Driving in Baja California: Margaritas and Ninja Cows

Before I went driving in Baja California, I checked with an expert in negotiating Mexican roads.

My driving abilities from Mexico have helped me get through Hollywood. ~Salma Hayek

No doubt Ms. Hayek is right about that; she’s got a reputation as gutsy and no-nonsense, both handy qualities for an acting career and for driving in Baja, Mexico. There’s no guarantee that taking a spin in a Mexican rental car will help with your career but weirder things happen in life. A skill like that might come in handy. I like to think of myself as gutsy and no-nonsense too, and I guess I can chalk at least part of that up to having a bit of time behind the wheel in foreign countries.

I’ve driven vehicles—including a wheezing, ancient Volkswagen camper van—all over Europe and in North Africa. I also lived (and drove) in Turkey for two years, where the World Health Organization reports a whopping 6687 traffic-related deaths in their 2015 report. On the sahil yolu (coast road) west of central Istanbul, surrounded by drivers who routinely turn a 4-lane road into 6 chaotic express lanes with oncoming traffic weaving in and out, gutsy is an excellent quality. Also, the ability to remain calm is a trait worth cultivating since closing your eyes in terror at an oncoming car might get you killed. So, a couple of weeks in a rental car driving in Baja California Sur didn’t seem daunting.

Driving in Baja

Nearly there! Crossing the Sea of Cortez

First, Do Some Research

If you want to visit any spots off the fatally over-beaten tracks near Cabo San Lucas or the less over-beaten lanes of San Jose del Cabo, you’ll need a car. Trust me, you definitely need to get away from Los Cabos to experience Baja in all it’s desert-meets-the-sea glory.

It’s always best not to rely solely on being gutsy before getting behind the wheel of a car in a foreign country. Do a bit of research. Information online about driving in Baja California Sur consists mostly of alarming yet vague cautionary tales told with lots of exclamation points. There are lots of cows on the roads!!! Some roads aren’t even paved!!! Don’t drive after dark!!! (An editor friend says, “a writer is allowed a small number of exclamation points in their life, and one of them had better be in their obituary.” These writers are exclamationally screwed.)

Driving in Baja

Warning! Danger? Not really, just be informed.

But Don’t Believe Everything You Read Online

According to the commentary I read about driving in Baja, it seems like you’ve got maybe a 50% chance of survival. There are 2 points you need to understand about this.

  1. People who tell wild travel tales know that bad experiences make good stories. Stories involving mundane or nice things that happen while driving in Baja are a real snooze-fest.
  2. Everyone exaggerates when relating foreign travel stories. One doesn’t simply get a flat tire while driving in Baja, the tire must explode. On a dark, desert highway. With a rapist hiding behind a saguaro cactus. Whose hiding place is exposed when an alien spaceship sends down a 5 billion watt beam of light to help you get that damn tire changed.
Driving in Baja

Desert meets the Sea in East Cape, Baja California

Fortunately for you (and me), Brian is not only a first-rate husband and the kind of travel partner who holds your hair back when you vomit, he’s also an ace at researching stuff online that would put me in a whiskey-induced coma were I to sift through it all on my own.

Between the two of us, this is what we discovered about driving in Baja California Sur (and much of Mexico):

TIPS FOR DRIVING IN BAJA CALIFORNIA SUR

Tourist Visa:

Pick up a tourist visa at the border if you opt to drive your own car into Mexico. You will be fined on the spot if you’re stopped later and don’t have it. If you fly into Mexico, the tourist visa is included in the forms you’re handed on the plane to complete before you land. (Also, the advice in this article is not about driving in or near Tijuana. You’re on your own there, my friend.)

What to Know Before You Rent a Car in Mexico

Only the business NAME of companies like Hertz and Alamo has been licensed for use or franchised there. Consequently, you should not depend on recourse through the USA version of those companies should you have unresolved issues.

Auto Insurance Requirements and Tips: 

Mexican jail or a Mango Margarita?

Prior to our trip we read warnings (with more exclamation points!!!) like, “You must buy Mexican auto insurance or you’ll end up in jail!” The problem with warnings like this one, is:

  1. They are often only partially true or,
  2. They aren’t true at all and,
  3. The person who issued the warnings probably read the same thing before their trip passed it on without delving further into it.

The prospect of time in a Mexican jail sounds awful. I doubt the menu offers mango margaritas. To avoid a jail stint, and (most of all) give us more time with Eric (an excellent bartender), a large chunk of Brian’s research on driving in Baja was on the ins and outs of car insurance.

