With a lack of hostels, public transportation to main attractions and dirt-cheap tours, Baja California isn’t exactly an obvious option for budget-conscious travellers. However, with its undiscovered beaches, abundance of wildlife and delicious bargain fish tacos, the world’s second largest peninsula, if you know how to do it right, can be a backpacker’s paradise.
Baja California is not a traditional backpacker destination, so hostels aren’t really a thing there. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t find cheap rooms. For the best rates in smaller towns such as Guerrero Negro (try Malarrimo Motel), Mulegé (Hotel Mulegé) and Loreto (Hostal Casas Loreto), your best bet is to call the hotel directly a few days ahead of time rather than book your room online. For bigger cities such as Tijuana, Ensenada, La Paz and Cabo, Airbnb is a lifesaver. Hopefully, affordable Airbnb rooms and hostels will catch on for the towns in central Baja in the near future.
Much of the information out there will tell you that in order to travel Baja, you need your own wheels. While a car can definitely be useful for venturing to off-the-beaten-path areas, travelling by bus is easy, comfortable and actually offers a unique perspective of Baja California and its people. Not only are the buses pretty luxurious (many have screens, tons of legroom and powerful AC), but you’ll also get to stop at some awesome, only-in-Mexico roadside pitstops—the perfect place to get to know the locals and eat some of the tastiest food you’ve ever tried. There is no need to book buses ahead of time. Just show up at each town’s main bus terminal (they all have one, however small) and buy a ticket the day of.
Having said that, compared to other Latin American countries, the buses in Baja aren’t as cheap as you might expect. For example, the 10-hour journey between Ensenada and Guerrero Negro (most likely the longest bus ride you’ll take on your trip) costs around $1,000 pesos ($53 USD). While this is definitely a cheaper option for a solo traveller or couple, if you’re in a group of three or more, it may be worth it to rent a car. Note that the best deals for car rentals are online and most charge a big fee to have a different drop-off location. If you’re under 25, car rental companies usually crank up the price even more.
If you do decide to go by bus, it doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice all of the cool off-the-beaten-track spots. With so many road-trippers covering the same route, chances are if you fancy going to one of the beaches or missions just outside of town, you’ll be able to hitch a ride with no problem. The key is to stand in the right place; the locals are super helpful and will be willing to help you out.
Baja California is notoriously pricey when it comes to tours and, with so many protected areas, many activities require a certified guide. For the best deals, it’s best to wait until you get into town and organise a day out directly with the locals, as most of the tours available online are US-owned and cater to the mid/high-end traveller market.
For whale watching trips in Loreto, you can head straight to the town’s fishermen’s port at 7:30 am and haggle a price directly with the boat captains. They charge $4,000 pesos ($215 USD) for the whole boat, so if you can get a minimum of three people together, this will be half the price of what online blue whale-watching tours are offering. If you fancy seeing the 7,000-year-old cave paintings in the Sierra de Guadalupe, Mulegé native Salvador Castro Drew (+52 615 161 4985) offers very affordable tours (though he’s not available to book online).
While many locals in Baja California do speak some English, if you want to get the best deals, conversational Spanish is a huge plus. For example, bilingual guides (normally hired by the big online companies) will always charge more and hitchhiking/bus travel is a lot easier with the lingo. It also goes without saying that a little Spanish will help you interact and really get to know Baja’s people—something that, with any trip, is priceless.
Yes, tours in Baja are expensive. And yes, many people come for pricey luxury beach resorts in Cabo. However, Baja California’s most stunning attraction is, without a doubt, its epic scenery; and that, most of the time, is completely free. Whether you’re hiking up to incredible viewpoints or just sitting back in your comfy bus seat looking out at miles of cactus-dotted desert, Baja California offers amazing experiences at every turn, even on a peso-scrimping budget.
The best part of travelling Baja California? You can eat very well for practically nothing. Fresh fish is abundant, so even if you’re in the middle of nowhere, chances are there’s a food truck cooking up some incredible fish tacos for as little as $25 pesos ($1.35 USD). Topped with pico de gallo (tomato, onion and coriander), fiery sauces and sometimes guacamole, this is Baja’s favourite budget-friendly feast.