How to go Truck Camping in Baja California, Mexico: A Beginner’s guide

In March of 2023 we returned from our second multi-month road trip spanning the entire length of Mexico’s Baja California peninsula. In the days leading up to the beginning of our first trip, we were second guessing everything. Had we done enough research? Had we packed everything we would need? What would we be able to buy and not buy while in Mexico? There were so many unknowns for our first ever trip to another country in our truck camper. We had to make peace with the fact that there was no way to know everything. Online research will only get you so far. At some point you just have to go and see what you find.⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀

While we hardly know everything there is to know about camping in Baja, we do feel far more knowledgable now than before our first trip. And with all that information (that I so badly craved back then) I want to put it to good use and share it here for those of you looking to embark on a Mexico road trip for the first time.

about the Baja California Peninsula

  • The Baja California peninsula is comprised of two Mexican states, Baja California & Baja California Sur.
  • The total length of the Peninsula from Mexicali to Cabo San Lucas is 938 miles (1511 kilometers).
  • The peninsula separates the Pacific ocean from the Gulf of California (also known as the Sea of Cortez).
  • There’s approximately 1800 miles of coastline, much of it uninhabited, offering extraordinary camping opportunities.
  • Baja California is on Pacific time and does observe daylight savings. Baja California Sur is on mountain time and does not observe daylight savings.
Free beach camping near San Juanico.

Required documents for camping in mexico

  • Mexican auto insurance (we use Baja Bound)
  • A valid passport
  • Driver’s license
  • Vehicle registration
  • FMM tourist permit (purchase from the immigration office immediately after crossing the border in to Mexico)

*Note: If you’re planning to drive your vehicle to mainland Mexico, a Temporary vehicle import permit is required. (TIPs are not required for driving your vehicle in Baja)

Crossing the border in to Mexico

We’ve crossed at both Mexicali East and Los Algodones. Mexicali is a large city with all services. Los Algodones is a small, rural border town. Now that we’re familiar with driving in Mexico, we prefer the small Los Algodones crossing but are glad we went through Mexicali for our first time.

We’ve been stopped by Mexican border agents for a quick inspection, we’ve also been waved right through.

What is an FMM? Is an FMM required for traveling in Mexico?

An FMM (tourist visa) is required for travel in Baja.  They are only available at the border crossings (as well as Ensenada). FMMs *typically* grant 180 days of travel in Mexico.

It is your responsibility to find the immigration office and get your FMM. If you’re not paying attention, it’s easy to end up on the streets of Mexico without even realizing you’ve missed your opportunity to get your FMM. Either be on the lookout for the immigration office or do some research before you cross so you know exactly where you’re going.

Click here for an annotated map for the Mexicali East (Calexico) crossing.

Where can I cross the border to Baja California?

From West to East:

  • Tijuana (San Ysidro)
  • Tijuana (Otay Mesa)
  • Tecate
  • Mexicali West (Calexico)
  • Mexicali East (Calexico)
  • Los Algodones (Andrade)
  • San Luis Rio Colorado (San Luis is located in the Mexican state of Sonora though only a few miles from the Baja California border. While Temporary Import Permits are required for vehicles traveling in much of Sonora, San Luis is located within Sonora’s permit-free zone meaning you do not need a Temporary Import Permit for your vehicle. Baja California & Baja California Sur do not require TIPs)

How long will it take to cross the border?

Crossing in to Mexico has never taken us more than 15 minutes. Crossing back to the states depends on a variety of factors from time of day, day of week, and what crossing you use. We aim to cross back in to the states before 10am on a weekday. Click here to see border wait times on the US Customs and Border Patrol website.

Waiting to cross back in to the US at Mexicali East.