Driving in Baja

This is Eric, at the Hotel California in Todos Santos. Eric doesn’t moonlight at the jail, so don’t break the law or you won’t see Eric.

Insurance Requirements and Credit Cards

Primary insurance (collision and theft) is required by rental companies. For most renters, your regular auto insurance will provide and pick up this coverage first, after which the credit card you’ve used to rent the car will kick in (secondary insurance). Your auto insurance and credit card companies will work this out between them. Call your insurance company when trip planning to be sure you’re covered while driving in Mexico.

The best credit card we’ve found (so far) for auto insurance coverage of rental cars world-wide is Chase Sapphire Preferred (CSP). This is the card I use to rent vehicles when traveling, precisely for its insurance coverage. CSP covers Primary insurance rather than just Secondary, and it’s FREE to card members. What’s not to like about free? Whichever credit card you use to book the car, it must be in same name as the primary driver. (Note: Chase isn’t paying me to say good stuff about their card.)

Mexican law requires drivers to carry 3rd party/liability insurance. Renters can purchase it through the rental car company (ours was US$15/day). If you’re driving your own vehicle, you can purchase it at the border or online prior to your trip. (3rd party/liability is NOT covered  by your auto insurance or credit card coverage.)

Personal accident insurance is not required, but it’s a good idea when traveling with a rental car. Purchased through your rental company, it covers medical care, hospitalization and evacuation (if needed). Our’s cost us US$4/day while driving in Baja.

Driving in Baja

A Beach to ourselves, east of San Jose del Cabo

Go Basic or Go Home (or Go Any Dang Way You Like)

Our rental car was a super-basic Chevy Aveo. Total cost per day: US $30. Yes, that’s a cheapskate’s way to go: I practically sprained a wrist having to manually roll the window down, and it had no electric door locks. But I slipped on my imaginary rose-colored glasses and saw our car was bordering on new, altogether functioning, and survivable. Plus it had air-conditioning.

What to Do Before You Drive Away From the Car Rental Agency:

  • Take a photo of your rental contract or ask to have a copy made. You need to keep the contract in the vehicle in case you’re ever stopped by police, but it’s a good idea to have an extra in your wallet or on your phone in case the car goes missing.
  • Check the vehicle’s exterior surfaces, including glass, bumpers, roof (basically everywhere) for any marks, scuffs, or scratches. Take photos or video as you look, and make sure the agency’s representative notes each mark, so you’re not charged for damage for which you’re not responsible.
  • Check lights, signals and horn.
  • Check that the spare tire and jack are present. Our car also came equipped with reflectors to set up in case we had a flat tire. Hint: these came in handy.
  • Check tires for any obvious damage.
  • Pop the hood and take a look. Even if you’re clueless about engines, the attendant might spot something weird and fix it; at the very least you’ll appear diligent.
  • Ask questions, even ones you think sound stupid: How do I open the gas fill door? What type of fuel? Trunk opening? What sets off the car alarm? How to silence the car alarm? Who do I contact in case of emergency with the vehicle? Add those phone numbers for the car rental agency and the police to your phone’s contact list just in case.

    Driving in Baja

    Baja Sunrise

Gas Stations:

Mexican gas stations are all state-owned. The brand name is Pemex and the station colors are green and white, so they’re easy to spot. Gas prices are fixed by the government, so there’s no need to hunt for a better deal further down the road. Regular gas is called Magna (or verde for the green color it is dyed); the pump handle is green. Premium gas (or roja for it’s red color) has a red handled pump. At press time, the price we paid was the equivalent of US$2.85/gallon.

We’d read wild tales about gas station scams ripping off unwary drivers but I think the word has gone out across the land about scams, because every attendant we dealt with was professional and courteous. My advice is to be aware during the fueling process. Get out of your vehicle, note that the pump meter is zeroed before pumping, use your phone camera to take a snap of the final price, and know exactly how much money you handed the attendant so you receive the correct change. Only cash was accepted at the stations we stopped at. Pay in Mexican pesos so you don’t lose out on pump-side exchange rates.

I’d recommend not letting your tank go below half-full, if you can help it. That way, you won’t get caught out in a rural area with no gas station in sight.

driving in Baja

Molcahete and a Mojito at Buzzards Bar, Baja California Sur

Theft and Mordita (Bribes):

Our car (and other rental cars we saw) had bumper stickers shouting Alamo, Hertz, or the name of whatever agency had leased them. I was uneasy with that, because it identified us as tourists and potential targets of opportunistic thieves and unsavory police officers looking for extra income.

It wasn’t a problem at all.

