Flights to Cabo San Lucas, at Baja California's southern tip, are pretty reasonable from Southern California. But that's bunk.
The best way to go is to drive, just like the Baja 1000 racers do it. People say it's dangerous, but if you're not into the kind of travel that involves a little risk taking, better book your flight and boring resort accommodations now. Baja ain't for you.
Cruising beneath the huge, dilapidated sign that says La Frontera Internacional in a car opens a whole realm of possibilities you might never have imagined. It feels like, well, I don't know; like you have carte blanche to do practically anything you can scheme up. On the U.S. side of the border, there are rules, laws, and more rules. Just south of that border is a land of opportunity, where soft tacos cost a dollar and minor brushes with the law can be handled for less than $50.
Full disclosure:Baja has always been sort of a sketchy place for American tourists to go, but if you can observe four simple rules, it's possible to have fun there without getting kidnapped, thrown in jail, or killed/murdered. Those rules are no guns, no drugs, no driving at night, and no insulting cartel members. If you can stick to that, the freedom that comes with it is what makes the tacos and cervezas taste so much better south of the border than they do up here.
Mexico's drug cartels are more or less out of control, but as long as you aren't in their way, I've heard that they aren't likely to fuck with you. My friend Jesse Aizenstat, an author and Baja veteran, said he went down to Baja to surf last month and didn't have any problems. He said if you're not an idiot, you'll be fine.
At any rate, chances are good that a six-pack of Tecate, a bolsa de hielo, and a shitload of fireworks that look like they could be used to blast new railway tunnel through a mountain will do a lot to erode your fears about traveling in Baja. Nothing really ever changes in Baja. It's basically a huge desert, surrounded on three sides by salt water and scattered with poor, dusty towns. The few Americans who even realize it's there whisper about development changing everything, but if anything ever happens, it's either abandoned mid-project or takes eons to complete. Here's what I've found during my many forays south of the border.
Mexico has done a lot to beef up its highway infrastructure over the past 20 or 30 years. The highway that runs from Tijuana to Cabo San Lucas didn't used to connect, but today, it's a smooth strip of asphalt running the entire 1,600 mile length of the Baja peninsula. There are still places where you can see the twisted remains of cars laying at the bottoms of steep cliffs, but those guys were probably drunk driving, so no te preocupes, holmes, you'll be fine. The toll roads are especially nice, which makes a lot of sense because you're paying directly for the upkeep of the road.
In most places south of Rosarito, the highway doesn't bypass towns, so if you get stuck driving through during rush hour, it'll be stop-and-go for hours as you accordion along behind buses, chicken trucks, and tons of Monster Energy Drink logo-festooned cars. Shops and restaurants are usually set back away from the road in small towns, and it seems like there's always someone tear-assing along the unpaved access strip in a battered '80s Nissan pickup, kicking up a cloud of dust that would make a depression-era Okie tremble with fear for his personal safety.
Once you get off the highway, everything changes. That nice, European-style autopista gives way to a rutted track scraped out of barren desert. Most of these roads are ok to drive on, but as you get closer to the coasts on either side of the peninsula, keep an eye out for deep, soft sand, especially if you're not driving in a convoy. You don't need a 4x4 for a lot of the more remote stretches of unpaved road, but but you might in some places, and probably will at some point in the mountains. You can, if you want, drive all the way down the peninsula on unpaved roads. But that Baja 1000-style rally is best left to people who know what they're doing and have the right supplies.
Expect the unexpected. You're in Mexico, but you're still pretty close to L.A., Orange, and San Diego Counties. There will likely be people driving expensive cars and SUVs like the pretentious assholes that they are, mixed in with people driving old beater cars with the kind of reckless abandon that Mexican machismo demands. For the most part, driving down Baja way is pretty mellow. But you never know what's going to happen, so keep your ojos open.
As I mentioned earlier, you'll see every range of expensive vehicle in Baja. BMWs, Range Rovers, and brand new, top-of-the-line F150s — almost all with California tags — are a common enough sight. Once, a friend and I managed to talk a 19-year-old girl into letting us drive her Infiniti G35 to Baja while she was visiting her family out of state. It was a terrible idea, but we navigated the weekend without getting the car stolen or driving it off of a cliff, so that's somewhat shaky proof that you can cruise in a nice car in ole Meh-hee-coh without realizing disaster.
