Trailering in Baja —
Below the Border Basics
Trailering Magazine Archives — Destinations
Story by Zack Thomas
Anyone with plans to pull their boat to Mexico's Baja Peninsula will do well to pick up a copy of The Angler's Guide to Trailer-Boating Baja by Zack Thomas. He's made a career out of making this trip so here's some "basics" to consider should you want to head that way.
It's hard to imagine a more perfect trailer boater's playground than Mexico's Baja California peninsula. An improbable, thousand-mile-long splinter of land, Baja boasts more coastline than California, Oregon and Washington combined yet averages only about 60 miles in width.
To the west lies the open Pacific, which keeps even the tropical southern reaches of the peninsula temperate most of the year. To the east lies the storied Sea of Cortez, with its warmer, calmer waters and hot, arid climate. The two seas are dramatically different in character, yet both offer world-class fishing for an incredible variety of species.
The thin, black ribbon of Mexico 1 — the Transpeninsular Highway — stretches all the way from San Diego to Cabo San Lucas, providing adventurous trailer boaters with access to upwards of 30 launch spots ranging from modern, full-service marinas to remote beach launches.
Here's what you need to know to get started:
If you've asked around at all about trailering your boat into Baja, you've probably heard your share of horror stories about corrupt cops, banditos, contaminated food and water, scarcity of fuel and so on. Frankly, none of these merit much worry anymore. It's the roads themselves that present the single biggest remaining challenge for Baja trailer boaters.
Baja's highways are inconsistently signed and narrow — generally between 19 and 21 feet from one edge of the pavement to the other. That leaves little room for error when meeting semis or passenger buses. Fortunately, local truck and bus drivers are extremely skilled. Stay in your own lane, and you can count on them to do the same.
The bottom line is that towing in Baja simply requires a good deal more care and concentration than towing at home. Take it slow, don't drive drowsy and don't drive at night.
For trailer boating Baja, you'll want a boat between about 17 and 26 feet. Anything up to about 14 feet is easier to transport on top of your vehicle, and if you're going to go through the trouble of towing a boat, you might as well tow something significantly more capable than a car-topper; at least a substantial 17-footer.
At the other end of the spectrum, it's more width than length that's the limiting factor. Towing anything much wider than 8 feet, 6 inches on Baja's highways is dangerous and nerve-wracking, which eliminates the vast majority of boats over 26 feet.
Also, launching conditions at many of Baja's best spots — at least in terms of fishing, beauty and solitude — can be challenging. Ramps tend to be short on pitch and may be usable only at higher tides. In other places, you'll find only unimproved beach launches. In either case, larger, deeper-draft boats can make launching more difficult.
Because docks are found only in a few marinas scattered around Baja, it's often necessary to beach your boat to load crew and gear. That makes tough aluminum boats and roto-molded plastic boats like Triumphs ideal. Fiberglass boats are fine, but they require a bit more care.
Two engines- either twins or a single main with an auxiliary outboard — dramatically increase your margin of safety in Baja, where self-sufficiency is critical.
Even if your boat is light enough to be towed on a single-axle trailer, a tandem trailer is preferable for Baja because you can keep moving after blowing a tire. There are many stretches of the Transpeninsular where it's simply not possible to get off the pavement, so the ability to limp along on three tires makes trailering in Baja much safer. Always carry at least two trailer spares, as trailer tires are simply unavailable.
Although by no means necessary, a few simple trailer modifications can make launching easier at marginal spots. Weight-bearing tongue extensions, like the Extend-A-Hitch (www.xtend-a-hitchnorthwest.com), allow you to back your boat farther into the water without getting your tow vehicle wet. Most trailer shops can fabricate similar extensions.
Another option is a pivoting spare tire mount, which bolts to the tongue of the trailer and carries the spare on a functioning hub. The mount can be flipped over so that the spare is below the trailer frame, essentially turning your trailer into a huge tricycle. The spare carries the weight of the tongue, allowing the trailer to be pushed into the water by hand or with a non-weight-bearing tongue extension. Pacific Trailers sells an easily installed bolt-on model.
Both gasoline and diesel are widely and dependably available in Baja. They're cheap too; in May of this year, gas was about $2.35 a gallon and diesel about $2.00. Note that ultra-low-sulfur diesel is not yet available in Baja. That means all 2008 model-year and most 2007 diesel pickups, which require ULSD, cannot burn Mexican diesel.
In the wake of several highly publicized robberies of tourists in northern Baja in 2007, tourism in the area dropped to almost nil. Local authorities responded by drastically increasing security measures, and no similar crimes have been reported since last November. Sadly, drug-related violence continues, but it's confined almost exclusively to border towns and not directed toward tourists. In an effort to restore tourism, officials have also cracked down on the phony traffic tickets that northern Baja is famous for. Outside the border areas, Baja remains a very safe place to travel.
Launching a boat in one of the many remote areas of Mexico's Baja can be a test of skill — and will. Zack Thomas has launched here at Bahia Asuncion and vows he'll never do it again, despite the terrific fishing jsut offshore.
Tourist visas are required for traveling more than about 60 miles into Baja. They're available at the border crossings in Tijuana and Mexicali and cost $22 each. To obtain one, you must show either a passport or a certified birth certificate with photo ID. Passports are still not required to return to the U.S., but that's scheduled to change next year.
A Mexican fishing license is required for every person aboard any boat that has so much as a spool of line on board. Licenses are available for one week ($26), one month ($38) or one year ($50). Annual boat permits are no longer required.
Fishing licenses are available from the Mexican Fisheries Commission office in San Diego, from some Southern California tackle shops and through Baja travel clubs like Vagabundos del Mar or Discover Baja. These clubs provide lots of additional services, and membership is a bargain at $35 to $40/year.
