After much discussion and debate with many colleagues in the travel and sportfishing business, We felt compelled and responsible to provide some insight and safe travel tips to our readers. The following information is intended to give you, the traveling angler, a realistic view and approach to the measures that you can employ as a visitor to our friends and neighbors in Baja, Mexico. The intent here is prevention and the use of good common sense.
Special Note: It is this writer's opinion that some of the incidents that have occurred might have been prevented by exercising prudent judgment and extending oneself to understand, that when in Mexico, all of our Gringo/US values are out the window! Baja is still a magical place, a frontier with isolated areas. However, there are governmental deficiencies, language and cultural barriers and in some states, extreme poverty. Make no mistake, the people and the tourism business has suffered from these travesties because in this modern era, there are more and more people from all over, migrating to this wonderful vacation hideaway as residents! These problems are more associated with the sign-of-the-times, plus the growth and expansion of many Baja communities, than ill will.
Traveling on Highway 1 (the Carretera)
For the very best in up-to-date and navigation, campsites, gas stations special tourist attractions and major side roads, the latest AAA Baja Road Map is indispensable to any Baja visitor. Second to none, if you are traveling by car, RV or 4 wheel drive vehicle, every effort must be made to secure spare parts and emergency supplies. This helps eliminate any discomfort you may feel with the facilities found in Mexico. Also, if your Spanish is weak or limited you can avoid any language or cultural barriers that we often times encounter, by being self-contained and prepared for most situations that may arise.
The really good news is, that there is a formal organization, the "Green Angels," that supports all Baja travelers, native and foreign. These are mechanics that are government supported and regulated who travel all the main roads of Baja in their government furnished green trucks. These angels are ready to assist in any roadside emergency with oil, coolant. fuel or repairs at very reasonable costs. The bad news is that this trans-peninsular highway can be extremely dangerous for Gringos who have a tendency to expect higher standards of safety and maintenance. Knowing and understanding this can prevent accidents, and subsequently save lives!
Here are some examples: In some places there are no shoulders or guard rails, even where there may be a significant drop off of several hundred feet. The sub-road preparation and blacktop may be nothing less then painted dirt. This lends itself to frequent potholes and mordidas, chunks bitten off the road edge that can be serious obstacles. There are also stretches of road mostly in the deserts, where they end unexpectedly in sharp radial turns that are accidents waiting to happen. Finally, to keep safety at maximum levels, keep your speeds down, check your tires regularly, make sure that your vehicle and trailers are in tiptop condition throughout your journey, and never, never drive at night if it can be avoided. More travelers are killed by free-range cattle in Baja than we care to quote. So your best defense is to eliminate any plan for night driving. By the way, if you kill a cow while driving you will be held financially responsible.
Flying down on your vacation
While there is one group of adventurous anglers that will only drive down to their favorite Baja destination, there is a greater number of visitors who fly to such places as Loreto, Los Cabos, La Paz, Mazatlan on the mainland and numerous other Mexican destinations for fishing, diving, kayaking and other exciting water sports. Let's talk about booking your trip.
Most travelers are unaware that vacation and travel insurance can be purchased from your registered booking agent. You can have your total vacation covered against such things as loss of baggage, medical needs or assistance and most importantly, trip or tour interruption. The policy cost can range from $40 to $300 depending on amount and depth of coverage, and is available directly from your agent from Travel Guard or Travelers International. Additionally, most reputable agencies will give to you at no charge, as much as $150,000 of free flight insurance, just for booking with them! This is the kind of service organization that you should seek.
Try to avoid ticket consolidators and ads for cheap tickets that are more often than not, a ploy or scam to get you to call and give them a chance to sell you something other than they might have offered. Charter flights can also be problems at times. Stay with the regularly scheduled airlines and avoid any hassle or unexpected change that could impact your travel plans. Make sure that airfare quotes include all taxes. Many will quote as an example, LAX to Los Cabos R/T $189. Sounds like a great fare except, it does not include the combined taxes of $56.62, which makes your fare $245.62. Still a good fare, but quite a bit more then quoted.
Now you're in Mexico
Once you are at you chosen destination or if driving through the Baja, take precaution when spending money. Always try to use pesos unless the resort you are at posts the exchange rate for all to see. If you use dollars away from the resort, you will find that the exchange will differ from place to place and end up in higher prices, so again pesos are the way to go. Don't take out your bank roll for all to see. Keep in your pocket what you might need for the day and place the balance in the hotel safe. This will keep hungry eyes from making assumptions about the amount of funds you are holding and could very well prevent you from becoming a target for robbery or worse.
