Driving Baja 2010/2011
This page has useful general information about driving in Baja. Each year the drive becomes easier and safer as the road and bridges improve but still it is different than a USA road trip. If you are looking for detailed information on where to stay etc. use the Baja Driving Travelogue link on the left.
Military and Agricultural Inspection
Baja driving traditions
Pets in Baja
I have been in Baja on 39 road trips most of which were 1-3 months in length. So far I have had no problems except one ticket for forgetting to stick yearly tag on my California license plate. Following the above advice and your own common sense you will probably be safer than driving in many USA big cities.
1. Travel in a caravan with at least one other car. Ideally 3 cars so one can stop to help and one can bring more help.
2. Avoid traveling the Tijuana to San Quintin corridor at night. Especially avoid TJ at night and predawn. On the way back to the USA consider taking Hwy. Mex 3 just north of Ensenada to the border town of Tecate. The border crossing wait ranges from a few minutes to maybe 30 minutes so you will save time despite the longer drive.
3. If someone tries to pull you over verify that it is a police car and that they are in uniform before stopping. If in doubt slow down, put your emergency lights acknowledge the "cop" and try to find an inhabited place to pull over.
4. Never camp at a wide spot along Hwy. 1 in Baja especially northern Baja. I did this all the time in the old days but not now.
5. Do not camp at remote beaches unless it is truly isolated and there are other campers there.
6. Keep only enough money for gas in your wallet. Keep the rest of it hidden.
7. Try not look look like a target with lots of exposed toys.
8. Read the section of the Baja Guide about driving in Baja.
9. Avoid any confrontation, remember you are in a macho culture and the other guy will NOT back down.
10. Go over your car carefully for brake lights, turning signals etc. fix anything that might give a cop an excuse to pull you over.
11. Buy Vagabundos.com (I have used them for over 20 years and highly recommend them) or similar car insurance with the legal services package. If you have a serious accident you need a lawyer pronto and this provides one for you.
12. Don't remotely think about bringing drugs down or inviting friends who might not tell you that they have a stash. Some people do bring drugs anyway since the cops seem to pretty much ignore the use of weed. I have had the horror of seeing what happens to someone if you get into some other trouble, like an car accident, and you have a stash. All of a sudden they really enforce the law big time. The guy I knew was in jail for years and Mexican jails are a nightmare for a gringo.
13. Drive like a little old lady in town and even near towns since they are starting to get radar guns.
14. Avoid the gas stations mentioned in my Baja Guide.
15. Use ATM machines with caution since there have been robberies at isolated machines. If possible use ATMs that are in large store or in banks. Be sure to notify your bank in advance that you will be using your ATM card in mexico for the duration of the trip. Do not use ATM cards except to get cash at ATM machines.
Jack Williams' superb Baja guide, The Magnificent Peninsula, has one weakness for visiting kiters and windsurfers: it assumes you are visiting Baja for a leisurely tour of its historical, cultural, and natural attractions. Most sailors have a narrower focus. Although I am sure that eventually Baja will seduce you with it’s many–spendored beauties, most first time sailors want to cover terrain fast to get to the prime wind sites.
Yes, those are oranges scattered over the road. That year we saw 5 major accidents in 3 days of driving. The Baja road was not designed for high speed driving! In the USA, two lane roads are engineered for speed. We take for granted highways with moderate crowns, positively banked curves, fenced right of ways, level shoulders, frequent culverts, and a road width from 20-24 feet. Baja’s Highway 1 was built with economy as the major design consideration. Once you are about 200 miles south of the border much of the road is narrow with none of the aforementioned engineering niceties. If you drive at high speed a wandering truck, a water filled vado, a reverse banked curve or a startled cow is going to eventually put a dent in more than your schedule.
The last several years have seen a major improvement in the road. Gone are the endless miles with unavoidable potholes ranging from 3" deep to axle breakers. The last section gave you a taste of this was the section south of Catavina but presently it is in fine shape. Throughout Baja you will find areas where the edge of pavement is broken off or washed away leaving steep edges. If you wander into one of these resist the tendency to veer back onto the road. If the tire catches you can flip. Instead just let up on the gas and coast to a controlled speed and ease over the edge.
