Baja California Road Trip Guide

Ah yes, beaches, tacos, and endless sun. Isn’t that what we all want on our Baja California road trip? There is so much to see and do on the Baja Peninsula, and often, there is not enough time to experience everything we want.

We know time is short. We drove our DIY campervan throughout the Baja for over three weeks and compiled all the best information you need to maximize your Baja California vacation.

San Felipe beach in Baja California

1. Required Documents

Crossing the border into Mexico from the US can be hectic. Many things are going on and different documents are needed to get through. There can also be language issues if your Spanish is still a work in progress. We boiled down all the paperwork you need the day you cross the border.

Immigration Entry Form (FMM) – “The Tourist Visa”

FMM = Forma Migratoria Múltiple

This is your standard tourist entry visa and must be obtained at the border immediately after leaving the US and before driving through the Mexican gates. Do not accidentally cross into Mexico without a valid FMM.

Validity Period: 6 months for most citizens.

What Is Required? (Documents & Cost)

  1. Valid Passport: With a minimum of six months validity. Bring at least three black & white copies.
  2. Money: Current cost is $535 pesos (~$30)

Save the Hassle: Complete Your FMM Online

Filling out and paying for your FMM online saves valuable time. But it would help if you still had your FMM form validated at the border. The FMM website can be viewed in Spanish, English, Japanese, Chinese, & Korean.

Do I Need Any Paperwork for My Vehicle?

If you are ONLY planning to drive along the Baja peninsula (which includes Baja California and Baja California Sur), you DO NOT need to provide or obtain any documentation for your vehicle.

When traveling in Mexico outside the Baja Peninsula, you must obtain a Temporary Vehicle Import Permit (TIP).

2. Insurance: Auto & Travel

Auto Insurance

As of 2014, the Mexican government requires liability auto insurance, at the minimum, for all vehicles traveling on federal roads throughout Mexico. Insurance MUST be purchased from a Mexican provider. US & Canadian auto insurance is not accepted as valid insurance in Mexico.

Liability Only vs. Full Insurance: Liability-only insurance is cheaper but only covers damage done to other persons or property damaged in an accident. It does not cover you, your passengers, or your vehicle. Full insurance covers liability PLUS you, your passengers, and your vehicle.

We get our insurance from Baja Bound: quick response time, American customer service reps, and great rates.

Insurance Tip: While canceling your US auto insurance is not advised, you can call your insurance provider and put your insurance “on hold.” This way, you will not be charged by your US insurer while you are in Mexico.

Read More: Is Mexico Auto Insurance Required?

Ford Transit camper van parked by the beach in Mahahual, Mexico
Parked along the beach in Mahahual, Mexico

Travel/Health Insurance

While not required to enter or travel in Mexico, travel health insurance is good to have in case anything goes wrong. It’s comprehensive protection against illness, injury, trip cancellations, and even theft of belongings. We felt much safer on the road once we’ve purchased travel insurance.

3. Is Baja California Dangerous?

Is it dangerous along the Baja Peninsula? It’s natural to feel worried, and keeping safe while traveling in Mexico is one of the biggest concerns for those planning a trip here.

It was a priority for us as well before we crossed into Mexico.

But we’ve learned throughout our months traveling in Mexico that common sense goes a long way here. While Mexico has its fair share of safety issues, we’ve been able to mitigate 99% of these potential issues with the advice below:

  • Don’t drive at night; be at your campsite/hotel before dusk.
  • When free-camping, ask locals if the area is safe.
  • Know the current situation in the region you are traveling in.
  • Don’t keep valuables in sight of strangers & pedestrians.
  • Be friendly & respectful to everyone you meet.
  • Don’t be naive; developing street smarts goes a long way.

Seriously, that’s it. You don’t need to carry bear spray or a knife everywhere to go. If you take proper travel precautions, Mexico is safe, friendly, and welcoming.

We promise you’ll have a great time here!

For more in-depth information regarding safety in Mexico, read Is Mexico Dangerous?

4. Best Beaches in Baja California

Beaches for Relaxing

Playa Escondido (Bay of Conception)

Located just off Highway 1 on the east coast of Baja California Sur, the Bay of Conception is a small inlet with warm and tranquil water—no waves here, which means plenty of great opportunities for snorkeling, kayaking, and paddle boarding. Many Americans and Canadians settle here for the winter, meaning there are plenty of services and social activities.

Google Maps Code: P4V3+M9 Palapas el Burro, Baja California Sur

Playa Tecolote (North of La Paz)

Amazing white sand beach just north of La Paz. Easy to get to from the city with restaurant and bathroom services once you get to the beach.

