Baja is a place that should appear on everyone’s bucket list. The surreal landscapes and historic wilderness are made of desert and sea. Driving to Cabo from San Diego is the best way to experience the natural beauty of the remote Baja California Peninsula.
A Baja road trip has something for everyone. Surfers have long been tight-lipped about the marvelous beaches that line the Pacific Coast. Animal lovers flock to the Sea of Cortez to see whales and an incredible concentration of diverse marine life. There are snow-covered mountain forests and agave-filled deserts. Many of the plants that inhabit Baja look like they were drawn by the imagination of Dr. Seuss, and can only be found in this corner of the globe.
Baja changes people. There is a sense of identity in the southern California surfers that regularly venture into the remote depths of the Baja deserts. Many outdoors folks have dedicated their lives to exploring the far reaches of the virgin terrain that can still be found far from human development.
Right now is probably the best time to visit Baja. Development is rapidly expanding and the Baja that I know as a child is not the same as the Baja that my kids will explore. The trans-peninsular highway wasn’t completed until 1973 and a gold rush of sorts has been underway ever since. Farming, energy, and tourism are bringing more people than ever before to this majestic corner of the globe.
I have been exploring the Baja Peninsula for as long as I can remember. My parents used to ride motorcycles with some of the early participants of the Baja 1000 off-road race in the 1970s. My Dad taught me to drive in the sand dunes south of Rosarito Beach and gave me a stack of vintage Baja travel guides. Of all my travels, driving to Cabo from San Diego has been the most formative.
Driving To Cabo From San Diego: An Overview
My number 1 recommendation for driving to Cabo from San Diego is to slow down. I totally understand that many people see Cabo as the destination but Baja is full of hidden treasures. Rather than thinking about how fast you can make the drive, think about how much time you can take to explore along the way. Additionally, the speed limits in Baja are lower than they are in Alta California. One of the best ways to stay safe while driving in Baja is to slow down. Road conditions will vary and problems will appear after the rains.
One thing to keep in mind is that driving in Mexico is different from driving in the United States. The vast majority of the Baja Peninsula is a rural highway. Highway 1 and Highway 5 are narrow two-lane roads with little to no shoulder.
Drivers in Southern California rarely have to deal with livestock, dirt roads, and self-sufficiency.
The drive to Cabo from San Diego usually takes about 24 hours. While Google Maps estimates that it should take between 21 to 22 hours depending on the route, I tend to drive a little bit slower on the windy country roads.
Drivers need to be prepared for a long drive in hot weather. There are long stretches between gas stations and even longer stretches between mechanic shops.
I drive from Guadalajara to San Diego once a year. The Nogales to Guadalajara route is much faster than the Baja route because of the modern freeway. Baja is about slowing down to enjoy the ride.
DON’T FORGET TO BRING
- Sunscreen: The Best Biodegradable and Reef Safe Sunscreens for Mexico
- Hat: Barmah Wide-Brim Hat, Classic Panama Hat, Lifeguard Hat.
- Water Bottle: 40oz IRON °FLASK Sports Water Bottle
- Cooler: 3 Can TOURIT Cooler Backpack
- Shade: Pop-up Sun Shelter or Umbrella with Universal Clamp
- Long Sleeves: Rip Curl UV Long Sleeve Tee
- Shades: RAEN Optics sunglasses
Choosing A Driving Route To Cabo From San Diego
Today, there are two different routes that travelers can choose when driving to Cabo from San Diego: Highway 1 and Highway 5 which are both federal highways. The two routes merge together in the southern part of Baja California (Norte) near the Chapala Lagoon.
Baja California Sur really only has one main road from north to south unless you have 4-wheel drive and a good deal of off-roading experience.
Highway 1 leaves Tijuana down the west coast of Baja California. There is a toll road from Tijuana to Ensenada with a spectacular view of the ocean. However, the road slows down through Ensenada and traffic is hit-and-miss around San Quintín.
Highway 5 leaves Mexicali and heads down to San Felipe.
The general consensus in the Baja Facebook groups is that taking the Mexicali route down Highway 5 is faster. The mileage is almost identical (~22km) and the time is estimated to be 35 minutes faster over the course of the whole trip.
