The following is an account by one man, who traveled for a few months to Baja California, with his family, in their 1978 Volkswagen Bus.
This man is no expert on Mexico. He has been traveling the continent of North America full-time since 2008, but aside from a cruise to Cozumel and Belize, never been in anything remotely Central America. Safety is not an issue of a single person’s experience, but of a collective compiling of data.
Statistics can be scary, though, and not always tell the entire story, but what they do is provide a simple way to compare things. Unfortunately, data is not always up to the minute, so we need to go back to 2011 to look at the latest information.
In Mexico, in 2011, a total of 1312 US Citizens were murdered in all of Mexico. That same year, 12,6643 homicides happened in the United States. Mexico has about a third less people than the US, yet the latter had over 90 times more homicides.
Are many, many more people than those 131 US citizens killed in Mexico every year? Yes. Are you traveling to Mexico to join a drug cartel or partake in criminal behavior in the streets of Mexico City, though?
Focusing just on Baja California, from August 2014 to October 2015, 160 people were killed in drug-related homocides in La Paz alone. La Paz being the capital of Baja California Sur. Around 250,000 people live in La Paz. What then, is the statistic? 1
.0006% percent of the population.
In 2015, over 12,000 people were killed before Christmas by guns in the United States.4. The population of the US is around 319 million. That puts our percentage rate at 0.00005%. So yeah, the capital city of La Paz is technically 16 times more dangerous, in terms of actual homicides.
Until you look at the actual number of US citizens killed in total, in all of Mexico. We’re not talking suicide or drowning surfers or car accidents, but straight up homicides. Then those percentages change drastically.
Around 8 million tourists visited Mexico from the US alone. 131 of them were killed.
That said, we’ll move beyond how safe it is, leaving that to you to decide for yourself, and speak more to the actual experiences this man, his family, and their old VW Bus had.
Toilets and Bathrooms
Por favor, tirar papeles en la basura.
This sign, and one like it, were the family’s first experiences with a bathroom in Baja. Translated, it basically means “Throw you toilet paper in the garbage, please.”
The sewage system in Baja is apparently not equipped to handle toilet paper. So, there are garbage bags full of used toilet paper in every baño. It’s not really that big of a deal once you get used to it.
You’ll come to discover that when a bathroom is available, it’s less about how glamorous it is and more about the sweet good god almighty relief that you actually get to use one.
While clean, well kept bathrooms are common the further south you get, and in the larger cities or nicer hotels and restaurants, if you’re just camping at RV parks or palapas, expect something significantly more primitive.
Think a toilet seat with a poor excuse for a hole dug in the ground. And thank the guy who comes along once a week or so to shovel it all out.
If you are brave enough to do a little boondocking, though, bring a small shovel and be ready to find yourself a nice chunk of sage to poop behind.
As the family was traveling with friends, they were able to witness how valuable bringing your own toilet might be. Whether it’s something you purchase or if you just rig up a five gallon bucket and a garbage bag, not finding yourself in the situation of needing to run to a bush may prove quite the relief.
The family, however, went packed with little more than a small beach bucket to pee in come early morning and a strong sense of leaving their lunch to mother nature to deal with.
Hotels and RV parks alike will typically have showers. Will they be hot? The family reports that the hot/warm to cold ratio is around 20%. In favor of the cold showers.
So get used to swimming daily, especially if you plan to camp on beaches in favor of staying at RV parks or hotels.
Again, the results will skew as you find yourself in places more likely to be inhabited by gringos, the colloquial term for Americans and Canadians down here in the finer slice of North America.
Oh, and bring flip flops. And expect to get some type of fungus. Sorry, it’s just the experience reported.
Is it Cheap?
As of March 2016, the exchange rate is around 18 pesos to the US dollar. It’s starting to head back down again, but this is also an all time high.
