Road tripping south-of-the-border is one of the coolest trips you can take. But before you go, read this post to ensure a conflict-free adventure.
- ASIDE FROM YOUR PASSPORT, YOU NEED A TOURIST VISA in order to travel throughout Mexico. It is illegal to travel to Mexico without purchasing a tourist visa. You can do so ahead of time online (HERE) or you can stop at an immigration office at any border crossing just inside Mexico to purchase one (click HERE for locations). If you pre-purchase online, you are still required to stop at one of the immigration offices to have it officially stamped. The tourist visa is valid for 180 days from issuance, so once you have a valid visa in your passport, you can skip this step and drive straight through and begin your Baja adventure.
2. IT IS ILLEGAL TO DRIVE IN MEXICO WITHOUT CAR INSURANCE. You are only required to purchase liability insurance for your car, not full coverage. You can do so online ahead of time through Bajabound.com but we’ve found this can be pretty costly. Alternatively you can purchase insurance for an entire year through other agencies which is what we recommend. It costs $99USD per person, $150 per couple, and follows the driver (not the vehicle) which is awesome in the event you want to rent a car or have multiple vehicles. Click HERE for recommendations of insurance agencies that can help with this process.
3. CELL COVERAGE IS SPOTTY. That is an understatement as YOU WILL BE WITHOUT INTERNET for a good portion of your trip, depending on how deep you venture, in many sections of Baja. Now we know that most likely you are headed into Baja with the idea of being ‘off the grid’ but you don’t want to get lost and wind up in the middle of nowhere without a clue either, do you? Enter Maps.me. This amazing app has changed the way we travel. Simply download Maps.Me (or another offline map app) before your trip and make sure to download the proper maps to your phone of where you’ll be traveling. Baja is covered in just 1 map which makes it easy, but be sure to download the map of the US from where you’re traveling to have uninterrupted directions. Once it’s downloaded to your phone, you can use it just like google maps with the ability to search locations, restaurants, gas stations, etc. all while being offline. You can also STAR locations and customise your map at any time, which can be a serious life saver.
4. YOUR CELL SERVICE MIGHT NOT INCLUDE MEXICO. That being said, you might want to send a text when you do have service to let your friends & family know you’re alive 🙂 Be sure to check if your cell plan includes coverage in Mexico (many already do) or if you can add an international plan for an extra fee. Usually to do this you need to call your service provider and give them at least 24 hours to activate the international service.
5. Caravanning down? BRING WALKIE TALKIES. If you’re driving with friends, it’s much easier to communicate via walkie talkie than having to call each other every time you need to stop for a pee break or grab some Electrolits at the Pemex. And we can’t stress it enough, your phone will lose service at some point. Walkie Talkies work without the need for cell service and are also pretty fun to use. Double check the distance rating on the walkie talkie before purchasing, we recommend a distance of at least 1 mile. Ah yes, and don’t forget extra batteries for these things. They eat up batteries and definitely don’t work without them.
6. PACK WATER. Lots and lots of water. Baja is a desert and no matter the season, there is little fresh water available on the road. Of course you can stop at the Pemex for water whenever you see one, but it’s always best to pack plenty with you, whether it be for drinking, bathing, using it for your car engine, or washing dishes. We suggest bringing two 5 gallon water jugs for a 1 week trip for 2 people. The beauty of these large jugs is that you can have them refilled for next to nothing at any “Agua Purificada” store throughout Baja (cost us $12 pesos = $0.55USD).
7. Depending on where you’re headed, PACK AN EXTRA GAS TANK. This one is debatable mostly because of where you plan to travel in Baja. On our last trip to Scorpion Bay, we didn’t have room inside the truck for a gas tank and we managed just fine without it (minus the one time we ran out of gas between Cabo & Todos Santos…Stefan…). If you don’t bring a gas tank, we suggest following a simple rule: Never pass a gas station with less than half a tank without filling up. We use the term ‘gas station’ lightly, because if you see a guy on the side of the road with some barrels of gasolina, he is just as good as any Pemex. Plus, he probably appreciates the money more than the other guys 😉
8. BRING CASH INCLUDING SOME SMALL BILLS (preferably pesos). The US dollar is accepted in most areas of Baja which is great in a pinch, but we can guarantee you won’t get the best exchange rate when paying in USD versus pesos and might pay a ‘gringo tax’ for using the dollar. Although many grocery stores, restaurants, and gas stations accept Visa & MasterCard now, you never know when the ‘maquina no esta funcionando’, the machine isn’t working. Don’t put yourself in a position where you can’t pay for your goods and instead plan ahead with cash. It’s best to have smaller pesos so you don’t have to be concerned if someone has ‘cambio’ and divide your pesos up and keep them in various (hidden) locations throughout your car (2-3 places is good). Chances are you won’t be robbed or have any issues with the Federales, but if you do you’ll be ready to handle the situation and not lose everything. And bonus: if you have extra pesos hidden, you won’t be caught without cash when passing through an unexpected toll or when that craving hits for Tostitos Salsa Verdes chips (drool).
