Driving in Baja’s more congested areas can be exhilarating. Some days just getting through Tijuana or Mexicali should get you an award for excellence. If you keep in your lane and follow the flow of traffic you should be fine. Roads are marked well. Be sure to get Auto Liability Insurance before setting off. Be cautious of debris and potholes on your journey. The broken down vehicles that occasionally are in the road can be a hazard.
Once in Baja you’ll have a choice between 3 types of roads depending on your destination. These are the Toll Road (Cuota), the Free Road (Libre) and occasionally a dirt road.
Each have their advantages. The Cuota road is usually the best in that it is well maintained similar in to a major highway in the United States. It also offers peace of mind. Once you pay the toll you automatically have free roadside assistance from the Green Angels. These are mobile mechanics that drive the road and help stranded motorists. Simply pull over, lift the hood of the car and wait until they arrive. You also receive liability insurance for certain accidents. Be sure to keep your receipt once you pay your toll. The down side of the Cuota is it can get expensive and doesn’t allow you to see many of the quaint towns it bypasses.
You’ll also have the option of taking the Libre road. This is often more scenic and you will travel at a slower pace. The Libre roads are often not maintained as well. The upside is you can visit many of the towns and tiendas along the way. The downside is there will be more potholes sometimes and more Policia. There is none or limited roadside assistance unless you call or a freelance mechanic or local helps out.
The third and sometimes the only road are the dirt roads. In fact, most roads to the smaller pueblos are still dirt and, as a result, there is no way around them. Be sure to have a vehicle that is up to the task and bring gear to help you fix the most fundamental of problems. At the very minimum you should have a spare tire or two, a tire plug kit, fix-a-flat, compressor and a jack. This is very very minimal and you should probably bring more for peace of mind. More on this later. The upside is the reward you get once you arrive at your destination. Baja begins when the pavement ends!
Senor, You Under Ah Rest for Peezing in Pubics
“Huh, I’m under arrest for pissing in public?” “Si! You under ah rest for peezing in pubics!” Being the wise ass I am I couldn’t resist repeating “PEEZING IN PUBICS?” as sarcastically as possible . He wasn’t amused. I was busted red handed (pun intended) in the middle of nowhere. Or, so I thought. Out of seemingly nowhere a cop busted me urinating in public. This is a big deal in Mexico. I thought it was hilarious until the cuffs came on. (Pro tip: always maintain a decorum of respect). After some awkward negotiations it turned into the most expensive pee I’ve ever taken.
The moral of the story? Be aware of your surroundings. There aren’t tons of public restrooms on the roads and only a few on the Cuota roads after each toll booth. Your best bet? Use a PEMEX gas station if you can.
Be sure to get insurance. By law it’s required however, very few people who drive in Mexico have any form of liability insurance. When looking at a policy it’s best to figure out how long you will be in Mexico per year. Add up the price of a short term policy and a yearly one and compare. Then see which carrier’s policy offers the most. Some offer to repair your vehicle where you wish. Some don’t. Importantly, some offer emergency medical evacuation service. For over 20 years we’ve used Baja Bound Insurance and have found them the most knowledgeable and informative for our travels. Your mileage may vary.
Pull Over! You Speed Fast
It was about 20 years ago. As we slowly crawled up a hill outside of town in our old Volkswagen Bus a smartly dressed motorcycle cop pulled up to my driver’s side window and yelled “Pull Over! You speed fast.” I did. He eased off the bike and sauntered up to the Bus. He was finally dressed with his shirt buttoned all the way up to just his belly button. Chest and chains gleaming. At the window he smiled. His front tooth shimmered gold. I kid you not. Then I tried to explain the engine in a VW Bus is only 1600cc pushing out a whopping 57 hp so there was no way I could be speeding up hill. He wasn’t having it. Upon request I handed over a crisp $20. Pro tip: this is a common part of the culture however, don’t assume a bribe is required. In fact, with the wrong officer it could go bad quick if you bring it up. It’s best to either wait until it’s brought up by them or politely ask if there is something the both of you can work out. Use respect at all times.
Stop the #$@% Truck!!!!!!!!!!!
Just when you let your guard down something always happens. We’d been traveling to the same place for years on almost a monthly basis. On the way we’d gone over many Topos and Vados (bumps and dips). These are designed to slow traffic or let water flow when it rains. I’d gotten lax on the way and relaxed. Then BAMMMMMM!! I hit a Topo at almost full throttle at night. The headlights instantly went dark and the astronaut in the back attempted a moon landing but was stopped from entering orbit by the roof of the truck. Much crying and bitching ensued. Keep your eyes open for the warning signs by the side of the road. Hitting a Topo or Vado at high speeds will make you the envy of any Dukes of Hazzard episode.
#$%@, Men with Guns are Looking at Me!
Mostly just boys with guns but still a little menacing for the uninitiated. We’re talking about Military checkpoints along many of the major routes and sometimes less obscure ones as well. Each is run by a small cadre of armed service members. In some cases, the Mexican Immigration Department has set up checkpoints to check peoples visas as well. But, these are very rare. They’re looking for illegal drugs and weapons. Depending on their mood and yours they can either search your car or just waive you through. If they search they usually ask if you have any “Armas o Drogas?”. Depending on how bored I am I may answer with “Si, Mucho”. This usually illicits a confounded look followed by a smile. All in all, it’s just a checkpoint and they don’t want to be there any more than you do. Just be sure to stop and listen to directions. It’s no big deal. Just a little hassle.
