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Information on tourist cards / FMM’s, visas, hotel and restaurant reviews and recommendations, customs, safety, money exchange and driving in Baja Mexico.
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Is it safe to travel to Baja Mexico?
Is it safe to travel to Baja Mexico?
Tourist Safety in Baja Mexico
Mexico is an extremely popular destination for tourist travel and in spite of a drop in numbers during the pandemic, travelers heading south of the border from the US are expected to reach or even surpass the 40 million mark in 2022 with a significant percentage of those choosing the Baja Peninsula for their vacation travel. The vast majority of those visitors who come to Baja have a wonderful time and don’t encounter any problems whatsoever. However, there is an escalating problem with the drug cartels and crime is a fact of life here.
The Baja Peninsula is home to many popular tourist areas with a good network of services available like you are accustomed to back home in terms of modern hotels, public transportation, paved roads, cellular signal, high speed internet / data, emergency response services, etc. However much of the peninsula remains the last vestige of the Old Wild West with thousands of square miles of open, remote territory with only unmaintained dirt roads, extremely few to non-existent emergency support services including large regions without any utilities available whatsoever including cellular signal to be able to call out in case of a problem or emergency.
As with the Old Wild West, there are very few police available to cover these broad areas as well and reports of crime are increasing in areas previously considered to be remote and “safe” for solo exploring/camping.
As a tourist, there is a small chance that you may be targeted for theft and / or scams. The best prevention is awareness of the situation and the risks you may face. In order to increase your odds of avoiding problems and to have a safe and pleasant vacation, follow these tips for your travel safety.
BEFORE YOU LEAVE
Use online resources to research your route and planned destination as to driving conditions, ATM and fuel availability, cellular service, roadside support and other emergency response services. Check to see where you will be staying to see if other travelers have reported any recent issues of theft, assault or any other types of crime or problems. Look for recent information concerning areas that should be avoided en route to or nearby your travel destination.
The US State Department’s website has information about Mexico as well as current warnings and public announcements regarding safety issues for travelers.
When packing, make sure you bring along extra quantities of any required medications and consider leaving behind any “bling” or other valuable items – if not essential, 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.
Scan your passport and other official ID along with travel documents and your credit cards front and back. Email them to yourself. If your documents are lost or stolen you can easily access copies from your email account.
In that same email be sure to include important phone contacts in case you should lose your cell phone as well as your bank or credit card’s international telephone numbers. The 1-800 numbers used in the United States don’t work in Mexico. Your credit card should have a phone number printed on the back that you can call collect from anywhere in the world.
Leave a copy of your itinerary with someone at home, but don’t share details of your travel plans with other people you meet while traveling or post your travel photos in real time online via social media. Thieves back in your hometown may be monitoring and see your empty home as an easy target while you are away traveling.
Buy a money belt (not a fanny pack) to carry your money and passport underneath your clothing.
Many tourists who come to 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 the normal emergency response systems are unavailable.
For that reason alone it’s recommended never to travel to such areas by yourself or in only one vehicle and without the help of someone who is familiar with the area. There are several stories of travelers who came to explore such areas alone only to find themselves lost, out of fuel or hurt without any means to call for help.
When traveling to these remote areas it’s also best to take along a satellite phone or a GPS messenger system such as units currently on the market and manufactured by Garmin, DeLorme, SPOT and others. A small investment that may one day save your life.
Another benefit to these systems are their ability to send out OK STATUS signals to your designated contact list. That certainly goes a long way to calm the nerves of family members and friends back home who can’t reach you by cell phone when you are traveling in such remote areas of the peninsula.
Carrying firearms is considered illegal in Mexico and is the quickest way to get yourself arrested. CCW’s (concealed carry permits) are not recognized in Mexico except under extraordinary circumstances that must be arranged with very specific and limited federal authorization prior. Carrying a firearm on your person or vehicle is considered a serious offense in Mexico and will likely result in you being charged, requiring your detention during the criminal investigation that could lead to a trial where if found guilty, you could be sentenced to prison.
LEAVE FIREARMS AND NON-PRESCRIPTION DRUGS AT HOME
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WHILE YOU ARE HERE IN BAJA
If you are planning to stay in more populated areas like Rosarito Beach / Ensenada, Loreto, La Paz or Cabo San Lucas, best to stay in the popular, well traveled tourist zones.
Always best to travel in groups. The more people around you in your group dramatically reduces your chances of becoming a target of crime and will be there to offer any assistance if needed. While you are here, try to blend in as much as possible. Showing off an iPhone, iPads and other such expensive items in public advertises your tourist status and may make you a mark for thieves. Try to be discreet when in public.
The airport taxi cabs at Los Cabos have developed a well earned reputation to scam tourists, surprising travelers with demands for exorbitant rates of up to several hundred dollars for simply driving them to their hotels. Always negotiate the fare BEFORE you get in their vehicle and a better option is to consider taking one of the many shuttles available with fixed, posted fares or simply hail a Uber via your smartphone.
It’s always best 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! If you are driving and staying at a motel, make sure they have 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.
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.
Avoid driving at night, especially in remote areas. Cattle often wander onto the roadways at night and are difficult to see until it is too late. Slow emergency response to remote locations could mean the difference between life and death in the case of an accident so best to just plan your trip to allow for daytime driving only.
Recently, remote highway areas along Baja’s newly completely Mex 5 highway south of San Luis Gonzaga has seen an uptick recently in armed carjackings and it may be best to simply stick to the more populated and higher traffic Transpeninsular Highway to reach your destinations further south right now.
Foreign travelers driving in Mexico have long known that traffic stops by police can 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 officer misconduct may 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. If they write you a ticket, sign it and you can dispute it later. Traffic ticket fines are relatively very inexpensive in Mexico and there is no system currently to report them back to your home country or insurance company.
Often the officer will simply let you off with a warning if 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. Often they will claim that the traffic fine will amount to hundreds of 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 insist on seeing a judge in that case. Once the officer realizes that you will not be an easy mark they will eventually let you go with a warning.
It’s a game replayed over and over down here and largely due to so many tourists who give in and pay the bribe. As more tourists resist and make a report instead to the SINDICATURA office at the municipal centers, this problem will become less common. Really helps to have a cell phone camera image of the officer in such cases, if you are able to take one.
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, despite what you may have heard, is illegal in Mexico. Wherever you go, try to stay together with your 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 file a police report afterwards.
MILITARY / POLICE CHECKPOINTS
The authorities down here have legitimate checkpoints set up on roads and highways, in most cases to combat organized crime. They take their job very seriously and best to avoid making any jokes or any other actions that may be perceived to be suspicious or aggressive. They usually will ask you where you are coming from as well as your travel destination.
Occasionally at one of these checkpoints you may be asked to step out of your vehicle to allow them to perform a search. These searches are normally just random so remain calm. As long as you aren’t carrying drugs, guns or other contraband you will quickly be waved through.
Obviously these tips alone should not be considered a complete list as no single resource can possibly cover all the possible scenarios and situations. We always recommend you pay close attention to the US State Department Travel Warnings as well as other official online resources for guidance in making your travel plans.
Have a safe and fun trip…
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