Honestly, I have never taken the Highway 5 route because I am a surfer and there are a lot of places where I like to stop on Highway 1.
If I were planning a trip for the first time, I would drive Highway 1 south and Highway 5 north. The border wait at Mexicali is much shorter than the wait in Tijuana. Be aware that three-day weekends and spring break are notorious for brutal border waits at all ports of entry into the United States.
Entering Mexico, the border wait isn’t an issue. Crossing back into the United States, Tijuana could add hours onto an already long trip.
Documents Required to Drive to Mexico
Mexico requires drivers to carry documents while operating a motor vehicle much like the United States does. Luckily, the Baja Peninsula is considered to be a free zone that does not require a Temporary Vehicle Import Permit (TIP) like mainland Mexico does.
When driving to Cabo from San Diego it is important to bring the following documents:
- Valid passport book or passport card
- Valid driver’s license
- Mexican auto insurance
- Valid vehicle registration
- FMM tourist card (Forma Migratoria Múltiple) stamped at the border
- Access to vehicle title in case of impound
Driving to Mexico from San Diego requires a stop at the immigration office to obtain the FMM tourist card. Nobody is going to stop you while crossing the international border into Mexico and ask for your documents. It is your responsibility to stop at immigration.
When applying for the FMM tourist card it is important to fill out the form, pay at the cashier, and return to the Instituto Nacional de Migración counter to get the stamp. The FMM is not valid until it has a stamp.
Without the stamp on the FMM your stay in Mexico is not legal therefore rendering your automobile insurance invalid.
Do I Need Four-Wheel Drive When Driving To Cabo From San Diego?
No, you do not need four-wheel drive to get to Los Cabos from San Diego. You don’t even need a car. There are plenty of buses running the length of the peninsula. However, having an off-road vehicle with four-wheel drive will open up the peninsula in a way that the bus or a sedan can not.
When I drive to Cabo, I want to go trail riding and look for waves. I have driven four-wheel drive vehicles my entire life so that I can explore places like Baja. I bought a car in Mexico with four-wheel drive specifically to do this trip.
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.
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.
The Baja Peninsula has a thousand miles of 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.
Best Surf Spots Driving To Cabo From San Diego
The Baja Peninsula is a mecca for surfers. People travel from across the globe to explore the hard-to-find beaches with little crowds.
One thing to remember is that it is important to be prepared. Checking to make sure you have all the tools and equipment needed to practice your favorite water sports will save you a big headache later on. Be it an extra leash, a fin key, or an extra wetsuit, being prepared pays off.
- Baja Malibu
- San Miguel
- The Wall (Punta Rosarito)
- Isla Natividad
- Punta Abreojos
- San Juanico (Scorpion Bay)
- Punta Conejo
- Punta Palmilla
Historic Spanish California Missions
While every fourth-grader in California is aware of Saint Junipero Serra and the Alta California Mission System, the Baja California Missions are not as often visited. Baja California is home to some of the best surviving original Spanish missions. Most of the missions in California are replicas or were built long after the Spanish left California. The Baja California missions are the real deal.
- Misión San Francisco de Borja
- Misión San Ignacio Kadakaamán
- Misión Santa Rosalía de Mulegé
- Misión de Nuestra Señora de Loreto
- Misión San Francisco Javier de Viggé-Biaundó
- Misión San José de Comondú
There are a number of military stops that you will encounter while driving to Cabo from San Diego. As the U.S. State Department Travel Advisory reminds us, Baja California is a major trafficking corridor. Guns go south and drugs go north. Do not carry guns or drugs because it is likely you will be stopped and possibly searched while traveling.
In my experience, the vast majority of military stops are professionally run. These are the frontline soldiers trying to make Mexico a safer place. Have patience, treat them with respect, and everything should be cool.
I have read a number of bad reviews about the military stop near San Ignacio in the past. Reviewing the Facebook groups it appears that most of the really negative experiences were in 2019 and 2020. Make it a point to put your cash away before the car is searched and try to watch what they are looking through. In Sinaloa, the Fiscalia General de la Republica can be really aggressive asking for tools, binoculars, and stuff.
If you do have a problem with the military checkpoint there is an app made by the federal Mexican authorities called Denuncia Paisano where you can report the problem.
