A Mexican peninsula extending into the Pacific Ocean from the southern end of the US state of California, Baja California provides some of Mexico's most dramatic sea and landscapes. This includes everything from vast and remote deserts, dormant volcanoes, and wonderful old mission towns. The first political capital of "old California" is found here as well as many remnants of the colonial past. Camping and hiking opportunities are plentiful, and much of the region is sparsely or even unpopulated. Baja California is also home to world class surfing, sailing and deep sea fishing destinations. Lastly, traditionally the peninsula has provided south-of-the-border fun for youthful miscreants from the USA in both the border region to the north and more recently at the far end of the peninsula in the resort towns of Los Cabos. The Baja California peninsula is one of the longest in the world and offers an interesting mix of cultures with a wonderful combination of Latin American, Spanish, pre-Hispanic, and Anglo influences. It varies greatly even from the Mexican "mainland" with its own lifestyle and identity within Mexico.
|Baja California (state) |
The northern state, bordering Sonora and the United States
|Baja California Sur |
The southern state and half of the peninsula
- 1 Tijuana — largest city in Baja California and gateway to Mexico, just south across the border from San Diego
- 2 Cabo San Lucas — a bustling resort town and hub for sport fishermen, cruise ships, handicraft vendors, water sport aficionados and nightlife seekers
- 3 Ensenada — "the Beautiful Cinderella of the Pacific" is an important commercial, fishing port, and cruise ship port
- 4 La Paz — the city still holds some glimpses of the old magic
- 5 Loreto — a resort town regarded as one of the best places for fishing
- 6 Mexicali — a popular destination for day-trippers from California, just across the border
- 7 Mulege — popular for deep sea fishing, kayaking, cave tours, and bird watching
- 8 San Jose del Cabo — a major tourist destination that is less commercial than Cabo San Lucas, and has retained its charming historic center
- 1 Bahia de Los Angeles — this sport-fishing hot spot provides access to the many islands of this part of the northern Gulf of California
- 2 Canyon de Guadalupe – Hot spring oasis out in the wilderness
- 3 Guadalupe Island— a remote island that is a destination for diving excursions to see Great White Sharks
- 4 Valle de Guadalupe (Gaudalupe Valley) — Mexico's top wine country
Baja California means Lower California in Spanish, and indeed it is directly south of the U.S. state. Much of Baja's coastline is composed of beautiful beaches. In general, the Gulf of California side is much less exposed to the open sea as the western shore. Therefore, it tends to be less rocky and more sandy than the Pacific side. The Pacific side is ideal for surfing whereas the eastern shoreline is potentially more inviting to beach-goers. The central and southern sections are home to remote and extremely desolate deserts which include substantial mountains, large sand dunes, towering cacti and dormant volcanoes projecting an almost alien landscape similar to parts of the American Southwest. Into A Desert Place is non-fiction account of a circumnavigation of Baja California by foot.
As in most of Mexico some Spanish can go a long way and is greatly appreciated. Many locals have been to or even worked in the US, so knowledge of English is high, particularly in the north along the border and in the tourist towns of Los Cabos and La Paz. All Mexican school children also receive English education from secondary school on.
1 General Abelardo L. Rodríguez International Airport (TIJ IATA) in Tijuana and 2 San José del Cabo International Airport (SJD IATA) are the most popular entry points to the Baja California peninsula from all over Mexico. There are also direct international flights from the United States, Canada and Great Britain into San Jose del Cabo and from China to Tijuana as well as surface transport from (Alta) California USA to Tijuana Airport, through San Diego, with multiple bus lines. There are also alternative airports with connections from Mexico and the USA and seasonally from Canada which may be closer to your final destination in:
- 3 La Paz Gen Manuel Márquez de León Airport (LAP IATA)
- 4 Loreto Airport(LTO IATA)
- 5 General Rodolfo Sánchez Taboada International Airport (MXL IATA) Alternative smaller airport 178 km east of Tijuana with domestic flights from Mexico.
- 6 Los Angeles International Airport (LAX IATA) Not in Baja California, but it is the closest airport to the Baja California Peninsula with connections from East Asia, Australia, Oceania, Europe and the Middle East. From here travelers can continue to the border by surface transport via San Diego or transfer to a flight going to Baja California. It is also a hub/gateway city for Alaska Airlines' connections to Mexico including the Baja California Peninsula and Volaris Airlines to other parts of Mexico and to Central America. Travelers using this option must be able to enter the USA with a US visa or through the Visa Waiver Program even if travelers are transiting within LAX from one international flight to another.
