Driving to Baja...It's Safe and Easy!
Recently I was able to sit down with a friend who had just returned from a two-month trip driving down the Baja peninsula and back in his Chevy van, where he spends 50% of his time. Jamie had a lot of tips for those of you who wish to drive down. He had nothing but good things to say about the road conditions, his safety, and the great people of Mexico.
What did you do to prepare for your trip?
“I got new tires. I needed them, but also, I did not want to take any chances. The roads in Baja are good, but there are some big potholes. If you do hit one, it can be dramatic. Sometimes it can be hours before you see another car, and cell phone reception is spotty.”
Mexico highways are monitored by the Green Angels, who drive the highways, providing roadside assistance when needed, for free depending on what you need. You can reach them on your cell by calling “078.” If you don’t have cell phone reception, there’s no guarantee about when they might find you.
If you have Mexpro Mexico auto insurance, roadside assistance is included as part of your policy. But, again, if you can’t use your cell phone, you won’t be able to call for service.
“Have a good spare tire that you can drive on for long distances. Again, the roads are good, but if you do have a tire issue, it can be many miles–even 100, until you come across a gas station or tire shop.”
“It’s not a bad idea to have a 5—gallon gas can of gas in your ride. The gas stations are far apart, and you need to plan on that when driving in Mexico. Sometimes there will be folks on the side of the road selling gas, especially at the intersection of HWY 5 and HWY 1 in Chapala (not really a town). But those guys are not always there.”
The green angels do provide gas, as does Mexpro’s MexVisit® roadside assistance.
“I found it crucial to download the maps.me app. Since spotty cell phone reception in Baja is an issue, even in the cities, you need a tool you can use when you don’t have cell service or WIFI. With maps.me you can download all of Baja and the areas you will be visiting, allowing you to navigate from anywhere. Google maps led me to the wrong places several times when I was able to use it. I found maps.me essential to making my trip easier.”
“If you need WIFI you can get it in most restaurants along the Baja Peninsula, even the small ones. But if you need WIFI your best bet is to get Starlink. It is available throughout Mexico and the people I know who had it were happy with it.”
How was it crossing the border?
“It was so easy getting into Mexico. I usually go in via the main downtown Calexico/Mexicali West Port of Entry. A lot of people are now driving down the Baja Peninsula using what they call the ‘new road’ or Highway 5, which comes out of Mexicali. I like it too and have driven down the peninsula twice from Mexicali.
I plan to arrive at the border between 10-11 am and get through quickly. This last time there were only two or three cars ahead of me. As soon as I checked in with the guard, I’m not sure if he even asked for my passport, I pulled off to the right to reach an office building where you get your FMM.”
[NOTE: Don’t be confused by the fact that the border agent waves you through the border and forget to get your FMM. You must stop and get your FMM OR get your Passport/FMM paperwork stamped if you bought it online.]
“You fill out the FMM form and show the agent your passport. You must pay for the FMM unless you are staying less than seven days, when it is free. I don’t remember what I paid but am guessing around $30. You must pay with cash. After that the agent stamps your passport booklet and writes in the date you must be back (180 days later), you are on your way.
After retrieving my FMM I headed south on Imperial Avenue, a major thoroughfare through the middle of Mexicali. It turns into Highway 5 after you exit Mexicali, and you are on your way down the peninsula.”
Driving the Baja Peninsula
Pro Tip: Get Gas in San Felipe
“Make sure you get gas in San Felipe. It’s a long, long way to your next gas station in Guerro Negro — there may be a few others, but you can never know if they will be open or not.”
The first town after Mexicali is San Felipe. It’s a dreamy little town with the feel of old Mexico (as many towns on the east side of the Peninsula are). Yet on the weekends it’s a little more like a desert ATV/UTV festival. There are a lot of great things to do in San Felipe; we’ll talk about them in a later article.
Did you Feel Safe on Highway 5?
“ABSOLUTELY. I went down during Covid. I was surfing and by myself, so I didn’t feel I was in danger, nor that anyone else was. The roads were empty, and I felt a little vulnerable being out there by myself.
This time there were a lot of Gringos traveling on the ‘new road,’ as they called it, or Highway 5. I met a friend in San Felipe, and we met another traveler at a gas station that was headed in the same direction, so we caravanned. I never felt unsafe during the entire two-month trip. The Mexican people were kind, friendly, funny, and generous as usual.”
Did you get stopped at Military checkpoints?
“There are always military checkpoints, and they aren’t scary, unless you have a weapon or drugs; or if you don’t have your FMM or passport. They may search your vehicle. Remember you are in a foreign country and must do what they say, but they’ve always been very kind to me.
I had my van searched once. I just opened all the doors and let them do their thing. I think that’s the best way to do it.”
Any other driving tips?
“Follow the traffic laws to a T — especially the stop signs. Most of the Baja population does not stop at the stop signs. And there are usually 10-15 in every town. But if you are a gringo and don’t stop you are looking at getting a ticket and the fines are hefty.”
Pro Tip: Stop Sign Etiquette
“Here’s what you do to avoid trouble: as you approach the stop sign, tap your brakes several times, indicating you are really going to stop. Do this to warn any locals who may be behind you and not planning to stop. You don’t want to get rear-ended for following the law. Make a complete stop, and then be on your way.”
You should also note that the stop signs are often shorter and sometimes difficult to see, especially when you are used to U.S. signs.
“If you are pulled over by the police, do not attempt to pay them off. My friend, Jess, got a ticket for not stopping and I tried to bribe the cop. He was offended and charged her more money, as part of her infraction. The process now is to follow the police to the police station.
Jess’s ticket was expensive and she did not have that much money in cash. So in the end they took what money she did have in cash, instead of taking a credit card or having her go to the ATM. The police will be more likely to take immediate cash rather than a credit card or have you go to an ATM.”
Be sure you follow the road signs and go the correct speed limit and you likely will not have to deal with the cops.
Did you have any difficulties getting back into the U.S.?
“Just getting into the wrong exit lane. On the way back, I went through the Calexico East Port of Entry, as I read that it was a smaller and easier crossing. Make sure you follow the ‘autos only’ signs, as there is a totally different exit for 18-wheelers and it’s easy to accidentally get in that line, which I did. I was able to turn around with little difficulty, but it did delay my exit.
Also make sure you stay out of the express lane, unless you have a Fast Pass, as it will just further delay your entry into the U.S. I got to the border about 11 am and I was there for about two hours on a Tuesday. So, expect some traffic on the way out.”
You can check border crossing wait times if you have phone or WIFI service.
We are thankful for Jamie providing these very helpful tips for driving the Baja peninsula. I know I’m ready to go! My next article will talk about Jamie’s adventures in Baja, mostly whale watching, and lots of tips for doing that also. Thank you, Jamie!
Make sure you have your passport, FMM, driver’s license, and Mexico auto insurance when driving to Mexico. If you get into an accident your U.S. policy will likely not cover you for physical damage, and Mexico only accepts liability insurance from a Mexican insurer.