As miles of nearly deserted pristine sand beach stretch before me, accessed from directly outside my RV’s door, I can’t help but wonder at the appeal of setting up RV camp in a dusty desert town in Arizona for the winter, as so many snowbirding RVers do.
Give me Baja California, Mexico, any day. It’s cheap (or at least significantly cheaper than the U.S.), it’s beautiful, there is a lot to see and do, the food is amazing, and so is the laidback lifestyle. And despite what you may have heard, it’s safe. More on that below. Although no matter, I guarantee, regardless of what I say there will be commenters singing the horrors of the alleged dangers across the border. Those people should not go to Mexico and that’s fine. It’s not for everyone.
This article will focus on options for RVers in Baja, California norte (north). No, norte is not officially part of this Mexican state’s name, but since there is a state of Baja California Sur (south), I wanted to make a distinction. Likewise, we are not going to go too far south in this post—no more than about 4 hours or less from the border.
I also wanted to focus on this area of Baja because it provides what I call an “expat light” experience. Meaning you can dip your toe into living in another country to see if you like it while being no more than a couple of hours (or less) from the border at any time.
But be forewarned. I have long since lost count of the snowbirding RVers I have met who decided to stay and make Baja their full-time homes.
When I first moved to the Ensenada area part-time about 6 years ago, I thought it would be a stopping point in a journey much further south. But I found the convenience of having the best of both worlds, Mexico and the United States, a strong draw. I still had family in Southern California I could visit at any time.
I could keep the healthcare providers I knew and liked. It was easy to keep a U.S. mailing address, and many more conveniences that would be far more difficult and/or expensive if I lived farther away.
Is snowbirding in Baja California, Mexico, safe? Statistics versus reality
The short answer is yes.
Can and do bad things happen in Mexico? Of course. Just as they can and do everywhere in the world, including, dare I say it, in your own hometown.
It is true that statistically Mexico has a high crime and homicide rate. So does urban Chicago. However, it is important to look at the source of those crimes.
Yes, most are cartel-related, which does sound horrifying. And those crimes are indeed horrifying. However, unless you are involved in buying and selling drugs, you are not likely to be touched by them.
I am in no way condoning this violence. Nor do I lack sympathy for its victims. Nor am I saying that innocent people do not sometimes get caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. This happens in the U.S., too.
But the cartels do consciously avoid bringing unnecessary heat unto themselves and do try to keep things in-house, so to speak. Random violence and unmotivated mass shootings, as are becoming more and more common in the U.S., don’t seem to happen here.
People who live in Baja, both Mexican nationals and expats, know that they should be aware of their surroundings, just as savvy travelers know you should be anywhere in the world. They know to avoid bad areas, especially at night. And they know that driving in remote areas at night is not a good idea, not only because of potential robberies but also because of potholes and livestock on the road.
But they also laugh at the fear mongers in Facebook groups trying to paint Baja as a highly dangerous and violent place. The expats who live here tell these folks to just stay home. In almost all cases, the ones doing the fear-mongering have never even visited Baja, let alone experienced living here.
Snowbirding in Baja: Pacific coast versus the Gulf of California coast
Baja California, Mexico, is a long peninsula with more than 2,000 miles of coastline. Snowbirding RVers will encounter lots of great options on either side of the Baja peninsula, but they do offer distinctly different experiences.
Americans will find thriving expat communities on both sides. In fact, some expats spend their winters in and around San Felipe, where the weather stays warm, and migrate over to the Ensenada side, where the ocean breezes off the Pacific keep things cool in the summer.
While I am in no way suggesting you only communicate with or interact with expats, having the resources of others who are in the same shoes, speak the same language, and have experience in the area can be invaluable. Especially if you need help or run into problems. More about this in the practicalities section.
So let’s look at the pros and cons of spending your time on the Pacific Coast or the Gulf of California (formerly known as the Sea of Cortez) coast in Baja.
Baja California Pacific Coast pros:
- Easy access to and from San Diego
- Stays cool even in summer, no A/C needed
- Great fishing
- Lots of off-road races and motorsports
- Surf (which can be a pro or con depending on your point of view)
- Decent-sized cities like Ensenada, Rosarito, and Tijuana, with every imaginable amenity you could want, plus lots of shopping, restaurant, nightlife, and entertainment options. There is even Costco and Walmart.
- Close to the Valle de Guadalupe wine country that offers world-class wines and fine dining. If you don’t care about being near the ocean, this is another terrific place to set up a home base.
Baja California Pacific Coast cons:
- Colder in winter than the other coast, but not cold by many people’s standards. We are talking 50s or low 40s at worst, and that is rare.
- It is more crowded and populated than the other side, which, depending on your point of view, can be a pro or a con.
- Mosquitos in summer can be bad.
Baja California Gulf of California Coast pros:
- Warm but not hot in winter
- Bathwater warm water in summer
- Great fishing
- Lots of off-road races and motorsports
- Calm waters/no surf (which can be a pro or con depending on your point of view)
- Best of two worlds—this coast is where the desert meets the ocean.
Baja California Gulf of California Coast cons:
- Hotter than Hades for 6 months or more of each year
- Less overall services, shopping, restaurants, entertainment, etc.
- Mosquitoes in summer can be bad.
- Outside of San Felipe, you won’t find much civilization other than tiny villages until you get to La Paz in Baja Sur, which can make road breakdowns extra stressful. You will also need to pack plenty of groceries as there will be no more supermarkets outside of San Felipe.