But it's the crappy cars which are truly special in Baja. Once you cross the international border, safety regulations become less important than mobility. Down there, if a car runs, it's good to go, no matter how rickety it appears. Got a pickup truck with a hood made of plywood and different sized headlamps tied to the front bumper with old coat hangers? No problem. Or a box truck with the top cut off piled to overflowing with brush and old mattresses? That's efficiency at its best.
Once I even saw some guy driving a mid-'80s Chevy Cavalier with the roof sawzalled off. No attempt had been made to cap the jagged, two-inch-long A, B, and C pillar stumps jutting up from the body. But there he was, driving to the store with no seatbelt on, ostensibly to pick up some beer.
Oh, if you're lucky, maybe you'll see a Baja buggy or three. They come in all shapes and sizes, but they're almost always cool. The last one I saw was in the mountains of Colorado, which was totally out of place, but go figure. You might actually catch one in Mexico.
- Tijuana and the Northern Beaches: Despite its reputation as a crime riddled shithole, TJ has some of the best food to be found anywhere. In fact it is a crime riddled shithole, but if you do a little research first, you can find the good parts. Or don't do any research and just wander around. That's cool as long as you don't do it at night.
- Out toward the coast is Rosarito — a resort town populated with crooked and half-finished hotels and cheesy bars aimed at San Diego's under-21 party crowd. Rosarito is good to get drunk in once, change your dollars to pesos, and get the fuck out of. The beaches nearby aren't bad, and if you surf, you could score pretty decent waves at places like ... nope, sorry, find 'em yourself! (They're pretty obvious). There was concern for a while that coastal development would cut off access for hobo-like beachgoers, but the economy in Baja sucks and that hasn't happened.
- Ensenada: This hilly coastal burg has a university, a cruise ship terminal, and some bars and restaurants, but you won't need more than an hour or two there. About 40 minutes to the north is a small beach called Salsipuedes that's pretty mellow (if it's even open anymore), and the beaches on the peninsula stretching out to the west from the city are pretty Bajatastic, too. But don't get too hung up in the Ensenada-north scene. The farther away from California you get the better. There's nothing worse than the combination of gringo money, poor people, and no regulations. All three of those exist in higher concentration the closer you get to the border.
- Sierra de San Pedro Mártir National Park: Located in the interior of Baja California Norte about five hours south of the border, this is worth a visit. The curving mountain roads are fun to drive on, the scenery is stunning. You'll definitely see an unlikely pine forest, and maybe even some bighorn sheep. From Picacho del Diablo, the 10,160-foot peak in the middle of the park, You can see both the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Cortez.
- The Cataviña Desert: Traveling south from California, Mex-1 jogs inland after El Rosario, crossing a vast desert. Cataviña is in the middle of
nowhereit and there's nothing in either direction. So unless you like filling up out of sketchy barrels, it's good to think about gassing up the car/motorcycle on either side of the desert. That said, there's a rock garden near Cataviña that's pretty cool to see. If you stay the night, you'd be hard pressed to find anyone with electricity, so the night sky is positively brilliant.
- Bahía de Magdalena: Three quarters of the way down toward Cabo, this is where you go to see California grey whales mate every winter. Enclosed by barrier islands, the bay is a natural harbor that attracted the interest of the Japanese and German navies before the First World War.
- Cabo San Lucas: Cabo itself isn't much to write home about. It's a crappy version of San Diego County's desert suburbs; a place where middle class people buy big, ugly houses they couldn't afford in Americaland and pretend to be wealthy. Once as I drove past the Costco down there, something caught my eye in an alley just behind it. A Mexican family was huddled around a camp stove set up in front of their windowless concrete block shack. No me gusta.
But there are beaches and mountains within a half hour's drive that are simply fantastic. The only way to find them is to hop in the car and start trying random places. If you want to skip all the Cabo hoopla and experience a more authentic, mellow Baja California Sur experience, head for Todos Santos, about an hour north on the Pacific Coast road.
