Grab yourself a cheapo rental car, a map and an enthusiastic travelling companion, and you're perfectly equipped for a budget trip through Mexico's Baja peninsula
Crossing the border from San Diego into Tijuana for the first time is an unnerving experience as you descend from the Greyhound bus and hit the red button that randomly decides if the burly, moustachioed and laughably stereotypical Mexican border guard is going to search your every item for the twin evils of drugs and guns.
Luckily for my companion Morgan and I, there was to be no search today, and so within 10 minutes we were standing in the Tijuana office of Enterprise rent-a-car with two non-English speaking attendants trying to prise our pre-booked car from their administrative mitts. Half an hour of unhurried negotiations and we were on the road, cruising the streets thinking about staying for a night of partying in the legendarily violent party town at the northern end of the Baja peninsula. It wasn’t long before sense dawned and we got on the road heading south along the coast for the town of Ensenada to pick up the documentation needed to legally drive out of Baja California and into Baja California Sur.
Ensenada is a bustling port and the last sizeable town for around 800 miles. It is also home to the start and finish line of the infamous Baja 1000 off-road race, which happened to be finishing the day we arrived. Buzzing with amazing off-road cars and trucks, we spent the rest of the afternoon strolling the fishy boulevards, checking the motors and demolishing copious number of fresh tacos pescados (fish tacos) washed down with Pacifico beer. Nirvana.
The evening was seen off at Hussong’s Cantina, where the margarita was born and where it still tastes better than anywhere I’ve ever drunk it (which is quite a few places). A comfy night at the excellent and wallet-massagingly cheap Hotel Ritz ensued, as did a hangover for the long drive south the next day. The Mexican Highway 1 is a single road that runs the length of the Baja peninsula. It is majestic in its length, straightness and, despite the never-ending phenomenal scenery, monotony.
At times straight as a die, at others a roller coaster of mountainous hairpin corners, the landscape is a constantly moving and changing image, from vast vineyards to scrubby desert land. It's peppered with the odd ramshackle village or small town, where the soporific residents raise only the mildest interest as you cruise through before returning to their daily lives of watching the world go by anyway.
Then you hit the spectacular cactus forest, the Parque Natural del Desierto Central. Stretching for around 100 miles, the spiked forms of these hardy plants render the horizon ragged and are spellbinding in their diversity and proliferation. As we rolled into the backwater of Guerrero Negro late that night we felt exhausted but somehow privileged to have driven through such an alien landscape.
The same cannot be said for our stay in Guerrero Negro, officially the most horrible place I have ever visited. Not a single motel in this salt-farming town could be described as close to one star, and we were back on the road at first light next day headed for the sanctity of the east coast and Sea of Cortez. Another full day’s driving, much of it along the stunning Cortez coastline, was interrupted only by a stroll around the Misión San Ignacio Kadakaamán, one of the best preserved missions from the early 18th Century, located in the quaint, authentic San Ignacio village.
Continuing south, we rolled into the picturesque and popular town of Mulegé in time for early evening and took a room at the wonderful Hotel Las Casitas, a series of modest rooms surrounding a tropical outdoor patio restaurant and bar. The blended margarita is a must - the sporadic power supply caused problems with the hand blender but was met with a smile and a shrug from the unfazed waitress.
With images of cacti and tarmac emblazoned on my retinas, the next day was spent exploring the indescribably epic Bahía Concepcíon, a series of semi-deserted white sand beaches fringed by crystal-clear azure blue seas and bays. With our only companions a trio of local beachcombers hawking their homemade trinkets and two friendly roaming dogs, we explored and sunned ourselves along Playa Santispac, Playa Coyote and the dazzling sandbar of Playa El Requesón.
Distinctly sun-kissed, we headed off with the sun going down to what would be our southernmost destination, Loreto. Over three days we stayed at the excellent Iguana Inn and the quirkier, more intimate Hotel Luna, attached to the Giggling Dolphin bar and restaurant, a superbly authentic Mexican eatery and drinking hole frequented by locals and American ex-pats in search of the quiet life.
Days were spent exploring the remote village and mission of San Javier, a hairy 36km off-road drive away down river beds and up dirt tracks through squawking flocks of buzzards; sunning ourselves on the private beaches of the Inn at Loreto Bay, a bizarre real-estate and resort development still under construction since the 1980s; and visiting local islands in the Loreto Bay National Marine Park. The best of these was the island of Coronado, where, with our smiling captain and the good boat Marge, we spent an afternoon swimming with seals and dolphins, lazing on the beach with no one in sight and trying to think of ways to get out of the long drive home.
It was to no avail though, and with only two days left on our car rental and fines for leaving at a different Enterprise rent-a-car branch astronomical, we drove the long road north, once again via a one-night stay in Guerrero Negro, but the less said about that the better. After all, the rest of Baja is an undeveloped paradise just begging to be explored. But if you’re going, take my advice: book two weeks because 10 days just wasn’t enough.