Driving Baja California
Driving down Baja California, Mexico is one of those things that everyone should do at least once in their lifetime. The desert scenery is nothing short of spectacular, complete with winding mountain roads with panoramic views of emerald seas and every palm, rock formation, and desert vista the mind’s eye can envision. Most importantly, one gets that feeling of pure freedom that comes from being on a road trip in one of the world’s great wide-open spaces.
With the trip fresh in my mind, I thought I would create this post to let folks know what to expect, how to prepare, and some tips for your driving trip down the peninsula of Baja California including driving distances, road conditions, hotel recommendations, itineraries, tips, etc.
The good news is that the drive is beautiful (well, most of it anyhow), cheap (with the exception of two short toll roads between Tijuana and Ensenada there are at present no other tolls to pay) and you don’t need to deal with the headache of a car permit to drive your foreign plated vehicle down Baja like you do elsewhere in Mexico (though it would be very, very wise to get Mexican car insurance).
Is Baja California safe?
With all the bad news coming out of Mexico these days, many might wonder if driving Baja California is safe. The simple answer is YES – it is completely safe from the threat of drug violence and narcos. Even Tijuana has calmed down considerably.
While it’s quite safe in this sense, Baja has more than it’s fair share of the old fashioned type of dangers such as driving off a cliff or crossing paths with a wandering cow at 70 miles per hour – the road can be challenging and is not designed for timid drivers.
Road Conditions in Baja California
Probably the first thing one should know is that virtually the entire 1,060 mile trip from Tijuana (or Tecate or Mexicali) to Los Cabos or back is two lane highway with all of the typical headaches – passing in oncoming traffic, trucks throwing up rocks into your windshield, etc. – but add to that the whole host of typical Mexican freeway headaches such as killer speed bumps that seem to pop out of nowhere, mountains with blind curves, cows wandering out on the road, giant potholes, non-existent shoulders, road construction without proper planning for through traffic, etc.
I actually got my car stuck on the highway - that's right, stuck. There was no pavement, only loose dirt and traffic was moving along at a brisk 5 mph and boom... I got stuck on the highway - a true first.
Baja California’s Trans-Peninsular Highway was completed back in 1973. While B.C.S. seems to be serious about improving road conditions, it would seem much of the highway in the north hasn’t been upgraded since it was built.
As of 2011, the quality of the highway ranges from excellent to shit on a stick. Some stretches of road are divine (including much of Baja California Sur and the great stretch from Ensenada to Tijuana). Other sections are so bad that if your car isn’t made to handle off-roading, you run the risk of damaging your car - particularly several bits along the stretch between Guerrero Negro and El Rosario, most of which is just God-awful.
However, if you’re alert, have a well-maintained vehicle that can handle rough roads and you take it slow and go with the flow, it can be a great trip – a magical trip – and it’s pretty much impossible to get lost (well, except in Tijuana).
Tijuana – Ensenada
You’ll be driving on some very nice toll roads through geography that’s almost indistinguishable from Southern California in places. Once you get south of Tijuana, you’ll notice how Californiafied the developments start to become. If you want some Pacific coast real estate but can’t afford Malibu, this is where you should look. California and Mexico blur to the point indistinguishability. Playas de Rosarito is a great little beach town in between the two and there are lots of other great little surprises such as look-out points and beaches along the way. Except when navigating Tijuana, which isn’t the most elegantly designed city in the world, you’ll feel like you've still got one foot in Gringolandia.
Tips and Comments for Driving in Baja California
Returning to the U.S. from Tijuana can take a few hours of sitting and waiting. You might want to head over to Tecate which is the most laid back spot to cross.
Distances take much longer than they seem on the map. While 200 miles might not seem like a lot by U.S. standards, bear in mind when in Baja we’re talking Baja miles. While in the U.S. 200 miles would probably take 3 hours, in Baja it could take 6 more.
Plan on a three or even a four-day trip each way because of the obstacles, road conditions, and other Baja delights.