- Loreto/Mulegé/Bahia de los Ángeles: The Sea of Cortez side is, predictably, very different from the Pacific coast of Baja. Sheltered from the Pacific's fury, there are real towns there as opposed to the fishing hamlets on the ocean side. Fishing and kayaking and things like that are great, so you'll find a bunch of gringos there. Loreto, California's capital during most of the 18th century, is a nice little town to visit, as is Mulegé, an oasis with an uncharacteristic (for the region) tropical feel to it.
- Sierra de la Laguna: This mountain range occupies the interior of Baja's southern tip. It's part of the Peninsular Ranges (which look spectacular as you're driving by them on the east side of the peninsula). The mountains reach elevations exceeding 5,000 feet and have a climate unlike anything else in the region. A UNESCO biosphere reserve, you'll see flora and fauna there that you can't see anywhere else. It green hues stand in stark contrast to the severe arid terrain surrounding it.
- The Baja 500 and the Baja 1000: If you're in Baja at the end of June, check out the Baja 500, and in November, the Baja 1000. The 1000 is one of the gnarliest offroad races in the world and has been run since 1967. These races are the proving ground for North American truck, buggy and motorcycle gear. The offroad gadgets you see in the Baja 1000 could end up as poorly fabricated mimicry on bro trucks all over the Southwest.
You could spend months down in Baja and never see all there is to see, but the same could be said for most places. If deserts, mountains, ocean, and a slower pace of life are your thing, you could do worse.
- Fish tacos: Breaded, fried white fish topped with shredded cabbage and some salsa and served on a small corn tortilla is the quintessential Baja grub. Most taco stands have them, they're delicious, and they usually sell for about a dollar each.
- Other kinds of tacos: You'll probably also run across beef and pork tacos in all of their delicious iterations as well. Eat as many of these as possible. They're cheap, they're good, and they're kind of the point.
- Shellfish and seafood: You have to use your judgement on this. You can buy locally caught clams and fish from a guy in the street of most coastal towns for pretty cheap, but you don't want to get sick. Make sure you know if there have been any advisories about contamination before you travel. The locals will sell it regardless because there's not really much of a regulatory infrastructure present in most of Baja.
- If the guy selling you clams chases another dude down the street with screaming obscenities and smashing the hood of the guy's truck a hammer mid-sale, politely say no thank you and move along. Yes, that actually happened to me once. But restaurants in places like Puerto Nuevo and La Fonda sell Lobster and other delicious fruits of the sea for reasonable prices
- Anything in Tijuana: Cesar salad was invented in TJ, and many other tasty foods have found a home there since. From traditional simple Baja food to fancy sauces and shredded duck burritos prepared by internationally trained chefs, you can find just about anything in this admittedly dilapidated city. Even the street food — such as bacon wrapped hot dogs — is awesome and everywhere. Of course, you can just as easily buy nasty diarrhea fuel, too if you aren't careful. It pays to do a little internet search first and see what's good before you go.
- Libations: Booze is part of life in Baja. Most of the locals drink Tecate, and you probably will, too. It's cheap and they sell it everywhere. You can also buy Pacifico, Negro Modello, and Corona if you really want to. As far as spirits go, you should try Mescal if you never have. It tastes like formaldehyde steeped in fire damaged yardsale furniture, but if you get to the worm on the bottom, you're guaranteed a night you'll never remember. You can also get a plastic gallon jug of some crap called bebita that purports itself to be tequila. It tastes like nail polish remover, and is a great companion to all of those fireworks you're sure to buy once you start drinking it.
- Cuban goodies:If you like Cuban cigars and rum you're in luck. The governments of Mexico and Cuba are friendly with one another and exchange goods freely back and forth across their borders. You're not supposed to bring that stuff back into the states, but if it's one bottle and a cigar or two, U.S. Customs probably won't say anything.
As I said earlier, no guns, no drugs, no driving at night, and no insulting cartel members. If you can live by those rules, your time in Baja should be relatively trouble free. With the freedom that comes from visiting an impoverished, sparsely populated part of the world comes a great responsibility to refrain from acting like a complete asshole. If you're out in the middle of nowhere and start doing things to attract negative attention to yourself, guess what? Right. There aren't that many cops around, and even if there are, they could use that money that you're obviously too dumb to keep.
