The Transpeninsular Highway was constructed to facilitate commerce between the northern and southern states of the Baja California peninsula. The original construction was minimal and quick - in many sections the dirt was graded and a thin layer of asphalt rolled in place. As this surface rapidly deteriorated from weather, it was patched and "resurfaced" with another thin layer of surfacing material. As parts of the road are now being replaced, a more substantial method of construction is being used.
As part of the minimal nature of the highway, the roadway was constructed to just accomodate two passing trucks (eight feet wide plus mirrors), with about one foot of clearance between the trucks. In general, there are no shoulders along the highway. In some areas there will be no center striping on the road. Dropoffs are common along the roadside, with the deeper ones often having a guardrail at the edge of the pavement.
The width and condition of the road in Baja present a constant challenge to the driver to be alert. There is no room for wandering off the road to the right and expecting to recover. Wandering to the left presents the possibility of oncoming traffic. This is a very unforgiving road.
The truck drivers tend to keep tight schedules, and seem to push themselves too hard. The most common accident I've seen on the highways of Baja California involves a truck going off the road or flipping over at a curve.
The drive along the Transpeninsular Highway is one of the great desert drives in North America, but it is also one of the most dangerous.
- If you have trouble staying alert when driving, you should not be driving this road.
- If you are in a hurry to reach a distant location along the highway, you should fly or take a bus.
There are plenty of natural obstacles which will keep your speed down on the highways of Baja California. Cows, horses, donkeys, and goats are frequent residents of the roadway, and they seem to consider vehicles as intruders to be ignored! (I have even seen deer on the road in the early morning hours - technically, the Peninsular Pronghorn, an endangered species with some concentration in the Vizcaino desert.)
A common style of driving along the highway is to straddle the centerline of the road. This allows one to be more flexible in avoiding potholes, the most common obstacle. A variation on this technique is also frequently seen in the curving mountain sections of the highway where vehicles will use both lanes when between curves. You may also encounter vehicles dancing the "Pothole Polka," a step that causes them to weave erratically across the highway in an attempt to miss the potholes.
If animals are on or next to the road, or there is some other obstacle to be aware of, drivers will frequently flash their headlights at oncoming vehicles to give them some warning.
One minor "trick" to anticipating the frequency of animals dining at the edge of the road during daylight hours is to consider the recent frequency of rainfall. If there has been no rainfall recently, there will be fewer animals dining at the side of the road. However, if rain has recently fallen, then the grasses will be especially lush at the sides of the pavement, and the density of cows and horses enjoying this treat will soar!
The animals which can be seen at the side of the road are the easy-to-deal-with danger. The difficult, if not impossible, situation is that where the animal suddenly appears from behind a road cut or dense brush at the side of the road. All you can do is recognize the potential problem when approaching such a place and slow down. Most of the time nothing will occur, but I've had two occasions on which animals have suddenly appeared from hiding and caused a near-miss situation.
I can offer a personal warning about cows on the road between La Paz and Cabo San Lucas. They are especially numerous, and in many places "caught" between fences placed about 100 feet back from the road on both sides (the fences are designed to keep the animals on the side away from the road, but this does not seem to work). In September of 1992, a friend and I were driving to San Lucas early in the morning (about 7AM) and managed to strike a cow at a low speed. All parties survived, but the car suffered a bent hood which now just barely closes.
There were two cows by the road, one on the right and one on the left. The cow on the right was sticking out into the road slightly and I swung to the center to pass him/her - just then the other cow decided to join its friend across the road and dashed in front of the car - the car knocked the hind legs out from under the cow and the very healthy animal landed on top of the front of the hood, finally sliding off to the side. It then scampered away into the brush.
It is often cautioned that one not drive at night on the Baja highway. The major reasons are:
- Animals are attracted to the pavement at night because it retains heat long after the ground has turned cold.
- Construction of the road: narrow lanes with sharp curves and no shoulders.
- In many places, a lack of stripes to mark the center and sides of the roadway.
