Suburbs to Shantytowns: 1,000-Mile Trek Down Baja Mexico

A breathtaking, albeit often overlooked extension of the California coastline, filmmaker and Young Explorer Justin DeShields will conduct a 1,000-mile transect of the Baja Peninsula, intimately documenting the beautiful expanses of waterfront between major cities.


By Justin DeShields, National Geographic Young Explorer

On February 2nd 2013, we left a quiet suburb of San Diego for an untamed Tijuana. We are now 22 days in and have made it 220 miles south, well into our 4 month journey to traverse the Baja peninsula by foot and standup paddle board. Armed with a myriad of cameras, camping gear and a desalination pump we are on a mission to explore and document Mexico’s Baja peninsula in the name of conservation. With its proximity to the densely populated Southern California, a small percentage of Americans venture into Baja though it rivals Upper California in length and natural diversity. Large portions of Baja still remain under developed enough, though this is changing, to the extent that it can be described as Gal├ípagos-like. With this in mind we have targeted five areas of interest and will address overarching ecological issues relevant to the region. Over the course of our 1000+ mile journey we will reveal through our lens why Baja has been deemed important to conserve and if there’s anything further to be done.

Most of our journey down the peninsula will have a strong component of self-sustainable survival, but the border region was more of an urban feat. We walked among semi-trucks on massive highways, and weaved through a patchwork of barbed-wire fences, half-finished condos, vacation homes, and shantytowns. All of this came from the simple idea to follow the coast. The area around the border is a chaotic hub for the US/Mexican economies. At the border we walked among poverty, drug addiction, and pollution stacked on top of one another. At the coast, the once booming tourism industry has left the biggest impression. High-rise hotels crowd the beach, though often they’ve been abandoned for years. During the day we navigated through areas not meant for walking and slept sandwiched between private properties and the Pacific.

Photo by Justin DeShields
Photo by Justin DeShields

After 100 miles, development began to fade; trucks gave way to cattle and condos for ranches. We passed through wine country and eventually followed a valley through ranches and roads once used by vehicles 40 years ago now used by livestock. With sporadic rain showers we experienced the desert in full bloom, something locals claim has not occurred in over 10 years.

On the next leg of our trip we will no longer be able to rely on a town within a days walking distance. This stretch of coast is approximately 200 miles long and is the first time Baja’s main highway has departed from the sea. We must rely heavily on local knowledge at the scattered fishing camps. These camps randomly dot the coastline and the small communities of fishermen catch everything from shark and lobster to geoduck and urchins catering to a global market. Our bodies are now well-adjusted to our 50 pound packs and though the road ahead is unpaved and unproven, we are well equipped to safely execute this leg of the journey.

Follow our expedition in real-time through our website at! We will update our journey as often as we can with photos, written blogs and occasional videos.

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