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.
Be sure to also check out these Baja California, Mexico posts:
- Crossing the border at San Ysidro/San Diego
- Traffic stops in Mexico: What to expect when stopped by the police
- Staying at Airstream City – San Felipe, Baja California, Mexico
Chuck, (miss you and the family)
Great article about the Baja. I started going exploring there back in the early 1970″s on my Harley Davidson Electra Glide motorcycle. On the side of the bike I had a fishing pole, waders, and a guitar. Never had any problems with crime, except someone stole my cowboy hat out in the desert one night when I was sleeping on the ground. Beside that the people were very friendly. A couple months later I was on my way back to the states heading north across the desert to California. I was in the middle of nowhere when suddenly the chain on my bike broke and I couldn’t fix it. I was stuck there for several hours in the hot sun. No cell phone back then. Hardly any cars drove by. It was hotter than you know what. Suddenly two dust covered locals came driving by in an old pick-up truck. They took a look at the bike and then got out a long piece of wood. They put the bike in the back of their pickup and took me into the nearest town across the border. No fee
Hi, John. Sorry for the delay in approving your comment (it was held pending approval since this is your first comment on here). I was out getting soaked in the rain walking at the local high school track. I just got back and found your comment. I remember you, and your great videos. I’ve worked with Chuck for 10 years. I emailed your comment to him so he wouldn’t miss it. Good to hear from you! Have a great day. 😀 –Diane at RVtravel.com
I have been to San Felipe and even own property there. I have to say I feel safer there than I do going to WallyWorld or a shopping mall here in the states. Those are two dangerous places, not to mention the road rage incidents just driving down the highway.
I can appreciate this writers fondness for that area in Mexico. I have spent much time on the peninsula, between Ensenada, San Felipe and around the top tip of the gulf on hwy #2 into Porto Penasco and points further south. 3 inches of shoulder on a narrow laned fast highway for a couple of hundred miles (not a pleasure to drive in a car) and readers should take the picture painted with a grain of salt. I can agree that area of Mexico is above average for quality of life but Chicago is not Mexico. Mexico’s #1 export is its people, for reason. Canadian expats populate much of this area and yes, medical reasons drive many expat Canadians to the area. (Free health care not all it’s cracked up to be, in the end). The Canadian snowbird dollar goes nowhere in the USA unless you’re buying booze. The Baja, in Mexico, is still part of a third world country but it’s old world charm has a hypnotic effect. Go if you’re drawn to it, but keep your guard up. It’s not shangri-la. Me? I love it.
We were in Loreto a few weeks ago, and loved it! Rented a car for the week and explored. Even travelled up to Mulege..( 2 hrs North of Loreto) We did get pulled over by the police and experienced one of the military stops but both were uneventful and didn’t have to pay. I was one who thought we would never drive in Mexico, now I want to come down in the RV! Absolutely beautiful country! Loved the article!
I now call San Felipe home (I’m retired from the Canadian military after almost 29 years) and love it down here. The summers are hot & humid. This past winter has been one of the coldest with some days only reaching 55 degrees (about 13 C) – not bragging, complaining!!
Your money goes a lot further, food is so much tastier (compare a piece of poached chicken from USA & MX – the flavour is incredible!) You might have to shop every few days as produce doesn’t have the preservatives on it (oh darn!)
And you are 100% correct about the crime. For those that say otherwise you are also 100% correct – stay home!
Try the shrimp stuffed poblano pepper at Pete’s Camp.
My first, last, and only trip to Baja I was robbed by the police. Never again!
Thanks for the wealth of information!
Who in their right mind would go to Mexico, you are just asking for trouble.
Watch a conservative news channel and see what is really happening in Mexico.
There an answer to being open minded, conservative news.
Just as predicted, someone who knows nothing about it fear mongering. SMH.
Ok..I happen to know a lot about the dangers, so………
Good luck should you decide to travel to the biggest cartel known on the border…
Yes, 1000s of Americans living here are wrong and you and “conservative news” are right. My bad. NOT.
I’d have no problems going to Mexico if we could bring our guns with us..but can’t so we won’t go.
Evidently you don’t watch the news..
Good luck and I hope God watches over you.
I got news for you. The news lies. Regularly. But please, do stay home. It’s not for you. But I really do not care what you or the conservative “news” says, I have lived here for over 6 years after having traveled the world. I will trust my real world experience thank you very much. Namaste.
I also have traveled to Mexico at least 30 times in my life,also many of other places outside of America, now I will stay in AMERICA, give my money to American businesses..
Evidently your a liberal and can not be reasoned with..
Is the same conservative news that spews the opinion on election as news and not opinion, that is until they in court were under oath.
Cheri, I know you didn’t bring up the conservative news thing and this is not a conservative news issue. The US State Department as of today has (Bidens State Department) a travel alert and advisory to not travel to Mexico. The Canadian State Department “warns against all travel and use a high level of caution” for its expats as of yesterday’s press release.
I’m sure you checked on that before this went to print. If not, then RVT is more like CNN and Twitter than I thought.
Lighten up on RM a little. His info is accurate.
Thanks, Cancelproof. Here is a link to the Mexico Travel Advisory from the U.S. Department of State: https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/traveladvisories/traveladvisories/mexico-travel-advisory.html Posting this not for fear-mongering purposes, but for educational/full disclosure purposes. Take care. 😀 –Diane at RVtravel.com
I think posting that link is a good measure of prudence when a travel article promotes travel to a country with a travel alert. Kind of like a tour operator promoting open water shark diving during a feeding frenzy. It’s none of my business but seems prudent to me. I personally enjoyed the heck out of that article and Cheri was spot-on, on everything, but the observation of tracer fire on the border 4 weeks ago may cause pause for some.
