With its endless stretch of pristine coastline, infinite camping possibilities, and hidden gems tucked far away from tourist hotspots, Baja may just be the ultimate roadtrip destination for those seeking adventure south of the border.
Even more than the beaches and the prices, you’ll fall in love with the ‘no bad days’ attitude and easy living that come along with being in Baja, the simple pleasures of eating freshly caught clams right on the sandy beach or paddling out for sunrises that seem to burn only for you. As you’ll soon discover, the peninsula hides incomprehensible magic, best discovered with a loose agenda and your own set of wheels.
This guide contains everything you need to know about road tripping in Baja, including required paperwork for driving across the border, advice for hiring a car, Mexican auto insurance, driving conditions, military checkpoints, road rules, petrol stations & so much more!
What's in this travel guide
A little intro to Baja, Mexico
The Baja Peninsula, often referred to simply as Baja, is a 1200km-long, slender promontory of land bordered to the north by California (and a bit of Arizona), to the east by the Gulf of California/Sea of Cortez, and to the west by the Pacific Ocean.
Although many people talk about Baja as a single entity (and indeed it was once united as The Californias, including what is now American California), it’s actually comprised of 2 different Mexican states:
- Baja California (also called Baja Norte)
- Baja California Sur (abbreviated BCS)
Both Baja states are culturally and ecologically distinct from mainland Mexico in a multitude of ways, and the landscape here is an incredible blend of Arizona mountains (think: the Superstitions), California deserts (think: Joshua Tree), and wild, untamed Mexican coastline (unlike anything else). The image of cacti leading right up to the ocean is something you’re unlikely to experience anywhere else in the world.
Prepare to enjoy:
- the freshest seafood you’ve ever had, caught by locals on remote stretches of the Baja coast and sold in small roadside taco stands
- beachfront camping where you can walk from your van or tent right into the ocean in a few strides
- colourful historical towns with cobbled lanes
- unique wildlife encounters with everything from whale sharks and friendly grey whales to hatching sea turtles and curious stingrays
- real magic away from the tourists who don’t leave their resorts in Cabo
- unlimited snorkelling, diving, kayaking, and swimming opportunities… the list goes on!!
Baja roadtrip overview
Outside of only a few tourist hotspots and busy metropolitan centres, the Baja Peninsula is largely undeveloped— a complete lack of public transport means that the best (and often only) way to explore Baja’s wide open beaches, hidden hot springs, and remote coves is on a road trip!
For those who’ve yet to do it, however, the idea of driving in Mexico can be pretty intimidating. I’ll cover heaps more details about all of these topics in the sections below, but let me assure you of a few things up front:
- Is Baja, Mexico safe? Travelling in Baja is really no more dangerous than travelling anywhere else in North America, and as long as you use common sense and don’t go looking for trouble, you’re unlikely to find it. The crime rate in Baja is incredibly low and, outside of the border cities, suffers from almost none of the political turmoil or drug violence that you’re probably worried about (but truly needn’t be). I’ve spent over a year travelling all around Mexico, almost exclusively in a vehicle, and I often refer to Baja as “Mexico Lite”: there is a long history of American and Canadian retirees coming down here in their RVs and they’ve beautifully paved the way for a prominent “camper culture”, with plenty of English, accessible services, and a general sense of familiarity between locals and gringos.
- Sure, but is it safe to DRIVE in Baja? Generally speaking, Baja is an incredibly safe place to road-trip, with well-maintained highways, friendly locals, and plentiful campsites. The one challenge with Baja is that you’ll often find yourself out of service, so you need to be comfortable navigating offline and also being out of communication on occasion. See my connectivity section below for some tips on staying safe without reception.
- What are the road conditions like? A majority of your time in Baja will be spent driving on beautifully paved, brand-new highways, but to access some of the best camping, you’ll inevitably travel off Highway 1 and onto sandy roads that lead out to the beach. This is more challenging and there are a lot of areas I wouldn’t have felt comfortable driving my van by myself because I’m simply too inexperienced with rough terrain. Based on your own comfort/experience, you can stick to developed areas or venture out to wild camping sites; you’ll always have options!
