A Beginner's (Visual) Guide to the Baja Peninsula
In the beginning of April, we made our way across the U.S. from Nashville, TN to Palm Springs, CA. At this time, Katie, Greg and Bébé of Crepe Attack were on the last leg of their year and a half-long journey to the tip of South America and back when the untimely threat of the Zika Virus emerged. For the utmost safety of Bébé, Katie stayed behind in Quito, Ecuador while Greg and his brother-in-law, Johnny made the rest of the journey back up together. The plan was for Katie to fly to Palm Springs where we would scoop her up and meet Greg and Johnny in La Paz, B.C.S. Then, we would all party and caravan back up through Baja and back to California. Katie and Greg are some of our favorite people to hang with, van life or not, so we were ecstatic about having a reunion almost a year after we visited them in Patagonia! Lucky for us, they were also both fluent in Spanish and had made the journey through Baja before.
Going into this trip, we didn’t know what to expect since neither of us had been to Mexico before. We pretty much only knew what we had read about while doing our research online: lots of beautiful beaches, great surfing, all the margs, tacos, clear skies and plenty of wide open spaces to test the limits of your Vanagon. We fell in love with Baja. We can’t quite put into words how it made us feel but it was definitely love.
Hopefully this little re-cap of our journey will help you get a better feel of this paradise where desert meets water.
ENSENADA Since we timed it just right and arrived in Ensenada after dark, we ended up sleeping in a random beach-side parking lot on our first night in Mexico. Glamorous, huh? This parking lot was party central, which we found out…right as we were going to bed. We all barely slept that night and couldn’t hold in our laughter from the boisterous music and bass so loud we could feel it in the van. Now that we look back on it: worth it.
The next morning, we grabbed cocos, tostilocos and fresh fruit from a stand nearby and hit the road. This was one of our favorite things about Baja: coconut water, cocos locos, taquerias and fresh fruit stands every where.
SANTA ROSALILLITA This was our first (real) camping spot! We cruised onto a beautiful beach at sunset, briefly got stuck and then unstuck (thanks to Peter and Katie having everything under control). The next morning, we woke up to a brief but heavy downpour. We all got out to inspect the van along with the sand around it. There were clouds all around us which quickly gave way to sunshine. That few minutes of downpour was the only rain we saw in Baja the entire two weeks we were there. Crazy!
VALLE DE LOS CIRIOS - Natural Protected Area This is where you’ll go through the first of long, long stretch of the most enormous cacti you’ll ever see. They are the stunning Cardón cacti and they can be hundreds of years old! There are plenty of places along the side of the road to stop off, do a little exploring and size yourself up to one of these giants. Be careful, through - you don’t want to interrupt a rattlesnake’s sunbathing. They’re the divas of the desert.
GUERRERO NEGRO We stopped in this tiny town to gas up and grab groceries (where Peter stopped me from buying every brand of hot sauce in sight). In an effort to satisfy a craving for a cold coffee beverage, we stumbled upon a coffee shop with great iced coffee, clean bathrooms and free WIFI. On the way back up, we stopped at a taqueria here and had a really nice lunch.
We pretty much winged it when it came to the taquerias we ate at. Of course, they were all delicious and no one got sick at all. Everyone, relax. We loved seeing and tasting the variations each one put on their tacos. They each had their own house made hot sauces and condiments. Some would grill up scallions upon request with bunches of fresh, peppery radishes out to crunch on with your meal. Amazing. This kind of research was necessary.
SANTA ROSALIA - If you’re low on supplies and energy, this cute coastal town has a great super market and plenty of opportunities to eat all of the seafood you could ever want. We stopped here on the way down and on the way back up and each time, it was a wonderful break from the road. If you drive into the town square a bit, you can find all sorts of restaurants, bars, and shops.
Playa SANTISPAK + Playa ESCONDIDO - This region of Baja was one of our favorites. Here you’ll see the bright aquamarine colors of the tranquil Bahia de Concepcion. The water almost has a neon tone to it because of its vibrancy. Playa Santispak was where we slept for a night on the way down and it cost us $5 for a great spot right on the beach with a spectacular view of the bay. There are a couple of restaurants on this beach if you’re not going to just make rice and beans for dinner like we did. The surrounding shores of Bahia de Concepcion were scattered with beaches (some hidden, some marked), palapas for camping and lots of resorts, hotels, hostels and lodges. On the way back up, we stayed in this same region but at Playa el Escondido, which was gorgeous and free. We took a random dirt road over some hills and came up onto the beach so it wasn’t visible from the main road. The water was perfect and calm for swimming, snorkeling, and fishing. Be sure to do the ‘stingray shuffle,’ though. Greg found one of those feisty little guys hiding in the shallow part of the water where some of us had been walking. Yikes!
After this you’ll go back through long, hot and barren stretches of desert road again. If you don’t have A/C like us, it’ll feel like a cruel joke after spending a couple of days and nights by the bay, but hang in there! You’ll soon reach La Paz!
LA PAZ - PLAYA EL TECOLOTE There was construction right outside of the city limits which made the heat even more unbearable for a bit. As we got to the end of the construction, we began to see water again. What a relief! We met Greg and Johnny at Playa el Tecolote and immediately cracked open cans of Tecate with lime to toast to all of us being together again.
Then we moved a little further along the coast, did some off-roading in the dunes with Greg and drove down to a perfect spot on the beach right before a spectacular sunset. Johnny made us a round of his amazing margaritas with some fantastic tequila that they had brought back from Tequila, Mexico.
It was paradise. The rest of our days in this spot was spent waking up to the Sea of Cortez showing off its brilliant turquoise tones and relaxing. Great view of Isla Espirito from here! We had all worked very hard to make it here and we were sure to soak up every moment. We’ll never forget making coffee and breakfast together each morning and feasting with our toes in the softest sand we’ve ever felt. One of those mornings involved a brunch of Katie’s amazing pancakes + Nutella, scrambled eggs, and champagne.