- Potholes which can be large and deep, bringing on a sudden swerve (either on your part or that of an oncoming vehicle).
- Encountering wide trucks with bright headlights (sometimes mis-aimed) and only a foot or two of separation between vehicles.
As a general rule, night driving on the Transpeninsular Highway should be avoided, no matter what the cost.
Try to imagine approaching a truck, each of you traveling at 50MPH, on a dark night and a dark narrow road without any striping, and the truck's headlights glaring in your eyes. An equivalent situation would be driving towards a wall at 100 MPH, in the dark, with lights glaring in your eyes, and knowing there is a gap in the wall just a few feet wider than your vehicle. On the Baja highway, at night, this will be repeated over and over!
If you feel you have to drive at night, one trick is to position yourself behind a bus and try to keep up with it (this may not be so easy!). The bus drivers are better than the truck drivers - I've never seen a wrecked bus along the highway, but there are many trucks which have gone over the side.
There is a driving custom in Mexico which first-time visitors should be aware of. The use of the left turn indicator has at least two meanings. First, the traditional indication for a pending left-hand turn is used, usually in conjunction with a slowing of the vehicle and a flashing of the brake lights. A second, and possibly more common use, is to indicate that the "leading vehicle" considers it safe for the "following vehicle" to pass. This is extremely dangerous in the situation where the leading vehicle really intends to turn left, and the following vehicle interprets that it is OK to pass.
If the vehicle ahead flashes its left turn signal, check for possible left turn points and pass only if there are no places this vehicle could possibly turn into. When a Mexican driver is going to turn left, there will often be some arm-waving and a movement of the vehicle into the other lane (if that lane is empty) - this allows you to pass by in your regular lane.
If you intend turning left, and there are following vehicles, then slow down and have your brake lights on when you activate the turn indicator. For good measure, open the window and use a hand signal as well.
In my years of driving a wide vehicle in Baja California (pickup with dual wheels and a large camper) I've noticed a third use of the left turn signal. It's used especially by trucks and busses when they are about to pass a large vehicle going in the opposite direction. I've not yet deciphered the meaning of this signal! It could possibly be an indication that they are aware of the coming vehicle and are to the right of the center stripe (if there is one).
October, 1999: I received email from one reader to the effect that this usage of the left-turn signal is an unofficial greeting between professional drivers, and may be observed in the US and Canada as well (on two-lane highways).
One of the most common of minor accidents on the highway involves side mirrors hitting a passing vehicle. While this might, in general, be a minor problem, there are possibly serious consequences. At the very least you may be left without a mirror on the driver's side. If you are able to move the other mirror to the driver's side, you encounter a lack of visibility on the passenger side which becomes a problem in some of the cities.
A more serious consequence involves the mirror shattering the driver's side window. This happened to some friends who were driving north when a camper, edging over the centerline, caused the two mirrors to collide. The mirror on my friend's Suburban was thrown into the side window causing that window to shatter. Small pieces of glass flew as far as the passenger side!
A story passed on by Lee Farmer in 2004 concerns his encounter with an RV caravan heading north near San Ignacio:
. . .going South just outside San Ignacio, a caravan was coming my way and this 5th Wheel is coming around a turn, downhill, hugging the center divider. There is nowhere for me to go. Off to the right is no shoulder and a deep and steep canyon. I choose to be hit instead. Fortunately, he only takes my side mirror. (But then I'm lost without a mirror -- after swapping the passenger mirror over to the driver side -- I can't change lanes to the right because I can't see!)
One of the prominent features of the Baja highways is the "Vado" sign. The vados are the dips across the road through which water will rush when it rains. During the rainy season (generally, winter in the north and summer in the south) these vados can become very full! If you are in doubt about crossing a particular water-filled vado, wait until some hardier soul tries it - watch his path and the height of the water on the side of his vehicle. In some cases these vados can remain full for many days.
