A truck, a tent, and a beach. Can life get much better than this?
A truck, a tent, and a beach. Can life get much better than this?
Indefinitely Wild

Why Americans Should Be Thankful for Baja, Mexico

Our Latin American neighbor remains the last bastion of total freedom outdoors


Outside's long reads email newsletter features our strongest writing, most ambitious reporting, and award-winning storytelling about the outdoors. Sign up today.

By all accounts, I’m a red-blooded American male. I drive a lifted truck. I ride a fast motorcycle. I shoot guns. I go camping. I harvest my own meat. I’m listening to Van Halen while I write this. But a lot of the time, this place just doesn’t feel like home anymore. If it’s not somebody telling me how to live my own life, it’s somebody judging someone else about theirs. 

So, for the past year, I’ve been running off to Mexico. Last week, my friends and I even celebrated the most American of holidays there, holding our annual outdoor Thanksgiving on a beach in Baja. While we were talking about what we were thankful for this year, something about doing that down there just felt right—right in a way that doing it in America wouldn’t have. I think this is why. 

Baja Is an Off-Road Paradise

Want to know if it’s okay to take your truck, motorcycle, or ATV off-road somewhere in Baja? It is. It’s that simple. 

Obviously, sticking to dirt roads, trails, and beaches is the best idea. Not only does doing so mean you stand less of a chance of getting stuck or breaking your vehicle, but it also prevents damage to the environment. Plus, leaving a trail is often mechanically impossible. What makes Baja special is its vast number of trails and dirt roads. Locked gates are virtually unheard of. 

That freedom to explore allows you to choose your own adventure. My approach is simply to find a beach that looks good on Google Earth, figure out a way to get to it, and then find a way to get down onto the sand once I’m there. If that formula doesn’t produce a good camping trip, you can always move on to the next beach.

The view from camp. Not a person in sight.
The view from camp. Not a person in sight. (Wes Siler)

In Baja, Solitude Is the Norm

In the United States, beaches where you can take a vehicle are the exception, and you’ll almost always share them with dozens of other people. In Mexico, odds are you’ll have it to yourself. 

If you don’t want to camp on a beach, you can camp in the mountains, jungle, or desert. And you’ll be alone there, too. If not, just go a little farther. 

This year, we opted to make our little Thanksgiving on-road accessible so a few people without trucks or the wherewithal to navigate through the wilderness could join. We ended up in an organized campground. We had it to ourselves. 

This ability to get away from people is inherent to the draw of doing stuff outdoors. So a place that makes finding solitude easy is inherently a better place to play outside. 

Dog going crazy on his first boat ride? Don't worry, CJ will hug him for you.
Dog going crazy on his first boat ride? Don't worry, CJ will hug him for you. (Michael Walshaw)

Mexico Is Full of Friendly People

I’ve been all over the United States this year: upstate New York, the White Mountains, rural South Dakota, the Washington woods, mountain towns in New Mexico, and a lot of places in between. One thing that’s been bugging me is that the typically friendly encounters you’d expect have been absent, replaced instead by polarization, judgment, and suspicion. I hope it’s temporary, but rural America, in particular, just hasn’t been feeling like home. 

Know a place where I haven’t had a single conversation about politics? Where I haven’t heard a single racist epithet? Where I haven’t witnessed gay people being disparaged or worse? Where I haven’t had to stand up for anybody based on their race, creed, or religion? You guessed it—south of the border. 

Sit down with some locals there for a beer, some tacos, or a smoke, and you’ll talk about where to catch fish, what to catch them with, where they’re from, where you’re from, what their kids are doing, and what they hope they’ll do. You know, the kind of conversations you’d expect to have in a small town with normal people. At least that’s my experience. 

Need help in Mexico? Just ask someone. Contributor Chris Brinlee Jr. burned out his clutch while stuck in the sand on a beach I sent him to in Baja. The price for both tow and repair? The $100 or so he had in his wallet, plus a pair of Ray-Bans he was wearing to make up the difference. And the mechanic’s wife cooked him tamales while he waited. 

Last Wednesday, after a sandstorm destroyed our tents, we were invited into a family’s home for a big breakfast of eggs and hot dogs. They didn’t have much but were happy to share it. 

In Baja, the Food Is Fresh

Mexico has some of the best fishing in the world. On Saturday, my friends and I caught 30 yellowtail. We gave some to the guy who took us out in his boat for $100, put a few on ice to bring home, and, with the aid of beer and flour, turned the rest into fish tacos that we ate right there on the beach. 

Driving along and find yourself hungry? You don’t stop at a McDonald’s for sugar and saturated fat. You stop at a roadside taco stand where a grandmother cooks to order. There’s typically very little protein available at local stores in rural places like Baja. Instead, they sell the ingredients you need to turn the protein you catch yourself into a tasty meal. That sounds like an ideal arrangement to this proponent of scoring your own wild-caught meat. 

Pelicans outnumber people on Bahia San Luis Gonzaga.
Pelicans outnumber people on Bahia San Luis Gonzaga. (Michael Walshaw)

Mexico Is Just a Little Bit Dangerous

Here in the United States, the most dangerous thing most people do is drive their cars. Something they don’t tend to pay attention to, regardless. 

Take your eyes off the road while driving in Mexico, and odds are you’ll careen over a cliff, blow out your tires in a pothole, or run into a black cow at night. As a tourist, you’re actually less likely to be the victim of violent crime in Mexico than you are in the United States, but that doesn’t stop the country from having its own little tinge of danger. 

Military checkpoints dot the highways. News stories about cartels kidnapping tourists pop up every few years. You hear rumors about corrupt cops, bribes, and carjackings. But in reality, it’s the emptiness of Baja that represents the only real danger. Head way out in the middle of nowhere, and there are no hospitals, no ambulances to take you to one even if they existed, and no one to come along and help you if you get hurt. 

Personal Freedom Still Exists There

You’re responsible for your own safety in Mexico. Just like anywhere, that’s more about not slipping and falling or having a car accident than trading gunfire with banditos.

While pulled over at one of the military checkpoints, my dog and I hopped out of the truck so some soldiers could search it. One opened my door, found the big knife and can of bear spray I keep in that pocket, waved them around in the air while making Rambo jokes, and then interrogated me with gusto about the capability of the winch mounted on my front bumper before smiling and telling me to have a good day. 

Want to camp somewhere in Mexico? Go camp there. Want to stroll through a small town with a big knife on your hip, a cowboy hat on your head, and your dog off-leash? No one’s going to stop you. Want to catch a fish? Hope you brought bait. In Mexico, at least in the rural places, no one’s trying to tell you what to do. Your ability to conduct an activity safely and without damaging the environment is up to your skill and intelligence, not a sign, a cop, or a social justice warrior. The only thing you can’t do in Mexico is bring a gun along. 

And to this American, that freedom is something that just feels right. 

Why am I telling you all this? Hopefully, it will encourage you to keep an open mind, to visit, and maybe even to help spread the word that Mexico is a really neat place. 

Right now is a great time to visit. In the wake of Donald Trump’s election, the peso has plunged to an all-time low, and crossing the border may not always be as easy as it is in its current, wall-free state. It’s cold here. It’s warm there. And nobody’s going to ask who you voted for, I promise. 

promo logo