Sunset over Cataviña

Baja Road Trip: Trail Riding, Seafood, and Surf

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I recently drove from Guadalajara to San Diego, took the Baja Ferry, did some four-wheeling, visited some beaches, and ate some spectacular seafood. It was the last Baja road trip in a truck that has been a good friend.

The time has come to sell my old pickup truck. I’ve had the truck in Mexico for the last four years and I need to return it to San Diego so that I can sell it. It is time to buy something with Mexican plates that has room for a child’s seat. Getting the truck to San Diego means that I get to plan another Baja road trip.

Mechanically, the truck was in prime condition. The engine was recently rebuilt, air conditioning is ice cold, new shocks, and a fresh paint job. With the truck in tip-top shape, I had been dreaming of one last Baja road trip before she’s gone. I was putting my 1985 Toyota pickup 4×4 up for sale and I wanted some action shots to help move it.

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I had gone back and forth about taking the Baja route or the Sonora route for weeks but it all came down to getting a space on the Baja Ferry. The Arizona route is all freeway. It’s faster but not nearly as scenic as the Baja route. I preferred the Baja route but getting a spot on the ferry was tough.

Baja Ferries

Baja Ferries cargo ship in port at Pichilingue, Baja Califoria Sur

There are two companies running ferry service from the port of Pichilingue, just outside of La Paz, Baja California Sur. From Pichilingue ferries run to the port of Topolobampo, just outside of Los Mochis, and to Mazatlán. The Ferry to Topolobampo takes about 6 hours and the ferry to Mazatlan takes about 12, plus loading time.

I wasn’t able to get on the Mazatlan Ferry so I had to drive 5 hours further to Los Mochis. I booked 10 days in advance and got the last space on the Monday departure.

If you want to take the Baja Ferry you should purchase passage weeks in advance and avoid high traffic dates like semana santa, Christmas, and New Year’s.

The Baja Ferries website and call center are difficult to deal with. You need to call and talk to someone because the routes change depending on which boats are operating. I got a busy signal the first ten times I called and when I finally got through I had to wait on hold for an hour. Have patience.

When I finally got my confirmation email I was estatic about being able to drive Baja again.

Retorno Seguro Permit

The Temporary Vehicle Import Permit (TIP) on my truck had expired and I wanted to get a Retorno Seguro Permit to avoid any “tickets”. A Retorno Seguro permit gives a foreign vehicle a week to use the roads and exit the country.

It turns out I didn’t need the Retorno Seguro Permit. I was never asked for it, not even to get on the ferry. Crossing from the other direction however they will most certainly check paperwork for a proper TIP.

Guadalajara to Los Mochis

Los Mochis is 8-10 hours from Guadalajara and in December the sun is going down early. Luckily, crossing into Nayarit puts you in a different time zone and you get an extra hour of daylight. When you are driving through Mexico it is best to avoid driving at night when you are new to the area. I don’t know Sinaloa very well so I planned to arrive in Los Mochis before dark.

I was gassed up and on the freeway before 6am and wanted to be in Los Mochis before dark. My family was very nervous about me traveling solo through Sinaloa so lunch in Culiacán was out of the question.

Lunch at El Cuchupetas

About halfway to Los mochis is El Cuchupetas Restaurant in Villa Union, Sinaloa. It’s the perfect spot to eat and gas up right off the freeway.

Raw scallops in Sinaloa

El Cuchupetas is some of the best homestyle seafood you will taste in this lifetime. The restaurant takes up three houses in a residential section of small-town Sinaloa. It’s so busy they bought the houses on three out of four corners, and have a huge parking lot.

This was my third trip to Cuchupetas. It gets better each time. This time I was there when they opened on a Monday morning and I got to talk to a lot of people. My server had been working there since he was 13 years old and was stoked to talk about the best seafood in Mexico and old four wheel drive trucks.

Parking lot at El Cuchupetas

The camarones a la diabla are the best I have ever tried. It’s a simple sauce made out of chipotle and tomato. The sauce is natural, very spicy, and ketchup free. You can get camarones a la diabla just about anywhere but I don’t like the ketchup based sauces. Cuchupetas has the best diabla sauce I have tasted so far.

