If you're planning to stick to the town you fly to, it's possible to visit Los Cabos and Baja without a car. That said, driving is by far the best way to see the region, combining maximum flexibility and off-the-beaten path mobility with the road-trip spirit that's been a part of Baja traveling since the peninsula's highway was built.
Navigating Baja -- Finding your way up and down the peninsula is easy. For the most part, Baja has one highway: the Transpeninsular Highway, or Route 1, which connects almost all major destinations from top to bottom. In the south, Hwy. 19 connects Cabo San Lucas with the West Cape, Todos Santos and La Paz, while in the north, Hwy. 3 and Hwy. 5 are useful for getting around San Felipe, Tecate, and Ensenada. Speed limits range between 90kmph (55 mph) on wide, straight highways to 60kmph (37 mph) on more challenging roads. Road signs are helpful and up-to-date throughout the peninsula, making it easy -- if you stay on the highways -- not to get lost on the many dirt roads that snake through the desert.
Finding your way in Baja's cities and towns, however, is more of a challenge. Streets tend to be poorly marked, if at all, with tiny street signs intended for pedestrians, not drivers. Fortunately, most towns are laid out in a grid system, so if you miss your turn, you can take the next one and double back. Watch out for topes, irregular speed bumps, and their treacherous opposites, vados, narrow ditches across the road, meant to encourage drivers to slow, giving them a jolt if they don't. Both can be difficult to see at night; look for painted stripes, signs announcing TOPE or VADO, and sometimes piles of stones on the sides of the road.
While roads throughout the peninsula are steadily improving, most are still not as wide, smooth, or well maintained as their counterparts in the rest of North America. Dirt or gravel roads are common, and potholes after an infrequent rain can take awhile to repair. Drive with caution on twisty mountain roads, and avoid driving on country roads or highways at night -- poor lighting, unmarked hazards and road damage, and surprise visits of wildlife and pedestrians make nighttime driving one of Baja's few real dangers.
Mexican driving customs have developed in response to Mexican roads, as when a truck driver flips on his left turn signal when there's not a crossroad for miles. He's probably telling you the road's clear ahead for you to pass -- give him a wave to say thanks. Flashing hazard lights on oncoming vehicles or the cars in front of you means there's something going on up ahead (animals in or near the road, a car accident, a slow-moving vehicle, and so forth) and to proceed with caution. Most important of all is local practice for left turns. If you stop in the middle of a highway with your left signal on, there's a real chance you'll get mowed down by traffic behind you. Instead, pull onto the right shoulder, wait for traffic to clear, and then proceed across the road.
If you do much driving in Baja, you'll probably run into a military checkpoint or two. Although the stern uniformed teenagers with M-16s may look threatening, there's nothing to fear: Checkpoints are standard procedure in Mexico, so smile, let the soldiers inspect your car for drugs or agricultural products if requested, and then be on your merry way.
Buying Gas -- It's easy to find a gas station in Mexico; there's just one company, national oil company PEMEX, whose green signs dot highways and roads up and down Baja. Gas is slightly cheaper than in the U.S. and Canada; at time of research, the going rate was about 10 pesos per liter for Magna, or regular, gas -- roughly $3.75 a gallon. Prices are posted in pesos per liter, and include tax. Many gas stations accept cash only.
Car Rentals -- Major international car-rental agencies are well represented in Los Cabos and Baja, as well as some worthy local companies, providing mostly the same new, clean, car models for rent -- the deciding factor will probably be price, and if you shop around and book ahead, you can get deals for as low as US$100 a week before taxes.
Insurance -- It's important to note that in Mexico, drivers are required to carry personal liability insurance (PLI), covering any damage in an accident to other persons or property, which is not covered by your home-country car insurance policy. Online bookings, even those promising guaranteed all-inclusive pricing, generally do not include or even offer this insurance, which can lead to an unpleasant surprise when you're slapped with a standard $14/day mandatory charge at the rental counter. And car rental phone representatives in your home country are often not well informed about it. At time of research, the only major rental company in Los Cabos and Baja including PLI in its standard pricing was Hertz.
Non-mandatory insurance is offered in two parts: Collision and damage insurance covers your car and others if the accident is your fault, and personal accident insurance covers you and anyone in your car. Read the fine print on the back of your rental agreement and note that insurance may be invalid if you have an accident while driving on an unpaved road. Be sure you understand your deductible; some are as high as $3,000, which comes out of your pocket immediately in case of damage. Finally, speak with your credit card company before you leave home. Many credit cards already include car rental collision and damage insurance as a membership benefit, but won't cover you if you purchase insurance from the rental company as well.
