If you’re preparing to travel Baja, but feel like you don’t know where to start, you’ve come to the right place!  This blog is the first post of our “How to Travel Baja” series.  We’ll give you tips about how to prepare for your trip, crossing the border, and common issues while travelling the Baja peninsula.  

Skip Ahead:  

Baja Prep Checklist: 2 Month Countdown : Sentri Pass, Vehicle Insurance, Confirm Passport Expiration Date, Traveling with Pets, Learn Spanish, Baja Forums

Baja Prep Checklist: 1 Month Countdown : Order Maps & Guidebooks, Research, Inspect Your Vehicle, Prepare Your Vehicle with Extra Gear

Baja Prep Checklist: 2 Week Countdown : Figure out the Money, Stock up on Supplies, Download Travel Apps

Many who have been to Baja will tell you it’s their favorite place in the world.  The wild beauty and friendly culture leave a remarkable impression.

Up until our most recent month-long trip to Baja, our experience travelling there was limited.  We’d been to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico many times in the past for week-long vacations at resorts.  It was always a trip we looked forward to, but every time we flew home we wished it was longer. 

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the best van for vanlife

After we quit our jobs to pursue full-time vanlife, we had the opportunity to spend a month exploring Baja.  We drove all the way from San Diego to the southernmost tip of the Baja peninsula and back.  A month seemed like a long enough time, it was the longest we’d ever been anywhere, really.  Oh how we were wrong!

A month in Baja flew by!  The reality is that the Baja peninsula is HUGE.  It’s around 800 miles long, and packed with beauty.  Although the peninsula is surrounded by water, it’s not all beaches, surf, and fishing.  There are two large mountain ranges that run down the center of the peninsula, with the highest peak being 10,157 feet tall!  Along with the northernmost coral reef and incredible biodiversity, Baja also boasts impressive wine country, Spanish missions, and ancient rock dwellings and cave paintings (just to name a few highlights!).

As you can tell, one could spend a lifetime exploring the peninsula.  So, let’s talk about how to get ready for your epic Vanlife Baja trip about 2 months ahead of your departure date! 

Travel BAJA PREP CHECKLIST: 2 Month COUNTDOWN

Global Entry or Sentri Pass

  • This is completely optional.  A Global Entry or Sentri pass will allow you to go through the “express” line when coming back into the United States.  Without it, you’ll be stuck in the regular entry lines, which can take anywhere from an hour to 5 hours when it’s really backed up!
  • Realistically, this step needs to be completed about 6 months prior to your travel dates.  It takes a while for your paperwork to get approved and then you have to schedule an in-person interview for final approval.  If you’re crossing the border a lot, it’s totally worth the $125 to skip that line!
best street food in baja

Crossing the Border

You DO NOT need a Tourist Visa to travel Baja unless you’re going to be in Mexico for more than 180 days.  You DO need a FMM entry permit (Forma Migratoria Multiple), which people casually refer to as a tourist visa or tourist card, causing a lot of confusion.  

At the Border Crossing, you will have to park and go into the Instituto Nacional de Migración (INM) office to obtain your FMM paper.  Border Agents will direct you where to go.  Once you’re in the office, you’ll show your passport and pay $575 Pesos (about $30) per person in exchange for your FMM.  A FMM permit is free if you’re traveling by land and will be in Mexico for less than 7 days.  This paper gets stamped on your way into Mexico and on your way out, so don’t loose it while you’re traveling!

You can apply for your FMM online, but you will still need to stop at the INM office to have it stamped.

In addition, INM officials may ask to see your Vehicle Registration and Insurance, so be sure to take those into the office with you.  

Research Vehicle Insurance

  • While your car insurance policy will cover your vehicle in Canada, that is not the case for going to Mexico.  Call your car insurance to verify whether or not your policy covers your travel in Baja.  More than likely, it will not.  However, there are insurance companies that offer relatively competitive rates for daily, weekly, monthly, or annual policies for Mexico.  Most of these insurance companies provide quick and easy ways to get a quote online.  You can purchase and print your policy without having to go into an office.
  • We’ve researched several companies to compare their cost, coverage, deductibles, etc., and have found Lewis & Lewis at www.mexicanautoinsurance.com to be the best.  We’ve never had to make a claim on a policy, so we don’t have any direct experience or recommendations based on that.
  • The nice thing about these policies is that you can input the vehicle value yourself and pay a correlating fee, rather than the insurance company basing your rate off of the market value of the vehicle alone.  This is helpful for everyone who has a converted vehicle (van, truck, etc.) where the value of the vehicle doesn’t include the value of your build and everything inside.
  • You won’t need to purchase your insurance policy until right before you’re ready to go, but it’s best to do your research ahead of time so that you’re confident of your coverage when it’s time to travel Baja and you’re dealing with other tasks!
travel baja

Confirm Your Passport Expiration Date

  • Ensure that your passport will not expire while you are in Baja.  You will need a current passport to get back into the United States.
  • If your passport book is going to expire while you are in Baja and you do not have time for the renewal process, you can apply for a passport card instead.  Although you cannot use it to fly internationally, it is an acceptable form of ID for Mexico & Canada.  It is less expensive and usually a less time consuming process as well.

