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HIGHWAYS

Current Issue | Back Issues
October 2003

RUN FOR THE BORDER

 

John Holod
GSC Highways
Tuesday October 7, 2003

RVing in Mexico raises lots of concerns, but those who have been there say there are few worries and unparalleled scenery. Here's a guide about how to prepare, what to expect and how to make the most of your trip.

It was 105 degrees in the shade - and there wasn't any shade. I was starting to see mirages: a Dairy Queen over here, a Baskin-Robbins over there. There was nothing I could do but stare at the chain that had broken and stuck in the crankcase of my Harley-Davidson Electric Glide. I was in the middle of nowhere in the Baja desert, miles south of the United States' border, with little money and fewer prospects of finding help.

The road was deserted. In the distance I saw an old pickup truck approaching with two Mexican ranchers inside. They stopped.

My Spanish was worse than their English, but they could figure out the problem. We found a large board on the side of the road and pushed the disabled Harley up the plank and into the bed of the truck. Not only did they take me to the border, they took me all the way across (where they weren't even going) to the nearest Harley dealer. They refused to take any money for their trouble, dropped me off and wished me luck.

That happened in 1975. I put away the motorcycle a few years ago, but still return to Baja in my RV as often as I can.
As I travel across the country, the question I am most often asked is the one that I find most frustrating: "How are the banditos in Baja?" My answer is always the same: "I don't know; I've never met one. But I've met lots of them in the United States."

Baja has a terrible and undeserved reputation. Bad things can happen anywhere, but I have been traveling there for the past 28 years and have had nothing happen to me and have never met anyone who has had anything bad happen to them. In Baja, crime statistics are many times lower than the U.S. national average.

To help put your mind at ease, though, stop at or contact the SECTUR Tourist Office, 7860 Mission Center Court, Suite 202, San Diego, CA 92108; (800) 482-9832; www.mexico-travel.com.

Before You Go
Your RV/auto insurance from home will not cover you in Baja, and don't drive without Mexican insurance. If you have an accident without it, you may be detained in jail for awhile until the authorities figure out what happened. Shop around for your insurance. A daily rate is very expensive (but available), so if you plan to stay for more than three weeks, a six-month policy would be cheaper.

You will also need a tourist card, if you are planning to stay for more than three days or if you travel south of Ensenada. You can get your card when you get your insurance at a travel club, or you can buy one as you cross the border into Mexico. Its also possible to pick one up in Ensenada.

Make sure your rig is in the best possible shape before you head south. Take along a good spare tire and take replacement filters, belts and hoses. On the main roads, help is usually available. You can also flag down one of the government's Green Angels' pickups that roam the highways to assist travelers.

The best time to go is late fall or early spring. In the summer the heat is oppressive. In the winter it can get downright cold - not Minnesota cold - but colder than you would expect.

Fuel, Food and Water
There's no need to worry about fuel as you travel the main highways. You'll find plenty of stations and most have diesel. Mexico stations do not take credit cards. Propane is available near most large towns.

I never use the local water at campgrounds. There are water-purification shops just about everywhere. They will run a hose out to your RV and fill up the freshwater tanks. You don't have to stock your RV with food before you cross the border because you'll find modern grocery stores in most of the bigger towns.

Credit cards are the best way to pay when you can because you get the best exchange rates. ATMs are found in larger towns and are the best ways to get cash. Traveler's checks are a trusted old standby, but you can also use dollars.

RV Parks
You'll find some nice full-service RV parks near the border, but after that the quality varies from one place to the next. Prices can range from $5 for no facilities to $35 for the best full-service parks. Make sure you test the electricity at each site before you plug in. Many have only 15-amp house-type sockets, so don't use your air conditioner. Some also have water and sewer hookups. The sewer connections are usually far back in the campsite, so make sure you have enough hose.

The Trailer Life Directory is a good source for knowing where the parks and campgrounds are and what you should expect to find at each one.

