Oceans, mountains, valleys, desert, giant cacti, whales, sea lions, tacos and beaches – taking a Baja California road trip down Mexico’s famous Ruta 1 (Route 1) gives you a lot to play with; over a thousand kilometres of coastline to play with, in fact.
I visited the Baja California peninsula for the first time a few years ago but I only managed to explore the south. This summer, I returned to complete the real dream – to travel from tip to toe down the Baja California peninsula, driving from Tijuana to Cabo San Lucas.
Your Ultimate Baja California Road Trip Itinerary
In under 2 weeks, I made the drive south and what follows is my suggested Baja California road trip itinerary including the best places to visit in Baja California, where to stay, driving tips, practical details like when you need to refuel (there’s a long stretch with no gas stations for hundreds of kilometres/miles), visas, and the question that will be on many of your minds – is Baja California safe?
If you have more that 2 weeks for your itinerary, I’ve included a few extra stops you can make. And if you’re on a tighter deadline, you might want to consider flying between the north and south, to skip a couple of days’ driving. Whichever way you do your Baja road trip, it’s going to give you an epic experience that you’ll be recounting for years…probably decades to come.
I’ve included a map of my route at the end.
If you’re in La Paz as part of a longer Mexico trip, you might be interested in my post about taking the Baja Ferry between Topolobampo (for Copper Canyon) and La Paz.
What to see and do in Tijuana
Tijuana has a reputation that precedes it. Whether your nervous because someone who’s never been has declared it the most dangerous place on earth (it’s not – and there are statistics to back this up) or you imagine Tijuana to be akin to the wild west with shootouts to match, you’re going to have your expectations pleasantly (or disappointingly, depending on your viewpoint) shattered.
If you’re coming from the USA, Tijuana is likely to be the starting point for your Baja California road trip. Don’t just skip through – it’s an exciting city packed with things to do. Here are some of my favourites.
Hit the beach at Playas de Tijuana
It took me two trips to realise that the best of Tijuana is ocean side. About 10 minute by car from the border, you can dip your toes or snack on fish tacos until your heart’s content. Stay for the sunset.
Check out the craft beer scene
Tijuana’s nightlife isn’t just neon cocktails and cheap tequila shots. The city produces some fine craft brews which you can consume in some very funky brewery settings.
Go shopping at Mercado Hidalgo
Tijuana is busting with shopping opportunities but if you’re looking for something more than Nike, Mecado Hidalgo if focused on local produce and goods.
Photo opportunities: Monumental Arch and the banderas monumental (gigantic Mexican flag).
Where to stay in Tijuana
Aqua Rio Hotel – A budget hotel in a good location with very friendly management. I’ve stayed here before and would happily recommend it.
Lifestyle Hostel – if you’re on a very low budget, you can’t beat this hostel for price and location (across the road from the beach). I’ve also stayed here.
Tijuana Marriott – if you want a more upmarket stay, the Tijuana Marriott is going to be one of your best options in the city.
Tip: check reviews before you book. Accommodation is generally safe but some hotels prey on the quick turn around of tourists and will help themselves to your valuables while you’re out. Stick to hotels that have plenty of positive reviews.
Check out my related post: The Ultimate Guide to Visiting Tijuana from San Diego which includes what to see and do, where to eat, tours to take and practical details like how to cross the border from San Diego to Tijuana.
Where I didn’t get to but you might want to
Tecate – a short drive east of Tijuana, Tecate is the town where they brew one of Mexico’s most popular beers called… Tecate.
Rosarito beach – a 30 minute drive from Tijuana, Rosarito beach is home to a gigantic film studio where ocean scenes from Titanic and Pearl Harbour were filmed. It looks fun but if you have limited time, I’d press on south where you’re going to find much more beautiful beaches.
Tips for driving from Tijuana
- if you’re hiring a car for your Mexico road trip, I’d recommend doing it in Tijuana rather than the USA. This avoids paperwork for taking your car over the border (you need permission) and the rental is typically cheaper.
- there are plenty of big brand rental companies at Tijuana Airport (a short taxi drive if you cross the border by foot). I used Rentalcars, which was the cheapest at the time I booked.
- if it’s your first time in Mexico and you’re a little nervous (consuming mainstream media will do that to you), take a few days to acclimatise in Tijuana. You’ll quickly become comfortable with Mexico.
Driving from San Diego to Cabo San Lucas? Check out my related post:
What to see and do in Ensenada
Less than 2 hours south of Tijuana, Ensenada is a great second stop on your Baja California road trip, not least because the nearby Valle de Guadalupe has vineyards that can compete with those up in Napa Valley for a snip of the cost and with a fraction of the tourism.
