4×4 adventure guide: Baja, Mexico

Article from Which Car

International travel is back on, so where in the world would you like to go off-road? How about Mexico’s land of padres, playas and Spanish missions.

La frontera, the serrated fragment of terra firma that reaches south from the USA border toward the equator, possesses a centuries-long reputation for alluring treasure hunters, adventurers and wanderers.

This mountainous strip of desert dissects the Pacific Ocean to form the Sea of Cortes, and its interior holds secrets known only to those willing to venture into the unknown. Amerindians, conquistadors, padres and revolutionaries have crafted its multifaceted character, the narrative of which has been the focus of books, songs and countless campfire yarns.

This is Baja California, and with such a colourful chronicle, it is easy to understand why La Frontera has become one of North America’s most coveted overland destinations.

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We can thank adventurous souls such as C.L. ‘Outdoor’ Franklin, columnist for the Los Angeles Times, for forging our path. In 1926, Franklin packed up a Buick Road Scout and ventured into a land deemed ‘unexplored’ on many maps. Within two short years the Automobile Club of Southern California had nearly completed the first graded road to San Jose Del Cabo. It was rough, but opened the door for the vehicle-dependent traveller.

Mex 1, the lone paved artery that traverses the peninsula’s 1290km span, can now be driven in two days. However, the observant will notice an occasional trail leading off in to a forest of cardon cacti or across a solitary alkali flat. Take a left or right, it doesn’t matter. Baja’s magic is discovered when one searches out its isolated arroyos, Spanish missions and endless dirt two-tracks.

A comprehensive guide to Baja could easily consume this entire issue of 4X4 Australia, but we’ve distilled the information down to the basics; enough to start planning your great exploration. We are also assuming you will source your 4×4 in the USA (California or Arizona). We won’t get in to specific locales and hidden gems, but don’t fret, much of a Baja adventure is pulling out a map and finding these treasures on your own.

Isla de Califia and buried treasure

Baja’s proximity to the mainland, an unforgiving environment and sometimes unfriendly Indians rendered it difficult for the first European explorers to settle. The region’s early history is tumultuously laced with deception, pirates and plunder.

In 1532, Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés dispatched a fleet of ships to find Isla de Califia, the mythical land depicted in a 1510 novel and ruled by women. One ship is said to have been lost at sea, another suffered a mutiny and a third was captured by opposing general Nuño Beltrán de Guzmán. But the determined Cortés sent several more fleets and eventually established a colony in La Paz (The Peace). Ironically, the settlers died of starvation or at the hand of the Cochimi Indians, and Isla Califia lay undisturbed for the next 150 years.

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Under order of the Crown, it was the Jesuits that established the first successful settlement in present-day Loreto. With the Holy Cross in hand, they managed to survive and developed a string of 17 missions along the length of the peninsula. They assimilated the Indians that were willing and eliminated those who resisted. During the following 100 years it is estimated that 80 per cent of the original 50,000 Amerindians perished at the hands of the Spanish or by introduced diseases. The Jesuits eventually gained too much power, and King Carlos III of Spain ousted them in lieu of the Franciscans, which were hence replaced by the Dominicans.

Baja is rich with local lore. Legend has it that the Jesuits, who were tipped off about their expulsion, aggregated chests of gold, pearls and silver, and buried them in a cave near the lost Misión de Santa Isabela. After 250 years and dozens of expeditions attempting to locate the fabled booty, it still awaits discovery.

Vehicle and equipment

When it comes to hiring a vehicle for Baja’s backcountry, reliability is paramount. A stock high-clearance four-wheel drive such as a Jeep Wrangler or Toyota Tacoma will get you just about anywhere you want to go.

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If opting to go with a hire company (more on that later) check their gear inventory: recovery strap, air compressor, tyre repair kit, jack, jumper cables, tools, shovel and MaxTrax?

Get a specific list and make note of additional items to buy before you cross the border.

Navigation

The Baja California Almanac is by far the best analog resource, but the AAA map remains a good option − back in the ’70s and ’80s, this is all we had. They were out of print for the last decade, but the almanac is now available from www.benchmarkmaps.com Also source Amazon or eBay; although you may pay dearly.

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Apps such as Maps.me and GaiaGPS are great for recording a track, but I’ve not found a digital option with the almanac level of detail. iOverland has become a popular resource, but unfortunately our once-hidden camps are now a little less hidden.

Communications

Baja has come a long way since the days when CB radios were illegal. Today, a quality HAM unit such as the Yaesu handheld FT-60 (now with a new Emergency Automatic Identification feature for search-and-rescue work) will provide exceptional comms.

