FAQ's About Driving in Baja
Questions from Readers
BajaInsider.com Veteran Baja Driver
Recently a reader posed us this question it is certainly a legitimate question, considering what I too have read in the US media. please read on...
The reader asked, "Any information concerning the recent suggestion that travelers should travel in convoys because of the cartel violence? Is this applicable to Baja or just the mainland?"
If I were traveling through CD Juarez region I might consider this advice useful. There have also been some incidents on the mainland. These appear to target illegal US immigrants returning with all their earthly possessions to Mexico. As I am aware one bus was robbed and a couple of Americans were onboard in Sonora. When you are out of the country for a while such as me, you realize how much fear is peddled in the US news.
Here is more realistic thinking…
I would avoid driving at night, mainly due to hitting cows as a stationary (or relatively so) object. There have been no tourist ‘molestation’ incidents on Baja Hwy 1 in several years that I am aware of. Yes there is the occasional flat tire or transmission service rip off, but where doesn’t that happen to travelers.
It is always handy to travel with a ‘car buddy’ in case you run out of gas or have a flat. Often my ‘road buddy’ is someone I meet over the gas pumps at a Pemex station or military check point.
I am currently writing an article about this alleged “Civil War” going on in Mexico. The statistics just don’t support those ridiculous claims. You are FAR more likely to die in an automobile accident in Mexico than even SEE a cartel action. This is not significant as the death rate on Mexican roads is unchanged over the years, and about the same as US deaths on secondary roads. (As Mexico relies far more heavily on secondary roads) or about 23 per 100,000 miles. (The US freeway rate drops the US average significantly as it is only 9.2 100,000)
Tijuana is one of the more dangerous cities in Mexico – particularly if you are a cartel member. It had a murder rate of 7.2 per 100K, exactly the same as Philadelphia, which by chance has about the same population. This would only put TJ about 1/3 of the way up the list compared to most US cities. New Orleans being the hands down violence winner at 18.2 murders per 100K. Have you read any travel warnings to New Orleans recently in the US press?
If you deduct those deaths directly connected to the cartels TJ is just about as safe as San Diego across the border, one of the safest cities in the US.
I like to get about 100 miles south of any border to get into what I call ‘real Mexico’ anyway. (Although that line seems to keep pushing south.)
I have lived in La Paz continuously for 10 years now. I’ve been hit up by the cops three times for Mordita for a total cost of about $20USD. Annoying, but I consider it my “Mexican Road Tax.” I speak Spanish pretty fluently, that always helps. I’ve been ripped off once by a guy fixing an engine for me. I’ve endured one slightly intoxicated young lady rail on an anti gringo tirade. In 10 years that is the extent of my complaints in Mexico. I think in San Diego the traffic annoyed me more on a daily basis!
Some final trip-tips...
Enjoy your trip into Mexico, remain alert but not paranoid. Learn a little espanol, particularly your numbers. it really isn't that tough. Count your change, Mexicans know North Americans don't count their change, because we don;t know the money, think coins are small potatoes and are usually in a rush. Change your money to pesos in advance. You will find it more difficult to unload $US and virtually impossible to spend $100 notes outside of Cabo.
Again, don’t drive after dark if you can avoid it. Driving 450 miles a day is a very good day on these secondary roads and they ‘work’ you, as there is very little ‘cruise control time’. Watch for cows and cyclists. Much of Hwy 1 has been improved in the last decade and many places even have legitimate shoulder!
Fill up in El Rosario southbound and Guerrero Negro northbound. There has been a station in Catavina, but we have also had reports of its irregular hours. It is 219 miles between stations there. Running out of gas really sucks. If this happens you will most likely be assisted by a ‘green angel’ which are official vehicles and federal employees that all in all have proven quite corruption free and very helpful.
Watch for fog from El Rosario to Guerrero Negro, particularly in the AM. Sometimes you can’t see 3’ in front of you. Get WELL off the road if you stop. I recommend waiting and enjoying breakfast.
