Driving in Baja Mexico 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 Mexico? Is it safe? Perhaps you have done a bit of research and are still wondering what to expect. Also throw in a possible language barrier along with unfamiliar customs of the road and traffic patterns and you may have a white knuckle drive waiting for you! Use the tips in this post to prepare yourself for an exhilarating drive while enjoying some stunning countryside. Read it before getting behind the wheel!
If you’ve come down for sand, sea and sleeping out under the stars read my article on Baja camping: 12 great beaches for roughing it. Also check out our article on the best budget bites on the Baja Peninsula.
Note: I refer to the entire Baja Peninsula as Baja Mexico in this post. There are 2 states on the peninsula, however; Baja California and Baja California Sur. Again, mention of driving in Baja Mexico indicates both. Any distinctions I make between the 2 states, when applicable, will be obvious.
Using This Guide
This post will cover driving on the Baja Mexico’s main road, the Transpeninsular Highway. This post will cover, in brief, insurance which is required by law in an accident. However, proof of insurance is not required at the border to enter Mexico.This post will cover, in brief, the T.I.P. or Temporary Importation Permit and where it is and isn’t needed.
Reading through the tips in this post will prepare you for what to expect while driving in Baja Mexico with your own wheels beneath you. In fact, driving in Baja Mexico may be one of the most memorable drives you will make due to the beauty of Baja Mexico. Hang on tight and prepare for a few things not encountered back home.
Listen Up! This Is Your Responsibility!
This post will not cover the process of getting into Mexico. This post will not cover bringing in any watercraft, trailers, off-road vehicles, etc. Furthermore, this post will not cover any customs regulations regarding money, tobacco or alcohol.
Finally, this post will not cover your FMM Tourist Card and any fee(s) it may include. These are all considerations the tourist (You!) must research just prior to your border crossing – these things can change with little notice.
Consider These Caveats of Driving in Baja Mexico
The real danger of driving in Baja Mexico, even on the highway, is the total isolation you will find yourself in most of the time. In the event of an accident help from paramedics may be quite far away. This factor alone, compounded on Baja Mexico’s many miles of dirt roads, is the most immediate danger.
Indeed, many people come to the Baja Peninsula just to experience the isolation and to enjoy the boundless off-road adventures in Baja Mexico waiting to be discovered. Even if your plans only include driving the Transpeninsular Highway you must consider the loneliness you will experience on the paved Transpeninsular Highway. There is one more thing to be aware of while driving in Baja Mexico: the few other drivers you will see.
The Transpininsular Highway is full of makeshift memorials marking spots where drivers have been killed. Blame the nature of the highway (see more below) and above all the nature of the local drivers.
Mexicans are some of the most laid back, friendly and kind people you will likely meet. 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, seemingly paralyzed by the amount of g-force that has overcome them.
If these are things you can handle, read on for tips to see you through your journey. If not, read this entire post anyway and pass along these tips (and this post!) to someone who can handle driving in Baja Mexico.
Insurance for Driving in Baja Mexico?
MEXICAN LAW REQUIRES AN INSURANCE POLICY FOR AUTOMOBILES BROUGHT IN BY TOURISTS, VALID IN MEXICO. Likely, this will not include your insurance policy from back home. You will not be asked to prove coverage upon entering Mexico.
Proof of insurance may be required from authorities upon being pulled over for a traffic violation. I was indeed pulled over once but was not asked for any proof of insurance. However, insurance is needed if involved in an accident. DO THE SMART (AND LEGAL) THING AND GET AN INSURANCE POLICY THAT COVERS YOU IN MEXICO!
Again, your own vehicle insurance policy at home will very likely not cover you while driving in Baja Mexico 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 the country of Mexico will be totally separate from your existing policy at home and you will 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 at home may offer very handsome rates indeed. A policy from a provider recommended to us from our insurance group at home covered us for 1 year at $175, which was $12 more than 6 months of coverage. It is up to you to talk to your regular insurance provider at home. Our policy was for minimal coverage on a year 1999 vehicle – your rates will likely be higher.
Make sure you know what the minimum insurance requirements are for driving in Baja Mexico and ALL of Mexico.
Do I Need a Permit for Driving in Baja Mexico?
