Baja California, Mexico.
Baja California offers the best surf, best wilderness, best food, and best culture that can be found.
Baja California means Lower California. Prior to it becoming part of the United States, the State of California used to be known as Alta California. Baja is a peninsula; as the crow flies it is about 800 miles long. If you drive it, it is about 1000 miles long. On the West, it falls into the blue Pacific. On the East, it falls into the Sea of Cortez. At the Southern tip, you find Cabo San Lucas, a tourist destination which grows a new high-rise hotel almost daily. At the Northern top, you find the border to the United States. In the middle, everywhere in Baja's 58,280 square miles of mountains, forests, deserts and beaches, you find adventure.
If you're going to be staying in Mexico for more than three days, you are supposed to have a tourist visa. As a practical matter, except if you go 500 miles to Guerro Negro, nowhere along Baja's Highway 1 will anyone ever check your immigration status. However, a visa is easily obtained upon entering Mexico. Pull over and park just past Mexican customs; there is an immigration office right near the walk-through entry into Mexico. Tell them where you are going and for how long, present a valid passport and a small fee, and they'll give you a visa.
The border is mostly known by Tijuana, the city that abuts it. When you step across the border from Tijuana, you are in the suburbs of San Diego. A lot can be said about both cities, but everyone can agree that life essentially revolves around the U.S./Mexico border crossing. Everyone who wants to visit Baja must cross it, and, if they can find the will to leave, they must cross it again. Frankly, the only problem is crossing back into the U.S., which can take hours. Dos Olas Border Facts. Unfortunately, Tijuana is not really friendly to surfers nor to campers. The beach near Tijuana (known as Tijuana Playas) features water that is regularly polluted and there is no camping. In fact, ocean pollution, which results from Tijuana's sewage, runs from Imperial Beach in the United States all the way past Tijuana to Rosarito.
From Tijuana to the beautiful town of Ensenada, the landscape is hilly and arid with coastal scrub. The landmarks along the way include the party town of Rosarito, views and restaurants at Calafia, the lobster dinners at Puerto Nuevo, the unsurpassed vista to be seen at El Mirador (closed). An excellent spot to stop is the Half Way House, where Chef Johnny will make you a first-class meal.
This stretch of coast is famous for its surf spots: Baja Malibu, K38, K55, La Fonda, Salsipuedes, San Miguel. Dos Olas Surf Spot Facts. You should know, however, that this stretch of what used to mostly be wilderness is now being intensely developed into homes and condos to sell to U.S. tourists, who probably don't really surf and who are walling-off the beach. Accordingly, you can no longer access many spots and some are disappearing.
Nonetheless, much of the old-style charm remains. Old-style includes old-style "trailer parks" and stretches of beachfront where you can still camp in the Pacific breezes. Although disappearing in the face of subdivisions, you can find places on the ocean where a local landlord will let you put a little trailer up on blocks, build a deck onto it, and go surfing. (See CampoRivera.Com.) Although not free anymore, others will let you pitch a tent for a few bucks a day, and some make an effort to keep the environment natural and the beach clean (PlayaSaldamando.Com). Of course, Dos Olas believes that taco stands are never subject to overdevelopment. It's hard to find a bad restaurant in Ensenada. If you are a fan of food, Baja offers some particular specialties: fish tacos (deep fried fish chunks served with cabbage and salsa inside a warm corn tortilla), birria (spicy goat ("chivo"), lamb ("borrego"), or beef ("res") stew served with tortillas, cilantro, lime, onions, and salsa (mmm, good - have un orden de birria and think of us), salads with creamy cilantro dressing, ceasar salads (actually invented in Tijuana), and, of course, the margarita. To order a margarita the correct way, get it on the rocks with salt. ("Quiero una margarita en las rocas con sal, por favor.") After you try it, have another. ("Una más, por favor.")
Below Ensenada (and Maneadero, the town just South of Ensenada), the population thins out until the town of San Quintín.
