A trip to Baja California exposes travelers to relatively few health risks compared to mainland Mexico. Driving and recreational activities pose the greatest danger, which you can minimize through common-sense precautions.
Most people worry about drinking the water in Baja, but the most common afflictions are sunburn and dehydration. Get used to carrying a bottle of water and sunscreen at all times.
Most visitors aren’t used to the intensity of the tropical sun in Baja. Use sun protection in all its forms, even if you aren’t prone to sunburn. Even mild sunburn can sap your energy and make sleeping and showering painful.
Hats, sunglasses, light long-sleeve shirts, and sunscreen are essential. Apply sunblock of at least SPF 25 to any skin exposed to the sun—especially the face and neck region as well as the scalp if it is exposed. Bring sunblock with you and reapply it after swimming or perspiring.
Familiarize yourself with the signs of heat exhaustion and heat stroke. The symptoms include flushed face, excessive perspiration and then the inability to perspire, headache, and dizziness. If you suspect heat exhaustion, the first priority is to get the victim in the shade and cool him with a wet towel and rehydrate him. Heat stroke can be fatal, so if the symptoms persist, get to a doctor.
Some say the best views of Baja are found from the gently rocking bow of a panga. Unfortunately, that rocking can cause many people to get seasick. If you haven’t been on a small boat, it’s better to assume that you are one of the 60 percent of people who will experience motion sickness on a rocking boat, even if you’ve never been carsick.
Preventing seasickness seems to be more art than science, since a drug that works for one person might not work for the next. The main side effect of motion-sickness medications is drowsiness. There are over-the-counter drugs such as Dramamine, Bonine, Meclizine, and Marezine; prescription drugs include Antivert, Phenergan, and Transderm Scopolamine. Transderm Scopolamine, popular with boaters, is a dime-sized patch worn behind the ear for 72 hours. The most important thing is to take the medication well before boarding the boat. These drugs do not work after you have begun to feel sick.
Yawning and drowsiness are the earliest signs of seasickness. Try to stay alert, stand or sit as close to the center of the boat as possible, and get a view of the horizon. Some people swear that lying down and closing their eyes is the best remedy, while others guarantee that will cause the condition to get worse. Stay in the fresh air and avoid exhaust fumes if at all possible.
Mosquitoes and jejenes (gnats or no-see-ums) can pose a minor or major nuisance, depending on the time of year you travel (times of rain and little wind are the worst), where you go (oasis towns like San Ignacio and Mulegé are the worst), and how susceptible you are to insect bites. Malaria is not a concern, however. Use liberal amounts of insect repellent and wear lightweight clothes that cover your arms and legs. Bring Caladryl or another brand of calamine lotion to relieve itching.
Scorpions are common throughout the peninsula, especially in thatched-roof shelters and buildings. The sting is rarely dangerous, but it can be painful. Check showers and avoid walking around barefoot or sticking your bare hand in damp, dark, warm places. Shake out your shoes and always check bedding in the desert before climbing in. If you do get stung, lie down to avoid spreading the venom. Use ice packs to prevent swelling. Seek medical attention for small children (under 13 kg/30 lbs.). Ultraviolet flashlights can be a fun way to find scorpions at night. When this black light shines on a scorpion, the insect turns fluorescent yellow.
Jellyfish, Portuguese man-of-war, cone shells, stingrays (in sandy areas), sea urchins (in rocky areas), and fish with poisonous spines present a potential danger when swimming, snorkeling, or diving. Look before you leap, and you’ll be able to avoid most of these marine creatures. Scan the surface for jellies before hopping off the dive boat, wear a Lycra dive skin and water shoes even in warm water, and learn to do the stingray shuffle when entering the water to send any rays resting in the sand scurrying away.
If you do get stung, don’t scratch the area with your hands, since you’ll spread the poison wherever you touch next. Seek immediate medical attention for any allergic reactions.
You can find knowledgeable medical practitioners in just about every sizable town on the peninsula. Facilities range from hospitals (in Tijuana , Mexicali , Ensenada , Guerrero Negro , Ciudad Constitución , San José del Cabo , and La Paz ) to Red Cross stations and private and public clinics. There are public IMSS clinics or Red Cross (Cruz Roja, tel. 066) stations in nearly every other town.
Several companies offer emergency evacuation services from Baja via land or sea, but read the fine print before you buy a policy. Providers include Aeromedevac (toll-free Mex. tel. 800/832-5087, U.S. tel. 619/284-7910, toll-free U.S. tel. 800/462-0911, www.aeromedevac.com ), Air Evac Services, Inc. (U.S. tel. 602/244-9327 or 800/321-9522, www.airevac.com ), Advanced Aeromedical Air Ambulance Service (toll-free U.S. tel. 800/346-3556, www.aeromedic.com ), and SkyMed (toll-free Mex. tel. 866/805-9624, toll-free U.S. tel. 800/475-9633, www.skymed.com ).
Outside of the border zone, Baja California is a relatively crime-free place; even in Tijuana, where drug-related violence has gripped the city of late, the statistics are lower than comparable figures for many U.S. cities. Tourists are rarely, if ever, the targets in these incidences, though it is possible to get caught in the crossfire.
Common sense and keeping a low profile are the best ways to prevent being the victim of crime. Leave valuables at home, and safely stow the ones you must bring. Experts disagree on the relative safety of using in-room hotel safes; in theory, anyone can call the number on the box to get the combination and remove your money. We prefer a strategy of hiding money and electronics in unlikely places, such as hard-to-find luggage compartments or simply the dustiest place in the room. When out and about, keep your belongings close to you, especially in busy tourist areas, to avoid tempting a pickpocket. Use the locks on your hotel room and vehicle, but don’t leave any valuables in clear view. Call the SECTUR (State Secretary of Tourism) hotline (tel. 555/250-0123 or 800/903-9200) for emergencies of all kinds.