turn signal (when there is no left turn anywhere). That is their way of letting you know that it’s safe to pass.

Kilometers. In Mexico all speed limits and distances are shown in kilometers. Fortunately it’s easy to make the conversion since one kilometer equals .62 miles.

Topes. Topes are speed bumps and in Mexico there are a large variety of these. There are small bumps, medium bumps, large humps, enormous humps, indentations that are like inverted bumps etc. The topes do a much better job of speed control than speed limits and they are absolutely everywhere.

Sometimes there are signs warning you of upcoming topes and/or signs alongside the topes. Other times there is no signage. Watch for them when you enter an area where speed limit is reduced.  And where there is one, there are usually others.

Pedestrians use the topes, usually the larger ones, to cross the street and they always have the right of way. Always be on the lookout and slow down when you suspect there will be some topes and watch for pedestrians walking onto to them from the side.

Driving at night.  Don’t drive at night. There are several good reasons for this: poor or no lighting on the road, animals (mostly cows), road hazards including the infamous topes, potholes, which can be massive, and road construction (there is always some construction in Baja), lots of 18-wheeler traffic (many drive at night) and, in some remote parts of roads, thieves. I’ve read that some locals drive vehicles whose lights aren’t working, another hazard to be aware of at night.

As for cows and apparently also horses, they sometimes lay down in the middle of the road because it’s warmer there. One of our neighbors at one of the beaches we stayed in told us of a couple that told them to pay no heed to the warning about driving at night, bragging that they drove at night all the time. A few days later our neighbors came upon the cow that that same couple had hit on an earlier night. Yikes.

Hector and I did drive at night a few times, mainly going back from dinner in town to a campground just outside of town but we did so on well-traveled roads that we had first driven in daytime, for short sections and not super late at night. Cuidado por favor.

Green Angels. Finally, some good news! There are crews that patrol toll and Federal roads in Mexico called los Angeles Verdes (the Green Angels). In Baja, we know that they patrol Highway 1 south of Ensenada. They are bilingual and carry some tools and parts to provide limited mechanical assistance and first aid. They can also help arrange towing if needed.

The Green Angels are paid by the government through the Mexican Tourism Ministry and their services are free or included in your toll on toll roads. If you are on a toll road always keep your toll receipts! Of course, there is a cost for any parts and tipping them for their services is recommended.

If you pull over to the side of the road and lift the hood and they are driving through they will stop for you.You can also call them, and there are various phone numbers listed on the internet and also on roadside signs but there are large areas with no cell service, so that may not be an option.

Fuel

Previously a nationalized resource, gasoline and diesel sales have been deregulated as of 2018. Most gas stations we saw were owned by Pemex, the state-owned petroleum company, but new ones are starting to pop up.

All gas stations are full serve and they will wash your windows, check your tire pressure etc if asked. Be sure to tip your attendant. We give them a five peso coin if they do nothing other than put gas in the car and ten if they wash the windshield and perform additional services.

Fuel is sold in liters (3.8 Liters equal one gallon) and is more expensive than in the U.S.

Gasoline is color coded, and the colors can be confusing. At Pemex, regular unleaded gas is “Magna” and the color of those gas nozzles is green or “verde” (which in the U.S. is used for diesel). Premium unleaded or high-octane gas is “Premium” and the gas nozzles are red or “rojo”. Folks refer to the gas by the color. Fill with green (llene con verde) or fill with red (llene con rojo) por favor.

Diesel At Pemex stations is designated by black nozzles or “negro”. DO NOT use the green for diesel, it is unleaded gas and will kill your engine. Ultra-low Sulfur Diesel (ULSD) is available in the state of Baja California but may or may not be available in the state of Baja California Sur. Pemex has been saying that they are converting to all ULSD for years but that has not proven to be fact. I’m on a lot of Mexico Facebook groups and there is always lively discussion on this from the various regions. If your vehicle or rig requires ULSD (ours didn’t) we recommend you do further research if you’re headed to Baja California Sur.

Dirty Gas and Diesel is a common issue. Apparently further south on the peninsula they bring fuel by barge from mainland Mexico. This additional step apparently releases particulates and water into the fuel which then go into your tank. Our sprinter registered a check engine light that ultimately turned out to be a dirty fuel filter, which we had to drive to Cabo San Lucas to replace.

After the fuel filter saga we used a “Baja Filter”. A funnel with a particulate filter and water separator sold in some marine supply stores to filter the diesel when we filled. A bit of a pain, but no further problems.

Gas Station Scams. Gas station attendants, who make very little money, have been known to run some scams. While we never had a problem in our two months in Baja or the three months we’ve lived in Mexico we have heard of others that have.

The most common scam is to not return the pump to zero after the previous customer, so the total sale amount will include their amount. We recommend that the driver always exit their vehicle before they start pumping. What we found interesting is that now the attendant will usually point to the fact that the pump is at zero, they know about the scam and that foreigners are more aware of it. It’s still good to be observant.

The second one I’ve read about is that they will shortchange you and if questioned, tell you that you gave them a different bill than you gave. So, a good rule of thumb is to say out loud how much you’re handing them as you count out the money. And check your change.

The last one is that the attendant will say the credit card machine didn’t work and run your card a second time. This does not seem to be as common.

