Driving In Baja

Now that you have an idea about what it will take to get across the border, let’s cover the topic of driving in Baja. No doubt you’ve come across horror stories on the internet, or perhaps from friends or family members, describing the dangers of driving in Baja. 

And, generally speaking, driving in Baja can seem more dangerous than driving in other places in the world. But the reality is if you follow several tips and remain aware of your surroundings you will find that even driving a large motorhome in Baja is not that difficult or dangerous.

Road Conditions & Speed Limits

Road conditions in Baja vary from incredibly smooth asphalt pavement along the southern portion of Federal Highway 5 to potholes, dirt, mud and soft sand in a variety of other places. 

Generally speaking, the main highways (Federal Highway 1 and Federal Highway 5) are in pretty good condition for the length of the peninsula. However, various roads that offshoot to a variety of different smaller towns and villages and even within the towns themselves will be of questionable condition. 

The biggest thing to consider about the road conditions in Baja is that there are very few places with any kind of meaningful shoulder. In fact, in many places, the highway is incredibly unforgiving and actually drops off just inches past the solid white line. 

That said, it can be nerve-racking to drive on the highways in Baja, especially when you see semi-trucks approaching from either in front or behind you! The old adage, two hands on the wheel, applies. As does “slow and steady wins the race.” 

After all, you’re there to enjoy Baja not to spend the entire time puckered up on the highway! 

When it comes to indicating future road conditions, do not expect warnings as you may find in the US or Canada. There are several notoriously steep grades along the highway that are unmarked and likely over the double-digit legal limits you may be used to. 

And our two favorite road signs, “Tope” (massive speed bump) and “Curvas Peligrosas” (dangerous curves) seem to be relative to whoever decided to put them there. 

Speed limits in Baja reflect the road conditions relatively accurately. Limits are in kilometers per hour, so you may have to rely on the secondary km/hr markings on your speedometer or learn to do some quick math if you are not accustomed to the metric system.

There are a few areas where you will approach speeds of 65-70 mph, particularly in Baja California Sur as you near both La Paz and Cabo San Lucas from the north. But most of the time you will travel safely around 50-60 mph with little to no indication of when the speed limit drops drastically as you enter small villages and towns literally cut in half by the highway. 

Additionally, we’ll discuss “topes” in more detail in the section below. But these are speed bumps that you will encounter both on the highway and within cities and towns. They are quite effective at moderating speed and may take you by surprise from time to time.  

Topes 

A “tope” is a speed bump – real or imagined – that exists in a variety of shapes and forms and has been known to cause significant damage to RVs of all sorts. The reason we say “real or imagined” is that after a few hundred miles of driving over a dozen different kinds of topes, you’ll find that sometimes a tope is just a painted strip across the highway designed to look like a speed bump. 

Many of these will even have signs immediately in front of them indicating a tope. So you will slow down, as intended, and brace for the tope only to find it was not actually there. In other instances, there will be little to no warning before you hit the tope like Evel Knievel launching over a ramp!

Topes have been known to cause damage to RVs, particularly truck campers where the tie-downs have actually pulled free from the camper due to the rapid shock of the tope. Definitely be aware of what a tope is and how to recognize them when driving in Baja. 

look out for topes when driving in baja

EXPERT TIP: We try not to be the first vehicle when it comes to driving in Baja. This is particularly true as we enter populated areas where things like topes, stop signs and roundabouts can be unexpected. So we advise that you keep an eye out for other drivers ahead of you to know when a “real” tope is ahead. Locals know where the “fake” topes are located and will blaze through the painted stripes on the road accordingly. But they also know where the real topes are, especially the large and annoying ones, and you will often see locals driving around the tope rather than over it. Be mindful of these topes in particular as you’ll see indications of vehicles that have bottomed out and scraped the top off the tope in the past.

Military Checkpoints

While many people like to criticize the presence of frequent military checkpoints in Baja, we consider them added protection against “the bad guys.” Since we promote responsible travel and are never in possession of or in the act of doing anything illegal, we find they are mere temporary hindrances to getting from one place to another. 

Still, others have horror stories they like to share on social media about how they were set up or stolen from at a military checkpoint. 

The reality is, the Mexican government utilizes military checkpoints manned by local, state and federal police and military officers to keep crime in check. Although they are primarily interested in suspicious vehicles smuggling illegal drugs, weapons and/or humans, military checkpoints will occasionally find recreational travelers guilty of breaking the law, particularly when it comes to possession of marijuana. 

We have experienced a range of activity and behavior at various checkpoints throughout our time traveling in Baja and none have breached what we would consider ordinary and customary protocol. 

