The old pickup truck was right on my ass. I looked in my rearview mirror and saw nothing but Chevy grill. The narrow road crested the top of a hill and dropped steeply in front of me. On my right was a rock wall that ended at the road’s edge. No shoulder and about an 18 inch margin between pavement and granite. On my left, across the narrow oncoming lane was a drop off that was terrifying to look at. I mean, if I wasn’t driving, the view would be magnificent. But I was driving, faster than I should have been on this crazy road, with a maniac on my tail.
200 meters down the hill and the road curved sharply right. My speedometer said 85 kph, and the speed limit on the turn was 60. As I rounded the curve my heart sank. Rocks were scattered across the road ahead of me. Several were large enough to total my car. I tapped my brakes in the hopes that crazy pickup truck maniac would back off, but when I looked back, he was only a couple of feet off my bumper. Oh crap, I thought. I’m done for. If the fallen rocks didn’t get me, the truck would.
I steered across the faint center line and aimed for the smallest rocks. I hoped my tires might at least stay on my wheels. With no other choice, I drove right over a boulder that was a good ten inches in diameter. The sound of it hitting my car’s undercarriage was sickening. I felt it under my seat as my old Volvo climbed up over the rock.
My Car, The Tank
My car kept going, and the rock, now slightly reshaped, shot out from behind and fired itself straight into the grill of the Chevy behind me. With the Volvo still on the road, I watched in gleeful amazement as the pickup truck slowed to a crawl before disappearing behind the curve of the road. I was past the rocks, the road ahead was clear, and the tailgating pickup truck was gone! The rock wall fell away, the road levelled out, and my car’s engine continued to purr.
I pulled off onto a dirt track and examined the damage. My Volvo has a great feature. It might even be standard with Volvos. It’s called a belly pan or skid plate. It protects the oil pan and other delicate parts from rocks and debris. And it protected my car from serious damage! Granted, the plate had a pretty good dent in it, but that’s it. The delicate bits were completely unscathed.
Okay, so you’re probably thinking the first tip for driving in Baja is “Watch for Rocks on The Road”, but that’s not it. The first tip is;
1. Always Drive The Posted Speed
You see, if I hadn’t been all caught up in my ego, the tailgating Chevy pickup wouldn’t have bothered me. I could have just slowed down until the driver got tired of me and passed me. He wouldn’t have ended up with a busted radiator and I wouldn’t be sweating bullets as I navigated a granite minefield. He would have given me a friendly wave as he accelerated past me at Formula 1 speeds, and I could have resumed my leisurely drive in search of the perfect beach.
The roads in Baja, Mexico are not always kept in the greatest condition. Money for road maintenance and general upkeep is pretty tight. It’s certainly better now than it was 10 or 15 years ago, but the Trans-Peninsular Highway is long and relatively remote. Sometimes the most practical thing the roads department can do is put up a speed sign in a deteriorating part of the road until they can get to repairing it. So if you’re driving along a stretch of road with a speed limit of 90 kph, and suddenly there’s a speed limit sign that says 60 kph, slow down!
2. Don’t Drive in Baja at Night
Mex 1, the Trans-Peninsula Highway, is almost 1100 miles from Tijuana to Cabo San Lucas. Almost every single mile is picturesque, if not downright stunningly beautiful. So the last thing you’d want to do is drive at night and miss all that beauty. And if you’re thinking that you just want to blast down non-stop to Mulege so you can get out fishing, think again. While the road has certainly improved significantly since it was opened in 1973, it is not a safe drive during the nighttime hours.
So you’re thinking, kidnappers? Drug cartels? Vicious gangs of road warriors?? Actually no. It’s cows. Vicious gangs of cows. Okay maybe not vicious. But cows nonetheless.
That blacktop ribbon snaking through farmland has a nice feature that cows like. It’s warm at night. When the sun goes down in the desert, the temperature can drop significantly. But the asphalt holds the heat from the day, making it an attractive and cozy place for a lie-down, if you’re a cow. But that’s not the only nighttime hazard when driving in Baja…
Who needs headlights!
On one trip I was driving south, heading to El Rosarito, and it was getting late. I had spent some time hiking and exploring the desert around Catavina, and the day was getting on. I figured I’d be a bit late, around 8 or 8:30 getting to my motel. Well the sun went down around 6:30, and I still had a couple of hours driving. There was nowhere else to stop, so I kept going. My high beams were on the whole time, but I was still surprised when I came out of a curve, and a car whizzed by going the opposite direction. He had no lights on! At first I thought I had imagined it, but then I saw his brake lights go on in my rear view mirror. And that was the only time I drove the Baja at night.
Topes is the Mexican word for speed bump. But a Mexican speed bump is not like any speed bump you’ve experienced. Topes are the granddaddies of speed bumps. They are the Mother of all speed bumps.
