Driving the Transpeninsular Highway on The Baja Peninsula is certainly a road just about any vehicle can safely traverse. Do you need a 4 wheel-drive vehicle on the Baja Peninsula to get the most out of your adventure? Well, yes…and no.
Surviving the Transpeninsular Highway on The Baja Peninsula.
We did successfully take our Volkswagen Eurovan (Little Elvis II) onto an uneven dirt road down to the Pacific Coast. Also, we drove 50 miles into the desert along a rough road, yet somehow we only managed to sustain damage brought about on the Baja’s main (and mainly paved) route: The Transpeninsular Highway. Having a more robust vehicle would have served us better, having opened up more of the peninsula to us.
Here is how the peninsulas best road managed to totally shred my vehicle 4 times in 48 hours:
Bumps In The Road
My first issue was, in all fairness, an ongoing one that I was aware of before we left Maine. This was merely made worse by driving on the Baja Peninsula. The condition of the highway in the state of Baja Norte turned my worn lower ball-joint into a problem I could no longer muddle through. We had a suspension expert in Colorado try to diagnose my problem which, at the time, never pointed to a bad ball joint. In fact, I was told all the ball joints were just fine.
The suspension problem was to remain a mystery… until we made it onto a Mexican highway. Within hours of crossing into Mexico, The Transpeninsular Highway aggravated the seemingly good ball joint so severely that, upon visual inspection, its fate was evident. I sort of thanked the Baja for helping drag this mystery problem out into the light.
A new ball joint was only $12, but we had to wait 3 days to get it. The repair was simple, however I could not find the proper tool in Ensenada, where we were waiting for the part. A 14mm bit was needed and I could only find a 12mm bit. Little Elvis II needed a mechanic.
My trepidation about being a gringo with an injured vehicle in Mexico was soon alleviated by the mechanics at Centro Mechanico Especializado, in Ensenada. Andres and Ruben saved the day for us by finding the specialized tool I could not find myself. They also did the repair for 300 pesos, or about $15. That repair would have cost well over $300 north of the border and would have had to be scheduled. The guys at CME saw to our situation pronto; we were rolling out of their garage 20 minutes later.
That same dastardly highway on the Baja Peninsula brings me to repair #2, which involved a suddenly needed weld to my exhaust pipe. The roads around Ensenada are worse than the Baja highway and they shook apart a weak spot on my exhaust pipe I repaired myself back in Maine 5000 miles ago.
Unsuccessfully, I tried to repair the exhaust again in Ensenada several times while we waited for the ball joint to arrive. Each patch-job was worthless. Within moments of driving away with our new ball joint, we pulled into a welding shop to sort out the bad-ass noise coming from the van.
The gentleman at Moffles Sanchez in Ensenada didn’t need an appointment for this gringo, either. He happily zapped my separated exhaust pipe within a matter of seconds, only charging 200 pesos for the repair, or about $10.
Honest and fair mechanics can be hard to find anywhere, but I found 2 of them easily in Mexico. That softened the blow the road was dishing out in spades. That same road sadly kept throwing insults our way. Within 24 hours of getting the new ball joint and my serene-sounding exhaust back, we were dealing with our third repair…
More Repairs On The Baja
The Transpeninsular Highway had another impressive display of brute force to show us: Her ability to knock loose a shock absorber…on my birthday.
A lot of time driving on the Transpeninsular highway is spent dodging potholes and straddling the ones that cannot be dodged…at 60 mph! Hitting these will not kill you or your vehicle, but they will make you late for dinner. The one that separated my shock absorber from its lower bushing was a real trash-talking bitch, let me tell you. A birthday to remember, no doubt.
I had the tools to repair the shock on the side of the road in the locale of Cataviña, where the damage happened. What I needed was another set of strong hands. Luckily, we were within 2 minutes from the only road-side mechanic in this part of the desert for 20 or 30 miles, and the van was driveable. Aside from touting himself as a mechanic, this man made his living selling gypsy gas, or gas from jugs. Not only is the road here harsh, it is unswervingly remote and one can find themselves running low on gas – with only unofficial “filling stations” ready at the waiting.
A Few Tricks For The Fix
This man and I made quite a team. We used the weight of the van to press the bushing back into the lower portion of my shock absorber, which we had to remove. It was not pretty and the language barrier was stark, but we did it together. His price for the nearly 1 hour repair was 200 pesos, or $10. He deserved a bit more in my opinion and I was happy to tack on extra.
By now, do not be aghast to learn that our 4th challenge was ready to pop up. Again, it involved a disgusting series of potholes.
Getting Tire-ed In The Baja
Although I discovered my deformed tire (the result of another sassy pothole) 2 mornings after my record-breaking 3-repair streak, the fix was done within 48 hours of the first one, making the title of this post relevant to the situation! Did the Transpeninsular Highway overdo it with us? Yup.
Th effected tire was fine as we were repairing the shock absorber in Cataviña, so the damage was done after repair número tres. It was not flat the morning I discovered it, but it was severely compromised. Whenever one needs a new tire from clashing with the Transpeninsular Highway, one pulls into any of the hundreds of scrappy little tire shops (llanteras) that are ready to sell you a used tire and install it while you gaze on in utter bewilderment.
A Rookie Mechanic
In our case, the tire shop was manned by a 10 year-old boy who was using Little Elvis II as practice for a trade he was no doubt set to take over from his father one day. It was funny to see the air socket nearly lift the kid off the ground as he squared up and buzzed away at the lug nuts. He did a great job and, after paying his father for the tire, I was happy to hand the boy 20 pesos as a tip.
Back On The Road
Truth be told, these 4 experiences turned out to be rather positive, each in their own little ways. We were never broken down or stranded due to our mishaps. Everyone we dealt with was fair and quite eager to help out and get us on our way again. The tire was a bit more than we wanted to spend ($50), but it was nearly brand-new. It was also the only used tire of our size in the whole dang town.
Driving on the Baja Peninsula was a challenge, for certain. The Transpeninsular Highway did eventually improve as soon as we entered the state of Baja Sur. Here in the city of Guerrero Negro, the road takes on a different life. Only 442 miles (711 kilometers) south of it’s start in Tijuana, the highway becomes another story; smooth as silk and a joy to drive, for the most part. Amazingly, we accomplished our goal of making down to Cabo San Lucas! There, we had our own private glass-bottom boat take us out to Lands End. This is the final point on the peninsula where the water from the Sea of Cortes mixes with the Pacific Ocean.
What is your experience with the Transpeninsular Highway? What repairs, if any, have you had to do along the way? Have you any tips or advice for anyone thinking of heading to the Baja Peninsula?