There are actually a couple of other rules, and those relate to immigration status and car insurance. The U.S.-Mexico border has tightened up over the last four or five years, and the U.S. border patrol now requires a passport to get back into the States. On their side of the security wall, Mexican officials require a tourist visa if you plan on traveling farther afield from the border than, say, Rosarito. You can pick one up at the immigration office right after you cross, unmolested, over the border into Mexico. They cost about $20 each.
Buy Mexican car insurance. On the off chance that you get in a wreck, Mexican insurance is utterly worthless when it comes to reimbursing you for damage to your car. But it will keep you out of jail. If you have an accident and the cops catch you without Mexican insurance, they'll probably throw you in jail. Not to worry, though, you can buy it online ahead of time for pretty cheap if you shop around.
Being the desert ratty place that it is, Baja has some great automotive traditions. One is the llantero (pronounced yan-tay-roh). This is the guy who will fix your tire after running over a cactus and getting a flat. Depending upon who he is, he probably doesn't do much else, but that means he'll be on deck to get you back on the road. Some of these guys do other repairs, too, and will most likely help you zip tie that '72 Ford pickup headlight he had lying in a grease five-gallon buck in the back of his shop to the front of your grille if you happen to have busted out one of your correctly-sized headlamps on the trail.
There's only one brand of gas in Mexico, and that's PEMEX. It's not prohibitively expensive, but neither is it super cheap. Unfortunately for the diesel crowd, buying diesel at a PEMEX can be tricky, so unless you have extra fuel tanks, you might want to use a gasser for a Baja trek.
Go surfing, go fishing, go hiking, eat tacos and seafood, get drunk on horrible agave liquor, and blow up fireworks indiscriminately. Whatever you do, kick back to Baja's slow pace and enjoy it. There'll be plenty of time to rush around and accomplish things when you get back to the States.
Do Not Do
Don't drive at night. Bandits aren't really much of a concern, but animals are. Imagine flying down a lonely desert highway at 3 a.m., going about 80 mph and listening to your favorite house mix. That's all fine and good in the U.S., where the highways are fenced. But in Mexico, open roads are open range, and cows tend to congregate on them at night. I know because I once had to slalom three of them while driving 85 mph one night. That would have been a messy wreck for all involved, especially since we were hundreds of miles from any kind of help.
Don't freak out about the army checkpoints. They're required by the terms of NAFTA , and the Mexican government places them here and there on northbound roads. The Mexican Army is a professional organization, so don't be afraid when you approach a checkpoint. They're not going to rob you, they're looking for drugs. If they find any, you'll end up in a Mexican jail and that's not good. You can't bribe your way out of trouble with the army.
Don't be an asshole, and that includes speeding through towns, lighting fireworks in populated areas, and other generally boorish behavior. The time for letting your hair down is when you're out in the middle of nowhere with no one to witness your tomfoolery other than your friends and a wide, largely unconcerned starlit sky.
Whatever you do, don't threaten or harass someone who might be connected with a cartel. Mal idea, amigo.
Best Time To Go
The weather's usually best from late August until mid-November, but you can score some pretty good sunny weather during the wintertime, too. Spring can be chilly and rainy, and it gets pretty windy on the peninsula's Pacific Coast. Summertime is hot as hell, as is to be expected of a desert in Mexico. Keep in mind that if you travel when it's likely to rain, dirt roads can be pretty sketchy when they're wet. There are a lot of steep ones.
What time of day you enter and exit Mexico is important. Traffic going in isn't bad most times of the day save rush hour. But leaving can take hours, especially at the end of a weekend. When it's time for you to make your escape, it's usually a great idea to circumvent the inevitable clusterfuck queued up in front of the U.S. Customs station in TJ by going to the smaller one in Tecate, a few miles to the east. Sure, the salesmen hawking everything from furry, glow-in-the dark Jesus portraits and blankets to huge framed renderings of that overly sexual looking Aztek warrior with a curvy, half naked woman draped over his brawny arms are entertaining, but not enough to make you want to sit in traffic for four hours.
But honestly, anytime is a good time to go to Baja. It never gets cold enough that you can't stand it. Even when obscured by rain and clouds, the views are beautiful. Plus, it's the sort of place where you can pack in a sleeping bag and a case of beans and just live off of spontaneity. That's the heart of the whole trip; to just go.
Photo credit: Shutterstock; Benjamin Preston