What it’s like to drive in Mexico

Driving around Baja is mostly chill with a few exceptions. Many sections of highway have zero shoulder, passing commercial truck traffic requires your attention. Many of the towns have narrow streets. We tow a small 12′ trailer that Mark handles beautifully but is stressful from time to time. Towing anything larger could be challenging, though plenty of people do it. A few tips and what to look out for while driving in Mexico:

  • Watch closely for stop signs or “Alto”s.  They tend to hide and can be on either side of the road. While Mexicans rarely stop at stop signs, we do as we don’t want to give police a reason to pull us over.
  • Watch even more closely for speed bumps or “Topes”.  They’re everywhere and come out of nowhere. Some are marked, many are not.
  • We adhere to speed limits in town.  On highways we typically drive between 55mph & 65mph. The highway speed limits range anywhere from 35-65mph but people seem to drive whatever speed they feel like. (Speed limit signs are in kilometers)
  • On the highways, Mexicans will use their left blinker to indicate it’s safe for you to pass.  They’ll use their hazards to warn of something in the road.
  • The #1 rule in Mexico is to not drive at night.  Primarily because of road hazards such as potholes and animals in the road.
Heading south on Baja California Sur’s Highway 1.

Pesos

  • Credit cards are not accepted everywhere so you’ll want to get some pesos as soon as you arrive in Mexico.
  • We use ATMs from any local bank to get pesos.
  • Get smaller bills whenever the opportunity arises.  Some of the smaller establishments are unable to break large bills.
  • Although the exchange rate changes, we do a 20:1 calculation for quick, easy math that will get us close. For example, 500 pesos divided by 20 is $25. That gets us within a few dollars of the actual cost and is easier than constantly using a calculator.

What about bank fees?

We opened a checking account with Charles Schwab when we started traveling to Baja as there are no foreign transaction fees and unlimited ATM fee rebates.

Check with your bank before traveling to Mexico to find out what they charge for foreign transactions.

Loreto’s malecon at sunrise.

Gas

  • There are long stretches without gas so fill up when you have the opportunity.
  • All gas stations are full-service.  You won’t pump your own gas while traveling in Baja.
  • Make sure the attendant zeros out the meter reading before filling your tank.
  • The colors of the pump handles are different than in the US. If you have a diesel tank a green pump does not mean diesel. For diesel you’ll often find that it’s an entirely different pump from the unleaded section.
  • It’s customary to tip about 10 pesos.
Filling up at Pemex, the predominate gas station in Baja.

Military Checkpoints

  • There are 5 or 6 military checkpoints along the length of the peninsula.  
  • At best we’ve been waved through, at worst we’ve gotten a 5 minute long inspection.  
  • The most common questions are about where you’re headed and if you have any “arma” or “drogas” (guns or drugs).  
  • Their English is often limited but they’re used to the communication barrier.
  • While these young men carrying machine guns can be intimidating at first, they’re just doing their job. You’ll quickly become accustomed to this routine stop while traveling throughout Baja.  

Where to find water for your camper

We fill our water jugs with filtered water from “agua purificada” stations.  We find them using the iOverlander app.  If you have a built-in water tank in your truck camper or RV, you may need to try a few different stations or do a little research on iOverlander first. Not every vendor offers a hose.

Don’t forget, you never want to drink the tap water in Mexico.
A filtered water station in Guerrero Negro.

Food & Groceries

  • While there are no fast food restaurants in Baja, there are restaurants, food trucks, and taco stands everywhere.
  • There are a lot of small towns and villages in Baja without a traditional grocery store. Though you can almost always count on there being a small mercado with some of the basics.
  • Traditional grocery stores have dairy, produce, and meat offerings but vary from what is offered in the states. For example, deli meat is of the bologne variety, and cheddar cheese is hard to find. Cereals and chips are widely available. Overall, there is much less of a selection as what we’re accustomed to in the states. If there are convenience foods or specialty products that you like, stock up before you leave the US. If you like eating and preparing Mexican food, you’re golden.
  • Bring your own reusable shopping bags, there are few stores in Baja that provide them.
  • It’s customary to tip 10 or so pesos to the person bagging your groceries.
  • Look for Tortillerias for fresh, homemade corn (maiz) and flour (harina) tortillas.
  • Look for produce stands for fresh produce.
  • If you’re traveling with a dog, there’s not a wide variety of dog food. If they require a certain brand, bring enough with you for your trip.
Tacos El Muelle in Guerrero Negro, possibly the best fish tacos in all of Baja.

