Camping in Baja
by Peter Kohlsaat
Peter Kohlsaat is a syndicated cartoonist with the LA Times and an avid fisherman and explorer. He can be visited at his own website, http://www.kohlsaat.com.
hade and fresh water. These are the only two things absolutely necessary for camping in Baja. Everything else is a matter of personal preference.
Camping is a relative term. For some, camping constitutes spending a week at an RV park in their pickup and camper. (Roughing it indicates no electric hookups). For others it includes nothing less than total wilderness with just what can be carried on their backs. Baja offers the above and everything in between. If you really want to experience camping in Baja, I suggest you find some way to go camping with the locals. I have spent my whole life camping, but when I am fortunate to be invited to camp in Baja with native Bajanos, I am constantly amazed at their resourcefulness and efficiency. (Maybe it is simply the friends I choose, but I have always wondered if it is a Baja custom to drink all available beer the first night camping?)
For practical purposes, the following insights on camping in Baja are one man’s version. I humbly acknowledge my various insufficiencies and realize that much of what I am about to profess, can, and often easily, be improved upon. I welcome from readers any information, tips, suggestions, and/or comments they have regarding anything related to camping in Baja.
I am a big fan of vans. Living in a van that has been modified with practicality in mind, I find the not least bit inconvenient. In fact, over the last five years my current van has slowly evolved itself to mesh particularly well with how I live my life. While my 1/2-ton Chevy van is a fine all-round camping machine, for Baja it has one inherent character flaw: it lacks four-wheel drive. Baja is sand, and there are as many kinds of sand in Baja as there are snow to the Eskimos. After five years of subjecting my beat-up, yellow, rust-pocked, ’85 van to Baja challenge after challenge, I have a pretty good idea of where it can go and where it should not attempt to go. By simply walking on a tract of sand I can determine with a good degree of certainty whether my baby has a chance. I suggest a solid, inch-thick 50-meter hemp rope be standard in any camping vehicle’s emergency gear (along with a 12-volt air compressor, extra gas, an extra spare tire, a spare fuel filter and the knowledge of how to install it, tools, a supplemental small scissors jack, and, of course, water). Digging out of the sand is a Baja art. It involves logs, rocks, shovels, jacks, and tire deflation.
For more stories on driving Baja, check out South from San Felipe and San Fransisco de la Sierra, Baja California Sur
Much of driving in sand is instinct, as is driving in snow, and not surprisingly, driving in sand is a lot like driving in snow: maintain speed, rely on momentum, avoid spinning the wheels, and if you do get stuck, often times “rocking” the vehicle can effectively get you unstuck.
Allow me at this point to further describe my van. I paid $600 for it five years ago. It has at least 177,000 miles on it, (three trips to Baja ago the speedometer was disconnected when I could not get the cable to stop screeching, even by replacing the cable), so I’m not certain of its actual mileage. Inside I have constructed two 12" x 18" by 12" high 1/2-inch plywood boxes with hasps and locks. There are several bookcases with bungie cords to secure the books. I have installed a small current inverter, which converts 12 volts to 110, so that I can operate a coffee grinder, my computer and scanner, a food processor, or anything else that can be plugged into a regular electric outlet and does demand a lot of power. I have also installed a dual-battery isolator unit, which designates a second battery as the accessory battery and protects the main battery from becoming depleted when operating electronic appliances while the motor is not running. This arrangement allows 12-volt accessories, such as a tape deck/cd player, various lights, fans, or anything that plugs into a cigarette lighter or runs off the current inverter to deplete the accessory battery without any drain to the engine’s main battery. Therefore, you can party all night with no fear of waking up with a headache and a dead battery. Once the motor is again running, the accessory battery charges like any car battery. Being alone on a beach in Baja with a dead battery is not an enticing scenario.
I have also constructed an 8' x 4' extruded metal cargo rack, which is attached to three 2 x 4’s clamped to the roof by the rain gutters. On this I carry the extra spare, gas, a kayak, a bike, and even people when the driving is slow and the vistas are remarkable. I find it especially useful for carrying firewood. Since firewood is scarce at most of the popular camping sites, adequate firewood can be collected en route, along the main highways or back roads. Otherwise, at more remote beach areas, wood is not usually a problem.
