Thinking about planning an amazing road trip through the Baja? Here are some things we took away from our seven-week trip at the end of 2017.
1. Don’t Travel at Night
To some of you, this might seem like the most obvious rule of thumb for traveling in Baja or any foreign country for that matter. However, the reasons for not traveling at night might surprise you.
First off, Baja gives a whole new meaning to free range cows. It’s not like it is in America, most farms don’t have fences blocking the cattle from walking on the main highway so it’s not uncommon to stumble upon a herd in the middle of the highway. As you can imagine these cows are huge and hard to see, especially if it’s dark out, these animals will do some damage no matter what size your rig is.
Secondly, while the roads in the Baja are for the most part in great shape, there are some stretches of highway that are filled with potholes. I’m not just talking about your occasional pothole here and there – it suddenly turns into a game of Mario Kart where you are swerving all over the road to avoid Donkey Kong’s banana peels and Mario’s turtle shells, except the consequences are much more extreme. These things can really do some damage to your front end, tires or even rims. Also, not something you would want to deal with in the middle of the night in Mexico.
Lastly, truck drivers! They tend to do most of their driving in the middle of the night when less cars are on the road. They are considerate drivers, but the highway is a narrow road with a dotted line for passing here and there. It’s easy to get run off the road by them and there isn’t much of a shoulder to pull over if need be. Also, there is no regulations for truck drivers in Mexico like there are in the states. They’re expected to drive their trucks the entire length of Baja sometimes without taking any breaks. To put that in perspective that is like driving from San Diego to the Oregon state line. In this respect, it’s best to just give them their space at night time.
The Baja is such a small state it’s very manageable to plan your trip around this rule of thumb. If you truly have the time to slow down and take your time while traveling through Baja then you shouldn’t have a travel day that exceeds three hours. If you do find yourself traveling at night just use your common sense and take it slow.
2. The Baja Gas Gap & Half Tank Rule
Pemex stations are easy to come by in the Baja but there is a section of Mex 1 where you can’t find a Pemex station for almost 200 miles. Once you hit the gas station in El Rosario you don’t hit another one for another 195 miles (315 km) at the town of Villa Jesus Maria, so be sure to fill up there. Beyond that one stretch, our rule was to never let our gas tank get below a half a tank. This is a simple thing to do that can make your life less stressful down the line.
While these might seem very intimidating at first, they are here for your safety. Everyone’s experience is completely different too. While some folks might get stopped at every check point and asked to open their campers or trunks others get waved right through. We ran into a little bit of both. It’s important to be friendly and smile a lot (also taking off your sunglasses is a smart move). Some of them speak English and some don’t – they are mostly looking for drugs or weapons so if you have nothing to hide then you shouldn’t be worried. One great tip that we got from a friend was to tell them we were visiting family. Family is very important in the Mexican culture in addition it made us look like we weren’t just rogue/nomadic hippies (even though that’s what we are) with zero ties in Baja. Even if you don’t have family or friends who are expecting you, a little white lie could go a long way.
4. TOPES, TOPES, TOPES
TOPES! If you haven’t heard this word yet in Spanish and you decided to drive the Baja it will become ingrained into your vocabulary for the rest of your life. Topes translates to speed bumps. They are EVERYWHERE in Baja (and Mexico), and they are not always marked. In our experience, they tend to sneak up on you, but we got pretty good at anticipating them. Sometimes you’ll see a sign for them – other times you won’t. Sometimes they will be painted yellow – but most of the time they just blend in with the color of the concrete. Either way they are everywhere so just make sure to be aware. You can find them mostly when approaching or driving through a town to make sure people slow down while passing through, which in hindsight is really a good idea. If only they could work on the heads-up part.
Also, the general signage in Baja can be a little lacking…or misleading. Be mindful when passing through towns as their stop signs are small and hard to see. We also observed that locals barely stop at their own stop signs, which made it tempting to follow suit. Despite wanting to “fit in” we still opted for stopping at every stop sign we saw, and crossed our fingers we didn’t get rear ended. Policia will be much more apt to pull over a gringo not obeying the rules than a local.
5. Speaking the Language
Don’t let the fact that you don’t speak Spanish deter you from experiencing this beautiful part of the world!!! I’ll say that one more time: Don’t let the fact that you don’t speak Spanish deter you from experiencing this beautiful part of the world!!! Obviously, if you had the language down it would be a different experience, but it’s not necessary. Prior to leaving pick up a good Spanish-English phrase book and get comfortable with saying basic phrases – while traveling keep it close by so you can continue to refer to it. If you don’t want to do it the old fashion way, Google Translate is a handy tool. You can download it on to your phone to use offline – while we didn’t want to rely on this 100%, it was good to refer to if we had a question or were having a total communication breakdown (like when we went into TelCel to find out about getting a Sim Card…yikes). You can speak into it and it will translate from Spanish to English and vice versa. You can also take pictures of signs, menus, etc. and it will translate. You’ll soon find that it’s amazing how much you can communicate when you don’t speak the language, it makes it all part of the journey!