Where to stay as a snowbird on the Pacific side
There are towns and communities from San Diego to Ensenada, all with lots of campground options. If you go south of Ensenada, there are still places to visit and some small towns but it begins to get sparser.
For the purposes of this post, Ensenada will be our furthest point south.
- Tijuana: Right over the border, I generally avoid TJ and head straight to the toll road south. There is a lot to see and do here, but if you opt to stay, find a campground and park, then explore. Driving around Tijuana’s narrow, crowded streets in an RV would not be fun. Also, as with most border towns, and TJ is right on the border, crime rates tend to be higher.
- Rosarito: Only about 15 minutes from Tijuana, Rosarito offers a number of RV parks, great beaches, restaurants, and nightlife. There are also lots of festivals and events throughout the year. The vibe skews a bit younger than Ensenada, with lots of spring breakers and surfers coming through.
- Puerto Nuevo: Fifteen minutes or so south of Rosarito, lobster dinners are Puerto Nuevo’s claim to fame. In reality, the area was fished out years ago and most of the lobsters are now imported. But there are beautiful beaches in this little town and relatively close proximity to both Rosarito and Ensenada.
- Ensenada: Baja’s largest city, Ensenada features a large commercial and cruise ship port, and lots of culture, entertainment, and restaurants. You’ll find RV parks along the coast starting north of town and south to La Bufadora, Baja’s most famous natural attraction, as well as the expat enclave of Punta Banda on the way.
- Valle de Guadalupe: If you enjoy high desert living, the wine country might be for you. It’s close to Ensenada yet more rural, but with world-class wineries and restaurants. The Valle reminds me of the Napa/Sonoma area of 30 years or more ago. But it’s growing FAST and racking up international awards.
Where to stay on the Gulf of California side
- San Felipe area: The town of San Felipe and the areas just north and just south of it are filled with lots of oceanside RV parks at all ends of the price and amenity spectrum.
- Camps southbound: Heading further south out of town you will encounter lots of tiny mom-and-pop type “camps.” These won’t have hookups. And don’t expect any phone or internet service either, unless you carry satellite internet. But it will be some of the most incredible scenery and off-grid RVing you have ever done. Prices will be what you can negotiate. I have a friend in a camp where you can own your lot, on the Gulf of California shore in Bahia San Luis de Gonzaga, for a mere $1,200 a year. Bring your RV, or build on it. That’s the long-term land lease rate in that camp (foreigners cannot actually own property on the water in Mexico).
General things to know about living and traveling in Baja Mexico
- A lot of places, especially near the cities of Tijuana, Rosarito, and Ensenada will accept dollars, but you will get a better deal if you pay in pesos.
- Unlike the U.S., many businesses do not accept credit cards, although most gas stations and grocery stores do. You will need to carry more cash than at home.
- It’s easy to get cash from ATM machines in order to avoid carrying too much.
- While speaking the language will provide a richer experience, you can certainly get by without it in Baja. I know expats who have lived here for decades who barely speak a word of Spanish. This is not recommended, but you can get away with it.
- No pumping your own gas; they do it for you. Tips appreciated. Prices are about the same as in Southern California as of this writing.
- Mexico runs on tipping in general, and an amount that means little to us can mean a lot to a poor working person who is bagging your groceries or cleaning your car windows.
- Prices for things like campground rates can vary greatly depending on where you go and who you know. Some of the expat-dominated high-end campgrounds are starting to mirror U.S. rates. Well, maybe not quite, but at $50 a night or more they aren’t cheap by Mexican standards. On the other hand, deals can be had, and it will be easier to find them once you are there and can ask around. For instance, my beachside winter rental south of Ensenada is at a camp that has some RV space but mostly rental homes. They do not market themselves as an RV park. Nonetheless, for two winters in a row, they have rented me a full hookup space for a mere $300 a month (2022-2023).
- When it comes to campgrounds, check in advance on services and how you access them. When you get into more remote areas especially. For instance, an electrical hookup might mean plugging into the wall outlet in the bathroom. Not always, but Mexico is not the U.S. in this regard. So if you need 50-amp service, especially, check this out. Water may or may not be included (but you can almost always get it). You will always want to carry drinking water, as well.
- If you have a large rig you can get to Ensenada and points north on the coast or to San Felipe without much trouble. The roads are good and well-maintained. However, I do not recommend cruising around Baja in large rigs. The roads in remote areas are not as reliable, nor are the dirt roads that lead to beachfront camps. Also, services and fuel become scarce. That said, remote Baja makes an awesome van lifer or truck camper’s playground!
- There are local Facebook groups that are invaluable for planning your trips and also for finding things once you are there. Each city and town has one and sometimes even individual neighborhoods and camps have their own, too. You really can get quite granular. Do a search for the areas you want to visit, join the groups, and you will get answers to most any questions.
- Military checkpoints on the highways are a regular thing so don’t let it alarm you if you are stopped in one. These are usually just cursory stops, but they may ask to search your vehicle (in 6 years here it has never happened to me personally). They will ask where you came from and where you are going. Don’t carry illegal items and you should be fine.
- While you are in Mexico, consider getting some work done at a fraction of what it would cost in the states. Dental work, plastic surgery, and veterinary procedures are far more affordable south of the border. Clinics are often set up for expat medical tourists. Also consider things like RV or vehicle upholstery, vehicle bodywork, and mechanics, which can also be great deals if you find a reliable place to do the work. Those Facebook groups can be invaluable for this.