It’s sometimes difficult to know how to behave in a country other than our own and though intentions may be good, in our hurry or ignorance we often blithely pass through without knowing how we should have behaved until late in our journey. Mexicans are very forgiving, but I do regret having unintentionally blundered when it comes to tipping and other small things.
So I offer you some practical advice and etiquette for solving problems and behaving well in Baja.
- Grocery stores
- Gas stations
- Accepting hospitality
- Drinking the water
- Cell phone access
- Helping out
Money exchange: South of Guerrero Negro and north of Loreto you’ll probably get a better exchange rate in grocery stores than gas stations or even banks and there’s no fee. Ask what the exchange rate is, pay in dollars, and get the change in pesos.
Tip your bagger: Don’t forget to tip your bagger a few pesos. There’s usually a can on the counter, but if there’s not, just hand over some change. Baggers are not paid by the grocery stores and gringos are very much appreciated as big tippers. See this post by Q-Roo Paul for more info.
Speaking of tipping, see the Discover Baja Local Customs page for guidance. The page also provides guidance on customs such as greeting people (gas station attendants, servers, etc.) with a polite “¿cómo está?” before you delve into your specific needs. We gringos tend to rudely request service without preliminaries. Our culture is in a perpetual hurry. Theirs is not.
Prices: In December, gasoline prices in Mexico were no longer determined by feds but by the market under the law of supply and demand, which means you can’t count on consistent pricing anymore. Expect prices to increase in season and around the holidays. Details here.
Scam alert. Zero it out: Make sure the pump is zeroed out before the attendant starts pumping gas, and don’t get distracted until it starts running. A traveler who dropped by my house last month said he paid for 30 gallons and his tank only holds 22, and he probably only needed 10 or 15 gallons. He remembered that the attendant distracted him with some confusing conversation as he started the pump.
Rounding up: Attendants will often round out the amount, more or less. It’s good practice to err on the generous side, especially in the more rural areas.
Tipping: Tip the person who cleans your windscreen five pesos or so. This is often a different (unpaid) person than the Pemex employee who fills your tank.
Gas appears where you need it: Don’t worry! You’ll find gas in the most remote, unlikely places. There is always somebody with a truck and usually, they don’t gouge you too badly, considering the cost of going to get it and the inconvenience of camping out for days in a remote area. The distance between Pemex stations between El Rosario and Villa Jesús María on Mex 1 is about 220 miles. (Jesús María is about 20 miles north of Guerreo Negro.) My KLR has just enough gas for that trip if there’s not a headwind so I always buy a gallon from a truck in Cataviña, 76 miles south of El Rosario. The last few times we rode motorcycles through Cataviña we paid about $5/gallon.
Side businesses: At the El Rosario Pemex, one or two of the attendants sometimes have fossils to sell. We paid $5 for a couple of nice ones and $20 for a real beauty. In San Ignacio and Mulegé, you can sometimes buy bags of local dates. Fresh, sticky, sweet, and a great energy snack!
Baja is a free camping paradise. If you see a homestead, go ask permission. If not, just do it. Many motorcyclists passing through have great stories of remote camping and positive interaction with the local people.
If you find yourself an unexpected guest at a remote homestead settle in and enjoy yourself. The Mexican people are generous and social and will be curious about you as much as you about them. Money is generally rebuffed. If you offer it for para cerveza or Coca-Cola it may reluctantly be accepted.
Gifts, however, are welcome. T-shirts, hats, stickers, tiny flashlights, cosmetics for women. One woman who visits each year brings little clear zippered bags with lipstick, nail polish, and eyeshadow. Another takes rolls of stickers to hand out to the kids. Use your imagination.
Drinking the Water
I brush my teeth, open my mouth while showering, eat lettuce, ice cream, and feel okay about drinks with ice. In the tourist areas in the north, the water is treated. In the south, the water is beautifully clean. It flows from the high mountains on the spine of the peninsula, seeps into underground aquifers, and is piped into populated areas. In our area of Mulegé the aquifer water is a bit salty from the Sea of Cortez, so we don’t drink it.