Again, we had very nice courteous gas station attendants and no issues.

Police

There are a few facts about police in Mexico that are important to be aware of before you cross the border. We had absolutely zero issues with police in our 62 days in Baja.

Small towns. We’d read that we should be extra cautious after crossing the border into Tecate. It’s a small town with narrow streets and being the first one that we drove into felt a bit confusing. Be careful and come to a dead stop at stop signs. The small-town police are watching U.S. plated vehicles closely and issuing tickets to anyone who makes any small infraction. Not unlike small towns in the U.S. nor other small towns in Mexico.

Flashing lights.  Police drive around all the time with their lights flashing. If you see a police car behind you with their lights on, fear not. If they want to stop you, they will briefly use their siren and you will know it. Otherwise, it’s another day in Mexico. Hector likes to say they like their blinky lights.

Bribes. There are lots of stories of people being stopped by police with false charges (or questionable ones) and asked to pay a fee to “take care” of the ticket in advance, or given not so subtle hints to that effect. That is a bribe, known in Mexico as a “mordida” (bite). Many people agree that it’s best not to succumb to the bribe as that will only encourage the behavior.

Be respectful and under no circumstances discuss the matter of a bribe. Many times if you tell them you’re willing to pay the fine at the station (not to the officer), the officers will let the charge go, especially if it was questionable to begin with and what they really wanted was a mordida.

Fortunately, we didn’t get to test this in Baja. We did, however, have our first instance of this in Cancun when we drove there recently. Hector got pulled over for speeding (he actually was a little but with traffic). The officer explained that it was Saturday and the “station was closed” but we told him we would return on Monday to pay our fine.

He took our license and registration and walked back to his motorcycle, but came back after a bit and said he would “help us out”, he seemed to linger a bit, but after a polite pause (where we might have perhaps offered some appreciation but didn’t) he let us off with a “warning”.

Police Guns and Military. You will occasionally see trucks driving around with groups of police or soldiers standing in the bed of the truck all with bulletproof vests and carrying rifles or even mounted machine guns. This does not generally mean something has happened it is just the way police show their presence sometimes.

Checkpoints There are occasional random checkpoints (some permanent, some temporary) where military or police will stop you and ask you some questions. Again, nothing to worry about, as this is just a form of security. They will usually ask you where you came from, where you’re headed to, how long you’ll be staying etc. and perhaps make other conversation (they did with us, since we speak Spanish). It’s just their way of giving you a closer look.

Pesos

Many of the small businesses in Baja only accept cash, and though some accept dollars, they will generally use exchange rates that are not favorable. You will usually pay more for the convenience of paying in US dollars. So it’s important to have pesos all the time to get the most for your money.

This last year the exchange rate has fluctuated from 18.5 to 20 pesos to the dollar and we’ve seen exchange rates posted at stores anywhere from 16 to 18 pesos to the dollar. There is an app called “Dollar to Peso” that we found useful to check the most current exchange rate and for quick calculations.

It’s also important to keep a certain amount of smaller bills as some businesses will not have change. And to also have some coins on hand (mainly 5 and 10 peso) for tips. Not only is it customary to give tips to servers at restaurants, but a modest tip to gas station attendants (all gas stations are full serve) and baggers at grocery stores is appropriate.

We got our first pesos at Ensenada by withdrawing from a bank ATM. ATMs generally use the best exchange rate, but you should always double check. Use ATMs in banks if you are able to and avoid random ATMs in the middle of nowhere. Skimming is not uncommon.

Many Mexicans get paid on the 15th and end of each month. If you are withdrawing money on those days, you may find that the ATMs have run out of money. And yes, this did happen to us, fortunately we don’t wait until we’re out of money to withdraw more.

Shopping and Restaurants

Value Added Tax. Unlike in the U.S., all pricing in Mexico already includes the sales tax, it is called the Value Added Tax or IVA (Impuesto al Valor Agregado). So, for example, in stores the price shown is the total price you will pay. When you look at pricing on a menu, those are the exact amounts that you will be charged on your bill.

In some cases, when you get your receipt there may be a breakdown of base rate and IVA on the bill, but the total should equal the total of the prices displayed on the menu or products.

Tipping.  The “standard” tip in Mexico is 10%. We usually tip between 10% at food trucks and 15% at casual restaurants, though some folks tip less. It’s illegal in Mexico to include tip on the bill, but it can happen. If that is the case, you are not obligated to pay the tip.

Metric System. Mexico uses the metric system, so mass is expressed in grams and volume in liters. Produce usually shows pricing for one kilogram, which is equal to 2.2 pounds. If ordering meat from a butcher or anything where you need to communicate a weight, it’s good to know that one pound equals about 480 grams.

Groceries. Since we arrived in Mexico with very few food items, we stocked up on food and liquor once we reached the first big city, Ensenada. They have a Costco and big supermarkets there and you can shop “American style”.

Once you head further south, you may find that some places just have small grocery stores but you may also find specialty markets such as “fruterias” for fresh fruits and vegetables and “panaderias” for breads etc. I highly recommend the fruterias! Once you get used to this you may even prefer to shop this way in the big cities (we do).