You know when you’re driving to your grandma’s at the retirement home, and there’s those yellow painted speed bumps out front of the building where she lives? And you slow down to 15 or 20 kph over the gently undulating profile? Well, topes are not like that! Topes are more like those berms that soldiers lie behind while shooting at the enemy. If a car drives over a tope at 15 or 20 kph, it’s probably going to arrive on the other side without its transmission.
Topes can appear anywhere, most often without any warning. Sometimes you will see a sign warning you of the impending jolt. Usually you won’t. They are essentially replacement traffic cops, to slow down the speeding Mexican drivers. But the Mexicans will just drive up to them at high speed, slam on their brakes before the tope, and speed up again until the next one. The worst topes are the ones that appear randomly along the highway a mile or two out of town. If you don’t know they’re there…!
4. You Will Get Stopped and Searched
In some conversations with friends about driving in Baja, I’ve been amazed when someone says, “I won’t drive down there if I’m gonna get searched by the military!” Really!!?? You’re going to miss out on one of the most memorable experiences of your life, just because of a few minutes of inconvenience? And I don’t even consider it an inconvenience. If anything, having a quick conversation with some friendly soldiers is part of the charm! I know, I’m weird that way…
Over the course of your 1000 + mile journey down the peninsula, you will be stopped, questioned and searched. Driving in Baja you need to expect it and plan for it. Knowing what is expected makes it easier. A minimal delay and you are on your way again.
There are 4 or 5 military checkpoints along the way. Young, friendly soldiers man each one, armed with automatic rifles and machine guns. Make eye contact, smile and offer a friendly greeting. Sometimes they’ll ask for ID. You may need to get out of your car. Take your wallet with you, and let them perform their search. Answer their questions in Spanish, if you can. They’ll ask you where you’re from(¿Donde vienes?), where you’re going(¿Donde va?), and that is that! You are back in your car and driving!
A strange checkpoint
Some years back driving in Baja, I was heading south to La Paz. Somewhere in Baja California Sur (BCS), north of Ciudad Constitucion, the highway stretched away in the distance for many miles. A slight downhill slope afforded a long, uninterrupted view of the road. Far in the distance I could see something that looked like it was in the middle of the road. As I drew closer, I saw a beer store at the side of the road. A frequent site, nothing too unusual. Except it was the only building around for miles. It consisted of 2 concrete side walls, a tin roof, and a counter with a sign that read “Pacifico”. A man sat behind the counter, shaded from the intense sun.
That in itself is pretty amusing, but that’s not the funny part. That thing I saw that looked like it was in the middle of the road? It was a large patio umbrella, tied to a plastic lawn chair, directly across from the beer store. Sitting in the lawn chair, next to a cooler, was a young soldier. Propped against the cooler was a small sign that read “Alto”. The young officer didn’t bother getting out of is chair to ask me my business. I told him my destination, and off I went.
5. Keep Your Tank Full
I think this is obvious, but there are those of you who might think you can just squeeze a few more drops out of your tank before you need to pull over. That does not work when driving in Baja. Fuel stops are a rare occurrence along this road. This road crosses remote desert, with very few towns and settlements along the way. PEMEX stations aren’t the same as beer stores in Baja. You won’t find them in unlikely, out of the way places. By the way, PEMEX is Mexico’s state owned petroleum company and, until recently, the only place motorists could buy fuel.
If you come into a town with a PEMEX station, stop and fill up. Even if you still have over half a tank. There could be another gas station in the next town 60 miles on, but what if it’s closed? What if it’s out of fuel? It happens sometimes. You would be left sitting on the side of the road, waiting for help that might be hours away.
Speaking of help, the highways of Mexico are patrolled by the Green Angels, Los Angeles Verdes, a dedicated group of men and women providing free service to stranded motorists. Operated by the Mexican Ministry of Tourism, the bilingual Green Angels assist with breakdowns, accidents and medical emergencies. They even offer travel advice and maps! If you require their services, tips are greatly appreciated. If you need help, just pull over to the side and raise your hood. They also have a 24 hour toll free number at 01-800-987-8224.
To wrap up, driving in Baja is an amazing experience, and the ultimate road trip. It offers some of the best scenery, fantastic weather, and lovely people. Except for the guy in the Chevy pickup. I didn’t like him.
Just remember that you’re traveling a remote wilderness area, with few services and long stretches of lonely highway. Make sure your vehicle is in top mechanical condition, carry lots of water, and PAY ATTENTION! This road is unforgiving and deadly to those who don’t stay focused. Stop often, take lots of pictures, and get out and walk. This desert is stunningly beautiful. It invites exploration. It will get under your skin, and you’ll want to come back.
Have you experienced driving in Baja Mexico? What were your favourite places? I would love it if you would share your stories with me by adding a comment.
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