The lack of trees is a problem on Baja beaches, thus they lack natural shade (and, alas, adequate hammock supports). I have discovered adjustable tent/tarpaulin poles to be indispensable. I carry three. These I use to secure various combinations of tarps as sun protection. Baja can be extremely windy and sometimes, despite inventive designs and conscientious construction, tarps of any kind can not be erected. I carry numerous tarps, but if I were to have just one it would be of canvass or heavy-duty plastic (avoid those cheap blue ones) and about 10' x 10'. I attach the tarps to the van and out to the poles. Carry at least 50 feet of nylon rope for staking the tarps down, and a dozen serious stakes. A good selection of bungie cords is always a plus. A five-pound mallet is also a good thing to have in your vehicle for miscellaneous tasks.
A tent is sometimes nice as long as it has adequate air circulation. Rain is not a problem until October or November and mosquitoes are rare during the winter months. But being able to get out of the sun is a prime consideration.
The Basic Necessities
Most of the foods you need can be purchase at any well-stocked market, including the public mercado. Grab yourself a grocery cart and knock yourself out, and be amazed how fresh everything is and how affordable. Where else can you select perfectly ripe avocados directly from the bin for a dime each?
Be sure to load up on limes, for no other reason than, if you come into possession of fresh fish, to be able to create a meal of ceviche without even lighting a fire.
You will want tomatoes, a red onion, peppers, and cilantro for salsa material.
If possible, stop at the local tortillaria for fresh flour or corn tortillas. A half-kilo for two pesos. Splurge.
One of the perfect foods for camping is carne asada. This very popular thinly-sliced, highly-marbled, flavorful beef is available from any butcher shop. This can be grilled quickly over any open fire or pan-fried. Cut up and served with salsa and tortillas it is a superb meal, with virtually no pots, pans, plates, or silverware to wash.
Regarding seafood: my favorite first-night’s meal is shrimp. No muss. No fuss. In a large pot pour an inch of liquid (water is fine, but if you use a mixture of vinegar/white wine, with lots of spices like: clove, nutmeg, paprika, pepper, thyme, etc it’s a treat.) Without even peeling the shrimp, boil/steam the whole kilo (a measly $12/kilo) for about 15 minutes and serve the pile with garlic butter or shrimp sauce. Any shrimp left over and a kilo of shrimp is a formative undertaking they can be eaten cold or put in the next day’s rice. One should definitely have some sort of fishing rig set up and a line wet the entire time one is camping. You can also check around with fellow campers, especially those who are obviously fishing, and with local fishermen with the hope of securing a dependable supply of fresh fish.
If you drive down from the United States, think about bringing a good supply of olive oil. While olive oil is expensive in the US, it is even more expensive in Baja.
It has been my experience that a block of ice in a large cooler will last at the longest, if kept out of the sun, three days. Which means cold beer is to be enjoyed for only the first couple days. Since cold beer is such a rarity, it is much appreciated out there on the beach. Often times cold beer can be a reliable currency when buying fish from the local fishermen. Along some of the more well traveled rural roads many of the more popular camping sites are serviced once a week by a state-run grocery store on wheels. From here can be purchased many of the food basics. Simple inquiries can be made as to the details of this service.
If you are an avid camper, no doubt you will have a good idea of the things you will need. What follows are things that I have found particularly useful in Baja.
I always travel with the indestructible two-burner Coleman multi-fuel stove. (When I camp with locals, the stove is never even taken out of the van. To them it is superfluous). Going hand in hand with the stove is a beat-up TV tray on which it stands. I carry with me also a Coleman lantern.
Bring a grill for cooking over the fire or warming water. (Regarding water, it is good to carry potable water as well as water to be used for cleaning up or for the dog. In Baja a six-gallon bottle of water can be purchased for about eight pesos minus deposit. If you have the water container they will gladly transfer the water for you right there.)
Make sure you have a cutting board just in case someone lays a fish on you and you have to fillet it. Be careful not to get sand in the fillet, for sand is almost impossible to rinse out.
