When most people think of Baja, they imagine legendary off-road races such as the Baja 1000 and Baja 500—trucks, bikes, and buggies blazing across a rugged and isolated landscape at full speed pop into mind. However, there is another side to vehicular recreation in Baja California, Mexico. Off-road adventure in Baja has always been popular, but it has recently experienced a boom. It’s easy to see why.
The Baja Peninsula is as long from top to bottom as the state of California. Like California, it has beautiful deserts, beaches, and mountains to explore. However, Baja offers a much wilder, open, and undeveloped landscape, with thousands of miles of dirt roads and 4x4 trails threading their way across the peninsula like a spider’s web.
If you’re new to Baja or just like traveling in groups, there are a number of ways you can comfortably explore this wild land. One of our favorite ways to visit Baja is with Camp4Lo. Camp4Lo runs numerous expeditions into Baja each year, and we’ve joined them before for one of their “race-watching” adventures leading up to the Baja 1000. We spent two days wheelin’ across the peninsula from east to west on dirt roads, camped in the desert, overnighted at a guest ranch in the mountains, and then sat beside the Pacific Ocean, cheering on the drivers as they battled through the tough race course heading south. This time, the trip was more laid back. We camped, we wheeled, and we chilled. It was the Camp4Lo Fiesta, based out of San Felipe, a small town on the gulf (Sea of Cortez) side of the peninsula.
The three-day adventure began on a Friday. Our group’s first collection point (for those north of San Diego) was the Swing Inn Cafe in Temecula, California, for a near-dawn breakfast and convoy meeting before heading south. From there we made one more stop to gather people up as we barreled south toward our final pre-border roundup in Calexico. With everyone present and accounted for at the pre-arranged meeting place—already topped off with fuel and supplied with state-side grocery items, libations, and Mexican auto insurance (you don’t go there without acquiring it)—we proceeded as a group across the border and south through Mexicali.
From Mexicali, our collection of vehicles that included a handful of Jeeps, as well as an assortment of (ahem) “other 4x4s,” made the two-hour drive down Highway 5 to San Felipe and our campground at Kiki’s. As you move southward the scenery just keeps getting better, but keep your eyes on the road—the highway is not much more than a two-lane strip of blacktop, and there’s almost never a median, or a curb for that matter.
The nicest part of running with Camp4Lo, aside from the security and camaraderie of a group of like-minded people, is the fact that all accommodations and most of the meals are pre-arranged. We also had the option to bring and make our own meals, or in the case of the San Felipe Fiesta, to walk into town and take advantage of the local establishments. Our base of operations was Kiki’s RV Camping Hotel, a spot right on the beach about a half-mile from town. Kiki’s is a basic sort of place. There are about a dozen simple hotel rooms, but there are three times as many drive-in campsites. You get a two-story palapa-like covered platform with room for a large tent upstairs, and there’s a picnic table below and parking on one side. They are arranged so you’re within a truck-width of neighbors, creating a festive atmosphere.
Saturday was trail day, and we got started early. Well, early on “Baja time.” That meant that by 8:30 a.m. we were driving out of Kiki’s. Our route took us south down Highway 5 for a few miles until we reached our turnoff into the desert. This area is dominated by coastal rolling plains–like desert with sandy-bottomed canyons carved by the intermittent but sometimes torrential rains. Dominating the skyline to the west is the range of mountains that makes up northern Baja’s backbone, climbing in some places to 10,000 feet above sea level. The Baja Peninsula is a variant of the vast Sonoran Desert biome that covers much of the Southwestern U.S, and it contains a wide variety of plant and animal life throughout a landscape, ranging from cactus-dotted deserts in the lower coastal elevations to pine forests in the higher and cooler elevations.
We traveled west toward the mountains, deep into a famous (or infamous) area among Baja racers known as Matome Wash. As evidenced by some markers seen along the way, we spent many miles on the very same trails that Baja racers had been pre-running for the Baja 1000 that was a few weeks away. It was easy to see why this incredibly long and winding wash has gained a reputation. Matome seemingly goes on forever, it twists and turns in geologic gyrations, it’s littered with rocks and trees to be dodged, and the deep sand will bog your rig down if you don’t keep up that perfect combination of vehicle and wheel speed. More than one transmission went too near the red zone that day and required some PTO to keep from smokin’.
In the months prior to our visit, Baja had been ravaged by two hurricanes, one just the week before our arrival. While the storm and its corresponding flash floods had torn up the landscape (and parts of the highway) and made the trails more difficult, the silver lining of those dark rain clouds was the greening of the desert. It was near the end of October, but it seemed like the first flush of spring in the desert. The 121-mile off-road loop took most of the day, but by the time shadows grew long and dark, we were back at Kiki’s. Nobody in the group had major problems, and all made it back under their own power. That’s a win on any trip.
The remainder of the evening (and for some, long into the morning) was spent working extra hard on the chill part of this trip. Let me paint a picture: A beautiful beach yards away from camp, good food in your belly, adult beverages in abundance, a long day’s ride on the trail behind you, and plenty of stories to tell. You could say we had a good time. As they say down there, it’s better in Baja.