This most common of questions is asked in reference to almost all areas of Baja California. It is a difficult question to answer, because there will always be some rare circumstance when someone will encounter a problem which might be considered unsafe. However, as a general rule, I consider remote camping in Baja California, south of the border region, to be much safer than in the U.S.. Camping in organized campgrounds and RV parks is not much of a problem in either place.
In the border region (say a strip up to 150 miles south of the border), there are a couple of influences which slightly change the safety issue.
First, there is the drunken weekend American visitor who considers Mexico to be a place where "anything goes." While in a tiny minority, these Americans can sometimes make a visit quite unpleasant. They may be found in the bars of Tijuana and Ensenada, as one might expect, and out in the "boonies" as well.
Secondly, in this border region there is the presence of a major flow of illegal drugs, and the potential for violence which can accompany that traffic. The more remote parts of this region are patrolled by soldiers who are reported to be generally polite and professional, but who are facing an enemy with possible tendencies toward violence; and so the soldiers may become anxious during any encounter with unknown visitors. Those operating on the other side of this situation are probably even more anxious, and less polite.
If you are traveling into the more remote areas within this border region, it is probably best to keep your presence very much in the open. If your intentions are to climb a mountain, try to make it clear to any observer that this is exactly what you have in mind. Also, be aware that this drug traffic appears to involve "locals" as well as outsiders.
I don't want to be too negative about visiting the mountains in this region - I've not heard of any injuries occurring to visitors. However, there have been a number of incidents involving property theft or destruction, possibly designed to discourage people from coming back to the area.
At some point in 1997 it became noticeable that tourist-oriented crime was on the increase throughout Mexico, including Baja California. This trend appears to be continuing, and some caution should be exercised in areas known to have crime problems. For the traveler along Route 1, this would be the San Quintin - El Rosario area. In that region I would recommend staying only in established campgrounds or hotels/motels.
The entire Baja peninsula is a desert, and the southern end is in the "dry tropics." One advantage of this is that, except for the cities, the area is sparsely settled. There are no communities up in the mountains polluting the water sources, and hence, the water is good. I don't know of anyone who has had problems with the local water in Baja California - especially at the southern end. Further north there are several places with salty water, e.g., San Quintin and Guerrero Negro - this situation will be quickly noted and you can seek out "Agua Purificada" at the store.
This is unlike the "wet tropics" in mainland Mexico where there are often pollution sources upstream and the water has "bugs" our bodies have trouble dealing with.
In La Paz I've been drinking the tap water for years and never had a problem. Nor have I heard of problems from anyone else in the La Paz area. However, for those in doubt, there is plenty of purified water available in La Paz. You can even find some imported from Southern California!
There is a bottled water commonly found in La Paz that comes from Saltillo on the mainland. I've been told that over in Saltillo a common bottled water is one sent over from La Paz on the (remote!) Baja Peninsula. Seems that folks never quite trust what they have around them - better to get something from a far-away and "pure" location! In this case the real benefit would appear in allowing the trucks to carry water bottles in both directions (never an empty water truck!).
This is another question which presents many difficulties in providing a useful answer. It depends very much on the vehicle, the experience of the driver, and the weather. The fact that this question is being asked suggests that the person asking the question is not experienced at driving the Baja highway, and so I usually try to be discouraging. After all, it might be me coming around that curve just when a very tired driver wanders across the centerline.
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. Generally, the highway is constructed with 9 foot lanes and no shoulders. In some areas there will be no center striping on the 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 Baja highway involves a truck going off the road or flipping over at a curve.
Under almost no circumstances should the Baja highway be driven at night. The major reason is that animals are attracted to the pavement at night because it retains heat long after the ground has turned cold. There are a host of other, equally important, reasons for not driving the highway at night. Some of them are: unseen potholes; a lack of center striping to help keep you separated from approaching traffic; drunken drivers near the towns; tired truck drivers; etc..
Another consideration in contemplating a fast trip to the southern end of the peninsula is that of missed opportunities - the chance to see plants not found elsewhere, visit towns unlike those we are familiar with, and meet some of the warmest and most genuine people to be found anywhere. I personally view a trip along the Baja highway as something to be savored, not gulped.
Note. In October '97, much of the weather information was consolidated into a separate page - see Weather on the Contents Page.
In a general sense, the Baja Peninsula divides in the middle into two weather zones. The northern half experiences weather similar to that of Southern California, while the southern half has weather patterns like those of Arizona.
The northern half has its rainy season in the winter - storms come from the North Pacific and are generally moderate in strength when they reach Baja. The summer is usually dry and brings consistent winds along the Pacific coast.
The southern half gets most of its rain during the "hurricane season" from July through October. There are exceptions to this, but as a general rule summer brings the rainy season. The storms come from all directions except the north. Hurricanes are spawned off Southern Mexico and tend to head northwest with a general pattern of moving out into the mid-Pacific - however, these hurricanes sometimes curve north, or north and then east, or north and then west, to pass over the southern areas of the Baja Peninsula. They can "hit" the peninsula from the south, west or east!
The amounts of rainfall in the Southern areas vary tremendously from year to year. Some years will pass with essentially no rainfall at all. In others the rainfall amounts will rival those of (Alta) California, and the desert will become verdant and carpeted with wild flowers.
The heat of summer can be oppressive in some areas - while in other nearby areas breezes may keep much of this heat at bay. I personally enjoy the summers in Baja, especially the warm waters and very pleasant evenings.
