The Baja California peninsula is more convenient to visit than ever. To many PG travelers the most important question is: “Can I still camp there on the beaches, safely?” With the exception of the northern Pacific coast beaches, (Tijuana to El Rosario) the answer is an unqualified “Yes!” More than a thousand miles of wide-open beaches await the wilderness camper.
Baja Car Permits and Tourist Cards
If you want to venture much beyond Ensenada or stay longer than 72 hours anywhere in Baja California, you will need a tourist card. The place to get tourist cards is right at the border next to Mexican Customs. Park under the canopy and follow the “IMN” arrows. There is a bank there to pay the fee. The folks who write the tourist cards will explain which way to walk. (An off-again, on-again tourist card checkpoint is located 440 miles south of the border at the state line near Guerrero Negro. Rumor has it they have sent travelers back to the border for not having a tourist card, so get one at the border.)
Unlike mainland México, a car permit is not required to venture outside the immediate border area. As a matter of fact, the entire peninsula remains car-pemit free. Once upon a time the federal highway patrol frowned on cars with expired license tags, but that is no longer the case. But if a patrolman should ask to see your registration, it’s best to have the car in your name or have the owner present in the car. That law is still enforced, more or less.
MEX 1 THE TRANSPENINSULA HIGHWAY and other Road Notes
Only a few sections of the thousand-mile-long highway are narrow like in the old days. Most of the stretch between El Rosario and Guerrero Negro (around 220 miles) remains at 22 feet in width. A piece of cake for cars and pickups, less so for wider vehicles. (That’s still better than the 20-feet width we saw up until the late nineties.) And many bad sections have been modified – the most notable being the one just north of Santo Tomas, 28-miles south of Ensenada. Once a hazardous, twisting grade, the road is now a one-arm-out-the-window, breeze to drive.
The toll road Mex 1-D is still in operation between Tijuana and Ensenada.
A brand new toll road intersects with Mex 1-D a third of the way down to connect a traveler with the alternative border crossing at Otay Mesa (pronounced “Oh-Tie May-sah”), five miles east of the Tijuana crossing.
The popular border crossing at Tecate was completely revamped a few years ago. Now traffic is shuttled a mile to the east and traffic fronts the border before making a right and crossing into the US. The route is well-signed. The highway to Tecate (Mex 3) has been improved and the junction with Mex 1 remains the same, at El Sauzal eight miles north of Ensenada. This stretch of roadway has also seen many curves softened, and pavement widened somewhat. As I write this, bulldozers are at work carving a bypass road around Ensenada for the transpeninsular highway.
Between Guerrero Negro and Mulege (160 miles) many of the cruel dips in the road have been bridged with wide pass-over spans. The width of the pavement gives a clue to what the federal government intends to do with rest of the highway in the future. The bridges definitely lessen the chances of suddenly coming upon a flash flood filled “vado” in the summer rainy season.
Driving through La Paz/La Paz to Cabo San Lucas
La Paz has grown a lot in the last ten years. It needs a bypass road rather badly however. The route through the city is well signed but busy. When you get south of the city and headed toward the capes (I do not like the over-hyped moniker Los Cabos), the road is still mostly high speed until it passes through the artisan enclave of Todos Santos. From Todos Santos to Cabo San Lucas, Mex 19 has become the model of the future for the peninsula: extremely wide 2-4 lanes, sometimes with a center divider. The old road, Mex 1, continues south and winds its way to San José del Cabo. If you’re headed to San José del Cabo, you might want to consider staying on Mex 1. It’s not as nice a road, but it avoids the frantic traffic now found in Cabo San Lucas. It might be worth noting that none of the “improved” stretches of roadway are “limited access.” This means side roads, including dirt tracks, remain accessible from the main highway.
Driving from Vizcaino to Bahia Tortugas
The once interminably long, pockmarked asphalt strip from Vizcaino west to Bahia Tortugas has been dramatically improved. From Vizcaino to the junction of the spur road to Bahia Asuncion, the roadway is smooth for 50 miles. They’re still working on the stretch from the junction to “Turtle Bay.” The 22-mile-road from the junction to Bahia Asuncion is similarly smooth. In truth, no one drives the speed limit on this road.
Driving South of San Felipe
The highway south of San Felipe is being improved. Another year or two will see its completion to Mex 1, eighty miles north of Guerrero Negro at the north side of the dry lake Laguna Chapala. Meanwhile high clearance pickup trucks (2 WD or 4WD) are the way to go until the road is finished. This route is said to be “The Truck Route Of The Future” that will connect the border with the Cape region. It will bypass all the big cities in the north. But as far as I’m concerned, this isn’t going to happen for a long time.
Baja Camping Beaches
Van beach and desert camping is splendid in the 200-mile-stretch of wilderness south of San Felipe. Beaches are deserted, and tiny enclaves of civilization like Puertecitos and Alfonsinas at Gonzaga Bay offer a place to purchase groceries, gasoline and water. There is a hotel at Gonzaga bay.
Bahia de los Angeles is another favorite camping spot, only it has more services and even multiple hotels. The tiny town is located on a beautiful bay 42 miles off the main highway.
North of Mulege the wilderness camping beach at Punta Chivato seems to be operating, although services are absent. Take care on the often heavily washboard 12-mile access road. The hotel there has been closed for awhile.
Bahia Concepcion beaches are still very popular, with the exception of Playa El Burro, which has been privatized by having all of the old campsites leased out to private homeowners. Water and groceries are available in the town of Mulege 11-22 miles to the north.
Baja Towns Update
Gas stations, internet cafes, hotels and restaurants are plentiful. Towns with a population of 3,000 or more have a bank and ATM machine.
The town of Santa Rosalia is bustling once again with the re-opening of the El Boleo copper mine. It’s so busy that hotel rooms are quite scarce. Marvel at the new breakwater and pier that will serve giant ore carriers.
Mulege has been ravaged by several recent summer hurricane floods and is presently trying to get back on its feet. Stores, hotels, and restaurants are gearing up for the 2014 winter crowd.
Loreto has grown and now has a large chain supermarket outlet and even a pair of Farmacias Similares drugstores. Bahia Agua Verde, 30 miles to the south, is still gorgeous but the road is iffy to anything other than 4WD, and even then it’s best to check in Loreto first to see if a storm has washed it out.
La Paz and Cabo San Lucas have all the trappings of “Modern Mexico.” Multilane boulevards, long waits at traffic lights, and an avalanche of big box stores and fast food joints. Homesickness is impossible here. A tour through Home Dept, then Wal-Mart, followed by a sniff at a McDonalds will have you headed for the wilderness in a hurry. You can stop at an Office Depot, on the way out of town, and buy a clipboard to write down all the reasons you’re leaving in such a hurry.
IS IT WORTH IT?
Damned right it is. Folks may moan about “progress,” but not long ago I drove a mile or two off the transpeninsula highway and into the desert until I could not see the highway. I got out and looked around. This was the Baja California I saw fifty-years ago. Desert birds chirped, bees buzzed around me, and an owl hooted. Dried-out remnants of “hearts of the cardon cactus” lay all around, a pitahaya cactus displayed a rainbow of luscious scarlet sweet fruits, and except for the dirt track I might have been in the Baja California of 10,000 years ago.