In places like San Felipe, San Ignacio or the Vizcaino Peninsula, you can feed yourself and drink a few cervezas for under 150 pesos, easily. Our traveling family reports typical meals in San Felipe costing around 400 pesos, which included about nine tacos, an additional full “meal” (think a burrito with a side of rice and beans) for their teenager, and five or six beverages at that price.
The same meal in La Paz cost closer to 1000 pesos. That number can grow to 1900 in Todos Santos and Cabo San Lucas, where you’ll be paying U.S. vacation prices.
RV parks, the official kind which have a shower, typically WiFi access, toilets and electricity, run around 200 – 350 pesos per night. More rugged accommodations may be from 100 pesos per night…to absolutely free. Much of the pricing in these places depends on whether anyone ever shows up to collect money.
While digging their toes into the sand and chatting with some ex-pats one night, the family was told that all beaches in Mexico are federal land…so no one can legally charge you to use the beach. However, if someone built palapas (little huts similar to a rickety old pavilion) to provide you shade, or offers a toilet that you’re using, it is apparently either within their right to charge you, or at least it’s easier to pay the equivalent of a few USD in order to avoid a confrontation.
Gas stations are all owned by the government, and as of March 2016, gas was about $3.50 USD / gallon (though it’s all measured in liters down here), compared to $2.40 / gallon in California right now, or $1.68 in Texas. These results may vary drastically as time does it’s progressive thing.
Most importantly, perhaps, is the issue of tipping.
You may have been told that you shouldn’t tip in foreign countries. Such is not so in Old Mexico. The patriarch of the family, responsible for exchanging his time for money and that money for food at restaurants, has indeed been informed by gringos, ex-pats and locals alike that tipping is not necessarily expected, but appreciated and very much a part of Mexican culture.
From coffee shops to bars, car washes to FedEx guys, “propina” jars are not exactly rare.
10-15% is considered customary, and the father of that family reports he would follow this, unless given even slightly better than terrible service, in which case he’d tip the usual 20% he might do in the United States.
Considering a meal might only cost 500 pesos for a family of five, or $28 US, is tipping another $6 really going to break your budget? Because it could significantly improve the life of that waiter serving you.
As in the US and Canada, if you can’t afford to tip, cook for yourself.
Resources for finding campgrounds in Mexico are not as up-to-date or easy as in the US and Canada, but they do exist.
Between using apps like iOverlander to guide books and websites, you’ll be able to find somewhere to park your shiny, new-fangled Airstream…or in the case of our little traveling family, your rusty old Volkswagen.
While these are all incredibly valuable and will likely prove necessary if not simply useful at some point, one of the best ways to find a place to call home for the night, as reported by our dear traveling reporters, is to have conversations.
With locals, or other travelers. Guide books will take you to where everyone else with a guide book has been. Conversations will help you find somewhere new.
Internet and Cell Service
Such is the advice of that Volkswagen-filling’s worth family of hippies who have been so kind to provide such insights as to how to get internet and cell service down in the grand three-sided island known as Baja California.
Service is spotty, primarily confined to towns, though most towns, even small ones, will have it.
T-mobile currently allows those lucky adventurers brave enough to suffer their terrible service in the United States to roam completely free in Mexico, so if Telcel or Nextel or Movistar, some of the more popular cell providers in MX, have service, you’ll get it on your T-mobile phone.
You can also tether that data, up to 14GB / month as of today, to your other devices.
Or you might just opt to buy your data directly from a Mexican carrier, such as Telcel (who seem to have the superior network when compared to Movistar and about the same speed but more coverage than Nextel), for $60 per 10GB. These plans appear to require that you use them within 30 days of purchase, but we’ve heard reports of slightly cheaper options from our traveling family…though they claim to have only heard secondhand accounts and haven’t had to go this route just yet.
Otherwise, WiFi at campgrounds and restaurants and hotels will be as varied as it is in the United States. Note that many restaurants will provide WiFi for free though, particularly in tourist towns, as a way to draw in hungry data gobblers.
