What to Know Before Your Baja, Mexico Road Trip
I felt stupid asking my friend if Baja, Mexico was safe for us to visit. As a massive fan of Don Winslow and one who devours cartel novels, I wondered if my imagination with help from these books and the media sensationalized how dangerous Mexico really was. I felt naive no matter what the outcome was — naive for believing the media, naive for not believing it.
My friend responded, “Who is going to bother you?! Nobody is there!”
From the sounds of it, a cartel member would have to drive hundreds of miles just to rob a car filled with a handful of broke surf bums.
I mean, we weren’t exactly the cartel’s target audience. It’s not like we were driving a Mercedes Benz plastered with BUILD THE WALL! VOTE FOR TRUMP! stickers along the sides.
It’s been a few months since I made my way down the Baja Peninsula and I can confidently say that my friend was right. Driving down the Baja Peninsula, Mexico is well worth the journey and you’ll likely have other things to worry about besides crime and cartel members. For example, why weren’t you in charge of the music playlist?
In this guide, I’ll cover what you should know before driving down the Baja Peninsula and answer any commonly asked questions before I dive into a series of posts about my time in Baja.
Where is the Baja Peninsula and why should you go?
The Baja Peninsula of Mexico is the ultimate destination for adventure travelers. Picture untouched beaches, straight roads lined with thousands of cacti, and a desolate wilderness. Surfers will love exploring the coastline for waves, divers will get a chance to see whale sharks and mantas in the sea, and adventurers will love camping beneath the stars.
The Baja Peninsula is broken up into two states, Baja California and Baja California Sur. The most famous towns exist on the tips of the peninsula — Mexicali, Tijuana, Ensenada, Rosarito to the north, and Los Cabos, La Paz, and Loreto to the south. These points are connected by a narrow highway that stretches 775 miles long with hundreds of miles of roads that lead to the edge of the peninsula.
Is driving down the Baja Peninsula safe?
This is the most common question you’ll see asked with answers ranging from “you’re 100% going to die” to “it’s safer than your grandma’s embrace.”
Here are the key safety points you should consider on your trip.
Crime in Baja
Many travelers assume that the Baja Peninsula is unsafe because of the negative stories that come out of Mexico in general.
There are pockets of increased crime in Tijuana. It’s smart to be especially alert in La Paz and Los Cabos, areas that have increased homicides according to the U.S. State Department. While most of this is within organized crime, bystanders can be shot in crossfire. Unfortunately, crime crept into Los Cabos in Baja California Sur early 2017. There are reports of police officers hiding crimes and taking action to silence journalists. Websites like TripAdvisor no longer (and never have) reflected the situation of Mexico due to its to heavy censorship. There are also Baja websites that tout that the murder rate is lower than the United States in Mexico — while the sentiment is calming and possibly true for many cities in the United States, the numbers are twisted and not compared fairly.
So, is the Baja Peninsula more dangerous than most people think? Yes and no. Homicide is in Baja California Sur has increased, but tourists who stay away from the underground drug scene can travel largely unaffected. Friends who visit Baja frequently report feeling just as safe in Baja as they do in California.
There were 35 million international visitors to Mexico in 2016 according to the World Tourism rankings, making it the 8th most-visited country in the world. Considering this, incidents that happen to tourists remain relatively low.
Crime wise, I felt safe driving all the way down the Baja Peninsula until we got to Cabo San Lucas. Cabo San Lucas, like many tourist towns, feels seedy after dark. The New York Times explains the situation well in their article, Where Tourism Thrives, Poverty and Bloodshed are Blocks Away. I wouldn’t feel comfortable getting drunk and wandering through the streets alone as a lone female. I kept my belongings inconspicuous and never experienced any issues. Being alert and proactive about removing yourself from any potentially dangerous situation is essential.
Driving in Baja
I believe you have more of a risk getting in a car accident than from being a victim of a crime along the Baja Peninsula. Mexico’s Highway 1 is mostly a two-lane highway where some parts get very windy. We saw a semi-truck rolled over on its side after getting blown over on a mountain pass.
The motto for driving through Baja is, “Drive slow and arrive on time.” Don’t rush your trip, stop frequently for gas and water, and pay attention to the vados — a dip in the road that will be a rude awakening if you don’t pay attention. Drive during the daytime and watch for cows. Vacas and vados, two unsuspecting elements that could ruin your trip.
Blinking signals in Baja are not standardized. A truck might blinking for you to go or he might be blinking for you to stay. Check for yourself before committing to pass a slow car or truck ahead. When in doubt, hang back.
Mexicans drive on the right side of the road and the speed limit is posted in kilometers. Take note of this or else you risk hauling tail down the pavement thanks to your mile-calibrated speedometer.
Many campsites are accessible by dirt roads only. Road quality can vary, especially after a storm.
Baja Insider details the many other ways you can get in trouble on your journey.
Do I need a Mexican driver’s license?