The language barrier

We knew very little Spanish for our first trip to Mexico. We’d heard from plenty of people that that wouldn’t be a problem. While we definitely could get by, it was harder than expected. Here’s what we learned:

  • Not knowing the language at all is exhausting. For the first week of our first trip we were worn out by the constant not-knowing…not being able to read signs on the road, not being able to read labels in the stores, not being able to communicate in stores, restaurants, and campgrounds.
  • When you don’t know any aspect of the language, it’s hard to pick up anything as your brain tends to short-circuit from the overwhelm (or at least ours did). Learning just a little bit goes a long way.
  • If you stick to the tourist-y areas, you’re likely to encounter many English-speaking Mexicans. If you’d like to venture in to towns and restaurants that aren’t tourist traps, that is less likely to happen.
  • You don’t need to be fluent in Spanish to break down the barrier. Learning a few key things is incredibly helpful. Things like numbers, greetings, I’m sorry, I don’t understand, please, and thank you goes a long way.
  • Learning how to order food at a restaurant and pay for a site at a campground are two things that have been extremely useful.
  • While you don’t *need* to know the language, the quality of your experience will be that much better with every word and phrase that you learn.
  • The Google translate app is a useful tool.
  • We’ve found that as long as we’re trying, no matter how bad we’re fumbling, the Mexican people are incredibly kind and patient.

Recommended platform for learning Spanish

In my attempt to learn Spanish I’ve tried free trials with Lingoda, Rosetta Stone, Pimsleur, Corsera, and more. Duolingo held my attention for several months thanks to their somewhat addictive game-like app. While I learned some basics I felt as though I’d hit a wall. I’ve moved on to Babbel and am loving the app combined with live virtual classes taught by language teachers. If you’re just getting started with learning Spanish I recommend starting with the Babbel app.

Storefronts in Loreto.

finding campsites – free & paid

  • We use the iOverlander app and word of mouth to find places to camp.
  • Camping ranges from free to $25/night. $10-$15/night is the most common for paid camping.
  • Camping in Baja, from our experience, is very informal and unregulated.
  • Beaches with palapas (a modest shelter with a thatched roof) often have caretakers that will come by and collect a small fee. Trash collection and a very rustic bathroom are what you typically get for that fee. Remote beaches are usually free.
  • Reservations at RV parks and campgrounds are not common.
Campers lining the shore of Bahia de Los Angeles.

What Conversions do I need to know?

  • Liters to Gallons: 1 = 0.26
  • Kilos to Pounds: 1 = 2.2
  • Kilometers to Miles: 1 = 0.6
  • Pesos to Dollars: Click here for current exchange rate.

Will my cell phone work in Mexico? What about internet?

  • Before leaving for Baja we upgrade our Verizon plans to prepaid unlimited. This provides us service while in Mexico (where service is available). Towns typically have service but not the remote areas or beaches.
  • Check with your cell phone provider to see if they offer any plans with coverage in Mexico.
  • Telcel is the predominant cellullar provider in Baja and stores are widely available. This is where you can purchase a Mexican SIM card.
  • We use Starlink when stationary at a campsite which provides internet anywhere we are.

Is it safe to travel in Mexico?

In our opinion, as well as the opinions of many travelers we’ve met in Baja, yes, it is safe to travel in Mexico. Just like in the states, there are places to avoid but that doesn’t mean everywhere is dangerous. The rule of thumb is to not drive at night and to not camp near the border. We drive 3 hours south of the border before stopping for our first night of camping.

If you want to go on a road trip to Baja but are worried about safety, talk to people that have been for real-world knowledge. If you want to be scared out of going on a Baja road trip, talk to people that haven’t been, they have all kinds of stories that they’ve heard on the news.

Want a little perspective? We met a Canadian couple that said they traveled through the US as quickly as possible to get to Baja because they think the US is dangerous. Chew on that for a minute and maybe you’ll see how any place has its safe and sketchy areas.

Tip:

Don’t overdose on online planning. While forums and Facebook groups are useful for trip planning, there are a lot of armchair travelers out there and a lot of fear-based conversations. Online research can only get you so far before you need to get out there and experience it for yourself.

Beach camping near La Poma.

Resources & Gear We use and Recommend

If you’ve always dreamed of taking a road trip to Baja, we hope this guide helped get you a little closer to making it happen!

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By michele

About

Hi!  We’re Mark & Michele, a couple of modern-day nomads perfecting the art of slow, perpetual travel.  Our tiny home on wheels and slow-paced travel style allows us maximum freedom at minimal expense.  This blog is where we share our travels as well as our insights in to this lifestyle that we absolutely love.  Thanks so much for being here.

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