Like most things in Mexico, shopping at grocery stores is significantly cheaper than in the US. Otherwise, the experience is quite similar, but en español.
There are good grocers, think in the bigger towns, but not exclusively, and shittier ones. Some places will have rotting food for sale as though it was no big deal. And some of those places will allow you to exchange it hours later.
The largest differences that our family of VW Bus travelers have discovered in grocery stores is that meat is sold in a way many Americans might find discouraging. Much like you might produce a donut from the bakery case or clean up dog poop on the beach, you slip your hand into a bag, wrap that bag around whatever meat you want, and reverse it all so the meat is then in the bag itself.
The Walmart in La Paz has a real, and good, bakery. Their is an abundance of serano peppers, jalapenos, bananas and avocados. Oranges are, suprisingly, hard to come by. Boxed food is as common as in the US.
Other items that you may have become accustomed to you in your fancy shmancy life in Freedomtown, USA may not be available, or may have substitutes. If you can’t find what you want in a grocery store, say Athlete’s foot spray or hand sanitizer, just check a nearby farmacia, which are more common in Mexico than Starbucks are in a US strip mall.
On the other hand, towns that cater to ex-pats–think Cabo San Lucas and Los Barriles–have organic grocery stores (all of which are small, but so are most grocerias in Mexico). Expect to pay a bit more than you would at your local Whole Foods back home, though.
How do you do laundry in Baja?
You simply drop it off. Lavanderias are places you bring your dirty clothes, a typically nice and older woman grabs it all from you, tells you when to come back, and when you do, for maybe 170 pesos or less (depending on how much dirty laundry you need to air), she has a few bags of clean, folded clothes ready for you.
RV parks will sometimes, but rarely, also offer a laundry room, and more often than not when they are available, there isn’t a lovely old Mexican woman or a dryer to go along with it.
Luckily, it’s hot in Baja and sunny even in the middle of February.
Dining out at Restaurants
In swankier cities like La Paz and Cabo, your restaurant experience may be very much in line with what you expect in the United States.
Our little family of traveling overlanders, though not adverse to visiting these types of places, mentions though that if you really want the experience, avoiding the larger cities and their touristy traps is a requirement. So what are the little cafes and restaurants like in the smaller towns?
Quite different. If a restaurant doesn’t sell beer, for example, they may just run down the street and pick up a six pack if you order yourself a cerveza. Expect a family to not only own, but to be very much a part of running the place, from serving your food to cooking it and every experience in between. In most cases, they aim to please, and want you to be happy with the entire experience.
When it comes to selection, imagine the selection you find when visiting one Mexican restaurant in the US and then another. Does it typically vary that much? No, not really. And neither do the items you’ll find on restaurants that are side by side or across town or in the various different towns. What varies most are the quality of the food, the prices, and the freebies they give out.
For example, the family reports back that a particular restaurant in San Felipe served “just okay” tacos, they were particularly reasonable when it came to price, the waiters constantly checked up on them, and they were not only given chips and salsa as a free appetizer, but also heaping plates full of steamed clams and garlic sauce.
Just around the corner, a restaurant with a nearly identical menu was charging slightly more, but with no appetizers and had to send someone out to fetch beers when it became apparent that one six pack wasn’t going to do the job.
Your mastery of Spanish will come into play in many dining establishments as well, and don’t expect everyone to speak even a little English. It may even be safe to say that when the average American traveling in Baja is asked, “How is your Spanish?” and their reply is anything akin to “It’s decent,” what they actually mean is, “I can order fish tacos the way I like them with no problem.”
Learning how to order food in Baja is the first skill one will master. How to ask for help when broken down on some long forsaken dirt road with no cell service will be the second.
