Most of Baja’s remote territory lies outside of the popular tourism destinations of Cabo San Lucas, Loreto and La Paz as well as the border cities of Tijuana, Tecate and Mexicali.
Travel by bus to the interior of the nearly 800 mile long peninsula is an available option however most of their routes stick to the Transpeninsular Highway and could leave you standing on the side of the highway with your suitcases, an hour’s drive or more short of your desired destination.
Driving remains the ideal mode of transportation to reach most of Baja between the northern border and the southern tip and to help ensure a safe and enjoyable vacation, we put together some important information and tips related to driving here that should be quite helpful.
So let’s get started…
Driving Guide Directory of Topics
Baja Road Trip Planning / Preparation
When packing, make sure you bring along extra quantities of any required medications and consider leaving behind any “bling” or other valuable items which – if not essential, are probably better if left at home. This will also make for lighter bags allowing you greater ease of movement and will draw less attention, helping to deter potential thieves.
Leave your firearms at home
Even if you have a permit to carry a gun back home, unless you hold a permit issued by the Mexican Federal government, you will most likely be arrested and charged if any firearms or even a single bullet is discovered on your person, in your car, luggage or hotel room while in Mexico.
Mexican Federal Law strictly forbids possession of any firearms or ammunition without proper authorization by the Mexican authorities and is considered a “federal firearms offense”. The offense carries stiff penalties; possession of a single weapon or bullet carries a penalty of up to 5 years in Mexican prison.
Any tourist caught trying to conceal a firearm will be treated as an arms smuggler and is declared to be ineligible for bail. Expect for a lengthy legal process that will take several months before sentencing that can cause you to lose your job as well as cost you and your family a lot of money in fines and legal fees and even send you to prison for several months up to 5 years.
Hunting available but only with a permit
Some rifles and shotguns may be used for hunting only after strict guidelines have been followed to obtain the correct permit by the Mexican authorities. The process is not overly complicated but a permit from a Mexican Consulate located in the United States is required prior to bringing hunting rifles or ammunition into Mexico.
Mexico is still NOT cannibas friendly
If you’re thinking that it’s now OK to bring a small amount of your stash on your next trip south of the border, think again.
In spite of recent Mexican Supreme Court decisions to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana, legalization is still just a theory in Mexico as the failure of lawmakers to officially legalize means cannabis consumers may still be hassled or arrested by local police if they’re found in possession.
Local cops in Mexico often use the practice of “Stop & Search” in tourist areas and you have litle recourse other than to submit to a search of your person as well as your vehicle and any bags you are carrying, when stopped by police or a military officer.
Unfortunately, what happens from there depends largely on where you stand in Mexico and tourists found with even just a small amount of cannibas – in any form – on their person are usually treated much more harshly than a local in the same circumstances.
It’s just the reality right now so follow our advice to leave your guns and cannibas products as well as any illegal drugs back home.
Scan your documents
Scan your passport and other official ID along with travel documents and your credit cards front and back. Send them to yourself at a Gmail or Hotmail email address that is easy to access via your phone or any internet cafe. If your documents are lost or stolen you can easily access copies from your email account.
Take your vehicle in for a thorough inspection and get it serviced before you leave. The relatively small investment you make in having your brakes, tires, hoses, belts, fluids and suspension checked out before heading south will help provide some valuable peace of mind as well as decreasing the odds of finding yourself broken down on a remote desert highway with no mechanic or cell service available for a hundred miles or more.
Take some time to research your trip and carefully map out your destinations.
Our main Facebook Group can help answer your specific questions about where you are traveling to including where to avoid as well as suggestions on what not to miss. Be sure to check in with our Road Conditions Group as well as our Weather Page to learn of any recent issues with your planned route.
Allow for extra time / rest stops
Understand that there are several reasons why you probably won’t cover the same distances each day of driving compared to what you may be used to north of the border. Allow yourself extra time for rest stops (and roadside tacos), planning your trip to only drive during daylight hours.
Research the best places to stop and overnight that can be reached by driving at safe speeds to help ensure you have an enjoyable and safe vacation.
Safety in numbers
Many tourists who come down to visit this peninsula are attracted to the amazing, untouched beauty of the vast remote areas of Baja’s deserts and hundreds of miles of isolated coastlines. But these same areas present a unique risk to travelers as normal services as well as cellular communications and emergency response systems are often unavailable.
For that reason alone it’s recommended never to travel to such areas by yourself and preferably with at least one other vehicle including someone who is already familiar with the local area. There are several stories of travelers who came to explore such areas alone only to find themselves lost, with car problems, out of fuel or hurt without any means to call or go for help.
Consider joining our Caravan / Rideshare group to make new friends and plan to travel together on your next trip south of the border.
Can I drive my US or Canadian plated car in Mexico?
The short answer is YES!
It is important to make sure that your registration and drivers license are current and depending on where you are planning to travel to, you may be required to obtain a Temporary Vehicle Importation Permit (TIP), which allows visitors to travel in their vehicles across the border into Mexico from other countries, such as the U.S. and Canada.
