Since we started planning our expedition we thought Mexico would be the apex of our adventure. It was our first time in the country and we were so curious to discover all it has to offer, from the white sand beaches and snorkeling with manta rays and whale sharks, to learning about the Mayas and the Aztecs, climbing their pyramids. We were looking forward to experience Mexico’s diverse cuisine, listen to the mariachis and to dance on Latin beats with a cold beer or maybe a tequila in our hands.
We chose to enter Mexico through Baja California state, which is located on Baja California Peninsula, bordering the US state of California. Our plan was to explore the peninsula and its beaches up to its tip, driving 1700 km south until Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park. We would then drive back north to La Paz, the capital of Baja California Sur, where we would ship the truck to mainland arriving in Mazatlan. We had planned to do this in about two weeks, and could not wait to have loads of fish tacos, margaritas and a good time relaxing at the beach.
Baja California State
Before enjoying those much dreamt beach times in Baja we had the border crossing in Tijuana. The border crossing was busy, messy and confusing. It was funny to cross first the border with the truck without having any documents checked just to return by foot back in USA through USA immigration with the truck documents to process the vehicle importation. It did not make any sense. But we were now in Mexico and we needed to change our mindset about logic and sense.
After 2 hours of headaches dealing with the immigration and the truck temporary importation paperwork we were ready to head south towards our first camping spot in Ensenada. As we departed, to be honest, the first impression was not good. The infrastructure was poor, there was dirt and garbage everywhere. Pity.
There was a lot of police as well, but not only them: the army and the navy had trucks too, these ones with machine guns. We were stopped by them for routine checks several times. We knew we were in Cartel’s Land and that we needed to be more alert than in USA; however, we did not feel the danger as some Americans would say. We were warned not to go, ‘it is not safe’ they said. We soon realized it was not that bad and that we just needed to have common sense.
As we continued driving south we could perceive the cultural change, a lively atmosphere of the coastal towns, welcoming and smiling people, very loud music played at every corner. Although a lot of things didn’t seem right in Baja Mexico, we had a feeling of familiarity and freedom. We took that feeling.
The first night we camped in a wonderful spot on top of Ensenada’s cliffs, with with an extraordinary view to the Pacific Ocean. The view was like we had in Point Loma, San Diego, but we soon figured the place was not being kept well by the owner. In the morning we came across with broken bottles, toilet paper in the bushes, garbage around. What a pity to see such a beautiful location without being kept clean. We were amazed by the differences in environment protection in a distance of less than 200km from San Diego to Baja California.
The following day we continued our journey towards Guererro Negro, a great spot for whale watching. The road unveiled a vast territory of desert with tall cactus views. We noticed the same geography compared with the coast of California but a huge contrast in terms of infrastructure, cleanness, development and respect towards nature.
Our first joy was indulging in the delicious street food that we found available at almost every corner. Our favorite were the “tacos de camarao”, shrimp tacos. One can’t miss this treat when visiting Baja. We had as well our first price shock, buying fruits and vegetables from the local market. For 5$ we got: avocados, onions, garlic, kiwis, zucchini and bananas. It was impressive how cheap it was. Huge price change from USA’s supermarkets. We appreciated that 🙂
Waking up at Laguna Ojo de Liebre in Guerrero Negro was refreshing and special. We were too early for the whale season, but we could value the pristine, wild, clean and protected beaches. The campground was officially closed so they allowed us to stay for free. We spent the morning running and walking by the beach spotting coyotes and rabbits in the bushes. JP spotted a huge tarantula in the toilet too :-))) It was good I didn’t see it. We were in the land of tarantulas, scorpions, desert snakes and we understood right away that we need to check our shoes every time before putting them back on 🙂
Baja California Sur
The landscape started to look more organized as we approached Baja California Sur state. On this side of Baja there was less garbage on the road and the towns seemed cleaner, with more plants and vegetation. A breath of fresh air.
The real fun began at Playa Santispec in Conception Bay. There is where we had our first meetings with fellow overlanders over a few margaritas, shrimp quesadillas, and more margaritas.