Aside from ordering food, how much it costs, and so on, one of the most interesting points of dining out in Baja is the time things take. While the number of minutes between when you order and your food arrives is primarily based on how much you order and how busy the place is, just like in the US, what does very is the amount of “service” you’ll receive. It seems that once your food is delivered, most places in smaller towns will have a waiter who asks if you’re okay and, if you say yes or in some way indicate that you are, they’ll largely leave you alone. If you want another beer or soda or something, there is absolutely no problem with walking over to them and asking for one…something that is often considered rude north of the Mexican border.
Likewise, it is extremely rare that your server will bring you the check if you don’t explicitly ask for it. The family reports back that only once in the months the traveled around Baja did a waitress ask if they would cash out because her shift was up, and that was at a very “gringo” establishment. In fact, even if a restaurant was due to close at 8pm, if you never ask them for the check, they could easily stay open an hour or more afterwards. You’d kind of be a dick, yeah, but that just seems to be the way it is.
So if you’re ready to go and wondering why they won’t drop off the bill, “Puedo tener la cuenta?” will get you a long way.
Finally, when it comes to paying that bill…some places do accept credit cards. Bigger towns, fancier establishments, or just forward thinking restaurants. In most cases though, be ready with cash as that’s not only all they’ll accept, but they’ll expect you to have nearly exact change. In Baja, the custom seems to be that if you can’t make change to pay your bill, they just accept the larger amount. This isn’t a hard rule, and if it’s just a matter of a few pesos…say your bill is $320 (again, pesos, they use the same symbol to denote their money as we do), and you’ve only got $300, they may let you slide. Then again, if you’ve only got two $200 peso notes, and they don’t have change, you’ll lose out.
Not that big of a deal though, because tipping is indeed the right thing to do in Mexico. Whether it’s always been a custom or it’s something new, it’s just right. Would you not tip a waitress in the US? Even if you get sub-standard service, you would, right?
You would right?
So why not tip these guys, too? A typical tip for one person’s meal in the bulk of Baja is going to be around ten to thirty pesos. As of the current exchange rate, that’s somewhere between forty cents US and two dollars. If your family of five’s meal comes out to $500 and you generously decide that 20% is an appropriate tip, at a 17-to-1 exchange rate you’re still only tipping $5.88. That’s nothing to most Americans, but might mean a world of a difference to that little family running the restaurant on the side of Mexico 1.
What was that Golden Rule people are always talking about again?
There are two types of mechanics in Mexico, those who own a shop and get paid to do it, and every single other Mexican man.
“Seriously, I have come to believe that all Mexicans have at least a rudimentary knowledge of how combustible engines work,” reports the father of our traveling correspondents in Baja. “I hope that doesn’t sound like I’m stereotyping, because it’s a praise.”
Where cars have become generally more reliant on computers as the ages have gone by, and the value of the US dollar to the peso has widened its gap, so have Mexican men remained gearheads just as American men were in the 50s and 60s. Sure, there are plenty of new cars in Baja, and they’re not all owned by gringos, but there are also a lot of twenty or thirty year old vehicles on the road, and people who know how to fix them.
If you break down, it doesn’t hurt to ask for help. In the US that might mean hitching a ride to the nearest mechanic, or somewhere you can call for a tow truck. In Mexico, it can be as easy as knowing a rudimentary amount of Spanish and popping the hood when a truck full of guys drive by.
On the other hand, if you do start dealing with actual mechanics, understand that once again, there are two types.
Old guys know everything. Young guys only know new stuff. Don’t expect the average mechanic to speak any English at all. And like any businessman anywhere, if you come in fumbling over your words and can’t communicate what you want, you may get taken for a ride that leaves you a few pesos shorter than you pulled in with, and not much further along as far as repairs go.
“I’ve found that Mexican mechanics are the least friendly of folks down here,” that same father reports, “if you know how to communicate at least a little, it’ll get you all the further.” He adds that, after their 1978 Volkswagen Bus broke down, it took ten trips to various mechanics in Guerrero Negro before he found someone who could both speak English well enough for them to discuss the problem and get it resolved, but also to find someone who knew how to work on older vehicles and also had the time and desire to do so.