Driving Tips
Most of the highway is in surprisingly good condition. Plan on at least a three-week trip down and back. Anything shorter than that and you're pushing it.

The highway is 1,060 miles long from Tijuana to Cabo, and it's no interstate. Once you pass Ensenada, the road becomes a narrow 18-foot-wide two-lane road. There must not be a Spanish word for "shoulders" because there aren't any. I would suggest a maximum speed of 55 mph. Relax and enjoy the scenery; that's why you're here. And never drive at night. Not only are many vehicles poorly lit, but that's when the cows come out to dance on the road.

There is a highway tradition of putting on your left blinker so the vehicle behind you will know it's safe to pass when it is difficult to see the road ahead. It's a nice idea but be very careful. Don't bet your life on it.

All road signs are in Spanish, of course. The most important are:
Precaucion zona de ganado: Caution: livestock zone
Disminuya su velocidad: Reduce your speed
Curva peligrosa: Dangerous curve
Despacio: Slow
Topes a 100m: Speed bumps the size of polo ponies next 100 meters

The most unnerving part of the drive are the military checkpoints. You'll be driving out in the middle of nowhere, round a curve and be face to face with a roadblock and teenagers with automatic weapons. Do not panic. These are drug checkpoints. They will ask you where you have been and where you are going. They might also ask to check inside the RV. It's a little scary having very young soldiers with weapons in your rig, but after a short search you will be on your way. Do not offer them money.

Let's Go!
The most difficult part of your drive south will probably be getting through Tijuana, although crossing the actual border is not much of a problem.

When driving through downtown Tijuana, make sure you have a good map and navigator to help read the road signs. If you want to stop and shop, do it on the way back after you are more comfortable traveling in Baja. Believe me, Tijuana is not the place to drive around in your big rig.

Head for the toll road to Ensenada. There is a free road, but it's slower and less scenic.
You might want to make your first stop at Rosarito. The main attraction is the four-mile beach and the Rosarito Beach Hotel, which has been famous since the 1920s. The nearby Oasis Resort is one of the most expensive and nicest RV parks in all of Mexico. While in the area, stop at Puerto Nuevo, Baja's lobster capital. There are more than 30 restaurants in this little town - an entire village dedicated to eating.

The toll road south follows the beautiful coastline all the way to Ensenada. With about 300,000 residents, Ensenada is Baja's third-most-populated town and one of the most pleasant to visit. Hussong's Cantina is a must stop for a cold drink. It's one of Baja's most famous landmarks and is advertised as "the bar that built a town."

Back on the main highway, we head south of Ensenada and into the Santo Tomas Valley, which looks nothing like the Baja we imagined. This is a prime agricultural area with vineyards and commercially grown cactus. Near San Quintin, head west on a dirt road to the Old Mill Trailer Park. The old mill is from a failed 1890's English land-development scheme. You will find remains of the old mill, pier and cemetery, plus excellent bird-watching, fishing and a nice restaurant. If you have a tow vehicle, you can head inland on a dirt road for a trip to Parque Nacional San Pedro Martir, which looks more like Northern California than Baja. Heading up into the pine forest, you will enjoy great views of the desert below and Picacho Diablo, which at 10,150 feet is the highest mountain in all of Baja.

Heading south again on the main highway, we stop in El Rosario. Mama Espinosa's has been famous for years for its lobster burritos, so make sure you stop in. Be sure to top off with fuel at the 24-hour station because this is the start of the infamous gas gap. There will be no fuel available for the next 195 miles.

Here is where many people believe the "real" Baja begins. The plant life and desert scenery is some of the most unusual found anywhere in the world. The Catavina boulder fields are sometimes called the "devil's bowling balls."

Guerrero Negro marks the north/south border of Baja. The town has little to offer the tourist. Most of the residents work for ESSA, one of the world's largest salt producers. Visitors might not stop here at all if it weren't one of the best whale-watching spots on earth. Each winter thousands of gray whales migrate to the lagoons near here to have their calves in safety. Malarrimo RV Park is the best place for one-stop shopping. In addition to the park, there is a great restaurant and the best whale-watching tours in the area.