9. YOU WILL PASS THROUGH SEVERAL MILITARY CHECKPOINTS. This is common, don’t panic. The Mexican military has 5-6 permanent checkpoints scattered throughout Baja along the main routes running North and South (and occasionally some side roads too). They will usually be announced a few hundred yards before the stop with a sign that reads “PUESTO MILITAR”. As you approach, we suggest showing them you have nothings to hide: remove sunglasses, hats, turn off the radio, and roll your windows down at least half way. Again, don’t panic. They most likely will not speak english, especially the further South you travel. Usually they will ask where are you coming from (“De done vai?”) and where are you going (“A donde vas?”). Answer any questions you can understand and be compliant. Almost always they will want to perform a mini-search your vehicle. Don’t take it personally, they do this to nearly every gringo. It’s just part of the experience. Turn off the engine and exit the vehicle. Keep your eyes on the officers performing the search just to be safe, and again answer any questions they might have. Usually they will look through some bags, open the glovebox, centre console, etc., and might tap around on some panels or the ceiling (they are looking for hallow areas where there might be illegal items).
⁃ We have found if you speak spanish, you can actually break the ice and get a small chuckle out of them if you poke fun at yourself lightly. Perfect example: We had brought a fishing rod with us on our last Baja road trip. Unfortunately for us we weren’t very lucky and caught a whopping 0 fish….so when the military officers would pick up the fishing rod in the back of the truck, Stefan would say “Ayyyy, no peces…no soy un buen pescador.” That got a good laugh and would usually lighten the mood a bit.
⁃ Once they have seen enough, they will say “Te vayas bien” (have a good trip) and you can thank them and hop back in the car and be on your way.
10. CROSSING THE BORDER BACK THE THE USA. You may have heard horror stores that the border wait times can be LONG. Especially if you’re crossing at the popular San Ysidro (Tijuana) border. So plan ahead:
⁃ Check online at https://bwt.cbp.gov/ which gives live estimated waits at each border crossing in Mexico and Canada. Generally speaking, the borders are busiest on Sunday afternoons with all the tourists crossing back to the USA, or mornings during the week with all the commuter traffic.
⁃ Are you a frequent border-crosser and want to skip the long lines indefinitely? Duh. Then you should consider applying for the Global Entry/ Sentri program through the US government. But what’s the difference? Sentri is used to cross land borders between Canada & the US or Mexico & the US. Global Entry includes these land borders as well as any air borders. Meaning for example you travel to Europe, when you fly back into the US you can skip the general customs line and use a Global Entry kiosk which on average saves 30min-1hour. So if you are an avid traveler across land and air borders, Global Entry is the way to go, and if you are just interested in reducing your wait time at the MEX/US border then Sentri is all you need. For both, an application, background check, processing fee of $150 (Global entry) or $100 (Sentri), and in-person interview will get you your card valid for 5 years. But plan ahead. Sentri & Global entry processing times have increased with a wave of Americans eager to enroll in this program and now due to COVID-19, processing centres have been temporarily closed. This means it can take anywhere from 1-4 months before being able to schedule your in-person interview. Click HERE for more info and to enrol
⁃ Be aware of what you’re bringing back and potential ’illegal’ items that you cannot bring back across into the US. The US border crossing agents are serious about these items and they might not be what you & I consider ‘illegal’: Some items include any and all fruits & veggies, cheese, meats of any kind, seeds or plants…the list goes on. To get a full list of items that are and are not permitted to cross in a pedestrian vehicle into the US, click HERE.
Alright, that’s it! You’re ready to hit the open road and travel safely through the best country of all. If you want a sneak peek at the beautiful places you’re going to encounter along the way, CLICK HERE to watch our 4 video edits from our recent road trip through the entire Baja peninsula!