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Relo Driving Baja

I’M DRIVING THE BAJA

Distances on the chart below are in Miles: NOT to be confused with the time required to drive between the points on the highway. Road conditions in most places limit speeds to well below what might be expected on many two-lane highways in the U.S..

From the Tijuana Border Crossing to;

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Note: If Highway 1 is used between La Paz and Cabo San Lucas, add 41 miles.

Your number one priority will hopefully be insurance coverage for your trip down the Baja, just as it is for driving back home. And your number two priority will be to ensure your tires and engine pass all the readiness tests. Roads here were built to accommodate commerce. They’re always under re-construction or repair because the infrastructure was not created to handle the large number of heavy vehicles, and transient traffic. Rule of thumb is: remember you’re in a foreign country. Pay attention, stay alert, smile a LOT and be thankful for the beautiful scenery. In other words, just because you’re not ‘home’, safety rules and guidelines have not disappeared, and it is still NOT safe, in fact, here, excessive speed on what looks like an open highway or challenging race course is extremely UNSAFE.

Your US/Canadian insurance company, if like most, will NOT cover you internationally. Also, if you have not yet paid off your vehicle loan, and a lending institution holds the title currently, you must legally alert them that you are taking your vehicle out of the country.

Obtaining full insurance coverage here in the Baja is easy. Most ex-pats use a US based company called West Coast Insurance Service. You would simply let your lender know the company you’ve purchased insurance through, or, you might consider storing your vehicle and keeping only minimal coverage while it’s not being driven within the USA. As a side note of interest, West Coast Insurance also provides health coverage as well as all other international insurance needs, including evac services. For additional information and quotes, check the links provided below, so you can ensure and INSURE a safe journey down the baja into a foreign country. For additional information regarding your health care or emergency medical coverage, visit mex-connect online.

Now that you and your vehicle are covered and ready for the journey, you’ll find the drive along the Trans-peninsular Highway is one of the great desert drives in North America. But don’t become complacent: it is also one of the most dangerous.
There are some important issues that need to be addressed prior to your departure from home. The Trans-peninsular Highway was initially constructed to facilitate commerce between the northern and southern states of the Baja California peninsula. The original construction was minimal and quick – in many sections the dirt was graded and a thin layer of asphalt rolled in place. As this surface rapidly deteriorated due to weather, it was patched, re-patched, and “resurfaced” with another thin layer of surfacing material. As parts of the road are now being replaced, a more substantial and long lasting method of construction is being used.

As part of the minimal nature of the highway, the roadway was constructed to accommodate two passing commercial trucks (eight feet wide plus mirrors), with about one foot of clearance between the trucks. Generally, the highway is constructed with 9 foot lanes and no shoulders. In some areas there will be no center striping on the road. Steep drop-offs and cliffs are common along the roadside, with the deeper ones often having a guardrail at the edge of the pavement.

Actually living in Cabo allows you to explore Cabo and the surrounding areas, including the West Cape and the East Cape. It’s a spectacular area, and you could spend a lot of time searching for something new and exciting around the next corner, or just let nature surprise you as she often is wont to do.The width and condition of the road in Baja present a constant challenge to the driver to be alert. There is no room for wandering off the road to the right and expecting to recover. Wandering to the left presents the possibility of oncoming traffic. This is a very unforgiving road, and don’t you forget it; your life may depend on it.

If you have trouble staying alert when driving, you should not be driving this road.
If you are trying to reach La Paz or Cabo in only 2-3 days, you need to rethink your schedule.
If you are in a hurry to reach a distant location along the highway, you should fly or take a bus.

(Another consideration in contemplating a fast trip to the southern end of the peninsula is that of missed opportunities – the chance to see plants not found elsewhere, visit towns unlike those we are familiar with, and meet some of the warmest and most genuine people to be found anywhere)

If you wonder at the validity of this concern, spend an hour counting the highway memorial crosses.

The truck drivers on the Baja tend to keep tight schedules. Though they are extremely courteous MOST of the time, and will use hand signals to alert you that it’s clear to pass them, the most common accident seen on the highways of Baja California involve trucks going off the road or flipping over at a curve. Of course, the 2nd most common accident is the speed-maniac who goes over the edge of a cliff on an unmarked perilous curve with no safety guardrail.

Under almost no circumstances should the Baja highway be driven at night. The main reason we offer this advice is that animals in Mexico are free-range. Hence, they are attracted to the pavement at night because it retains heat long after the ground has turned cold, and footing is easier. They tend to show up in the oddest of places on occasion, including golf greenss and private pool areas. There are a host of other, equally important reasons for not driving the highway at night. Some of them are: unseen potholes, a lack of center striping to help keep you separated from approaching traffic, drunken drivers near the towns and villages, tired truck drivers, a general lack of regard for speed limits and personal safety by other drivers, and again; sudden perilously sharp curves with no guardrails.

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Never drive the baja ALONE, and always be alert to suspicious roadblocks or activities. These incidences usually occur in the wee hours, and are another great reason for spending that time resting & readying for another day’s drive.

There is a driving custom in Mexico which first-time visitors should be aware of, also:

The use of the left turn indicator has at least two meanings:
First, the traditional indication for a pending left-hand turn is used, usually in conjunction with a slowing of the vehicle and a flashing of the brake lights.
A second, and possibly more common use, is to indicate that the “leading vehicle” considers it safe for the “following vehicle” to pass. This is extremely dangerous in the situation where the leading vehicle really intends to turn left, and the following vehicle interprets that it is OK to pass.