The TIP requirement is waived so long as you are only planning to drive in what are called the Border Free Zones, which includes areas along Mexico’s northern and southern borders states, typically 12 to 16 miles from the border (20 to 26 km) as well as the entire Baja Peninsula where travel without a temporary importation permit (TIP) is permitted and unrestricted.
A TIP is required for driving your vehicle in Mexico in areas outside the Border Free Zone so, for example, if you are planning to to catch a ferry across the gulf to mainland Mexico, you will be required to obtain a TIP for your vehicle.
Is an International Driver’s License required in Mexico?
Foreign drivers licenses are legally recognized in Mexico so long as they are printed in English or Spanish and can be used to rent a car and drive in Mexico, as long as the license is valid for the entire rental period.
Although we hear that local police will often accept a drivers license printed in a language other than English or Spanish, the law says that in those cases you need to obtain an International Driving Permit (IDP/IDL), so decide if you want to take the risk or just go ahead and obtain the IDL.
You can find more information on obtaining an IDL here.
Documents / Visas required for visiting Mexico
To enter Mexico, everyone in your travel group (including minors) must have a valid passport with more than 6 months of validity. Passport cards are accepted when entering Mexico by vehicle at any land Points of Entry.
No visa required if…
If you are a citizen in the Schengen Area, UK, USA, Canada or Japan or if you have a permanent residence permit or a valid visa for any of those countries, you DO NOT REQUIRE A VISA to visit Mexico under the following conditions:
- The purpose of your visit is tourism, studies or business.
- The duration of your stay does not exceed 180 days.
- You will not receive any remuneration at all from Mexico.
Be aware that even if your visit does not require a visa, you are required to obtain an FMM.
An FMM is a Multiple Migratory Form and can be obtained at the port of entry if you are driving into Mexico.
To help expedite your registration at the border, you can now fill out and print it in advance via this link.
- If enter Mexico by land and your planned trip is 7 days or less, there is no fee for the FMM.
- It is important to keep your FMM with you at all times during your visit in Mexico.
- When entering at a land POE, the Mexican agents you encounter there are customs officials and not immigration officials. It is your responsibility to stop and go the INM office at the border crossing to obtain your FMM to help avoid any problems later.
- If you are stopped anywhere in Mexico and unable to show a valid FMM, you could be detained and then forced to leave the country or at minimum required to return back to the border to obtain one.
TIP: Ask that the agent grant you the maximum 180 days permitted. That will allow you to reuse your FMM on future trips within the 180 day period and avoid having to stop to get one.
You may have read that the FMM form is being eliminated but that only applies to airline travel at selected airports in Mexico where a pilot test program is stamping the FMM directly into traveler’s passports when they arrive.
Do I need to purchase auto insurance for Mexico?
It’s highly unlikely that your foreign based auto insurance policy will provide adequate coverage for you while driving in Mexico. Most policies are for your home country of residence only and the very few who do offer some type of coverage have severe restrictions as to how far beyond the border you can travel and other limitations that end up leaving you with insufficient – or no coverage whatsoever – in the case of an accident or other type of incident / claim.
In addition, as per Mexican law, U.S. auto insurance policies cannot prove your financial responsibility to the Mexican authorities in the case of an accident, meaning that you could possibly be detained at the scene of an accident and your vehicle towed, no matter what your home auto policy says or who was at fault.
But before you start a Google search to find the cheapest online Mexican auto insurance or stop at one of the drive-thru kiosks offering insurance before you cross the border into Mexico, take a moment to consider that in the event something should happen such as an accident or theft of your vehicle, filing an auto insurance claim in Mexico is nothing like the process you may be familiar with back home.
The claim process one must follow in Mexico may include many legal and bureaucratic steps including having to go to a police station to formally file a police report, record the accident/claim report at different police/government offices and having to deal with Mexican insurance adjusters who may or may not speak English.
The entire process can quickly become overwhelming and without an advocate working on your behalf, often evolves into a frustrating fiasco that may require dozens of trips back and forth to Mexico to deal with the insurance claim process.
We have heard of many stories of nightmarish experiences from some who had Mexican auto insurance claims where they never were able to get their vehicle repaired properly or claim paid to their satisfaction. The few dollars they saved by purchasing a policy from a bargain insurance broker is quickly forgotten and the “cheap policy” they purchased ends up becoming quite costly in the long run.
In our Talk Baja Facebook group we have performed multiple auto insurance surveys and they have repeatedly demonstrated that the majority of frequent Baja travelers believe it does make a big difference who you choose to purchase your auto insurance policy from.
Customers of Baja Bound Insurance not only generated the largest number of responses in our surveys, but also consistenly command the highest ratings from the majority of our members, including in the all important category of Rating the Customer Service of your Auto Insurance Broker in the Event of Having to File a Claim, where nearly 4 out of 5 of their customers who had to file an insurance claim reported to be “Very Happy” with the customer service provided by Baja Bound Insurance.