Go wine tasting in the Valle de Guadalupe
Wine tasting is top of my favourite things to do in Baja California. In fact, I enjoyed it so much, I wrote a whole post about it: How to Go Wine Tasting in Ensenada.
I booked with Baja Wine and Sun Tours because, you know, don’t drink and drive, kids. I’ve also managed to get you an exclusive 10% off with this tour compamy. Just use the code INDIANAJO when you email to book. You can find out more about Baja Wine and Sun Tours here.
Visit La Bufadora
Who doesn’t love a sea geyser that shoots water into the air? I confess, I didn’t quite make it to La Bufadora (I blame the wine tasting and the GPS). To make sure you get there, you might want to book a tour.
Go ziplining over the canyons
Baja California is canyon country which screams – ‘zipline’. You can book a ziplining adventure here.
Don’t miss: Two for one beers in Hussong’s – Ensenada’s oldest bar where you can listen to mariachi play all night.
Where to stay in Ensenada
Hotel Coral & Marina – as well as being one of the best hotels in Ensenada, you get the benefits of a pool and proximity to the centre.
Hotels Sausalito – a clean and safe budget option (under $50) just off Route 1. Bonus: there’s a fun craft beer brewery, Agua Mala, just opposite. This is where I stayed.
Tips for driving from Ensenada to Baja Sur
- I’m not going to dance around it – there is not much to see or do after leaving Ensenada so you’re going to be faced with one very long or two longish days of driving. For the first few hours the cacti will amaze you with their grandeur. By hour nine, you might be contemplating taking one of the spiky thorns and injuring your co-passengers just to bring an end to the drive.
- The winding, one lane road is spectacular – no doubt – but it makes for slow going as you face trucks and blind bends every few miles. My tip is to start out early and take as few breaks as you safely can to cover as many miles to get yourself south.
- There is one solid stretch between north and south where you won’t see a gas station for close to 400 km (250 miles). Your last chance to refuel is in El Rosario (details below), which is south of Ensenada. You’ll find fuel again in Guerrero Negro. Likewise: water and snacks so stock up. Just type ‘Pemex map baja’ into Google and a map with the Pemex stations will pop up.
Don’t confuse your Rosario, Rosarito(s) and Rosalia
If you had to read that title twice, you’ll have an idea how easy it is to end up in the wrong town in Baja California. Not something you want to do when you have over 1000 km of road to traverse.
Going from north to south you have:
Rosarito – close to Tijuana – the place with the film studio mentioned above.
El Rosario – nearly 400km (6hr 30) drive south of Tijuana and the last chance to refuel before heading south to Guerrero Negro. It’s a tempting overnight stop to carve up the long distance between Baja Norte and Baja Sur…except there is nothing there for tourists. I think I saw one taco shack in the rearview mirror.
Rosarito, near Santa Rosaliíta – also en route to Guerrero Negro, also nothing to be seen here.
Santa Rosalía, over on the east of the peninsula. I didn’t make it on this trip but I believe it’s a beautiful stop between Guerrero Negro and Loreto.
What to see and do in Guerrero Negro
Here’s the rub with Guerrero Negro – visit during peak (whale watching) season and you’re in a prime spot. Visit when the whales aren’t home and Guerrero Negro is like an out of season beach town, which is how it was when I visited. Either way, this is likely to be your first overnight stop since leaving Baja Norte and you’ll love the place if only for the promise of getting out of the car and resting your head (and back) for a while.
Out of season, most visitors roll in for the night and are out by the first light of day. If you’re there when the whales are around, clearly you’d spend a day doing that.
Whale watching (December to April)
And we’re not talking about any old whales here – we’re talking about Californian grey whales and, in particular, their (not so little) baby calves. Looking for a video to share with you, I was horrified at the number of ‘petting grey whales’ videos that I saw – because as responsible travellers we all know not to interact with the wildlife. But then I read this article on National Geographic by a man who’s been photographing whales for 20 years. Apparently, the whales in this part of Baja are different – they initiate and court human attention, making this experience all the more special. Next time I take a Baja California road trip, this is going at the top of my list.
Rest & Refuel
If you’re visiting Guerrero Negro outside whale watching season, you’ll spend the first 10 minutes thinking ‘I wish it was whale watching season’. Once you get over that fact, you’ll just be glad to have a rest from the road. My room had a little patio where I enjoyed a beer and read my book under the Mexican sun before feasting on food that didn’t come out of a plastic packet.