Travel Baja with Pets

  • We don’t have pets, so we have not gone through this process personally, but it seems relatively straightforward.  
  • According to the APHIS website, as of 12/16/2019, visitors with pets are no longer required to bring proof of registration or vaccination for pets in order to bring them across the border.
  • If you have a dog or a cat with you, after you cross the border, you must report to the Mexican Animal and Plant Inspection Office for a visual inspection of your pet.  
  • Pets are subject to inspection at any border crossing into Mexico, and again when you come back into the United States.  Animal inspection agents are looking for signs of illness, infectious or contagious diseases, parasites, or open wounds.
  • All resources that I read for this blog stated that you are only allowed to have as much pet food with you as necessary for 1 day of travel.
  • Frequent travelers with pets can enroll in Pet Program, as described on the APHIS website

Old Rule

  • If you’re worried that news of this change in regulations is slow to reach border agents on the front lines, you’re not wrong.  You can print a copy of the new rules to show them, or just keep documents on your pets just in case.  For reference, the old rule is that you provide proof that your pet has a current rabies vaccination and that it was issued at least 30 days prior to entering Mexico.

Start Learning Spanish

  • While many people in Baja speak English, your trip will be much more enjoyable if you learn a little bit of Spanish beforehand.  Speaking even a small amount of the language will give you opportunities to interact with locals and, therefore, more insight into an amazing culture.
  • You can start small with a language learning app like Duolingo or Mango.  Or you can dive headfirst into a course like Rosetta Stone.  Whatever style of learning you choose, you won’t regret being able to speak and understand un poco de espanol (a little bit of spanish) as you travel Baja!

Join Baja Forums and DIG IN!!

  • There is a WEALTH of information on forums all about Baja.  Many of the regular contributors live in Baja or have spent a significant amount of time there.  Depending on your interests, there are Travel Baja forums for everything!  Off-road racing, fishing, boondocking, baja vanlife, etc.
  • http://forums.bajanomad.com/ is a great place to start your research

Travel BAJA PREP CHECKLIST: 1 Month COUNTDOWN

Alright, so your trip to Baja is only one month away and you’re trying to figure out what to do next!  The next month will be busy with research and planning, as well as all of your vehicle preparation and upgrades.

Order Maps and Guidebooks

  • There are electronic resources that can help you navigate in Baja, but nothing quite as effective as a hard paper map or guidebook.  We’ll give you some recommendations for offline navigation apps in the 2 Week Countdown Checklist.
  • I’m a total nerd for maps and I prefer them to an app anyway.  The best map we’ve found is the National Geographic Baja Map Pack
  • Guidebooks like these give you a ton of information about camp sites, beaches, and restaurants.  They also have more thorough directions that use landmarks and road signs to help you navigate (since it’s not always obvious you’re on the right path)!
  • Traveler’s Guide to Camping Mexico’s Baja
  • Moon Baja: Tijuana to Los Cabos
  • Surfer’s Guide to Baja
travel baja

Research Where you Want to Go

  • Utilizing your new guidebooks and maps, cross reference interesting things you want to do and see with the information you’ve learned on the Baja forums.
  • There are A LOT of really cool things to do in Baja, but you’ll want to have an idea of WHAT and WHERE they are before you get down there.  You won’t always be able to Google “turtle release near me” so it’s a good idea to research the things you want to do before you go.
  • Don’t create an itinerary, or make any commitments, it’s just helpful as you’re driving to have a general sense of where you may want to stop and do things like swim with whale sharks, surf, or snorkel.

Inspect Your Vehicle

This may be the MOST IMPORTANT step of your preparation, particularly if you have an older vehicle.  While Mexicans are ingenious when it comes to figuring out how to fix *literally* anything, it does help to be prepared for minor issues with the correct tools and parts.  

Inspect your vehicle from bumper to bumper using the following checklist as a general guide:

    • Tires: Do they have good tread? No signs of sidewall damage or missing lug nuts?  Is the spare tire in good shape (fully inflated, good tread, etc.)?  Do you have a jack and does it work?
    • Suspension:  The main roads in Baja are usually paved, but also PACKED with potholes.  It’s impossible to avoid them, and they can do some major damage on your vehicle if your suspension sucks.  In addition, many great beaches are hidden off of bumpy washboard roads, so make sure your suspension is in good shape for a smoother ride.
    • Drive Train:  Starter, Alternator, Regulator, Transmission, Engine, Radiator, look over it all, listen to it running, take it in somewhere for an inspection if you can’t tell whether or not it’s running right.
    • Brakes:  Get them assessed for free at Les Schwab.  You can also visually inspect the brake fluid level and the brake lines for damage or wear and tear.
    • Battery: Look for leaking battery acid, corrosion and wear and tear.  Take it to an auto parts store to get tested for charge, if necessary.
    • Conversion Components: This goes without saying, but you should visually inspect your vehicles build components.  Ensure everything is screwed down tight and functioning properly.  Check that your systems that are required for essential living are in working order (electric & solar system is working well, your water pump runs, etc.) before you travel Baja.
travel baja

Stock up on extra fluids and parts for your vehicle.  If you have a vehicle that is not common in Mexico (anything foreign like Mercedes, Vanagon, Westy, HiAce, etc.) you will have more trouble getting parts in Mexico.  Surely, the first thing to break will probably be the one thing you didn’t bring!  