Washing Fruits and Vegetables. I always play it very safe with fruit and vegetables that don’t have to be peeled nor cooked. I purchased a vegetable disinfectant, Bac-Dyn was the brand, that is sold in most grocery stores. There are others and they are usually found in the produce section. There are also other more natural methods to disinfect like soaking in vinegar that I haven’t tried. And some people just rinse their vegetables and have no issues. I, however, have a sensitive stomach so I don’t take chances.

Milk and Eggs. Unlike in the U.S. eggs are not usually refrigerated. The pasteurization process in Mexico is different and they are safe to eat without refrigeration. You can refrigerate them if you like, but once you do that they must continue to be refrigerated. I personally was happy that eggs didn’t have to take up space in the refrigerator.

Milk is also pasteurized using a different process and is sold in airtight cartons that only need to be refrigerated once opened. Again, it was nice to buy a large amount of milk and not worry about refrigeration or spoilage.

You may also find refrigerated eggs and/or milk, and if you prefer those just keep them refrigerated.

Time Zones

This is fun. The Baja California Peninsula is in two different time zones. The state of Baja California is in the Pacific Time Zone and the state of Baja California Sur is in the Mountain Time Zone.

To keep things really confusing, the change to daylight savings time occurs at a different time in both states, which caught us off guard for a bit after we crossed the border between states.

The state of Baja California observes daylight savings time on the same timeline as the U.S., along with municipalities in nine other border states.

The state of Baja California Sur, however, observes Mexican daylight savings timeframes and “spring forward” to daylight savings about three to four weeks later than the U.S., and “fall back” about a week earlier than the U.S.. This will only matter if you’re traveling between March and April or late October to early November.

Got all that?  For a little while there we honestly weren’t sure what time it was.

Weather

Just a brief note about the weather. We were surprised to find that it was a bit colder than expected in much of the peninsula. Of course, we started out in February so perhaps that shouldn’t have been surprising. Anyway, we ran our heater on many nights but speaking for myself I am a wimp when it comes to cold, others may be more tolerant.

We still recommend that you take light jackets and layers. It wasn’t until we were in La Paz, which is pretty far south, in mid-March that it began to feel really warm for me. And then even some evenings were chilly. Weatherspark is a good resource to check for average temperatures.

So there you have it, our list of things to be aware of in Baja.  Don’t let any of this scare you off. Baja is fantastic. Its remoteness requires a bit of extra effort but you will be rewarded.

Here is a list of some useful resources with their links:

 

 

 

 

Planning Your Trip to Baja

Planning Your Trip to Baja

Now that we’ve given an overview of the Baja Peninsula, here are some tips for planning your trip to Baja. We’ll begin with things you can prepare in advance of your trip. As some areas of the peninsula are fairly remote having your rig and gear in top shape is important.

Note: We included links to useful websites at the bottom of the post for easy reference.

Internet Resources

There are many websites with different types of information about the peninsula. Here are some of our favorites:

Discover Baja Travel Club – has extensive information geared to RVers on their website which is available to all. This includes helpful checklists, information on all the types of permits you might need (fishing, boat, etc).

 

An important feature of this website is that they post regular updates on road conditions. In addition, they sell vehicle insurance and offer special services for those who become members.

Baja Bound Mexican Insurance – Also has lots of information for travelers driving to Baja in addition to offering auto insurance.

Visit Mexico – maintained by the Mexico Tourism Board, this website has good destination information but is geared towards travelers flying into Mexico.

It’s organized by state, so you need to search for either Baja California (sometimes mistakenly referred to as Baja California Norte) or Baja California Sur.

Explorando Baja and All About Baja are a couple of others that also provide tips and destination information for travelers to Baja.

Also be sure to check your other favorite RV bloggers and google RVing to Baja, as many people have blogged about their travels to the peninsula. We gleaned lots of information from our fellow bloggers and their experiences. They provide some excellent information.

A Very Useful Book

One indispensable resource in our opinion is the book “Traveler’s Guide to Camping Mexico’s Baja” by Mike and Terri Church. The book describes the various areas of the peninsula in great detail including information on roads, gas stations, sights to see and most importantly campgrounds. All accompanied by very detailed little hand drawn maps with all the important info clearly presented. Our copy is practically in tatters we used it so much. Don’t go to Baja without it.

This book is occasionally updated and reissued. We got a newly revised edition but it’s important to be aware that no matter what resource you use you should expect things to change. RV parks close down or quality/price/amenities change. Road conditions in particular vary a a lot. Construction takes place in one area one year and another the next. The road that was in great shape a couple of years ago may be terrible this year and the one that was terrible last year may be in great condition this year. Gas stations close down etc.

We also carried copies of Moon and Lonely Planet Guides to Baja.

 

Our Favorite RV Park Review Website

 

Another great resource for campground information is Campendium with many reviews on campgrounds and boon docking. We used it to find campgrounds throughout Baja, determine the current condition of campsites (assuming there have been recent reviews) and for more specific details on the campgrounds.

 

One other app that we know others have used to find campsites is the iOverlander app.

Deciding When to Go

Most RVers travel to the peninsula in winter when the weather is mild, not too cold nor too hot.

The state of Baja California in the north is popular during summer as well. Summer can be a great time to visit the wine region and the Sierra de San Pedro Mártir National Park in the high mountains.