Border Crossing and Caravans
USA to Mexico border crossing:
If you are coming from California, The Gorge or Canada the shortest and fastest border crossing is at Tijuana. This border city is home to the world's busiest border crossing with about 300000 visitors per day. However at most times it only takes seconds to minutes to go through the border. There is no advantage of taking the Otay border crossing. Because of the robberies that occurred along the road through Tijuana during 2007/08 winter I strongly recommend that you DO NOT drive in this area in the dark. However if you are still concerned about you could take the road to the Tecate border crossing and then drive the beautiful road from Tecate to Ensenada. This will add about a hour to your trip and the border crossing is fast.
Mexico to USA border crossing:
Do not use the Tijuana border crossing unless you are positive you will be driving through Tijuana in the day time. There is ALWAYS a long wait during the day time at this crossing. If you are lucky it might only be an hour if your luck fails it could be 3 hours or more. The Otay crossing is just about as long and can be difficult to find. If you get pulled into Secondary your wait another 1-2 hours for a detailed search of your vehicle by USA customs.
To avoid these problems I suggest you leave Mex. Hwy. 1 just north of Ensenada and drive on beautiful Hwy. to the town of Tecate and cross the border there. Unless it is a busy weekend hour your wait will be very short. This also has the advantage of avoiding any potential Tijuana crime problems. You will add and hour or so to your drive but you will save 2-3 boring hours waiting to cross at Tijuana.
Why to Caravan:
If you are a couple traveling alone, a breakdown is more than an inconvenience. The nearest town with a mechanic may be several hundred miles away and there are no tow trucks. If both of you leave your car to go for help don't expect to find you car intact when you return. The other option, one of you waits in the desert while the other hitch hikes for help is the worse alternative. The USA's thirst for illegal drugs has made northern Baja a drug route and isolated travelers are easy prey. It is still wise to travel in a caravan. The first time you break down in an isolated part of Baja you will caravan in the future.
Take a careful look at Elizabeth's side view mirror in the photo below. That is what an 120 mph impact of your mirror and the mirror of another truck looks like. The photo does not show the missing window or all the glitter in her hair. The lack of road shoulders, telephones, tow trucks, and mechanics in rural Baja makes a breakdown or even a broken window a hassle.
LSD issue in Baja
Newer diesel truck (07-09's) require Ultra Low Sulfur Diesel "ULSD" fuel NOT the "Low Sulfur Diesel" "LSD" fuel commonly available in Baja Sur. Regular diesel can be found at: Ensenada, San Vicente, Camalu, San Quintin, Jesús María, Guerrero Negro, Vizcaino Junction, San Ignacio, Santa Rosalia, Mulegé, Loreto, Constitución, El Cien, La Paz, Todos Santos, Cabo San Lucas, San José del Cabo.
Newer diesels will run just fine for thousands of miles on LSD (the same is probably not true for your brain). Many gringos just make the drive through Baja Sur filling up on LSD unaware of the ULSD vs LSD distinction. But according to manufactures several components of the pollution control system will eventually become clogged using LSD causing issues. And since sulfur was an important lubricant in older issues you may have accelerated drivetrain wear with LSD (as well as brain damage). All of these problems might take a year or more to become visible so take reports of "No problemo" with LSD with a grain of salt.
Remember Baja consists of a northern state, Baja California Norte, and a southern state, Baja California Sur. It is common for web pages to just say Baja California has ULSD when they are actually only referring to Baja California Norte. This is critical since ULSD is much more available in Baja Norte.
The most recent report I could states as of August, 2013 there still is not widespread ultra-low-sulfur diesel ULSD outside a limited area near the USA/Mexico border, Mexico City and Mexico state.
