Justin and I went on a Baja road trip with our intrepid friends and their two kids a while back. We swam with whale sharks, cooked clams we found on the beach and drank incredible wine. It was one of our most inexpensive vacations but also one of the most memorable.
Baja’s roads are rugged, so it’s best to drive a four-wheel drive vehicle. You can go miles and miles without seeing much of anything. Make sure your car is reliable and that you have plenty of food and water. Here’s where we went on our Baja road trip.
Travelproper tip: You should buy auto insurance before you go into Mexico. We’ve used Baja Bound in the past.
Leave San Diego early so you can make it to your first stop, a historic winery around three and a half hours south, for lunch. On the way, make sure to stop at the viewpoint in El Mirador just past Rosarito. It offers a spectacular view of the Pacific Ocean and the Baja coastline. Bodegas Santo Tomás is located just off Highway 1 in the verdant valley of Santo Tomás. Founded in 1888, it’s considered the oldest winery in Baja (some of its vines are over 80 years old). Wines to try include an inky Syrah and a crisp Chardonnay. Bodegas Santo Tomás also has tasting rooms in Valle de Guadalupe and Ensenada, but you’re aiming for the original winery and tasting room. The winery also makes excellent olive oil. There are tables outside where you can enjoy a picnic lunch. Bring your own or pickup up cheese, bread and a bottle of wine of course in the tasting room
Continue another two and a half hours south on the 1 until you get to the historic town of El Rosario. Check into the Baja Cactus (+52 1 616 165 8850, Km. 55, Carr. Transpeninsular, 22390 El Rosario). The hotel offers 20 guestrooms with wood beamed ceilings. Credit cards are accepted, a rarity in Baja. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to make a reservation beforehand. My friend, who travels to Baja often, says ask for one of the recently renovated rooms. The town has a great restaurant called Mama Espinoza‘s (+52 616 165 8770 Carretera Transpeninsular Km 56, Poblado del Rosario, 22960 El Rosario de Arriba) walking distance from the hotel. You can nosh on crab enchiladas or a whole Baja lobster before turning in for the night.
Travelproper tip: Gas stations in Baja can be scarce. In some cases, you may be getting gas from the tailgate of a local’s truck. The owner of Baja Cactus also has a Pemex station, so be sure to fill up here.
Another option is to drive another hour and a half south on the 1 and camp at Rancho Santa Innes RV Park. It’s past the giant boulders and petroglyphs in Cataviña. You can tent camp or park a big rig in the hard packed dirt field with trees for shade. Justin and I brought a tent, but we ended up feeling safer sleeping on an air mattress in the back of our Durango. We thought we heard coyotes.
Your next stop should be the fishing village Bahia de Los Angeles on the Sea of Cortez. Located two hours south-east of Cataviña, the island-speckled bay is filled with crystal-blue water. Jacques Cousteau reportedly called the Sea of Cortez “the World’s Aquarium” and LA Bay is teaming with sea life including sea lions, manta rays and whale sharks. Stay at least two nights at Daggett’s Beach Camping & Sportfishing. It has nice campsites with rustic palapas right on the water. There are also air-conditioned casitas for those who prefer not to camp (email email@example.com for rates and availability).
The owners can arrange for a boat charter so you can go fishing in the bay, explore the islands and even swim with whale sharks. The white-spotted sharks, which take up residence in the bay from August until November, are harmless. Your guide may encourage you to grab onto their fin as they swim, although this was something I wasn’t comfortable with. I believe in keeping a safe distance from wild animals.
There’s an excellent taco shop in Bahia de Los Angeles called La Palapa. Fresh fish is fried to order and served atop a white corn tortilla with chopped cucumber, tomatoes and onion. It’s the first taqueria on the right after you go around the roundabout with the white sail sculpture as you come into town on the Boulevard de Los Angeles. For more on where to eat fish tacos in Baja, check out this story I wrote for Bon Appétit here.
Travelproper tip: In Bahia de Los Angeles, locals make their living from the sea and they’re very proud and protective of their way of life. It’s a good idea to be respectful.
It’s another four hours south on Highway 1 to San Ignacio, a picturesque town with more date palms then residents. After driving through Baja’s arid terrain, you’ll feel as if you’re seeing a mirage when you see the palm oasis before you. The colonial town has a large central square and an ornate mission founded in 1728. We stayed at Ignacio Springs (+52 615 154 0333, Poniente 7 77, 23930 San Ignacio), a quirky bed and breakfast where the majority of accommodations are in yurts. The b&b is located on the San Ignacio river. Make sure to rent kayaks. You’ll feel like you’re in Costa Rica as you paddle along the palm tree-lined river. San Ignacio is a particularly popular destination in the winter and spring when gray whales linger in the warm water. You could easily stay in San Ignacio for two or three nights.
It takes just an hour to get from San Ignacio to Santa Rosalia on the Sea of Cortez. The industrial port city is worth visiting for its French-influenced architecture. The town was founded by the French company El Boleo in 1884. They founded the El Boleo Mine and exploited the town’s copper-cobalt-zinc-manganese ore deposits until the 1950s. The town’s church, Iglesia Santa Barbara, is believed to have been designed by Gustav Eiffel, the same architect as the Eiffel Tower. There’s an excellent fish taco stand that sets up shop each day near the corner of Alvaro Obregon and Playa called Marisco’s Pepe. The bakery Panaderia El Boleo (+52 615 152 0310, Álvaro Obregón, Centro, 23920 Santa Rosalía) serves Mexican pastries and French baguettes. I recommend visiting for the day before returning to San Ignacio for the night.
Getting to Alejandro’s, a crescent-shaped bay known for its right point break, is an adventure. You will definitely need a four wheel drive vehicle to make it on the bumpy dirt road that leads you to the beach on the Pacific Ocean (directions below). It’s beautiful and a wonderful place to camp even if you’re not a surfer. You can dig for chocolate clams and take in the vivid sunsets. There are several shacks on a bluff overlooking the beach that surfers and campers can rent for about $5 a night. It takes three to four hours to get to from San Ignacio to Alejandro’s.
From Highway 1, take the Santa Rosalita road west to the beach. Once you get to Santa Rosalita, go north on the dirt frontage road for 9.3 miles. Turn west toward the ranch. Go past the ranch up the hill until the road ends at the beach. You can stop and ask for directions at the convenience store in Santa Rosalita.
Make Valle de Guadalupe, a wine region that has been called the new Napa Valley, your final stop. It takes seven to eight hours to get there from Alejandro’s. On our road trip, we decided to stay at La Villa del Valle (+52 646 156 8007, Rancho San Marcos Toros Pintos S/N Km 88 +300, Francisco Zarco, 22750 Ensenada), a bed and breakfast surrounded by Cyprus trees and lavender bushes that almost feels like it could be in Tuscany. It also has one of the valley’s best restaurants. Many of the ingredients come from the property’s vegetable garden.
Also, go to dinner at Javier Plascencia’s Finco Altozano (+52 646 156 8045, Carretera Tecate – Ensenada Km 83, Ejido Francisco Zarco, Valle de Guadalupe, 22750 Ensenada) and go wine tasting at Bruma (+52 1 646 116 8031, 22760 Ensenada) a winery estate on a hillside where the winemaking facility and tasting room has been built around a massive oak tree. Also visit Casa de Piedra (+52 646 116 4561, Carretera Ensenada Tecate Kilometro 93.5, San Antonio de las Minas, 22761 Ensenada) to sample some of the valley’s best wines including the clean and crisp Espuma de Piedra Blanc de Blancs. Stop at the winery’s champagne and oyster bar for lunch and toast to the completion of a true adventure.