Vanlife diaries #39: Mexicali border crossing to Guadalupe Canyon & San Felipe, Baja Mexico
After weeks of intensive preparation, we crossed the border into Mexico this week and spent a magical few days exploring the northern section of Baja California, slowly heading south from Mexicali to San Felipe.
It’s safe to say we’ve been suitably impressed by the wild beauty of the peninsula, the abundance of scenic camping, and (of course) the tacos— Baja may just be our grandest adventure yet.
What we’ve been up to this week
Calexico, CA to Mexicali, Baja California
Those who read through the monumental mess of regulations, loopholes, special requirements, and logistics described in my last post will particularly appreciate the mixed anxiety and anticipation we felt as we drove to Calexico on Thursday morning and prepared to cross the US-Mexico border into Mexicali.
Surprisingly and much to my delight, we could hardly have hoped for a smoother experience at the border.
In fact, we were so caught off guard upon arrival to the literally empty southbound border (not a single car in front of us) that we passed through customs before we’d hardly even realised what was happening.
Approaching the “nothing to declare” line and receiving a “green light” to pass through with minimal inspection, the officer stepped into our van for a grand total of 30 seconds, looked under our pillows (??), and then waved us through with a cordial “it’s ok”. She didn’t even ask for our passports!
The whole process was so simple that, despite all my preparation and KNOWING that we needed to get our tourist card (FMM) and Temporary Import Permit (TIP) at the border PRIOR to entering Mexico, we soon found ourselves past both offices, wondering where on earth we we’d gone wrong.
Watch our entire border crossing experience, saved as a story highlight on my Instagram page.
I’d learned during my earlier research that no one would be checking our FMM or TIP at the border (and apparently not our passports, either), hence how so many travellers accidentally find themselves “illegally” in Mexico— which causes massive problems when crossing back into the US or, in our case, when boarding the ferry to mainland Mexico.
At that stage, our only option would be to make the 18hr drive back to the border to get the FMM, so you can understand our alarm when I looked at Google Maps and discovered the permit office several hundred metres behind us. Even if we hadn’t made it to La Paz without the FMM, I feared we’d be forced to cross back into the US (threw a truly massive line) and then re-enter Mexico after visiting the proper office.
Flinging myself from the van in a flurry and attempting some broken Spanish with the Mexican military, Dan reversed us back and, with the help of a very kind border employee who waved us through the gate, we were finally in the right spot. Crisis averted!
Getting our FMM tourist card validated was a total breeze, but we ran back and forth between the Banjercito and permit offices in an attempt to get our van classified as a motorhome— essential for circumventing the weight restriction that would otherwise prevent us from entering.
The fact that our van is registered as a commercial cargo vehicle in the US was no help (a special thank you to the Washington DOL employee who assured us this would “never affect us” when she processed our registration earlier this year, despite our insistence that we are NOT a commercial vehicle)— but after showing our interior to several officers and insisting that it is como una casa rodante (like a motorhome) with a bed, toilet, fridge, cooktop, and running water… we FINALLY secured our import permit. We’d made it!
Mexicali, Baja California
Dan and I could hardly believe how well everything had gone, grinning excitedly as we drove off into downtown Mexicali, wide-eyed at the feeling of driving our van through a new country and overwhlemed by the infinite possibilities stretched before us.
Stocked to the gills, we stopped only at a roadside taco stand for some of the best tacos I’ve ever had in my life— carne asana, al pastor, and pollo grilled right in front of us and topped with an extensive selection of veggies and salsa for 25 pesos ($1) each. Tacos Cesar didn’t have a single review online, but such is the charm of Mexico.
Being the food-enthusiasts that we are, both Dan and I were genuinely stoked with our first meal (and he finally admitted that he’d doubted my earlier claims about getting tacos this cheap in Baja during my last trip). Already, we were hungry for the hundreds of tacos we’ll be eating over the next several months!
Guadalupe Canyon, Baja California
With full bellies and a to-go order of tacos and fresh salsa waiting in the fridge for dinner, we set off to our first destination in Mexico: Guadalupe Canyon Oasis, a remote palm-fringed paradise sheltering natural mineral hot springs below a rocky peak of the same name. And we had a private pool, El Sol, reserved for the night!
The route to get out to the canyon had been a cause of minor concern, following the highway some distance out of the city before turning onto a dry lake bed and finally winding along an increasingly rocky road to the heart of the canyon, which had damaged plenty of vehicles over the years.
Many reports online warned of sand traps, enormous rocks that would high-centre your vehicle in seconds, and even washboard road poor enough to bust someone’s shocks— as I’m writing this, it seems questionable that we’d attempt it.
But we were keen to try it out, assured it would be worth all the effort if we could only arrive in one piece to our final destination.
The first section of the drive was incredibly smooth and actually quite fun, mostly spent marvelling at the salty expanse of white sand and the approaching mountains as Dan whizzed along the hard-packed tracks like some escaped madman.
Once we turned off Laguna Salada and onto the access road to Guadalupe Canyon, we were struck by the rockpiles and scattered cactus, extremely reminiscent of southern Joshua Tree— and nearly drove through a section of alarmingly deep sand in our preoccupation with taking photos.
We took this is a clear warning that NOW was the time to air down our tires, which thankfully made the remainder of the sandy road entirely passable in our heavy 2WD van (much credit to our All-Terrain tires, still).
Things had been going so well up until this point that we weren’t even overly concerned when the road became rockier (as promised), sending drawers open, shaking our ristra within an inch of its life, but amazingly still possible in our trusty Promaster.