In January, 2010 ultra low-sulfur diesel (DUBA) was introduced by PEMEX that has only 15 ppm of sulfur. It has 5% biodiesel s It was introduced to 50% of the Pemex stations in central Mexico. Supposedly it is being slowly introduced to a few stations in the rest of the country. Look for the sign, "bajo azufre" below the word "Diesel" on the gas station signage. Also when you see the big black sign "UBA" just below the green Pemex logo, have the letters "UBA" on the line below DIESEL, then that station is suppose to have UBA (15ppm) ULSD diesel"
Despite all of the above I have found anecdotal reports suggesting some ULSD is available further south of the border than San Quintin, Baja Norte:
ULSD is always available from the border to El Rosario. I have seen reports of it being available at the larger stations at Guerrero Negro and Vizcaino and again at north end of Santa Rosalia. It is not available at Mulege and I can not find any reports of it being OFFICIALLY available to the south. Be aware that Pemex stations near the border have to sell ULSD since it is required by US law for trucks going into the USA. However gasoline and Diesel in Baja Sur comes to La Paz in Baja Sur from mainland Mexico so it is just Low Sulphur Diesel (LSD)
The 'Green Angels'
The "Green Angels" are a government-sponsored fleet of assistance vehicles, which travel Highway 1. They can be identified by their green color with white lettering on the side. In theory and sometimes in practice there is a green angel passing any point twice each day. The driver or helper may speak English, and will carry gasoline and a few spare parts. Always give them a friendly wave.
Driving at Night: don‘t do it…ever!
There, I have repeated the litany given in every Baja guide. The problem is that sailors and kiters needing a high wind fix are not easily deterred by risks. You probably wouldn’t be kiting or sailing if you were not a risk taker. But, before deciding to push on as twilight approaches, consider the risks. With no roadside fences, the ubiquitous roadside cows move onto the road at night seeking the heat of the asphalt. The unending successions of rotting and sun bleached cow skeletons are the gruesome remains of head-on car/cow accidents. In Baja they leave the cows where they fall and place roadside crosses for the occupants. Note carefully the heavily built tubular steel framework that is seen above the bumpers of trucks in Baja. These are called matadors and their function is obvious. Another danger of night driving is the lack of shoulders. Vehicles have to stop in the middle of the road for repairs, a beer, or the calls of nature. Yet another consideration is the buses. These monsters race through the night at breath–taking speeds.
Before night driving consider where you are going to stop when you are finally exhausted. In many sections of Highway 1 you can go 50 to 100 miles without finding a place to pull off the road. Never consider camping on a narrow pullout along the road. If you are lucky, you will just spend the night serenaded by jake brakes and unmuffled diesels and perhaps some friendly locals. If you are unlucky you may lose your possessions.
But let’s be realistic. If it is getting dark and you are 20 miles south of La Paz and the winds of Los Barriles are beckoning, will you resist the temptation? In recognition that weaker spirits may not have the moral strength required I provide the following tips.
Driving at night: how to do it.
- If you have a choice, get up early and do your night driving in the early morning hours... fewer drunks and less traffic and you are wide-awake.
- Get your vehicle equipped with wide-angle halogen lights and once past the border discreetly angle them outward so they light up the road on curves. Have them on a separate switch and only put them on when the road is empty.
- Go at a slow pace until you are passed by a bus or truck going a compatible speed and tuck in behind and stay behind. Let them kill cows for you.
- If you are in a caravan, have the lightest, most maneuverable vehicle take the lead at night. Have the lead car turn its rear view mirrors at an angle so the lights of following cars do not dazzle the driver’s night vision. Have all the vehicles equipped with hand held radios. It is critical that other cars in the caravan keep the lead driver informed of passing cars.
- The lead driver should drive at a moderate speed while radioing back information about rocks, bad curves, spooked cows, stalled vehicles, and other dangers.
- Lastly never consider driving at night just to push on. Unless there is a sailing destination or a RV park a few hours ahead all your night driving is just going to deposit you in the middle of nowhere.