Regarding Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs) and satellite comms, Garmin’s InReach Explorer+, with its downloadable maps, mobile pairing and text messaging, is hard to beat.

In regard to mobile-phone cell service, coverage is increasing but plan to be off-the-grid while in the backcountry.

Passports, insurance and visas

Vehicle insurance will be required by the hire company, and I personally don’t cross the border without it. It is akin to a stay-out-of-jail card (if temporarily), as in the case of an accident the uninsured may be detained until fault is assessed. If sourcing a vehicle in the USA, you will also need an affidavit from the company confirming you have permission to operate their vehicle in Mexico.

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The FMM (tourist visa) is required for visits of more than three days. Make sure to stop immediately after you cross the border (before the red light/green light charade); there will be an immigration office to one side. If you miss it, stop and ask the officer for ‘oficina de migracion’. The cost is about $27 USD and it is valid for multiple entries during a 180-day period.

I always keep my passport in a zippered pocket on my person; never leave it in a bag in your car or hotel room. Additionally, if you have an emergency and need a medevac flight, they won’t be loading you on a plane without your passport.

Dinero

As in much of the world, cash is king, and USA greenbacks remain a reliable instrument of negotiation. Stores, fuel stations and restaurants have exchange rates posted, but they can vary.

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ATMs are everywhere and the best way to source local currency (pesos), but cybercrime is becoming an issue. I suggest setting up a travel ATM card not linked to any other accounts, only use bank machines and withdraw enough for a week at a time.

Visa is accepted in some establishments (Mastercard and AmEx not so much), but remote areas are on a cash-only basis. My policy is to bring enough USD to get home if all hell breaks loose – reserve it for emergencies, and store it in several locations.

Rules of the road

The most dangerous road in Baja is Mex 1, and the hundreds of white crosses that line its non-existent shoulder are a constant reminder to stay alert. It is also advisable to not drive at night − cows, drunk drivers and accidents happen. This is of little concern if you take the backroads, which is why we go, right! One custom to remember is that a left signal can indicate a left turn ‘or’ that it is clear to pass. Again, stay frosty.

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Distances between points can send your fuel gauge needle toward empty in a hurry. Carry enough to cover 400km of dirt driving, and more depending on your route. Back in the day, we brought a chamois cloth to filter fuel, but this is now only needed when sourcing it from a fish camp or ranchero.

Pemex stations, run by the government, had fixed prices, no services and were the only option until recent deregulation. This has brought foreign investment, competition and a trend toward full service stations. You should note that not all offer diesel, and while Mexico passed legislation requiring ultra-low sulphur diesel, implementation has been slow.

Security and bribes

Generally speaking, Baja is pretty safe and I’ve made dozens of trips without issue. National headlines will bleed details of horrific NARCO crimes, but let’s put this in perspective. According to the US State Department, tourists have a greater chance of being murdered in New Orleans than in Mexico (even less in Baja). Theft and violent crime are present (as in any big city), so maintain situational awareness and don’t put yourself in precarious scenarios.

Military checkpoints staffed by 18-year-old kids with AK-47s are routine. They will look through a few bags and inspect the cab, but are polite and only looking for guns and drugs. Be patient and gracious. I do suggest keeping an eye on them and take your wallet/purse with you when you get out.

La policía are another matter. As recently as last year, an officer in La Paz tried to pinch me for a bogus infraction − $200 for speeding, which I could pay on the spot. I wouldn’t pay the bribe, suggested that he write the ticket and I would pay any fine to the judge. Frustrated, he eventually returned my documents and wished me a good day. Time is the traveller’s friend.

Contraband

While Mexico’s constitution stipulates its citizens have the right to bear arms, the laws applied to this right are very strict. Unless you are heading for a guided hunting trip, we highly suggest leaving firearms at home.

Mexico also recently revealed a proposal to legalise recreational marijuana, but until it becomes law, you should leave your doobage at the dispensary.

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Regarding a few stubbies behind the wheel? Leave them in the cooler until the end of the day.

Now the good news. Do you like machetes, switchblades and fireworks? There are no rules on knives or blade length, and you can blow off your fingers at will.

Montezuma and medical

Medical evacuation insurance is advised for travel in any third-world country. I use Redpoint Resolutions, which offers policies for a week or up to a year. They aren’t cheap, but they will extract you from Mt. Everest if needed.