I also carry a fold-up four-seat plastic picnic table that, from repeated abuses, along with an inherent shoddy design, supports diners only gingerly and after being sufficiently warned. But it is a good place to keep food off the ground. Some sort of table is a necessity.
This might be a good time to talk about local predators. Cows are everywhere and if you and your party wander off all at one time, leaving the camp without sentries, you can become prey to cows. Totally lacking of remorse, cows will come into your camp and eat all your food that has not been placed in the van. They will tear down your tarps, knocking over everything. Sometimes pigs will do the same. And there are coyotes. Be careful leaving pets unprotected at night.
As I mentioned above, mosquitoes are not really a problem from December to mid-April. It is perfectly safe to sleep on the ground sans tent. I would however recommend a ground cloth and something to protect you from the dew, which can be substantial. Rain is definitely not an issue. And the stars are incredible.
- Onions (red and white)
- Beans (or other green vegetable)
- Melons (honeydew and cantaloupe)
- Vegetable oil
- Hot sauces
- Boxed juices
- Salt, pepper, spices, sugar
- Carne asada.
12-Volt Air Compressor
These handy items can be purchased in the US for anywhere between $10$20. They can be a godsend. There are a number of situations where deflating the tires can be beneficial. One is in deep sand, if your vehicle is stuck or you are concerned about the possibility. An air compressor allows you to deflate the tires to almost flat in order to navigate the sand, and afterward, reinflate them. Deflating one’s tires also becomes advisable if one is to be driving any of Baja’s dirt roads for any length of time. Most of these back roads are brutally washboarded, and are infamous for being able to dissemble a car right before one’s eyes. (There are two ways to drive these roads: like the locals, at 50 mph or like me, at 5 mph. Of course, a dune buggy is the way to go, or a rental car). Deflating the tires from 32 psi to 15 psi will give you a noticeably smoother ride. Once you get back to the paved road, reinflate them.
Always carry a shovel, if for no other reason than to dig a pit for sanitary purposes. And, of course, there is the sand. I was introduced to a great shovel design, which requires a bit of welding (and can be cheaply done at any of the many welding shops all around Baja). Using a shovel blade from which the wooden handle has been removed, create a new shaft of steel plumbing pipe. The shaft is a simple welded T, which is welded to the shovel blade. It is extremely durable and just the kind of shovel one needs when one’s vacation might depend on it.
Baja Driving Stories
South from San Felipe:
Captain Alex told me I couldn’t do it. Using a plastic bottle cut in half, tossing saltwater, he was rinsing off fish slime from his 22-foot panga, the La Brisa. He looked up at my van and shook his head. “Not a chance. Best bet is to go back, up through Ensenada.” The weathered old gringo who had ambled down the beach to the boat, a long-time friend and fishing mate of Captain Alex, agreed, saying it was maybe doable with a four-wheel. It seemed the road south of San Felipe, which is a paved road, was never actually in good shape, but the storm in September had made it worse, washing away good chunks of it. Bill, my campsite neighbor a methodical, self-assured spark plug of a man from Boise, Idaho had driven the 50-mile stretch to Puertecitos just a couple days ago. “It’s the sand,” he said. “Some of those detours were a quarter mile through the arroyos. Through the desert. Maybe if you let some of the air out of your tires.” He drove it in his big honkin’ four-wheel drive pickup truck. It took him three hours to reach Puertecitos. His fishing buddy, Fritz, had gone along. Like usual, Fritz didn’t have much to say much about any of it. At Puertecitos an unpaved road continues down the coast 38 miles to Baha San Luis Ganzaga. This stretch of road on my map, is symbolized by unbroken double lines one step up from the dotted double lines, which indicates a goat route. From there to its emergence onto Mex 1, the Transpeninsular Highway, it is about 40 miles of improved unpaved road. My major reference book, The Baja Catch, suggests all areas south of Puertecitos be accessed from the south.
That’s how my information-gathering sessions went everything indicating the van would make it just fine. I could indeed let a little air out of the tires if needed be. To re-inflate them I had with me a 12-volt air compressor. I had two spare tires. I had an extra 8 gallons of gas. Extra water. Food. Beer. I was not going to die. The thought going backwards, re-routing through Ensenada, did not make even a brief appearance. It was simply not an option. Zelda and I were driving south to Puertecitos. I don’t even know why I bothered to ask anyone.