 

 

 

And although destinations in the state of Baja California Sur can be quite hot in summer, an issue for RVers as power is often limited or unavailable, activities like big game fishing do bring some visitors to the area.

It’s also a better time of year for kayaking in the Sea of Cortez as the fierce winds of winter or “nortes” are gone for awhile. We were told that the waters are even more incredibly beautiful, hard to imagine.

Our decision to begin our travel at the end of January and spend February and March on the Peninsula was related to the specific activities we are interested in. That is prime time for seeing the gray and the blue whales. We also wanted to swim with whale sharks near La Paz.

And we made it a point to arrange our trip to experience the grand Carnaval celebration in La Paz.

On the way down at the start of the trip, we hightailed it to the border from Albuquerque in late January, spending just two overnights on the way. We spent a total of 62 days in the Baja Peninsula, and made a few stops to see friends on the way back for our total of 70 days.

 

 

 

 

RV and Car Parts

From Ensenada (69 miles from the border) to La Paz (915 miles!) there are only small towns. There is the occasional Autozone in places like Guerrero Negro and Mulege, but the point is that you will be traversing a long stretch of REMOTE and beautiful area.

There is a relationship between remoteness and risk. A simple matter on the road in a US city can become quite a challenge in an area where specific vehicle parts may not be readily available.

So it’s imperative that you start with your vehicles in tip top shape and that you bring certain spares with you. What to bring depends a bit on how rare your vehicle is. If you have a Ford truck your parts situation will be easier than if you are driving a Mercedes Sprinter (as we discovered). But either way you should bring a few key parts specific to your vehicle so if you need them there is no searching needed.

At minimum bring a spare fuel filter (or 2).  These are pretty cheap and Baja fuel is notoriously sketchy. An oil filter, a spare of the engine belts for your specific engine, that sort of thing. If you are particular about the kind of oil that goes in your engine bring a supply of that as well.

 Auto and RV Insurance

Although you only need your U.S. driver’s license to drive to Mexico, you must also purchase Mexican insurance for your vehicle(s).This is a legal requirement for driving in Mexico as U.S. insurance will not cover you. Although there are walk in places near the border where you can buy it this is a significant expense item that you would be wise to have in place before leaving home.

Things work differently in Mexico. If you’re involved in an auto accident, you must notify the insurance company immediately and will need to wait until they send an adjuster to the scene to negotiate on your behalf and work out a compensation agreement with the other party.

We didn’t shop around as much as we could have, but shopping around is recommended. Unfortunately, the only insurance rates available are daily or long term. If you are going for a few days the daily rate might make sense but you’ll very quickly reach the crossover point to where the long term rate becomes cheaper.

We bought an annual insurance policy that had some maximum number of days you could be in Mexico during the year and we got it through Discover Baja.  It wasn’t cheap (we paid ~$800 or so for the RV plus the car) but it is imperative. Both Discover Baja and Baja Bound have knowledgeable folks who can help you decide on a policy best aligned with your planned trip although as we mentioned before, do shop around.

Money Matters

Many establishments in Baja are cash only, understandable as connectivity can be limited. So having a cash supply is important at all times.

US dollars are accepted almost everywhere but you will usually pay a slightly higher price as a result. Deal strictly in pesos, you are in Mexico after all and it will save you money.

 

ATMs are usually available in even the smaller towns and are absolutely the best way to get pesos at the best exchange rate. Far better than any money exchange storefront.

Before you leave home make sure your ATM card is set up for international withdrawals and that your card is in good condition. Ideally, have more than one card capable of withdrawing funds. Although we usually never use cash advances on our credit cards, we got PINs for one of them just in case our ATM card crapped out.

We also withdrew an “emergency fund” of U.S. dollars before crossing into Mexico that we hid in several areas of the RV. Cash is king …

Forma Migratoria Multiple (FMM)

In addition to their U.S. passports, U.S. citizens who are not residents of Mexico must obtain a tourist visa or FMM. The FMM is valid for 180 days and when I last checked cost $533 pesos. Apparently, if you’re driving across the border into certain Mexican states, including Baja California, you can order the FMM online. However, it takes a little while to have it mailed to you and we only realized it at the last minute so we just got ours at the border before crossing. But even if you acquire the FMM online in advance you will still have to have it stamped when you cross the border.

Since we crossed the border into the small town of Tecate which has very narrow streets, we read that it’s best to spend the night prior to crossing the border in the RV on the U.S. side. The purpose of that is twofold: you can drive to the usually congested border in your van or tow car or truck without the RV in the afternoon/evening, park on the U.S. side and walk across the border to get the FMMs (180-day visas) for Mexico for each person then walk back into the US.

Then you can drive your RV across early the next morning before it’s too busy with all paperwork in hand. This was a great tip, because if we had crossed without the form, we would have had to find a spot to leave our vehicles (not easy on narrow streets in an RV with a tow car), and both of us would have had to walk to the office to get our FMMs.

Food

After having crossed the U.S./Canada border multiple times, we’ve learned to get rid of all of our fresh meats and produce before doing so. While some things might be allowed we’ve found it is easier to be able to answer “none” when asked about meats and veggies.

Frozen items, dried goods/seasonings are usually ok, so if you have specific spices etc. you can’t live without, you may want to take them with you. Other food items are also prohibited including some pet foods. Make sure any dog/cat food is in original packaging.