San Quintín, once small, is now a sprawl along Highway 1, the highway that runs the entire length of Baja. San Quintín is the center of agriculture fields which stretch as far as the eye can see from the highway. The primary crop is tomato, and, in season, trucks filled with the fruit abound. Visitors beware the hazards of the roads in and around town. Traffic congestion often exceeds the demands of the single lane each direction, and numerous "machos" make a habit of undertaking very dangerous passes. Also, the highway between Ensenada and San Quintín can get a bit crazy in the evening, particularly on weekends. It is never recommended to drive Baja at night. Dos Olas, based on years of experience, has two solid recommendations on passing. First, if you are traveling through a populated area, passing doesn't actually get you there any faster - there's always another slow vehicle. Now, we agree that there's always going to be someone so slow that you have to pass; therefore our second recommendation is that you always check your rear-view before passing, because, by the time you are ready to pass, someone is often already passing you.
Surfing this stretch is easily done with any vehicle which can tolerate some dirt roads. After you leave Ensenada, you'll enter some mountainous terrain; you'll then descend into the Santo Tomás Valley and, before you go up into the mountains again (via the famous and steep Santo Tomás Grade) you will have the opportunity to stop and get gas at the town of Santo Tomás. Dos Olas generally recommends getting gas when you have the chance, and, if you surf the coast down to San Quintin, having gas is highly recommended. To get to the waves, after Santo Tomás, take the road West to Erendira and out to the Pacific. Once there, surf. As you drive South along the coast there are several well known camping and surf spots (bring your own firewood). After you get to Shipwrecks, you can turn back inland and pop out at San Quintín. Camping and fishing around San Quintin is not too difficult. If you want to hit a hotel, you may want to consider the Mision Santa Maria (its beach is unusually windy, if you're a kite boarder; it also used to be a "La Pinta" hotel and, before that, one of the El Presidente hotels) or The Old Mill (friendly and often used by sport fisherman). The Mision Santa Maria restaurant is pretty upscale; West of the Mision Santa Maria hotel is Celito Lindo (a trailer park which also offers some not-to-well-appointed rooms) which has a good restaurant and bar suited to more informal dining.
South of San Quintin the highway turns inland into the desert. The major landmarks are El Rosario (get gas), Catavina (no gas, except for some locals selling it out of cans), Punta Prieta (again, no gas station, but local entrepreneurs). South of Punta Prieta, it's a long stretch to Guerro Negro, a major town which is known for its salt works and whale watching. Catavina sits in the middle of a national park; the scenery, which is composed of humongous boulders and an array of cactus and local plants, is stunning. In fact, one local plant, the tall (60 feet) and spindly Cirio or Boojum Tree, grows here only and nowhere else in the world, and can be hundreds of years old. Catavina has a the Hotel Mision Catavina.
Along the way to Guerro Negro, campers are offered some golden opportunities to experience the Sea of Cortez, or Gulf of California. The dirt road to Gonzaga Bay is scenic, although an off-road capable vehicle is recommended, and ends at the beach. Gonzaga Bay is beautiful, with an airstrip and some houses (a few more than in the old days) and you can still camp along the beach nearby. Alphonsina's restaurant is good. Another straight shot to the gulf is at Punta Prieta, where travelers can turn off East and take the paved road to Los Angeles Bay. Once upon a time, Bajía De Los Angeles was a very small town. Nowadays it has a couple of airstrips, a full-time Pemex gas station, and a store with a check-out lane with a moving belt. The middle of town has a double-wide paved boulevard. Be aware that there is essentially no camping South of town (although "Campo Gecko" - about 4 miles South used to offer rustic cabañas and camping) or out around the bay to the South. However, North of town it is still possible to camp along the beach and there are several camps that offer palapas for a few dollars per day. Much of the beachfront at L.A. Bay has, in recent years, been built up with homes, but it still presents, with its sheltering islands and blue water, one of the prettiest sights in Baja. The surrounding deserts are populated by Cardón cactus, which can be 200 years old and weigh 10 tons.
