Baja Bound… Mexicali to Cabo 1511 Km

By Remy ( Photos by Liz )

Full of Christmas cheer (and food), with the batteries fully charged, water tank filled and toilet emptied, it was time for us to cross through to the other side of the looking glass. We could check another state off our list, for as soon as we crossed the river in Yuma we were into California. The landscape changed dramatically, becoming a land of huge sand dunes covered, like northern Alberta in the winter, with yahoos on their noisy machines carving trails up the pristine slopes. The highway parallels the border with Mexico, and we caught glimpses of “The Wall”, consisting of numberless steel poles lined up one beside the other for miles. They are close enough that a person cannot squeeze through, but still allow a view to the other side. We also saw the border patrol dragging sleds along the sandy shoulders of the highway, a cruel Zen garden designed to record the prints of illegal migrants as they cross northward through the desert. There are many legitimate Mexican workers in this area, trucked across the border every morning to work in the fields and then transported back at night, but these folks live in the area of the border and have homes to which they can return. Those from farther south (these days, Guatemala and Honduras) still make the desperate crossing through what is a deadly inhospitable desert in hopes of finding a better life in el norte. The border patrol tracks a lot of them down and ships them back, only for a lot of them to turn around and try again. And not surprisingly, a few never make it out of the desert. We realized, in hindsight, that we had been approached by a likely illegal immigrant when we were in Yuma. Don, Carol, Liz and I were in the car along the the river, on our way to a tourist site, when we were approached by a dusty young man who only asked for water. Unfortunately we had none to offer, and he turned and jogged off. He spoke only Spanish, and it wasn’t until later we connected the dots to realize that he wasn’t a field worker, considering where we were, and he wasn’t eager to hang around when it became apparent we didn’t have what he needed. We could only wish him luck, long after the fact.

US Customs and Border Patrol “Border patrol And Deportation Van” (the Badvan) – obviously, they have recognized the innate superiority of the Ford Transit, as do other discerning folks.

We had gotten an early start, because we anticipated some “bureaucracy” a the border, and we were not disappointed!

At the Mexicali border crossing. We were greeted by the typical Mexican shabbiness at the crossing, where our first stop was the office for the tourist visa. The building, with its broken pavements and free-hanging electrical fixtures, was open but appeared unoccupied, and Liz had to ask a cleaner to fetch an immigration officer. Meanwhile, I stuck with the van while a customs officer conducted a half-hearted search and then waved me on to the next station. Again, no one was around, and it wasn’t until I moved the traffic cones blocking the lane that another customs officer came out of another building. He was about to search again when I explained that this had already been done and that I needed a Temporary Vehicle Import Permit. he waved me one to a third building, distinctive for the line-up of people outside. While I was waiting, an official from this office came out and explained that we needed to provided copies of all the necessary paperwork ourselves. We were lacking a photocopy of our vehicle registration, so Liz had to hold my place in line while I went to the Immigration office and asked if they could make a copy for me. They could – for $5.00! For some reason, a single copy took almost 15 minutes to produce, and they apologized for tearing the original in half during the process. I returned to the Banjercito (the government bank where the TVIP would be issued) with my golden photocopy and after more waiting in line, was finally summoned to the counter. The servant on the other side was was quite civil, and satisfied with all the paperwork I produced. She proceeded to print off a ream of forms – on her copier/printer – and then had me attend the second building for a signature from the customs officer there. Then, back to her  counter where she then had to escort me to the Radvan to confirm the VIN and the existence of the vehicle. This raised a concern about the GVWR or its status as a recreational vehicle or something, which required another visit to the customs officer for yet another signature. Finally, we out return to the Banjercito where I could pay for the permit and put down a healthy deposit designed to ensure that we don’t leave the vehicle behind when we exit the country. Mexico is slowly entering the the 21st century and putting these processes online, so I was thankful to still have this authentic, three hour Mexican government bureaucratic experience before it disappears!

Highway 5, Baja California Norte! You can tell that this road was engineered later than the original Mexico 1, which runs from Tijuana to La Paz, because this road has a shoulder! The landscape in BCN is beautiful, if stark, and the state is quite sparsely populated. You learn to fuel up at every place you can, because it is never certain whether the next station will have fuel, or electricity to run the pumps, or is still in business.

In case it is not yet obvious, you are going to see a lot of this sort of thing! San Felipe was our first stop on the Sea of Cortez/Golfo de California  coast. It is populated with a kind of dirtbag that is new to us – the off-roader! Much like climbers and surfers, the off-road culture is distinct on the surface, but shares core values regarding dedication to chasing a particular environmentally sourced high. There are dirt bikes and side-by-sides everywhere! the town itself is a bit scrappy but surely comes to life every year when the Baja 1000 passes through, a sort of dirty gras.