If you do find yourself sick, it’s probably from mishandled food. Lomotil and Pepto Bismol will usually do the trick.
Tip: In winter, you can buy delicious, fresh pressed orange juice at the Agua stands in the Mulegé area.
We make much ado about our Dark Sky Communities in the US and Europe but Baja gives them all a run for their money. I love the Night Sky app on my iPhone but it doesn’t work out of range of wifi or a cell tower. I used to travel with a round cardboard celestial map, long lost, But, I found one like it for Baja.
Cell Phone Access
I finally settled on T-Mobile with their US-Canada-Mexico plan. My Verizon service never worked in the mid-Baja Sur area (though some people say theirs does) and neither did AT&T. You’ll be connected to either the Movistar and or TelCel network. In the Mulegé area where I live it doesn’t like the Movistar network and sometimes I need to manually reset it to switch to TelCel. I had to call 611 and troubleshoot with the customer service rep for quite a while to figure this out.
You’ll find internet everywhere except in the long, desolate stretch between El Rosario and Guerrero Negro, though the Mission Inn in Cataviña recently installed satellite internet.
Find out more in the Discover Baja guide to Phone/Internet in Baja.
There are good tire repair shops everywhere (llanteras) and big shops with new tire and wheel installation in the big towns, including in Loreto.
At each end of a bad road, you’ll find a llantera strategically positioned. Give them a few pesos to air your tires up or down. Or do it yourself with this gadget.
As far as mechanical repairs go, Baja mechanics are geniuses, so you’ll only be stuck if you need a special part. (Which is why, in my travels around the world, I have always preferred a carbureted vehicle over one with fuel injection.)
Labor comes cheap in Baja so give them a tip, para cerveza, of course. I’ve given mechanics cheap multimeters, bendy flashlights, and safety glasses, too.
A friend on a BMW F800 recently experienced an alternator fail in Cabo San Lucas, ordered one from the US, got it “overnighted” in two days, replaced it and was on his way again. If you’re in Baja Norte it would be easier to get a ride or a truck to San Diego for parts.
You may have heard of the Green Angels, a bilingual crew that patrols the Baja roadways. However, they stick to the toll roads in Baja Norte.
As my friend Sara found out last year, you are more likely to get help from a Mexican than a gringo in a fancy rig. We are in a hurry, we gringos!
The road between Mulegé and Loreto is a long one and we’ve stopped to help many Mexicans who have broken down on the highway. In the dark, in an area with no shoulder, we pushed one father and daughter in a battered car to a turnout with our Land Cruiser. When we realized we couldn’t fix their problem we offered to drive them to the Posada hostel, but they refused, probably having no money to spare for that luxury. We’d been shopping in Loreto and gave them some fruit, cereal bars, and water to hold them over until morning.
Truckers in trouble: Truckers sometimes break down and need a ride. I have picked them up even when driving solo. They just want a ride to the next place another trucker is likely to be. One morning, on my way to town, I picked up an elderly trucker who’d spent a cold night in his cab on the highway. I always keep cereal bars and water in my truck. He needed it!
Scam alert: Last year I stopped at the roadside to help a Mexican family who waved me down frantically. Their car was parked with their hood up. I had tools and an air compressor but they declined my help, saying they needed money. They hung on my truck as I drove away. Since then, especially when solo, I keep my doors locked and my windows high enough to prevent easy access while I evaluate the situation.
Tramps: It’s not uncommon to see tramps walking the highway. They’re ragged and disheveled and they will often wave an empty water bottle in the air. Stop and give them more water and any extra food, if you have it. They may ask for a lift. I wouldn’t unless I had an open truck cab. Use your judgment and your olfactory senses to decide.
Got more tips?
What else should the Baja adventurer know about local customs or problem-solving? I’d love your input in the comments below.