There are other restrictions including the amount of alcoholic beverages and It’s best to check what is/is not allowed and not take chances. And check again close to the time you will cross the border because what is allowed/not allowed can change. If you have anything you are in doubt about and the border officers ask you about it, it’s best to declare it. If they find a prohibited item and you’ve not declared it, you will be subject to fines.

Water

We started to carry separate drinking water in our RV long before our trip to Mexico. And it’s well known that tap water in Mexico is not safe to drink, even the locals don’t drink it.

We carried a 5-gallon jug filled with fresh water in our tow vehicle and a combination of 1 and 2-gallon jugs in the RV. Purified water is plentiful and easily available in many places with the possible exception of Bahia de Los Angeles. Water there may be scarce, so fill before you drive there.

Large multi-liter bottles of water are available in grocery stores but there are places that will fill your containers for a very small charge. So bring your favorite containers, it will be much cheaper and better for the environment.

As far as water for the holding tank, we started out with a full tank of US water. Then when we needed to refill the holding tank for showers, dishwashing etc. we poured a tablespoon of Clorox into the end of the hose to sanitize both the hose and our tank. The water wasn’t good for drinking nor cooking but fine for brushing our teeth.

Also, since we knew we’d be dry camping a lot, we took packs of Water Wipes, all-natural wipes that friends of ours introduced us to.

Where to cross the border

The easiest way to travel to Baja is to cross the border directly into the Baja California Peninsula from one of several crossing points in California. This has the advantage of avoiding the need for the Temporary Import Permit (TIP) for vehicles, something that is required for crossing the border into the mainland.

Based on recommendations from the Church’s book, we crossed the border in the small town of Tecate. It’s a small border crossing that is not generally as busy as others (their other recommended town from which to cross the border is Calexico). The road to Tecate on the U.S. side is hilly and windy and the town is pretty remote but the crossing worked well for us.

Not all borders operate on the same hours so we made sure to check Tecate’s hours in advance. In addition, since border crossings are influenced by many factors beyond RVers control, we also checked the wait times which were short.

The other way to get to the Baja California Peninsula from the U.S. is to cross the border to mainland Mexico, drive down the west coast and take a ferry from either Topolobompo or Mazatlan, both in the state of Sinaloa. The ferry route puts you way south on the peninsula at La Paz and allows you to skip the narrow road in the north if you’re only interested in heading south, but you will need a TIP as mentioned above. Or you could head south one way and north the other if you have the time.

That concludes our advance planning tips. Below is a list of useful websites with their links:

Next, we will post tips for after crossing the border.

 

A Very Brief Overview of the Baja Peninsula

After dreaming about it for years we finally made the trip down the length of the Baja Peninsula. It so exceeded our expectations that we believe it’s one of the top trips for RVers in North America. But we found the planning a bit daunting so we decided to post some tips for RVers that plan to drive to Baja in the future. This first post is a very brief overview of the Baja Peninsula. Depending on the time you have available and your interests you can plan widely varying itineraries. Hopefully this will help you formulate your plans.

The Baja Peninsula is about 1,000 miles long comprising two states: Baja California in the north and Baja California Sur in the south.

It varies from hilly wine country to mountains to desert landscape to rocky and sandy beaches. The Pacific and the Sea of Cortez offer whale watching, kayaking, sailing, surfing, kite surfing, SUPing, snorkeling, scuba diving, fishing and more. On land there is hiking, exploring ruins, visiting museums, churches, historical sites, birding, ATVing, 4-wheeling, horseback riding and more.

When we mention each of the main towns the highway passes through we will show the distance in miles from the border (in parentheses). Bear in mind that due to the condition of the road, you should be very conservative in estimating travel time (40 mph is a good average).

For the purposes of this overview we will list the towns in order from north to south although in reality we stopped in some of the places on our way south and others on our way north.

The Transpeninsular Highway

Federal Highway 1 goes from Tijuana on the northern border by San Diego to Cabo San Lucas on the southernmost tip of the Peninsula. Along the way it crisscrosses from the Pacific Coast on the west to the Sea of Cortez on the east of the Peninsula several times.

The Relatively Developed North

The northernmost part of Baja extending 100 miles or so from the border has large cities, pretty landscapes, beaches, and the famous wine country in the Guadelupe Valley. These make for an easy hop from California and Arizona, and there are various expat enclaves in the area.

Just south of San Diego is Tijuana and between there and Ensenada are Rosarito and Puerto Nuevo. These seaside towns are popular day trip destinations for Southern Californians.


We crossed the border in Tecate and then drove 69 miles south and west on Highway 3 to Ensenada where it meets the Transpeninsular Highway. This route goes through the beautiful Valle de Guadalupe which we hope to visit another time.

There is lots to do in Ensenada: restaurants from the exclusive and famous to food trucks, all kinds of shopping, many bars etc.

Lots of large grocery and other stores and service providers make it a good area to provision and make any last minute vehicle checks before heading further south.

There are some great surfing areas on this Pacific shore, a continuation of the California surf beaches.

The Transpeninsular Highway meanders along the coast and is generally in good condition and not too narrow (yet).