Señor Montezuma (gastro/bacterial infections) still rules Mexico and has put the squeeze on many (pun intended). He lives in the public water supply and likes to hide in icy drinks, salads and vegetables. If sourced in established restaurants they are usually okay, but there is always a risk. Part of your medical kit should include Imodium A-D, and talk to your doctor about an antibiotic like cipro. If you need meds, look for a farmacia.

What to eat

Baja cuisine is not to be missed, so don’t load up for the entire trip before you cross the border. Fish, shrimp and carne asada (steak) tacos from street vendors are the norm, and look for the carts with locals gathered around. More traditional dishes can be found in restaurants and prices are generally reasonable. Major grocery stores (mercados) are found in larger towns, but you don’t want to overlook local panadarias (bakeries), tortilliarias (tortilla shops) or carniciaras (butchers).

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The peninsula is surrounded by water, and seafood is plentiful. If on the coast, make your way to the marina or stop at any local fish camp on the beach. It may look like a gypsy commune, but they probably have the catch-of-the-day on ice.

Tequila is the spirit of Mexico, but beware of the cheap stuff as it will go down like firewater on an open wound. Good tequila is distilled from the blue agave in the state of Jalisco, and should be sipped like a fine liqueur rather than swigged like rot-gut whiskey. A good añejo (aged) such as Don Julio should do you right, and don’t forget to complement it with a cold Pacifico, Tecate or Modelo Negra (cerveza).

Planning and what to do

The good news is that Baja can be enjoyed year-round and backcountry camping is free. However, November attracts hurricanes and June through August can push the mercury toward the red zone. The Pacific side is predominantly cooler than the Sea of Cortes, and the pine-forested heights of Sierra San Pedro Martir may receive snow in the winter.

Because most adventures zigzag from coast to coast, I’ve found the ideal season is February through to May.

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One could spend months exploring Baja’s nuances, so give yourself enough time to savour its magic without rushing. Two weeks will give you a good taste (more is better), and read up on forums like bajanomad.com or bajainsider.com The iOverland app is also a good source for camp spots.

In February, you can go whale watching in Scammon’s Lagoon; April is good for snorkelling with whale sharks in La Paz; and kayaking or deep-sea fishing can be enjoyed year-round. Or, you can simply explore Baja’s remote tracks, wake up on isolated beaches, and soak in the history of its extensive Spanish mission system.

Ugly tourist syndrome

You’ve heard the term ‘Ugly Tourist’. This guy has a pocket of cash, little patience and a condescending attitude. Learn a few words in Spanish, obey the laws and show respect to the locals. If they don’t understand English, saying something louder only makes you look like an idiot. Smile, resort to sign language if needed. I recall snorting like a pig to convey I wanted to buy pork (try this for diarrhoea meds).

Google Translate is a great app, and the Jiffy Spanish Phrase Book is a good pocket resource. Remember that this is their country. Embrace the delectable food, rich history, unique culture and all that is magical about La Frontera.

Suggested reads

Baja Legends (Greg Neiman) is a wonderful compilation of local lore and history. Log from the Sea of Cortez (Steinbeck) offers a unique glimpse into the peninsula’s early days, and Off the Beaten Track in Baja (Erle Stanley Gardner) is a classic read. Baja California Land of Missions (David Kier) provides an overview of the mission system.

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Hire companies

While most hire companies don’t permit their vehicles to cross into Mexico, a few are expanding their guidelines. Self-travel is a great option, and you can plan on spending about $200 to $250 USD per day plus additional mileage and insurance.

Guided trips have the benefit of hitting the prime tracks and campsites, breaking the language barrier, and take the guesswork out of where to find the best fish taco. Though COVID has put the brakes on things over the last few years, now is a good time to start planning your 2022 south-of-the-border adventure.

Pacific Overlander
Pacific Overlander offers professionally guided trips from San Diego to Cabo San Lucas, and five-day trips of Southern Baja. The fleet includes Toyotas and Jeeps equipped with everything you need.
Visit: www.pacificoverlander.com

California Baja Rent-a-Car
If you don’t mind bringing some camping gear or buying it in-country, San Diego-based California Baja Rent-a-Car offers Jeep Wranglers for a week or a month. They normally do one-way hires to Cabo San Lucas (a great option, but COVID currently restricts this), and can provide you with route ideas and other relevant information.

Funki Adventures
Based in San Diego, Funki is scheduled to begin self-travel Baja hires in 2022. Its four-door Jeep Wranglers are outfitted with rooftop tents, fridge-freezers, mess kits, and camping and recovery gear. Go to www.funkiadventures.com

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