Our first boondocking site in Mexico since 2009! We had this entire beach beside the harbour to ourselves. The weather was too cool to enjoy the water, however.

The mirador from the elevated pedestrian crosswalk that connects one end of the malecón to an abandoned nightclub and shrine that both overlook the town. There is a fair bit of hurricane damage in San Felipe, some of it dating back decades, that has never been repaired. We suspect the old nightclub falls into that category. It is surprising that there isn’t more gringo money developing this town, which isn’t that far from the border.

Mexico and its malecóns! San Felipe’s is quite nice, and only about four blocks long. 

You know you are in Mexico when you can buy broccoli out of the back of someone’s beat-up old car on the side of the road!

Mexico, we have found, is far more Covid-sensitive than the US of A, and there is a near-universal compliance with mask wearing. Not only that, many Mexicans wear a mask whenever they are out of their own house, even in open areas and often while driving. And they wear their masks properly, covering nose and mouth! Stores all demand masks to be worn and hand sanitization at the door, and in larger stores (like this grocery) they take your temperature. Most people present their wrist, but I insist on doing it as i was trained!

Our first pollo asado dinner! In Mexico they feed chickens marigolds, which turns the flesh yellow like this. It is actually a bit disconcerting to find chicken in the large grocery chains here that isn’t yellow. It’s more fun to decorate your food!

On our way to our second boon docking site we had to cross this salt flat between the highway and the coast. We found out from a long-term visitor that this are used to be a narco landing strip where they would load planes to fly across the border, until the government came and ploughed trenches to prevent this.

Some beach-inspired photo art by Liz. The sea life in in the Sea of Cortez is amazingly prolific, and the shell fish are beautiful in their variety. Little wonder that this body of water gave Jacques Cousteau such a chubby!

Another forager’s delight! I discovered that chocolate clams, a Baja speciality, abound in the area where we were camped, and so dinner included a pot of steamed shellfish. I discovered that they can be rather sandy, however, and the sound of me crunching through them turned Liz off this locally sourced delicacy. Some more research may be required on how to prepare them

The shell collecting on the beaches here is fantastic, and Liz’ workout this morning consisted of a thousand squats in the hot sun while crafting this New Year’s wish. Best of 2022 to everyone!
There are other ways to enjoy the water when it is cool outside, and the best of those is a hot spring! Here we are in the village (which is a generous description) of Puertocitos, making human soup  with a group of strangers in the pools of steaming water that flow from the rocks and into the sea. The water was initially too hot for even Liz, and we actually scalded ourselves from the knees down. But as the tide rose, the temperature of the water dropped to where we could actually immerse ourselves.

The hot springs are the main draw in Puertocitos, and the locals who control the area charge 500 MXP per vehicle (approximately 30 CAD) for a day pass. If you pay 600 pesos, you can stay for the night in their campground, which Liz has made look beautiful through her photographic artistry. This was actually a rare sunny period in what ended up being a rainy stay. The only running water was attached to the toilets, and otherwise you had to carry water to the showers and wash dishes using the small tanks at each site. The palaces were in poor shape and most of the houses in the village appeared to be abandoned. The local gas station and grocery stores were all closed down. It would appear that the exorbitant (by Mexican standards) entry fees are not staying in town!

After traveling Mexico 5 to where it joined Mexico 1, we were now on the Pacific side of the peninsula. We found ourselves in Santa Rosalita, which is even scrappier than San Felipe, and this church is the nicest building in town!

Santa Rosalita in black and white. Dirt roads, cows, horses, chickens and fishing boats. The power was out when we first arrived so we expected a quiet New Year’s Eve, but it was restored a while later and we were treated to the usual Mexican holiday decoration aesthetic – lots of brightly flashing lights! And of course, a lack of electricity does not prevent that other medium of Mexican celebration – fireworks! The evening was punctuated by what sounded like incoming artillery, and at midnight (yes, after we had gone to bed) an extravaganza of Roman candles and bottle rockets right beside our van on the beach where we were parked.

Another roadside scene typical of the drive down the Baja – saguaro forests! We would be interested to know more about the ecology of the desert here, that it can support such giant creatures in such a dusty, rocky environment.

If you are traveling in Mexico, then you are going to encounter military checkpoints. Usually, a few perfunctory questions (“Where are you from? Where are you going?”) and you are on your way. Today, though, we either got the new guy or the bored guy, who actually conducted a search of the vehicle. We have to learn to start hanging Liz’ panties out in the open again to either shorten the search due to embarrassment  or at least give the poor fellows something to look at.

