As an adventure motorcyclist, I am often asked how I make sure I’m found, transported to medical services and eventually back home to the US if needed. Whether you’re staying on the well-traveled routes or wandering off onto the dirt tracks to fishing camps, missions, and oasis, here’s what you need to know. This post is for anybody on two or four wheels, boating, hiking, diving or flying in Baja.
But first, an observation. Mostly, I’ve seen people get hurt when they’re following friends where they shouldn’t, like the three guys I wrote about in an earlier post, one of whom had the wrong kind of bike for dirt track but followed his friends on big dual-sport bikes, anyway. He would have been smarter to meet them on the highway further south where the trail meets the road. He barely managed to limp out with broken bones and a broken bike. His trip was over.
Accidents can happen anywhere, but that doesn’t mean they’re common. Baja is generally safe with friendly people, spectacular nature, and considerable opportunity for exploration.
Read on for information about personal satellite messengers, emergency medical, travel insurance, search and rescue, and getting back home.
I own an old SPOT satellite messenger which I’ve used as an emergency device (never had to push that SOS button) and a tracker so that readers could follow my trips on my website. I was considering an upgrade to the $150 SPOT Gen3 until I read a friend’s blog post on his backcountry rescue experiences.
Pete Day, founder of Mosko Moto (who makes the soft luggage I carry on my KTM dual-sport) is a crazy adventurous traveler. A couple of years ago he was riding alone deep in the jungle in Honduras and severely broke his ankle. The SPOT has no two-way communication (still doesn’t) so he had to hit the SOS button and trust that help was on its way. But he didn’t trust, because he knew that the Honduras authorities were only reliably motivated by bribery. (Thankfully not true for Baja.) As he waited, he wished for a two-way device so that he could text his parents the location of the Peace Corps guy he met in the last town who would have been able to negotiate a rescue. That evening, an Army patrol making their weekly pass through got him out. He was lucky!
When Pete got home he did a lot of research and bought the DeLorme InReach, and carries it everywhere from Africa to Indonesia to the American backcountry. Last month he and his friend Ashley were motorcycling in Eastern Oregon. Ashley squeezed her ankle between the motor and a rock, breaking some bones and losing some bike parts. She rode part way out but neither she or the bike were up to it.
Pete pushed the SOS button and got a message back that help was on its way. The BLM Rangers and Search & Rescue personnel who responded were also carrying the InReach, which they highly recommended. (Two models cost $240 and $340 on Amazon.) You can use the device to text, or pair it with your mobile to communicate with family and friends, and to access topo maps and NOAA charts. Other features include a digital compass, built-in navigation, and an Automatic Flight Following/Ping-Me Locating feature for pilots.
Clip it to your person and not to your vehicle, just in case you get separated. It’s been known to happen!
Here’s more information on satellite messengers and personal locator beacons.
- Pete’s story about the InReach and Ashley’s backcountry search and rescue (Mosko Moto)
- What happens when you press the SOS button (Expedition Portal)
- Review of locator beacons and satellite messengers (Expedition Portal)
Search and Rescue
I didn’t realize until recently that evacuation service insurance only covers transport from facility to facility. So whether you’re motorcycling in the desert, hiking a canyon, or on an boat in the Sea of Cortez, you’re going to need to fill this gap. This is the motivation behind Celia Diaz’s Binational Emergency service.
Celia Diaz’s Binational Emergency Service
Sign up: http://binationalemergency.org
Binational Emergency is a nonprofit organization with local knowledge and relationships with people who can help. Their $45 annual fee is well worth it, over and above your medical and emergency evacuation service (Discover Baja members get discounted rates on Binational membership). Because if you can’t get the word out, you’re just stuck in the woods, so to speak.
Binational has contacts on both sides of the border with experts in the medical field, federal, state and local law enforcement agencies, social workers, consular officials and hospital personnel. They have contacts with local pilots, ranchers and boaters. Some of these people and organizations will need reimbursement for charges from efforts made on your behalf. However if you do not have insurance or the money to pay for the evacuation, Binational will look for a volunteer pilot, which can take some time.
I know that pilots in Mulegé parked at Serenidad airstrip have done their share of search and rescue. They don’t need to be paid for their time, but do appreciate being reimbursed for fuel. If your emergency is extreme, Binational will enlist the US coast guard but they are not always able to respond.
This is a fantastic addition to your travel and evacuation insurance. So do join this great nonprofit service before your trip. Give Binational’s information to your friends, family, and people you meet on the road so that they can easily locate you and get help.
A couple of years ago some kayakers did not make their destination in the often unpredictable waters of the Sea of Cortez, causing their family to spring into action. A neighbor with a plane at Serenidad airstrip volunteered to sweep Bahía Concepción and the Mexican Navy went out to look, too. With sadness, everyone abandoned hope, but it turned out that the kayakers had just changed their plan and were enjoying some time at a remote island. Please don’t be those people.