I opted for a room just off Ruta 1 to continue the journey in the morning –
Hotel Los Caracoles – which came with a small patio and a decent shower. I ate at Malarrimo Restaurant, a restaurant just down the road which had excellent fish and a pretty garden-style courtyard to relax with a glass of wine.
Where I didn’t get to but you might want to
Guerrero Negro was the first sensible pitstop after leaving Baja Norte and Loreto next on my list. However, there are a few additional stops between Guerrero Negro and Loreto if you have time.
San Ignacio – a tiny mission town set on a lake, San Ignacio offers inland water – a sight you won’t have seen for a while.
Santa Rosalía – a big bay and black sand beach, I would have stopped here but having visited the south before, I was focused on getting to La Paz.
Mulegé – you’ve got canyons, beaches, kayaking and – literally – palm fringed shorelines. In fact, some of Baja California’s most iconic beach shots are taken in and around Mulegé. Please visit and tell me how much I missed out, because I feel like I did miss something when I skipped past Mulegé. I can only blame car brain for my decision.
What to see and do in Loreto
I don’t know whether it was the prospect of a couple of nights in the same spot or having finally made it two thirds of the way down the peninsula but I was overcome with happiness when I reached Loreto. It could also be that this mission town is just so beautiful that it became one of the highlights of my trip.
Wander the historic streets
Missionaries moved into Loreto in the 1600s and the there is a real sense of history as you wander around the old town.
Stroll along the malecón
By the time you reach Loreto, you’re in Baja Sur proper and en route you’ll have seen the ocean that probably drew you to this part of the world in the first place. Enjoy it without a plate of windscreen in front of your eyes – take a stroll along the malecón.
Tip: don’t forget to get a shot of the Loreto sign by the beach. There’s a sister sign in La Paz if you want a matching set.
Where to stay in Loreto
La Mision Loreto – on the sea front and right in the centre, if you’re after historic boutique luxury, La Mision is hard to beat.
Hotel Plaza Loreto – spacious, affordable rooms in a great spot in the centre of Loreto with a cute courtyard for relaxing at night and an attached cafe for coffee in the morning. This is where I stayed.
Driving tips from Loreto
- by the time you hit Loreto, the driving becomes plain sailing (if you get what I mean). Journeys rarely take more than four or five hours, the views are varied and there are plenty of fuel stops along the way.
- if you’re sick of driving, you might want to continue on by bus – connections are good, prices reasonable and most bus terminals are located within the major towns and cities in the south.
What to see and do in La Paz
Baja California is one of my favourite places in Mexico (said by the girl who’s visited nearly half of Mexico’s states). And within Baja California, La Paz is my favourite spot. I first visited a couple of years ago and on this return trip to the Baja peninsula, it was the promise of La Paz that helped me push on through the long desert drive.
Swim with the Sea Lions in the Sea of Cortz
Apart from the turquoise waters of the Sea of Cortez, the major benefit of swimming with the sea lions in La Paz, versus whale watching, is you’re not tied to the seasons. Take a day-long boat trip and get to explore some of the areas best beaches on Isla Espiritu Santo.
See the sunsets
The sunsets in La Paz are sublime. They set over the water, right in front of the malecón which handily has plenty of bars, cafes and restaurants to complete the experience.
Go sculpture spotting
La Paz is dotted with impressive sculptures, usually with a nautical or ocean theme. You don’t need to walk very far before stumbling across a giant peal that is twice the size of your average human.
Tip: There is a lot to see and do in La Paz so I’d recommend staying a few nights here. It’s much less touristy than Los Cabos so unless you’re looking to tuck yourself away in a resort surrounded by US vacationers, La Paz will be the better place to linger.
Check out my related post: 10 Best Things to Do in La Paz Mexico
Where to stay in La Paz
Hyatt Place – a beautiful spot in the marina with a trusted brand that gets great reviews.
La Perla – one of the most prominent large hotels that is slap-bang in the centre of La Paz.
Hotel Lorimar – just a block from the sea, this is a great budget choice for under $50 a night. This is where I stayed.
What to see and do in Todos Santos
Todos Santos is en route from La Paz to Los Cabos and absent the very famously named hotel, this spot would barely be on the map. As it is, Hotel California draws the crowds and tourism in the form of tequila bars, restaurants and souvenir shops have popped up as a result.
