Swapping Ocean & Beaches for Adventures in the Mountains – Vanlife, Baja Mexico

After a week of beach activities and sweltering temperatures in La Ventana, we were ready for a new kind of adventure. We stowed the SUP board and snorkel gear, stopped in La Paz to stock up on essentials, and headed into the Sierra de la Laguna for some higher elevation adventures.

The Sierra de La Laguna is a biosphere reserve with ecosystems varying from low desert scrub to high elevation pine-oak forests. We were only vaguely aware of this mountain range when we set out on our journey, which makes sense because it’s one of the least explored areas of the Baja. When we learned that the Sierra de la Laguna is full of small towns, winding trails, deep canyons, flowing rivers, and campgrounds, we knew that we just had to see it. In this post, we’ll take you with us on our adventures in the tiny historic mining town of El Triunfo, and the San Dionisio Canyon – both of which were highlights of our trip so far.

Culture & Food in El Triunfo

El Triunfo is a tiny historic mining town of 327 inhabitants. It’s hard to believe that in the 1800s, at the height of gold and silver mining, it was the largest city in south Baja and a cultural centre of importance. To attract tourists, many of the original buildings have been restored and converted into stores, restaurants, cafes, and museums. In fact, one of the Walmart heirs has taken an interest in the Baja, and invested in several local businesses, including some in El Triunfo.

Hotel & Cabanas El Triunfo

We drove through the mountains toward El Triunfo with hopes of higher elevations and cooler temperatures. Unfortunately, at only 483 m (1585 ft) above sea level, the temperature when we arrived at the hotel had not budged (it was still above 30 degrees Celsius), and as we wound our way through the grounds looking for the owner, we baked in the sun. The lovely outdoor pool was calling our name.

It was our understanding based on iOverlander comments that for 500 pesos (~$25 USD), the owners of the hotel would allow us to park our van in the parking lot and use their amenities (pools, showers, washrooms, palapas, etc.). Much to our surprise, they encouraged us to drive our van right up into the middle of the resort, somewhere between the minigolf green and communal eating area. Although the arrangement became a little awkward in the evening when our van was surrounded by various fiestas and Mexican families were sitting around a campfire, just feet from our van, we weren’t going to pass up this unique opportunity.

Exploring El Triunfo

We spent our time in El Triunfo sightseeing along the bumpy cobblestone streets, winding through the dusty trails to get a look at the old mining smokestacks – La Ramona and Julia (and the many chickens and cows who also seemed to enjoy the trails), visiting the famous Virgin of Guadalupe Church, and sampling the food at the local restaurants.

While in El Triunfo, we ate at El Meson de Carlota and it was the best breakfast we’ve tried in all of Baja. When we were there on a Sunday morning, the restaurant was playing live music and it was jam-packed with Mexican tourists. It was a long wait but absolutely worth it for the strong cowboy coffee, huevos rancheros, and chilaquiles. We enjoyed it so much we went back for breakfast the very next morning.

Hiking & Camping in the San Dionisio Canyon

When we first posted that we were travelling to Baja, our friend Clarence reached out to let us know that he and his wife Isabel were building an overlander campground in the Sierra de la Laguna and that if we got that far south, we should stop in for a visit. We met Clarence and Isabel 6 years ago in Cabo San Lucas, during our first trip to Baja. We enjoyed our short time together and have remained Facebook friends ever since. We were thrilled at the opportunity to meet up with them again and to check out their project.

Rancho San Dionisio Campground

From El Triunfo, we drove through the town of Santiago, following signs for San Dionisio. As we left Santiago, the road turned immediately to dirt and we knew we were in for a longer than expected drive. The 20-km drive to Rancho San Dionisio would be no trouble at all for a more capable vehicle, but for Slow Sally (our van) – a true highway queen – the journey felt like an epic off-road adventure. True to her name, it took us over an hour to crawl to the entrance of the Rancho. Upon arrival, Clarence greeted us at the gate and took us for a tour of what is shaping up to be one of the best overlander campgrounds in Baja. We felt super lucky to be one of his first visitors/campers and happily tucked Sally in amongst the fruit trees.