PLAYA EL TECOLOTE One afternoon, we ventured over to a more populated part of the beach to spend the day in the sun and eat as many fish tacos and plates of ceviche as possible. Palapa Azul had seating right on the beach and delicious pina coladas and margaritas. It’s not truly Mexico without some sort of tropical drink with an umbrella in it, right?
After our day spent on the beach at Playa el Tecolote, we drove into the city to do some grocery shopping, get some paletas and take in our surroundings by foot. La Paz was a really lovely city that was just buzzing with activity! We’d really like to spend more time exploring it next time we’re here!
SAN IGNACIO was a refreshing stop in many ways. After being on the beach, in the sun and salt water for days, we camped at a spot right next to a fresh water lagoon. We got to wash all of the accumulated salt and sweat off of our bodies in the river. The surrounding date palms kept us nice and cool in their shade. This town is famous for delicious dates, hence, the plentiful number of date palms all over. Be sure to get some dates, date pie or date cake!
CATAVIÑA took us right back into the desert. As you drive into town, you’ll see a sign for cocos. Do it! We paid premium prices for those coconuts but they were the perfect treat after driving in the heat of the day. The coconuts were more pricey since they traveled such a long way to get there. They were from Colima, which is famous for their high-quality coconuts. Once you’re done drinking the coconut water, make sure you get them hacked them open, the meat scooped out with spices and lime drizzled all over it. Yum! Luckily, we made our way into the desert at sunset in search of a flat spot to camp. We basically had to follow random dirt roads until we happened upon a clearing where both vans could fit. The next morning, we did a little bouldering before continuing north.
PUERTO SAN JACINTO We met the Pacific once again. This port is famous for a shipwreck that washed up on the beach. It’s an eerie but cool sight! There’s a beautiful rock beach that you can walk along to find lots of gorgeous sea shells and enormous bladder kelp washed up.
PUERTO SANTO TOMAS is a beautiful little fishing town with a nice beach to sprawl out and camp. A local came down to the beach and warned us about the rising tide over night which put us all a little on edge. We watched the tide but all ended up being well - no Vanagons floated into the ocean. Whew. We made it onto the sand in our non-syncro, 2WD Westy thanks to Peter’s airing-down technique (more on this to come). The highlight of this spot was one that we’ll never forget. After being told by a man in San Ignacio that the chances of us seeing whales were slim since the season was coming to an end, we finally saw whales from this beach! We began to see puffs of water here and there on the horizon just after sunset and saw them again the next morning! Katie was able to see the barnacles on one of the whales with her binoculars. Amazing. This was such an exciting morning and a great way to end our second-to-last night in Mexico!
BODEGAS DE SANTO TOMÁS This was a great way to kick off our day of exploring wineries in the Valle de Guadalupe region of Baja. This lovely little winery also makes their own olive oils along with delicious wines. We had a tasting of both, bought our favorites and set off determined to find more delicious wine. We drove through a stretch of road where we saw many vineyards but sadly, not many of them were open for tastings. We bought pomegranate wine from a man who makes wine in his home and found out about him by asking one of the locals. He let us try a couple of different kinds of his wine but the pomegranate wine was our favorite. It was really good chilled and if you threw in fresh orange slices, limes and apples, it tasted just like a boozy, red wine-heavy sangria. Perfect.
All of the wine had us hungry again and we were all thinking tacos. This was our last full day in Mexico and, darn it, we were going to stuff ourselves with tacos! We stumbled upon THE best tacos we’ve ever had. Greg had spent a lot of time trying tacos as they made their way down and back up through Mexico and even he was impressed. We had carne asada tacos complete with stewed pinto beans on top, grilled scallions and fresh radishes to munch along with the meal. We wanted to eat so much more than we could and still dream about those tacos often. We’ve even talked about driving back just to eat at this place again. Still thinking about it. Right now.
XECUE was another one of our lets-just-wing-it stops on the wine trail and it was really lovely! We had a tasting in their panoramic tasting room which lets you gaze over the vineyards and surrounding beauty as you sip your selections. The weather was as perfect when we stopped in so they had the floor-to-ceiling windows open that day. The grounds were beautifully landscaped with cacti, herb bushes and other desert flora. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that it was nice to use their super clean restrooms after spending a couple of weeks camping in the desert. Hey - van life takes adjusting to for some of us, you know.
The next morning, we packed up and left for the border. On the way out, we decided to stop in Tijuana to grab some lunch. We ended up finding a point that looks out onto a beach lined with lots and lots of restaurants and shops. We also found the border-wall between Mexico and the U.S. here. We walked up and down the span of the wall, admiring the art covering every inch of it. We saw people with their faces pressed up on it, talking to each other through the wall. Even though we had been in Mexico a mere two weeks, it was still a bit surreal to see this happening and then look over the wall to see San Diego.
While getting into Baja was a breeze, getting out…wasn’t. We waited in line for a total of three hours to cross. Good thing we all ate lunch before taking this wait on! Actually, you don’t have to worry an ounce about getting bored, hungry or thirsty while you’re in line. There were plenty of people making and selling every kind of food you’d want to eat and every kind of drink you’d want to drink. Forget to grab a souvenir for yourself or gifts for a loved one? No problem. They literally come to you. Once we got to the actual gate, we answered a few general questions while the officer looked over our passports and then promptly drove through. Done! The drive into San Diego was a piece of cake after all of that was over. We were greeted by wonderful friends who let us wash two weeks worth of Mexico off of us before continuing north.
There may or may not be a plan in the works to get us back there again.