Getting to Baja
You have 3 options for getting to Mexico’s Baja Peninsula for an epic road trip:
- Fly in to one of several international airports (& pick up a hire car)
- Drive across the US-Mexico border in your own vehicle
- Catch the ferry from mainland Mexico (with or without a vehicle)
Option 1 : Flying to Baja
If your Baja roadtrip will span the entire length of the peninsula (recommended!), you can fly into either the north or south end to start:
- Tijuana (TIJ) or Mexicali (MXL) International Airports, both at the far northern border of Baja California *note that my suggested Baja itinerary begins in Mexicali
- Los Cabos (SJD) or Cabo San Lucas (CSL) International Airports, both at the southern tip of Baja California Sur
For those looking to do only a portion of Baja California Sur on their roadtrip, I’d recommend flying into either:
- La Paz (LAP) International Airport, the capital city of Baja California Sur
- Los Cabos (SJD) or Cabo San Lucas (CSL) International Airports, both at the southern tip of Baja California Sur
Search the best flight deals for your trip to Baja ↯
Option 2: Driving across the US-Mexico border to Baja
If you’re coming from the US and have a car, van or camper already, driving across the border is incredibly easy and a fantastic way to explore Baja!
There are 6 ports of entry between California, USA and Baja California, Mexico accessible to public vehicles, with the busiest being San Ysidro (the busiest land border in the entire world!) and the least trafficked being Andrade (about 15min from Yuma, Arizona, although the actual crossing is in California).
Required documents for crossing the US-Mexico border
- Proof of Mexican Auto Insurance (read this post for details)
- Vehicle Registration (original & copy)
- Vehicle Title (copy) or Lien Agreement
- FMM Tourist Card
For more information about all of this paperwork and step-by-step instructions for the border crossing, check out this post ↯
Option 3: Ferry from mainland Mexico to Baja
There are 2 ferry companies operating between Baja and mainland Mexico (TMC and Baja Ferries), departing from both Mazatlán and Topolobampo, Sinaloa on the mainland and arriving into La Paz, BCS on the southern end of the peninsula. These ferries transport passengers as well as cars (I took my van from Baja to mainland Mexico on TMC in 2022), so it’s a great way to continue your road trip or just skip a potentially pricey domestic flight if you’re already in Mexico.
If you’re thinking about taking the ferry between mainland Mexico and Baja, be sure to read this super detailed post that will walk you through the process in great detail— it’s written from Baja to mainland, but applies in the other direction, too ↯
Getting around Baja
Option 1: Driving your own vehicle to Baja
If you opted to drive your own car, camper, or van across the US-Mexico border into Baja, the most important requirement that you need to be aware of is Mexican auto insurance.
As a condition of entry to Mexico (the Baja Peninsula and/or mainland), you are required to obtain a Mexican auto insurance policy with a minimum of third-party liability coverage— this just means that your insurance company would pay out (up to the stated maximum) in the event that another vehicle is damaged or another driver is injured and you are deemed to be at fault. Unless you’re driving an incredibly inexpensive car and have no fear of theft/damage/vandalism, then you’ll likely want to invest in a more comprehensive policy.
I wrote an insanely detailed comparison of Mexican auto insurance options that will help you understand what kind of coverage is best for you ↯
My recommendation: Baja Bound Insurance
During my first 6-month Mexico roadtrip, we actually had an accident in our van and our agent at Baja Bound handled the entire process for us, from speaking to the police, getting insurance information from the other driver, and we didn’t pay a single PESO out of pocket— it was an unbelievably easy and stress-free process, so I truly can’t recommend this company highly enough!
Option 2: Hiring a car in Baja
I’ve rented a car in Mexico on several occasions and you can expect the rates to be very reasonable— but you’ll pay about 2x the actual rental rate for required insurance, a detail that car hire companies like to hide in fine print until you arrive to pick up the keys.