The raw shellfish are some of the best in Mexico and the crazy volume they do means nothing is sitting around. The oysters and scallops tasted like they were in the water the day before. These guys get the best of the best quality. I have tasted oysters of all different sizes on a couple of different continents but Cuchupetas are the best I have tasted.

One thing I love about eating at Cuchupetas is looking at all the photos of the owners with famous people. Lalo Villar from La Ruta de la Garnacha had visited recently and they just framed a picture with him. President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) has a couple of pictures, I sat near Diego Luna, and José Maria Yazpik. It’s a cool club of people that think El Cuchupetas has the bomb seafood.

If you are driving down the 15D from Nogales you need to plan a stop at El Cuchupetas. It is the perfect pit stop.

Baja Ferry from Topolobampo to Pichilingue

Baja Ferries at sunrise in La Paz, Baja California Sur

I can’t speak to the experience of traveling with Transportación Marítima de California (TMC) because I have only traveled with Baja Ferries. I heard that TMC lets you have access to your vehicle because Baja Ferries does not. Baja Ferries is a commercial cargo ship that has some leftover room for passengers and passenger vehicles. This is by no means a cruise ship.

As you get to the port you will line up with the semi tractor-trailer trucks to get weighed and get in line. The website says they are running service everyday of the week but when I called in December of 2019 it was only going Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. The Ferry is scheduled to leave around midnight and arrive around eight o’clock in the morning. This time there were high winds and the ferry was late arriving and unloading which meant we were late leaving. 

The tractor-trailers get priority and load up first. Baja Ferries has a bunch of truck drivers who are responsible for loading all the trailers and packing them in inches apart. Loading up the ferry happens quickly and there are a lot of people moving around at a breakneck pace. 

I was one of the last vehicles to load the ferry and had to drive up a steep ramp in reverse with a lot going on. My wife’s car has a reverse camera that I had gotten used to.

Loading onto the Baja Ferry is like a high-pressure parking job. There are a ton of people watching and judging you while others are darting in and out of your blind spot.

It was a long, confusing walk from the vehicle area to the passenger area. The passenger area has a cafeteria, a bar, and several rooms lined with movie-theater-like seats and big-screen televisions. The seats are ridiculously uncomfortable to sleep in and more than a few slept on the floor.

I got the worst night of sleep since the last time I took the ferry. There are some cabins with actual beds but you will need to book way in advance to score one.

The good part of a bad night of sleep is being up early for the sunrise. Watching the sun come up as you pull into the bay in La Paz is priceless. Hernán Cortez sailed into this harbor in 1535 and I bet he felt much of the same emotion that I did while watching the sunrise.

Baja Ferry in port near La Paz

Since I was one of the last trucks onto the Ferry I was one of the first ones off. You have to pay a little tax, get a quick search by the Navy, and an agricultural spray before you can get out of the harbor.

The Port of Pichilingue is ten minutes from Balandra Bay Beach which the locals say is one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. The shades of blue and turquoise are striking.

El hongo de Balandra, la Paz, BCS

There is nothing like the ocean to wash off a poor night of sleep. The water is brisk when compared to Colima and the wind made it cold. Delicious, yet cold. I started my Baja road trip by jumping in the water at Balandra Bay.

When you take the Baja Ferry you should give yourself an extra couple hours to hang out in Balandra while you are in the neighborhood.

Baja Road Trip: La Paz to Tijuana

Baja trail riding

First and foremost I wanted to go trail riding and look for waves on this Baja road trip. My truck was in perfect condition for some four-wheeling and I wanted to surf and take some pictures.

There is no shortage of good trails to cruise in Baja. You look for a dirt road that comes off the highway and head West to the beach. The landscapes are spectacular and when you finally crest that last Hill and see the ocean off in the distance your heart beats a little faster.

Baja Road Trip

There wasn’t time to do half of what I wanted to but I got to do a little trail riding and found some waves. I don’t drive fast, I’m just out to see the scenery.

Hollow wave at Punta Conejo, Baja California Sur

The Baja Peninsula has a thousand miles coastline facing the Pacific Ocean and receives swell from all directions. World-class waves are hidden behind long, lonely, dusty trails for those who want to explore. I feel like surfing is at the core of a Baja road trip.