No other Mexican Auto Insurance broker in our surveys came even close to that high mark.
When tabulating all of the survey responses, Baja Bound Insurance was chosen by our members as the very best choice for auto insurance for your vehicle when driving south of the border.
If you haven’t figured it out by now, what matters most when considering from who to purchase your auto insurance policy for driving in Mexico is which broker will actually be there for you if and when you have to file a claim in Mexico.
There are several factors that make Baja Bound Insurance your very best choice, including:
- Baja Bound has been selling Mexican auto insurance since 1994
- They were the very first to begin offering travelers Mexican auto insurance online
- Currently the top selling tourist auto insurance agent for both HDI and Chubb
- Licensed, bonded, insured and regulated in CA/USA
- 575,000 policies sold to date
- 60,000 policies sold in 2022 (best year ever!)
- Over 2 million dollars in claims paid out to Baja Bound clients in 2022
- 6 licensed insurance agents on staff with over 90 years of combined Mexican insurance experience
Bottom line, it’s extremely important to purchase coverage from a Mexican insurance agency that has a solid, well established working relationship with the underwriters they represent and there is simply no other auto insurance broker can compete with Baja Bound. They have worked directly with HDI since 2003 and Chubb (formerly ACE) since 2005.
As the largest agent for both HDI and CHUBB, Baja Bound is uniquely positioned to place special coverage for their clients as well as provide real assistance – not just empty promises – when helping their customers with a claims process. Baja Bound is in constant communication with the management of both companies on a regular basis and use that “inside access” to the benefit of their customers.
The facts and the numbers all back them up; there is simply no better choice for your peace of mind while driving in Mexico than Baja Bound Insurance and why we chose them as a strategic partner.
Insurance for Van Conversions
If you enjoy the #VanLife lifestyle but find yourself concerned about finding adequate coverage for your self-built van conversion, Baja Bound can work with you if you have the receipts to document your work and investment.
Give a Baja Bound Insurance agent a call to explain your situation and discuss your questions.
Traveling with a Pet Dog or Cat
Beginning in late 2019, a health certificate for dogs and cats is no longer required to enter Mexico, nor is a rabies vaccination however it’s a good idea to carry their vaccine records.
The current federal requirements states that your pet dog or cat entering Mexico should be kept in a clean cage or carrier and should be free of disease, parasites and any open wounds.
While it is acceptable to bring along a bag of dog or cat food with your animal(s) to feed them on your trip, bringing several bags of food could be cited and taxed at the border.
Many of the municipalities in Mexico are passing their own ordinances that require for any pets onboard a vehicle to be kept inside a cage or carrier.
While enforcement is often lax on this isse, it does provide an excuse for a cop to pull you over and cite you.
You’ve been warned.
Driving a Rental Car in Mexico
If you are planning on renting a car to drive into Baja there are U.S. based auto rental agencies that permit their vehicles to be driven down south of the border as long as they are properly insured.
Baja Bound Insurance has teamed up with several car rental agencies to make planning your trip a lot easier and even save you some money. Most of their car rental partners will deliver a rental vehicle to the San Diego airport or provide a convenient shuttle service to their service location.
All of their partner rental agencies use Baja Bound for Mexican insurance, providing you with savings over large corporate rental agencies.
Renting a car in Mexico
If you want to rent a car but will not be near the California-Baja border area, you will have to use a car rental agency in Mexico.
Renting a car isouth of the border is not that difficult but you will need to pay close attention in the process as some car rental agencies will charge you hidden fees not quoted in the advertised rental rate and your credit card could be dinged with a very large deposit. Pay special attention to the insurance – some may require that you purchase from them a policy at a very expensive rate that is often not included in the advertised rental rate.
In Mexico, you will find most all of the major car rental companies, such as Budget, Avis, Hertz, etc as well as several local and other not so well known rental companies. Before giving them your credit card or signing any rental agreement, be sure they give you clear, straightforward rental guidelines as well as clear and complete rental rates, fees, cost of insurance and any taxes.
We strongly recommend that you carefully scrutinize the check-out form (the diagram of a car that the rental company uses to mark down the condition of the car they give you). Many of our members have suggested that you carefully go through the entire rental vehicle before accepting it, checking it closely inside and out and accompanied by rental agency personnel, being sure to note each and every small defect, smudge, smear, stain, dent and scratch on the form.
Some even use their cell phone to do a comprehensive video recording of the entire car, inside and out while making the inspection to ensure there is no misinterpretaion of the remarks noted when you return the vehicle.
Don’t forget to take a quick picture of the fuel gauge to easily remember the level when you received the vehicle!
I know you probably just want to hit the road and get your vacation started but following these tips could save you not only a lot of hassle but also a lot of money by avoiding unfair surcharges or damage charges they may attempt to assess you when you surrender the vehicle.
To get the latest recommendations from our members, join our Talk Baja Facebook Group and ask our members for their recommendations on car rental companies in the city where you plan to begin your adventure.