On your first trip the "Vado" signs will puzzle you. Rather than building culverts below the road, the designers, in an economy move, built Vados. Vados are dips in the road through which water will rush during the rainy season (winter in the Baja Norte and summer in Baja Sur). Rain in the mountains far away can cause these vados to become very full and I have seen cars swept away on some of them! When the road was first built there were 1 and 2 meter indicators along the road so you could judge the depth. They are long gone. If in doubt about crossing water-filled vado wait until a bigger or dumber vehicle attempts a crossing. Near towns young boys perch vulture-like waiting to start negotiations when you stall in the middle of a vado.
The only seller of fuel is the nationally owned Pemex. They accept only cash at the Pemex stations. The gas in measured in liters. Trying to translate liters to gallons while trying to convert dollars to pesos while trying to translate Spanish to English can be nerve racking. Save yourself a lot of hassle and pay for all gasoline with Pesos.
The unleaded gas in Mexico is called "Magna Sin" and has an octane rating of 92 and is sold from the gray pumps. At Christmas time or if there is a big El Norte wind, there may be gasoline supply problems, especially in central Baja. Always plan on the next station being out of fuel so in remote areas gas up even if you are only down a quarter of a tank. It is no fun camping at an empty station for several days waiting for a tanker.
These stations almost always have gasoline
Ensenada, San Quintin, El Rosario, Guerrero Negro, Santa Rosalia (watch out for price rip-offs - the downtown station has occasionally been closed by the Government for over-charging!), Constitución, Insurgentes, La Paz, Todos Santos, and the Los Cabos tourist area.
Frequently out of gas
Cataviña (usually out of gas).
Some of the Pemex stations view naïve gringos as a source of extra cash. The worse station is in Santa Rosalia across from the Ferry Terminal. Give this station a wide berth. Since this is the only station in town, I suggest gassing up in San Ignacio to the north before getting in this area. Unfortunately, the next station to the south just past Mulege has pumps that are calibrated to favor the owners. Since this is hard to prove and since they are otherwise nice people you can just comment on how you tank holds more gas than the factory had planned. Or you can bring down a 20 liter gas can and have them fill it first and try to explain to them that it is peculiar that a 20 liter container can hold 24 liters. They know the Santa Roaslia station has a bad reputation and savvy gringos pass it by.
Here are some of the more common ploys:
- The switch-a-roo: You are rummaging through your pockets for the 300 pesos the attendant requests. You hand him two 100s while you search your wallet for the rest. When you turn to give him the last 100, he is holding a 100 and a 50. Clearly you made a mistake and still owe him another 50. Don’t bother arguing. You made a mistake and maybe you really did.
Moral: always hold all the money in your own hands until have the full amount. A version of this scam is to dump a handful of incorrect change is offered under the assumption that you will be ignorant of the coins or too timid to complain.
The easiest way to deal with change rip-off is to pay only with peseos and have a calculator in your hand and stand next to the pump while you are being gassed.
- Wow, what great service: You drive up and before you roll to a stop they have the cap off and are pumping away. Great service... but they somehow forgot to reset the pump from the last customer so you are paying for 20 liters that never found your tank. Or... they are out of Extra but they are pumping Nova into your tank until you notice.
Moral. Stop at the pump and be out the door and make certain the pump reads all zeros and that you getting Extra before they open the cap. If you are by yourself consider buying a locking gas cap.
The darkened window: The station at El Rosario has never given us problems but you have to pay in advance and pass your money through a slit below a darkened and barred window. I would be very attentive here.
Military and Agricultural Inspection
There are several military inspection stops south of Ensenada. Your first trip down these are sort of scary since all of the soldiers are carrying automatic rifles. On your way south the soldiers will usually just wave you through or may ask where you are going. Just say vacation and La Paz.
On your trip back north you are likely to be searched. The search is usually perfunctory and you will not be asked to unpack. It is a good idea to keep track of valuable small items. I have never heard of any thievery during these inspections but I would not want to be in a situation where there was a problem.