Much of the scenery is spectacular and, especially in Baja California Sur, is full of hidden surprises (of the good type) but make sure you don’t try to take it too fast and burn out your brakes – a serious problem with all the curves, dips, and valleys.
It’s all freeway, no pricey toll roads in Baja, which means both that it’s one of the most economical stretches of road in Mexico, but also that the roads are not nearly as consistently good as a typical Mexican toll so expect some bad stretches of road.
Expect winding roads with blind curves, hills and valleys, and virtually no shoulders - hence, little room for error.
The highways are virtually empty. You can literally go an hour or more without seeing another traveler and when you do, it’s usually a line of cars backed up on a twisty mountain road because they can’t get passed the tanker truck at the front of the line.
Gas up every chance you get. There is nothing – and I do mean nothing – for very long stretches so don’t expect a gas station and a Super 8 every 30 miles.
Don’t even think of driving at night. Really, don't even attempt it.
Your car will take some punishment. Last time I went they had portions of the entire road dug up – not portions as in a lane, but portions as in long stretches where the entire road was reduced to rock and dirt kicking up dust for miles and miles making it impossible to go faster than about 5 mph – you had to guess where to drive.
Livestock wanders onto the road. Apparently, Mexican cows haven’t yet learned the dangers of wandering onto the highway uninvited and (if you speak Spanish) you might hear the guys at the checkpoints talking about the latest cowicide.
You never know what’s around the next curve – a cow, a car stopped in the middle of the highway, a speed bump, a rough patch of road, rocks or other debris in the road, a guy walking, a kid on a bike, a truck barreling down at you in your lane, so… take it slow.
Be careful when going through any populated area, no matter if that population is no more than a single dwelling. It’s here where you’ll find those steep and unexpected axle breaking speed bumps.
Ensenada, La Paz, and Loreto are all proper tourist destinations and San Quentin is pretty sizable, while El Rosario, Mulgue, San Angel are really one-horse towns so don’t expect much in the way of options.
The roads in Baja California Sur are more beautiful and much better than the roads in Baja California. Though the road just north of La Paz is a bit challenging due to many dips and turns, BCS roads are mostly smooth and the bits that aren’t usually show evidence that someone is working on them so that in the near future they will be. Baja California Sur is definitely the highlight of the trip.
When traveling north, there are a lot of military check points. I think I passed through about half a dozen. Don't worry, they just ask you a few questions, make sure you're not packing 100 pounds of pot, and send you on your way. Nothing to fear.
If you're looking to do the full monty so to speak... all the way to Los Cabos, here is my suggestion:
Tijuana to El Rosario - Stop at Baja Cactus hotel which is a lot of hotel for $350 pesos – internet, hot water, comfortable beds. Next door to Pemex. Not one of our hotels, but one must give credit where credit is due.
El Rosario to Loreto – Loreto was an unexpected treat. Head to the Mission Hotel on the malecón and treat yourself to an ocean view room. Great rooms, perfect location. If you have a car loaded down with stuff, you can park in the secure back lot.
Loreto to Los Cabos (or La Paz) – don’t pass up La Paz. It’s a great little town that is too often overlooked.
Note: All distances are displayed in miles. Highway 1 is the highway serving the destination unless otherwise noted.
|33||40||Tecate (Highways 2 & 3)|
|71||56||72||Ensenada (Highways 1 & 3)|
|90||127||90||162||Mexicali (Highways 2 & 5)|
|164||237||201||152||121||*||San Felipe (Highway 5) * Depends on the route|
|405||393||409||337||499||285||*||221||184||108||43||Bahía de los Angeles (Highway 12)|
|1039||1027||1043||971||1133||919||*||855||818||742||677||720||596||506||460||421||336||261||245||113||68||48||San José del Cabo|
|1059||1047||1063||991||1153||939||*||875||838||762||697||740||616||526||480||441||356||281||265||133||48||68||20||Cabo San Lucas|