Google Maps Code: 8MPM+F9 La Paz, Baja California Sur

Bahia De Los Angeles

Calm waters, camping, parking right on the beach, and a nearby town offering plenty of places to grab a drink, get some lunch, and relax.

Google Maps Code: XC3R+H5 Bahía de los Ángeles, Baja California

Camper vans parked along the beach in Baja Mexico
Camper vans and RVs parked on the beach in Baja California

Beaches for Surfing

Los Barrilles

If you love kite surfing or want to try it out, the beaches in Los Barrilles are for you—amazing white sand beaches with plenty of wind and resources for experienced and beginner kite surfers. Next to a sizeable established town, excellent services and tourist infrastructure are at your fingertips.

Google Maps Code: M8P3+XH Los Barriles, Baja California Sur, Baja California Sur

Cerritos Beach – Todos Santos

Yuko sitting on the sand watching the ocean and a fisherman
Watching the waves of the Pacific Ocean

A perfect beach for those just learning how to surf and get experience. Shops that rent surfboards and give surf lessons are available here. Free parking anywhere you want and several bars/restaurants in the back.

If Cerritos Beach is a bit too crowded or developed for your taste, try Playa San Pedrito, which is roughly 8km to the north.

Google Maps Code: 8RJF+2H El Pescadero, Baja California Sur

Rosarito

Just 25 miles south of the US border, surfers love visiting the beaches in Rosarito for some of the best surfing locations in the Baja Peninsula. Baja Malibu and Rosarito Beach are two of the most popular areas with plenty of services to keep your stay comfortable while surfing the waves.

Google Maps Code: 9W5J+6G Rosarito, Baja California

Beaches for “Getting off the Grid”

Papa Fernandez

An awesome secluded bay with no vendors or services (except for a few pit toilets). Just you and the white sandy beach. Perfect for night photography since there is little light pollution from the surrounding areas.

Google Maps Code: RHHW+JR Willard, Baja California

Punta La Tinaja

Ford Transit camper van parked at night under the stars
Parked on the beach in Baja California, Mexico

No parking or camping rules here, and you’re welcome to drive right on the beach as far as your vehicle can take you. 4X4s are helpful here to get further out on the beach. No services and no infrastructure here. Just you and the beach.

Google Maps Code: 4V3P+24 La Tinaja, Baja California Sur

Search iOverlander App For More.

We couldn’t possibly name all the best “off-the-grid” beaches throughout the Baja Peninsula. We suggest downloading the iOverlander App to get more information and see the hundreds of under-discovered beaches throughout the Baja.

5. Best Towns in Baja California

Todos Santos

Beautiful little colonial town lined with cobbled streets. Modern cafes, chic restaurants, and even a brewing company have set up shop here—a must-stop along your Baja road trip circuit.

La Paz

This city might be “another city” to many, but La Paz also has a lovely downtown district full of trendy bars and cafes if you want to take a break from the beaches.

Enseñana

A bustling city, as opposed to a quaint town, Enseñada is home to some of the best tacos in all of the Baja. Check out La Guerrerense for the best ceviche tacos we’ve ever had.

6. Money Issues

Mexican peso bills and a wallet on a table
Cash is king in Mexico

Cash is king in Mexico. Though many hotels and higher-end restaurants accept credit cards, many local restaurants, businesses, and camping sites only accept cash.

How and where do you exchange money? Are the exchange commissions fair? What are the exchange rates?

Below, we discuss everything you need to know about money and the Mexican Peso.

Use ATMs When in Mexico

We ONLY get our Mexican Pesos at ATMs from major banks brands. Not only do ATMs give us the best exchange rate, but they also have no commission fees, no minimum amount requirements, and are hassle-free. You will need a debit card tied to your bank account to use ATMs in Mexico.

Important Tip: When withdrawing money from a Mexican ATM, the last screen on many ATMs will show you the amount you want to withdraw and will show you the proposed exchange rate. You will be given a choice whether to ‘accept’ or ‘decline.’ DO NOT accept. The ATM is asking you whether you accept the Mexican bank’s proposed exchange rate. By declining, you will use the exchange rate offered by your bank, which will be substantially better.

ATM screen in Mexico when withdrawing money
Decline the bank’s offered exchange rate

Banks and ATMs are in abundant supply in Mexico. You will rarely have trouble finding an ATM, even in many remote towns throughout the country.

You can find ATMs in most major grocery stores, some OXXO convenience stores, and the many bank branches that are in the central park areas in every city and town.