A few things to have with you are: 

    • Extra oil & an oil filter
    • Brake fluid & extra rubber tubing
    • Coolant
    • Fuses
    • DEF if you’re diesel
    • Spark plugs
    • Air filters
    • Belts
    • Fuel pump & a bit of fuel line

Don’t forget your safety items like a fire extinguisher!

The Green Angels are a group that helps people on Hwy 1 in Baja with vehicle problems.  We’ve never needed it, but if you call 060, they will come help (we hear).

Prepare Your Vehicle with Extra Gear

Prepare your vehicle for the adventure you want to have!  If you’re looking to do more boondocking and off-road exploration, we recommend beefing up your rig with a few accessories before you travel Baja:

    • Light Bars – It’s best to avoid driving at night due to potholes and livestock on the road.  But if you have to, lightbars make a huge difference!
travel baja

Travel Baja Prep Checklist: 2 Week Countdown

Whew – 2 weeks until your trip and you’ve still got a bit to do before you’re prepped and ready.  But, the major tasks are complete and now you’re almost ready to go!!

Figure out the Money!  

  • It is not necessary to get Pesos from your ban.  If you want to do it ahead of time, they usually require 1-2 weeks to get it for you.  Otherwise, there are many currency exchanges at the border that will charge you a lower fee than your bank will!  Plan where you will be able to get more Pesos later on your route, since that will help you decide  how much to start with.
  • Almost anywhere in Baja will take your credit card for payment (except for small shops & taquerias).  Call your bank or Credit card company to determine if you will be charged foreign transaction and ATM fees.  If your card fees are high and you don’t want to pay them, find a new credit card for your trip that doesn’t have fees.
  • You can exchange dollars into Pesos in most towns along your route.  The larger the city, the better the exchange rates will be.  ATMs will give you cash in Pesos.
  • It is almost always cheaper to pay for things in Pesos.  However, it depends on what you are buying and what the business is charging for an exchange rate.  For example, many restaurants will accept dollars, but they will charge you more than the exact conversion.  This is because they will have to go and exchange your dollars to pesos later on and pay an exchange fee.  The exception to this is that some restaurants can charge your card in Pesos OR dollars and they will ask you what you’d prefer.  In that case, it usually doesn’t matter that much because your bank will do the conversion for you.  We pay in Pesos as much as possible when we travel in Baja.

Stock up on Supplies

  • Baja is well-developed in main cities and should have anything and everything you need.  At the same time, if you have a very specific diet or like certain healthcare or beauty products, you will want to stock up on those items before you cross the border (assuming it is allowed to bring it into Mexico).  For example, if you love a certain supplement, coffee creamer, or facewash, make sure you have enough for your trip before you leave.  Major cities have big box stores like WalMart and Target, but the inventory is not the same.
  • It is not difficult to find packaged snack foods like granola bars, crackers, or cookies (umm, you’ll be eating tacos all day everyday), bottled drinks, good toilet paper & paper towels or other toiletry items.
  • If you are an artist or crafter and plan on doing any work while you’re in Mexico, you may want to stock up on those supplies as well
  • Worst case, if you need something, you can likely buy it online and have it shipped to a UPS or DHL store for pick-up.

Download Travel Apps

There are a lot of Apps available for offline travel and navigation in Baja.  Here are our favorites:

    • iOverlander – This is, by far, our favorite App for traveling, not just for Baja.  There’s a huge database of information including campsites, water fill-ups, sightseeing, laundromats, etc.  It’s the ultimate App for nomads.
    • OnX Hunt maps – Typically used for hunting (and why we started using it years ago), this App is becoming more popular with travelers.  It has land parcel data that tells you if you’re on private or public land, and it works offline.  In Baja, OnX likely won’t have land ownership data, but you can still use it’s main features like GPS location, satellite imagery, map tools and the tracker.  You can chose an area, download the map to your device, and have access to GPS when you don’t have service.
    • Maps.ME – Another great offline mapping tool, this app offers navigation as well.  Same as with OnX, you have to download an area ahead of time, but once you have it on your device, you can search for features and get directions.
    • Harvest Hosts – Offers a great opportunity to stay on private property like wineries, farms, and breweries.  There usually aren’t bathrooms, but you’ll get a special experience waking up somewhere you wouldn’t normally be allowed to sleep!

Viajes Felices!!

We hope that this blog has been a helpful resource for you as you prepare for your trip to Baja!  It’s a truly special place and we hope you enjoy it as much as we do.  Have some tacos for us!

Check out a few other posts we have about Baja and get stoked for your adventure!

Best Street Foods in Baja

Traveling Baja: Border Crossings & Security CheckPoints

Tourist Safety in Baja

Boondocking in Baja