By noon I had checked out of Rubens RV camp and was on my way south. About two miles down the road, not even out of town, I was flagged down by a couple who had gotten their new Jeep Cherokee stuck in the sand as they pulled off the pavement to change drivers. I hoped this was not some omen. I replaced him behind the wheel and rocked his SUV to freedom. I continued south. Reassuringly the oncoming traffic was steady. Whatever fate befell me, I would not be long alone. The pavement was, as reported, in poor shape. Full lanes were washed out and potholes were everywhere, requiring a van such as mine, to travel no more than 30 mph. (I’m guessing here, since my speedometer is disconnected.) After 15 miles I came to my first detour a 150-foot trip down, across, and up the arroyo. There were more. The traffic thinned as I repeatedly passed various campos and residential groupings, voyaging deeper into this Saharan abyss. Finally, a long-awaited quarter-mile cross-desert detours made an appearance. The road here was completely washed away. The pavement stopped, resulting in a sudden six-foot drop into the arroyo. Passage was achieved by a well-worn dirt road that sprang up next to the highway. And that was that. I was to encounter several other similar re-routings during the 80-kilometer drive and none of them posed the slightest inconvenience. I felt violated; totally underwhelmed. I was hoping for an adventure; a tale to tell. I wanted testosterone to flow. I wanted adrenaline-fueled feats. I wanted to be able stumble into a Puerecitos cantina and order up an ice-cold cervesa proclaiming, “Si, I drove from San Felipe. Si, I am a man.” Instead, I got a road that rivaled the road that runs in front of my Duluth home. To these naysayers I ask: What else have you failed to attempt?
San Francisco de la Sierra, Baja California Sur
It was time to see just how slow this baby could go. Inches per hour. The last set of switchbacks lay ahead. The arroyo floor was now, unbelievingly, only fifty feet below. I had come 18 miles from San Francisco de la Sierra at 4500 feet above sea level to where my van was now stopped, in the middle of the dirt road; a road full of rocks, boulders, gullies, ruts, loose gravel, 20 percent grades, and shoulder-less sides that dropped 1000 feet into land time easily forgot. During the two and a half-hours of descent, it was this stretch of road I had been particularly dreading, especially the final inward switchback. As the road changes directions there is a brief moment where it seems almost vertical. In fifteen feet the van could be going fast enough to be unable to negotiate the turn. Normally I would not have much of a concern, but today, I was traveling without any rear brakes. Somewhere on the upper portion of the road, the brake line began to leak. I poured in fluid and it pooled beneath the van. If I went slow enough the front brakes alone were sufficient, but there were enough times during my descent when the front wheels locked and the van briefly hopped down the decline. Tough to steer wheels which are not going around. It has always been mildly disconcerting to see the vast numbers of scavenged, overturned, rusted, automobile carcasses strewn all over the Baja, but at this moment it has never been more so.
I was on foot, scouting the road. It was wide, having been freshly graded. There was a slight berm from the grading along the inside edge. Worse case scenario, if the front brakes couldn’t hold the van, I could steer it into the side of the mountain. It wouldn’t be pretty, but it would be effective. In my favor, the road was slightly banked. I stood in the mid-afternoon sun, trying to make an honest assessment. I seemed to be unable to not attempt it. I walked back to the van. The dog was having a great day. There had been herds of goats wearing bells. There had been groups of mules, unable to get off the road, enabling Zelda to give them hell for miles. And of course, there had been cows. For the last two hours she had been on red alert. Me, I had been preoccupied with the image of myself jumping out of the car before it disappeared over the side, a confused-looking dog being the last thing I see.
I further reduced my air pressure. I crept forward. I kept the inside wheels in the loose berm. The front brakes were holding. I stopped the van. Regrouped. Tried to keep my leg from shaking. I was looking down at the floor of the arroyo. With a couple quick pumps of the brake pedal, I swung the van around and scurried down the final straight descent. Nothing to it just another day of bopping around the Baja.