Before Crossing the Border

Before entering Mexico, we will find a money exchange shop near the border and exchange a small amount ($50-$100). There were many money exchange shops in San Ysidro just before the border, offering much better rates than across the border in Mexico. This ensures that we have Mexican Pesos if anything comes up near the border areas.

But once we’ve properly crossed the border, we immediately look for an ATM to withdraw the rest of our money.

Tipping in Mexico

Tipping isn’t required in the same way as in the USA, but in higher-end restaurants and cafes, tipping 10% is customary. Adding 15% for excellent service can be appreciated.

There is no expectation for tips in local restaurants, street food, and markets. However, tips can always be given.

7. Stay Connected: Get a Mexican SIM Card

If your current cell phone provider allows you to roam for free in Mexico (T-Mobile, for example), then you’re already good to go!

If not, you can quickly obtain a Mexican SIM card at any Oxxo convenience store.

  • Go to the counter in Oxxo and ask for a SIM Card. Cost = 50 pesos
  • The SIM card includes a small amount of data (~200 MB), which you must use up before adding more.
  • Once your 200 MB data is used, you can return to any Oxxo to add more data.
  • Data packages cost between 20-500 pesos. We usually purchase 200 pesos’ worth of data, which is suitable for about 4GB.
  • You need to keep your Mexican number handy to add a data package. You’ll need to tell the Oxxo employee your number to top up your account.

8. Helpful Apps for Baja California

iOverlander

An incredibly useful app with a wealth of information relevant to road-tripping through Mexico. Where to sleep (paid and free), where to get gas and propane, where to get water, and potentially unsafe areas. You can also use this app to locate many of the Banjercito offices to obtain and return your TIP.

Google Maps

Road signs can be difficult to read, but Google Maps points you in the right direction…most of the time. Even tells you which routes have tolls and which don’t.

Maps.me

This secondary map is great for finding hiking routes and those times when you don’t have enough cell service for Google Maps to work. However, the route feature isn’t as good as Google Maps and is more likely to send you down one-way roads in the opposite direction. Take it from us!

Google Translate

Learning the basic Spanish phrases goes a long way in Mexico. Though this app won’t teach you the basics of Spanish, it helps support your basic Spanish skills by translating specific words or phrases when needed. 

Whatsapp

Many businesses in Mexico operate using WhatsApp messaging. If you feel uncomfortable communicating with a business by calling, you can try to WhatsApp them instead. It’s also a great tool for international calling since it uses your data plan instead of the actual phone feature.

Uber

Uber is a great way to get around when in the major cities and not driving. We’ve used it extensively in Mexico City. Service is prompt, clean, and considerably cheaper than in the US.

9. Traveling With Pets to Baja California

Bringing your dog or cat into Mexico is generally not a problem. There is usually no check for vaccination records or anything like that.

To bring your pet back into the USA is a simple enough process. Ensure your pet is up to date on all their vaccinations (especially their rabies vaccination), and bring their vaccination card with you.

If your pet has any dietary restrictions or special medication needs, be sure to plan ahead and bring everything they’ll need with you. Once you are in Mexico, getting the proper foods and medication for your pet can be difficult.

10. Additional Tips For Your Baja Road Trip

Gas Station Tips

All gas stations are run by attendants who are in charge of putting gas/diesel into your vehicle. Make sure the attendant “zeros” out the pump from the prior customer before they begin putting gas into your pump. Opportunistic attendants may try to get you to pay more than your fair share.

We strongly advise paying for gas with a credit card. We’ve heard of stories where credit cards become compromised during payment transactions at gas stations. We only use our credit cards at formal businesses, like grocery stores and restaurants.

Want to fill up? Tell the attendant “lleno por favor”

Police Corruption

Getting pulled over in Baja by opportunistic police is rare but not unheard of. Do whatever you can to avoid a bribe by wasting their time, not speaking Spanish, and using a dash cam.

On The Beach

If getting your vehicle right on the sandy beach is your dream, be sure to pack a good air compressor and shovel. If you find yourself stuck on the sand (like we did!), letting the air out of your tires and digging yourself out may be the only way to get out without an expensive tow. Below are our top items to carry to help you get out of sticky situations!

11. Onward Travel to the Mexican Mainland?

Want to extend your Mexico road trip to the mainland? Excellent! We love mainland Mexico, and the process of taking the ferry across the water to the mainland isn’t that difficult.

  • Drive to the ferry port north of La Paz
  • Before driving through customs, you must find the Banjercito Office at the port to obtain your Temporary Vehicle Import Permit (TIP).
  • After obtaining your TIP, pass through the customs gate and purchase a ferry ticket for you and your vehicle at one of the two offices (Baja Ferry or TMC).
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