If you have that trifecta in place though, the ability to speak the language somewhat, a little knowledge of your own on what is actually wrong, and finding the right guy, you’ll be surprisingly pleased with the results.
“After I finally found the right person, and this was four days and again, ten different trips to various mechanics, the total bill for a guy to hand tool a part that fixed my entire situation only cost me $25 US for about two hours worth of work.”
That same job in the US would have easily taken a week by the time they fit him in and cost at least ten times the price.
Do I Need to Know Spanish?
The short answer is, “No.” If you just want to float through the tourist areas, eat a few meals, and nothing ever goes wrong, then you absolutely do not need to speak Spanish at all, and certainly not fluently.
Then again, if you want to talk to local people, to learn about their lives, to make friends, then at least some basic Spanish will go a long, long way. In general, there is not the same “You’re in our country, speak our language,” mentality that prevails in much of rural America, though it does exist to an extent. If you’re trying, you’ll be rewarded for that by a little patience and a lot of silly hand gestures that will leave both parties chuckling a bit.
If you find yourself in a jam…say you need to find a hotel in the middle of the night, call someone for help, or just explain that you want your kid’s burger to be as plain as possible, then knowing some amount of the local language will go a long way.
And, really, though it may be a difficult endeavor, learning even a smidgeon of another language will help your brain open up to new ways of communicating, new thought processes, and a wider appreciation of the local culture in general. Isn’t that what traveling is all about, anyway?
Are the police crooked?
“We got pulled over within twenty minutes of entering Baja,” the family reports. They were driving through Mexicali and obeying all of the posted signs. They saw a police officer on a motorcycle. He’d already pulled someone over and was talking with them alongside the road, and they continued on without much of a thought otherwise.
“Then I saw him, out of nowhere,” the dad reports, “he drove right up beside my window and pointed for me to pull over.” There were no sirens, no flashing lights. They pulled over. At this point, they knew no Spanish at all. After about ten minutes of the officer asking them questions, some of which they could understand via gestures, he waved them on their way.
They were doing nothing wrong, and didn’t know enough Spanish to understand if he was asking for a bribe or not.
About a month and a half later, with a little Spanish under his belt, the dad found himself pulled over again. This time it was in La Paz. He had run a red light, on accident. In Mexico, the yellow light is basically the red light. If you enter an intersection when the light is yellow, you’ve already broken the law. It doesn’t matter if it was still yellow when you exit the intersection. In this case, he almost crashed into opposing traffic. So he slammed on the breaks and waited in the middle of the intersection for it to be clear, then continued on.
“The guys coming from the other street didn’t seem to care if we hit them or not. They were just flying along. Most of them weren’t obeying several laws, too, but I was clearly from the US…I don’t know. I think that mattered.”
Indeed, stop signs seem largely optional for the locals, but again, this time the family was in the wrong. A police officer pulled them over and approached the vehicle. The father felt a little better about his Spanish after some time here and was practicing on the officer. A big mistake.
“You can pay tomorrow at 11am,” he understood at least that portion of what the cop was saying, “and I’ll take your license to the station. You pick it up there when you pay.”
Of course, the copy was speaking in Spanish, but that was the gist of his explanation.
“Where is the police station?” or in poor Espanol, “Donde es la estacion?” Now it was the officer’s turn to play stupid.
“Or,” the policeman said, now in English, “you pay now.”
Six hundred pesos saved the family from a trip to the station the next day. The fine would have been roughly that as well.
You really shouldn’t pay cops off. Don’t ever try and ask them if they’ll accept a bribe. You can hint at it, perhaps, but bribing a cop is as illegal in Mexico as it is in the US. They are just much more likely to offer it. But you’re just helping a guy who is probably a decent man go further down a crooked path. And you’re making it harder for the next American in this situation.
It’s just so much easier to pay them off right there than to haul your guilty ass back down to the station.
