A Beginner's Guide to Driving the Baja Peninsula
So you’re planning your first trip driving into Baja, drooling over all of the picture perfect photos of fish tacos and margaritas on secluded beaches when you stumble upon them: the dream killers.
Horror stories of bad experiences in Baja ranging from terrible road conditions to police bribes, drug trafficking, military checkpoints and the old timers that say they’ve been going to Baja every year since the prehistoric era and are never going back because of X, Y, and Z. Now you’re wondering, is it really that bad? Should I play it safe and just get a taco from Taco Bell instead? No and No.
Like you, I did my research and came across all of those anxiety-inducing stories that make you question whether it’s worth it. Like you I once thought, “Taco Bell?” But luckily I made it through that phase and you can too. Believe me, it’s worth it.
Bad things happen everywhere and to anyone and Baja is no exception. But with some planning and street smarts, you can have the time of your life. I’m definitely no expert on driving in Baja, but hopefully this guide will help those of you going into it for the first time. Watch the video below as a teaser of all the fun you can have.
Like any good road trip, you have to do some prep work. Here’s a list of things you’d be wise to bring:
- Passport: Duh.
- Tourist Visa: You can’t actually get this until you enter the country, but it is required. More on this later.
- Car Insurance: That nice Geico policy of yours won’t cover you in Baja and you can get in a lot of trouble if you don’t have car insurance while you’re there. You’ll need to purchase insurance from a Mexican insurance agency. You can find a few of these online and purchase it beforehand. The catch though is that if you have a car older than 15-20 years old (like a Vanagon) then, by default, the insurance agency will only sell you a liability policy. These policies are fairly cheap but won’t cover any damage to your vehicle from an accident. So, if you value your van, you can call/email the insurance agency and ask if they will offer you a custom policy. In this case you will likely have to take pictures of your van to send them and tell them how much you’d like to be insured for. In our case we got a $20k policy with a decent level of liability coverage for around $250 for 18 days. Pricey, but worth it if you don’t want your nice Westy to end up in a scrap yard.
- Vehicle Permit: Not needed in Baja but if you plan to extend your trip into mainland Mexico, you’ll need this.
- A reliable vehicle: This kind of goes without saying but the best way to ensure that you don’t get stuck in Baja is to make sure your car is going to get you there and back. If driving a Vanagon, make sure your fuel lines, coolant lines, and tune up parts are in good shape.
- Van goodies: We brought a lot of stuff along to make sure that when we got stuck, we could get out (hopefully). If you’re sticking to the pavement then you won’t need all of this, but below is our condensed list:
- Extra Fluids: Oil, coolant, ATF (if you’ve got an auto)
- Good Tires: We planned on doing some off-roading, so we got brand new BF Goodrich All Terrain KOs and couldn’t be happier. If you’re sticking to the highway then you can get by with road tires, just make sure they’re in good condition, you have a spare, and maybe a bottle of tire leak goop.
- Extra Gas: There are some long stretches of road with no services and you don’t want to run out of gas. 4-5 gallons would be ideal. We bought a 4 gallon Rotopax that fits in our luggage rack.
- Traction Mats: These will really help you out if you get stuck. We had cheapo ones. They were…cheap, but they worked OK.
- Air Compressor: If you’re going into the sand, you’re going to have to deflate your tires. How are you going to get that sweet air back in there once you get back on the pavement? An air compressor! We got one off of Amazon for about $80 that you hook directly to your battery and it works great.
- Shovel: Again, if you’re in the sand then a collapsible shovel can be a lifesaver when you have to dig yourself out.
- Tow Strap: We ended up not needing ours but it’s a good thing to have, just in case.
CROSSING THE BORDER
Now that you’ve added another 1000lbs of gear to your vehicle, you’re ready to head for the border. At first I was a little nervous about the crossing thanks to some of those horror stories I had read. Things like you’re not allowed to bring in extra gas, getting in trouble for kitchen knives on a magnetic knife block, and other stupid things. In reality, crossing the border was a breeze. Almost frighteningly so. We went at the worst possible time: rush hour at the Tijuana crossing on Friday evening. The place was utter mayhem but we finally got up to the front and were selected for inspection. Contrary to what I read, the inspection was essentially us just opening the doors so they could look inside. No digging through our stuff or making us dump our jerry can and we were on our way in 5 minutes. On top of that, they didn’t even check our passports. Like I said, frighteningly easy. So easy that if you don’t already know that you need a tourist visa, you would just keep driving and skip it altogether. While that is an option, you do risk a fine if caught without one (though we were never asked for ours). As for us, we decided to be good tourists and ask someone where we need to go for the visa. There’s a gray administration building to your right as you’re passing through the inspection area. As soon as you pass the inspection area, you make a right into a little parking lot with big spaces for buses. It doesn’t look like you’re supposed to be there, but it’s the right place. Head in there, fill out the form, pay $20, and you’ll be on your way with a visa good for 6 months.