Do I need Travel Insurance?
The need for travel / health insurance when visiting Mexico is a bit more complicated than auto insurance and varies based on each individual, trip plans and your personal health profile as well as individual needs in addition to other factors.
If you would like to talk to an experienced insurance broker who is also a veteran traveler to Mexico that can help you determine what type of coverage is right for you and your specific travel itinerary, we recommend our members to contact Arno Chrispeels with International Health Insurance Solutions.
Arno is a long time member of our Talk Baja community and a highly experienced Traveler to Mexico with several decades of Baja Road Trips under his belt. Give him a call and let him explain all of the many different options available for travelers to consider in travel and health insurance.
Will my cell phone work in Baja Mexico?
There is no simple answer to that questions as cellular coverage in Baja is mostly limited to the more populated areas with broad regions of the peninsula offering no coverage whatsoever. Where cell service is available, several U.S. based service providers like Verizon. T-Mobile, and AT&T will work in Baja Mexico via roaming on the Telcel or Movistar networks.
To avoid incurring HUGE bills with several hundred dollars in roaming charges, travelers have a couple of good options to consider:
Contact your cellular service provider to see what options they may offer to use your phone in Mexico on a flat rate daily, weekly or monthly basis.
Another good option is to purchase a Telcel pay-as-you-go SIM card and install it in any unlocked cell phone you may have that allows you to exchange the SIM card. Telcel has the best network overall in Mexico and you can add on service at any Oxxo mini-mart (they are everywhere in Mexico).
Telcel has a very good plan for only 200 pesos (< $10 USD) you can get 30 days of service for calls to the U.S., Canada and Mexico with unlimited minutes and social media (Facebook, Whatsapp, Twitter & Instagram). Just ask for the Paquete Amigo Sin Límite 200 pesos.
You can even pre-order a Telcel SIM card online via Amazon:
Driving an RV or pulling a trailer
Lots of tourists to Mexico arrive in a motorhome or pulling a trailer behind and I get lots of questions from our members who are part of the RV community. The most common question I see asks about borrowing or renting an RV to visit Mexico. The answer is yes you can but you must have paperwork proving that you have permission to be driving it into Mexico as well as insurance.
While I could probably devote an entire article to that topic alone, I will share some pointers that deal with some of the most common questions:
Be prepared to have your RV searched
When crossing into Mexico by land, visitors are allowed to bring their personal belongings and $300 worth of merchandise, duty free. People over the age of 18 may bring three liters of liquor or beer and up to six liters of wine. Expect for a customs officer to do a thorough search at the border looking for undeclared items and/or contraband. To see a complete list of what you may legally bring with you, check out this link.
One very crucially important factor to be aware of is how narrow the highways are in many areas, often only a 2 lane roadway that may only be 19 feet wide meaning that you may find yourself in a nine and a half foot wide lane facing an oncoming big rig straddling the center divider to your left with often little to no shoulder whatsoever to your right with a big pothole looming ahead.
You can just about count on it happening at some point down here and many of our members tell us they’ve had their driver’s side mirror knocked clean off multiple times. Your very best bet is to simply slow down and avoid using extra large/wide side mirrors as well as driving only during daylight when it ‘s easier to judge how much shoulder room you have to work with and how steep the dropoff may be in addition to other road hazards that become even more dangerous to gauge in the dark.
Poorly maintained roadways
Rough and unevenly paved roads, potholes and debris on the highways are common problems that drivers may encounter when driving south of the border and another good reason to slow down and avoid driving at night. A blowout and/or suspension damage could leave you stranded in the middle of nowhere with with the closest services located more than one hundred miles away.
The time you thought you were saving is quickly lost and your vacation plans quickly go south.
Low overhead clearance
Another common obstacle – especially for larger motorhomes and boats on trailers – are low overhead clearances you may encounter including low bridges and tunnels, untrimmed trees and low hanging power lines. And don’t assume that it will be clearly posted to warn you.
Many of the campgrounds down here are maintained better than others and you cannot always depend on the availability of full hookups. They may or may not have grey/black water dumps and their electrical hookups may only be 20 amps and at times not very dependable. Your best bet is to ask in our Facebook group for recommendations for your planned route and you’ll always get the best and latest information.
It’s also a good idea to bring different types of adapters for your electrical hookup as you never know what type of outlet the campground may offer.
Boats, dirt bikes, ATVs / UTVs
Regardless of whether or not your home state requires you to title/register your off-road toy, if it’s motorized, Mexico will require for you to provide proof of registration. Make sure that you have an original copy of the registration and that it’s current.
SOS Call Boxes between El Rosario & Guerrero Negro
Experienced Baja drivers are all aware of the long stretch of lonely, Transpeninsular highway south of El Rosario and north of Guerrero Negro.
With no power or cellular towers and services few and far between, travelers could get stuck for a day or more on that 225 mile section of remote, desert roadway in the case of a mechanical break down and in the case of a medical emergency, it could take several hours to get first responders on the scene.