Baja California Road Trip Travel Guide
Driving to Cabo from San Diego can be divided into two halves: Baja California (Norte) and Baja California Sur. The two states are almost the same size and roughly take about 10-12 hours each to cross.
Many travelers try to make the entire drive in two very long days. I recommend slowing down and stopping to get some food. There are dozens of adventures to be found along the way.
The toll road from Ensenada to Tijuana is spectacularly beautiful and there are so many places to stop and check the waves. It is also possible to take the free road from Ensenada to Valle de Guadalupe.
Don’t forget to stop at the immigration office at the border to get a FMM tourist card. I have another article with all the details on driving across the border in Tijuana with pictures of the crossing and the immigration office parking lot. If you miss the immigration office you will need to cross back into the US (many hours lost) and cross back into Mexico again.
It is not common to stop in Tijuana when driving to Cabo from San Diego. After crossing the border, there is an immediate turnoff for the coastal highway that goes around the city center and connects with the coastal toll road.
Second, most people who are driving to Cabo have a vehicle full of equipment. Tijuana isn’t regarded as one of the safest places to visit in Mexico. In fact, the security situation in Tijuana is complicated and car theft is common. You can not leave a vehicle full of luggage and equipment parked on the street while you go to a nice restaurant.
However, even though it takes longer, I usually return to the United States through Tijuana. I always stop to eat and use the bathroom before hitting the border. Tijuana has some of the best tacos in Mexico and I have a fear of missing out.
Consider using a restaurant as a staging point so that you can time your border crossing appropriately. It might be advantageous to wait out rush hour with a nice meal. Getting in the borderline at the wrong time could cost you a couple of extra hours that could be better spent elsewhere.
From Tijuana to Ensenada, there is a four-lane toll highway that runs along the ocean. It is one of the prettiest roads in Mexico especially early in the morning as the sun is coming up. I love driving this stretch of the road from San Diego to Cabo.
Ensenada is one of the finest food cities in Mexico. If you leave San Diego early in the morning, Ensenada is a great first stop to use the ATM and get a quick breakfast. The world-famous La Guerrerense seafood cart opens at 9:30 a.m. and has plenty of parking on Calle Alvarado at that hour.
The sea urchin and clam tostada and the fish pate with bay scallop tostada are a perfect way to start off an Ensenada food tour.
If you surf, it is hard to pass by San Miguel when it is working. It is one of the best waves in Baja. If it is firing, it is worth camping out for a day or two. Surfing San Miguel when it is good is a special treat.
There is usually a little bit of traffic getting through Ensenada. The toll highway ends near San Miguel, on the north side of Ensenada. It is a free highway into Ensenada and surface streets through Ensenada.
Highway 1 on the south side of Ensenada is very different from the toll road out of Tijuana. This is where Baja changes. The road is a two-lane country road with little to no shoulder.
Be patient when passing and always keep an eye out for hidden speed bumps.
Valle de Guadalupe
Valle de Guadalupe is a little ways off the road to Cabo but is well worth a stop. This is Mexico’s premier wine region with boutique hotels and a heavy concentration of world-famous restaurants.
Chef Javier Plascencia, author of the book The Soul of Baja, has a property with two restaurants: Finca Altozano and Animalón. There are boutique hotels and chalets all up and down that road.
Cuatro Cuartos is the most famous bar in the area because of the view overlooking Salsipuedes Bay and the thoughtful wine-tasting menu.
Because Valle de Guadalupe is so close to the border it is a more popular day trip from San Diego than it is a stop on the drive to Cabo. If you are willing to make time, Valle de Guadalupe is always a good idea.
La Cocina de Doña Esthela
You can’t talk about Valle de Guadalupe without mentioning the Cocina de Doña Esthela. Her borrego tatemado is out of this world.
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.
After finishing my plate of lamb, Doña Esthela asked me how everything was and sent 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.
Doña Esthela is making her own cheeses and serving food like you would find in the ranches.
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
I try to make time to stop in Valle de Guadalupe to at least buy a bottle of wine for my Dad. Many of the best wines are hard to find in San Diego and much more expensive.
Hugo d’Acosta and his son Lucas are two of the most important characters in the Valley. They run Casa de Piedra Winery and Aborigen Vinicola which are very popular in my house. They have a boutique hotel called Finca La Divina and a seafood bar called Conchas en Piedra. Shellfish and sparkling wine are a great combo.