The Wild and Remote Center

South of Ensenada the less developed Baja begins. The highway gets narrower with tiny or no shoulders. Grocery and other stores are smaller and scarcer. For the next hundreds of miles the communities are small and often there are long stretches of remote and beautiful nature.

From Ensenada the road heads south along the ocean to the beach town of San Quintin (180 miles). There are some beautiful wide beaches with oceanside camping in this area.

More empty beaches line the road as you continue toward El Rosario (219 miles). At El Rosario the road turns inland (and uphill) towards the center of the peninsula and reaches the southern extension of the Sonoran Desert, with unique and cool endemic plants like the huge cardón cacti.

It is wild and beautiful with incredible views. After El Rosario there is the famous “gas gap”, a 235 mile stretch with no gas stations and no supplies.

Around the tiny town of Cataviña (295 miles) lies the Cataviña boulder field. This is the Valle de los Cirios, the funky looking Boojum trees. There is a small campground at Rancho Santa Ynez.  

This is a great area for hiking, with cave paintings to explore and many enticing 4WD tracks. Another place we hope to return to.

Somewhere in the middle of this stretch there is a turn off (~40 miles one way dead end) to Bahía de los Angeles (399 miles), a gorgeous bay and the first opportunity to head over to the beautiful Sea of Cortez.

It is a tiny town in an incredible setting and waterfront camping. One of our favorites.

Dolphins, birds, and sea lions dot the bay. There are several offshore islands, reachable by kayak or boat tours (both recommended). Most people visit in winter because it’s pretty hot in summer there, but sport fishing is popular between June and November and whale sharks come to the area to feed from July to November. 

After the Bahía de los Angeles turn off, the highway meanders through more desert scenery as it turns back west to the Pacific and the border with Baja California Sur.

Shortly after crossing the border to Baja Sur you reach the town of Guerrero Negro (443 miles), a decent size town (the first since Ensenada) that is a great place to shop, do laundry, get gas after the gas gap, fill water containers etc.

The town is a gateway to the Laguna Ojo de Liebre, the first of several lagoons on the way south where you can see gray whales in the winter calving season. Whale watching tours run from December through April.

There are many tour operators in town. The boats depart next to the world’s largest salt mine which is kind of interesting. The experience of being up close to these magnificent animals was so emotional and unforgettable.  We went out multiple times.

Just south of Guerrero Negro there is a lagoon side camping area called Scammon’s Lagoon (464 miles). Beautiful and rustic dry camping with no cell nor wifi, and whale watching tours as well. 

 

 

The highway then turns back inland towards the east, here you pass the cute tiny inland oasis town of San Ignacio (530 miles). This is the access point to the San Ignacio Lagoon, the second gray whale watching destination (we didn’t get to go whale watching here due to windy weather).

The road then continues down an extremely steep and several mile long downhill, named la Cuesta del Infierno (the Incline from Hell), before reaching the mining town of Santa Rosalia (574 miles) on the Sea of Cortez.  On the way north, the Cuesta del Infierno is the steepest climb on the entire drive. We unhooked our tow car prior to climbing it just in case.

The highway then follows the shore to the tiny town of Mulegé (611 miles), another good place to provision. A lovely river runs through town. Mulegé is at the north end of Bahía Concepción, a 20-mile long bay where a number of scenic coves make for some of the best beach camping and kayaking on the Sea of Cortez.

We camped at Playa Santispac (624 miles). A dream spot. Some people spend the entire season and we understand why. Our eight days there felt short. Several other coves also offer beach camping and everyone has their favorite. Vendors came by in the morning with fresh produce, seafood, empanadas, and offering fresh water fills and pump out service.

The highway goes inland at the end of the bay and continues south to the beautiful colonial town of Loreto (695 miles), a Pueblo Mágico also on the Sea of Cortez. This was the site where the Spaniards started the first mission and is the beginning of the Camino Real.  A gorgeous little town.

 

The church in town is historic with a cool little museum about the Spanish missionaries’ history. And near Loreto is Mission San Javier, a stunning and ornate mission up in the mountains.  A worthy and scenic side trip.

 

Loreto is also home to lots of bird life along the shore and is also where a few of the largest animals on earth, the blue whales come to feed between January and March.

Shortly after Loreto, the road turns inland and climbs a giant hill to cross back over towards the west but not quite to the Pacific coast. It crosses the Magdalena plain where there are a few agricultural working towns like Cuidad Constitución (786 miles) with more opportunities to buy provisions. The town is also a gateway to Magdalena Bay, another lagoon where gray whales congregate.

There is a side road near here to the tiny fishing village of Puerto Chalet (832 miles). It is the newest of the official (but not yet well known) whale watching spots with almost no infrastructure (yet). It was absolutely wonderful.

The road then crosses over once again back to the Sea of Cortez and the good sized city of La Paz (915 miles). La Paz is beautiful with a miles-long malecón (boardwalk) facing a lovely bay and a large offshore island named Isla Espíritu Santo, a Natural Protected Area and UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Whale sharks arrive to feed between October and February and several nature outfitters operate tours to swim with them as well as tours to swim with sea lions.

Great beaches are around as well. Playa Tecolote was the only place where we boondocked and it was absolutely gorgeous.

Although a bit touristy, La Paz retains a very authentic Mexican feel and affordable pricing. We experienced Carnaval there and it was quite the happening.

