After just finishing up our fourth (4th) major multi-day road trip up and down Baja California and having done mainland Mexico road trips too, here’s ten common sense driving tips for anyone considering a Mexican road trip. Here goes:
- Slow Down: The safest and sanest thing to do (in my opinion) on most of the roads we’ve driven in Baja is to slow down. Most of the major roads I’ve driven in Baja have NOT been fast and flat (with the exception of the new Mexico Hwy-5 through San Felipe). Mexico Hwy-1 is not a freeway and has enough surprises around each corner to keep me guessing. Let’s just say slowing down is wise and there is no auto-pilot for my brain when I drive the road….you have to be “on” most of the time due to variations of terrain that seem to sneak up. Slowing down will also allow you to slolem through the various pot hole field you find in the roads, as there are numerous pot holes that will put a serious hurt on your car as you hit them time after time. You’ll notice everyone froggering the pot holes…even as you go clear onto the wrong side of the road to avoid larger holes that you DO NOT want to hit at 60-70 miles per hour.
- Respect the Truckers: Truckers on these Mexican roads tend to know the roads they drive and can probably drive faster and safer than you….gringo. They are also fairly safe and respectful if you’re not a tailgating jackass. Unlike the US, it’s fairly common to pass trucks on steep upgrades and any other section of road even with double yellow lines when the truckers signal with a left-hand blinker and wave you by. See, most of the trucks go…..really, really slow up some of the steep upgrades on Mexico Hwy-1, but they’ll usually let you pass. But they’ll NEVER pull over…ya gotta go by them and get it done quick and safe. Here’s hoping my friend John David Ray of the “Weird Guy With The Dog” Blog will read this and feel my respect for those truckers we encounter on the roads.
- The Centerline: You’ll find a centerline on most Mexican highways but it’s just paint on the road. Move to the right as far as it’s safe trucks and buses pass you, as they sometimes wonder onto your side. And keep in mind that their tires can kick up rocks, so have a plan in your mind if your car or windshield gets hit by a rock….keeping in mind there’s usually no safe shoulder.
- Shoulders: There are not many. I don’t what it is mentally, but having a nice sized shoulder on that right side does make a difference when driving at speed on roads. Most American roads have decent shoulders and we gringos are so used to driving with shoulders or sidewalks that when you encounter a very thin road with no shoulder, it wakes you up. It’s wakes me up, as there’s usually a dropoff so that rain and flooding doesn’t get onto the road too much. There’s also many sections of road with no guard rails at all. Just accept that you may drive roads here with no shoulders or guard rails and you’ll be ok.
- Topos: Topo means bump or speedbump in Spanish. Some places have signs warning you to slow down because of upcoming Topos…or smaller bumps prior to a Topo or white lines in the road. You should take these seriously and strive to slow your roll. Unlike US roads that have lights and signs to slow you down, Mexico Hwy-1 has Topos in most small villages and towns. They’re usually at the beginning and end of the town or near schools. You should SLOW DOWN when nearing these bumps or they’ll put a hurt on most anything you’re driving. Topos as certainly gotten my attention several times and now we just slow our roll going over them.
- Stop Signs: Some Mexican towns have main highways through them with stop signs or stop lights that you should pay attention to. Apparently stop signs are optional for local Uber drivers, but for us gringos…we should stop. But make sure to stop and look quickly in one motion….as the driver behind you may be treating the stop sign as optional and you’ll get bumped if you put too much gringo into it.
- Road Construction: We’ve seen road construction on every major Mexican highway except the newly completed Mexican Hwy-5 down Baja. I know folks have heard horror stories about fake construction sites that will stop you and rob you…but we have not found any of those yet. What we have found is construction work sites reinforcing highway bridges with dirt detours through all sorts of river beds, some longer than others. This will test your car…which is why so many locals and gringos rock 4X4’s here in Baja. But we brought both the Adventure Mobile and the Road Warrior (vans) up and down Baja and they’ve done just fine. Unlike the US again…you may be surprised or even suspicious not to see a major road crew working on these sites…in fact we’ve seen everything from large major work crews down to a husband and wife team and their single car cleaning a newly completed site.
- Driving at night: Unlike some US highways…there’s NO lights or ambient light on most Mexican highways. And….also unlike US Highways…there are animals that will ruin your car and your day if you hit them. If you do hit animals (probably a cow or jackass) you’re likely going to wreck your car, you may be responsible for paying for the animal (they ALL belong to someone down here) and you probably going to be in the middle of nowhere to boot. YES, animals do wonder near or on the roads and we’ve come close to several during our roadtrips. Where there’s one cow….there’s likely more! Don’t drive on Mexican Highways at night if you don’t absolutely need to.
- Military, Police and Sanitary Checkpoints: Yep, checkpoints are down here. If that kid who looks sixteen (but is really eighteen) with a rifle intimidates you….please think before you do a Mexican roadtrip. The soldiers at the checkpoints that we’ve gone through have been professional, courteous and poised…with rifles, cameras (GoPros) and decent English. But they’re not messing around either; we’ve seen several cars torn apart looking for guns or drugs. Going up or down Baja we hit the fixed military checkpoints, one Sanitary checkpoint and in the past we hit pop-up temporary checkpoints…but they were gone when we did this most recent trip. We also noticed there’s far less checkpoints outside of larger cities like Loreto and Mulege than in July, as there’s less Covid regulations. Here’s my advice for checkpoints: everyone in the vehicle put on your masks, roll the windows down on the side where the Officer is so they can easily see in the vehicle, greet them with a friendly greeting, be prepared to tell them where you came from and where you’re going, be prepared to get out of the vehicle and show them the trunk area and put away flashy cameras and computers. Doing all this, I’ve only been asked to get out of the vehicle and open the back twice…which I did without hesitation. The van was so packed with stuff that it fell out onto the soldier and we were quickly told to be on our way. We’ve also never been asked for payment, money or anything else at these checkpoints and we don’t have the mindset that we’re ever going to be asked either. We’ve also been through Federal Police checkpoints..but the Officer was more interested in ordering his lunch than gringos in a minivan…so we were waved through quickly.
- Quota Roads: Either in Baja or the mainland…if you can find a Quota (Toll) road to drive on,,,they’re usually faster, smoother and flatter than the older free road, but you’ve gotta pay the quota. We took the Quota roads over the mountains to get part-way from La Cruz to Tequila/Quadalajara/Tonala and then we take the Quota road from Tecate to Mexicali….and it’s very, very worth the money. These roads are also safer, as they’re built up, have less pot holes and have less ways for folks to get on them but more traffic.
Last but not least, throughout any road trip in Mexico you’ll notice the remembrances along the side of the road. Some are large and ornate and some are small, personal and poignant. For me, they’re a somber reminder to slow down and respect the drive. We respect these remembrances by not doing pull-out stops near them.
We don’t have lots of years down here Baja but after four (4) safe and successful multi-day road trips with the family, these tips are the common sense approach we’ve used to road trip back and forth to the US (thus the info should be relevant and timely). Throughout the trips, we used COVID protocol with mask use at every checkpoint and stop, packed our own lunches and drinks to minimize food stops and strictly wiped down surfaces anywhere we stopped. I think these are good practices any time, but especially now, as this was part of our risk assessment to do a road trip to see family and pick up boat parts.
Got questions about the drive? I’m happy to answer what I can or find the answer from friends who’s lived down here for years…they know the roads much better than I do.
Wanna read about our Tequila/Tonala Adventures, hit the link.