When going out on the town, always check with the hotel people and ask them for the best and safest places to visit. Make sure you let them know where you're going, and what time you intend on returning. Use the taxi services associated with the hotels and get better rates and safer situations. If these drivers work with the hotel they are more apt to make sure that you are safe and secure. This assures your return as a client and satisfaction that they hold your best interest at heart. When visiting one of the bigger cities, always go with a tour group or service. Again this works to your benefit and ultimate safety.
Some of the more reputable resorts have child day care services available. This is the only type of service you might consider. To allow anyone outside of your scope of influence and control to have charge of your children is inviting potential disaster to strike. The best thing to do when taking your children along is to have them with you at all times. The best and most conscientious baby sitters are the parents.
Should you plan an excursion outside the scope of your resort or campsite, be as prepared as possible for any and all situations. Never underestimate you physical needs or allow yourself to be by yourself in too remote an area. While it's great to sleep alone on an isolated beach, today there are too many transients that have no interest in the tourism and protection of the Gringo visitors and have a great interest in what they might obtain from you by force or duress.
Since you have paid a great deal of money for your yacht, have a professional captain pilot your craft down. While this might be a little high end, it is the very best way to get your craft to the Baja ports you are seeking. These captains are licensed, insured and bonded, and more importantly, experienced. Check with your insurance agent, not only regarding coverage in Mexican waters, but also that they may be able to recommend a licensed captain to pilot your vessel. There are a couple of very good US companies offering service to the Baja enthusiast for yachts, (see the ads in this issue).
Always check in with the Captain of the Port and obtain all the necessary documentation and pay fees associated with having your yacht in Mexico. You can also get slips for reasonable prices depending on the port you are visiting. Make sure that you have in possession, your current ownership documents and boat registration indicating pleasure as the purpose of the craft. You must have these papers in order to obtain your sportfishing permit for your boat, and boat permit.
As recent as last year, if you had any thoughts of importing you vessel to be left in Baja, the importation cost were as high as 12 to 15% of the retail value of your yacht. Recently, the Mexican Government has altered this importation rate in the form of a 20 year deferral. This is transferable, should you sell your craft. There is a permit that is required for this transaction and runs about 150 pesos plus the cost of a Mexican attorney for document preparation.
You must take it to heart, that enforcement does not come from the local seats of power, capital cities or federal government agencies. It may be directed at you from a local neighborhood police officer or a very nervous and uninterested Army private waving his automatic weapon in your face. Take notice here that what this really means, is that you will end up paying a bigger mordida (bribe) than usual. This is the very concept of Napoleonic Law that is so different than our country. When an individual enforcer decides that he is going to make you adhere to the letter of the law, you are basically at his mercy. Having your documents in good order is the very best preventative measure you can implement to avoid this type situation.
The first law of traveling in Baja is to know and understand that your US insurance is worthless in Mexico. The laws south of the border do not honor or recognize insurance unless the policy has been issued by a company that is licensed to do so in Mexico. If you have an accident in Mexico, the insurance policy serves as a verification that you are able to pay damages incurred as a result of your accident and will be requested by the on-sight police officer or Federale. Remember, you are guilty until you can prove that you're innocent. Should you be unable to verify that you are financially responsible by showing your Mexican policy you will be incarcerated until your lawyer can accommodate your situation.
You may also procure liability and casualty insurance that is honored in Mexico, and is available from a number of sources prior to border crossing in San Ysidro. You can buy discounted policies from such organizations as Vagabundos del Mar (800) 474-BAJA or the Discover Baja Travel Club. (800) 727-BAJA.
You must insure your vehicle, and anything you are towing or carrying, like a trailer or boat. Your Mexican boat insurance is only valid while being towed or carried by your vehicle and properly hooked-up. For on-the-water insurance coverage it must be purchased from a company that issues valid policies for Mexican waters as previously mentioned.
You must have on your person at all times, proof of your citizenship in the form of a US passport or a certified copy of your birth certificate. This is a standard and formal requirement. Proof of ownership for every vehicle, boat, trailer that you take into Mexico. DMV registrations are what we're talking about. Drivers license and tourist card (validated) rounds out what you should be carrying.
Fishing and Boat Permits
Separate permits are required for people and vessels. Anyone on board your boat is considered a fisherman and must have a permit. These permits are available for short or long term visits. If you plan on visiting Baja more than once a year, the long term permits are the best economic value. Except for special licensees, boating is prohibited on Scarnmons Lagoon or Laguna San Ignacio. You may obtain the necessary boat and fishing permits from the Baja Travel clubs previously mentioned, some tackle shops or the Mexican Department of Fisheries in San Diego, (619) 233-4324.
One quick word on firearms. They are completely in every way shape and form prohibited! If you are caught with a gun or ammunition in Mexico you will not be coming home! Especially if one is found aboard your boat, defined as panga, cruiser, sportfisher or yacht, you will have a major league problem.