Boating in Mexico requires three types of insurance: Hull Coverage, Liability Coverage — issued by a Mexican Insurance provider, and Automobile Liability Coverage — issued by a Mexican Insurance provider if trailering your boat on land.
In the event of an auto or boating accident, Mexican law requires proof of financial responsibility, which is typically done by showing authorities your insurance policy. Without proof of coverage, your boat and vehicle can be impounded until you prove you weren't at fault. However, the Mexican government will only recognize a Mexican insurer.
This link (www.boatus.com/insurance/policy.asp#mexico) connects you with a bona-fide Mexican insurer working in partnership with BoatU.S. to provide both boat and auto liability coverage for as little as one day or as long as one year. They'll provide you with the coverage and supporting paperwork so, in the event of an accident, you'll be able to show Mexican coverage. You can also call them at 1-800-467-4639.
For hull coverage, please note that your BoatU.S. insurance policy requires a cruising area extension when boating in Mexico. The only exception is for Bass Boat policy holders whose cruising area includes Mexico. You can obtain this extension over the phone by calling BoatUS Policy Services at (800)283-2883 as soon as you plan your trip.
Confused yet? In truth, trailer-boating Baja isn't nearly as daunting as it might sound at first, and the boating and fishing below the border are more than worth the trouble of obtaining the proper insurance and permits. Consequently, part of Baja's attraction is that traveling and boating there remain a true adventure-something that's increasingly hard to find these days.
Three Great Baja Trailer-Boat Trips
A Baja Yow Vehicle — Lauching a boat on Mexico's East Cape — the eastern side of the Baja peninsula on the Sea of Cortez — requires a front end loader because the beach is long.
1. San Quint'n: For my money, the "real" Baja begins at the southern edge of Ensenada, and San Quint'n on the Pacific coast is the closest launch spot south of that. At about five hours below the border, it's an easy three-day weekend from anywhere in Southern California.
Fishing is excellent year round for rockfish, calico bass and halibut. Yellowtail, albacore, yellowfin tuna and dorado show up in the summer, and the late-summer white sea bass bite is the best on the planet.
Two pleasant and affordable hotel/restaurants are within 100 yards of the ramp, which is suitable for boats up to about 25 feet at all but extreme low tides. Ice and basic supplies are available right at the ramp.
2. Bah'a de los Angeles: The famous Bay of L.A., as it's known to gringos, is the quintessential Baja trailer boat destination. Until less than a year ago, the tiny village, dwarfed by towering desert mountains to the west and the blue Cortez to the east, ran entirely on electricity from diesel generators.
The southernmost launch spot in Baja that is reachable in a day's drive from the border, L.A. Bay is known primarily for spectacular summertime runs of powerful California yellowtail, but fishing is also excellent for assorted grouper and snapper species and for dorado (a.k.a dolphin or mahi mahi) in late summer.
The village boasts five ramps, of which a couple can be used by even large trailerboats at low tide. A half-dozen tourist hotels within a few hundred feet of the water all have good parking for truck-trailer rigs and free washdown water.
3. Bah'a Magdalena: The ultimate trailer boat expedition, Mag Bay is actually a vast complex of bays and mangrove-lined estuaries some 20 hours' drive from the border. Boats can be launched at two different villages — Puerto Lopez Mateos and Puerto San Carlos — both of which offer basic tourist accommodations
Fishing for a dozen different species, including huge black snook, is excellent in the protected mangrove channels, while the banks offshore teem with striped marlin, wahoo, dorado and yellowfin tuna from October through December. Skilled crews have released over 100 marlin in a day here. And no, that's not a misprint!
Road map: AAA's Baja California, free for members
Fishing maps: Baja Directions (www.bajadirections.com),
Fish-n-Map Co. (www.fishnmap.com)
Inshore Fishing Bible: The Baja Catch, by Neil Kelly and Gene Kira (www.mexfish.com)
Fishing Licenses and Regulations: www.conapescasandiego.org
Travel club: Discover Baja (www.discoverbaja.com)
Weather forecasts: www.wunderground.com, www.buoyweather.com
Weekly fishing reports: www.mexfish.com
The Angler's Guide to Trailer-Boating Baja
The Angler's Guide to Trailer-Boating Baja, by Zack Thomas, is the ultimate guide to exploring the peninsula with your own boat. — The first half of the 320-page book is devoted to general concerns-boat, trailer and tow-vehicle requirements; rigging and safety equipment for Baja boats; packing and planning; Mexican laws and regulations; driving conditions; general travel and safety information; tide and weather resources; and species-by-species fishing tips.
The second half describes more than 30 launch spots on both sides of the peninsula. Each launch spot description addresses not only the launch itself, but also trailer-friendly hotels and campgrounds; availability of fuel, ice, supplies and washdown water; seasonal and weather concerns; and of course what to fish for and where to do it.
The book is available for $29.95 plus $3.50 shipping at www.bajatrailerboating.com. A sample launch-spot chapter, the preface, the table of contents and an extensive image gallery can be found at the same site.
The Transpeninsular Highway, also called "La Carretera" (Spanish for "the road") runs 1060 miles from Tijuana, Mexico south through the Baja to Cabo San Lucas. It was completed in 1973.
Cabo San Lucas, located at the southern tip of the Baja is a destination for more than 400 cruise ships a year as well as some of Hollywood's best known stars: Jessica Simpson, Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon.
Titanic director James Cameron built a large tank next to the ocean in Rosarito on the Baja that held a 90% scale model of the ship for filming specific exterior scenes.