The Touristy and Beautiful Far South

The last 100 miles or so at the southern end of Baja are once again more developed.  The roads become wider and shoulders reappear as you head south past La Paz and approach the town at the tip of the peninsula, Cabo San Lucas (1010 miles).

Cabo also has the most resources for things like vehicle repair available since Ensenada in the north.

South of La Paz there are a number of small beach towns that sit on the coast. The highway roughly forms a circle all the way around the “cape”. Todos Santos is a cute artsy village near the Pacific.

Time did not permit a visit to Los Barriles which is known for kite surfing nor tiny Cabo Pulmo, site of the largest reef on this coast, part of the Parque Nacional Cabo Pulmo. Both are on the Sea of Cortez.

Cabo San Lucas sits at the very tip where a dramatic rock outcropping and arch marks the end of the Baja Peninsula. A short but amazing boat tour takes you there.

Just to the west of Cabo sits San Jose del Cabo, a picturesque town with a bit more laidback feel than busy Cabo San Lucas.

There are beautiful beaches and many beach resorts in Cabo San Lucas and in the “corridor” between Cabo and San Jose del Cabo, the deep-sea fishing is world class, there are great golf resorts and lots more. Both are quite developed with high prices to match.

There are other areas on Baja that the Transpeninsular highway does not go through and that we did not visit, including the Sierra de San Pedro Mártir, a large national park in the mountains of the north.

So there you have it.  Quite the varied selection of nature, wildlife, history, and culture. Two months wasn’t nearly enough time for us. There are quite a number of places we skipped over or that we could have definitely spent more time in.

Planning our trip

Hector and I are planners and we did our best to lay out the trip in advance. With a major move looming in our future, we decided we had 70 days total for the trip.

Our priorities were: kayaking and snorkeling in the Sea of Cortez, tours to see the gray whales and their babies on the Pacific side and whale sharks and blue whales on the Sea of Cortez side, and exploring historical sites and camping and just relaxing in beautiful settings.

We also wanted to spend time in the towns of Loreto and La Paz and although we weren’t much interested in the congested Cabo area we did want to make a day trip down to the southern tip of the Peninsula.

So Hector created a spreadsheet and we filled in the places we wanted to visit using Google Maps to assure that the drive time and distance between them was reasonable. Whatever drive time Google Maps estimated we adjusted up quite a bit to acknowledge we were in an RV and to allow for poking around along the way

We allocated time to each stop to make sure that we had enough time at each of them while making sure the overall trip ended on time.

But we also wanted flexibility so we didn’t make any camping reservations in advance.

 

Although we did wind up changing both the order of places we visited and the number of days spent in each, we still believe that our spreadsheet was a valuable tool as it kept us focused on our priorities and timeframe.

Each of the places above that we visited are covered in much more detail in the posts that we wrote along the way. To find the posts, use the search box on the upper right of the home page.

This is just Part I of our tips for Rving to Baja. Next up some more details on our preparation logistics and some resources we recommend.

A Long Way Home

Here is a post primarily written by me (Hector) for a change. In our last post we talked about visiting the baby gray whales as our “last” stop in Baja.  Well that was not exactly true.  Scammon’s Lagoon and Guerrero Negro is a LONG way from the border and is still in Baja California Sur.  It was still a long way home. Well over 1000 miles in fact.

We needed to get going though because our moving plans had a timeline and we had basically used up the time we allocated for our Baja explorations.  There was to be NO dilly dallying as we made our way home.  That is not to say no fun was had along the way.

After one last stop for the best tacos in Baja (therefore the world) at the Tacos el Muelle taco truck in Guerrero Negro we left Baja Sur and bee lined it for the border. Fish tacos are ruined for us forever.  Those were THE best.

After Guerrero Negro you enter the most remote part of the peninsula. There is a “gas gap” of about 235 miles although at the midpoint there are some guys in pickups with gas cans for any unfortunate folks in need.


This is also where the road hits peak terrible.  Narrow, potholed, no shoulders, with giant trucks barreling through. Traffic is light and you can see them coming a long way off but I never could get used to it.  5 seconds of terror / concentration …

But this area is also one gorgeous stretch of desert.  Similar to the beautiful desert surrounding Tucson, Arizona but with even larger Cardon Cacti and some other endemic plants as well.  Almost completely uninhabited.  A great place to 4WD and hike although caution would be in order.

Since both Island Time and the intrepid Coqui had some serious grime from two+ months on the road we stopped in Ensenada to have them washed and to replace the broken window from the smash and grab in La Paz. Both way cheaper there than in the U.S.

First a quick rear window replacement.

Then we had an appointment with Javier at El Carwashito, a mobile car wash service.  He was to come to our campground and wash the car one afternoon and then the RV the next day.  When Javier and his son Javier showed up right on schedule I pointed to the Subaru and told them to go to town.  I had no idea what I had unleashed.

After a few minutes of putzing around in the RV I decided to go check in on the progress outside.  OMG.  They had disassembled the inside of the car!  Seats, rugs, everything was sitting on the ground and the car was stripped to the metal inside!!!!!  I freaked a bit but it was too late to say anything so I thought “ok, this is new”.

