Road tripping in a vintage Volkswagen Vanagon with a certified expert by our side inspires nostalgia, and rekindles a love for Baja California.

Peace Vans Baja Beach
Thomas J. Story

My vintage Westy jounces along the grated road, psychedelic Latin rock blasting as the rust-colored Baja sand dusts my windshield. A burro makes his way along the saguaro-lined highway, and as I grab for my glass bottle of Coca-Cola, I can’t help but feel like a vintage postcard come to life. But even as a seasoned solo traveler with countless trips to Baja under my belt, I’m glad I have a bright yellow van named Schnitzel and our caravan leader Shane Jordan as my North Star.

Peace Vans Caravan Baja
The Peace Vans make their way along a dirt road to a remote rancho in Baja California Sur.

Thomas J. Story

Our five vintage Vanagons pass through several seasons—from bluebird skies to dense downpours—along our journey toward what to many travelers is still a great unknown. It’s as far away as possible from the raucous Cabo San Lucas, and that’s how we like it. There’s no cell service, and for the first time in a long time, I’m alone with my thoughts in this remote, relatively untouched part of Baja California Sur.

Visit Ballena Sign Cabo Pulmo Camping Baja
Campsite in Cabo Pulmo.

Thomas J. Story

I’m not the only one seeking to slow down and do things the old fashioned way. There’s a real interest in rewinding to simpler times, from the prevalence of vinyl and shooting on film to the popularity of thrifting at flea markets. It’s only natural that this nostalgia would permeate the world of travel, and there’s no better place to experience it than here.

This zeitgeist is embodied at Escapar a la Baja, an annual vanlife and overlanding gathering now in its sixth year that draws upwards of 20,000 attendees. While the Baja 1000, first started in 1967, may have sparked the interest in driving the massive 760-mile-long state, you no longer have to be a rally racer to experience the magic of the region in the form of a road trip, thanks to a Seattle-based company called Peace Vans

Horseback Riding Cerritos Beach Todos Santa Baja
Horseback riding on Cerritos beach.

Thomas J. Story

The Pacific Northwest purveyor of pop-up camper van rentals, repairs, and sales is helmed by former Microsoft executive Harley Sitner, who himself fell in love with Baja road tripping over the years. Though many encounter Peace Vans via their popular Instagram account, I was introduced to Sitner while going down the rabbit hole researching camps for Burning Man. It turns out Sitner is a 26-year veteran of the Black Rock City festival in Nevada, and my burnt red van named Columbia had festival parking passes on the window dating back to 1999. 

Sitner’s quirky, creative, connector’s spirit sits right in line with some of the old school Burners, and Baja locals too. For his curated trips with Peace Vans, he’s teamed up with Carmen Loeffler and Jordan Bobrowicz, also known as the Bougie Dirtbags, who are facilitators of not just amazing food, but also great vibes. We spent our mezcal-fueled nights together around the campfire, waves roaring and hearts full.

Bougie Dirtbag Baja Meal
Enjoying a meal prepared by the Bougie Dirtbags, complete with produce from the ranch and plenty of local Baja wines.

Thomas J. Story

“Our Baja program is a huge labor of love for me personally. Our hearts felt called to do it. Over the almost 12 years I’ve been running Peace Vans, I’ve learned that it’s much more than an auto repair shop, more than a camper van company, and more than a rental company,” says Sitner. “We are, literally and figuratively, a way for people to live their best lives through the magic of life on the road.” 

The winter of 2023 was the first season for Peace Vans’ Baja road trips, where the company offers both self-guided, six-night itineraries as well as more curated, guided trips with specific focus areas, like whale watching or farm-to-table cuisine that you can tack onto your self-drive. We participated in a version of their guided group trips, where vanlifers travel in a caravan of four to six vehicles with support along the way and a unique and special set of activities, experiences, and dining.

Surf Boards Cerritos Beach Todos Santos Baja
Surfing at Cerritos beach.

Thomas J. Story

“Something inside my heart told me it was important to put this program together—to create a new set of experiences for folks who are open to a slightly more challenging, and therefore more heart-opening, travel experience, but one that is still highly supported and partially curated,” says Sitner.

The magic isn’t in the destination after all; it’s in the journey. Though it’s far from glamping, Peace Vans trips offer the perfect balance, prioritizing magic over efficiency, but still providing the creature comforts that keep you from truly roughing it. The vans come outfitted with all the road-trip-ready amenities you’d need, including fresh water filters with pump attachments for showers, Starlink internet, Sand Cloud beach towels, beach chairs, bug spray, head lamps, and solar-powered lanterns. That’s not to say it’s simple. But working through those challenges, paired dashes of happenstance and kismet, is what makes travel great. 

Krista Simmons Todos Santos Beach
The author catches some shade by the waves.

Thomas J. Story

The sheer volume of people who have fallen in love with the state of Baja while road tripping down here is evidenced by bumper stickers you might see on the journey. It’s not uncommon to see signs like “Ask your doctor if Baja is right for you” or “I’d rather be nowhere.” I am now emphatically one of those converts, not-so-secretly plotting my next trip back. 

“I passionately believe that it is at these edges where life happens,” says Sitner. And after a lifetime of travel, I couldn’t agree more.

The Itinerary

Cabo Pulmo Baja Beach
The beach at Cabo Pulmo.

Thomas J. Story

Here’s how our journey through Baja California Sur unfolded, day by day. Rather than following this word for word, let this serve as a rough road map and jumping-off point to inspire your own journey in this magical corner of the planet.

Day One: Cabo Pulmo

Cabo Pulmo Campsite Drone View
An aerial image of the Cabo Pulmo campsite, where our caravan spent its first evening by the sea.