Bus service in Mexico is superior to that of the US, with modern, comfortable buses for long-distance travel. The following are bus companies connecting Tijuana to the Mexican mainland via Mexicali and to the U.S. via San Diego:
- [formerly dead link] Grupo Estrella Blanca, ☏ 0800-507-5500 (domestic). Connects Mexico City Terminal Norte to Tijuana via Guadalajara, Tepic, Mazatlan, Cualican, Hermosillo, Mexicali and points between along Hwy 2 and 15. They operate the Elite, TNS (Transportes Norte de Sonora); Chihuahuanese, Pacifico, TF (Transportes Frontera); and the Estrella Blanca brands. They have a partnership with Greyhound Lines for onward travel to the U.S. and vice versa.
- ETN Turistar, ☏ 0800-8000-386 (domestic). Connects Tijuana and Mexicali to the Mexican mainland on Deluxe Class for 20% more than 'first class' service
- Greyhound Lines & Cruceros USA. Connects San Diego to Tijuana via San Ysidro. The next nearest station is in Calexico, CA which is just across the street from the U.S. border inspection station, north of Mexicali. Passengers transfer in San Diego or Los Angeles to continue to other cities in the U.S.
- Tufesa, ☏ . Connects Tijuana and Mexicali to multiple locations in Jaliscos, Nayarit, Sinaloa and Sonora in the Mexican mainland and to Las Vegas and Los Angeles in the U.S. Click here for their U.S. operations
See By bus under Get in in the Tijuana, San Diego, San Ysidro and Los Angeles articles for an extended list of bus companies connecting travelers from mainland Mexico, the San Joaquin Valley of (Alta) California and the American Southwest into Baja California via Southern California. See By bus under Get around in below for a list of bus companies serving the Baja California Peninsula.
- San Diego (San Ysidro) / Tijuana - The main border crossing for most tourist & local traffic. Buses crossing the border cross through here.
- San Diego / Otay Mesa - Nearest border crossing to Tijuana Intl. Airport and the industrial zones of Otay Mesa east of Tijuana. Alternative border crossing for travelers, main crossing for trucks going in both directions.
- CBX / Tijuana Intl. Airport - This border crossing connects the main airport terminal in Tijuana to the CBX terminal in San Diego and is available to foot traffic only. This border crossing allows vehicular "access" to Tijuana Intl. Airport from San Diego without driving across the border into Mexico and then waiting in long tedious lines to return to the United States.
- Calexico / Mexicali
- Mexicali (east) Airport and maquiladoras
- Yuma / San Luis Rio Colorado
- Baja Ferries, ☏ , toll-free: . Operates overnight ferries to cross the Sea of Cortez (Gulf of California) from Topolobampo and Mazatlan to La Paz on two separate routes. Ferries are large enough to transport vehicles and they don't operate every night either. Check schedules.
- See also: Rail travel in the United States
There are no regularly scheduled trains entering Baja California from the USA or through the Baja California Peninsula, but Amtrak has service to downtown San Diego from Los Angeles. From there transfer to the local SDMTS UC San Diego Blue Line Train (trolley) to the other end of the line in San Ysidro where you can cross to Tijuana by foot, and take onward buses to elsewhere in the peninsula (See 'By bus' under 'Get around' in below).
Many people travel from the USA and Canada to Baja California by car, RV, or motorcycle. The Transpeninsular Highway (Carretera Transpeninsular) (Fed Hwy 1/1D) is well maintained, but it is very narrow and winding in many places. The middle section is the most remote and desolate. Driving it alone can be a serious challenge and driving at night is not recommended. Horses and cows, in addition to other wildlife often cross the road or stray right into the road! This is a serious hazard. The other major hazard are the driving habits of Mexican nationals, who can be very reckless at times. Trucks in particular are very dangerous and be alert whenever anyone is passing, or head on collisions may result. While well kept and clean and friendly, the Pemex stations are not always open or may run out of gas. Always drive on a full tank of gas in Baja California whenever possible! There are numerous checkpoints manned by the Mexican Army along the highway. It is mandatory to stop. The soldiers are only interested in illegal drugs or guns. They are very professional in general. They have the right to search your car or RV and ask what your destination is. Always have your Mexican FMM tourist card and passport ready. Once they have determined you are not a drug smuggler, you will be on your way. They are staffed 24 hours a day.
