In my last series on “How to get lost in Baja…or, who packed the pesos”, I talked about important documentation that you will need when crossing the border, having the right amount of money, and making sure your vehicles are in order.In this series, I plan to uncover what to do once you get to Baja, how to communicate with the locals, and what if something goes wrong.
Getting Around in Baja
Rule #1 IF YOU SEE GAS…GET GAS. This may mean buying gas out of a 55 gallon drum in the back of Juan’s truck, but like ATMs, you never know when you will see gas again. It can be 200 miles between fuel stops. All PemEx gas stations are government operated and marked on maps, but just because it is marked on the map doesn’t mean it is in operating condition.
Rule #2 Get the best map you can for your GPS, plus carry HARD COPY PAPER MAPS! Paper maps do not require power or satellite signal. For our GPS, we load BiciMapas and for hard copy, we use the Baja Almanac. When you start comparing the two, you soon realize that both are less than 100% accurate. This is pretty standard when traveling in remote undeveloped areas. What you have to remember, is that both the map and the GPS are tools to help you figure out where you are. Never let the lady who lives inside the GPS do your thinking for you. You need to be able to read a map, including terrain and road quality, and use your head to make decisions.
Take an actual compass with you. This is another great tool to have. If you have no experience at map reading, get on Google and find an orienteering class or club before you attempt travel like this.
Mind Your Manners
Three of the most important things to take when traveling outside the “touristy” areas of any country are a smile, manners, and basic phrases in their language. Learning a language gets harder with age, but being able to smile and greet someone in their native language will make you friends fast. My Spanish is, well, horrible, but I can order water, food, beer, ask for a room, and generally get by when in Mexico. None of this is because I am any good with the language, but mainly because I make sure to smile, start off with an appropriate greeting like “Buenos tardes” (good afternoon), followed by the appropriate amigo/señor/señora.
That initial, polite, friendly greeting shows I am a friendly visitor, and from there I can usually muddle my way through the situation. Not being afraid to laugh at my own ineptitude helps also. Once you start using hand gestures, you WILL get laughed at eventually; just roll with it and realize how ridiculous you must look. After a few encounters like this, you would be amazed how far you can get by being friendly and keeping your sense of humor.
What if it all goes horribly wrong?
What if it all goes horribly wrong? What if you get hurt? What if your vehicle dies in the middle of nowhere? What if you get robbed and are penniless in a foreign land?
Your first best weapon was to avoid trouble in the first place. In any sticky situation, your second best weapon is your wits combined with a good neighborly attempt to ask for help. If you find yourself surrounded by drug dealing smugglers, or in jail, you probably failed at #1 and are unlikely to be making any friends, no matter how big you smile.
Barring situations like that, most people, where ever you are, tend to be good people. In addition, even in remote non-touristy areas, the people know that travelers spend money, tell stories back home, and the impression you take away of their town (no matter how small) is likely a point of pride to them. They want you to feel safe, and go home to tell stories of how you were able to find help when you needed it.
If I truly didn’t believe that, I would not be on my third trip to magical Baja. Back up plans are good though. We carry a Spot Personal Locator Beacon (www.findmespot.com), and we pay for the search and rescue benefit along with the repatriation insurance.
Pressing the 911 button on the Spot sends a distress signal to the Geos Alliance Coordination Center in Texas, and they begin coordinating search and rescue efforts almost anywhere on earth. The membership covers up to $50,000 for search and rescue, and the repatriation insurance covers getting us back to the USA.
Find Me Spot also allows family and friends to log into our Spot Share Page and see where we are in real time on Google Maps, when the device is powered on. It even has a button that sends out a generic “I’m OK, here is where I am” message. Hopefully, during this trip we will only use the “I’m OK” button and avoid the 911 button.
So there you have it! A general guide on how to plan and travel in Baja, Mexico. As for me…I am well into my third trip as you read this and will report the highlights when I return! Adios, amigos!