Damage -- Inspect your car carefully and note every damaged or missing item, no matter how minute, on your rental agreement, or you may be charged. And if you'll be driving in cities, watch out for screw-in radio antennae, which are easy for a vandal to take off the car and expensive to replace.
Breakdowns -- If your car breaks down on the road, help might already be on the way. Radio-equipped green repair trucks operated by uniformed English-speaking officers patrol major highways from 8am to 6pm, 365 days a year. These Green Angels (tel. 078) perform minor repairs and adjustments free, but you pay for parts and materials.
Your best guide to repair shops in Baja is a friend who knows. However, the Yellow Pages can work in a pinch. For repairs, look under "Automóviles y Camiones: Talleres de Reparación y Servicio"; auto-parts stores are under "Refacciones y Accesorios para Automóviles." To find a mechanic on the road, ask a local (because Baja is so rough on cars, most locals know a mechanic) or look for a sign that says TALLER MECANICO.
Places called vulcanizadora or llantera repair flat tires, and it is common to find them open 24 hours a day on the most traveled highways.
Minor Accidents -- When possible, many Mexicans drive away from minor accidents or try to make an immediate settlement, to avoid involving the police. If the police arrive while the involved persons are still at the scene, everyone may be locked in jail until blame is assessed -- this is why you need proof of liability insurance! In any case, you have to settle up immediately, which may take days. Foreigners without fluent Spanish are at a distinct disadvantage. If you're involved in an accident, don't panic. If you're driving your own car, notify your Mexican insurance company, whose job it is to intervene on your behalf. If you're driving a rental, notify the rental company immediately and follow their instructions. When the police arrive, show them your proof of liability insurance. Finally, if all else fails, ask to contact the nearest Green Angel, who may be able to explain your case to officials.
Taxis -- For those who prefer not to drive, taxis are a convenient and economical way to get around in almost all of Baja's resort areas. (The exception to this is Los Cabos, where distances are long and taxis are very expensive: the 35-min. one-way trip between Cabo San Lucas and San José del Cabo, for example, averages $50.) But otherwise, short trips within towns are inexpensive compared to the U.S. Fixed rates between set destinations are usually set by the local taxi union; drivers will often have a written table of prices they can show you. For longer trips or excursions to nearby cities, taxis can generally be hired for around $15 to $20 per hour, or for a negotiated daily rate, although you may find a tour operator offering the same price, but including a guide, water, and snacks. If you're traveling from point to point, a negotiated one-way price may be cheaper than a rental car, and much faster than the bus. Many taxi drivers speak English, especially in Los Cabos and Northern Baja, but your hotel can help arrange a taxi if you prefer.
Bus service is not as well developed in the Baja peninsula as in other parts of the country, although it is available between principal points. Travel class is generally labeled segunda (second), primera (first), and ejecutiva (deluxe). Autotransportes de Baja California (tel. 800/025-0222; www.transportes-abc.com) and the affiliated Autotransportes Aguila (tel. 800/824-8452; www.autotransportesaguila.net) have routes between most cities. The deluxe buses usually have fewer seats than regular buses, show movies en route, are air-conditioned, have bathrooms, and make few stops; some have complimentary refreshments. Many run express from origin to the final destination. They are well worth the few dollars more that you'll pay.
It's a long drive from north to south, and reluctant road warriors may find the easiest way to travel the length of the peninsula is by plane. Mexican discount carrier Volaris (tel. 866/988-3527 in the U.S., or 01-800/122-8000; www.volaris.com.mx) flies daily between Los Cabos or La Paz and Tijuana. Turboprop carrier Aereo Calafia (tel. 01-800/560-3949; www.aereocalafia.com.mx) flies between Cabo San Lucas (CSL) -- not Los Cabos International, but the small general aviation airport outside of Cabo -- up the peninsula to Loreto, La Paz, and the small airports of Santa Rosalía, Ciudad Constitución, and Guerrero Negro on an ever-changing schedule. The similar Aereo Servicios Guerrero (tel. 01-800/823-3153; www.aereoserviciosguerrero.com.mx) connects Guerrero Negro and Ensenada.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.