Driving the Transpeninsular Highway and the few other paved routes in Baja is fairly straightforward. Road conditions can vary, though—with potholes, speed bumps (topes), livestock, construction, rock slides, and other unexpected obstacles possible around every bend.
In Southern Baja, road crews have been busy building bridges over arroyos that flood in the rainy season. Watch for Desviación signs and slow down. There may or may not be a worker flagging vehicles to stop, and workers take few precautions to protect themselves from oncoming traffic. Drive carefully through any construction zones.
Among the greatest challenges are the deep vados, dry river beds that fill with water after heavy rains; the narrow width of the road, and the fact that it has no shoulder in many places; and the 18-wheelers that barrel along at high speeds, often passing cars on blind turns.
Other than the four-lane toll roads between Tijuana  and Ensenada , Tijiana and Mexicali , La Paz  and Todos Santos , and San José del Cabo  and Cabo San Lucas , these highways are two-lane roads. Several dirt roads have been recently paved, connecting inland communities such as San Javier , near Loreto, and Los Planes, near La Paz, to the Transpeninsular Highway. But aside from those developments, all other roads in Baja are gravel, dirt, or sand.
The condition of Baja’s unpaved roads varies widely, from smooth graded paths to heavy washboard, soft sand, and steep grades with frequent washouts. Good road maps categorize dirt roads to give you an idea of what to expect, but it’s best to ask about current road conditions before embarking on an off-highway excursion.
Travelers who aren’t intending to venture into the backcountry often get stuck in the sand the moment they pull off the coastal road to check the surf or park at the beach. Carry a shovel for digging yourself out, plus something to put under the wheels to provide traction, like a piece of wood or ribbed plastic. It also helps to let some of the air out of your tires, but bring a compressor for pumping the tires back up.
Common sense and a few additional precautions will get you safely from one town to the next in Baja. Wherever you go, plan the driving so that you are not on the road at night. The biggest danger after dark is animals—cows, burros, and dogs, which appear in the road more frequently than you’d think. Other concerns include local vehicles without headlights, brake lights, or tail lights; drivers under the influence of alcohol; and the lack of lighting or reflectors on most of these roads.
Follow the speed limits, even though the locals often drive much faster (they know the road, you don’t). Taking it slow gives you a little extra time to react in an emergency situation and also reduces the chance that you’ll inadvertently commit a traffic offense. Plus, it’s a better way to enjoy the scenery.
Note that topes and vados are not always marked, so pay attention and be ready to slow down immediately upon spotting them. We’ve seen cars take particularly bad speed bumps at full speed and launch themselves in the air to reveal the undercarriage of the vehicle. Measure the depth of water in any vado before driving through.
Highway signs in Baja are usually self-explanatory, with symbols or pictures are well as words. Some of the more useful road signs include:
Baja’s major highways feature kilometer markers that count up or down between cities, depending on which direction you are heading. People often use these markers when measuring distances and giving directions (e.g., “Turn off at Km. 171.”). In Baja California (Norte), the markers start at zero (Km. 0) in Tijuana  and ascend heading south. Starting at the state line with Baja California Sur, the markers descend as you continue south, beginning with Km. 220 in Guerrero Negro .
In the larger cities, it can be difficult to navigate busy streets and unfamiliar intersections; foreign motorists do get pulled over for running hard-to-see (or nonexistent) stop signs and other legitimate (though understandable) violations. The best way to prevent this kind of incident is to drive slowly and assume you must stop at every urban intersection, whether you see a sign or not.
If you’re stopped, respond kindly and respectfully and you may be let go without a ticket. If the officer persists, you’ll need to proceed to the nearest police station to pay the fine. If the officer asks you to pay on the spot, you’re being targeted for la mordida, a minor bribe.
In Baja these incidents tend to happen in Tijuana , Rosarito , Ensenada , and La Paz . If it happens, you should insist on going to the nearest station to pay the fine, and when you pay, ask for a receipt. The charges may well be dropped at this point.
Something many drivers don’t know that could invite trouble with the police is that in Mexico, it’s illegal to display any foreign national flag except over an embassy or consulate—this includes small flags flying from the antenna of your vehicle.
Motorists fill their tanks in Mexico at government-owned Pemex stations, which are common in the larger towns and less prevalent as you get into the more remote parts of the peninsula. Barrel gas is sometimes available in rural settlements. You can choose among regular unleaded fuel (magna sin, octane rating 87), a.k.a. verde (green); a high-test unleaded (premium, octane rating 89), a.k.a. roja (red); and diesel. Rates are the same from station to station (but exchange rates offered may vary if you pay in dollars). At press time, a gallon of verde in Baja was US$2.47 and for roja US$2.92. The price should always be marked in pesos on the pump.
Most Pemex stations are full-serve (though Los Cabos now has the first self-serve station on the peninsula), and a visit begins with two questions: How much and what type of gas do you want? “Lleno con premium (roja)/magna (verde), por favor” is the usual answer. Leave a small tip (up to US$1) for window washing or other extra services.
Mexico’s Pemex attendants are notorious for inflating prices or adjusting exchange rates to their advantage. Follow these steps to prevent corruption at the pump.
Cash is the only way to pay for gas in Mexico. Some stations near the border and in the Los Cabos Corridor will accept U.S. dollars, but they are notorious for offering below market exchange rates. At press time, many were following the old 10:1 rule, while the exchange rate was closer to 12:1.
Just about every town has a llantera (tire repair). Experienced mechanics are harder, but not impossible, to come by. Try any of the larger towns and cities. For those used to the systematic process of a large U.S. auto shop, the Baja approach might seem haphazard, but they do seem to get the job done most of the time. For extensive driving in remote areas, bring your own spare parts.
