Baja, Mexico: One of most celebrated spots on Earth for off-road adventure and racing, with a well-deserved reputation for staggering beauty and challenging terrain. Here's how to enjoy it without breaking down, getting sick, or slapped across the face.
(Full Disclosure: BF Goodrich brought me to Baja, Mexico to try their new KO2 all-terrain tires on buggies and Ford Raptors. The tires ran great, more on that later.)
There's Going To Be A Lot Of Poverty In Your Face
If you're well-traveled, or at least well-read, you already know poverty in Mexico isn't nearly as well hidden as it is in the US. But stepping out of the the glass-and-chrome eden that is the San Diego Airport (there's a Stone Brewery bar) and rolling straight through Tijuana is going to blow your mind a little.
Parts of Tijuana I saw looked livable, most did not. Think residences you can't discern from land fills, a lot of folks sleeping in (actual) gutters, and that's just what you can see from the main road. Rolling through with a motorcade of prepped off-road rigs is going to feel a little awkward.
The Water Is Absolutely As Gnarly As Everybody Says
Every travel guide about Mexico and South America warns of "Montezuma's Revenge," more literally referred to as "traveler's diarrhea." Basically; the water is full of nasty pathogens our prissy gringo guts can't handle, so drink it at the peril of having to take a massive shit your whole trip. Do not let this happen to you; there's only one kind of prairie dog you want to deal with in the desert.
The shower in the otherwise-nice Ensenada resort I spent two nights at doused me in some kind of brown-tinged liquid that tasted like deep-fried latex. And if you're like me, taking a shower without belting NSYNC just ain't happening so you're going to get some in your mouth.
I tried being a little more careful after a fellow writer I was traveling with told me his wife spent three days on a toilet after having Mexican ice cubes in her cocktail. Yikes.
Mexican Drivers Will Destroy Your Ego
There we were, sitting in a line of Ford Raptors fitted with brand-new all-terrain tires, roll cages, armor, and four-point harnesses getting ourselves fired up to take on a fierce, rutted, shock-pounding trail. Until some dude driving a beat-ass Ford F-Series older than I am casually emerged from the same road. Towing another truck with a rusty chain. Looking at us like we were the biggest dorks he'd seen since the last group of carpet baggers that convoyed through his town.
Later, charging down a fast flat section, a warning came crackling over the radio that the leader of our pack was passing "a local in a red truck." Running at what I figured was an aggressive clip, I reckoned I'd be on the guy in no time. But I waited. And waited. And when I finally caught him (what felt like) ten minutes later, he was only moving just slow enough, in a first-gen Ford Ranger with bald tires and a goat in the bed, for me to justify passing.
Carry Stickers, They Make Good Currency
It seems like almost every flat surface in Baja is covered with stickers from some off-road team, parts company, or energy drink flavor. It's not because racers are jerks and leave their mark everywhere; the local kids are crazy for "stee-kers!" and will come up to you asking for them every time you come to a stop.
Keeping a few on hand pays off; especially if you need to enlist some help pushing your rig out of a sand bog. Just make sure you've got enough for everybody if you start handing them out; you're liable to wind up in a "give-a-mouse-a-cookie" situation real quick.
If You Don't Have Stickers, Try Cookies
An off-roader from Four Wheeler magazine recounted running out of toll money on his way home once; "Figured I'd get rid of my pesos before coming home, but I'd forgotten about the toll road. I got through the first two with change from the ashtray and under the seat, but by the third, I was fresh out. Finally came to an understanding with the guard after I gave him a stainless steel trailer hitch and this box of cookies I had. Not sure if that still works these days."
Slow Down Through Town, Don't Be A Dick About Dust
You might be a perfectly courteous driver, but it's easy to forget just how much of a fog you're making in Baja. It's also easy to get red-misty and stay on the throttle every time the road looks open.
Some small collections of buildings don't look like towns, but even if you don't see anyone in the road don't be the asshole who covers somebody's just-dried laundry line in dust.
Easy On The Drifting, Mexican Roads Eat The Sides Of Tires
One of the best parts about dirt driving is stepping your tail out (when it's safe, of course) but beware; BF Goodrich reckons "80% of tire failures come from sidewall impact," especially in the rear. Pushing sideways exposes your sidewalls to a lot of rocks at high speed, and in Baja those rocks are all hiding under a layer of soft-looking sand. So pay attention to the road surface and what's ahead of you when you set to sliding.
Every Dust Cloud Has A Crunchy Center
Driving into a dust cloud clogs your air filter and effectively blinds you, but the "brown mist" is hard to avoid completely. Rally racer and Baja winner Andrew Comrie Picard suggests stopping yourself from charging through dust by thinking "every cloud has a crunchy center."
Always Expect The Unexpected: Situations Change Faster Than You'd Believe
Something you'll invariably hear Baja guides tell you is to "expect the unexpected." Not only to animals, kids, and obstacles roll into the road without warning, but the surface can change from fast-blastin' straight-and-flat to rock crawling over a single blind rise.
And of course, there's always the chance a cow will pick your racing line as a great place to bed down for the afternoon.
Don't drive ahead of your eyes, or your skill level.
Be Careful With "Improvised Sign Language"
The woman behind the desk at my hotel raised a quizzical eyebrow when I approached and said "Hey, can I ask you a random question?" but I soldiered on; "Is there any place I can get some toothpaste at this hotel?"
"No entiendo," she said apologetically. Of course she didn't speak English, how much of a dick am I?
I figured we could clear this up with a little impromptu sign language; so I made the motion of brushing my teeth. A closed hand moving back and fourth toward my mouth.
As her face transitioned from confused to upset, very very upset, I realized there might be another way to interpret the motion I was making. She thought I was in the market for a bit of a knob polishin.'
"Aaah... nope, no, teeth!"
Right, she still didn't speak English. I whipped out my phone and started pacing around the room like a maniac, looking for a shred of the ramshackle WiFi coverage the place had. Finally, my image search for "toothpaste" loaded a graphic I could show her.
Thankfully, the situation was diffused. "Pasta de dientes," she exclaimed, visibly relieved.
Dientes. Fuck me for not working that one out on my own. Pretty sure I just broke my 8th grade Spanish teacher's heart, and anyway, the hotel didn't sell toothpaste.