Passing through a water-filled vado requires more caution for the driver of a gasoline-powered vehicle. It's easy to get water splashed up into the engine compartment where the ignition system can short out. One standard trick, if this appears to be a real possibility, is to remove the fan belt driving the engine fan. This will prevent the fan from spraying any water about the compartment. (This trick may also be used by diesel vehicles concerned with getting water in the air intake.)
Near the towns these situations will sometimes bring out groups of young boys who perch on rocks by the road like vultures waiting for their prey. They are of course waiting for a motorist to stall in the middle of the stream, at which point they begin negotiations regarding a push to higher ground. In this negotiation they are already holding the higher ground!
In a few places you will find vado signs with names assigned to the vados. These names correspond to the names of the storms which wiped out the road at that point. Of course there is the most common vado name: Peligroso. Watch out for any vado with that name!
With the execption of the Tijuana-Ensenada toll road, all non-symbolic highway signs are in Spanish, as should be expected. I recently received some email (1998) suggesting that I give warning about "Despacio" meaning "Slow." (Apparently traveling without a dictionary, and too fast, this reader's vehicle "almost left the ground" after he ignored a "Despacio" sign.) In response to this request I've added this section.
Here are a few basic signs you'll encounter.
Vado Peligroso =
Curva Peligrosa =
The following table lists some lesser signs seen along the highway. The English equivalent represents a loose translation - you may find it easier to make associations with words which offer a more direct translation - for example, "DISMINUYA SU VELOCIDAD" might be mentally read as "DIMINISH YOUR VELOCITY."
General Signs NO REBASE = NO PASSING DISMINUYA SU VELOCIDAD = SLOW DOWN CONCEDA CAMBIO DE LUCES = DIM YOUR LIGHTS ZONA DE GANADO = CATTLE AREA PRINCIPIA ZONA DE DERRUMBES = BEGIN ROCKSLIDE AREA TERMINA ZONA DE DERRUMBES = END ROCKSLIDE AREA PRINCIPIA ZONA DE VADOS = BEGIN AREA OF DIPS ENTRADA Y SALIDA DE CAMIONES = TRUCKS ENTERING AND EXITING CAMINO CERRADO = ROAD CLOSED TRAMO EN REPARACION = ROAD REPAIRS UN SOLO CARRIL = SINGLE LANE MAQUINA TRABAJANDO = HEAVY MACHINES AT WORK HOMBRES TRABAJANDO = MEN AT WORK MANEJE CON PRECAUCION = DRIVE WITH CAUTION SI TOMA NO MANEJE = DON'T DRINK AND DRIVE AREA DE DESCANSO = REST AREA GRAVA SUELTA = LOOSE GRAVEL ESTE CAMINO NO ES DE ALTA VELOCIDAD = NOT A HIGH-SPEED ROAD City Signs PRECAUCION ZONA ESCOLAR = CAUTION SCHOOL ZONE CRUCE DE PEATONES = PEDESTRIAN CROSSING PROHIBIDO ESTACIONARSE = NO PARKING SE USARA GRUA = TOW-AWAY ZONE CAMELLON CENTRAL = CENTER DIVIDER TOPES = SPEED BUMPS Toll Road Signs TRANSITO LENTO CARRIL DERECHO = SLOW TRAFFIC KEEP RIGHT CARRIL IZQUIERDO SOLO PARA REBASAR = LEFT LANE ONLY FOR PASSING ESTACIONAMIENTO SOLO PARA EMERGENCIAS = EMERGENCY PARKING ONLY ZONA DE FALLAS = LANDSLIDE AREA NO TIRE BASURA = DON'T THROW TRASH GUARDE SU DISTANCIA = KEEP YOUR DISTANCE CASETA DE COBRO = TOLL BOOTH For Trucks NO UTILIZAR FRENO CON MOTOR = NO ENGINE BRAKING CIERRE SU ESCAPE = CLOSE MUFFLER BY-PASS RUTA DE CAMIONES = TRUCK ROUTE
Having seen these signs here should not excuse the traveler from doing adequate preparation for a trip into a culture which speaks a different language.