At two points along the Baja highway, traffic is stopped for an Agricultural Inspection. The first station is at the boundary between Baja Norte and Baja Sur near the gigantic metal sculpture in the middle of the road just north of Guerrero Negro. Eat of all your citrus before getting to this station. Any fruit, which might harbor fruit flies, will be confiscated and vegetables may be confiscated. Please no not hide any fruits. Any bugs, eggs or larvae you bring into the country can have tragic consequences for the developing fruit economy.
The inspectors are very polite but several years ago there was a major robbery when an inspector lifted several thousand dollars while doing an inspection. Be sure to accompany the inspector. If you are by yourself, lock the cab doors before opening your trailer.
At the G. Negro inspection station two guys in space suits will spray the underbody of your car with insecticide. You have no choice in the mattter. Just roll up the windows and keep the fan on recirculate until it has all evaporated.
The second station is just north of La Paz. This station has a greater military presence. If it looks like you are smuggling something into Baja (for example you have 20 new pairs of Nikes), it will be confiscated here. You may also go to jail and if you are a property owner, your property may be in jeopardy.
Driving Baja is far easier than in years past. Now there is a paved highway the full length of Baja and gas stations every 100 to 200 miles. But don’t confuse Mex. 1 with its namesake Highway 1 in California. Most of the isolated parts of this highway are only 18 feet wide compared to the 22-24 feet width of the California version. Do the math... an oncoming bus or 18-wheeler is 8 feet wide and has mirrors projecting 1 foot. Most of the time there is no shoulder... from the edge of the asphalt, the road drops 4 to 500 feet. This means the distance from your mirror to his is as little as 12 inches. So there is little room for errors. Until several years ago, the roadsides were littered with wrecked cars. Most have been removed since it made a bad impression.
There is a driving tradition in Baja which can be confusing, dangerous and, at times, useful.
One custom that you will find strange is the use of headlights. Mexicans simply do not use them until it is really dark. No sense wasting electricity and wreaking your night vision seems to be the reasoning.
Another custom is the regarding of stop signs as mere suggestions. People will honk at you if you actually come to a stop at stop sighs. However if you, a gringo, roll through a stop a cop will ticket you.
More complex is the three distinct meanings of the left turn signal.
The most easily understood use is using the left-hand turn signal along with the slowing of the vehicle, a flashing of the brake lights and perhaps some arm waving and a drift into the left lane. If most of these accompany the turn signal then a left turn is imminent. Since many of the towns you will be driving through really are just wide places in the road the left turn is more of a left swerve into the wide place on the left.
More tricky is the use of the left turn signals to indicate that the "leading vehicle" considers it safe for the "following vehicle" to pass. This use epitomizes Mexican courtesy and is done in recognition of the steep roads and many very slow vehicles. But this courtesy is potentially dangerous! What if the leading vehicle actually turns as the following vehicle passes? Still it can be a very useful tradition when your only other option is to spend forever behind a truck moving up the mountain at 15mph. If the leading vehicle flashes it’s left turn signal and does not hit the brake or wave arms and you are desperate to pass, AND there is not sign of left turns ahead, pass with the greatest caution.
Incidentally if you are the leading car and you intend to turn left, slow way down and tap brake lights on when you hit the turn indicator. If there is any ambiguity open the window and give a hand signal.
Another custom is useful if you are driving a large RV or just freaked by the narrow road. It is a greeting used in daylight. Flash your headlights once when a large truck or bus bears down on you. This is seen as a polite request to give you as much room as possible.
Pets in Baja
It is a good idea to have current proof of rabies vaccination since you may need it when returning to the USA. Take lots of dog food since dog food is hard to find, expensive and low quality. Bring any medication your dog needs since there are no Pets-Are-Us stores in Baja. Dogs love to eat gross things and on the beaches in Baja some of the gross things are poisonous. Especially watch out for puffer fish. It is deadly if they eat some of the internal organs. Don’t worry if they have just mouthed the fish. In cast fido does eat a puffer buy some Syrup of Ipecac at a drug store before you leave. Mix it up in something tasty then get ready to clear up dog barf.