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Driving to Baja California can be a bit intimidating for the first time. What are the roads like? Do I need insurance? Does my vehicle need a permit for driving in Baja California? Is it safe? Perhaps you have done a bit of research and are still wondering what to expect.
Throw in a possible language barrier, unfamiliar customs of the road, odd traffic patterns and you have a white knuckle drive waiting for you! Use my tips to prepare yourself for an exhilarating drive while enjoying some stunning countryside. Of course, read it before getting behind the wheel!
Coming down for sea, sand and sleeping out under the stars? If so, read my article on Baja camping: 12 great beaches for roughing it. Also check out our favorite budget meals on the Baja Peninsula. If not, share these with someone who is!
Note: The entire peninsula is often referred to as Baja California or simply the Baja. In this article I refer to the entire peninsula as either Baja California or Baja Mexico. There are two states on this peninsula; Baja California and Baja California Sur. Again, mention of driving in Baja California indicates both states, or the entire peninsula. Distinctions in this article between the two states, where applicable, will be obvious.
What You’ll Learn About Driving in Baja California
This article covers driving in Baja California on the Transpeninsular Highway. This article will cover, in brief, insurance in Mexico which is required by law. However, proof of insurance is not required to enter Mexico. This article will cover, in brief, the T.I.P. or Temporary Importation Permit and where this requirement is and isn’t needed.
You’ll also learn about certain driving habits, military checkpoints and special safety considerations for driving In Baja California – this isn’t a difficult journey but be aware of some important things. Don’t let these scare you; driving to Baja California is an experience you won’t ever forget! Follow these tips, hit the road and have a great trip!
Listen Up! This Is Your Responsibility!
This article does not cover the process of getting yourself into Mexico. This article does not cover bringing in watercraft, trailers, off-road vehicles, etc. Furthermore, this article does not cover customs regulations regarding money, tobacco or alcohol.
Finally, this post will not cover your FMM Tourist Card and any fee(s) this may include. These are all considerations the visitor (You!) must research prior to your border crossing – these things can change with little notice.
Consider These Two Caveats Before Driving to Baja California:
The real danger of driving in Baja California, even on the highway, is the total isolation. If needed, help from paramedics may be quite far away. This isolation, compounded on Baja Mexico’s many miles of dirt roads, is the most immediate danger.
Indeed, many people come here to experience the isolation and enjoy boundless off-road adventures. Even if your plans only include driving the Transpeninsular Highway you must consider the loneliness of driving here.
Also, be aware of this while driving in Baja California: The few other drivers you will see!
Mexicans are the most laid back, friendly and kind people you’ll ever meet. However, put a gas pedal beneath their feet and they suddenly become aggressive contestants who believe cars are designed with a maximum speed for a reason. They look frightened as they launch past you in their vehicles, seemingly paralyzed by the amount of g-force overcoming them!
Do I Need Insurance for Driving to Baja California?
MEXICAN LAW REQUIRES AN INSURANCE POLICY FOR AUTOMOBILES BROUGHT IN BY FOREIGN TOURISTS, VALID IN MEXICO. Likely, this will not include your insurance policy from back home. Again, you will not be asked to prove insurance coverage upon entering Mexico.
Proof of insurance may be required upon being pulled over for a traffic violation. I was indeed pulled over once but was not asked for proof of insurance. However, insurance is needed if you’re involved in an accident. DO THE SMART (AND LEGAL!) THING AND GET AN INSURANCE POLICY COVERING YOU IN MEXICO!
Again, your own vehicle insurance policy at home likely won’t cover you while driving in Baja California or anywhere else in Mexico. Your auto insurance provider at home may recommend a company they have an agreement with.
Any policy purchased for driving anywhere in Mexico is totally separate from your existing policy at home. Also, you’ll be doing business with a Mexican insurance company who may have agents based in the U.S.
Choosing a policy through a group recommended by your insurance provider may offer very handsome rates. A policy from a provider recommended by our insurance company in the U.S. covered us for one year at $175. That policy provided bare-bones coverage on a 1999 vehicle; this was enough to meet minimum requirements in Mexico
Make sure you know the minimum insurance requirements for driving in Baja California and ALL of Mexico.
Do I Need a Permit for Driving to Baja California?
No. You do not need a permit (Temporary Importation Permit, or T.I.P.) for driving to Baja California as a tourist. There is no fee for driving to Baja California as a tourist, either. This includes the entire states of Baja California (B.C.) and Baja California Sur (B.C.S.).
