The sun doesn’t set here, it explodes. It explodes in a vibrant spectrum of technicolor, igniting the imagination and rekindling an otherwise faded spark internal. The expansive freedom of this big kid’s playground seems near limitless. A five-minute drive from San Diego transports visitors to a unique cultural experience. While not a comprehensive telling, the following is a list of knowledge gained and lessons learned during five months traversing the 1,000 mile long land mass of Baja, Mexico.
I chose to drive from Tijuana to Cabo and back up, crossing back into the United States via Tecate. To be experienced properly, at least two weeks should be allotted for such an excursion. You can make the round trip drive in under five days but you would miss pretty much everything. If you are not in close proximity to the border, there is the one way option. Fly into San Jose Del Cabo, rent a vehicle (read Jeep), and return it at the Tijuana airport. If you do not have that kind of time, my suggestion is a flight into San Jose Del Cabo followed by a road trip loop through the southern aspect of the peninsula known as Baja California Sur or BCS.
Danger/ Crime/ Local Scams:
Danger seems to be the first thing on most American’s minds when traveling through Mexico is mentioned. The Baja peninsula is a relative safe zone from the cartel violence of mainland Mexico. In the five months I spent traversing up and down the 1,000 mile strip, I never once felt as though I was in danger. Violent crimes against travelers are very rare and more often than not come about as a result of very poor decision-making. If you are looking for drugs and prostitutes at 3am in ANY city in the world your chances of giving up more than your dignity increases exponentially.
Crimes of opportunity are prevalent. Don’t leave your wetsuit drying on your roof rack while you spend an hour in the mercado and you won’t have to buy a new one. If you leave your flip-flops on the beach while going for a surf, they may not be there when you get back. Don’t leave your laptop unattended at the coffee shop when using el bano. The general thought is, if you have enough money to carelessly leave stuff laying around, then you shouldn’t have a problem replacing it.
There are two primary levels of police that you will encounter, federal and municipal. I was pulled over by two federal police officers outside of the airport. When I asked in Spanish why I was pulled over they said that they didn’t need a reason. When I was polite and explained that I am a writer traveling through they shook my hand and left. When I was pulled over by municipal police a couple of months before that, they all but demanded that I “pay my fine on the spot.” Again, I was courteous and explained my situation. The scam they like to use is threatening to take your license to the courthouse forcing you to retrieve it the following day and pay your fine. They are banking on the fact that you don’t want to shift your plans. They aren’t really allowed to take your license so you can call their bluff and offer to pay “a lesser fee” right there. Depending on your infraction you will likely end up paying between 200 and 1,000 pesos ($15-$70 US dollars.)
Two general rules for traveling through Baja (and most foreign countries) to avoid unnecessary potential danger are simple: Don’t drive at night and don’t let the gas tank drop below half full. I won’t drive through most parts of Los Angeles, Chicago or New York City after dark on empty and I won’t do it in Mexico.
“I need internet in case of an emergency!” Bullshit! You have a visceral desire to stoke your narcissistic social media fetish! Don’t worry, I do too! Lucky you, there is an app for that. You can purchase a new sim card for your smart phone (assuming it is unlocked) at Walmart, Telcel, or Movistar store. You will be given a local phone number and data. 3GB of data can be purchased for about twenty dollars. Refilling the data is as simple as going into any OXXO convenience store (They are everywhere!) and telling the cashier your local phone number. You can also purchase a data stick that looks like a giant thumb drive at a Telcel store for around $40. This will provide wireless for your laptop. Data is purchased the same way as your phone for the same rate.
If you don’t want to deal with any of that, many coffee shops and restaurants provide free wifi. (Phrase to know- “cual es la contraseña?”“What is the password?”)
One of the defining aspects to any culture is language. The primary language in Baja, being a state in Mexico, is obviously Spanish. Many locals have some base in English but it is still good to know a few phrases and show that you are trying to learn more. After all, you likely don’t appreciate it when people come to your country and make no effort to speak the language.
Hello, how are you? – Hola, cómo estás?