Mexican auto liability insurance is now required throughout the country.
Flying is a more reasonable option for crossing large expanses of the Peninsula. Calafia and Volaris connect Tijuana to San Jose del Cabo and Loreto while Alaska Airlines offer connections to San Jose del Cabo and Loreto from Los Angeles and only to San Jose del Cabo from San Diego. American, Delta, Southwest and United offer flights only to San Jose del Cabo from Los Angeles.
There is a slow but steady trickle of travelers riding their bicycles in Baja California. On the Transpeninsular Highway this is fairly straightforward. It's easy to find the way, and in populated areas small shops or restaurants can be expected almost daily, and there are plenty of good wild campsites, and RV parks. A traditional touring, or hybrid bike is an excellent choice for the Transpeninsular. The middle stretch of the road and the peninsula present regions that are both very mountainous and desolate. Riding a bike on the numerous other roads would certainly require a mountain bike, and would be preferable with a support vehicle due to the difficulty in acquiring basic supplies (the main concern being water) and the difficulty carrying baggage on rough roads. Trying to travel by bike unsupported off the Transpeninsular is for those who don't distinguish between masochism and adventure. Either on or off the Transpeninsular, good quality tires, lots of patches, spare tubes, and other puncture resistant measures are important, due to the large numbers of vicious thorns. Drivers on the Transpeninsular Highway are often very reckless, however most drivers treat cyclists with more respect (perhaps due to their novelty) than cyclists get elsewhere in North America. If one chooses to bike in what is normally a very hot climate and incredibly remote region at times, the whole endeavor should only be undertaken with much prudence and planning.
Most of the people you meet will tell you that you are crazy for hitching, but pick you up none the less. In-town hitching is much more widely accepted and you will often see trucks filled with people in the back. The biggest problem with hitching across Baja California is that the amount of traffic depends heavily on the tourist season. Surfers are a good bet for a ride, at least across Baja California's north. Expect that traversing the entire peninsula will take you between 3.5-4 days, less in the tourist season. Be adamant about not carrying drugs when your driver asks if you are carrying any. Your average wait is about an hour and a half, but do not be surprised if you wait up to four.
- Bahia Concepcion
- The Islands and Protected Areas of the Gulf of California — a UNESCO World Heritage site, shared with three other Mexican states
- Whale watching The waters off Baja California are home to several species of great whales including blue, fin, Bryde's, humpback, orca, sperm, and many others. This is perhaps the richest area in the world for whale and dolphin diversity. The world's entire population of gray whales breeds in the lagoons on the west side of the peninsula.
- Diving and Snorkeling Excellent scuba, free diving, and snorkeling. Great white shark cage diving off Guadalupe Island. Hammerhead schools over a seamount near La Paz. The Gulf of California holds a fantastic diversity of marine life for accessible to divers and snorkelers. The convergence of tropical influences from the south and temperate conditions from the north bring together an amazing array of species. Local dive shops and charters are available.
- Kayaking Camping kayak tours of the wilderness islands in the Loreto Marine National Park with access to prime whale watching and snorkeling.
- Fishing This region has long been regarded as one of the best places for fishing. Marlin, sailfish, tuna, yellowtail, wahoo, roosterfish, and dorado are abundant in the blue waters surrounding the peninsula.
- Cave Paintings Various archaeological sites can be toured in the rugged mountains.
- The SCORE Baja 500 and Baja 1000 off-road races explore some of the more remote regions of the peninsula and attract participants and tourists from Mexico and the U.S.
Road trips (routes)
- Tijuana - Mexicali (Mex-2)
- Tijuana - Cabo San Lucas (Mex-1)
- Mexicali - San Felipe (Mex-5)
- Ensenada - Crucero de Trinidad (Mex-3)
- Tecate - Ensenada (Mex-3): Do this as a wine tour. There are at least 10 wineries along the route, some with tours and tasting rooms, and additional wine tasting rooms can be found in Ensenada. Salud!
Mexicali's Chinese restaurants are well-known.
There are "restaurants" scattered along the length of the Mex-1 highway. Most of them are people's houses, where they have a couple of tables set up on a porch. Unless you are proficient in Spanish, expect the menu to be totally foreign with no references to Americanized Mexican food, and expect almost zero translation help from the owners. But, if you just pick something that interests you, chances are it will be delicious and unlike anything you've eaten before in the U.S.