No. You do not need a permit (Temporary Importation Permit, or T.I.P.) for driving in Baja Mexico as a tourist. There is no fee for bringing your automobile into Baja Mexico as a tourist. 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 the Mexican state of Sonora, separate from and bordering the state of Baja California. Note: I AM ONLY SPEAKING OF DRIVING YOUR AUTO IN BAJA MEXICO WITH NOTHING IN TOW
Be sure you 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, which is a perimeter that extends south of the U.S./Mexican border meant to facilitate tourism and commerce through reduced customs requirements.
If you plan on leaving Baja California and entering Sonora, know how far you can drive into the state of Sonora and learn more about what the free zone is. Also, make sure you look at a map of the Sonora Free Zone and abide by it if you do not have a T.I.P.
Keep in mind you certainly do need a T.I.P. if you drive beyond the extended free zone in the state of Sonora and the consequences of not having the proper permit beyond this zone can be quite severe, including vehicle confiscation by Mexican authorities.
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 AND DRIVE THROUGHOUT BAJA MEXICO (AND THE FREE ZONE OF SONORA STATE) AS A TOURIST.
What Are The Roads Like?
Driving in Baja Mexico on the Transpeninsular Highway, while easily done in any vehicle, 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 here certainly represent a different level of standard from back home. Throughout this post I will address the more specific things to keep in mind on your next drive through Baja Mexico – a pothole here and there and a sharp curve are only the beginning of a white-knuckle ride you will never forget!
Signal A Left Turn With Extreme Caution!
Indicating a left turn has 2 meanings in Mexico, and indeed other parts of the world. It can indicate a left turn – genius by the way – or it can present an invitation to the driver behind to pass you on the left! How this ever came to be is beyond me. If you intend to turn left and signal so, look in your rear view mirror to make sure the person behind you does not intend to zoom past you on the left. I cannot stress the importance of this enough.
We were nearly run off the road while driving in Baja Mexico by an American who was likely explaining to his buddy in the passenger seat how loose and crazy the roads are in Baja Mexico. Imagine the shame he felt upon nearly killing us all, realizing I was merely indicating my desire to leave the road – without his help – by signalling a left turn.
This happened in a no-passing zone while approaching a blind curve along the coast. There could not have been a worse place than this on the entire 1000 mile Transpeninsular Highway to pass. His miscalculation that day provided me with the most frightening moment I have encountered while driving. So, keep this rather strange custom of multi-purpose turn signals in the front of your mind at all times. Please.
Do Not Drive At Night!
AVOID DRIVING IN BAJA MEXICO AT NIGHT WHENEVER POSSIBLE! Many vehicles trundle down the road without working headlights in Mexico. Also, the Transpeninsular Highway has little to no lighting. One other possibility awaits the driver in the night…
Cattle will 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 have 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.
The livestock own these roads and are waiting to claim them as the sun sets. In their eyes you are simply passing through. Even the throngs of goats who shuffle across the road seem to be sending you a warning with each tinkle of their bells.
Stick to daylight driving in Baja Mexico.
Face it, a military checkpoint can cause a fright for anyone not accustomed to them. The Baja Peninsula offers dozens of military checkpoints, set up before major settlements or seemingly in the middle of nowhere. There is no need to fear these routine checkpoints as you drive in Baja Mexico. You will be sent on your way before you know it.
We received scrutiny only once, with the soldier giving our vehicle a somewhat baffled look-over. A minute later I was closing the rear door of the van, having a laugh with the soldiers as we all tried conversing in broken Spanish and English.
Be courteous and respectful to these gentlemen and they will likely wave you on after a few questions. If you do not understand Spanish, it helps to know what they are 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, or La Paz, or Todos Santos or wherever.
Pat yourself on the back for learning some Spanish and motor on. There is 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 your vehicle as full as possible with gas while driving in Baja Mexico is very important – get fuel whenever you can! Putting it off means you may run out and the next filling station can be over 100 miles away! This means either buying marked-up gas from roadside vendors – known as gypsy gas and very hard to come by – or calling The Green Angels (see below).
Pulling up to the pump at an actual filling station requires a bit of protocol. Gas stations in Mexico are all full serve and not knowing sufficient Spanish in this case can be daunting. Simply pull up and wait for an attendant. Say: Lleno, por favor .(YAY-no, por-FA-vor) – Fill it, please. Then indicate the grade of fuel you want: Magna for regular; Premium for premium and Diesel for… Diesel! This is easy, right?