In early 2022 we shared the announcement of a plan to build a series of emergency call boxes connected together via satellite radio and the Public Safety office in San Quintin.
By the end of April that system went live and today there is a network of 9 digital radio towers spaced out approximately 30 miles apart along the Transpeninsular between El Rosario and Guerrero Negro with one tower installed at the entrance to Bahia de Los Angeles.
These radio towers will offer a 911 type service, powered by solar and using satellite internet to connect the digital radio grid together. Each tower is painted orange and lit at night with instructions in both Spanish and English, explaining how to use the push button communicator that connects you with bilingual operators in San Quintin working for the office of Public Safety.
They will be working in shifts – around the clock – to assist you in the event of an accident and/or medical emergency as well as another situation requiring help out in the middle of nowhere.
Can I recharge my electric car/truck in Baja?
Yes, but be willing to be flexible and plan accordingly. There are several dozen EV charging stations in Baja with new locations being added regularly. We have many members in our Talk Baja Facebook group who report driving down to Cabo and other locations in southern Baja and they suggest you bring adapter cords for different types of chargers.
You can read more about driving an EV in Baja in a recent article we posted that also lists most of the available charging stations today down the peninsula:
Military inspection checkpoints
When you are driving anywhere in Mexico, it is routine these days to encounter a military inspection checkpoint. These checkpoints are usually permanent points installed by the military but occasionally you may come across checkpoints that may appear on any road or highway, any time of day or night.
In an effort to control drug trafficking and other illegal activities including carrying firearms, the Mexican government operates a network of military checkpoints along many of the major highways throughout Mexico and here in Baja there are approximately a half-dozen or so routine military checkpoints between Tijuana and Cabo San Lucas.
Each checkpoint is different and some may stop every vehicle for inspection, although most only inspect selective vehicles – often randomly – with most simply asking where you are coming from and where you are headed while peeking inside at your passengers and any cargo.
Private vehicles, public buses, taxis, as well as commercial trucks and vehicles may be stopped and searched at these checkpoints.
What to expect at a checkpoint
A military officer may signal for your vehicle to pull-over and/or for you to simply open your trunk or request for you to get out of your vehicle to permit them to search the inside. There is no need to feel alarmed if you are subjected to such a search.
At some checkpoints, mirrors are used to inspect underneath the vehicle, and search dogs may be present to sniff for the presence of drugs and other illicit items. Some times they will go through your luggage, any bags or purses that you are carrying and at times even ask to search you.
To expedite the process in the shortest time, simply be courteous and comply with the lead-officer’s requests. You have the right to stand close to your vehicle and watch them conduct the vehicle search as well as request for an officer in charge (el Oficial al Mando) if for any reason you feel that the search is improper.
How fast can / should I drive?
It is important to note that the posted speed limits in Mexico are in kilometers per hour, NOT in miles per hour. For reference, 80 kph = 50 mph.
Many of the basic speed laws in Baja are quite similar to those north of the border and using common sense will go far in helping you to keep out of trouble.
Although there are various speed limits depending on what type of road you’re driving on, it’s not uncommon to see locals speeding, making it tempting follow along.
Don’t allow yourself to fall into that trap!
In urban areas, the speed limit is between 30 and 70 kph. In rural areas, 90 kph. On the highways, the speed limit is 100 to 120km/h.
A momentary distraction or miscalculation can lead to tragic results when driving along Baja’s long stretches of remote highway.
With clear visibility for miles ahead with no other vehicle in sight, the drive at times can often get boring and make it extremely tempting to push down on the accelerator. We’ve all been there somewhere or another in a lifetime of driving.
It’s common to do the math in your head as you fly along, calculating how much time you’re saving driving at 80+ mph and you’ll never see that unexpected pothole, road debris, speed bump or animal suddenly appear in front of you until it’s too late and you have no where to go on a narrow highway with little to no shoulder and steep dropoffs at times that all combine into the perfect scenario for a quick and tragic end to what should have been a wonderful vacation.
We read about countless dozens of these stories each and every year and I can guarantee you that not one of them ever thought it would happen to them.
Slow down, plan your trip for driving at a safe speed and enjoy the journey. Trying to save an hour or two could end up costing you the rest of your life as well as the lives of your loved ones / fellow travelers.
Why shouldn’t I drive at night?
One often hears the advice of not driving on Baja’s highways at night and yet many remain unconvinced. Like those who drive way too fast on these narrow highways, those who choose to drive at night believe that nothing will ever happen to them either.
To be clear, I often drive at night when north of the border but don’t confuse or compare Interstate 5 with Baja’s highways that are mostly 2 laned roadways with no fencing on either side to keep out wildlife with very little if any lighting that makes the poorly maintained highways much more difficult to gauge when driving faster than 30-35 mph at night.
Over the last 20+ years since I first began tracking the news of fatal accidents on Baja’s highways, the majority of the those have usually occured at night, in spite of less traffic on the road at that late hour.
