Blood, Drugs & Sangria – Part four of a five part series..
In our previous posts, we talked about the dangers of traveling in Baja, Mexico. We also talked about how beautiful the country is and how it should not be overlooked just because of the current media hype. It also happens to be a budget travelers wonderland with a variety of activities to partake in that are all easy on the wallet.
To Read Part 2 click here: Blood, Drugs & Sangria – How To Vacation In A War Zone – Part 2 of a 5 part series.
To Read Part 3 click here: Blood, Drugs & Sangria – How to Vacation In A War Zone – Part 3 of a 5 part series.
To Read Part 5 click here: Blood, Drugs & Sangria – How to Vacation In a War Zone – Part 5 of a 5 part series.
This is the fourth post in our series of 5 and highlights our third tip for hanging out in one of the busiest & dangerous border cities in the world – Tijuana, Mexico.
We want to encourage you to head south of the border so while our tips may start with a “Don’t”, they are followed up by several “Do’s”. It can be scary to drive or visit any foreign country so we invite you to comment or contact us by email if you have any other specific questions before embarking on your own adventure. We would love the opportunity to answer your questions and give you the confidence you need to begin your journey.
Tip # 3 – Don’t drive without insurance, extra gas or at night.
The last place you want to run out of gas or blow a tire is in the middle of the desert. Keep yourself safe by planning ahead and having extra supplies. The roads in Mexico have been known to have bandits on them. Never drive at night in Mexico.
1. Get Mexican auto insurance before your journey. You can get it online or you can buy it on your way down. The highway exits leading up to the border will have signs telling you where to exit to purchase it. As an added perk most places are open 24 hours. It’s pretty cheap – anywhere from $10 – $20/day and it’s technically illegal to drive in Mexico without it. If you rent a car you will be forced to purchase it through the rental agency. I know some people who go without insurance but I just don’t think it’s worth it. The Mexican justice system is not the same as the U.S. In Mexico you are guilty until proven innocent and you will remain in jail during that time. Driving in Mexico is typically safe but Tijuana is a very congested city. You don’t want to get into a small fender bender and end up in jail just because you were too cheap to buy the insurance. It’s just not worth it.
2. Carry small, extra spare parts and gas. You can get pretty much anything you need in TJ or Ensenada but travel further and you could be stuck with limited resources. Make sure you have a spare tire and any other small odds/ends that you might need. It’s always good to have an extra jug of water and a flashlight just in case. Also make sure you bring extra gas if you are planning a multi-day road trip thru Baja. Baja California Sur (the southern half of the state) is mainly a beautiful national park that makes for fantastic scenery but there is little in the way of gas or snacks so make sure you have some with you.
3. As a rule of thumb you want to make sure you Do Not Drive At Night. Make sure to plan your days so that you arrive at your destination before sundown. Due to the drug lords and bandits there have been many issues on the locals roads and the toll road between Ensenada and Tijuana. Some tourists have even been shot at and others have been robbed. Don’t take this risk and leave your driving for the daylight hours. Additionally, the side roads are not marked well, you could get lost easily. We always drive during daylight hours and we have never had any problems. Also try to keep on the toll roads for any long hauls. Generally, the toll roads are a lot safer and it will be much easier to get help if you need it. As for the tolls, after Tijuana there are 2 or 3 tolls to pass through on the way to Ensenada. Ensenada is about 1 hr 20 minutes from the border. Based on the exchange rate each toll will be roughly $1.30. This fluctuates a bit but U.S. dollars are accepted on the tolls so you don’t need to change into Pesos to pay the tolls.
4. Wear your seatbelt. In Mexico it is illegal to drive without your seatbelt and in Tijuana you stand a good chance of being pulled over. This is especially common on the way back to the border because some cops will stand in the street to direct traffic. Because the cars are moving so slowly they have a birds eye view to see if you are buckled in or not. I learned this the hard way when I brought my mom down to a little town called La Salina. On the way back we were pulled over in Tijuana because my mother did not have her seatbelt on. We were told we had 2 choices: 1. Pay a $65 bribe or 2. Follow him to the police station. My mother started making things worse by telling a lie that she just took her seatbelt off momentarily because she was getting something out of her purse which was in the back seat. Fortunately there was a huge language gap which kept the fine from getting bigger. Wear your seatbelt, keep your money in your pocket and don‘t offer up any additional information. Just keep your mouth shut, pay the fine and be on your way.