The attendant will point out the pump meter is set to zero prior to filling. As your tank fills the attendant will often clean your windows and even wipe down your side-view mirrors. How swanky! After paying for your gas make sure you include a small tip of 10 to 15 pesos (50¢ to 75¢) for their service and simply drive away.
Note: The unit price for fuel is per liter, not per gallon. Also, Mexico has a state-owned petroleum company (PEMEX) that was, for years, responsible for all extraction, refining and retailing of oil and oil by-products. PEMEX stations were the only place in Mexico to get gas.
This is very slowly changing and you will see other gas stations in the far north and the far south as you are driving in Baja Mexico. All filling stations are full-serve, though.
The Green Angels
Many gringos are surprised to learn Mexico has a free service in place should you break down while driving. Los Ángeles Verdes, or The Green Angels, can be found patrolling all federal and toll highways in Mexico, offering free service in the event of mechanical breakdown, accident or medical emergency.
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 will need to pay for any parts that may be required to fix your automobile.
If you break down while driving in Baja Mexico simply pull over and raise the hood of your vehicle to signal them. Likely you will be waiting several hours for them to arrive for they have a rather long, lonely highway to patrol in Baja Mexico.
The 24 hour toll-free number for The Green Angels in Mexico is 01.800.987.8224. In an emergency dial 078. The Ministry of Tourism in Mexico provides this service for ALL motorists and tips are greatly appreciated. They even provide tourists with maps and information on all sorts of destinations! What a great service!
Other Services – What Is A Llantera?
As you start driving in Baja Mexico you will soon notice Llanteras sprouting up. A Llantera (yahn- TERA) is a road-side tire shop specializing in used tires along with quick service. These makeshift shops fill a definite need along the Transpeninsular Highway, as the highway here simply eats tires. Do not expect anything other than a scruffy looking shack with a hydraulic floor jack and an assortment of dusty tires in most cases.
Expect to pay at least 300 pesos, or $15 for an “experienced” tire and more for a slightly newer one. Do not be afraid to haggle at all for a lower price. Llanteras seem to pop up in the most remote areas alongside the Transpeninsular Highway, often right after a section of heavily damaged road! In fact they may be the only sign of life for miles.
Sometimes you need a mechanic even though you have not quite broken down. The Green Angels may be of little help in this case and that means you need to get to a repair shop. Our experience with mechanics on the Baja has been totally positive. The work done required no appointment and the charge was much, much less than back home.
How does a charge of $15 to replace a lower ball joint sound? I was even able to buy the part myself for only $12! The mechanic I chose even bought a special tool for the job, which I could not find in order to fix the ball joint on my own! For more about repairs, mechanics and what driving in Baja California can do to a vehicle, read more about our experiences here.
Crossing from Baja California to Baja California Sur
Baja Mexico, as mentioned, has 2 states: Baja California and Baja California Sur. As you cross from B.C. to B.C.S. you must prepare for 3 things:
- You will enter Mountain Time from Pacific Time, going back 1 hour
- Mercifully, you will see a drastic improvement in the surface of the Transpeninsular Highway. The pot holes just (mostly) disappear!
- You will pay 20 pesos, or $1, for the silliest of silly gimmicks ever. More on that below…
As you cross from north to south you must pay to pass through a strange checkpoint where you slowly drive over a mist that magically appears from the surface of the road and bathes the underside of your vehicle. This is an official fee – complete with a receipt from the ministry of agriculture or some similar agency. This mist, likely just water vapor, is meant to protect against wayward insects from the northern sate of Baja California.
As much as I love Mexico I cannot believe any agency in the country is putting up an ecological stance by blasting your undercarriage in an attempt to eradicate invasive bugs. Mexico and environmental stewardship just do not go together. Sorry.
Although driving in Baja Mexico requires the same skill and concentration as driving anywhere, there are a few extra things to consider. Knowing these things beforehand puts you at an advantage, therefore allowing you to focus a bit more on the joy of this amazing road trip. Your biggest concern should simply be where you will get your next fish taco.
Again, driving in Baja Mexico represents an amazing road trip filled with stunning scenery. True adventure awaits for those who have the ability to make it off-road. Baja Mexico is a special place indeed for many who bring their vehicles over the border and doing so for the first time is like a right of passage.
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!