If you have a breakdown while traveling in Mexico, chances are one of the Angeles Verdes (Green Angels) will come to the rescue. Sponsored by the Secretaría de Turismo, these green trucks patrol the highways in Baja twice a day and offer roadside assistance to anyone with car troubles. The service is free, but tips are appreciated. Trucks are equipped with first-aid kits, shortwave radios, fuel, and spare parts. Drivers can do minor repairs for the cost of the parts and/or provide towing for distances up to 24 kilometers (15 mi). If they can’t solve your vehicle’s problem or tow it to a mechanic, they’ll arrange for other assistance. They can also radio for emergency medical assistance if necessary. Visit www.sectur.gob.mx/wb2/sectur/sect_9454_rutas_carreteras  to see a map of the roads that are patrolled by the Green Angels.
When driving the Transpeninsular Highway, you’ll encounter numerous military checkpoints (puestos de control), or roadblocks at which uniformed officials search vehicles for drugs and firearms. Although the concept is foreign to many U.S. and Canadian residents, the soldiers are courteous (and often just curious about your travels) and it rarely takes more than a few minutes. If you have any concerns about a search, discreetly record information such as badge numbers, names, or license numbers, and file a report with the Mexican Attorney General for Tourist Protection.
Baja has long been popular with RV travelers because it offers so many beautiful and accessible places to camp; however, driving a big rig along the narrow and winding stretches of Mexico 1 can be a white-knuckle experience for first-timers. One way to learn the ropes is to join an organized caravan, which leads a group of RVers along a set itinerary down the peninsula and back. These trips cost around US$100 a day, not including meals and fuel.
In general, larger cities offer the least-expensive rentals. Most of the international chains offer economy/compact cars for around US$30–45 a day with unlimited miles or US$60–75 for an SUV or Jeep. Rates in La Paz are slightly lower than in Los Cabos. Mexican liability insurance costs an additional US$25 a day with these companies, and deductibles are often high (US$1,000 and up). It pays to shop around. Book ahead online or comparison shop when you arrive.
Online discount car rental services, such as Hotwire (www.hotwire.com ), offer substantially lower rates than the major brands by selling excess inventory for their partner companies. Rentals through Hotwire come from names like Avis, Hertz, or Budget, but you won’t know which company until you agree to purchase the rental. The other difference is that you prepay for the rental at the time of reservation, so you won’t be able to change your mind once you get to Baja. Prepaying is a risky strategy in Baja because the rental car companies frequently overbook and they tend to give cars on a first-come, first-serve basis regardless of whether you have a reservation or have prepaid for the vehicle. The agency will do its best to get you a car, but it could be a full 24 hours later than you the date you reserved.
Independent agencies are another option, sometimes at lower cost but often with per-kilometer charges in addition to the daily rate.
Rentals out of San Diego are sometimes a bit cheaper, but most agencies that allow their cars into Mexico won’t allow them any farther south than Guerrero Negro . Some only allow travel 40 kilometers (25 mi) into Baja. If you drive beyond these limits, you won’t be covered. They often add mandatory collision damage waivers to the cost as well. If you’re planning to rent in San Diego, note that even though Avis and other companies allow you to drive across the border, Hotwire’s contracts with its partners stipulate no cross-border travel. Go directly to the rental car provider if you want to rent from San Diego.
California Baja Rent-A-Car (9245 Jamacha Blvd., Spring Valley, CA 91977, U.S. tel. 619/470-7368 or 888/470-7368, www.cabaja.com ) specializes in vehicle rentals for driving the Baja Peninsula. Internet discount rates start at about US$50 a day plus US$0.35 per mile beyond 100 miles per day for a subcompact. A Wrangler rents for US$110 a day plus US$0.35 per mile (100 free miles per day), while a Suburban costs US$130 daily plus US$0.39 per mile (100 free miles per day). Mexican insurance is included in these discounted rates. Drop-offs in Cabo San Lucas can be arranged for an extra charge. Optional accessories include satellite phones, Sirius satellite radio, and coolers. Note: This agency is located about 20 minutes from the San Diego airport and did not have a shuttle at press time, so customers need to take a US$40–45 cab to the pickup location.
The Mexican proof of financial responsibility law applies to drivers of rental cars in Mexico, except in this case, you don’t get to choose a specific policy—rather, you agree to pay an additional US$25–40 per day for whatever coverage the rental car company provides. The exact amount depends on the size of the rental car and how far into Baja you drive it (if you rent from San Diego). Terms and coverage limits vary among the various agencies, and they don’t make it easy to see the fine print before you arrive at the counter. To learn about the policy before you agree to rent the car, call the local office for the company you are considering. Read the contract carefully at the rental car counter, and be sure you understand the terms. If you drive farther than the contract permits, fail to report an accident within the time specified, or violate other clauses, your coverage may be nullified.
Avis (U.S. tel. 619/688-5000 or 800/852-4617) allows renters to drive inside the Free Trade Zone area, which is up to 40 kilometers (25 mi) from the U.S. border. Hertz (U.S. tel. 619/767-5700) allows customers to drive a rental car from the San Diego airport location only into Baja. Mexican insurance costs US$25 a day for an economy- to regular-size car, US$35 a day for a premium car or minivan, up to 40 kilometers (25 mi) south into Mexico (which won’t get you very far); and US$35–40 a day for travel between 41–400 kilometers (26–250 mi) south of the border. Coverage limits are US$25,000 for collision, US$25,000 for theft, US$50,000 for liability; legal and medical are not specified.
Deductibles at Thrifty were as high as US$2,500 at last check.