Welcome to Mexico!
Driving through Baja can be a little bit like playing Mario Kart, depending on your route, and just as fun. Your route/destination may differ but for us the destination was La Paz and the route was Route 1 all the way down, with the exception of a few side trips off of the 1.
Route 1 itself was much nicer than I was expecting. I’ve been on much worse roads, even major highways, in the US. The drive down to Ensenada was great and the pavement was as smooth as you could ask for. South of Ensenada it can get a little worse and there are a few things you should look out for:
- Topes (speed bumps): Any time you approach a town along the 1, you will meet your suspension’s (and your coffee’s) worst nightmare: the dreaded speed bumps of Baja. These will sneak up on you and are no joke – you will go flying. Take it easy, go slow, and keep an eye out for these.
- Vados (fords): Many sections of the 1 are prone to flooding and you may have to ford a small stream. There are signs all over for these, but we only had to cross 1 and it was easy.
- Pot holes: Always be on the lookout – they’ll sneak up on you.
ADDITIONAL DRIVING TIPS:
- Military Checkpoints: There are a number of these going south along the 1. Based on our experience they are nothing to worry about. We had the van searched a few times (more thoroughly on the way back North), but never anything extensive. Usually they are very friendly and will try to talk to you in whatever English they know. We got the impression that they were usually pretty bored and get excited if you have an interesting vehicle (like a Vanagon) to look around in. We never had any problems with bribes or anything like that.
- Gas: Mexico has one, state-owned gas station: Pemex. Most take cards, some only cash, and many times (not sure about all), they’ll take USD. We never had any problems with the quality of the gas. HOWEVER, there is a loooong stretch of road from El Rosario to Guerrero Negro where there are NO gas stations. Make sure you fill up before you enter this area or you will have to buy a few gallons of gas off someone on the side of the road like we did, IF you make it that far. Seriously, there’s not much on this stretch of road at all so make sure you’re topped up. Also, every Pemex has free compressed air and water. The water isn’t potable, but can be used for showers, washing dishes, etc.
- Night Driving: We never really drove at night, but from what we gathered it’s not a good idea because of the speed bumps and cattle that may be in the road. It’s less of a “you might get robbed” kind of thing.
- Left Blinker: The left blinker is someone’s way of telling you that you’re all clear to pass. If the semi in front of you puts on their blinker, then the coast should be clear to pass them (as long as they aren’t playing a sick joke). If you have someone tailing you because you’re driving a Vanagon that’s fully loaded and going 10 MPH under the “speed limit” then turn on your left blinker if the coast is clear for them to pass.
- Offroading: Some of our favorite parts of Baja were getting off the pavement and either driving through the sand or going through washed out back roads. I mean, the pavement is cool, but you want to live the dream and score one of those picturesque beach spots, right? Well for that you need to be prepared. Having a friend around with a Syncro and a winch helps, but you may not always have that. The best tip that I can give you (besides having everything in the equipment checklist) is that, if you’re going to drive in sand, you need to deflate your tires. This will give you better traction and enable you to do things you thought you could only do in a 4x4. Not everything, mind you, so don’t get too crazy, but it can make a huge difference. In our BFG’s, I usually run 51psi in front and 63psi in the rear. When we hit the sand, I went down to 10psi all around and boy, what a difference! We were able to go through spots I never dreamed of driving through and it was some of the most fun I’ve had driving the van. Of course, you need a compressor to fill those tires back up once you hit the pavement. Also, when you deflate your tires, you lose clearance, so be mindful of that.
I’ve officially exhausted my driving knowledge of Baja, but hopefully that helps some of you first timers with your Baja anxiety. If you have any questions, feel free to contact us!