Not needing a T.I.P. extends to certain parts of Sonora state, which borders the state of Baja California. Note: I AM ONLY SPEAKING OF DRIVING YOUR AUTOMOBILE IN THE BAJA WITH NOTHING IN TOW. Also, look into requirements for international travel with your lien holder.
The areas of Mexico not requiring a T.I.P. (certain parts of Sonora state included) have chosen to extend what is known as the Free Zone. This is a perimeter extending south of the U.S./Mexican border meant to facilitate tourism and commerce through reduced customs requirements.
Keep in mind you certainly do need a T.I.P. if you drive beyond the extended free zone in the state of Sonora. The consequences of not having the proper permit beyond this zone is quite severe. This may include vehicle confiscation by Mexican authorities.
Again, Mexico has extended the free zone to include the entire states of Baja California and Baja California Sur. YOU DO NOT NEED A T.I.P. TO ENTER OR DRIVE IN BAJA MEXICO (AND THE FREE ZONE OF SONORA STATE) AS A TOURIST.
What are The Roads in Baja Mexico Like?
Driving in Baja Mexico on the Transpeninsular Highway takes getting used to. Almost the entire stretch of this two-lane highway lacks a shoulder, or breakdown lane. Potholes are numerous and rather formidable. The Transpeninsular Highway, filled with blind curves and ghastly drop-offs, offers few guard rails.
Road conditions represent a different level of standard from back home. Throughout this article I’ll address specific things to keep in mind on your next drive through Baja Mexico – the occasional pothole and sharp curve are just the beginning of a white-knuckle ride you’ll never forget!
Signal a Left Turn with Extreme Caution!
Indicating a left turn has two meanings in Mexico. This indicates a left turn or it presents an invitation for the driver behind to pass on the left! How this ever came to be is beyond me. If you signal left make sure the driver behind doesn’t pass! I cannot stress the importance of this enough!
We were almost run off the road while driving on the Baja by an American likely explaining to his buddy how loose and crazy the roads are here. My left turn signal was, to him, an indication to pass me on the left. I turned left as he was attempting to pass – a very close call!
This happened in a no-passing zone while approaching a blind curve along the coast. I couldn’t think of a worse place on the entire 1000 mile Transpeninsular Highway to pass another vehicle! His miscalculation provided me the most frightening moment I’ve encountered while driving. So, keep this rather strange custom of multi-purpose turn signals in the front of your mind at all times!
Do Not Drive At Night!
AVOID DRIVING IN BAJA CALIFORNIA AT NIGHT WHENEVER POSSIBLE! Many vehicles trundle down the road without working headlights in Mexico. Also, the Transpeninsular Highway has no lighting. One other possibility awaits the drivers at night…
Cattle often lay on the pavement at night to keep warm, making any prospect of a nocturnal drive a suicidal idea! Plenty of desiccated, crumpled cows line the highway here, best viewed during daylight hours! Stay off the roads at night!
I’ve driven on the open range many times in the American west, yet there is something about the livestock here on the peninsula…a look in their eyes as you pass by. They express a sort of contempt as you speed by them on their roads.
Livestock own these roads and are waiting to claim them as the sun sets – to them, you’re simply passing through. Even the throngs of goats shuffling across the road (in daylight!) are sending warnings with each tinkle of their bells. Stick to daylight hours while driving in Baja Mexico.
Face it, a military checkpoint can cause a fright for anyone not accustomed to them. Driving in Baja California offers dozens of military checkpoints, set up either before major settlements or seemingly in the middle of nowhere! Don’t fear these routine checkpoints – the soldiers will wave you through before you know it.
We received scrutiny once as a soldier gave our vehicle a somewhat baffled look-over. He asked me to open all the doors and a minute later we were having a laugh while idly conversing in broken Spanish and English. Before long we were on our way.
Be courteous and respectful to these gentlemen and they’ll likely wave you on after a few questions. If you don’t understand Spanish it helps to know what they’re asking and what you should be saying – almost always in this order:
- Them: ¿Donde vienes? – Where are you from?
- You: Estados Unidos – The United States. Or Irlanda if from Ireland, and so on.
- Them: ¿Donde va? – Where are you going?
- You: San Quintin, La Paz, Todos Santos or wherever.