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 my tostada 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.
I have eaten some of the best oysters in Mexico but after tasting these Kumamoto oysters from Ensenada I know which ones I like the best. 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.
If you have the time, or get a late start out of San Diego, consider making a stop in Valle de Guadalupe.
San Vicente is the underground Baja California wine region. Valle de Guadalupe has all the fancy restaurants and boutique hotels but there isn’t enough water to grow any more grapes. The San Vicente Valley is where the most important wineries are expanding.
As you drive south vineyards turn into greenhouses. 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.
San Quintín reminds me a lot of Bakersfield, California. It is farm country but the beach is a lot closer than it is to Bakersfield. You will see lots of greenhouses as you start getting close to San Quintín.
On the east side of town, there is a large bay with a number of small fishing camps. The geography is formed by a number of dormant volcanos that are popular to hike.
If you are looking for a special place to eat exceptional mollusks, spend the time to drive out to La Ostionera de Bahía Falsa. This style of seafood restaurant is at the heart of Baja. It is little more than a shack selling some of the best quality seafood on the planet.
This is Baja.
El Rosario de Abajo
El Rosario de Arriba (not to be confused with Rosarito Beach or Santa Rosalía) is one of the most important stops on Highway 1 from San Diego to Cabo. You need to stop for gas in El Rosario and many people will also want to stop and stay the night.
The gas station in El Rosario is the last gas station for 350 km (212 miles). There are usually some guys with barrels of gasoline and hand pumps but most of us will try to avoid that if we can. Stop and get gas in El Rosario.
Besides the gas station, the Baja Cactus Hotel is budget luxury. They are next door to Mamá Espinoza Restaurant which is filled with historic photos of off-road Baja exploration. The food is good but the experience is awesome.
South of El Rosario is a dead zone without cell phone service. Let your wife know that she will not hear from you for five hours.
Cataviñá is one of the most beautiful destinations in Baja California with exotic desert plants only found here.
The landscapes in Cataviñá remind 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 which is a rare treat.
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.
Baja California Sur Road Trip Guide
The Baja Peninsula changes a good deal when crossing from the state of Baja California to the state of Baja California Sur. Baja California Sur is one of the safest states in Mexico. The ocean water starts to warm up a little bit and gets a lot clearer.
The town of Guerrero Negro is right on the border of Baja California Sur. The name, Guerrero Negro, is a reference to a boat named The Black Warrior that sank in the bay in the 19th century.
The area has a long history of salt production. Much like the salt produced in Cuyutlán, Colima, production is based on ancestral techniques of evaporating salt water.
the tourists visit to see whales. During the winter months, large pods of gray whales migrate to the Ojo de Liebre Lagoon to give birth to their calves. This is one of the best places in Mexico to go whale watching.
Leaving Guerrero Negro, Highway 1 heads east cutting across the peninsula to the Gulf of Cortez.
At least in my opinion, San Ignacio is one of the most beautiful smaller towns on the road to Cabo. It is an oasis in the middle of the desert with an 18th-century Jesuit mission.
Misión de San Ignacio de Kadakaamán is one of the few remaining missions in Baja. Construction of the mission began in 1733 at an important point along the Spanish Royal Highway (El Camino Real) of the Californias.
Today, San Ignacio is a crossroads of sorts. It is the halfway point between the Pacific and the Gulf. It is also a launchpad to visit the whales in the lagoon.
The Laguna de San Ignacio is one of two grey whale preserves in the Baja Peninsula and is a part of the larger Reserva de la Biosfera El Vizcaino which is the largest protected area in Mexico
Additionally, the shortcut (hardcore 4×4 route) to Scorpion Bay leaves from San Ignacio and the turn-off for Punta Abreojos is just 10 km down the road.
San Ignacio is a nice place to stop and relax. If you want to see the town, watch the Netflix movie Powder with José María Yazpik which was filmed here.
The weather changes a good deal as you arrive in Santa Rosalía. The humidity skyrockets as you drop down the grade into the Sea of Cortez.
Interestingly, Santa Rosalía is the capital of the municipality of Libre de Mulegé. There is a town called Heroica Mulegé and a municipality that occupies one-quarter of the state.
