Baja Mexico Road Trip Advice

When you cross the border into Mexico, all of the stresses and worries of hectic United States living evaporate, leaving you instantly refreshed and rejuvenated.  Do you stay feeling so awesome after hitting your first pothole, the first American tourist that flies past you over 100mph, the first time soldiers with machine guns are digging through your car?  Here is a quick recap of problems, suggestions, annoyances, and misconceptions and general Baja Mexico Road Trip Advice.

-If you drive into Mexico your car insurance is no longer valid.  You can buy Mexican insurance at the border and there are several different options.  Since we have an old dumpy car, we got the cheapest available plan, $6 per day which would at least keep us out of prison in the event of a fender bender.  No one ever asked if we had this or not and I think a lot of travelers skip it. I wouldn’t take my chances.

-To travel south of Ensenada, tourists are supposed to get a card from immigration for $25 each.  We got them but this was also probably unnecessary, as no one once looked at our passports.  One soldier at a checkpoint did ask for my passport once but I told him “No tengo (I don’t have it)” and handed him my California driver’s license without a problem.

-Everyone told us to keep a $20 bill in a visible spot in the car.  Apparently $20 is “the fine” if the Federales (Mexican federal police, notoriously corrupt) stop you.  We were also advised to never give them your passport because to get it back you’ll have to pay much more than $20.  We never had any encounters with the Federales.

-Watch out for potholes!  We hit some bad ones but were lucky enough to not blow any tires.   Some of the worst we spotted had to be more than a foot deep.  No recovery after hitting that.  Also, there are a lot of unmarked speed bumps.  If you were driving the speed limit these wouldn’t be a problem.  However, you won’t be driving the speed limit.

-Don’t run out of gas!  Most Baja maps show you which towns have gas stations.  There are some very long stretches without and you’ll need a full tank!  Plan wisely, or you’ll end up stranded!

-No one drives the speed limit.  If the sign said “40 km per hour” I tried not to exceed 40 miles per hour.

-People hassle you to buy tours and souvenirs, especially in Tijuana and Cabo San Lucas.  Just say “No gracias,” firmly and continue like they aren’t there.   If you make eye contact you will never be left alone.

-Drugs will be offered to you all the time (especially if you have dreadlocks or other hippie-ish characteristics).  Rarely do tourists ever have a problem in México unless they are looking for that stuff.  It’s a great way to get robbed, kidnapped, or jailed.  The booze is cheap and legal!  Stick with that.

-There are about eight military checkpoints (different from the Federales) along the way.  Headed south we were searched at two of the checkpoints.  Northward we were searched at all but one stop.  We always hid our money but at times we forgot to put away the bribe $20 bill.  The soldiers never took it or anything else and were always pretty polite.  Just don’t bring anything into the country that you don’t want found.

Waiting in line at one of many military checkpoints. Baja Mexico road trip advice
Waiting in line at one of many military checkpoints.

-When you’re eating and drinking you should tip around 15%.  Nothing is expensive so don’t get cheap on people.

-The tap water is safe to consume in some places.  Ask the locals!

Mexico is a lot of fun, and actually really easy to travel in.  Don’t let the scary news reports keep you away from a good time.  We hope this Baja Mexico road trip advice article helps all our fellow travelers out there!

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Tasty Tasty Tap Water

I thought I would take a quick second to talk about where we have been told that the tap water is drinkable and our experiences with drinking it.  As we travel further, we will add to the list.

Bolivia:  We did not drink any tap water in Bolivia and would not recommend doing so.

Colombia:  We drank the tap water in the following cities:  Medellin – The water there was perfect and tasted pretty good.  Have not heard of anyone getting sick from it.  Bogotá – The water didn’t give us any problems but didn’t taste perfect and we were told that it bothers some peoples’ stomachs.  Cartagena – we drank tons of tap water there but one time I did have a pain that felt water related.  Taganga: We drank the tap water there but my stomach did feel a little weird a few times.  San Agustín – The water was pretty good and we had no problems.  Cali – We filled up our water bottle in the bathroom there and had no problems.  Popayan – We filled up a bottle in the bathroom at the bus terminal and had no problems.  Basically all the cities and population centers seemed fine.  However, out in the country and the places where the bus lets you off to eat lunch are questionable and you should always ask a local before doing anything stupid.

Ecuador:  The water there is not good.  Don’t drink it.  Baños – As of now the water is not safe but in the next few years they hope to have a new purification system running.  I did drink some water one night in Chugchilan when I was really desperate but it wasn’t a good idea.

Panamá:  We drank the tap water in Panamá City and had no problems.  Don’t drink the water in Bocas del Toro.

Perú:  We did not drink any tap water in Perú and would not recommend doing so.

Since we are always trying to save money, we try to buy as little bottled water as possible.  We always boil some in our hostel kitchens (at least three minutes of hard boiling to purify it) when we get a chance and if someone tells us we can drink from the sink we always do.  Yes, sometimes this comes back to haunt us but with the money we save I think its worth it.  Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right?

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Centro Lima: A Lot More Fun Than Expected

Plaza de Armas

Coming into Lima we were not sure what to expect.  There have been a few big cities in South America that we have really liked, but a lot of the time they are just BIG CITIES and full of trash and smog and grumpy people.  I tried to come into Lima with an open mind but deep down I expected the city of 7.5 million to drive me nuts.  However, after our bus dropped us off and we took a friendly taxi to our hostel and we sat trying to grasp the history, culture, architecture….  I soon realized that my idea of what we would find in Lima was very, very wrong.

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The downtown was clean, with tons of shops, restaurants, bars, and people everywhere.  All of the buildings were colorful and old but not built crazy tall like in New York City.  And best of all, the people were friendly and helpful and seemed generally happy.

Lima is full of color

We spent three days in central Lima wandering, watching, learning.  It was nice to be in such a walkable city, with something new and entertaining on every corner.  We made friends, enjoyed the fast internet, ate good food and lots of cheap soft serve ice cream.  Life was good.

Plaza San Martín
The Spanish conquistadors hired a local artist and asked for a "llama" crown to be placed on the woman's head. They meant a crown of flames but didn't think about the Spanish word's double meaning. Hence, the llama crown.

Every Sunday there are big shows with traditional music and dancing.  It was nice to be entertained without Soles falling out of our pockets.  These guys wore very colorful clothes and danced a fast and chaotic jig.

Traditional dancer

After three nights in central Lima, we found a barrio near the beach where the more bohemian folks hang out.  However, we did have enough time for one last ice cream cone.

SOFT SERVE!!!
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