There are two schools of thought on driving at night in Baja. The ones that do and the ones that don’t. The ones that don’t usually return home unscathed. I try not to except on the Cuota. Sometimes you can’t get around it. Driving at night certainly ups your chances of problems. If you do drive at night be extra vigilant for the wasted Borracho (drunk) laying in or beside the road (this actually happens enough to make it a hazard) or be careful for the one actually driving. Be also cognizant of cattle and other animals who like to stand in the road as they are drawn to the asphalt that retains heat longer at night. Also, some people drive without headlights. I’ve been told it’s because they either don’t have them working or they think their night vision works better. Either or, it’s still dangerous. .
Who Wants a Free Car?
A few years ago a Friend came down to visit a friend of mine. In his sporty BMW he proceeded to get lost as soon as he crossed the border. I couldn’t blame him. It was raining cats and dogs and it was getting late. Realizing his error he decided to make a U-turn and return from whence he came. In his exuberance or, should I say panic, he immediately got stuck on the shoulder of the road in the mud from the rain. Try as he may Friend couldn’t get out. Well, don’t fret here comes a Good Samaritan offering assistance. Being the smaller of the two the Good Samaritan suggested that he should drive while the larger Friend push the car out of the mud. The Friend readily agreed. After a few good heaves and ho’s and a ton of slinging mud they extracted the stranded vehicle. Once the vehicle was free the fine Good Samaritan punched it and drove off in Friends car never to be seen again! Covered in mud from the ordeal, Friend enjoyed a long walk of shame in the rain back to town. Adios, mi amigo!
What’s this all mean? Be very careful who you get assistance from and who you provide assistance to. This includes helping stranded motorists. Be judicious with your sympathy. Better yet, toss it at the border. If there’s a con that hasn’t been done in Mexico I haven’t seen it.
Road Side Assistance
Road side assistance comes in the form of the Green Angels. They are provided by the Secretary of Tourism. These are trained mechanics who drive the Cuota roads and help stranded motorists. This is one of the perks of using the toll road for travel. If you need help simply pull over to the side and open your hood. A generous tip when they help is often appreciated. It may take a while for them to show but they will help. Sundays seem to be the exception at times. In which case you can call:
- Tijuana – Ensenada ~ 01 800 990 3900
- El Hongo – La Rumorosa ~ 01 800 990 3900
- Tijuana – Tecate ~ 01 800 888 0911
- 078 for other than the above
The Misadventures of Gringo Juan doTree
I suck at Cops. It’s not that I don’t like Cops. I do. They just don’t like me. I’d been living in a little town in Mexico and as the only Gringo in town I had a pretty good repoire with them. The feeling of acceptance ended rather quickly after rolling through a stop sign and getting pulled over by the new town cop. It was major hoopla. Sirens wailed and lights flashed (insert- Bad Boys. Bad Boys sound track here). With overzealous exuberance he approached my VW Bus and with great gesticulation demanded license and registration. After some tense moments of looking over my documents he said:
“When you come to a stop sign in my town you need to count “Juan…..doTree” before you proceed. Understand!” Major elongated emphasis on the “Juan” and then a rapid “doTree” at the end.
I repeated: “One….Two….Three.”
“No..No…No…listen….. Juan……doTree. Understand?”. He reiterated.
“Okay.” I repeated “Yes…..One…..TwoThree”. Major elongated emphasis on the One followed by a rapid TwoThree at the end.
He was pleased with my quick learning curve. My private Counting Tutor tuition was $20 and I was on my way.
About a month later the same cop at the same stop sign did the same thing, again. Same antics except this time I headed him off at the pass. He started the “Juan doTree” crap again. I reminded him he stopped me last month.
“Remember me from last month?” I said. “Remember…Juan….doTree?” “Remember?”
“Hmmmm”….. He thought for a minute. “Si, Si Senor. Si, Gringo Juan….doTree.” “I remember!”
We both laughed and chatted for a bit. He let me go. No charge. It was the first and only time I got two for the price of one on a bribe. And, he never pulled me over again.
Lesson learned. Stop signs in Mexico can be in strange places. Even if the person in front of you blows the stop sign it’s best to count “Juan…….doTree” before you proceed until you learn which ones you can blow. If you do get busted you may be asked to escort the Officer in your vehicle to the court house or Police station to pay a fine. They don’t want to go there either so it’s a good time to ask if there is a way you can work it out on the spot. Be sure to be sincere and respectful and you’ll be fine.
If you do call their bluff and go to the Police station sometimes they will simply stop following you on the way or you actually do meet the Magistrate and plead your case. Sometimes the fine is reduced. And, as a bonus you have a good story to tell! More on that in future posts.
On a side note: I still use “Juan doTree” as my alias in Mexico. So if we meet and I introduce myself as “Juan doTree” just smile so I know that you know. Entiendo?
- If you’re following behind another car and they flash their left hand turn signals without slowing down they are indicating to you that it is safe to pass.
- Be careful where you use the bathroom or you may get fined for urinating in public.
- Flashing lights or hazards by oncoming traffic indicates there may be trouble ahead.
- Semi trucks rule the road at all times. These guys are cowboys and drive like banshees.
- Don’t blindly follow the car in front of you. Try to anticipate what’s ahead.
- If you pull up to a red light be cognizant that you may be one of the few there not sipping on a Tecate.
- Bicyclists often use the road in either direction to traffic both day and night.
- Watch out for road construction, flash floods, and closed bridges.
- The Guia Roji road atlas is the best on the market for Mexico
- Unless you plan on going to the mainland of Mexico no Temporary Importation Permit (TIP) is needed.