Pat yourself on the back for learning some Spanish and motor on, amigo. There’s no need to worry about the next military checkpoint, likely another 100 miles or so away. These friendly guys are just doing their job and want you to have a great time in their country.
Keeping fuel in your vehicle while driving in Baja California is very important – get it whenever you can! Ignoring this means you might run out and the next station can be over 100 miles away! Running out means buying marked-up fuel from roadside vendors or calling the Green Angels (see below).
Filling up at a gas station requires a bit of protocol. Gas stations in Mexico are full-serve and not knowing Spanish in this case is daunting. Simply pull up and wait for an attendant. Say Lleno, por favor (YAY-no, por-FA-vor) if you want to fill the tank. Then indicate the grade of fuel you want: Magna for regular; Premium for premium and Diesel for… diesel!
The attendant will indicate the pump meter is set to zero prior to filling. The attendant will often clean your windows and even wipe down your side-view mirrors. How swanky! After paying for your gas include a small tip of 10 pesos (50¢) for their service and off you go!
Note: Unit prices for fuel are per liter, not per gallon. Also, Mexico has a state-owned petroleum company (PEMEX) which was, for years, responsible for all extraction, refining and retailing of oil and gas.
PEMEX stations were once the only place in Mexico to get gas. This is very slowly changing and you’ll see other gas stations as you drive in Baja Mexico. However, all filling stations are full-serve.
The Green Angels
Many gringos are surprised to learn Mexico has a free service in place for stranded motorists. Los Ángeles Verdes, or the Green Angels, patrol all federal and toll highways in Mexico offering free service during mechanical breakdowns, accidents or medical emergencies.
The bilingual Green Angels, provided by the Mexican Tourism Agency, patrol 24 hours a day in over 275 vehicles country-wide. Although basic service and repairs are free you must pay for any needed parts.
If you break down while driving in Baja Mexico simply pull over and raise the hood to signal them. Likely you’ll be waiting several hours for the Angels to arrive; they have a long and lonely highway to patrol in Baja Mexico.
The 24-hour toll-free number for the Green Angels in Mexico is 01.800.987.8224. For an emergency dial 078. The Ministry of Tourism in Mexico provides this service for ALL motorists and tips are greatly appreciated. The Green Angels even provide tourists with maps and information on all sorts of destinations! What a great service!
Other Services – What is a Llantera?
While driving in Baja California you’ll notice Llanteras everywhere. A Llantera (yahn- TERA) is a road-side tire shop specializing in used tires along with quick service. These makeshift shops fill a need along the Transpeninsular Highway; this road simply eats tires. Don’t expect anything more than a scruffy looking shack with a hydraulic floor jack and an assortment of dusty tires.
Expect to pay at about 300 pesos ($15) for an “experienced” tire or more for a newer one. Don’t be afraid to haggle for a lower price. Llanteras pop-up in the most remote areas alongside the Transpeninsular Highway, often right after a section of heavily damaged road! In fact, llanteras may be the only sign of life for miles around!
Crossing from Baja California to Baja California Sur
Baja Mexico, as mentioned, has 2 states: Baja California and Baja California Sur. When crossing from B.C. to B.C.S. you must prepare for 3 things:
- You enter Mountain Time from Pacific Time, going forward 1 hour
- Mercifully, you’ll see a drastic improvement in the surface of the Transpeninsular Highway – the pot holes (mostly) disappear!
- You must pay 20 pesos ($1) for the silliest of silly gimmicks ever. More on that below…
At the border from B.C. to B.C.S. you drive through a strange checkpoint where a fee is collected. Here, you pass over a mist which magically appears from the surface of the road and bathes the underside of your vehicle.
The collected fee is official, complete with a receipt from the ministry of agriculture or some such agency. This special mist (likely steam) is meant to protect against wayward insects from the northern state of Baja California. I, of course, have my suspicions….
As much as I love Mexico I cannot believe any agency is putting up an ecological stance by blasting your undercarriage to eradicate invasive bugs. Mexico and environmental stewardship just don’t go together. Sorry.
Although driving in Baja Mexico requires the same skill and concentration as driving anywhere, you must consider a few extra things. Knowing these things beforehand puts you at an advantage, therefore allowing you to focus on the joy of this amazing road trip. Your biggest concern should simply be where you’ll get your next fish taco.
The ease of bringing your automobile into this part of Mexico (no permit required) along with the beauty, tranquility and climate make this a great place for your next epic road trip, so get out there and enjoy it!