When we arrived to the gates of Guadalupe Canyon Oasis, we made our first mistake— driving down the worst section of rocky road all the way to the office.
I still can’t believe we survived the drive, bottoming out for the first time ever, our tires shrieking as they struggled to find purchase up an impossibly steep rockpile, all while confined to one of the narrowest, windiest roads I’ve ever seen (truly, I would not even ride a bike on this road).
But when we did finally hop out, breathless and shaken, to chat to the young man whose family owns the camp, I felt the colour drain from my face as he gestured Si, El Sol and pointed slowly back across the canyon.
Neither Dan nor I could muster a reply in English OR Spanish at this point, so we just stared into the distance, mouths agape, and inwardly wept with the knowledge that we did this terrible, terrible drive for no reason. Our hot spring was on the opposite side of the canyon, right (not left) from the junction.
We’d nearly broken ourselves to make it here, and now it was time to do it all over again.
The return drive was little improvement over our initial journey, but conditions were marginally better on the opposite of the canyon (though still terrible).
Unsurprisingly, there was precious little conversation in the van during the drive, Dan calling upon an unfathomable amount of focus and energy to navigate us over this mess of a “path” (I certainly won’t call it a road) and me clinging to our agave plant while questioning whether any hot spring could be worth this.
And just when we couldn’t imagine a worse road, we were led to the entry to our campsite. There was just no way our van (or even a 4WD van, and maybe not even a 4WD truck in less experienced hands) could get up this narrow, steep, rock-littered driveway.
Dan took a single run at it, but at the sound of our van running so hot she sounded close to explosion and some rather alarmingly tire-spinning, we looked to the young man for something, anything, else.
When he conceded that we could camp in the palms just below the brutal slope, a mere 20m from our hot spring pool and actually much flatter, I could’ve cried in relief— and screamed in frustration that it wasn’t listed among our options in the first instance. When we’d looked pleadingly and asked podemos manejar allí in este van?, we were met with a resounding yes; and when Dan asked for otras opciones, nothing at all. Where was this parking spot 30min ago?!
Another half-hour was consumed just backing our van down the campsite rockpile without knocking into the palm trees or ill-positioned rocks, but FINALLY we settled into a flat spot below our pool, threw on suits, and headed about 10sec away to the water for what I can only describe as the most hard-earned soak of all time.
In that stone mineral pool overlooking the entire canyon, sheltered against the sight or sound of a single other human, the stress of our drive (the border crossing, and the last several weeks of frantic preparation) just melted away. Indeed, it HAD all been worth it.
We’d learned a few lessons the hard way, but we were here in Mexico. We were fine. And we were at the start of something truly amazing.
We spent the following morning soaking in our little private hot spring until 12pm on the dot, then enjoyed a hot shower before driving back to the junction, where we parked and set out on a hike into Guadalupe Canyon to explore the rocks, cactus, and waterfalls.
Although the closest pools were completely dry, we were stunned by the quiet beauty of the desert and this magical, frond-filled oasis. If only we weren’t chasing daylight, we’d certainly stay longer to explore!
Driving out of the canyon that afternoon with scarcely any idea of where to camp, a large overlanding vehicle in front of us (that we’d actually seen in New Mexico a few weeks ago) stopped and the driver ran back to chat— which is how we ended up camped just off the dry lakebed next to the lovely Jesse & Jason and their gorgeous kitty, Moonchi.
As we’d soon learn (but thankfully not today), they weren’t wrong about the advantages of camping near other travellers for safety, particularly when boondocking in Mexico.
We checked out their massive overlanding rig (@slowroamer), chattered excitedly outside for about half an hour (and could’ve much longer, if not for the fact that it gets dark at 5pm), then retired to our van to cook dinner and pass out early in anticipation of my morning dental appointment back in Mexicali the following morning.
All went smooth on the return drive to Mexicali, as did my 5 fillings (for a whopping $200!), and before midday we were at yet another fantastic roadside taco stand, gorging ourselves on carne asada in anticipation of our drive south to the beachfront town of San Felipe.
San Felipe, Baja California
Despite reports that it might be busy on the weekends or a bit of a party destination, San Felipe’s colourful streets and sparkling Malecon were alarmingly quiet, beautiful but far more relaxed than we’d anticipated.
This would prove a common trend, a combination of being here just before the christmas rush and the post-covid dry spell that’s plagued tourist destinations around the world.
Our first stop was to San Felipe Brewing Co, where we sampled an alarming variety of surprisingly good beer, and then into town to walk the Malecon at dusk (only after confirming with a few expats that it was safe to drive around at night).
We enjoyed an incredible seafood dinner for $9 total, strolled through the plentiful stalls admiring woven blankets and other handicrafts, and then drove back to San Felipe Brewing Co to camp (with prior permission) out front for free.
Despite concerns that we’d be blowing through our budget on expensive campsites and RV parks every night, we were delighted by the free options we’d already discovered in Baja— and there were so many still to come!
Where we stayed this week
So much happened in the few days after we crossed the border into Mexico that these events needed their own post! To hear more about Bahía de los Ángeles, which we visited at the end of the week and into the following week, be sure to check out the next post (Week 40).
- Guadalupe Canyon Hot Springs, BN ($59 with discount; 2 Dec)
- Boondocking at Laguna Salada between Guadalupe Canyon & Mexicali, BN (free; 3 Dec)
- Camping with permission out front of San Felipe Brewing Co., BN (free; 4 Dec)
- Boondocking at Playa La Gringa in Bahia de los Angeles, BN (free; 5 Dec)