As soon as we arrived on this wild beach we were joined by other American and Canadian travelers that were camping next to us: Dave, Leslie, Tyler, Dana and Luke. They were very curious about the truck so they came to meet us. It didn't take us too long to decide and stay a few days having fun together, drinking margaritas, playing beach sports, eating well, exploring the bay by kayak and rest. It was one of those moments when you don’t count time, you don’t think about the past or future, you don’t think, you just enjoy, have fun and live the moment.
After few days at Playa Santispac we had to continue our journey south towards Todos Santos, a small beach resort known for being a great surfing spot. We were excited with the opportunity to surf. I always wanted to but never really took the time to learn.
But before reaching Todos Santos we decided to stop in Loreto, one of the oldest little towns in Baja. It was insightful to visit the boutique and historical center of Loreto and its oldest Mission, Nostra Señora de Loreto which dates since the 17th century.
We also made a quick stop over in La Paz, the capital of Baja California Sur to buy our ferry tickets to the mainland. We took the opportunity and indulged ourselves in one of the most traditional taco restaurants in town, ‘Taco Fish la Paz’. We exaggerated on the amount of shrimp and fish tacos accompanied by mariachi. What a feast! With our bellies full we went to the ferry terminal for our tickets from La Paz to Topolobampo, route which proved to be a bit cheaper than to Mazatlan.
We had made about 1500km from Tijuana to where we were, and felt we needed to find the right beach spot to set up the camp and rest by the sea for a few days. The expectations about Todos Santos were high. Unfortunately, as it happens when the expectations are high, we were a bit disappointed. The place looked good, the waves were inviting, but there was no safe parking near the beach, bummer! It was a weird vibe, so we moved on in our search for the perfect beach spot we could set the camp for a few days.
It was a gorgeous sunset that evening but we couldn’t enjoy it as we had to find a safe campground for the night before getting dark outside. First rule in overlanding is not to drive at night.
After a few failed attempts we settled in the courtyard of an American lady. We were just waiting the next day to wake up and head further south towards Cabo Pulmo. Regarding Todos Santos, we later found out from a fellow traveler that just two days before our arrival somebody had been shot there, in the same place we were considering parking. Apparently, a Cartel thing, not related to tourists. Anyway, better we left.
When we reached San Jose del Cabo, the southern tip of Baja California peninsula, we decided to take an off-road route on the coast line towards Cabo Pulmo. The marine preserve is known for its amazing snorkeling spots. It was about 50km of sand with incredible coast line views. We did it in 4 hours and 30 minutes to Los Arbolitos campground. Not sure if it was the smartest decision in terms of timing and bumps, but we have a 4x4 and it was a good excuse to use it at its capacity. With our windows large opened, feeling the pleasant breeze of the ocean, we admired gorgeous views from the top of the coast of the Pacific Ocean for hours. Adding to this, JP had a lot of fun driving the sandy off-road. He was living the dream, while I was living some serious road bumps :))…not funny.
On the last 20km I was checking the GPS counting every kilometer until we reached the beach. We finally arrived and camped next the beach of Cabo Pulmo. It was very raw, looking as a wild spot. A gorgeous bay with a pleasant weather.
Excited to jump into the water and enjoy the bay, we got our swimming suites fast on and soon were swimming with banks of fish, lovely ‘Dollys’ from ‘Finding Nemo’, blue and yellow colored fish, sea turtles, and various other unknown species to me. Amazing marine life.
Cabo Pulmo is known to be one of the best spots in Baja for its snorkeling and diving.
I knew the whale sharks could be around too and I was just praying not see that huge intimidating fish, although it is harmless. JP was swimming offshore fearless looking forward to meeting the beast. Luckily for me they were not around that day.
The next day we continued our snorkeling discoveries in a nearby cove which we reached after a short hike over the cliffs. We saw many banks of fish with the most beautiful bright colors one can possibly imagine, bright green, vivid nuances of blue, violet, yellow and orange. There were we so many fishes in this shallow water and so close to the shore, we couldn’t believe it. We haven’t seen this diversity of colored fish not even when we dived in Bali.
We had fun that morning, we really felt blessed to see such nature beauty.
We were looking forward to discovering more of Baja and its beaches, so we departed to find another place we could have access with the truck straight on the beach. The idea was to set up camp somewhere safe and ideally with some local restaurants nearby. We heard about Los Barriles and decided to check it out.