U.S. and most international drivers’ licenses are accepted in Mexico. You are supposed to get a permit if you are driving over 300 miles into Mexico. From what I can tell, this isn’t enforced.
Do I need insurance to drive down the Baja Peninsula?
If you are driving your car from the United States into Mexico, you need to buy Mexican auto insurance. Most policies run around $25 per day.
What should I bring?
You’ll want to bring camping gear, plenty of water, a gas stove, extra fuel, food, and warm clothing. Though it’s hot during the day, the peninsula is a desert and temperatures can drop drastically overnight. Spare parts for your car are always an extra comfort should anything happen to your car during the trip. If you plan to surf, a 3/2 millimeter wetsuit should be enough during the colder months.
Do I need to speak Spanish?
Pointing and Spanglish can get you a long way in Baja. Locals are typically patient or might know enough English to help you with simple requests. Still, it’s always good to know the basics.
Gracias / No gracias: Thank you / No thank you
No hablo Inglés: I don’t speak English
Habla lentemente, por favor: Speak slowly please
Adónde va?: Where are you going? (This will be asked at military checkpoints)
Donde esta….?: Where is…?
Ayudame!: Help me!
Vueltas peligrosas: Dangerous turns
How long does it take to drive the entire Baja Peninsula?
The entire stretch is 775 miles each way not accounting for the side-trips to see what the peninsula has to offer. I suggest spending at least four days each way — even that is pushing it. We spent five nights getting to Cabo San Lucas and this felt very rushed. We didn’t get a chance to see all that we wanted.
What should I do if I get in a car accident?
The road is served by the Verdes Angeles (Green Angles), a free roadside assistance crew who aid drivers in need of minor mechanical issues. Dial 060 if you have a breakdown and the angels will arrive.
If you are injured, dial 911 for a paramedic.
If you are in an accident with another vehicle, call the police and your insurance agent.
What scams should I look out for on the Baja Peninsula?
Virtual kidnapping: This is an extortion scheme where a scammer steals your phone and starts calling phone numbers, threatening to harm or kill the owner of the phone unless the victim pays a ransom.
Express kidnapping: You are kidnapped, taken to an ATM, forced to withdraw money, then are released.
Traditional kidnapping: Yep, kidnapping the good old fashioned way. Not common in this region.
Cop corruption: A U.S. license plate might as well be an advertisement for free money to some cops. Some cops will hassle tourists in hopes of getting paid in cash for their ticket. A small bribe, like $15-20 might convince the cop to keep walking — but like always, it’s up to you whether or not you want to play this game. Either way, I recommend hiding the bulk of your money throughout the trip and only keeping less than $100 on hand.
Keep the change: This one is harmless and easy to fall for. Count your change when you get your money back.
What about the military checkpoints?
All along the highway, there are military checkpoints with military personnel that stop and search your car. Occasionally, they will wave you through the checkpoint — especially if you’re obviously a tourist. If they stop you, they’ll ask you where you are going and take a look through your car. They are typically young men trying to do their job of stopping the flow of drug trafficking. Messing with tourists is not part of their modus operandi.
Do not offer any bribes or objects in this situation. One of the people on my trip jokingly offered a soldier a beer from the back. The soldiers started stuffing beer bottles up their sleeves and down their pants. One soldier pulled me aside and told me that bribes, sobornos, are illegal.
Don’t photograph those working at the military checkpoint. While drug wars are the source of Netflix shows and crime novels for Americans, it is still ongoing in Mexico. Taking pictures makes the workers uneasy and they told me they fear for their lives after a picture is taken.
What about camping along the Baja Peninsula?
There are campsites all along the peninsula on both the Sea of Cortez side and the Pacific Ocean side. Most campsites are more like off the grid stretches of sand so you’ll have to bring in all provisions, bring a shovel for the restroom, burn your toilet paper, and pack out any trash. It can get very windy so pitch your tent next to your car or against a wall where you’ll have shelter.
How crowded the sites are depend on the time of the year. Most campers are other travelers though you might see some locals come down to have a drink by the ocean. Sometimes, sites are on someone’s property and a local will come by to collect a small fee. We didn’t have this happen, but apparently a few dollars are enough to pay for your stay.
Where should I cross the border into Mexico?
If you’re coming from San Diego, you can cross from the United States into Mexico from multiple entry points — San Ysidro, Otay Mesa, Tecate, Calexico, and Andrade. Most people opt for the San Ysidro entry or the Tecate entry.
There are pros and cons to both. You’ll likely be coming from San Diego, making the San Ysidro entry much closer than the Tecate entry. However, San Ysidro tends to be much more crowded on both sides of the border. Tecate is further out of the way, but it’s rarely crowded and has a more mellow border crossing.
Your car may be searched on your way into Mexico. It’s a good idea to have the translations of what’s in your car just in case you need to explain what something is.
Gas stations along the Baja Peninsula
There are long stretches between gas stations so you’ll want to fill up whenever you see one. Even if you think you can make it, it’s a great feeling to know you have enough fuel to explore any beach or attraction that catches your attention.