Good afternoon – Buenas tardes
Where is the bathroom/store/car?- ¿Dónde está el baño / tienda / coche
How do you say? – Cómo se dice
May I have a beer/taco/chicken sandwich – Puedo tener un cerveza / taco / sándwich de pollo
Please- Por Favor
Thank you- Gracias
I’m sorry, my Spanish is bad. I want to learn more. Please speak slowly – Lo siento, mi español es malo. Quiero aprender más. Por favor habla despacio
There are several free language offline podcasts and language apps. I found “Discover Spanish” the most useful podcast and “EnEs Translate” the most user-friendly offline translation app. Both are free.
The US dollar is pretty strong right now, internationally speaking. You can pull out pesos from just about any ATM from your US account for as little as two dollars. This is almost always a better value than using US dollars to make purchases. Most shops will exchange at 12-13 pesos per dollar, yet the value is closer to 15 pesos per dollar. That means spending $100 in US currency means that you are actually spending $120. Don’t bother exchanging your money at the airport either. Your best bet is to find an ATM with a fee of around 30 pesos. Personally, I do not like to travel with more than about $200. I like to keep $20-40 in US currency and the rest in local money. Typically it is a smart idea to divide those resources in different spots. Some in your wallet, some in a book, some stashed in the car, ext.
Another primary staple of any culture is food. The most poignant expression of this in Baja can be found in the fish tacos. Expect to pay between 15-25 pesos ($1-$1.65) per street taco for fresh fish and all of the toppings your tortilla can handle! A meal comes with three tacos, rice, beans and a beer for around 100 pesos ($7 US).
A cold beer at most bars runs about 30 pesos ($2), but your selection is typically limited to Corona and Pacifico. The latter of which being my favorite. Hanging out in tourist hot spots like Cabo is going to inflate those prices by 100-150%, bringing them on par with most US cities.
Baja Locations Worth the Stop:
Popular tourist destinations like Cabo San Lucas, while beautiful, are void of the surreal majesty of the rest of the peninsula. If the city scene is more you than the great outdoors, I suggest La Paz. The capital of Baja California Sur, La Paz has no shortage of shops and restaurants while still maintaining significantly more local feel than the streets of Cabo.
If you are like me though, you prefer to be off the beaten path.. You can camp out just about anywhere in Baja for free. Some popular places will charge between $5-$10 US dollars for a night while providing a few amenities. This is a list of a few of my favorite places in Baja from north to south. (Tourist rating is referencing the abundance of obnoxious hords of people more concerned with taking thousands of photos than enjoying the experience as well as the throngs of solicitors looking to exploit their boastful naivety. Additionally, the ease of access for those not interested in a real adventure or who have uncooperative children in tow; 10 is Hollywood blvd, 1 is Northern Yukon Territory, making Cabo a strong 8)
K38- Take old highway 1 (not the toll road) 38 kilometers past Tijuana, just south of Rosarito. “Robert’s K38 Hotel” is a fun and funky spot with ping-pong and good wifi, with a patio view of three different surf breaks. Its bright blue color makes it easy to see from the road. *Bonus*- A small communal kitchen lets you make your own meals. Cost is around $60 US a night for a double occupancy room.
— Tourist rating: 4.5
Valle de Guadalupe- A right on Highway 3, before you get to Ensenada will take you through Baja wine country. Several wineries offer free tastings as well as cheese and tasty homemade breads.
— Tourist rating: 4
An eight kilometer drive on a graded dirt road takes you to this ridge line surf jem! A steady right breaking reef break that works best in high tide with a cool hostel and campground overlooking the waves. On a weekend you can expect to be in the water with 5-8 other surfers but mid week the waves are pretty much all yours. Countless adventure seekers making their way all the way to Argentina make this a mandatory stop off. The owner is bit quirky but is a wealth of knowledge on the area and has an incredible life story if you ask him about it.
**Bonus** There is a full skate pool and boards to use, as well as boards for rent.
— Tourist rating: 2
Don’t forget your climbing shoes and chalk! Baja may not be known for rock climbing but this place is a climbers fun house. The boulder fields start about ten miles before the tiny sleepy town and continue for a few miles past in every direction.