The second place that we paid to camp was in San Ignacio, which is located partway across what will be a few crossings of the peninsula. It is an old mission town at an oasis where the Spanish tried to teach the indigenous people to farm before killing most of them off through introduced diseases. 200 MXP (about 12 CAD) got us a spot along the lagoon and a warm shower, which is a luxury in the cool weather we have been experiencing so far in Mexico!

One of the nice things about staying in a campground is meeting other people who are making the journey in different ways. In San Ignacio we connected with Dave (centre) who is doing his own Baja 1000 on a fat tire mountain bike. Buddy (right) is overlanding in his Honda Element with a roof top tent, which is how he has fun in the off-season when he isn’t working at an Antarctic research station. Once again, Liz and I feel like a princess/prince! We were all equally cold in this photo, however. We treated them both to a hot breakfast and coffee the next morning to which they were both extremely appreciative.

The landscape in Baja is stunning and rivals driving through the mountains at home, in its own way. It is also quite challenging, as the road is very narrow, windy, and often covered in fallen rock (or farm animals). It is definitely two-hands-on-the-wheel driving, and a comfortable average speed is about 80 km/h, although we are frequently being passed by both locals and gringos, often on a solid yellow centreline, uphill, on a blind corner. I am usually ready for a stiff drink at the end of an exhausting driving day!

More of the same, but different. Baja really is a frontier region, which is a bit of a rarity in North America. From a distance the land looks hard and uninviting, but anything that is done to it lasts for years, like the surface of the moon. When you look closely, there is evidence (usually trash) of human passage everywhere.

View of the river in Mulegé, which is an honest to goodness oasis. The water springs from the ground and flows to the sea, supporting some date farming and what is becoming a popular snowbird destination. It was a welcome’s break from the harshness of the desert.

An unusual, but not atypical, bit of architecture. It is apparently easier to build around something and deal with the consequences later when it reaches the end of its lifecycle. This is alien to the thinking of us norteños, but in this case the laugh is on us as this house was abandoned so the palm tree outlived the building.

While Mexican beer is cheap and plentiful, sometimes you have to spring for gringo prices and have a pint of IPA. It helped that they had fairly good wifi internet and we could re-stock on Netflix downloads.

On Bahía Concepción, one of the most beautiful parts of the Baja. You can just make out the Radvan parked on the Playa Ecomundo, which is one of the thousands of partly finished and then abandoned projects we have encountered along the peninsula. Periodic hurricanes will wipe out great swaths of infrastructure, for which there is apparently no political will or money to rebuild. This one made for a great boon docking site, however!

Bahía Concepción is a great kayaking site as the seas are generally calm and there are great skinny dipping opportunities on the dozens of islands and beaches to explore, so we did! Of course, I had to spend most of the day looking around the rippling musculature of Liz’ back.

Still on Bahía Concepción at Playa El Requeson, which is joined at low tide to a nearby island by this sandy isthmus. This is easily one of the most beautiful places we have stayed, so far. Another camper had a drone and promised to send some photos of the Radvan but unfortunately they haven’t arrived in time for this blog! 

The water here is exceptionally clear and the perfect temperature for bathing! It is only the refractory properties of water that are making Liz’ feet look so huge in this photo

Our camp site at Playa El Requeson – a great spot to do some yoga or have a workout and then a dip in the crystal-clear waters!

With Bahía Concepción behind us, we will be entering the “populated” portion of Baja California. The highway will take us up over the mountains to the Pacific coast one more time and then back over to La Paz and the Cape region. There have been no large resort areas full of sunburned, drunken gringos trying to pack as much decadence as they can into their week-long package holidays. Instead, tourism north of the Cape is characterized by adventurism – everyone seems to drive a jacked-up, 4 X 4 something, festooned with some combination of surfboards, kayaks, mountain bikes and off-road motorcycles. It is fun to be amongst these dedicated adrenaline junkies. Like Bali, Haida Gwaii and Newfoundland, Baja is singular, an edge-of-the-world place that attracts people who are seeking themselves by whatever means attracts them. Having challenges like finding fuel and water and living in the midst of such a harsh environment is what has always drawn such seekers and it has already left its mark on us. But we will be happy to see the Costco in Cabo San Lucas and visit Liz’s friend, Michelle Slade, who packed up her life in Calgary and moved to Cabo three years ago. A kindred spirit!


Published by tompkinsontheroad

Married mother of two awesome boys who is now living full time in a self converted Camper van and seeing more of the world. We gave up something super special to live our dream of living a free and simple life on the road exploring new places and taking joy in the discovery of the extraordinary

4 thoughts on “Baja Bound… Mexicali to Cabo 1511 Km

  1. Love your posts. Glad to see you made it to your old stompin grounds! Submerse the clams in successive fresh water pots over a day/night…they’ll spit out the sand, then gourmet and no crunching 🙂 Ryan


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