Guerrero Negro is flat, dusty, often windy, and unique. It sits on the 38th Parallel, which splits Baja California Norte (Baja California Norte) from Baja California Sur (Southern Baja). Note: to cross this boundary, you must pass through an immigration check point and an agricultural check point. To be allowed through the immigration check point you must have a tourist visa and a passport. Whereas the town of Guerrero Negro is not quaint, it sits near Scammon's Lagoon, where the California grey whales come to breed. Tours to see the whales are easily obtained, but must be reserved reasonably far in advance. If you can get a good look at the salt works (the whale tours drive out to the bay through them), their immense size, and the immense size of the dump trucks used in them, make them a must see. A word to the wise - although on the coast, Guerrero Negro is not known for its camping opportunities. Do not expect that you will receive first-class accommodations at the La Pinta hotel (next to the modernistic giant eagle monument for the 38th Parallel); many of the rooms have ill-functioning bathrooms or other problems and the restaurant is nothing to write home about. Try the Malarrimo Motel in town instead; the food there is great.
South of Guerrero Negro, along Highway 1, the next jewel for travelers is San Ignacio (and, the La Pinta hotel here is pretty nice).
San Ignacio is literally an oasis, complete with hundreds of palm trees and a wide river. The little town of San Ignacio has everything to recommend it, including a beautiful church right next to a museum devoted to the archeological history of the region. Don't miss the fact that, next to the entrance to the museum is the museum office where you can can schedule a visit to the local spectacular cave paintings (you need to buy a ticket, and they will call to arrange an INAH guide). La Cueva Ratón (Mouse Cave) is north, back up the highway towards Guerrero Negro, and then into the mountains, right next to the village of La Sierra De San Francisco. Plan this as a day trip and Dos Olas recommends that you do not attempt it without a reliable, high-clearance, four wheel drive vehicle. In any event, although you can't surf San Ignacio, the road out of the back of town leads back out to the Pacific where you can surf (watch out during October into November, however, because off-road enthusiasts pre-run the Baja 1000 through San Ignacio, and they do not drive slowly). San Ignacio offers a range of opportunities for staying over, from picnic spots and camp sites to hotels. Have a unique experience at the Ignacio Springs Bed and Breakfast (IgnacioSprings.Com) where you can stay in a yurt (a Mongolian-style tent) and enjoy wonderful home cooked meals. See the video:
Or, you can stay at another local landmark, Casa Lereé (CasaLeree.Com). Again, see the video:
After San Ignacio, Highway 1 pops back out onto the sea on the Sea of Cortez side at Santa Rosalía. This town is the port for the ferry which connects to the mainland of Mexico. Don't just pass it by, however, because it has, as with all of Baja, its share of hidden treasure. For instance, it is your only chance in Baja to see the work of Eiffel, the dude who built the Eiffel Tower. The town church was made entirely of metal by Eiffel for the World's Fair; in 1897, it was discovered in pieces in France and shipped, lock, stock and barrel, to Santa Rosalía where it now stands, and is used, as the town church - unique and picturesque. There are also some shops, and a bakery (panadería) founded more than 100 years ago near the church. (Dos Olas notes, however, that the pan in the panadería is good, but we've had a better selection before.) Santa Rosalía is the beginning of the increasingly tropical side of Baja, so it's definitely greener near the beach. Also, it is the Sea of Cortez, so there is plenty of sea life. Of course, there's no surfing here, but camping is possible South of townaround Calleta San Lucas (e.g., San Lucas RV Park). A word to the wise, Santa Rosalía does not have sandy beaches, and "camping" means palapas nearby to others. Dos Olas, last time we were there, saw that just North of Calleta San Lucas, an adventurous camper could manage to drive out to the water and be away from neighbors - it looked like some development might take place in the near future, but there were a couple of nice camp spots with nobody apparently preventing their use.
The route from Santa Rosalia to Cabo San Lucas is a series of adventures and spectacular views: Mulege, Loreto, Puerto Escondido, La Paz. Mexicans are huge fans of camping, so share some of their spots with them and keep it wild!