Best car wash ever in the history of carwashes (and way cheap!). That car hadn’t looked that clean and shiny since it came out of the dealership. They spent about four hours on this small car. Even the engine looked brand new.

The next day Javier did a similarly excellent job on Island Time. Wow!

Our first visit to Ensenada years ago was with our friends Michael and Gloria from San Diego. And this time they drove down to meet us there for a day. We had dinner and brunch together and then poked around the fish market. Michael and I tasted each and every one of the numerous smoked marlin offerings before deciding on the winner. We were so happy to see our good friends even for such a brief encounter.

Michael is a mechanical wizard and offered great advice on the phone while we were having our RV troubles down south.  It could have turned into an expensive disaster.  But it turns out we had nothing more than a clogged fuel filter.  So Island Time had no further troubles and has run perfectly since.  Having the wizard as an advisor was such a huge comfort.

The border crossing was a giant nosebleed. It took HOURS to get through the border.  A giant waste of resources and time.  Our southern border situation is a disaster and I can’t help but get the distinct impression that the government is making it a pain on purpose. With all money being spent they can’t open a few more lanes? Ridiculous.

But we eventually made it through … and our irritation was quickly replaced with joy because our next stop on the trip home was a quick visit to Tim and Becky (and little Chloe) at their home in Yuma.  More fun with friends but just a super quick visit though … no dilly dallying. Homeward!

On to Tucson!  We love Tucson so much.  It is gorgeous there and we get to visit great friends. Jean and Jerry live there, we were introduced to them by Scott and Mary from Denver and we became friends. Then they introduced us to Nancy and Bill, Nancy is Denver Scott’s sister, and it turns out our visit coincided with Scott and Mary’s visit from Denver. They were visiting other old Denver friends of both of ours, Russ and Vicki who recently bought a second home in Tucson.

Got all that?

Anyway, hilarity ensued at a wonderful dinner at Vicki and Russ’s house. So great to spend time with so many folks that we miss very much.

We’ve known Scott for years and have also hung out with his sister Nancy but we’ve never been with them together. Fun to see the family resemblance up close.

Tucson was great fun and we even got a little hike in.  But the giant project list for our upcoming move was pressing on us so after a way too short visit we made the final push for our little adobe casita in Corrales.

70 days and 4,151 miles later we arrived safely home and our absolutely wonderful Baja adventure was done.

Next up, some tips for those planning a Baja visit.

Timing note from Brenda since we’ve been so slow to post new updates on our travels: We completed the Baja trip last April. Since then we’ve put our furniture in  storage, moved out of our home in Albuquerque and moved to Playa del Carmen in Quintana Roo, Mexico. More on that later…

Baby Whales!

Lots has happened since we last posted but here is a catch up post about the last part of our Baja Peninsula adventure.  We last wrote about our stop in Loreto to see blue whales on our journey back north after our RV troubles. Third stop in Loreto was the charm as the seas were calm and we spotted many blue whales on our boat tour. Next up was an attempt to see some baby whales!

A guide on an earlier outing told us that as the gray whale calves get just a little older later in the season, the moms are more likely to bring them for close interactions with people on the boat tours. So we made one last stop to see more whales.

This was our second stop in the Guerrero Negro area where we first saw these beautiful creatures on our way south. Only this time we stayed at a different vantage point that we’d scouted on our first trip, the waterfront campground of Scammon’s Lagoon a few miles south of the town.

Ejido Benito Juarez is 32 kilometers down a fairly well graded gravel road. The campsites were right on the water with expansive views of the lagoon and whale spouts in the distance.  Whale watching trips were available from the dock on the property and were very affordable and there was a restaurant onsite.

Our morning trip (our 5th gray whale outing) was the topper. Lots of whales and a couple of cute little calves came right up to us to be petted.

Another family was on their first outing on our boat.  We tried to keep their expectations low as they questioned us as we were heading out, but our caution was unfounded.  They hit the jackpot on their first try.

Mom and calf nuzzling

At one point we had a whole whale family by the boat.  Dad, mom, last year’s calf, and this year’s newborn.  CRAZY!

It is fun to see how playful the whales are.  They roll around and obviously enjoy the interaction.  At one point one whale decided to put its head under the boat and push us around. These intimate encounters are so special.  Really something unique in the wild.

We headed back to the RV to chill after the amazing rush. The afternoons are usually windy so we thought we might go again the next morning.  But as we looked out on the water after lunch we noticed that the day was still unusually calm so on a whim we decided what the hell … lets go again!

Most folks know the afternoons are windy and this was late in the season so we were the only customers as we headed out on our private outing.  We were the not only the only customers on the boat but also the only boat on the water.  Awesome!

Alas, you can never predict “wild” life and we were a bit disappointed when no whales came up to the boat.  Apparently, they get tired too.  But all was not lost.  What we realized after being out there a while is that while they weren’t much interested in playing with us, they were out there interacting amongst themselves.

What we missed in terms of up close interaction we made up for in watching these magnificent animals doing their own thing. Some of the behaviors were pretty funny, like blowing lots of bubbles for no apparent reason.

Some breached repeatedly.

We saw one doing what is called logging … where they lay completely still on the surface like a log and nap.

We watched as a mom and her baby gurgled and rolled and played with each other.  Or maybe  mom  was  teaching  baby.