Baja California evokes a rugged, wild west kind of adventure. Stretching some 760 miles south from the US border, this Mexican peninsula is a land of compelling contrasts — a dry, mostly desert geography with hidden enclaves of lush vineyards, jagged mountains and solemn cactus forests bordered by crystalline waters and wide sandy beaches.
Baja is at once a sparsely-populated no man’s land, and home to thousands of species of marine life and millions of vacationing tourists. Here's what you need to know for the ultimate Baja California road trip.
The Free and Sovereign State of Baja California
Estado Libre y Soberano de Baja California, the aptly grandiose official name of Baja’s northern state.
Removed from the Mexican mainland, Baja California has evolved its own distinct aesthetic and culture. From low-key towns with just the right amount of civilization to unmarked dusty roads awaiting exploration, Baja has a charm that keeps those who know coming back for more.
The peninsula is divided into two states: Baja California in the north and Baja California Sur below the 28th parallel.
The infamous border town has finally grown into its own. A growing middle-class and burgeoning cultural scene has helped turn this former hedonism destination into a Mexican city with its own identity.
With an international airport, a solid bus system and many rental car options – along with its proximity to major US cities like San Diego and Los Angeles – Tijuana is the most convenient starting point for a Baja adventure.
But first, take a moment to get to know TJ (its local nickname). Stroll down Av Revolucion for Mexican nightlife options like Las Pulgas, sample local craft beers at Norte Brewing Co, and perhaps most importantly, chow down on spicy tacos or fresh seafood at one of the city’s many street vendors. Beyond the tourist trinkets and margarita-callers near the border, Tijuana has a vibrant food and culture scene worth exploring.
Expert tip: If you have some extra time, take a quick cab ride out to Playas de Tijuana. This beach suburb offers a lively local experience, with family picnics, seafood cocktails, and a close-up view of the US-Mexico border wall as it trails off in the Pacific.
Once you’ve given Tijuana a go, turn your attention south. Baja awaits.
A 2-hour drive down the Pacific coast you’ll find Ensenada. A major port town and vacation destination, Baja California’s third-biggest city is a good example of the state’s varied character. Arriving in town you feel the transition – from the border region’s hectic and often hard urban life, to a more relaxed Mexico.
Ensenada has an impressive waterfront promenade (malecón in Spanish), a serious fishing and seafood scene, and a lively nightlife. Pass by Hussong’s, a cantina that’s been around since the 1890s, for mariachi. For freshly-caught seafood, stroll through the Mercado Negro fish market, or head a few streets off the main strip to Tacos Don Zefe for tasty fish tacos.
Expert tip: Ensenada is a great home base from which to access Mexico’s biggest winemaking region. Valle de Guadalupe is a lush valley and wine-tasting hot-spot. There’s a growing selection of vineyards at affordable prices and tours can be easily booked from Ensenada.
The Road South – Baja California Sur
After Ensenada, Baja California’s remote and unsettled side begins to show itself. And it’s where most travelers must make choice – how to get south?
If traveling by car, the famous one-lane Highway 1 is a spectacular winding road with epic views. It can be slow-going and there are stretches of hundreds of miles with nothing but stoic cacti, tiny fishing villages and empty coastline. Leave early and plan your fuel stops carefully.
The bus system works quite well, with many options leaving from Tijuana or Ensenada. Travel times to Baja Sur range from 10-20 hours depending on your destination.
Expert tip: At about the halfway point of the peninsula, there are worthwhile stops like San Ignacio for its lovely lagoon and world-class whale watching; Mulegé for a lush oasis and white sand beaches; and Loreto for a time-machine colonial town.
The capital of Baja Sur, La Paz, like Ensenada, is an example of a major city that has maintained its smaller-town Baja feel.
With a charming malecón and a seafside main strip, La Paz is a relaxing vacation alternative to uber-touristy Cabo San Lucas. La Paz is the launching pad for Isla Espiritu Santo, one of the 244 islands that form a Unesco biosphere reserve famous for its overwhelming selection of marine life (French explorer Jacques Cousteau called the Sea of Cortez “the world’s aquarium”).
Expert tip: La Paz is also an ideal location for day trips, with windsurfing mecca Los Barilles and many secluded beaches within a 1 to 2-hour drive.
Imagine a mix of sleepy Mexican village and chic Southern California boutique hotel, where dusty roads and charming cobblestone share the same block. Sprinkle some yoga studios and art galleries, with beat-up pickup trucks off-roading on deserted beaches – and you begin to get a picture of Todos Santos.
The latest destination for well-off artsy types, Todos Santos is part manicured tourist town, part rustic Baja escape. Deemed a Pueblo Mágico (magical town) by the Mexican government Todos Santos, despite intense gentrification, manages to blend high-end options with a laid-back vibe.
People who love it, love it a lot. You’ll find many Americans living here full-time or coming down for the season. There’s no shortage of pricier hotels and restaurants, with kale smoothies readily available.
Budget travelers generally have a hard time in Todos, but a family-run hostel has finally opened up, with Todos Santos Hostel offering dorms and cozy glamping options in a relaxed surfer/artist atmosphere. For quality pub fare and friendly locals, check out Chill N’ Grill where you’ll always find an ex-pat ready to gush over Todos Santos’ charm.
For those looking for a truly amazing experience check out Todos Santos Eco Adventures . Owned and operated by husband and wife duo Sergio & Brian you can find all your sustainable adventure needs in one place. They can take you to a remote island for glamping where you can sleep under the stars by night and paddle board with sea turtles by day. They can take you birding and whale watching and basically help you enjoy the Baja in all its natural glory in an intimate, friendly and sustainable way. Plus the food is amazing too.
Expert tip: About 15 minutes down the main road you’ll find San Pedrito and Los Cerritos beach, well-known surf destinations in a picturesque yet raw Pacific setting.
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This article was originally published in May 2019 and updated in October in 2020.