Just dial 066 – Baja’s 911
But don’t count on getting a signal. I have TMobile’s 3 Country plan but cell coverage is spotty or nonexistent in most of the areas where it’s really fun to ride, hike and explore the missions, canyons and nature. You won’t find a signal in Cataviña, Bahía de los Ángeles, or in the beautiful terrain inland of Mulegé, Loreto, and San Juanico.
If you do get a signal, just dial 066. I’ve been told that you don’t need to punch in country code, even if you’re using a foreign phone.
Ranchers, fishermen, and radios
If you don’t use a satellite tracker, or even if you do, one of your traveling companions may go for help. Or you may enlist a local rancher on horseback—more common than you might think—to radio in your location. In the absence of cell service the rancheros communicate by radio and can notify local emergency services like an ambulance or the bomberos (fire department). You may need to ride in a truck bed to an access point: road, airstrip, or boat. Some of the more permanent fish camps may have radios, or they may motor out to a yacht if they’ve seen one and have the gas to spare. (Offer to pay them.) Again, Binational’s bilingual staff are a great help as they’re available 24/7. Even so, things will happen slowly, so try to relax.
About those emergency vehicles…
The emergency vehicle nearest me is parked on empty due to lack of funds. They don’t fill up the tank because somebody might “borrow” the gas for their own vehicle. So before they can respond the driver will need money for gas and time to go to the gas station. And they may not be as prepared as you expect them to be. No to mention that nothing happens as quickly as it does in America del Norte.
For example, when a neighbor needed medical transport to La Paz the ambulance was not equipped with the oxygen necessary for the trip. A friend—a local fisherman and diver—drove to Loreto to get his dive tank filled. (There’s no compressor in Mulegé, since the dive shop closed two years ago.) Four hours later he returned and rode along in the ambulance (back past Loreto), to Hospital Generalaria Juan María de Salva Tierra in La Paz (considered the best in the state). Then the hospital required 10,000 pesos ($500) before they would admit her. He would not normally had that much cash in his pocket, but in a crazy coincidence, that morning I had paid him exactly 10,000 pesos to fix our boat. I wish this story had a happy ending. But she had led a long and happy life retired in Posada, and we celebrated it a few days later with her family.
NOTE: If you’re in a tourist area like Cabo San Lucas you may be diverted to a “Doc in a Box” facility with predatory pricing. Here’s a thoughtful article on how to avoid these gougers and other great information about emergency care in Baja. (Baja Insider)
Do pack a first aid kit, but not one of those miniature survival kits, please! Start with something better and customize it to make it your own. Here’s an ultralight done-it-for-you kit, but you can also build your own.
The level of medical care in Baja is generally not as good as it is in the US, which is why you want to be evacuated in the first place, right? Sometimes you can make a decision about your destination hospital. As a rule of thumb, try to steer your rescuers to a hospital that serves a lot of gringos, such as La Paz. I know not to go to Santa Rosalía if I can help it. Loreto is only another half hour away (though in the other direction). La Paz is another four hours south. Ensenada has the advantage of being closer to the border. There are little clinics everywhere. Retired doctors, nurses, EMTs, paramedics, you take what you can get.
So help has arrived and you’re being cared for in a facility in Baja. If you can be moved, your evacuation north of the border will be coordinated by your insurance provider. Your destination may be your own hospital but you may end up in San Diego at a Sharp HealthCare facility.
It turns out that finding a facility to accept a medical evacuation is not all that easy. Sharp HealthCare handles this. They run four acute care hospitals in San Diego. They created a Global Patient Services (GPS) program to handle incoming international emergencies.
Most patients are admitted through the ER. They are equipped to accept patients, get them stabilized and get them transferred to your own hospital, or if your insurance company approves, you can stay there and recover.
Their GPS program in San Diego consists of a bilingual team who has close working relationships with medical professionals in Mexico. They can coordinate your transfers and evacuations.
This is not a membership program but a hospital company with a unique service, and anyone can use them. Eventually, they will be paid by your insurance company.
If Binational or your insurance provider has not already contacted GPS on your behalf, you or your family can contact them directly.
Travel, accident and evacuation insurance choices
Here are a few options for accident and evacuation insurance above and beyond your required in-country health insurance.
Divers Alert Network (DAN)
Dive and non-dive accident plus travel insurance
Best option for frequent Baja travel
Sign up: http://diversalertnetwork.org
When I started scuba diving I found out about Diver’s Alert Network. I use their premium (Guardian) plan, which also covers overland accidents with medical transportation coverage, evacuation, search and rescue. DAN costs me $125 annually (plus a $35 membership fee), which is less expensive than other accident and evacuation plans that I can find. They also provide one-time or multi-trip insurance.
