Updated: Jul 16, 2022
One of my new favorite things about living in Las Vegas is my proximity to Mexico. A whole different kind of adventure has opened up when it comes to Baja California. I can continue my current travel passion - the American West - while still satiating my pull to experience different cultures (especially cultures with such delicious food).
Out of the blue, in the fall of 2021, I suddenly had a reconnection with a very special person from my youth in PA, someone I hadn't seen in over a decade. This friend was just moving down to Rosarito Beach - he had lived in Mexico briefly before. Because of that exciting reunion, I've had the opportunity to visit the western coast of Mexico several times - with my own personal local guide! This story that I want to share with you is about my most recent visit this past June.
To get across the border, you can either walk or drive. Usually driving across is pretty easy, you just have to pass through a few mechanical checkpoints, and even though you'll see border patrol agents keeping an eye on things, no one usually interacts with you. If there's some sort of suspicion, the agents will pull you into a second inspection where they will look at your documents and maybe give your car a once over. To pass through legally you'll need a valid driver's license, proof of insurance, your passport, and your vehicle registration. When I say proof of insurance, I mean proof of Mexican insurance - your US car insurance won't help you here! Luckily, you can use a website like https://www.bajabound.com/info/policies/auto to get insurance for one day or one year.
Because I had passed through a few times with no issues whatsoever while crossing with my friend Jake*, I didn't think very hard about my personal circumstances for this trip. Namely, that Vangela (the converted camping van I had driven down for this trip) didn't have her permanent license plates yet. Not only did I get sent to secondary inspection, I was told that I couldn't enter the country at all because of the temporary plates. They directed me to a parking lot across the road from the inspection station, and that's where I sat for two hours, in the dark, very confused about the next step.
Finally, it was explained I needed a special permit to come in with a temporary plate, and I was escorted, along with a few others, back across the border. Yes, I was actually deported from Mexico. I scrambled to find a parking lot at the border to leave Vangela, while Jake drove up from Rosarito again to pick me up. I had originally been following him across after spending the day running around San Diego. The lesson here is, maybe just do a quick google search about driving in the country you're about to be driving in if you've never driven there before.
However, the next morning I woke up in Rosarito, so all was well, and the unpleasantness of the night before dissipated with the morning haze. After coffee on a neighbor's 2nd floor patio a block from the beach, we grabbed creamy chicken gorditas from Restaurante La Tia. This place has become an absolute favorite for me. You go inside and order the number of delicious sandwich pockets you want, and then you take the paper they give you to a cart outside the restaurant. This is where you choose your fillings, and the woman at the cart stuffs them on the spot and throws them on a little griddle. Five minutes later you're walking away with a box of gorditas!
Once we were properly fed, we decided to head across the Baja Peninsula to San Felipe for our camping adventure. We had lost the van, but Jake had all the traditional camping gear we needed! There is a northern and southern route to San Felipe from Rosarito. We chose the southern route, not just because it's a little shorter, but also because it goes along the coast for a while, which is incredibly beautiful. The motto in this traditional fishing village turned beach town is "No Bad Days". The drive across the skinny strip of land was gorgeous, but the weather got hotter and hotter as we approached the opposite coast. Also, make sure your tank is full - we almost ran out of gas. There are barely any gas stations along the southern route after you turn away from the coast near Ensenada.
The heat and humidity when we arrived was insane. Although the plan was to tent camp, we just didn't see how that was possible, especially since we also had Bo with us, Jake's elderly but enthusiastic doggo. The town was basically two main roads, parallel with the ocean. We tried a few hotels along these roads, but most of them weren't pet friendly and a few were just a little more money than we wanted to spend. After deciding to move a few blocks off from the main road, we found the cutest hotel - Hotel Magueyaso - with an oasis of tropical plants and flowers outside, air conditioning, and very clean, private rooms for only about $60.
That afternoon into evening, we swam in the ocean (which was like bathwater), and ate cheesy shrimp tacos outdoors at a place along the main drag - this one I, unfortunately, don't remember. Later, we walked through town to reach a lighthouse that was visible from town, where we spent a while hanging out on the cliff behind it, watching the light methodically circle around and cast its beam out into the ocean. Is it warning ships to stay away from the rocky shores or is it letting them know, "you're here, you're close!"? We weren't sure.
The next morning, after an incredible breakfast at the very last little restaurant on the street that had a racing theme going on call Rosita's, we decided it was just too damn hot, and if we wanted to camp, we'd have to go back to the west coast. Jake had an idea of a place, Alistos, where he had previously camped.
The drive back was once again gorgeous, and it didn't seem like several hours had gone by. We did almost run out of gas. Again. Seriously, if you do this trip, try to remember to fill up completely before leaving town.
Alistos turned out to be a surf spot - an incredible cliffside campground with secret stairs to get down to the rocky shore. At $12 a night (or $200 pesos), and the campground maybe 1/3 full, I felt like I'd been let in on a big secret. I later discovered that Alistos actually has over 500 google reviews, so people definitely know about this place, and it's still just that chill. There are clean bathrooms on site, and trash cans. Near the entrance is an OXXO (Mexican convenience store) and a few walkable restaurants. We did grab a beer at one of them, but most of our night was spent drinking and cooking at the campsite, chatting with some of our neighbors, and playing chess.
Unfortunately, after some campfire coffee the next morning, it was time to get moving. I had to be back in Las Vegas at some point later that day, and the drive isn't exactly a short one. We first drove back to Rosarito to get those gorditas I mentioned, one last time. Honestly, my trips to Mexico really revolve around the food there. It's truly one of the best parts. Someday I'll tell you about the tuna tostadas I had during a trip to Ensenada.
Then it was onward to the border! I would be walking across this time, something I hadn't done before. The line was incredibly, intimidatingly long but ended up going super fast. I was there on a Tuesday around noon and it took about 20 minutes. It was similar to driving in that there were people all along the line trying to sell you everything from candy to bracelets while you wait. I had a quick passport check at the end of the line, and then I entered a building behind the gate we were all lined up at. I was able to use the quick lane once inside because I have a US Passport. The lady at the desk checked my passport again and asked why I had been in Mexico. That was it! I walked out of the building and set off to find the parking lot I had left Vangela.
When I chose that lot, I was just desperate and wanting to get to my destination. I never thought to price compare. For parking there from Saturday night until Tuesday afternoon it cost me $90. The drive back to Las Vegas was relatively uneventful, if much more traffic-y than I expected. I was really happy I drove the van, even though it ended up being wildly expensive with the gas prices what they currently are (usually around $6-7 a gallon along the highway). I felt much more comfortable driving it up to speed than I had previously, and just more at ease overall.
This trip definitely had some setbacks, from not being able to take the van across the border to spending less than 24 hours on the east side of the peninsula because of the heat and humidity. Would the moral of my story be to plan a little better? Hm. That's a firm no. No excellent trip with great stories - and I would categorize this trip as excellent - ever went perfectly smoothly. To quote the wise Clark Griswald "It's all part of the experience, honey".