My last two posts have all had to do with previous and current roamings around Baja California, and now I’d like to help others explore the area independently as well. With the help of a “Baja Calfornia travel expert” (my Dad), I have compiled a post with current information for anyone planning to travel to Baja in 2013. My Dad has traveled independently and extensively throughout the area for years, and has seen the region go through booming tourism to a slow trot, due to the influx of violence on media reports. Now, we both agree people should stop being so scared of Baja and start going back. Though the violence in Mexico has been devastating for the lives of thousands, business, and tourism, there is one silver lining — travel to Baja is now a completely local and authentic experience.
In my Dad’s opinion, “Baja Mexico (and not Cabo, that’s not the real Baja) is a magical place. You can drive, or better yet ride a motorcycle, for a 1000 miles through a beautiful desert void of crowds or development. Each day you can eat fresh inexpensive seafood, or authentic Mexican cuisine , camp or or get a hotel right on the beach, kayak in the ocean, get close to the grey whales, golf on the coastline, party at a real cantina or just sit back and be part of authentic Mexico. For those of us who continue to go south regardless of the northern media bashing (yes, there is crime along the border) Baja is special because it has barely changed, even since the highway was completed in 1972.”
Crossing the border and methods of transportation
By car: Crossing the U.S. border into Baja Mexico is fast and easy. You can cross at Tijuana or Mexicali, and visit several villages and towns with only a passport, a U.S. drivers license, vehicle registration and Mexican liability insurance for your vehicle. Be sure to purchase Mexican liability insurance at the border, or better yet from the internet and print a copy before you leave. If you are in an accident, regardless of fault, you will need this policy or go to jail until fault is determined. You can also purchase full coverage for your vehicle that includes Mexican legal service. You pay for each day of travel but it’s well advised.
If you plan to visit Baja for more than 72 hours, or travel farther south than Ensenada or San Felipe, you may also need a tourist card (FMM). Tourist cards can be obtained quickly, usually within minutes, at the Mexican immigration offices at the border. Simply park right past the border check and the officers will point you the way. However, my Dad has made several trips through Baja and has never been asked for the card.
To get to most coastal Baja destinations: From the San Ysidro border crossing, follow the signs to “Rosarito/Beach Cities” and take the toll roads down Coastal Highway One.
By bus: One easy and non-threatening way to see some of Baja is by taking the Mexicoach bus from the border parking in San Ysidro. These red Mexicoach buses go into Tijuana and also Rosarito.
To travel further south, Ensensada and down the Baja Peninsula, you can take an ABC bus from Tijuana. Walk across the border at San Ysidro to the Plaza Viva. Buses for Ensenada depart every half hour from 6 am to 9:30pm and cost about $15 U.S. dollars.
Tip: Sit on the right side of the bus for ocean views.
All of these bus options above should lead to a safe, hassle free option of exploring a bit of Baja.
Safety in Baja
Though drug related crime has been a serious problem in Mexico in the last 7 years, still the question of safety is often debated on the internet. Everyone traveling into Mexico for the first time should do their own research, but take media reports of violence with a grain of salt. Sometimes, the U.S. media reports on violent crime in Mexico more than the crime in our own cities. From some various articles I’ve read around the internet, Tijuana could be considered a success story in fighting drug-related crime in the last few years. Research will also show that Baja is currently the safest area of Mexico. As reports of violent crime have gone up in the last few years in other parts of Mexico, reports of violent crime in Tijuana has been going down. To get a first hand view, you can read about my recent experience in Mexico. Gadling also has a great article about safety in Baja, and some local’s personal experiences, here.
There are a few simple safety rules for Baja, but most involve just using common sense and being aware of your surroundings. Not being out past dark in Tijuana or Rosarito is one way to avoid problems. The farther south you go, the safer you will be. Also, do not drive on the highways after dark– black cows on a dark and black highway is a sure recipe for disaster. Taking just a few precautions will go far. Don’t flash money or jewelry, cause attention to yourself, or get too drunk. If you look easy to take advantage of, the higher the risk you will be.
There is no doubting the presence of corrupt police officers in Mexico. If trouble arises with one, don’t be afraid to go to the police station (or tell them you will meet them there later) to settle the issue. If you have not broken a law, it is unlikely that you will pay a fine. Most likely, the officer will tell you to go on your way or hold your license and give it to you when you go to the police station. Some use an expired license for this issue and never go back to claim it. Most officers will want a small bribe to quickly settle the issue, and while it is illegal to take or offer a bribe, it is still done frequently. Try not to take this route, as you are only making the situation worse for others in the future, making it easy for police officers to expect bribes.
To do your best to avoid these situations, don’t break laws on the road or do anything to attract attention to yourself. Tip: A family friend was pulled over in Mexico while talking on a cell phone while driving. Whether it is technically illegal or not, best avoid it.
Street food in Mexico is delicious and filling, but use the same cautions as you would when traveling to other countries. Eat street tacos from busy taco carts or shops where the food turnover is fast and nothing is sitting out. Only drink bottled water, and be careful with juices or ice made without filtered water. Coffee in upscale areas is usually safe but when in doubt, opt for bottled water… or better yet a Corona.
- Know some Spanish: Before the war on drugs, tourism in Baja was huge and the use of English was widespread. Nowadays, most tourists are not coming from the U.S., but mostly Europe and other parts of Mexico, therefore English is used less often. Learn some basic phrases to not only to make your time in Baja a bit easier, but to also be respectful of the local culture.
- Currency: Most parts of Northern Baja still accept U.S. dollars and you can also use U.S. currency on the toll roads. If planning to travel more extensively throughout Baja it is best to find a “casa de cambio” or use my preferred method for getting currency in a foreign country– just withdrawl from an ATM.
- Souvenirs: Shopping in Mexico is fun, and haggling is encouraged. For the best deal, walk away and wait for the person to shout a lower price to you. Don’t always haggle too hard, remember that many of these people have gone through rough times with the decline in tourism. Spending a little extra money on a souvenir will probably help them more than it will hurt your wallet. Also, try and buy souvenirs or items made by local artists.
For great fresh seafood try: Ensenada, San Felipe, Loreto and La Paz.
Best beach camping: Bahia Concepeion, South of Mulege.
For whale watching: Scammon’s Lagoon.
Must do’s: Lobster in Puerto Nuevo, hanging out in downtown Mulege, golfing in Loreto, visiting the old Spanish missions of San Ignacio, Mulege and Loreto.
With crime levels down, more Americans should be taking advantage of the foreign country we have so close. But visit soon, it won’t feel untouched and authentic forever…