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Rental cars come in handy when exploring Baja. Countless paved and dirt roads branch off Highway 1 like octopus tentacles beckoning adventurers toward the mountains, ocean, and sea. Baja Sur's highways and city streets are under constant improvement, and Highway 1 is usually in good condition except during heavy rains. Four-wheel drive comes in handy for hard-core backcountry explorations, but isn't necessary most of the time. Just be aware that some car-rental companies void their insurance policies if you run into trouble off paved roads. Even if you are even slightly inclined to impromptu adventures, it's best to find out what your company's policy is before you leave the pavement.
Pemex (the government petroleum monopoly) franchises all gas stations in Mexico. Stations are to be found in both towns as well as on the outskirts of San José del Cabo and Cabo San Lucas and in the Corridor, and there are also several along Highway 1. Gas is measured in liters. Gas stations in Los Cabos may not accept credit cards. Prices run higher than in the United States. Premium unleaded gas (magna premio) and regular unleaded gas (magna sin) is available nationwide, but it's still a good idea to fill up whenever you can. Fuel quality is generally lower than that in the United States and Europe. Vehicles with fuel-injected engines are likely to have problems after driving extended distances.
Gas-station attendants pump the gas for you and may also wash your windshield and check your oil and tire air pressure. A tip of 5 or 10 pesos (about 50¢ or $1) is customary depending on the number of services rendered, beyond pumping gas.
Mexico Highway 1, also known as the Carretera Transpeninsular, runs the entire 1,700 km (1,054 miles) from Tijuana to Cabo San Lucas. Do not drive the highway at high speeds or at night—it is not lighted and is very narrow much of the way.
Highway 19 runs between Cabo San Lucas and Todos Santos and is currently being widened to two lanes in each direction, albeit slowly, joining Highway 1 below La Paz. The four-lane road between San José del Cabo and Cabo San Lucas is usually in good condition. Roadwork along the highway is common and commonly frustrates locals and visitors alike. Take your time and don't act rashly if encountering delays or if you need to drive several miles out of your way to turn around and re-approach a missed turnoff.
In rural areas, roads tend to be iffy and in unpredictable condition. Use caution, especially during the rainy season, when rock slides and potholes are a problem, and be alert for animals—cattle, goats, horses, coyotes, and dogs in particular—even on the highways. If you have a long distance to cover, start early, fill up on gas, and remember to keep your tank full as gas stations are simply not as abundant here as they are in the United States or Europe. Allow extra time for unforeseen obstacles.
Signage is not always adequate in Mexico, and the best advice is to travel with a companion and a good map. Take your time. Always lock your car, and never leave valuable items in the body of the car (the trunk will suffice for daytime outings, but be smart about stashing expensive items in there in full view of curious onlookers).
The Mexican Tourism Ministry distributes free road maps from its tourism offices outside the country. Guía Roji and Pemex publish current city, regional, and national road maps, which are available in bookstores and big supermarket chains for under $10; but stock up on every map your rental-car company has, as gas stations generally do not carry maps.
The Mexican Tourism Ministry operates a fleet of more than 350 pickup trucks, known as the Angeles Verdes, or Green Angels. Bilingual drivers provide mechanical help, first aid, radio-telephone communication, basic supplies and small parts, towing, tourist information, and protection. Services are free; spare parts, fuel, and lubricants are provided at cost. Tips are always appreciated ($5–$10 for big jobs, $2–$3 for minor repairs). The Green Angels patrol sections of the major highways daily 8–8 (later on holiday weekends). If you break down, pull off the road as far as possible, lift the hood of your car, hail a passing vehicle, and ask the driver to notify the patrol. Most bus and truck drivers will be quite helpful. If you witness an accident, do not stop to help—it could be a ploy to rob you or could get you interminably involved with the police. Instead, notify the nearest official.
Federal Highway Patrol (624/122–5735 or 624/125–3584.)
Green Angels, La Paz (800/987–8224 In Mexico; 078 From any Baja Phone.)