“We’ve heard reports that you can call their bluff,” the family tells us, “that once you state that you are willing to go to the station, they’ll just send you along on your way.” Still, they don’t do it immediately, and it can be intimidating.
“Funny thing is,” the dad laughs at the situation, even if he’s a bit embarrassed by it, “I told him that all of my cash was in the back of the Bus.
“So I had to get out, walk to the back, and on this busy street I’m counting out my money to give to the cop.” Smiling, he continues, “the guy was like, ‘No, no!'” He made it clear that he was now the one breaking the law, and me, the stupid tourist, was probably not worth it. If I would have pushed the issue for another ten minutes I probably wouldn’t have had to pay at all.”
Cops in Mexico, while likely just as powerful if not more than those in the US, seem genuinely less dickish than their American counterparts. The best advice? Play dumb, act like you don’t know what’s going on, and be polite. You’ll quite likely just get out of it all.
And then, try a little harder not to break even the smallest of laws.
Remember that time you were driving through Alabama or Pennsylvania or Michigan or Colorado and were just bitching left and right about how the local DOT seems to always be working on the road, but the road is never fixed?
You’ll be praising those guys after a few weeks in Baja.
Many roads aren’t paved at all, even back streets in decent-sized cities. If you really want to explore, you’ll no doubt find yourself on some rather long, washboard roads to middle of nowhere (literally) beaches. Some of these roads will suddenly disappear as potholes the size of your vehicle have bore their way into the face of Baja like a blackhead on a teenager’s left nostril.
Even on Mexico’s highways, there are no shoulders, the roads can be tight, and the curves sudden. “Topas”, aka speed bumps, can show up out of nowhere. There is a particularly amusing / threatening one in La Paz, just before you enter town. The speed limit is 40km/hour and then you see a sign where the limit increases to 60km/hour. Just as you notice that sign and begin to accelerate, a two foot speed bump appears and you can either slam on the breaks, no doubt forcing the fellow behind you into your rear bumper, or take a a year or two off the life of your vehicle’s front suspension.
While there is much beauty to be seen while driving through Baja, if you’re the actual driver, it’s best to keep your eyes on the road at all times.
Don’t drive at night. Some people will tell you it’s because you can get hijacked. More reasonably though, it’s to keep you from crashing into a 2,000lb. bull who finds the pavement a little warmer than the desert sand at night.
Familiarize yourself with the speed limits, and pay attention, they change quickly and without reason. You can be driving down some abandoned road to nowhere and the speed limit will only be 60km/hour, suddenly dropping to 20km/hour for seemingly no reason (ie, there is nothing around and no sudden turns), only to jump to 110km/hour just before a populated town springs up.
While no one in their right mind would encourage you to speed, the limits in Baja are set quite low, and the further from population areas you get, the less likely some copy will just be hiding alongside the highway as they do in the US.
Even the newest looking roads can have major, major potholes.
Expect that beautiful scenery, too–and this is one of the more unfortunate aspects of Mexico–to be littered with basura, aka trash. Nearly always.
As for gasoline, it’s prevalent. There is a stretch near where Mexico 5 and Mexico 1 intersect, down to Guerrero Negro, where there are very few places to fill up, and if you’re exploring the dirt roads of Vizcaino, you can go 60 miles or more without seeing a gas station, but in general and particularly with newer vehicles that can easily go a hundred miles or more without needing a refill, you won’t have trouble finding gas in Mexico. And all of the gas stations, Pemex, are government run, so there’s no need to hunt around for the cheapest prices. They’re always the same: whatever the government says they are.
Getting mail from the US sucks in Mexico.
“We ordered a part, three day international shipping,” our traveling family tells us, “and a month later we were able to pick it up in La Paz. It costs almost $150 when everything was said and done, including a ‘holding fee’. That’s right, FedEx couldn’t get it to us in 3 days and so we had to pay for the additional three and a half weeks it took them to finally deliver it.”