You will need a tourist visa south of Ensenada. These are available at Migration at the border, in Ensenada and at the inspection point between BC and BCS in Guerrero Negro. The station in G.N. is open an ungainly 9Am to 4PM. It is difficult to coordinate with these hours no matter which direction you are traveling. If you get to La Paz and don’t have a tourist visa it will usually cost you and extra $500 pesos. You may also pick up visas at the Consulate office on India Street in San Diego during weekday business hours. I BELIEVE you have to then pay for the visa in Mexico within X days, but that may have changed.
Mind your P’s and Q’s while driving through Catavina, Santa Rosalia and Constitucion/ CD Insurgentes. Cops like foreign plates to buy taco plates. Carry a small but believable amount of cash in your wallet.
The boojum forests are hard to identify if you think of forests in our North American context. But these stands of boojums do look particularly lovely at dusk and dawn.
Don’t play the ‘turn signal game’ It has developed too many meanings and last year a bus passed a dump truck with the left turn signal on, he thought it meant “OK to pass” Well, pass he did, into the next world. The dump truck driver was using his turn signal to indicate to an oncoming bus the location of the left side of his truck as the bus passed. 19 other persons onboard the two busses ‘passed’ as well.
There you go, I think I’ll post this on the road report!
Additional Comments by the Editor
A newspaper in California contacted us about towing a trailer down Baja while I was editing John's story about the road conditions. I forwarded the above information to them along with the additional general information about driving Baja and thought, why not pass it along to our readers as well...
#1 DON’T DRIVE AT NIGHT. It’s not banditos, you have a statistical better chance of being struck by lightening. It’s the cows, 60 to 0 in a hurry! Mexicans LOVE 4 way flashers on their cars. Seen on an oncoming car usually indicates cows, or something else in the road ahead. US statistics show the two most dangerous times on a 2 lane highway is dusk and 2AM (when bars close), these stats translate pretty well to our Baja Highway 1
#1A Get Mexican Auto Insurance. US auto insurance does not cover you in Mexico. In the event of an accident you can be detained until fault and payment is determined. Without insurance, you could be fatally delayed from being evacuated to a more significant healthcare facility. Cost is from $25/day to less than $500/year (depending on car, trailer and value)
#2 Don’t be ostentatious, cover things of value like kayaks and brand new outboards. Keep the volume down and try to remain nondescript. This is good advice for travel anywhere where the locals earn in a year what you may earn in a week or month. If you look like you have too much, someone will relieve you of the ‘burden’.
#3 Don’t push it. Take 2 days in a car or three days from San Diego with a trailer. The road has very little ‘cruise control time’ so you are ‘on’ constantly and it gets wearing. Carry at least one extra tire for each vehicles and some extra gas. Be sure to buy gas in El Rosario, it’s 200km to the next full Pemex stop in Santa Rita, there is a mini station in Catavina now.
#4 Check our Road Report – we rely on reader participation, so during the summer it can get a little stale. rivers should watch for small washouts in the shoulder that can be painful when towing. They can send us a road report when they arrive and help everyone.
#5 Check the weather – We post forecasts every day and every two hours when a tropical cyclone threatens Baja. We have the ONLY English weather report FROM Baja. Don’t be the first to drive through a flooded vado (although there may not even be any more) Should a tropical cyclone ZZZZ materialize, find a nice hotel. Although this too is becoming history, sometimes you can get stranded nowhere on a highway island when roads flood or wash out. But as I said, this is becoming pretty rare. You can also run into gas stations that are shut down or have flooded tanks in storms. Damage usually only lasts a day or two. Hwy 1 is a major transport route for about 20-30% of the ‘stuff’ used here in Baja, so the hwy folks get right on making the road passable.
#5 Don’t carry all your money in one place. Carry a believable amount of cash on your wallet. “Driving while Gringo” is still an offence that could by a cop lunch (or a new set of tires) If you can open your wallet and say look, $20 is all I have, you’ll probably be on your way pretty quick. Obeying the traffic laws is another handy way to avoid Mordita, but not always sure. Most traffic fines are less than $75USD, most around $25. Don’t get sucked into the photocopied sheet some cops show that shows fines well over $100. Watch when the signs say the Federal Highway is ending (Carraterra federal terminado – Check my Spanish) Speed limits are usually much lower in these non-highway areas and you need to watch. Only Federal Hwy Patrol can effect a violation on the Federal Highway, they now have video cameras in car and radar and tend to be pretty just.. Three places to watch for this scam are La Paz, Catavina (note: even the trucks do 25mph though there) and Santa Rosalia.