We’re habitually cautious about leaving valuables laying around on a vehicle’s seat, and we double down on that when traveling. When we stopped at a beach in Cabo Pulmo to snorkel and have a bite of lunch, we locked our belongings in the trunk. We do the same thing when we’re in the USA; just use common sense.

As fun as it would be to write about getting stopped at a police roadblock “while driving gringo” (I swear I’m not making that up) we were never pulled over and involuntarily forced to pay a bribe by a Mexican cop. Brian was ecstatic about not getting pulled over, because I was doing all the driving and there is precedent for me not behaving entirely rationally when stopped by police. Read Driving in Morocco: a Search for Solitude and Connection to understand why it’s best for Brian and I to avoid being pulled over by reprobate police officers.Driving in Baja

Roads, Rules and Recommendations:

  • No need for an International Driving Permit, just bring a valid driving license from your state/country of residence.
  • Drive on the right side of the road.
  • Wear your seatbelt (passengers too).
  • Mexico doesn’t want you speeding down the roads of Baja California Sur like an illegal tequila runner in a stolen car, or slipping behind the wheel after several shots of that tequila. Shocking, right? To limit poor driver behavior, they have laws and corresponding fines in place for anyone driving in Baja. My advice is simple: obey the laws and don’t do stupid stuff. Even if every other car passes you far above the speed limit, remember that you’re in a rental car or a US-plated vehicle and are more likely to be ticketed.
  • Intersection stop lights don’t always operate. Treat them like a 4-way stop. Mexican drivers were courteous about it.
  • Remember that air-conditioning I mentioned earlier? Use it. Roll your windows up and set your airflow to recirculate, keeping the road dust out of your car and your lungs. With an annual rainfall of 6-7 inches and a desert landscape, there will always be dust.
  • Main roads are paved, not always perfectly, but I grew up in Minnesota and remember how potholed the roads got by spring. I may be more forgiving of patched  up roads. Once you get off the main roads and out of the towns, especially along the east cape coast, you’ll be driving on some rough dirt roads. Plan on sandy areas, rocks, and washboard for long stretches. Take your time and it’ll be fine; no 4-wheel drive needed.
Moral of the Story

Sometimes though, you take your time, wind with care around the worst of the rocks on a side trip up to Cabo Pulmo and still find your left rear tire flat the next morning. It could happen. This is when you will be happy you’d brushed up on your tire-changing skills and checked the spare when you rented the car.

I am the MacGyver of tire changes, if MacGyver’s husband actually did the changing. Supplying a beach umbrella unintentionally left in the trunk after our beach outing, I shielded my first-rate travel partner from the brutal sun. He practiced cursing cheap tools. We also found a box from the grocery store in the trunk, tore that open and laid it flat for a kneeling pad (nothing like genuflecting with a tire iron in your hand on a tarred road in the tropics to toughen up your knees and your spirit). After the tire-change, a cow with moves a ninja would envy crept up and stole the cardboard. We scanned our surroundings and spotted her snacking on it. Moral: Give your tires a quick check every morning before heading out, and beware of ninja cows.

Don’t Panic:

All of this advice makes it appear that no one in their right mind would EVER go driving in Baja California. Fear not, Traveler!

Be aware, not paranoid or frightened.

“Baja Midnight” is when most bars and restaurants close, which happens around 9 or 10 pm (earlier in the east cape area), so take care when night driving. Watch for cows, deer, dogs and pedestrians.

Most of all, enjoy your trip. Be alert, drive safely and get off the beaten path in Baja.

Emergency Resources:

It’s always good to have your nation’s embassy or consulate information tuck safely in your contacts in case of emergency. The nearest US Consulate is in Tijuana-

Paseo de las Culturas s/n
Mesa de Otay
Delegación Centenario C.P. 22425
Tijuana, Baja California
Phone: (664) 977-2000

Mexico’s version of 911 is 066. If on a toll road, contact the roadside assistance group Green Angels at 078. State Police: (624)143-1210; Federal Police: (624)143-0004; BMR ambulance:(624)144-3434; Los Cabos Medical: (624)142-2770; Los Barriles Medical: (624)141-0606; MedCare: (624)143-4020; Red Cross: (624)144-4420.

Barbara Gabriel

Writer. Day Stealer. Chronic Traveler. Raised along Highway 61 in Minnesota, I ran away to sea & messed about in boats. I curse like a sailor and love travel, food, most people, and a well-fitting pair of boots. I try to combine those any chance I can.

4 Comments:

  1. Great read — maybe it’s time to try Hollywood!

  2. danielmgabriel

    Valuable tips indeed! Forewarned is forearmed. And you never know when you’re gonna want to throw that forearm.

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