Thomas J. Story

After leaving the bustling Cabo San Lucas airport, we headed to the Vista Ballena campsite in Cabo Pulmo, an absolute must-visit for water enthusiasts. This underwater National Park is teeming with marine life and is an excellent spot for snorkeling, diving, and kayaking. After parking our vans at the site, our group headed for a quick dip in the warm waters. It was practically a private beach, with no one around as far as the eye can see.

Krista Simmons Peace Vans Baja
The author in her Vanagon.

Thomas J. Story

Over the years, I’ve had some amazing experiences in the area surrounding Cabo Pulmo. While staying at the nearby Four Seasons Costa Palmas, I went on a spearfishing adventure with local guides, bringing back a catch to enjoy as ceviche. And in the nearby break of Los Barriles, there’s incredible, world-class surf.

Magdalena Bay Oysters Baja
Oysters from Magdalena Bay.

Thomas J. Story

Upon returning to the campsite, which also offers casitas and teepees, the Bougie Dirtbags proved how they got their name by preparing an epic seafood feast. We noshed on freshly shucked oysters from Magdalena Bay and a tinned fish board with an assortment of smoked dips and local produce. In the morning, the girls whipped up a savory French toast with morel duxelles, poached eggs, and chili oil, and we did one last dip before heading off.

Day Two: Rancho San Dionisio

Rancho San Dionisio Baja Drone View
The private watering hole at Rancho San Dionisio.

Thomas J. Story

We packed up our vans and hit the road, but not without stopping at OXXO for my favorite chili and chamoy-flavored Mexican sour straws called Squinkles, and our caravan made its way to a palm-tree forest in Santiago that looked straight out of The Land Before Time. Then we continued enroute to the biosphere of El Refugio, where we meet Clarence Harrison, who owns and operates this magical regenerative farm called Rancho San Dionisio. Clarence and his wife Isabella are rehabilitating the farm, which was formerly a cheese-making ranch in the 1800s, to grow groves of mangoes and avocados and row upon row of greens and squash.

The Bougie Dirtbag Baja
Food prepared by the Bougie Dirtbags.

Thomas J. Story

After a brief tour, we make our way down to their private watering hole to cool off. Smooth granite boulders dot the river, which flows through a canyon lushly forested with oversize palm trees. The sounds of flowing water and the wind rushing through the leaves is punctuated by the occasional chirp of a bird. It’s easy to see why many overlanders and hikers choose this as the starting point for a three-day hike that starts here and runs to Todos Santos.

Bougie Dirtbag Baja Grilled Tomahawk Steaks
Tomahawk steaks cooked by the Bougie Dirtbags for dinner.

Thomas J. Story

As for us, we’re on more of a glamping regimen. We make our way back to the vans, and Carmen and Jo are at it again, this time cooking massive tomahawk steaks over a live fire for a long-table dinner under an ancient string-lit ficus tree.

Day 3: La Paz

Casamarte Cocktails Baja
Cocktails in La Paz at Casamarte.

Thomas J. Story

Driving into the traffic-jammed city is admittedly a bit jarring after being off the grid for a few days. But the friendly valet has all sorts of questions about our Westies, which is something we’ve grown accustomed to on this trip. The amount of curiosity and community these vans inspire is like no other vehicle I’ve ever driven. It’s an instant conversation starter. 

While it’s been shockingly comfortable sleeping in a van the past few nights, the plush beds at Baja Club Hotel are a welcome change. We settle in for a cocktail and stroll the Malecón in the evening, taking in the sunset as locals do. 

After a bite and a proper shower, we hit the hay and enjoy an early night. In the morning, we head out with Shane Jordan in his restored, WWII era Westy Schnitzel to a private beach near El Tecolote. The water is as warm as the Caribbean, and save for a group of locals riding on horseback with a couple travelers, we didn’t run into a single person on our stretch of sand. 

We were famished after our morning swim, and lunch at Casamarte, a Baja-style seafood shack, couldn’t have come sooner.

Pit Stop: El Triunfo

El Triunfo Baja Detail
Walking in El Triunfo.

Thomas J. Story

An absolute must-stop on any road trip from La Paz to Todos Santos is the historic mining town of El Triunfo, stopping for lunch at the appropriately named Cafe El Triunfo, where Marcus Spahr, who used to be a baker at San Francisco’s legendary Tartine, has been making delicious woodfired pizzas and baked goods for the masses passing through, hoping to get a taste of old world Mexico. We carbo-loaded and then headed on to Todos Santos, as we wanted to get to the city before dark.

Days Four to Five: Todos Santos

Villa Santa Cruz Todos Santos Baja
The author relaxing at Villa Santa Cruz.

Thomas J. Story

“The American dream is alive and well in Mexico,” I joked after meeting handfuls of enterprising expats, from creatives and chefs to ceramicists and painters, who have decided to up and move south of the border to this charming surf town. It’d been over five years since I’d last visited, and while the same charm still exists, there are a ton more restaurants and bars cropping up, as well as darling boutique hotels.

Fish Tacos Barracudo Cantina
Food at Barracuda’s.

Thomas J. Story

Villa Santa Cruz Todos Santos Baja
Glamping at Villa Santa Cruz.

Thomas J. Story

A must while in this area is a day at Cerritos beach, one of the only swimmable beaches in the region that also has an excellent surf break fit for beginners. After a surf lesson with Mario Surf School, we stopped by Tasi, a family-owned açaí-bowl and coffee and juice bar, before heading to Barracuda’s for the obligatory Baja fish tacos. (They do, in fact, live up to every bit of hype.) We made our way back to our glamping tents at Villa Santa Cruz located right along a perfect surf break. I couldn’t help but roll up the safari tent doors to listen to the waves crash on the shore while getting ready for one last meal with our ragtag caravan crew of what I suspect will be lifelong friends. And that is the magic of a great road trip.