Visit Hotel California
There is significant dispute online about whether the famously named Hotel California in Todos Santos is the hotel behind the well-known Eagles song of the same name. The band deny it and, I believe after legal action, the hotel no longer claims it. However, there is a significant body of fans who can’t shake the similarities between the location of the hotel and the lyrics of the song:
“On a dark desert highway..” which is where you will find Todos Santos.
“Warm smell of colitas, rising up through the air..” colitas is a word used in Mexico to describe the tip of the marijuana plant.
“I heard the mission bells…” and there is, of course, a mission in Todos Santos (Nuestra Señora del Pilar de La Paz).
Regardless of the truth behind the song and the hotel name, visiting Hotel California is a fun stop on your Baja California road trip. I’d highly recommend spending at night here because, if nothing else, you’ll get a high-end, beautifully decorated hotel with a cute plunge pool.
For the record: It was possible to check out any time you like AND you leave, which was a relief because I had a flight to catch.
Tip: There isn’t a huge amount to do in Todos Santos besides visit the hotel. There are a few nice restaurants and cafés (I enjoyed Todos Pecados for dinner and CAFELIX for breakfast). So, if you’re pushed for time, I’d recommend you just drive through.
What to see and do in Los Cabos
Let’s start with the name – Los Cabos is the collective name that covers both Cabo San Lucas and San Juan del Cabo. Most people will be more familiar with the former, which is home to big resorts and Americanized restaurants like Señor Frogs, payment is usually in dollars and it doesn’t take a great deal to forget that you’re south of the USA border.
San Juan del Cabo still has some of these trappings but offers a much more local experience. The two Cabos are connected by a short motorway corridor and I’d recommend visiting both to compare the two.
Hit the Beach
You’ve travelled from tip to toe down the Baja California peninsular – I think you’ve earned some beach time. Try Lover’s beach (or the connected Divorce beach if you prefer). You’ll find surf at Zippers. Just avoid the main public beaches unless you want to play sardines in a tin.
Explore the art galleries in San Juan del Cabo
If you’re sick of the souvenir stands touting t-shirts with ‘One tequila, two tequila, three tequila, floor’, spent some time browsing the local art galleries of San Jose del Cabo.
Party like it’s spring break
I once ended up, quite by accident, in Cancun during spring break… with my father. I know, I know, not one of my proudest moments. But it gave me enough insight to suggest that you skip Los Cabos over this popular holiday. However, if you want to cut loose and get your party on, Cabo San Lucas is by far the biggest party town to do it during your Baja California road trip.
Where to stay in Los Cabos
Baja Cactus Hostel is one of only two hostels in Cabo San Lucas (the other is Bed & Breakfast 1 Block from the Beach). I stayed at Baja Cactus on my first trip to Baja California and it was a great budget option as a solo traveller.
Baja California road trip – Useful information
How long do you need to drive from Tijuana to Cabo San Lucas?
The drive from Tijuana to Cabo San Lucas is 1,625 km and, according to Google maps, takes about 20 hours in total. Of course, you’re not going to drive this all in one go. The itinerary above features seven stops and in theory you could drive one way in seven days. However, I wouldn’t recommend it. You’d spend most of your time in the car and the rest of your time decompressing your spine from hours of driving. That would leave very little time to explore the destinations.
I would recommend spending two weeks if you’re driving one way and adding another four days to a week if you’re doing a return trip by car. There are some fun spots in the north, a few decent sites around the centre but the real highlights are to be found in the south so I’d suggest focusing most of your time there.
Driving one way or both ways
I drove one way and I was very relieved that I wouldn’t have to ply the same route back. For the first four hours, Baja California’s immense desert landscape and gigantic cacti (which are some of the biggest in the world) will drop your jaw. Anything after that is just repetition and spending an additional 20 hours re-seeing the same sites didn’t strike me as a fun way to spend my life.
If you plan ahead, you can usually pick up cheap flights from Cabo or La Paz back north (check here with Skyscanner). If flying into the USA is too expensive, look at flights to Tijuana and cross the border by foot.
Most car rental companies will allow you to collect and drop off your rental in different locations. This usually adds to the cost but some of that money will be recouped by not having to pay fuel for a return trip.
Hiring a car
As I’ve already mentioned, it should generally be cheaper and easier to hire a car once you’re within Mexico rather than bringing it from the USA. Rentalcars was the cheapest when I did my car hire and they have offices in most of the major stops in Baja California.
Obviously, if you’re driving your own car you will need to make the return journey so make sure you build in enough time.
Do you need a 4WD?
I didn’t have a four-wheel-drive or off-road vehicle and was able to get to every place I wanted to explore.
What about taking the bus?