Los Barriles seemed to fulfill all our needs based on the reviews read: clean facilities, great beach, a couple restaurants nearby, and great spot for kitesurfing. The price was higher than in other places we've been to, but they had good internet, a laundromat, so we did not mind paying a little extra.
The campground was full of ‘snowbirds’ from US and Canada escaping their winter. As I became familiar recently with the expression perhaps I should explain what that means. Whilst I initially thought snowbird was a type of bird I soon realized that snowbirds are the Americans and Canadians who travel down south to Mexico to escape the winter in US and Canada. They are usually retired and come for the whole winter season. Snowbirds often build infrastructure around their campers, so they just leave the camper in the same place the whole year. They improvise fences, stairs, terraces, plant flowers, I even saw Christmas lights. There is nothing bad about it. They are migrating people, like birds. The drawback for other travelers of sharing campgrounds with 'snowbirds' is more related to prices, generally higher, and the ‘gringo’ atmosphere, not locally authentic.
Los Barriles was nice and generally quiet, yet often we could hear snowbirds playing with their drones and ATVs. It could be annoying, specially at the beach. We even saw a man running his dog while he was driving his ATV once. A bit too much?! Gringo atmosphere, or should I say an American beach lifestyle including all toys needed: ATV, boat, kayak, paddle board, bike, jeep, but in Mexico. It was interesting to observe this.
That night was special because we saw for the first time in our life a “moonrise”. Yes, I know it may sounds strange, but this event does occur in Baja. We saw the moon emerging out of the sea at night like a fireball into the horizon. We followed its rise and yellow reflection into the gulf, while we listened to the stingray’s splashes flying on top of the sea. It was a lovely, calm and pleasant atmosphere in the company of our new fellow travelers friends Monica and Matt.
Hoping to find a more authentic campground we headed north to La Ventana, a beach spot for windsurfing where we were looking to meet as well our newly made friends from Playa Santispac, Dana and Luke.
When we arrived in La Ventana we identified immediately their motorhome and went to say hi. They were so happy to see us and in no time we established our new camping area.
We checked the beach to see if there was an opportunity to camp by the sea, but it was all taken. We had to forget about that perfect spot by the beach with so many “snowbirds” in this part of Baja, but we managed a nice place. The “snowbirds” of La Ventana were the sporty types, aficionados for beach volleyball, kite and wind surfing. Seemed fun to us!
We spent some amazing days here in the company of Dana and Luke. We cooked together, went out for dinners, tacos, margaritas, tequilas, did sports in the mornings, run on the coastline, played beach volleyball and watched the semi-professional wind surfers. It was one of the best times we spent in Baja. What was special was to spend more time with Dana and Luke and enjoy their company, so young, fresh, fun and happy people. As they say, it’s not too much about the “perfect” place, but the company and the people you meet.
Crossing from La Paz to Topolobampo by ferry
We were sad to leave, but after few days in La Ventana it was time to embark the ferry from La Paz to Topolobampo. That ferry would take us to mainland Mexico, so we could drive to Mexico City the following week in order to catch our flight to Brazil for Christmas.
The ferry ride was expensive for what it was, and not enjoyable. We imagined it would be pleasant considering the previous experiences we had by ferry from Haines to Skagway, Alaska and from Seattle to Olympic National Park in USA, but it was not the case. A cramped seating room, low lights, no view to the sea. It reminded me of those flights in Africa when I was just praying to arrive safe and sound to destination, waiting for time to pass fast. The weather was bad, strong winds and huge waves, but all went well.
As soon as we arrived we had to find a spot to overnight as there were no established campgrounds nearby, only some gas stations. We were lucky that the security people allowed us to stay within the terminal which was a much safer solution. It was noisy before all the trucks were offloaded; however, by midnight it became quiet and we could rest a bit. The most important thing was that we managed to sleep in a safe place and could prepare for a long full day drive to Mazatlán the next day.
Baja California Peninsula was our initiation into Mexico. We were introduced to the best tacos we ever ate, enjoyed sunny beach times, snorkeled amongst beautiful colored fish, had plenty of Pacifico beer, margaritas, tequilas, made new friends and overcame our fears about the unknown and misconceptions about Mexico.
It was a lot of fun and we were so excited to explore more once we were back from Brazil. We were looking forward to discovering Mexico City, Oaxaca, Yucatan Peninsula and Riviera Maya.