This pricing is for their annual plan. DAN’s short-term dive insurance does not include the non-dive accident coverage and medical transportation costs. Unlike MedJet assist, it does put a cap on the cost to get you home at $100,000. The search and rescue benefit is for diving accidents only, so you’ll still need Binational to cover that.
Travel and medical evacuation insurance
Best Option for Vacations
My friend Jason Moore (host of the Zero to Travel podcast), just wrote a detailed article about travel insurance that is interesting reading. He’s a longtime world traveler so he should know! He uses World Nomads and you can get a quote for it at the end of the article. (Scroll all the way down.) I think it’s the best option for you if you are vacationing in Baja (or anywhere).
My cost for a four-week trip would be $110 for their standard coverage (for activities like motorcycling and scuba diving) and $161 for their Explorer insurance in case you want to do something silly like shark cage diving. For a two-week trip the cost would be $74 and $102. To cover myself for the entire winter season in Baja (Oct 1-May31) my cost would be $564 and $812. So for me the DAN service, at $125 annually, makes the most sense. But I think if you’re going for a couple weeks, flying in, renting a car or riding bikes from the US, World Nomads is your best bet.
World Nomads includes evacuation insurance but I’d still tack on the Binational service since they’re in-country experts and I just wouldn’t trust a person on an 800 number to be able to coordinate my transport to a medical facility for evac.
What they do cover that DAN doesn’t is standard trip insurance stuff like trip cancellation, interruption, delay, plus baggage and personal effects—and that can be important if this is your one vacation of the year, or you’re bringing expensive camera gear.
Travel and medical evacuation
I looked at MEDEX insurance, which offers travel insurance (90 days max) and perks like passport replacement, lost luggage, and translation services. TravMedChoice is their top plan, and offers hazardous sports coverage for an extra $5.50 per day.
Motorcycling is not considered a hazardous sport (unless you’re racing the Baja) but scuba diving is. I want to scuba dive, so my quote for $500,000 in coverage with $250 deductible turned out to be about $170 for 30 days. I would receive $1000 of dental ($200 per tooth), emergency reunion (family member travels to me), trip interruption ($5000) and lost baggage ($250).
It’s good coverage, but search and rescue isn’t handled, so as a frequent Baja traveler I am still sold on DAN and Celia Diaz’s Binational service. (Or World Nomads and Binational.)
Medical transport only
I am including Medjet Assist here because so many people use them, but I was shocked at what they do not cover.
What they cover: Medjet Assist covers long and short-term air medical transport evacuation insurance if you’re hospitalized over 150 miles from home. For an extra $25 they will get your motorcycle home, too (in Mexico, Canada, and USA only). There is no dollar limit on the cost to get you home. Because there is no cap they may be an excellent choice if you’re headed to a place where it may cost over $50,000 to get you home, but that’s not Baja.
What they do not cover: Medjet Assist does not cover search and rescue or in-country medical costs, accidental death and dismemberment, disability, or accommodation. You must get to a clinic or hospital that they serve, first. To do that may require the assistance of a rancher, farmer, another tourist, pilot, or boater. Again, this is where Celia Diaz’s Binational Emergency service comes in handy.
No health questions, deductibles or claim forms are required. Air medical transport services only require that you be hospitalized as an inpatient and need hospitalization upon reaching your destination.
So if you use Medjet assist, get Binational for search and rescue and make sure your regular health insurance and your travel insurance covers you for death & dismemberment, disability, and accommodation, if that’s important to you. You’ll also need travel insurance if you want trip interruption and gear replacement.
Motorcycle (and vehicle) insurance
If you’re reading this you probably already have Discover Baja vehicle insurance for your car, 4×4, RV, motorhome, motorcycle, or boat. If you don’t, you can find out about it, here. And don’t forget, you need a passport, a passport card, and a tourist visa, too!
What does all this cost?
What do you really need? I’m an adventure motorcyclist and scuba diver who spends months at a time in Baja. As you see, there are a lot of good options. Note that in this summary I don’t include baggage or equipment loss as my renters insurance in the US covers that—and I have used it! And I don’t need trip cancellation insurance since I’m riding, not flying to San Diego or Baja. Also note that you may prefer World Nomad over DAN if you’re not a diver and are taking a short vacation. The cost is about the same.
$ 15 30 day inReach “freedom” service plan
$ 160 Divers Alert Network insurance
$ 45 Binational Emergency service
And I’m worth it!
I hope this post helps you to prepare, ride your own ride, and have a fun and safe journey!
Got recommendations? A story to tell?
Have you used any of these services? Have I missed a great service? Do you have a rescue scenario you’d like to share? Please email me!
Carla King has been writing about her motorcycle adventure travels since 1995. Read about her misadventures in North America, China, Europe, India, and Africa, and current adventures in Baja at CarlaKing.com.