To get from Baja to mainland Mexico you have two choices, drive back up the way you came or fork over a couple hundred bucks to take a ferry across the Sea of Cortez. We chose to take the ferry. It was expensive, but we had no desire to drive an extra two thousand miles.
This article details our sixteen hour ferry adventure. We went into it not really knowing what to expect aside from the ferry schedule and ticket costs. That information is available online on the Baja Ferries website.
You can buy tickets for the Baja Ferries at two locations. The first is in the city of La Paz and the second is at the ferry terminal. One downside of buying tickets at the terminal is that you must go through customs to get to the ticket office, regardless of whether you are embarking that day.
We decided to play it safe and go to the ticket office in downtown La Paz a couple days in advance. It is recommended that you buy tickets two or three days early. You should also be aware that tickets may sell out around major holidays.
Buying the tickets in La Paz was simple. The lady behind the counter didn’t speak English, but she was still very helpful and tolerant of our terrible Spanish. She needed to know where we were going, the date, how many people and whether we wanted a cabin.
She also needed to see our passports and our vehicle import permit. If you drove across the border into Baja by car and didn't get a vehicle import permit you'll need to pick one up at the banjercito at the ferry terminal in Pichilingue. Vehicles in Baja do not have to have an import permit, but it is required on the mainland. We opted to get ours when we crossed the border in Tijuana to get it out of the way. Check out our USA to Mexico Border Crossing article for more information.
The cost for our 4Runner with the driver, two extra passengers and a cabin without a bathroom was $4544 pesos, about $340 USD. The car and driver was about $2000 pesos, another $975 pesos for each additional passenger and $500 pesos for the cabin.
The terminal is a 15 minute drive from downtown La Paz in the town of Pichilingue. The terminal entrance is clearly marked, the few times we drove past there were always vehicles parked in random places along the road. Through the gate, the customs checkpoint is to the right. The official asked to see the driver's passport and our vehicle import permit. She compared the permit with our car's VIN number and sent us through without any hassle.
The ferry ticket office is located just past the customs check point on the right. We stopped here to ask where we were supposed to go since there were no signs. We drove all the way around the terminal, past lines of parked trucks and eventually spotted the big blue ferry. As we drove up to the ferry an important looking guy with a clipboard asked for our tickets and told us to get in line with the other small cars.
We arrived at the terminal three and a half hours before the ferry was scheduled to depart, which was a good thing! The ticket office said to arrive two hours before departure, but by that time the ferry was completely loaded. We sat for about an hour and watched a few dozen trucks back into the boat, then the important clipboard man told passengers to get out of their cars.
Only the driver is allowed to be in the vehicle while it is driving on and off the ferry. Jared and Jessica were waved out of the car and followed everyone else on board. Someone near the entrance checked their tickets and directed them towards a door in the side of the loading area. They walked up four flights of stairs, and arrived at the reception desk.
The official directed me to drive on board, down to the lowest level. I assume that larger rigs like RVs would probably park on one of the upper decks.
When parking your vehicle remember:
After parking I followed the other drivers to the stairs leading to the reception desk. The receptionist gave me a room key in exchange for my cabin ticket and passport and showed us to the room. She kept my passport until I returned the room key the next morning.
We paid $500 pesos for a three person cabin with no bathroom. It was a pain to have to walk to the bathroom, it was much better than only having a seat. The seating area is very tightly packed, like an airplane, and was very noisy every time we walked past.
The cabin was basic, three beds, a closet and a sink. The bathrooms were down the hall, they were clean and even had a shower. The power sockets in our room were all EU standard, the ferry was bought from France several years ago. We managed to get an adapter from the reception so we could charge our electronics.
A passenger ticket includes two meals (dinner and breakfast). There were announcements when serving started and ended. You have to bring your ticket with to the cafeteria to be served.
The meals weren't great, but they weren't terrible either. There is also a bar with snacks and beverages for sale in the cafeteria.
The vehicles on the ship disembarked by deck, starting with the middle deck and ending with the lowest, meaning we were last. The announcements were mostly in Spanish, sometimes we'd catch some English, but even then it was impossible to understand. Thankfully the receptionists told us what was going on and let us know when it was our turn to leave.
Passengers were allowed off in sets of 25 to take a short shuttle ride from the ferry to the main terminal waiting area. We knew we were going to be last off, so we hung out up on deck for a while until they called for drivers on deck one to return to their vehicles.
At that point Jessica and Jared left on foot to the shuttle, and I headed down to the car. It seemed like it might take a while to unload the cars, but once everyone was back in their vehicle it went fast.
After I drove off the ship I had to clear another check point. The officer asked for identification, peeked inside the car, and waved me past. It's likely he let me go easy because I could not communicate very well in Spanish and he did not want to deal with me. It seemed like most other vehicles were being searched.
At the ferry terminal most passengers were picking up their luggage and taking buses or taxis to their next destinations. Disembarking vehicles that passed through the check point were let out onto the street outside of the terminal. It didn't seem possible to reach the terminal directly after clearing the check point so Jessica and Jared met me out on the street.
Don't expect the ferry to arrive on schedule and also don't expect to disembark quickly. Our ferry was scheduled to arrive at 9am, and it was nearly 11:30 before we were on our way to Guadalajara.