The feel of Santa Rosalía is more blue-collar than touristy. There is a lot of fishing and historically there was a good deal of mining. The French company that operated the copper mines left a good deal of architecture with European influences. The Santa Barbara Doncella Church was built by Gustavo Eiffel.
In 2021, Baja Ferries was running a Santa Rosalí – Guaymas ferry route but in 2023 that line has been discontinued. I suspect that it could come back in the future because the La Paz (Pichilinque) route is so saturated.
Santa Rosalía is a great place to get gas but I have never actually stayed here. The more I research the town, the more I would like to explore it a little bit on my next trip.
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 for centuries. The mission winery is a popular tourist stop.
There is a cute town on both sides of the river with a number of popular trailer parks.
Mulegé is not a big town but it is one of the few places to get supplies near 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, clear turquoise waters, and lots of sand bars for camping. This is a very popular spot so actually getting one of those beach front campsites during the high season can be challenging.
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.
Loreto was the capital of both Baja California and Alta California during the Spanish colonial period. The mission in Loreto was founded in 1697 by the Jesuit order. However, after the Jesuits were expelled from New Spain in the 18th century it came under Franciscan control. Saint Junipero Serra passed through here in 1767 on his way to found the first missions in Alta California.
My first impression of Loreto was that it felt like Palm Springs on the beach. The retro desert architecture is fabulous and there are some mid-century restaurants with character.
I really enjoyed the puntas de albañil at La Palapa Restaurant.
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.
Loreto is one of the few places in the world where you can see blue whales.
South of Loreto the Transpeninsular Highway heads southwest getting very close to the Pacific Ocean.
Loreto is one of the few places in the world where you can see blue whales.
South of Loreto the Transpeninsular Highway heads southwest getting very close to the Pacific Ocean.
Ciudad Insurgentes: Driving To Cabo From San Diego
Ciudad Insurgentes is a dusty crossroads of a town without much to see or do other than pump gas. It is the most common route that surfers will take to reach the famous Scorpion Bay surf region. The northern routes to Scorpion Bay should only be attempted by experienced off-road enthusiasts with modified rigs.
La Paz and Pichilinque
La Paz is one of the most popular vacation destinations in all of Baja. It is the capital of Baja California Sur and the largest city in the state.
My hipster friends in Guadalajara absolutely love vacationing in La Paz because it is the anti-Cancun. The hotels are smaller, it is more affordable, and the beaches are magnificent.
Many people claim that Balandra Bay is the most beautiful beach in Mexico.
The Pichilinque port is just a few minutes outside of town where Baja Ferries runs regular service to mainland Mexico.
Baja Ferries to Mainland Mexico
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.
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.
Up until recently, Todos Santos was a place to stop while passing through. Today, Todos Santos is one of the hottest destinations on the drive from San Diego to Cabo. The combination of historic buildings, gourmet farms, and surfing beaches has turned a sleepy small town into a luxury hotspot.
Todos Santos blends together with el Pescadero and Cerritos Beach. This is one of the best places in Mexico to learn how to surf because of the consistently small waves.
Historically, Todos Santos was a sugar cane farming town. There is still a lot of agriculture but the sugar cane was swapped out for organic farms.
I think that most people are going to be surprised at the quantity of amazing bars, restaurants, and coffee shops in Todos Santos. Just passing through isn’t enough time to explore. You need to spend a couple of days here.
Cabo San Lucas
Los Cabos is much different from the rest of the Baja Peninsula. After spending a week or two in the desert exploring remote destinations Cabo can be a little overwhelming.
From Cabo San Lucas, many travelers enjoy driving up the east cape to San Jose del Cabo and all the way to Cabo Pulmo. Not far outside of San Jose del Cabo, the road is unpaved and the camping is excellent.
Final Thoughts On Driving To Cabo From San Diego
There is no better way to get to know the Baja Peninsula than by driving from San Diego to Cabo. The drive will take you from north to south but it will also tke you from the Pacific to the Gulf. There are forests, deserts, and beaches all in one surreal landscape.
While you may not need a four-wheel drive vehicle to make the drive, they sure open up a world of possibilities. Some of the most beautiful beaches require a little bit of off-roading to get there.