Beer is often sold by the case, from local distributors. Keep the empties. The deposit makes up a large portion of the price, and the bottles are not just recycled - they're washed out and reused!
Locals distill their own tequilas from the blue agave plant (not a cactus). One common drink is tequila and sangrita (not sangria), a spiced fruit punch drunk in shots.
The valleys of Guadalupe, Santo Tomas and Ojos Negros in Ensenada are known for its great wineries. Ensenada valleys account for most of Mexico's wine production. Although not yet as famous as their northern neighbor, wineries in the U.S. in California, they are steadily gaining worldwide recognition.
Scofflaws - gringos getting drunk, using drugs or visiting prostitutes - are the most likely to experience Mexico's legal system. Most laws in Baja California, though less frequently enforced, carry more severe penalties than they do in the United States.
Bandits (Bandidos) are more urban legend than reality, though there are occasional reports of robberies on remote highways. Crime is more common in Northern Baja California, especially between Tijuana and Ensenada. Since June 2007, about a half-dozen robberies and carjackings that targeted U.S. surfers en route to camping spots along the 780-mile Baja California peninsula have occurred, according to unconfirmed tallies reported via the Internet.
Violent crimes are rare between San Quentin and Cabos San Lucas, but due to isolation and lack of development this portion of the Baja California has a different set of risks. This portion of the peninsular highway is extremely remote and traveling in a well fueled reliable vehicle is essential. Gas stations often run out of gas or are closed, so never risk driving while low on fuel. Driving at night is not recommended. One of several reasons is due to the risk of livestock and wild horses in the roads. Another is to avoid other intoxicated drivers. Mexican drivers are often overly aggressive while overtaking and Baja California's main highway Number "1" is marked with literally hundreds of crosses marking spots where drivers met their untimely end. Car insurance, though expensive, is highly recommended.
Drug Dealers, mostly international, use the remote areas of Baja California for operations; most tourists are unlikely to encounter them. However, because of this problem there are several checkpoints maintained by the Mexican military along the highway. The inter-peninsular border is a particularly sensitive area and expect to ask for your tourist card and or passport when crossing. Soldiers and officials are usually very friendly and courteous provided your full cooperation. Never run through military checkpoints as guards are armed and have the right to shoot! Drug smuggling, any form of firearm (illegal in Mexico) and fruits and vegetables are their main concerns.
Mexicans are mostly traditional and Catholic, therefore nude (and for women, topless) sunbathing is illegal in Mexico (except in Zipolite, where the practice of naturism was legalized in 2016) - while you often will get away with it on remote beaches, many of the locals strongly disapprove, and there are reports of large fines.
The water in restaurants is generally bottled and purified. Do not drink tap water as in most of Mexico.
Some if not all USA cell phone services can be set to call USA numbers just like any other long distance call. High roaming charges may apply. See your cell phone service provider for details. Portions of Baja California include some of the most remote parts of North America so service will only apply to major cities.
To call USA numbers from a local pay phone or local private phone, use a calling card. Calling the USA via numbers suggested on payphones are outrageously high. All Mexican pay phones require a pre-paid plastic phone card. For longer term travels, SIM cards can be purchased cheaply that allows various plans for calls to both Mexico and the United States. It is virtually impossible to call 800 numbers from Baja California; therefore it is prudent to carry a non-800 number alternative. Directory assistance calls are rapaciously expensive, so jot all important numbers in advance of your trip.
- Mazatlán in the state of Sinaloa on the Mexican mainland is a socially and economically diverse city, with more than 350,000 welcoming people of all races. It is a popular vacation and retirement destination for Europeans, Canadians and Americans, and also provides opportunities for working immigrants. It is connected to La Paz BCS by overnight ferry which is not cheap!
- Surprise, surprise — Southern California to the north. This is the location of Los Angeles, Orange County (home of Disneyland), San Diego and other cities in between. Beyond the busier Southern California there are the vast California deserts consisting of palm trees, joshua trees and quirky resorts which provide excellent opportunities for hikers and other outdoor enthusiasts.
- Las Vegas Known as "The Entertainment Capital of the World", Vegas is known internationally for its adult entertainment venues including extravagant casinos and nightclubs, world class restaurants, golf, gambling, and its history with the Manhattan Project.
- Interstate 5 is the continuation of Mexico Federal Hwy 1/1D (main highway through Baja California) in the United States that goes through the western states of California, Oregon and Washington.