Baja Road Trip

On this particular day the wind was blowing strong from the north east. In La Paz, on the Gulf of California, it was blowing onshore. On the other side of the peninsula it was blowing beautifully offshore.

moonrise over the sea of cortes

I was easily able to make it to Loreto from La Paz with some significant detours along the way. One thing that I started to notice was that the dessert was very green. I had never seen this area so green before.

Loreto to Mulege Along Bahía de Concepción

It is hard to say that any part of a Baja road trip is my favorite but the stretch from Loreto to Mulege is visually stunning. There are Spanish missions, turquoise waters, and lots of sand bars for camping.

Playa el Requeson

Loreto was the capital of both Baja California and Alta California during the Spanish colonial period. The mission in Loreto was founded in 1697.

My first impression of Loreto is like a Palm Springs on the beach. The retro desert architecture is fabulous and there are some restaurants with character. I really enjoyed the puntas de albañil at La Palapa.

Old adobe building in the Plaza in Loreto at night

Just off the coast of Loreto is the Bahia de Loreto National Park conservation area. The water is super clean the wildlife is abundant. You can book some solid diving tours along the boardwalk at the harbor.

Baja Road Trip

Between Loreto and Mulege there is a bay called Bahía de Concepción. Inside the bay is a series of beaches and sand bars that host some great campsites. Playa El Requeson, Playa Santispac, and Playa El Coyote are wonderful places to put up a tent for a few nights. I spent a few nights here a couple of decades ago and the place hasn’t changed much. The sunrises are pretty good over the Gulf of California.

Mission Mulege

Right at the mouth of Bahia de Concepción is the Spanish mission town of Mulege. The mission was founded by Jesuits in the early 18th century at an oasis in the desert. The river means that agriculture has thrived in this area.

Cataviña And El Rosario

Baja road trip through Cataviña cactus garden

There was a rush to get back to San Diego and I didn’t plan this section of the drive well. I left Loreto before sunrise and didn’t know where I was going to stop that night. Driving at night is not advisable but El Rosario was still an hour away and I needed to check in with the family.

Between Guerrero Negro and El Rosario there is a 200 mile stretch of dead zone. There is almost zero cell phone service and no gas station except for the guys with barrels of gasoline in the back of a pickup truck and a hand pump. I saw a Pemex station under construction but as of December 2019 it was not open yet.

boojum tree in full bloom in Cataviña Baja California

Cataviña reminds me of Joshua Tree in a lot of ways. The large granite boulders spread throughout the desert. The decomposed granite sand is a planter box for all sorts of exotic cactuses and trees.

In November and December of 2019 there were heavy rains all up and down California and Baja California. Some areas hadn’t seen significant rain in years. The desert was green and blooming.

Just outside of the town of San Antonio de las Minas there is an archaeological site managed by the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) about the cave paintings in the area. This must have been a spectacular place to live in a cave. The sunsets are unreal and the cactus garden looks like it came from another planet. If you like sunsets, you should take the time to see one in Cataviña.

Stopping to take pictures meant that I made it to El Rosario about an hour after dark. I was cold in Loreto but it felt freezing in El Rosario. There is a beautiful, cheap hotel next to the Pemex station called Baja Cactus. I got a good meal at a Mamá Espinoza Restaurante. Mamá Espinoza’s family is big into the Baja 1000 and the place is decorated with lots of desert racing memorabilia. El Rosario is where Baja gets tough. You need to be self reliant out here.

Mama Espinoza's Restaurant in El Rosario Baja road trip

Mamá Espinoza explained to me how important the recent rains had been. It had not rained in this part of Baja in years. The wells were empty. Restaurants and hotels had to water in trucks. The rains left the desert green and blooming, and water in the wells.

Ensenada And Valle de Guadalupe

Baja Norte is the part of Baja that I have spent the most time trail riding. I hadn’t been through here for a few years and was pretty impressed with the development of agriculture around San Quinten. There were greenhouses as far as the eye can see and the agriculture reminded me of Bakersfield.

As you drive north the greenhouses turn in to vineyards. The Valle de San Vicente is producing some excellent wines for a better price than the Valle de Guadalupe, partly because it has more water. Santo Tomas has a long history of wine because of the mission. Today the winery makes some excellent full-bodied wine, has picturesque vineyards, and El Palomar Hotel and Cantina is an absolute classic.