Goodnight big sister.
Cancelproof: So what is RVtravel.com supposed to be like, if you suggest we’re more like CNN and Twitter? Do you think that maybe those of us at RVtravel.com might simply aspire to be fair and accurate without branding ourselves as conservative or liberal or something else? And you don’t even provide your real name, so why should we even take you seriously?
Chuck, I really appreciate your articles and the writers that take the time for such a creative endeavor. As you can see in my postings re: Baja, I support Cheri’s take and opinion on the Baja and all that it offers to travelers from anywhere. I also respect that RM’s opinion that Mexico may in fact be an unsafe choice is reality. It is not conjecture based on some conservative news source opinion puff piece. His fear and opinion is part of his observed reality.
If I was inarticulate in my reply to Cheri, sorry. I knew Diane was gonna flame me a bit on it but yes, a State Department (USA and CAN) travel alert exists for Mexico currently, not travel alert from FOX or Newsmax. I don’t want RVT to change a thing. I really like it as it is and look forward to it.
My real name is Chuck. So many Chucks on your postings previously, I chose a different handle so less confusion would be possible as to me or anyone else, (Chuck was a busy name generationally for us), and I’m pretty sure confusion won’t happen with my current handle but my views are real, and just like Cheri, I can easily defend 100% of her piece. It just seemed personal when an R or L news perspective came into play and she bit the hook. I didn’t bring it up BTW.
I don’t want RVT Liberal or Conservative. I’m indifferent to your political leanings or of any contributing participant. Chances are, your readers agree more with each other than not, RV or otherwise. Pragmatism is my goal.
Keep up the good work Chuck. (Diane and Cheri too).
Have a good evening, all.
Hi, Cancelproof. Thank you for your explanation in response to Chuck’s comment. And you’ll notice I didn’t “flame you” on your comment. In fact, I backed it up. 😉 Have a good night. 😀 -Diane at RVtravel.com
I am well aware of what the US government says. I also addressed all of this in the statistics versus reality section. Not to mention I correctly predicted someone would come on and start fear mongering and here we are (and when you start with an insult of nobody in their right mind would go to Mexico, I don’t think I am the one who needs to lighten up).
I have nothing to lighten up about. Yes statistics are bad. They also are in much of the US. But statistically speaking you are also very safe here. So I am not going to lighten up on things that for practical purposes I know from real world experience are not really a regular issue for tourists.
If you want to talk stats you are even are safe in the heart of a War Zone if we are talking pure numbers, not that I am recommending that, and not that Mexico is that. At least not where this article addresses.
This is an excellent book on that very subject.
Shortly into your piece, I knew without question that this was where you called home, home. I knew immediately that somehow you would get offended to your core because that is your HOME. You took it personally, it happens, you are a person. If you felt like I was attacking you, I was not. I was simply defending someone else’s very real, observed reality. Both can be true.
I really enjoy your writing. Your Baja piece was spot-on, start to finish. I’ll See you on the dock for shrimp on a skewer someday….., no, maybe not, you’re on the Pacific side I think.
It is not personal. It is the reality of living here. And it is not my HOME. It is one of many places where I spend significant time. I have no loyalty to any “home.” I am and always have been a nomad.
The fear mongering in unfounded. That is the bottom line. It is not personal. I am trying to convey to people what it is really like here and not repeat inaccurate stereotypes. So I am also not going to allow them to go unchallenged, until it got childish and to the name calling stage, which it has. That shows more about that commenter than it does about me.
I can tell you that Baja is not at all what is painted in US mainstream media. If you (or the main commenter that started this) does not want to listen, fine. But don’t paint an inaccurate picture for others.
But I knew without a shadow of a doubt, I would get comments like have erupted here. Part of what it is really like living here, and every expat will tell you, is constantly dealing with people like that (on social media and even among our closed minded friends and family). People that are filled with fear and spreading fear without actually having experienced what life here is like. I refuse to do that. Those people should stay home. I said up front. Mexico is not for everyone.
Thank you for the kind words on the story.
RM is not completely wrong. We all do our own risk reward spreadsheet and that’s the deal we make with ourselves, our family’s and our God. As indicated earlier, try the Shrimp Stuffed Poblano at Pete’s Camp, San Felipe. Its a Doctor’s Without Borders favorite and no poker run is complete without at least 2 orders each.
Yes, bad things can and do happen everywhere. I clearly state that. But I am sorry, if you are smart and aware, as you should be ANYWHERE in the world, Mexico is not the dangerous place it is painted to be. If you are worried, by ALL means please stay home. But fear mongering to the rest of us is unnecessary and inaccurate.
I think the differentiation I make is that the Baja is even difficult to compare with the rest of Mexico. I agree with you 100% on everyone always and anywhere, being prudent about the surroundings they are in. My heart will always be in Baja but people’s fear of the capital M Mexico are not unfounded. It’s almost like 2 different but very similar countries. Baja versus Mexico proper.
I think your article was great and real informative. Loved it.
I was not talking about ALL of Mexico, although I would venture you are safe in most areas too, although there are some I would avoid.
As to conservative news, I brought that up because that is what the person fear mongering cited as his source. Not me.
It’s interesting you chose Chicago’s violence to Mexico violence. One of the many reasons I don’t go to Chicago either. I worked there for 16.5 years and dreaded it everyday wondering if I would be the next statistic in the evening news. No thanks I will spend my time in the USA where I feel relatively safe.
Very informative article. I used to travel a lot in Bajo, mostly to San Felipe area and find it safe and the people warm and welcoming.