“Another time, we tried shipping some documents to the US,” says the father of our Baja correspondents, “that was again three day shipping.” It took a week before their tracking number even reported the item as being shipped, and then another three days for it to arrive in Texas.
Don’t expect Amazon to ship most items, and don’t expect to find many common items you might need in Baja. Come with everything you think you need, short of food, and if you absolutely need something shipped down, rent a casita for a month and wait it out.
Also note that aside from big cities like La Paz, you can’t typically send packages via UPS or FedEx. While there are little couriers offering these services, if you have a package, these guys need to get it somewhere that customs can root through it…so shipping documents is the most likely scenario if any amount of success is desirable.
Exchanging Dollars, ATMs and Credit Cards
If you bring US dollars to Mexico, you can typically exchange them either at stores dedicated to doing just that (and they take a cut, of course, in the form of giving you an exchange rate a bit lower than what it would actually be) or at places like gas stations, where if you buy something with dollars they’ll be okay with giving you change back in pesos.
But not a ton of change, more like breaking a $20 down into $15 worth of pesos.
ATMs are largely provided in every decent-sized town. Bancomer is the most common, and they charge what is roughly the equivalent of $5 as their fee. Add in whatever your bank charges and you might find yourself paying around $10 / ATM transaction. 5000 – 10,000 pesos is typically the limit on how much you can withdrawal, from Bancomer’s perspective anyway (your bank will have its own limits).
Banamex is consistently the cheapest, charging closer to $2.50 and the host of other random little banks charge a varying amount in-between those two ranges. Still, outside of the bigger cities you won’t find anything but Bancomer.
On top of this, ATMs typically disperse 500 peso notes (if you withdraw some amount of thousands), which are hard to spend if you’re just trying to buy something like a candy bar or a pack of cigarettes. If you’re not spending at least 300 pesos and you hand over a 500, you may find yourself in a situation where the cashier doesn’t have enough change. Or is annoyed that you don’t have anything smaller.
Credit cards can be used in larger towns, particularly where there are more tourists or ex-pats, but always have some cash on hand, because even though many grocery stores and hotels will have credit card machines, most small restaurants and campgrounds won’t.
What are the people like?
Honestly? Just like Americans. Some are quite friendly. Others are short. A few are just downright jerks. People are people around the world, we have good days and bad. Mexicans are not particularly any more happy or pleasant than Americans.
The primary difference, however, is that in general…and this goes for the smiling young mother walking her kid through the playground and the rough-around-the-edges farm worker in the back of a pickup truck alike…if you say “hola” or “buenes tardes” to just about anyone, they will surprise you with a fervid response of the same nature.
So in that way, they are different. There is a politeness that seems ingrained in the culture that was lost in the United States at some point.
What’s the Weather Like?
Sunny. All the time.
Sometimes windy. Chilly at night in the winter, but hot during the day.
And very, very sunny.
“The cardon stretch on for endless kilometers, dotting the rolling desert and peppering mountains like I hadn’t imagined,” he tells us. A bit of a dendrologist, our roving father reporter, he takes note, as naturally does his family. They speak of an arid land, rarely flat and sometimes downright monstrous as hills and mountains go.
The road, whether pavement, dirt or sand, wriggles between some of the most curvaceous, alluring landscape in North America. While the cardon cacti are the dominant force of fauna in this region, in the washes and arroyos thick native bushes (and plenty of tamarisk) rise ten or fifteen feet into the air, if not higher, while an interesting array of trees twist and turn like a Doctor Seuss version of reality appear here and there wherever you go.
Still, plant life is relatively scarce. The big blue sky and the rustling of the ocean as it goes murky shallow to aquamarine pristine depending on what lies beneath are the primary attractions most folks seem to come to Baja to experience. Massive dunes prevail, separating where they can the land from the sea, and even where the beaches have been tamed by man the tide tends to rise and fall significantly against a rather sharp slope, particularly in the southern half of Baja. Further north, one can walk for what seems like an eternity before finding themselves even ankle deep in salt water.