The reasons are several including increased difficulty in viewing the oncoming road ahead, an increased number of animals on the roadways with the lighter traffic, locals who drive dark colored vehicles with bad tires and brakes and dim or no headlights / tail lights whatsoever as well as deep potholes that appear out of nowhere, broken and collapsed bridges with no signage and oncoming drivers who may be drunk, drugged, distracted or asleep at the wheel – all of this on a very narrow, 2 lane highway that again, often has little or no shoulder with steep dropoffs in sections that you can’t see or gauge much and not at all when driving at night.
I am not saying that you can’t make it to your destination in one piece by driving at night, only that your odds are considerably less.
If you find yourself in a dire situation where circumstances mandate you to drive at night along one of Baja’s highways, I suggest you find what appears to be a well maintained big-rig truck and drive at a safe distance behind them, using the local road experience of the truck driver in front of you to gauge any oncoming hazard or change in road conditions that warrants slowing down or braking.
It’s not a 100% guarantee but will definitely help improve your odds.
Only when driving in Mexico
While driving in Mexico is quite similar to driving in parts of the U.S. and Canada, it has it own unique quirks and customs as well.Here are a few of the most important topics to be aware of:
“Topes” as they are called down here in Mexico are in a class of their own and can vary in size from very minor bumps that measure only 2 to 3 inches high to monsters that you swear are over a foot tall that would pull off a muffler for anything shorter than a monster truck and all with different widths than can increase or decrease the effect felt from the bump.
They are used to help regulate the speed of traffic and are commonly found in residential neighborhoods in Mexico but can also be encountered on major streets and boulevards as well as interstate highways.
Sometimes there is a sign placed to warn you of an oncoming speed bump ahead, sometimes the sign is placed right next to the speed bump and some don’t even have a sign, lost to an erratic driver or simply an oversight on the part of some local or state highway planner.
Or maybe a large tumble weed sits parked against it or a roadside taco stand sprung up, completely blocking the sign.
Bottom line is you have been warned to expect them in unexpected places and the very first time you encounter one by complete surprise, is a moment that most Baja travelers will never forget.
Left Turn Signals
Most tourists driving in Mexico for the first time are surprised to learn that Mexicans don’t use their turn signals much in city traffic to indicate their intention to turn at the next corner/intersection or for switching lanes. For sure don’t make a decision in traffic based solely on whether or not another vehicle has their turn signal on.
Here where we live in San Quintin it’s not unusual to see a car ahead slow down, hit their brakes and turn their right turn signal on only to end up turning left when they reach the intersection. It has happened enough times that I simply don’t trust any turn signals in city traffic down here. I have learned to use them more of a a maybe than any definite sign of a drivers future intentions.
On the highways it’s a different story and the locals do often use their left turn signals while driving on 2 lane highways, but not how you would imagine.
The driver of a slow(er) moving car or truck ahead of you may turn on their left turn signal as a sign to let you and other drivers behind them know that the road ahead is clear to pass them on the left.
On Mexican highways you will often see large trucks with their left turn signal on and it’s usually your invitation to pass them on the left, communicating to you that they see no threat from oncoming traffic. If you pass them, excercise due caution to make sure they aren’t really planing to turn left across the highway onto an off-highway roadway.
The very same applies to you. when driving on a highway south of the border.
If you are driving on a highway and use your left turn signal, expect that drivers behind you could interpret that as an invitation to pass and if that is what you are trying to communicate, consider slowing down slighly and keep to the right side of your lane to make that signal even more clear.
However, if you are actually planning to turn left across the highway onto an off-highway roadway instead – not signaling that it is safe to pass – you may be placing yourself in unnecessary danger if you do not handle this situation carefully. Mexican highways are rarely designed with any left hand turn lanes to cross against oncoming traffic.
Consider softly pumping your brakes to use your brake lights as a warning along with extending your left arm outside of your driver’s side window while making the left turn hand signal gesture as an additional warning to any vehicles following at a close distance behind you to make sure they don’t enter the left lane to pass you as you are about to initiate your left turn.
Pay attention to how the local drivers use this technique and react to better understand how this left turn signal system works.
Called “Glorietas” or “Retondas”, these wonders of Mexican transit are used to manage traffic at an intersection, normally without the use of any traffic lights. It can be confusing to know when and how to get in and back out of theses round-abouts for tourists driving in Mexico for the very first time, especially when the traffic circle has multiple lanes inside.
The key to remember is that vehicles moving inside the traffic circle have the right of way and if you find yourself driving on a road that connects into a traffic circle, you must yield the right of way to the traffic already moving inside and around the traffic circle as well as any pedestrians who may be using a pedestrian crossing that should be marked, before entering the traffic circle.
In larger metropolitan areas it is common to come across traffic circles that are quite large in diameter with multiple lanes inside the circle. When entering such a traffic circle, you are supposed to only enter the circle via the outer most lane, closest to you. If you wish to move over to an inner lane, only do so when traffic permits, one lane at a time.