La Guerrerense Tostada Cart

La Guerrerense Tostada Cart

I skipped breakfast and drove 5 hours to eat with Sabina Bandera’s tostada cart in Ensenada. I rolled up and got the parking space right next to the cart. It was a sign of what was about to happen.

I ordered two tostadas. One was sea urchin and raw clam with the super spicy salsa matcha (the sauce with oil, chile, and peanuts). The second was a fish pate with the little scallops. It was a perfect start to my Ensenada food tour.

La Cocina de Doña Esthela

La Cocina de Doña Esthela lamb

I really like lamb and everybody has been talking about Doña Esthela’s borrego tatemado. She is using big adobe ovens to roast some excellent quality lamb meat. They are making their own cheeses and serving food like you would find in the ranches.

After finishing my plate of lamb, Doña Esthela asked me how everything was and send me a pancake for dessert. It was a gluten-free corn pancake that I have been dreaming about ever since. I am going to find out how to make them because they were so good.

corn pancake at Doña Esthela

This place is a regional classic that you need to try. After eating here you will be happy.

If you go on the weekend the place is a mad house. Go during the week.

Conchas de Piedra and Casa de Piedra

Sea Urchin Tostada at Conchas de Piedra Baja road trip

I told myself that I came here to buy my dad a bottle of wine but I really came for the sea urchin tostadas. A collaboration between Hugo d’ Acosta and Drew Deckman got my attention.

While I was eating a father and son team came by to leave the chef a sample of oysters that they grow nearby. I was close enough to hear the whole speech about the family business and oyster production in Baja California. Listening to the chef and producer talk about good oysters made me order a half dozen.

Kumamoto oysters at conchas de piedra in Valle de Guadalupe Baja road trip

If you would have asked me a week ago who has the best oysters in the world I would have responded El Cuchupetas in Sinaloa. After tasting the Kumamoto oysters from Ensenada I am no longer sure about that. These were some of the best oysters I have ever had. My perception of good oysters has changed.

I got my dad a 2011 Vino de Piedra Cabernet Sauvignon that I hope he is going to love. My dad drinks a lot of good wine and I like showing him bottles that he hasn’t tried yet. It’s weird that Baja is so close to San Diego but there is so little Baja wine in San Diego.

Tijuana and Otay Mesa

The toll road from Ensenada to Tijuana is spectacularly beautiful and there are so many places to stop and check the waves. I took the long way driving through Tijuana to get to Otay Mesa to keep my Baja road trip going just a little bit longer.

Returning my Temporary Vehicle Import Permit took about 5 minutes and I didn’t even have to get out of the car. The kid working had never heard of a Retorno Seguro permit but took it anyway.

The Otay Mesa border crossing took me about two hours at rush hour. I forgot my passport card with the RFID chip and only had my passport book. There was only one gate open accepting non-RFID documents and the line was moving way slower than the other lines. Get a passport card or get a SENTRI pass. It’s worth it.

I crossed the border with California registration that was expired since 2016. The truck passed smog and was registered in two days time. There was even time for a surf before I flew back to Guadalajara.

Conclusion of My Baja Road Trip

Baja road trip ends at the Otay Mesa border crossing

I drove 1,400 miles over the course of 4 days and loved every second of it. The backache and poor night’s sleep didn’t mean a thing. I got to spend time in one of the most beautiful and surreal parts of the world. The images of a green desert at sunset are something that I will have with me for the rest of my life.

This trip was just a warm up. I am coming back next year with the family and another four-wheel drive vehicle.

If you liked this article then you will probably like the article about Las Islitas de San Blas

Las Islitas, Nayarit
Las Islitas, Nayarit

And the article about things to do in Guadalajara

things to do in guadalajara
Guadalajara Cathedral

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  1. GREAT photos and descriptions! Thanks for the post. I’ve postponed that trek for too long and now I’m too old and tired to try it.

  2. Beautiful photos and words…Baja is still and always will be magical!! Looks like you caught La Guerrerenese on a very rare quiet moment, best ceviches I’ve ever had and agree 100% about the Kumamoto bivalves being the primero todo. Its crazy how snobbish we are in the US regarding wines, I’ve been enjoying Mexcian wines from the Valle for a decade and still can’t get my close friends to visit me there…oh well, more for me.

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