If the vehicle ahead flashes its left turn signal, before making the move to pass, check for possible left turn points and pass only if there are no side roads or ‘stops’ this vehicle could possibly turn into.

When a Mexican driver is going to turn left, there will often be some arm-waving and a movement of the vehicle into the other lane (if that lane is empty) – this allows you to pass by in your regular lane.

If YOU intend to turn left across the oncoming lane, and there are vehicles behind you, slow down and have your brake lights on before you activate the turn indicator. For good measure, open the window and use a hand signal as well.
Also note: this usage of the left-turn signal is frequently just an unofficial greeting between professional drivers just as blinking headlights reassures them they have space to move over once they pass another vehicle. You may have even observed this in the US and Canada on two-lane highways.

One of the more prominent features of the Baja highways is the “Vado” sign.

Vados are the dips across the road through which water will rush when it rains. During the rainy season (generally, winter in the north and summer in the south) these vados can become very full and dangerous! If you are in doubt about crossing a particular water-filled vado, wait until some hardier soul tries it – watch his path and the height of the water on the side of his vehicle.

Passing through a water-filled vado requires more caution for the driver of a gasoline-powered vehicle. It’s easy to get water splashed up into the engine compartment where the ignition system can short out. One standard trick, if this appears to be a real possibility, is to remove the fan belt driving the engine fan. This will prevent the fan from spraying any water about the compartment. (This trick may also be used by diesel vehicles concerned with getting water in the air intake.)

Near local towns and villages, these situations will sometimes bring out groups of young boys who perch on rocks by the road like vultures waiting for their prey. They are of course waiting for a motorist to stall in the middle of the stream, at which point they begin negotiations regarding a push to higher ground. In this negotiation they are already holding the higher ground!

In a few places you will find vado signs with names assigned to them. These correspond to the names of the storms which wiped out the road at that point.

With the exception of the Tijuana-Ensenada toll road, all non-symbolic highway signs are in Spanish, as should be expected.
I mean, you ARE in Mexico! Here are a few basic signs you’ll encounter.

Despacio
=
Slow
Peligroso
=
Dangerous
Vado Peligroso
=
Dangerous Dip
Curva Peligrosa
=
Dangerous Curve
Despacio Desviación
=
Slow Detour

For your safety: The “Green Angels” , a government-sponsored fleet of assistance vehicles which travel the major highways of Mexico, should, theoretically, pass any fixed spot 2 times each day. They can be identified by their bright PURPLE color with white lettering on the side. The driver and/or helper may (or may not) speak English, but they will carry gasoline and a few common spare parts. In the worst situation, they should be able to summon additional help.

In line with the idea of assistance, the Mexican Ministry of Tourism maintains an “800” number in Mexico City: 91-800-90-392, and they are reported to have some English-speaking operators, and finally, the fear of a roadside breakdown while traveling any where in Mexico or Baja has been eliminated. The Auto Club of Mexico is an emergency roadside assistance and international towing service designed specifically for Americans and Canadians traveling, vacationing or living in Baja California and Mexico.

At two points along the Transpeninsular Highway, traffic is funneled through an Agricultural Inspection Station. The inspector may wave you through or may stop you to ask if you are carrying fruits or vegetables. Some fruits and vegetables may have to be confiscated, while others can be kept. As a general rule, all thin skinned fruits will be confiscated (oranges, apples, mangos, limes, etc.)

There is a newer station at the state boundary just north of Guerrero Negro, and an older station just north of La Paz. Rest assured, the inspectors are very polite and helpful.

Beginning in 1998 a spraying program has been in place at the station located at the state boundary. There is a 10 peso fee to pay for each car sprayed (only traveling south), and double that for an RV. The program is run by the Municipio (“County”) of Mulegé to keep certain agricultural pests out. Since the advent of the military checkpoints along the highway, the nature of these inspection stations has occasionally shifted. All may go uneventfully for several trips down the Baja, and then suddenly you may find that the agricultural inspection has been pushed aside in favor of a military drugs and arms inspection. This seems to frequently be the case at the La Paz station. But no worries; as long as you’re not transporting firearms or drugs, in which case you can be assured you will be stopped, arrested and spend a goodly amount of time in a Mexican prison, in that order.

If you are stopped by a police officer for a traffic violation you should always politely insist on a written citation that you could pay at the police station or by mail. Be aware that speed limits in Mexico are set in kilometers (1 mile= 1.6 kms.) so that the speed limit on highways is 55 Miles per hour and within city limits it averages 15 miles per hour.

When faced with a fine that you consider unfair, you can contest the fine by filling an appeal, either orally or in writing, for a municipal judge to review, but it must be done within that jurisdiction by a local judge. DO NOT give up your driver’s license, your vehicle registration, or attempt to bribe municipal or Federale officers…especially the Federale’s, whose fees and clout can assist you in finding yourself comfortable behind bars for offering a bribe or non-cooperation. And they CAN comfiscate your vehicle, which would, for most of us, ruin a perfectly good trip!

Just like in the United States, you can get a ticket and be issued a fine for:

Running a red light.
Not having or not using the seat belt.
Using your cellular phone while driving.
Driving without a valid driver’s license or car registration.
Drinking alcoholic beverages on the streets, sidewalks or public property (including highways).
Exceeding the speed limit.
Driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs (D.U.I.)
In addition to the fine, you may also be detained until your attitude changes, and then have to pay to retrieve your impounded vehicle.

What you must always remember is that you are IN a FOREIGN, DEVELOPING country, where laws are broken regularly, made up on the spot, and you have no recourse if there is not a consulate in the village you’ve been stopped in, Keep these suggestions in mind, be respectful and always use common sense.