5. This leads me to another point which is you should always carry extra cash with you in while traveling in Mexico. This money should be set aside specifically to pay bribes with. Hopefully you will not have to dip into this reserve but if you do you will be extremely thankful that you have it. Personally I have only had to do this twice but I know most of my friends have been bribed at one point or another. Many people refuse to pay the bribe and you can do that if you want. Typically if you really did nothing wrong then they will eventually let you go. However if you did do something illegal (like not having your seatbelt on) it’s a lot easier to pay the bribe instead of getting an actual ticket and ending up with a trip to the police station.
6. Another driving tip – About an 1.5 hours into Mexico (after Ensenada) you will be pass through a car inspection station. There will be young men with machine guns standing on the side of the road and it will undoubtedly look very intimidating. For the most part they are scanning the bottom of your car for certain insects so that they can’t be brought into southern Baja. Occasionally they will ask you to pop the trunk so they can inspect the things that you are carrying. Do not and I repeat do not carry guns into Mexico. This is highly illegal (even if your gun is licensed in the U.S.) and will land you in jail fast. However the HUGE tip I want to impart here is about talking to the soldiers at the checkpoint. The less Spanish you speak the better off you will be. I know this sounds strange because you think rationally that if you try to speak their language they will be more lenient with you. In my experience this has not been the case. The only thing this does is open you up to more questioning. Every time I have engaged in a Spanish speaking conversation with them I get searched for longer than anyone else and asked extra questions which can be nerve wracking. However when I speak English and act like I only know a little Spanish I get waived through pretty quickly. If they can’t communicate with you then there isn’t much point in trying to ask you about your luggage, etc. Trust me on this. I realize it sounds 100% backward but besides the Hola & Adios keep your Spanish language skills to an absolute minimum when speaking to an official at the inspection station. Work on your conversational skills with the locals who will be more than happy to talk to you without a machine gun in their hands. To corroborate on this fact I have other friends that are fluent in Spanish and do the exact same thing. This tip also applies to cops if you get pulled over.
7. Make sure your license plate is screwed on tightly. I had my plates stolen once in Mexico (they were my old, obvious Massachusetts plates). I can only wonder what kind of errands those plates are running now. If you are parking on the street take a look to see if any other cars on the street are missing one or both plates. If you notice a lack of plates keep driving and find a new spot.
8. Do drive a crappy or dirty car. Do NOT take a flashy SUV or car. You will get attention you don’t want – either from the cops or theives. The drug lords typically drive large, black, flashy SUV’s and it’s been reported on many occasions that they roll together into town before a shoot out. One of my best friends has a black shiny SUV with bright, sparkling rims. That vehicle will never see the dirt of a Mexican road because it is just too flashy. We don’t want anyone to think twice when they see her car and you don’t want that either. My crappy, consistently dirty Hyundai is a perfect Mexico car and since I lost the MA plates, it attracts zero attention. If you don’t have access to an ugly car then rent one, most car rental companies in San Diego will let you bring their cars into Mexico just make sure to tell them you are going to cross the border.
There you have it – my most important tips for driving in Mexico. Keep in mind that the roads in Tijuana are well marked but after that most roads aren’t marked very well. Also if you are planning on shopping during your trip one of my favorite spots is off the toll road. Between a little town called Calafia and Tijuana on the local road (it runs parallel to the ocean) there are a ton of small shops. You can park your car and spend a couple hours walking through them all and finding some really unique items. You can find excellent paintings, home furniture, odds & ends and even home improvement goods like Spanish tiles and Spanish sinks at a great price.
Also I should point out that you will not need to stop for any inspection as you enter Mexico. Unless you are carrying an RV full of stuff they will just waive you right through and there won’t even be any traffic. However on the way back be prepared for at least a 2 hour wait to get back into the U.S. Don’t worry you won’t be bored – the entire wait will be lined with peddlers selling everything from ice cream to the ugliest Aztec calender statue that you can imagine. As you get closer to the border the crowd intensifies and to me, it’s one of the most exciting parts of the trip. I love the border wait because you can get anything, you can practice your Spanish with people selling things in the street and overall it’s just fun to take it all in. If you happen to miss the Tijuana crossing and cross back through Otay Mesa the crowd will be thinner but you will be treated to a different show. Many times you will see people blowing fire for tips. However last time I saw this the fire blowers were children under the age of 10. That was very disturbing.
Our last post in the series will have a few more tips of the trade and I will also point out some great areas to visit that most people miss. Along with those little gems I will point out a couple long road trip excursions. Baja is an exciting and inexpensive place to visit and it can provide you with amazing memories unlike any of your other trips.
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