- Including the most basic insurance option, it costs about $45USD/day to rent a compact car in Mexico (even with different pick-up and drop-off locations)
- You may want to consider something with high clearance and maybe even 4WD if you intend to camp on the beach, which is such a magical part of exploring the peninsula. In this case, you can expect to pay more like $120USD/day for an SUV (inclusive of insurance).
If you’re following my recommended Baja itinerary, set the pick-up location to Mexicali International Airport (MXL) and the drop-off to Los Cabos International Airport (SJD). Search for the best rates using DiscoverCars, which compares dozens of companies to find you the best deal ↯
All about driving in Baja
A good deal of Baja driving is on the highway, and although there used to be dicey stretches (particularly in Baja Norte), I’m pleased to report that all major highways are in excellent shape as of 2022 and driving on the highway in Baja is now fairly straightforward! The only thing worth noting is just how narrow the roads are, often with no shoulder, so be cautious as large trucks come flying by.
There are a few interesting idiosyncrasies when it comes to driving in Mexico, so here are a couple important road rules/customs to be aware of:
- When driving on the highway, you’ll notice slower vehicles pull partly onto the shoulder and sometimes even put on their left blinker— this is a signal for you to pass, driving partly in your lane and partly in the opposing lane in what can quickly became a dangerous game of chicken with oncoming traffic. Most of the time, this works incredibly smoothly and you’ll come to appreciate the easy flow of cars around you! I’ve also had enormous trucks come barreling down the highway directly at me and move back into their lane only seconds away from a collision, so just be aware that this is not only customary here, but extremely common. I’m not encouraging you to pass at dangerous times, of course, but if you notice cars banking up behind you, it IS expected that you’ll move partly into the shoulder to let them by.
- This can become very confusing if you are actually trying to turn left off the highway, as people behind you might think you’re signalling them to pass and accelerate right into your path— to avoid this, the law in Mexico states that you should pull onto the right shoulder and wait for a break in traffic before turning left across both lanes.
Free vs toll highways
While mainland Mexico is littered with a confusing network of free roads (libre) and paid toll roads (cuota), you can easily manage my entire north to south Baja itinerary on free highways in excellent condition. Unless you decide to cross the border in Tijuana (in which case you may indeed want to hop on a toll road), then you can just stick to the libre.
There are half a dozen military checkpoints located along the length of the Baja Peninsula and you’ll hit most if not all of them on my recommended Baja road-trip itinerary.
For the most part, this is no big deal— you’ll be asked where you’re from and where you’re going, and then the officers will have a look inside your vehicle. However, there is always the potential that the officers will swing to the other extreme and spend an hour tearing your car/van apart, possibly with drug dogs.
In VERY FEW instances, this can be an opportunity for corruption to appear. The police in Baja are rarely brazen enough to demand a bribe outright, but the military guards may bait you with questions like “can I have these headphones” or otherwise try to suggest that you’ve violated some rule to see if you’ll offer money. It’s almost always enough to simply say NO and, when in doubt, pretend not to speak any Spanish while acting politely confused and the officer will quickly relent. You don’t need to be concerned about things becoming violent or scary, as you’re right in front of the checkpoint; in all likelihood, you’ll pass through without any incident!
The location of military checkpoints are noted within the driving directions on my Baja itinerary post so you can plan ahead: BAJA VANLIFE ROAD TRIP ITINERARY FOR 1-3 MONTHS (+ DRIVING DIRECTIONS & CAMPING IN 2022)
One of the bigger challenge of driving through Baja is on small town streets, like in Mulegé or Loreto. These street are often cobbled and only wide enough for one car at a time (despite technically being two-way), so proceed with caution and, if you’re in a larger vehicle or a van, consider parking outside of town and walking in to avoid hitting your mirrors on the side of buildings, as I did multiple times.
Baja towns are extremely poorly mapped on Google, so if you’re following navigation with Google Maps, you’ll regularly be taken the wrong way down one-way streets and routed in circles through the city centre. When you’re in town, keep your eyes open for signs; on the highway, Google Maps is very reliable.