You might be pleasantly pleased to find that there are very decent bus connections throughout Baja California. In fact, the first time I visited, I travelled around Baja Sur just by bus. And, if you get south and are sick of driving, getting between Loreto, Todos Santos, La Paz and Los Cabos is an affordable breeze. I’ve not tried the busses in the North but I imagine it’s equally easy to travel between Tijuana and Ensenada. What doesn’t look fun is sitting on a bus travelling between north and south. However, if you’re travelling solo and on budget, getting around by bus is do-able. Just hook up with some local tours to get to those spots that the buses don’t go.
You can read more about taking the bus within Baja California in my related post about La Paz.
End to end, from Tijuana to Cabo San Lucas by bus, the journey takes about 24 hours and costs around $100, one-way. There are at least two buses each day and you can find the schedule and prices here.
While Google may predict 20 hours, the real-time will be longer when you add in stops and, inevitably, getting stuck behind slow-moving trucks on winding mountain roads. As an estimate, I think I took an extra 5 to 10 hours during the whole drive for coffee breaks, taco snacks and sitting behind lorries.
What’s the time in Baja California
On the topic of time, there is a one-hour time difference between Baja Norte, which is on Pacific Standard Time and Baja Sur, which is on Mountain Standard Time. So, you’ll lose an hour when you leave the north and hit the south (it happens at the north/south border).
Routes and maps
It’s pretty hard to get lost in Baja California – get on route 1 and stay on it until you hit the bottom. And in a world of Google Maps and Maps.me, you might wonder why I’m mentioning maps at all. Well, because cartoonesque maps by Got Baja are the cutest maps you’ll probably ever see. You can pick them up in most stops in Baja California and there are interactive maps online here if you’re planning hotel and restaurant stops.
Refuelling along the way (gas and food)
You really need to plan your fuel stops as you pass from north to south Baja California (more details above under driving tips from Ensenada). Pemex (the popular gas station in Mexico) is otherwise ubiquitous in both the north and south of Baja.
And it’s not just your car that will need refuelling. In and around the major towns and cities, there is no end of food options. However, on that long stretch from Ensenada to Guerrero Negro, there was just one taco stop and if you don’t like swarming flies with your carne asada, you should pack a picnic (clearly not the tacos above – they were divine). Calimax is a popular supermarkets chain with good fresh food and water. OXXO (equivalent to 7-Eleven) will serve your packaged snacks and coffee needs.
Packing tip: I travel with a Swiss Army Knife which includes a can opener, bottle opener, knife (good for slicing avodado, cheese and tomato) and a saw (perfect for cutting bread). Here’s the one I use.
Far be it for me to give you a lecture on road safety. But I do want you to come back to my blog and you need to be alive to do that so… being alert is probably going to be your biggest challenge when the scenery starts to feel samey, just as you’re tackling bend after bend with no coffee stops in sight. Stock up with energy drinks if you think you’ll need them, get some (offline) playlists stored on your phone and take a rest if you need to.
I wouldn’t recommend driving during the dark. As well as having to deal with sheer drops and unlit roads, carjackings have taken place on Ruta 1 and we all know that criminals work best at night when there are no other cars around.
I travelled during July and August and was able to book rooms as little as a day ahead. If there is a particular hotel you want to visit, I’d recommend planning things a bit further ahead. However, the advantage of booking last-minute/as you go is that you can see how you feel when you get to each spot. Do you want to rest? Do you want to explore? Do you want to press on?
Mobile signal along the route
Largely, you’ll have mobile signal in the north and the south but during that central stretch where fuel stations disappear so does your mobile connection.
Do you need a visa?
Want to find out about Mexican visas? See my related post: Visiting Tijuana from San Diego – The Ultimate Guide
How much does it cost?
I took a basic car (but got an upgrade!) and generally stayed in budget hotels with one splurge at Hotel California. I drank to my heart’s content but I’m not much of a shopper. Against that background, here’s what I spent:
$475 – Car hire
$130 – Fuel (including a few toll fees at around $2 each time)
$485 – Accommodation
$425 – day to day expenses (food, activities etc.)
Is Baja California safe?
I’ve written about Mexico and safety more than once. You can read my more detailed posts here, here and here. I’m going out on a limb when I say this but I have no concerns recommending a Baja California road trip. I’ve done it twice and had no worries or problems either time. Of course, shit can happen but you’d have to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, which can happen in any part of the world, not just Mexico.
Map of my Baja California road trip itinerary
And that’s my guide to taking a Baja California road trip. Got any questions? Let me know in the comments below and I’ll do my best to answer them.
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