You are not supposed to drive across multiple lanes all at once inside a traffic circle.
When you are approaching the street you wish to exit on, make sure you are in the outer most lane before exiting the traffic circle.
Driving on large traffic circles can be confusing as you need to keep aware of incoming and outgoing vehicles as well we other vehicles driving around the circle with you who may be changing lanes (without signaling) as well as pedestrians who want to try their luck at running through the treacherous gauntlet.
Adding to your confusion are large traffic circles with multiple traffic lights you will encounter as you attempt to manueveur around them. The best advice we can offer there is to just try and do what all the other drivers are doing; avoiding driving in a too timid or overly aggresive fashion and you’ll probably come out the other side in one piece.
Here’s a good video that shows you the wrong way (in red) and the right way (in green) to traverse your way through a Mexican traffic circle with the Green Cars/Path demonstrating the Correct Way to use the traffic circle and the Red Cars/Path showing the Wrong Way:
If you are driving, you will inevitably have to stop and fuel up from time to time. Up until a few years ago, the only gas stations you would see in Mexico were Pemex branded stations (named after the National Oil Company) but since the Mexican congress appoved legislation to deregulate gasoline sales, several new brands of gas stations have begun popping up such as Arco, Chevron, BP and Petro 7.
Most gas sations down here will accept US dollars but usually at a much less than favorable exchange rate. Also, we do hear reports at times of “mistakes” made on the currency exchange and usually favoring the gas attendant. There have also been reports of double charging on sales made via credit/debit card so it’s our advice to always have pesos with you and pay the attendant the correct amount of pesos displayed on the pump for the fuel they sold you.
If you are driving a newer diesel engine vehicle, you are concerned about the diesel fuel quality.
As all of the gasoline sold in Baja California is shipped down from California refineries, ULSD has been available north of the 28th parallel for many years but until fairly recently, it was a problem when driving a diesel rig south of Guerrero Negro and driver were carrying boxes of additives and fuel filters.
The good news now is that Mexican refineries have begun produding a low sulfur diesel fuel called Baja Sur ULSD and based on reports from our members, this new mix of diesel seems to be working well.
There is no set rule about tipping gas station attendants and it’s up to you whether you want to tip after filling up. It does seem quite appropriate however if the attendant cleans your windshield, offers to check your oil or tire pressure, etc. Anywhere between 10 to 50 pesos is customary, based on how much they do and the quality of service they provide.
Baja and off-roading is much more than the iconic Baja 1000 endurance race; off-road driving on the Baja Peninsula is an every day reality for a significant percentage of Baja residents and visitors as well
With paved roads mostly concentrated in the larger cities and intrerstate highways, reaching and exploring the vast majority of the peninsula outside of the larger cities will normally involve at least some, if not a significant amount of driving off the pavement.
A percentage of the roads leading off the major highways are in fair to good condition but many are not so well maintained – if at all in the more remote areas – and driving on those rougher roads and trails requires that you alter your approach to the conditions in front of you.
Because so much of Baja Mexico still resembles the Old Wild West, you can’t depend on having cell service available and likely not much in the way of services either. For that reason it’s a good idea to avoid venturing too far off-road if you are by yourself.
Off-roading is always best in a group as mechanical breakdowns are common off the pavement and being stranded out in the middle of nowhere without cell service and a long distance from any help can quickly transform a fun day of adventure into a death sentence.
If you are in a solo vehicle, it is strongly recommended to carry a sat phone and/or a GPS communication device such as units currently sold by Garmin, DeLorme, SPOT and others. it’s a relatively small investment that could one day save your life as well as the lives of friends and loved ones traveling with you.
Having some type of communication device for such off the grid areas will give you better peace of mind while on your adventure as well as help calm the nerves of family and friends back home.
Be sure to carry some extra fuel and drinking water when off-road. Also, pack some extra batteries for your communication devices and lamps and maybe even a solar charger as well as any spare parts that routinely wear out / break down.
Driving in soft sand / silt
When driving on anything other than paved or hard packed dirt roads, it’s advisable to be driving an AWD or 4WD vehicle as traction will likely become an issue at some point. When driving through beach and desert areas with loose sand/silt, it’s best to also air down all 4 tires to avoid getting stuck, buried up to the axles/frame.
To avoid that predicament, simply engage 4WD and air down all your times to between 14 and 22psi (based on your tires and load) and drive slowly while being sure to keep your foot on the gas until you pass through the sand/silt.
For that reason, be sure to pack a good 12v air compressor as well as a tire plug kit. Better yet, throw in some type of traction mats or tracks that should help get you out of the most difficult situations.
Cop asking for a bribe (mordida) during traffic stop
Tourists driving in Mexico have long known that traffic stops by police can often be just a cop looking for a MORDIDA (bribe). In recent years there are reportedly fewer occurrences, largely due to the establishment of the SINDICATURA offices in each municipality where such types of officer misconduct can be reported and investigated.