Heading inland, we stop in San Ignacio, home to one of the most impressive mission churches in Baja. It was built in 1782 and is largely in its original condition. Next to the church is a rock-art museum that features examples of the cave paintings done in the surrounding hills. The town is built around lagoons and is famous for its date-palm trees. Visit the Rice and Beans Oasis for a nice RV park with an excellent restaurant.

Heading east to the Sea of Cortez, the highway reaches the coast near the town of Santa Rosalia, a working-man's town with a unique character. This important seaport was founded in 1885 when copper mines lured workers from Japan and China. The place is known for its French colonial architecture, a church built by Alexander Eiffel (better known for his tower in Paris) and the best bakery in Baja. Keep your rig outside of town and walk in to sightsee.

Further south is one of my favorite towns: Mulege. Founded in 1705 as a Jesuit mission, it's known as the "oasis in the desert." The river is one of the few freshwater streams that flows year-round, and the abundant supply of water brings many species of birds into the area. The Orchard is the best RV park for birders. There are good fishing and diving opportunities as well.

The Sierra de Guadeloupe Mountains contain the largest number of known prehistoric mural sites in Baja. The Hotel Serenidad has a small RV park out back.

A few miles south of Mulege, the Bahia de Concepcion is considered by many to be the ultimate Baja destination. Thirty miles long and only three miles wide at the mouth, the crystal-clear turquoise bay is the most idyllic seashore on the entire peninsula. There are no full hookups, but the scenery makes up for the inconvenience. Most beach spots cost about $5 per night and there are many from which to choose.

The area is a world-class kayak destination and the clamming is excellent. EcoMundo rents kayaks if you
Didn't bring your own.

The highway next heads to Loreto. Founded in 1697, it's the first European settlement in the Californias, begun more than 300 years ago. A museum in town gives you some insight into the missionary life. Loreto Shores Villas and RV Park is a large park with plenty of room for big rigs.

Heading west, we come to Puerto San Carlos, a Baja surprise that many travelers pass right by. They will miss a unique marine environment that looks a lot like the Florida Keys. Magdalena Bay's mangroves and estuaries provide habitat to many species of birds and marine life. The inshore fishing and windsurfing is excellent. There is also whale watching in season. RV Park Nancy is the place to stay here.

The capital city of La Paz is the next stop. Many travelers, including Mexicans, say this is their favorite city in all of Baja. In addition to a beautiful beachfront walkway, La Paz is famous for scuba diving. It's not uncommon to dive with friendly giant manta rays and sea lions. This is a good place to pick up supplies or hard-to-find parts. This is where you can catch a ferry to the mainland city of Mazatlan. The Casa Blanca RV Park in town actually has some 50-amp plugs.

After La Paz, the highway splits on its way to Cabo. If you go west, you can visit Todos Santos, which has excellent shopping, restaurants and is considered an artists' colony. The nearby San Pedrito RV Park has beautiful beachfront camping and electric hookups, a rarity in Baja.

Head east at the split and you come to Los Barriles, which offers some of the best fishing in Baja. The deep water starts just offshore. Martin Verdugo's Beach Resort is a popular camping spot near the beach with 30-amp outlets.
Our final stop is Cabo San Lucas, which has lots of tourists and aggressive salespeople hassling you as you walk down the street. If you are ready to rock, shop, fish, golf and eat, then this place is for you. Vagabundos Del Mar RV Park is the place to stay here.

Well, we've made it. We're at land's end, as far south as you can drive. There is only one thing left to do: Get in the RV and drive all the way back home. It'll be a great trip.
Features:

One in a Million
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Hidden Treasures
Careful Cruising
Good Sam Offers RV Safety Rally
Gone and Sometimes Forgotten
North to Alaska
Run for the Border
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