**Bonus** The Catavina area features a few unique plants that you won’t find anywhere else in the world.
— Tourist rating: 2
A true desert oasis. The sleepy Mexican town is hidden from sight beneath the cover of hundreds of giant palms. San Ignacio is home to a nearly 300 year old Spanish mission overlooking a quaint town square. Camping is available just outside of the town at a small site on the water for 100 pesos a night and has bathrooms, showers and BBQ grills.
— Tourist rating: 3
Bahia de Conception
This area has plenty of places to camp inches from the water of the Sea of Cortez. You can rent a kayak and camp out at Playas Burros and paddle out to one of several small islands and private beaches. Dolphin pods are fairly abundant in these waters and have a tendency to get playful around people boating out.
— Tourist rating: 2.5
San Juanico (Scorpion Bay)- If you are a surfer, this is a not to be missed spot. When Scorpion Bay is firing, there isn’t a wave in Baja that can compare to it. Seven different point breaks that have actually linked up resulting in a ride so long you will need to hitch a ride back to the line up. The town of San Juanico is a tranquil mix of surfer and fishermen vibe. The town has a small surf shop and a few restaurants. There is an overpriced camping area along the ridge overlooking the waves or you can stay in one of the five or six inexpensive hotels.
— Tourist rating: 2.5
A twelve-mile groomed dirt road takes you to a secluded camp spot overlooking another fun surf spot. Its a rocky walk out but not bad. Camping is on private land and offers no amenities for around $8 a night. There are no shops here. Bring your own supplies. The nice part is you won’t be fighting any crowds here.
— Tourist rating: 2
Todos Santos/ Pescadero- Todos Santos is a fun funky little art centric town. A few dozen local restaurants cover every cuisine from sushi to tacos to high-end Italian. The streets are typically lined with people selling handmade jewelry. There are dozens of outstanding art studios near the town square in front of the church. A mile from the downtown area is a local hotspot. La Esquina is a bistro coffee shop by day and a rocking live music venue with full bar at night. The wifi is as good as the vibe and the breakfast torta is not to be missed.
Eight miles south is the town of Pescadero. Your first stop here is visiting “The Little Lebowski Lounge.” If you are a fan of the movie The Big Lebowski, this place is your mecca. If you are not, well you have terrible taste for starters, but it is okay, you will still really love this bar. Jimmy makes literally the best damn margarita you will ever have in your entire life. If you don’t agree, I will personally pay for your drink. Just tell Jimmy to put it on my tab. About a mile further south, Turn east on KM marker 64. This will take you directly to surf camp. The owner is a staple in the area. You can camp out for about $10 a night or rent a cabina for around $45. Both options give you access to a pool with swim up bar, hot showers, a full outdoor kitchen, high-speed WiFi and amazing company.
**Bonus** There are multiple surf breaks in the area. The closest and most popular is Cerritos Beach. The wave is ideal for surfers of all levels. There are several surf schools with board rental and lessons right on the beach. Avoid Mario’s Surf School.
**Double bonus** Around KM marker 54 is a turn off for Punta Lobos. Here you can buy fresh fish directly from the fishermen that caught them that morning on a beautiful beach. We paid about $15 for over 8 lbs of fresh mahi filets.
— Tourist rating: TS-4, Pescadero-3
Nine Palms (east cape)- One of the numerous surf/camping spots along East Cape road. A 4 wheel drive is not necessary for this road but allows closer access to beaches. Supplies will have to be driven in. There aren’t really any shops or stores along the east cape.
— Tourist rating: 2.5
Picturesque snorkeling and diving teeming with wildlife. There are several places to camp here as well as inexpensive rooms.
— Tourist rating: 3
Another sleepy desert oasis. The real attraction of Santiago is the series of waterfalls and hot springs a few minutes north. For under $10 you can camp within a five-minute walk to a few gorgeous waterfalls.
**Bonus** there are bolted climbing routes at the falls. Don’t have a rope? That’s cool too, the water is typically deep enough to free water solo the 30 foot routes. There are also several fun bouldering problems at the top of the main waterfall.
— Tourist rating: 2.5
These are a few places where I felt the magic of Baja. There are countless others. The best way to find your own is to explore for yourself and ask people along the way. Travel safe, have fun and message me with your questions….
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