However, it does still happen and don’t be surprised if you see the red lights appear in your rear view mirror. If that happens, remain calm and be polite. If the officer accuses you of some exaggerated or made up infraction then hold your ground firmly without getting angry.
Ask the officer to give you their name and badge number and write them down or take a photo of the officer and their badge as well as their patrol vehicle number. If they write you a ticket, sign it and you can dispute it later.
Traffic ticket fines are relatively inexpensive in Mexico and there is no system in place currently to report them back to your home country or insurance company.
Often, when the officer sees you take down their info and/or take their picture, they will simply let you off with a warning, as long as you hold your ground and are polite.
If the officer instead asks for money, often under the guise of offering you the “convenience” of paying on the spot, insist that they write you a ticket, whether you really commited the traffic violation or not.
Sometimes they will claim that the supposed traffic fine will amount to several hundred dollars but that simply is not true. Nearly all traffic fines down here in Baja are less than 50 dollars and most less than 25 dollars. They may threaten you with towing your vehicle but that is also a ruse.
Continue to remain calm but firm and if the officer tells you that you will have to follow them to the station to see the traffic judge on duty, agree with that and offer to follow the officer to the station.
Continue to remain calm but firm and if the officer tells you that you will have to follow them to the station to see the traffic judge on duty, agree with that and offer to follow the officer to the station.
We hear often from our members that when you agree to follow them to the station, often the officer will immediately give up and let you go or perhaps drive for a few blocks before stopping and letting you go. Once the officer realizes that you will not be an easy mark they will eventually either write you a ticket or let you go with a warning.
If you were asked for a bribe and you end up following the officer all the way to the station, once there ask for instructions for filing a complaint to the local office of SINDICATURA. Many municipalities down in Baja Mexico now offer an online portal for filing a complaint.
It really helps to have a cell phone camera image along with the officers full name and badge number when reporting these cases of abuse. Be assured that each report is investigaed with officers frequently suspended and even fired after repeated complaints.
As more tourists resist and make a report to the SINDICATURA office at the municipal centers instead of paying the bribe, this problem will become less and less common.
Cash, Credit-Debit Cards and ATMs
Credit or debit cards are the most convenient way to access your money while traveling, but losing your card (or having it swallowed by a cash machine) can be a great inconvenience, so have a backup plan:
Ask your bank for a 2nd ATM card in the name of another family member to keep on hand just in case you should lose yours for any reason.
Also check to see if your planned destination has more than one ATM in the area as it is quite common for ATM’s to be out of cash or simply down to mechanical/other problems. Always keep extra cash on you, just in case.
Choose ATMs at banks during their operating hours or other locations with high foot traffic, if possible.
Avoid using ATMs at night or in deserted places and don’t accept help from strangers. Before using an ATM machine, check to see if anything looks out of the ordinary around the card reader area as “skimming” has been reported at some ATM’s on occasion.
Protect your PIN from the eyes of others and when you withdraw money, put it away immediately.
When making a purchase or paying your bill, best NOT to use your credit or debit cards for purchases unless it be by the newer PIN entry or mobile card machines where you keep control of your card in your possession and requires entering your PIN.
This will help prevent the “cloning” of your card.
Decline offered Exchange Rate
When using your debit or credit card from back home seeking pesos from an ATM in Mexico these days, it’s quite common for the ATM to display a screen offering you an exhange rate after entering your pin, the amount you desire to withdraw and accept the transaction fee.
The exact way it is worded varies from bank to bank but we recommend you DECLINE the offered exchange rate as it is usually about one peso less per dollar than what you would receive at the going exhange rate of the day. Some people choose to accept the exchange rate, fearing they won’t be able to get their money otherwise but that simply is not the case.
Choosing the DECLINE button (usually on the bottom left hand side of the screen) will simply allow the transaction to go through at the going (better) exchange rate.
A vital part of staying safe when traveling south of the border into Baja is to keep your wits about you. Have a good time but be cautious about drinking too much alcohol and avoid any recreational drug use which, as we said previously, is still not legal in Mexico.
It’s a good practice to keep sufficient cash with you during the day but avoid flashing it or counting it in public. Keep your cash, passport, ID and credit card secure and best to leave unneeded valuables in your hotel room safe, if available.
Don’t leave any bags, packages or other valuable items in your unattended vehicle, not even for a few minutes!
Wherever you go, try to stay together with your family/friends/group and always be aware of your surroundings. If something just doesn’t seem right to you, listen to your 6th sense and leave.
If you should be confronted by thieves demanding your purse, wallet, phone or other valuables it is important to stay calm and cooperate without offering up any resistance or struggle to resist.
Your life is worth much more than any “stuff” and just be sure to remember their general description as well as what clothes/shoes they were wearing and file a police report afterwards.
If you are driving and staying at a motel, check ahead to find one with secure parking available to avoid having to park on the street or unguarded grounds overnight, especially if you are trailering any expensive toys behind you.