This is certainly the most boggling feature of Mexican roads and you’ll come to loathe them with a fierce passion. A tope is essentially a speed bump, but in Mexico, the height and shape of these bumps have absolutely no standards and are placed with WILD abandon throughout town streets, highways, dirt tracks, and basically anywhere you would never expect to find a speed bump.
You’ll only have to hit a few surprise topes to realise how damaging these can be to your vehicle, and for some inexplicable reason, a majority are not painted or signed in any fashion. Constant vigilance!
Driving on the beach
Some of Baja’s best free camping spots are located directly on the beach— it’s a big part of what makes a road-trip through Baja so spectacular, but can also be concerning for those who have a heavy 2WD van and little experience driving on sand. Here are some recommendations:
- Invest in all-terrain tires: before travelling to Baja, I swapped my tires for what many consider to be the BEST all-terrain tires on the market (BF Goodrich KO2). Costco and Discount Tire routinely run specials, but even at full price, they are absolutely worth the money and were invaluable in safely navigating sandy or rocky terrain in Baja!
- Travel with an air inflator and pressure gauge: deflating your tires is probably the single best thing you can do to avoid getting stuck on the beach and often lowering the pressure further does more than traction boards OR hours of digging if you do get spun in. I ran 65/80psi (front/rear) for standard road driving, but aired-down to 30/40psi for sand and found it made a huge difference.
- Walk the route: whenever I arrived at a new beach, I parked the van and walked through the sand to check for loose/deep areas that I needed to avoid and suss out the best route forward. I know this saved me from getting stuck several times, since the sand can get deep quickly in areas where it’s not possible to turn around, but often there are alternate routes if you take the time to look.
- Chat to other travellers: I always tried to introduce ourselves to at least one other camper on the beach, knowing that people will be far more inclined to help (if I did get stuck) after a friendly conversation. And as a rule, never push your limits on a super sandy beach when there are no other cars around!
- Know your limits: the best tires aired down to 20psi still won’t get a 2WD van onto every sandy beach, so knowing when to turn around and find another camp is very important. Typically, there will be easier-access sites a few dozen metres from the beach, and a 30sec walk to the water is much better than spending 2hrs getting your van un-stuck. When that fails, just head to the next beach— there’s no shortage in Baja!
Safety tips for driving in Baja
- Out of an abundance of caution, NEVER drive at night in Baja
- Once beyond the urban centres of Tijuana and Mexicali, Baja Norte has long stretches of very empty highway, so it’s really important to fill up whenever you pass a petrol station around the middle of the peninsula (and in particular, be sure to leave San Felipe with a full tank of fuel)
- In anticipation of the very limited mobile reception that I mentioned above and will discuss in more detail below, I’d recommend downloading offline Google Maps so that you always know where you’re going, even without service
Services in Baja
In the not so distant past, all petrol stations in Mexico were government-operated— you’ll still see heaps of Pemex around, particularly in small towns, but you’ll also find American petrol stations like Chevron, Arco, and even Costco in larger cities.
I consistently found Costco Fuel to be ~3 pesos cheaper than all other petrol stations, which may not sound like much, but adds up to around $15USD if you’re filling the tank!
- A 24-gallon (90L) fuel tank like the one in my Promaster 2500 van costs about 1700-2100 pesos ($95-120) to fill, which works out to be very similar to fuel prices I was paying in Washington or Oregon, and even a little cheaper than California. *based on 2023 fuel prices
- As of 2023, you can expect to pay around 22-24 pesos per litre.
In Baja, gas station attendants always fill your tank for you, so it’s helpful to familiarise yourself with a few phrases:
- magna for standard unleaded petrol
- lleno, por favor for a full tank
- es posible pagar con tarjeta if you wish to pay by credit card (which I’d recommend, since this will blow through your cash quickly and you’ll definitely need it when paying for food and camping)
These attendants work entirely on tips, so it’s a good idea to carry around some 10 pesos coins and 20 peso notes for tipping— I gave a larger tip if they washed my windscreen, which most do!