6. Take Your Time!
I touched on this briefly in the first section – but I feel it’s so important it deserves its own section. Everyone’s schedule is different, and if you only had a limited time due to life or work constraints, then I wouldn’t want this to deter anyone from traveling Baja, but if you can it’s important to NOT RUSH. We thought we might take four weeks doing the Baja but we took seven and we even missed out on some things. Give yourself time to explore things off the beaten path (in this case Mex 1 – the only main highway in the Baja). It’s perfectly safe to take that 10-mile dirt road to a random beach village and see what you can find. Granted, you need to know the limits of the vehicle your driving. Some roads may be beaten up from storms and require 4-wheel drive. Just proceed with caution down dirt roads and you should be fine. Soft sand is usually the biggest hazard you will find.
Also, plan in some wiggle room into your schedule. I guarantee you are going to come across a spot you had zero expectations for and never want to leave, but a few extra days will have to suffice! You’ll also have a soft itinerary of where you want to go but you will meet people who will give you tons of good ideas so you find yourself adjusting constantly. Be open to this and don’t be attached to plan A, you never know what plan B, C or D could bring! This is just a good rule of thumb for any travel!
In the old Loony Toon Cartoon with Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner, it seemed that Road Runner would always find a way to outsmart Wile E. and make him look like a fool by blowing him up with his own TNT. Well, the Baja coyotes are a little smarter than that and you will come across them everywhere in the Baja. They will chew on your kayak or chair, go through your trash, steal your silverware, make off with your sponge and take your flip flops to name a few things. If you don’t want your belongings given up to the coyote gods, it’s best you pack in all your belongings before hitting the hay.
8. The People
This isn’t necessarily something you NEED to know before road tripping in Baja. However, the people were so kind I felt it deserved its own section.
The people in Baja are some of the friendliest, welcoming, helpful, and warmest people we’ve ever met. I am referring to the large population of gringos, and also the locals! They are both curious about you and quick to invite you into their communities. Everyone wants to help everyone else out and it’s just all smiles, laughter and buenas vibras (good vibes). We will never forget the people we’ve met along the way in our journey through Baja and we are continuing to carry that with us for the rest of our travels, and lives for that matter!
If you are thinking “I don’t have enough money to travel the Baja for seven weeks!” you are probably wrong! You don’t need a lot of money to travel the Baja. Gas was our biggest expense; it cost us $80 to fill up our 18-gallon tank. However, because we used the half tank rule we were only ever spending $40 here and there, this helped with the dollar shock factor. On top of that, our rig gets only 16 miles or so to the gallon, which isn’t great. With that aside, everything else is so affordable. I guess I should note that it depends on what type of travel you are looking to do. We have a truck we can sleep in so we were mostly at campgrounds or boondocking on the beach. If you’re not planning on camping then this bullet point might not apply to you. Even still, you can get 2 delicious fresh squeezed margaritas with a couple of tacos for $5 US Dollars in a lot of spots in the Baja. You can also go to the grocery store and get MORE than enough ingredients to cook your own food for $40 a week. Reflecting back, it’s been one of the more inexpensive trips we’ve taken in our lives thus far. For two people, you could easily do it for $1,700-2,500 depending on your budget, and $2,500 is on the high end!
Also, one last note about money. It was really hit or miss when it came to businesses accepting credit cards. You can probably assume in the bigger cities that credit cards (tarjetas) will be accepted for the majority of things – but the smaller villages will not. Those villages also don’t tend to have ATM’s. We learned early on to plan for that and always made sure we had pesos stashed away in the truck for those situations when we were running low. You don’t want to wind up in a great spot, but have to leave due to the lack of cash (i.e. our experience in Bahia de Los Angeles).
10. Storm Surges
Ironically enough, this was one of the things we were warned about before leaving for our trip, yet we were still impacted negatively by the mighty Sea of Cortez. We had been staying in the same spot on Bahia Concepcion for four days and knew we were a safe distance away from the water. The last night we were there the weather started to turn and the winds picked up. The winds were so heavy that we couldn’t even stand being outside so we just called it an early night and took refuge in our truck. We didn’t sleep very well that night because the wind was so loud and shaking our truck, little did we know that our truck was rocking so hard because the waves were crashing against it. When we woke up in the morning our entire camp had either been washed away or was under a foot of sand. Luckily, we could recover everything but this could have been a lot worse. We could have woken up to the truck filled with water! Let this be a warning to keep a safe distance from the water. It might seem like a no brainer, but factor in some extra room for when mother nature gets a little riled up!
If you are on the fence about traveling the Baja, I hope this changes your mind. After all, “on the fence” is such an uncomfortable place to be sitting!