However, there are stories out there of travelers who had bad experiences. We encourage safe, responsible travel everywhere you may go and when traveling in Baja, be safe and responsible as you approach each military checkpoint and we suspect the best parts of human nature will prevail more times than not. 

EXPERT TIP: Do NOT attempt to bribe officers at military checkpoints. An unspoken custom among many seasonal travelers in Baja is to bring snacks and small gifts for the officers, particularly around Christmas. While it may be a kind gesture (and we are all about promoting kind gestures in the world!), giving gifts such as these creates a subculture of expectation among some officers where they expect every RV to offer them something. In the event you happen to have a more expectant officer inspect your vehicle, the lack of a “gift” may result in instances some have come to call bribes. For this reason it is better for everyone if you simply do as you are expected to do at each military checkpoint: stop the vehicle, answer any questions to the best of your ability, offer your passport and FMM as required, allow for an inspection of your vehicle if requested, smile and drive on. 

Driving after Dark

The number 1 rule for driving in Baja is “do not drive at night.” The number 2 rule for driving in Baja is “do not drive at night.” 

There are a number of reasons why it is best not to drive at night. And yes, on several occasions we have found ourselves racing the sunset to get to our next campsite. But as a general principle, do not drive at night unless you have to. 

Here are a few reasons why: 

  • Cows (and horses) will migrate to eat along the highway in the evening hours. You’ll see cow carcasses every few miles indicating how frequently they are hit by passing vehicles. You can also note the size of many semi truck brush guards as another indicator of the expectation truck drivers have of literally running into a cow in the middle of the night. This is an unnecessary risk for someone on an adventure exploring Baja. Plan your trips accordingly and limit your night drives. 
  • Road hazards are harder to see at night. Sometimes it is near impossible to see where the shoulder disappears, the potholes occur or the tope jumps out of nowhere in the middle of the day. And judging which tracks to follow down a sandy road is challenging enough. Imagine trying to navigate such hazards in the dark! 
  • Emergency services and help are fewer and further between. Green Angles (discussed below) do travel the main highways at a regular frequency to assist drivers in need. But it is more dangerous to be broken down during the night, particularly when there are no shoulders or safe areas to pull over. 

Green Angels 

Green Angels are government employees that patrol the main highways throughout Baja. They are bilingual mechanics capable of assisting in most roadside emergencies. Green Angels will do everything from providing mechanical assistance and medical first aid to towing your vehicle, if possible. 

This is a great service offered to all travelers in Baja because it means that you will have assistance at some point even if the worst thing happens during your drive. There are phenomenal stories out there of everyday people helping each other out in the midst of breakdowns and accidents along the highway. 

But in the event you break down, have a flat tire or are in need of other services, it is good to know that the Green Angeles are never too far away. 

Offroad Driving

Baja is renowned for its rugged offroad terrain. In fact, the famous Baja offroad races (Baja 1000 and Baja 500 among them) have grown in popularity each year from the challenge that offroad driving in Baja provides. 

But even if you’re not driving in the Baja 1000, or driving out to a remote place to watch the race, it is good to know that there are tons of roads you can take offroad – whether in your primary vehicle or in a separate ATV or dirt bike. 

In some cases, offroad driving is the ONLY driving if you want to reach places like Agua Verde in Baja California Sur or some of the surf breaks around Scorpion Bay (San Juanico). 

Regardless of whether you’re looking for the ultimate offroad adventure, or simply have to drive a few miles of washboard road to reach a quiet, isolated camping spot for a few nights, exercise caution and do be prepared with proper safety and tools, including recovery gear. 

Although we’ve assisted more people stuck offroad than the times we’ve been assisted, it is an unspoken principle that you are very likely to find yourself stuck somewhere. Keep calm, work the solution and accept any help that comes your way!

EXPERT TIP: We suggest that you have the following tools and equipment on hand when traveling in Baja to aid yourself and others in need: 

Tips for Driving In Baja

Although you can likely pull the most important Baja driving tips from the previous sections, we thought it was important to include our top suggestions in a place that stands out. 

Here are our top tips for driving in Baja:

  • Don’t drive at night unnecessarily. And be even more alert for wildlife in the twilight hours. 
  • Drive the speed limit. Take your time and enjoy the scenery while being safe.
  • Stop (fully!) at stop signs, even if other drivers are not. You are a target for police in an RV.
  • Heed the safety signs (but know they aren’t always accurate!)
  • Tuck in and adjust your side-view mirrors so they stick out as little as possible
  • Know that semi trucks will more often turn their left turn signal on to let you know when it is safe to pass than to actually turn left
  • Don’t pay the bribe. There is almost always an open police office or special traffic court where you can follow the police officer to pay traffic citations in person.