Carry a Spanish-(favorite language) dictionary and a book covering the details of driving in Mexico (Baja California in particular).
See the Books Page for a long list of books on traveling in Baja California. I can strongly recommend the AAA book on Baja California.
The "Green Angels" are a government-sponsored fleet of assistance vehicles which travel the major highways of Mexico. They can be identified by their bright green color with white lettering on the side. In theory, there is to be a green angel truck passing any fixed spot twice each day. The driver and/or helper may speak English, and will carry gasoline and a few common spare parts. In the worst situation, they should be able to summon additional help. I've never needed their assistance, but they are quite evident on the Baja road. It's a great idea, and I try to give them a friendly wave when passing on the road.
In line with the idea of assistance, the Mexican Ministry of Tourism maintains an "800" number in Mexico City: 91-800-90-392. I've never used this, but they are reported to have some English-speaking operators.
At two points along the Transpeninsular Highway, traffic is funneled through an Agricultural Inspection Station. The inspector may wave you through or may ask if you are carrying fruits or vegetables. Some fruits and vegetables may have to be confiscated, while others can be kept. As a general rule, all thin skinned fruits will be confiscated (oranges, apples, mangos, limes, etc.), and any other item which might be carrying fruit flies.
There is a newer station at the state boundary just north of Guerrero Negro, and an older station just north of La Paz. My experience has been that the inspectors are very polite. A great ice-breaker with the inspectors is a Coke or similar soft drink ("refresco") - if you have a supply on board.
Beginning in 1998 a spraying program has been in place at the station located at the state boundary. There is a 10 peso fee to pay for each car sprayed (only traveling south), and double that for an RV. The program is run by the Municipio ("County") of Mulegé to keep certain agricultural pests out.
Since the advent of the military checkpoints along the highway, the nature of these inspection stations has occasionally shifted. You may find that the agricultural inspection has been pushed aside in favor of a military drugs and arms inspection. This seems to frequently be the case at the La Paz station.
There are only a few special things to note regarding motorcycling the highways of Baja California.
First, the presence of potholes, sometimes rather deep, necessitates an agile (and fun!) riding style. Striking a deep pothole with a two-wheeled vehicle is quite different than striking it in a four-wheeled vehicle. While most potholes will prove harmless, watch out for the "grandes."
Secondly, the reduced range of a motorcycle requires more careful planning for fuel stops. The longest stretch between "guaranteed" gas supplies is about 260 miles. While there will normally be gas available at the smaller stations, don't count on it!
Finally, the motorcyclist has to be especially careful of animals on the road. In a car or truck, striking a cow is an event which may very well kill the cow and damage your vehicle, but will hopefully leave you unscathed. On a motorcycle, the situation changes and your survival could be in doubt. In my years of traveling in Baja California I have had four near-misses and one hit. The hit and three of the near-misses were in cars or trucks. The fourth near-miss occurred on a motorcycle, with the cow bolting from behind a road-cut to dash between my motorcycle and one in front of me.
U.S. dollars can easily be changed for pesos at the border in San Ysidro, and the rate is about as good as you'll get anywhere. Note that most of these "Casas de Cambio" have two numbers of pesos posted for the exchange rate - often one is in LARGE letters (the higher number) and the other in small letters (the lower number). The higher number is the rate for exchanging pesos to dollars and the lower number is the rate for dollars to pesos.
It will be difficult to get $ exchanged between Ensenada and La Paz; however, $US are acceptable in many places - at the merchants rate of exchange! If $US dollars are offered in payment, expect to get any change in pesos.
Watch out for the "commission rip-off" at the "Casas de Cambio" - they will quote you a good rate and then quietly tack on a 10-15% "commission." At such places I just walk away and look for a more honest Casa de Cambio.
Weekend note: On weekends, most of the honest casas de cambio are closed and the rip-off artists take over. If you're forced to look for pesos on a weekend, check for places towards the border area on San Ysidro Blvd.. Always ask for a non-commission rate first - most weekend places will quietly shake a head indicating "no."