It is the desert, and as such is gorgeous to those who know how to see it properly.
Montezuma’s Revenge is not a myth. You will get sick from drinking non-purified water in Mexico, and as far as anyone who isn’t snooping into the darker realms of a local’s home can tell, Mexicans only drink purified water, too.
Whether some don’t or they all do is not the point, sure, perhaps some locals have an immune system capable of handling everything that the natural water and Mexican-borne systems of delivering it can dole out, but for nearly all foreigners, consuming non-purified water will result in a day or several of everything you’ve eaten–and then the vapid hole that’s left–coming out of both ends.
Luckily, the ice and water they serve in every restaurant our traveling companions have visited has been purified water. Yes, the ice too. No need to fear the margaritas.
Bottled water is for sale in abundance, from single doses at the local gas station to 5 gallon jugs at the grocery store, and most towns have at least one place where you can go to fill up your own freshwater tanks and bottles. Best of all, it only costs about 15 pesos for 5 gallons, sometimes significantly less for more and a little more for less. As of today’s exchange rate, that’s less than a dollar for what, in scientific terms, we deem a buttload of water.
Alcohol, Tobacco and Pot
Mexicans enjoy a buzz as much as their northern counterparts, even if the options are slightly different and the rules on imbibing follow suit.
When it comes to alcohol, you will find no shortage. Don’t expect variety, mind you, but you can buy liquor, wine and beer alike in convenience stores, grocery stores and many restaurants. If you’re an IPA snob or only drink a certain type of wine, you may need to reconsider opening your tastes a little to try something new…or settle if you must. Most restaurants will offer beer at least as a beverage, and even those that don’t will sometimes have someone run out and grab you one or two if you end up ordering a cerveza or two with your meal. Don’t expect it, but it’s more common than you think. You can also often leave a restaurant with your beer. Drunk driving is illegal, but not as serious an offense as in the US, and at one point the offer to take three margaritas on the road when leaving an establishment was had.
That is not advice, just a conveyance of our dear traveling family’s experience.
As for cigarettes, if you’re the smoking type, they cost significantly less, around 50 pesos, which is currently just over $3 USD per pack. American Spirits? No. Everything else, just about? Yes. Those smokes you can pinch the filter to turn from regular to menthol seem to be very popular with the younger Mexicans who do smoke. It is not frowned upon like it is in the US, particularly in smaller towns, but fewer people seem to smoke cigarettes via an unscientific collection of data gathered by the roving family kind enough to share their experiences with us.
What about weed though? You know, cold, hard, dope. Well, maybe not cold or hard, but the green variety.
Marijuana is not abundant in Baja, and apparently it is not entirely illegal either. If you wanted to find some, it wouldn’t be hard, particularly in the more touristy areas…in Los Cabos, for example, you might be offered marijuana for purchase multiple times in a day, in Los Barriles or La Paz on the other hand, you may need to make some friends or just ask around.
The laws of being caught smoking or purchasing pot are unknown to this author and beyond the scope of this article, but it a sufficient summary of the status of green in Baja is that if you want it, you can find it, and no one seems to give a damn if you’re smoking it. Be smart, be safe, and oh, don’t expect the same quality as in Colorado. If they’re seeds, toss ’em!
After having spent three months traveling around Baja, from Mexicali to San Felipe, the Vizcaino Peninsula to La Paz and a significant chunk of the East Cape, we asked the patriarch of our traveling family how he would sum up his experience in Baja.
“I started drinking cerveza most afternoons rather early, got sand in my shorts and my Bus, and watched the stars get bright just long enough to fall asleep early enough to make sure I’d wake up and see the stars. People were nice, I only rarely got sick of fish tacos, and as I’m waiting in line here for the ferry to the Mainland…well…I kinda love Baja.”