If you are traveling in Baja California during the summer months, be sure to carry an emergency supply of water and a shade cover in case of a mechanical problem. Also make certain your vehicle is in good condition to start with, especially the cooling system. (You want to have the water available for human consumption, not for your car's cooling system!)
The basic equation to remember is that of the four S's:Summer + Satisfaction = Shade + Siesta
This is a question I do not like to address - while the general law seems quite clear, local practices can make the law seem somewhat irrelevant. I'll give here the facts based on national law as I've understood it to be for many years.
In considering Mexican law as it affects foreign ownership of land, it helps to keep in mind that ownership of land was a central issue of the Mexican Revolution earlier in this century, and it remains a major concern for many citizens. There is also the memory of what happened in Texas over 140 years ago: foreigners flocked into that area, acquired land, and then seceded from Mexico - eventually leading to the loss of over half of Mexican land to the United States.
The basic answer to this question of foreign ownership is "Yes, and No!".
A foreigner can own land in Mexico as long as the land is more than 100 kilometers from the "Federal Zone," a strip of land reaching 20 meters inland from the high tide line along the ocean borders of Mexico.
A foreigner cannot own land in Mexico if the land is less than 100 kilometers from the Federal Zone. This case applies to all of Baja California!
It is my understanding that this is written into the Mexican constitution. I believe that it also applies to areas near the land borders of Mexico as well. However, the ocean borders application suffices to cover Baja California.
Okay, you've heard of all those people "owning" land in Cabo San Lucas, and you want to be a part of that "money machine." Well, if they are non-Mexican, they don't own the land - despite what they might be saying. Most likely, they have a 30 to 50-year "trust" to use the land as they wish.
The way to secure such a trust is through an intermediary bank. At the end of the period of the trust, it must be renewed or the land will be sold. If the land is sold to another foreigner during the period of the trust, a new trust must be created (costs will have to be renegotiated, etc.).
It has been reported to me, by people having land trusts, that the banks have been steadily increasing the annual fees charged for their "service." This is something any potential buyer should check into. Find out what the fee was a few years ago, and what it is now. The work done by the banks is simple paperwork, I am told - not something which would justify rapid increases in the fees. Note also, the annual fee is pegged to the perceived value of the property in question.
A neighbor in La Paz recently told me of the bank raising his annual trust fee on a piece of property by almost 100% - on a dollar basis! He went to the bank to determine a reason for this dramatic change, and "inflation" was quoted as being the cause. After much discussion, the bank agreed to an increase of about 30% - so the matter is negotiable.
There are several prominent examples of land ownership problems in Baja California: the Hotel Punta Arenas southeast of La Paz and the Hotel Serenidad in Mulegé.
The Hotel Punta Arenas was closed, and essentially "trashed." The real owners did not want to renew the lease, and intended taking over the operation of the hotel at the expiration of the lease. The lease expired and the real owners took back the land and all improvements made on it, but could not succeed in getting the hotel operating again.
In early 1998 the hotel reopened, I have no details regarding ownership. A brief stop in late 1999 showed the resort to have been nicely restored to operating condition.
The Hotel Serenidad was taken over in July '96 by a group claiming ownership of the land, and that group continues to hold physical possession. A judge in Mexico City has ruled in favor of the developers of the hotel, however the situation remains a standoff. This case is especially interesting because it essentially involves Mexican ownership on both sides.
Note: On June 20th, 1997, the hotel reopened, although the legal questions remain unsettled.
A front-page article in the January 29, 1997 Los Angeles Times is entitled "Standoff at the Hotel Serenidad," and covers many of the issues being fought over. The subheading of this article reads: "Last July, peasants took over a resort in Baja California, saying it sits on land the government gave them. Their defiance points up the conflicts in Mexico between local claims and the need for outside money."
My personal advice in the matter of "investing" money in Mexican real estate, where true ownership is prohibited or unclear, is to put in only money you can walk away from without harming your lifestyle or future security.
For reference, here is the statement relative to this subject provided in the U.S. State Department Consular Information Sheet on Mexico (the full document is on the State Dept. Info Page):
REAL ESTATE AND TIME-SHARES: U.S. citizens should be aware of the risks inherent in purchasing real estate in Mexico, and should exercise extreme caution before entering into any form of commitment to invest in property there. Investors must recognize the absolute need to obtain authoritative information and to hire competent Mexican legal counsel when contemplating any real estate investment. Mexican laws and practices regarding real estate differ substantially from those in the United States. Foreigners may be granted the right to own real property only under very specific conditions. Whether investing through a trust mechanism in border and coastal areas or by outright purchase in Mexico's interior, U.S. citizens are vulnerable to title challenges that may result in years of litigation and possible eviction. Title insurance is virtually unknown and untested in Mexico. In addition, Mexican law recognizes squatters' rights, so homeowners can spend thousands of dollars in legal fees and years of frustration in trying to remove squatters who occupy their property.
American citizens also should exercise caution when considering time-share investments and be aware of the aggressive tactics used by some time-share sales representatives. Buyers should be fully informed and take sufficient time to consider their decisions before signing time-share contracts, ideally after consulting an independent attorney. They should resist pressure to sign a contract the very day that they see the model unit. Mexican law allows time-share purchasers five days to cancel the contract for unconditional and full reimbursement. U.S. citizens should never sign a contract that includes clauses penalizing the buyer who cancels within five days.