#7 If you need roadside assistance the Green Angels are there to help. These are federally paid, well equipped and clearly marked trucks that roam Hwy 1. Most will refuse a tip for there assistance, there is an esprit du corps that somehow seems to keep these guys squeaky clean. I have never heard a bad Green Angle story. (their trucks have traditionally been green)
#8 Get your tourist visa as soon as you can when entering Mexico or at the consulate prior to your trip. I think in response to the US’s crack down on immigration we see them following the letter of the law on most occasions. If you get to Baja Sur without a tourist visa or valid FM2 or 3, your $18/180 day visa can cost you an extra $50 fine.
#9 On straight-away's consider driving more toward the center of the road. This will give you more time to react and help avoid those little washouts at the shoulder.
In mentioning the shoulder we should also mention that it is also one of the challenges of baja driving. The lack of a shoulder in a majority of your trip. Having a flat along the road may mean setting in a very dangerous situation. Flairs, cones, reflectors and even rocks, leading away from the shoulder are used to indicate a vehicle in the roadway ahead. Construction crews sometimes use rocks painted white or paint cans with burning diesel rags at night.
As to the safety threat – There has been massive response by the government and not a single attack on the highways of a tourist since last November 2007 (prior to the response) I won’t get into specific incidents, but many of the incidents I investigated involved being a ‘gringo tonto’. As I am aware, all of these attacks occurred in the first 100 miles south of the border.
North Americans have some of the tightest internal security (for the good and bad of it) of any nation I have traveled, and Americans pay the price for it. (yet bad thing STILL happen in state and national parks and along our roadways. Americans become ‘unaware travelers’ as a side effect. Finding the most secluded place along the beach to camp isn’t something I would do in at least ½ the countries to which I have traveled. A person who keeps up their awareness can usually tell when ‘the wolves start to circle.’
Just in contrast to all the ‘propaganda’ generated by slanted publications like the San Diego Union Tribune, who would have you believe that you have about a 50-50 chance of surviving a trip to Mexico, was the comment made by the Baja First Timer co-pilot of my friend, John Henigan mentioned above. They suffered three flat tires along the way and in each event the found a local, ready and eager to assist them on their way. Their warmth and willingness to offer what ever they had to resolve the problem melted away any Mexiphobia she had prior to the adventure.
One story in the Trib stated that “Kidnapping of Americans in Tijuana was the fastest growing crime segment’ True and false. The numbers off the top of my head were an increase from 14 to 26, yes an 85% increase. (see More than ½ of these events appear to have involved illicit activity, shall we say. Kidnapping is a growing industry in Mexico and the people have just about had enough (note demonstration last weekend) But the victims have been doctors at hospitals, management people of corporations and others that may be protected by deep pockets or kidnapping insurance. In Mexico City there has even been speculation that the list of who has this specific insurance may be available for a price to those wishing to profit.
The important perspective is that more people will visit Mexico by noon tomorrow than will visit London in a year, paints a much clearer picture of the odds of these events. Tijuana, one of the most volatile cities in Mexico had a murder rate of 5.7/100K in 2007. That compares quite directly with Philadelphia, a city of approximately the same size and almost identical murder rate. (San Diego across the line does draw a sharp contrast as it has one of the lowest murder rates, right around 3/100K) Most of these murders have been ‘within the family’ of drug traffickers in TJ. We see a flurry of travel warnings for TJ, yet travel is still encouraged to places like New Orleans (one of the most dangerous non-war zone cities in the world with a murder rate of over 18/100K) About two thirds of American cities rated had a higher murder rate than Tijuana.
Remember, firearms are NOT in option in Mexico for securing your safety. There are military checkpoints, specifically looking for weapons and drugs. Should you have the misfortune of having to defend yourself with a weapon, it is very possible that you would face jail time as well. There is a 1 year minimum sentence for weapons or ammunition.
Drive smart, drive awake arrive safe. Mucho Ojo!