5 Things I Learned While Traveling Baja in a Van

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Sweltering summer days in North Carolina have me thinking nonstop about sweltering winter days in the van — and how I can’t wait for more.

We prepared to hit the road in our 1986 GMC Vandura for months before we finally found ourselves on 1-40 West out of Wilmington in January. We’d shopped for everything from drill bits to a three-month-long supply of toothpaste, and we were prepared. Although, I don’t think either of us knew just how epic the experience of driving from Wilmington, N.C., to Cabo San Lucas would be.

A few years prior, we’d packed my 2002 Mercury Mountaineer with clothes, surfboards and our black lab Ellie and peeled out of town in the same direction. However, we stuck mostly to mainland Mexico and spent little time in dry, dusty, parts-of-the-road-missing Baja. This time we were ready for “vanlife,” and all of the life lessons it had to offer. The following are five things we learned on the journey that I hope I’ll never forget.

1. Don’t Make PLans

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So much of traveling involves planning, especially if there’s a plane ticket involved. That’s one of the major reasons why I love camping and being mobile. Every time we stumbled across something we wanted to see or do, we did it.  That’s how we ended up in Texas doing backflips into one of the world’s largest spring-fed pools (Balmorhea State Park, affectionately known to us as “Balls Maria”), eating perfectly-fried fish tacos in Guerrero Negro and surfing the peeling waves of one dusty, boring-as-hell town for weeks at a time. Without obligations you can do what you want to do, when you want to do it.

2. Don’t Listen to Everyone

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Jeff and I have a knack for loving places that everyone else hates. The number of people who recommended that we go to Cerritos, one of Baja Sur’s most famous surf spots, was astronomical. We rented an Airbnb home near the beach for roughly $30 per night (it was too hot in the van for the pups) and ended up driving 45 minutes north to surf every day, because in our opinion, the shifty, reforming beach break sucked.

The same thing happened in San Jose del Cabo. We arrived at what everyone called the, “quieter, more authentic side of Cabo San Lucas.” People warned us that we’d hate Cabo for its hawkers and tequila-pouring, whistle-blowing waitresses. Sure, San Jose del Cabo was quieter, but its perfectly clean streets had been wiped of dirt and character too. We walked for hours passed French cafes and American-owned breweries in search of a place to find cheap tacos — in Mexico.

In our opinion, at least Cabo San Lucas wasn’t trying to fake anything. We took our eyes off the surf for a day, weasled our way into a resort and swam up to the bar — exactly what we wanted out of “Cabo.”

3. Do What’s Best for You

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A van trip through Baja doesn’t sound as badass if you spend half your time in Airbnb casitas. However, in certain places, like Cerritos, Cabo San Lucas and our undisclosed favorite place on the peninsula, the temperatures were still too hot in January, February and March to leave our mutts in the van while we surfed in the cool 70-degree water. This meant we had to shell out a few extra bucks for casitas to keep them cool. I never really minded, because casitas have toilets, showers and refrigerators.

4. Worry Less

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It’s important to be prepared. We slept with a machete nearby, and Ellie’s eardrum-shattering bark was another weapon. But we never even thought of using our machete for anything other than smashing open a coconut. Southern Baja is one of the safest parts of Mexico, and we never once felt threatened, even when camping alone on deserted beaches with our doors cracked for extra airflow. We felt drastically less safe sleeping at rest areas in America than we did on Mexico’s beaches, and once the worries driven into us by the media washed away, we slept a lot more soundly.

5. Don’t Try to See It All

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The more you travel throughout Baja and meet the community of traveling surfers with the same goals as you, the more you feel like you need to surf all of the spots they’re talking about — and trust me, there are a lot.

Although, moving from one destination to the next, finding a campsite, setting up camp and packing it all up again take a lot of time. Travel days are days you’re not in the water, and it often pays to stay in one place for an extended amount of time — especially if it’s pumping. Our favorite days were the ones when we didn’t have to worry about our next move, and we ended up surfing two or three times a day. The days when water was pouring out of our noses when sitting on the toilet, and we needed to help each other stand up. The days when we ate Zucaritas (frosted flakes) in bed, because we were too tired to boil water. Those are the days we live for.

Author: Courtney McCaffrey

I'm an adventure travel writer and editor based in Wilmington, N.C., Mexico and around the world. This site is named after my grandma’s talk radio show “Bits of Life,” which allowed her to talk about whatever the heck she wanted to talk about, and people loved it.

3 thoughts on “5 Things I Learned While Traveling Baja in a Van”

  1. Thanks for the post! I’m looking to hit Baja with my partner and our dog in our box truck this fall/winter. Was it pretty easy to find a spot to park for the night? And do you have suggestions for keeping it cool for the pup? We are going to make some modifications for airflow before we head out, already have a fan and a small window.

    Thanks,

    Cam

    1. Hey Cam, Baja is loaded with places to camp, including tons of places right on the sand, steps from the ocean. Baja Sur is so safe, we felt comfortable parking and sleeping practically anywhere, but RV parks and campsites are definitely abundant. Keeping the pups cool is difficult, but fall and winter in northern areas of Baja is usually pretty comfortable (not crazy hot). We rented a couple Airbnbs down near Todos Santos when it got crazy hot or just lounged in/around the van with the dogs all day. We’re going to upgrade to a Fantastic Fan, because our ventilation is horrible, you should check them out!

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