Wifi & mobile reception
As mentioned previously, one of the largest challenging of travelling in Baja is the lack of consistent mobile reception for long stretches of the highway and certainly at many campsites— I’d say that I had zero bars at camp more often than I had usable data.
Modern technology offers a few excellent work-arounds in the form of StarLink (satellite wifi that works EVERYWHERE) or the cheaper option of PLB/sat-phones like the Garmin In-Reach Mini, which is how I personally checked in with family while out of service and was prepared to call for help in the event that my van broke down. This is excellent peace of mind on long drives and at remote campsites!
For mobile service in Mexico, I use Airalo, an amazing app that offers data eSIM packages for nearly every country in the world— you can activate the eSIM entirely from your phone, so you’ll have service as soon as you drive across the border or land in Baja without needing to track down a local mobile shop!
Use code BROOKE2994 for $3 off your first eSIM with Airalo!
One of my biggest concerns before travelling to Baja was refilling the fresh water tank in the van, but it truly couldn’t be easier to find purified water (agua purificada) on the road in Mexico!
Locals rely on “water stores” for their own drinking water, so every single town will have a designated shop where you can purchase clean water, and almost all of these will allow you to fill your tank directly with a hose (manguera).
- Over 6 weeks in Baja, I spent just $14USD on water— expect to pay about 1 peso per litre (~$0.05USD)!
- Use iOverlander to find water refill spots around Baja or simply ask locals for the nearest ‘agua purificada‘
Where to stay in Baja
Camping in Baja
For those with a van or camper (or the willingness to pitch a tent), Baja has some of the most spectacular campsites of all time. All your dreams of camping on the sand with the ocean a few steps out your door are totally possible— no 4WD required! Here are some of your options:
- Facilities: electrical hook-ups, dump station, toilets, hot water showers, laundry, WIFI, sometimes even a pool
- Typical cost: 250-800 pesos ($12-40USD)
- Facilities: toilets, palapas, occasionally a restaurant (which might offer WIFI for customers)
- Typical cost: 100-300 pesos ($5-15USD)
- Facilities: none
- Typical cost: FREE!
Following my recommended Baja itinerary for 6 weeks, I spent just $24USD on camping. Check out this post to find out how, plus for a downloadable Google Map with GPS coordinates of every single campsite!
Hotels & Airbnbs in Baja
Although camping is the best way to experience Baja, it’s also possible to road trip the peninsula staying in a mix of hotels and Airbnbs. This will limit you to more populated areas and greatly extend your budget, but of course it’s an option for those not travelling in a van/camper or with a tent!
Accommodation prices vary wildly, but you won’t struggle to find something for every budget in places like La Paz, San José del Cabo, Loreto, and Todos Santos. Smaller towns, such as Mulegé and Guerrero Negro, have far fewer options, but generally speaking, you can find a comfortable hotel room in just about every main town for an affordable price. Check Booking.com for the best deals ↯
The perfect Baja road trip itinerary
After my experience driving from Mexicali to the tip of Los Cabos in my van, I put together a super-detailed 1-3 month road trip itinerary through Baja that you can use as a blueprint for your own epic adventure!
Here’s a quick summary (north to south) of all my recommended stops, but be sure to check out my full itinerary for heaps of information on what to do, where to eat, and where to camp in each destination, plus practical information like the drive time/conditions between each stop and the location of military checkpoints.
Baja California (Norte)
- Guadalupe Canyon
- San Felipe
- Bahía de los Ángeles
Baja California Sur
- Guerrero Negro
- San Ignacio
- Bahía Concepción
- La Paz
- La Ventana & Ensenada de Muertos
- Cabo Pulmo National Park
- East Cape
- Los Cabos: San Jose del Cabo & Cabo San Lucas
- Todos Santos
Read more about Baja, Mexico
start here -> The ultimate road-tripper’s guide to Baja, Mexico