Clarence and Isabel purchased the old ranch (formerly Casas Viejas) a couple of years ago and have since been busy building a house, campground, orchard, and organic gardens. Everyday, the Rancho is bustling with activity. Friendly staff are working on construction and maintenance projects for much of each day, a flock of chickens roams the property, and Rosco and Catalina – the resident pet dogs – keep their eye on things between taking naps and getting pets from the visitors.

While we were visiting, two other overlanders (in much more capable vehicles) were also staying in the campground. We could already tell that it’s a special place that will attract lots of varied and interesting travellers. We spent much of our time at the Rancho relaxing in the shade of the large communal palapa, complaining about the heat to anyone who would listen, and exchanging travel stories and advice with Clarence, Isabel, and the other overlanders. All the while, we needed to keep an eye out for wayward chickens who might unwittingly wander too close to Walter, and become an afternoon snack.

Exploring San Dionisio

One of our favourite outings was walking up through the San Dionisio canyon (accessed directly from the property), climbing over boulders, soaking in shallow pools, and admiring the huge palm trees. The canyon felt like a lush desert oasis and we had the whole place to ourselves… or so we thought until we accidentally scared two coyotes out of their den and sent them crashing noisily through the underbrush. We would have thought they’d be a bit more graceful.

On our last morning at the campground, I was determined to explore the official San Dionisio trail. I left Marc and Walter back at the van and set off for an epic adventure. After weaving along the canyon floor for a few kilometres, the trail rose steeply up into the mountains, offering some excellent views. The still excruciatingly hot temperatures (for a Canadian) had me regularly dipping into little pools to cool down. Apparently, the trail extends all the way to the town of Todos Santos on the opposite side of the peninsula. On our next visit, it will be my goal to complete that 3-day hike.

We can’t thank Clarence and Isabel enough for their hospitality and the opportunity to visit their new campground. If you’re visiting the Baja, don’t miss this gem! They’re now officially welcoming campers and you can find them on both iOverlander and Google Maps.

Back to the Beach

After spending over a week in the Sierra de la Laguna, it was time to head back to the beach for some hot showers, fresh supplies, and new adventures… but more about that in the next post!

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5 thoughts on “Swapping Ocean & Beaches for Adventures in the Mountains – Vanlife, Baja Mexico

  1. You are certainly selling the Baja effectively! We’ve always been too timid to even consider travelling in Mexico (no Spanish being one of the big hurdles), but each of your posts knocks another brick or two off our wall. Thanks!

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    1. Hi Rick, I don’t think that you’d regret a trip to the Baja. It’s a great place to camp with a van and an easy introduction to traveling in Mexico. Once you’ve spent some time here, you’ll be ready to hop on the ferry and roadtrip across the mainland! We spoke very little Spanish when we first started traveling in Mexico and Guatemala and we managed. Speaking the language makes things a lot easier but as long as you have an English-Spanish dictionary, you can get by. Glad to hear that you’re starting to consider Baja 😉

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  2. Love your posts…thank you! We flew into Baja several times 20+ years ago and would like to return some day now that we have a Roadtrek.I worry about our lack of ground clearance and assume you are proving it is possible to travel to the interior with care.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Ray, So glad that you’re enjoying the posts. We’ve spoken with a few other travellers who visited Baja 15-20 yrs ago and they’ve noticed some massive changes since that time. We’ve even noticed a lot of growth and development since we visited 6 years ago. You can definitely make your way into parts of the interior with a Roadtrek. Some roads are paved, which makes things easy. Others are dirt/gravel and you just have to take your time. The IOVERLANDER app is our best friend for figuring out what is doable for Sally. It would certainly be nice to have 4×4 and high clearance in the Baja but much of it is doable in a Roadtrek 😉

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