The mythical banditos are not a big concern in Baja. Still, do your very best to avoid driving at night, especially in rural areas. Cows and burros grazing alongside the road can pose as real a danger as the ones actually in the road—you never know when they'll decide to wander into traffic. Other good reasons for not driving at night include potholes, cars with no working lights, road-hogging trucks, and difficulty with getting assistance. Despite the temptation of margaritas and cold cervezas, do not drink and drive; choose a designated driver. Plan driving times, and if night is falling, find a nearby hotel or at least slow down your speed considerably.
Though it isn't common in Los Cabos, police may pull you over for supposedly breaking the law, or for being a good prospect for a scam. If it happens to you, remember to be polite —displays of anger will only make matters worse—tell the officer that you would like to talk to the police captain when you get to the station. The officer will usually let you go. If you're stopped for speeding, the officer is supposed to hold your license until you pay the fine at the local police station. But he will always prefer taking a mordida (small bribe) to wasting his time at the police station. Corruption is a fact of life in Mexico, and the $10 or $20 it costs to get your license back is supplementary income for the officer who pulled you over with no intention of taking you to police headquarters.
When you reserve a car, ask about cancellation penalties, taxes, drop-off charges (if you're planning to pick up the car in one city and leave it in another), and surcharges (for being under or over a certain age, for additional drivers, or for driving across state or country borders or beyond a specific distance from your point of rental). All these things can add substantially to your costs. Request car seats and extras such as GPS when you book.
Rates are sometimes—but not always—better if you book in advance or reserve through a rental agency's website. There are other reasons to book ahead, though: for popular destinations, during busy times of the year, or to ensure that you get certain types of cars (vans, SUVs, exotic sports cars). We've also found that car-rental prices are much better when reservations are made ahead of travel, from the United States. Prices can be as much as 50% more when renting a car upon arrival in Los Cabos.
Make sure that a confirmed reservation guarantees you a car. Agencies sometimes overbook, particularly for busy weekends and holiday periods.
Taxi fares are especially steep in Los Cabos, and a rental car can come in handy if you'd like to dine at the Corridor hotels; travel frequently between the two towns; stay at a hotel along the Cabo Corridor; spend more than a few days in Los Cabos; or plan to see some of the sights outside Los Cabos proper, such as La Paz, Todos Santos, or even farther afield. If you don't want to rent a car, your hotel concierge or tour operator can arrange for a car with a driver or limousine service.
Convertibles and jeeps are popular rentals, but beware of sunburn and windburn and remember there's nowhere to stash your belongings out of sight. Specify whether you want air-conditioning and manual or automatic transmission. If you rent from a major U.S.-based company, you can find a car for about $40 per day ($280 per week), including automatic transmission, unlimited mileage, and 10% tax; however, having the protection of complete coverage insurance will add another $19 to $25 per day, depending on the company, so you should figure the cost of insurance into your budget. You will pay considerably more (probably double) for a larger or higher-end car. Most vendors negotiate considerably if tourism is slow; ask about special rates if you're renting by the week.
To increase the likelihood of getting the car you want and to get considerably better car-rental prices, make arrangements before you leave for your trip. You can sometimes, but not always, find cheaper rates on the Internet. No matter how you book, rates are generally much lower when you reserve a car in advance outside Mexico.
In Mexico your own driver's license is acceptable. In most cases, the minimum rental age is 25, although some companies will lower it to 22 for an extra daily charge. A valid driver's license, major credit card, and Mexican car insurance are required.
Everyone who rents a car wonders whether the insurance that the rental companies offer is worth the expense. No one—including us—has a simple answer. It all depends on how much regular insurance you have, how comfortable you are with risk, and whether or not money is an issue. Just to be on the safe side, agree to at least the minimum rental insurance. It's best to be completely covered when driving in Mexico.
If you own a car, your personal auto insurance may cover a rental to some degree, though not all policies protect you abroad; always read your policy's fine print. If you don't have auto insurance, then seriously consider buying the collision- or loss-damage waiver (CDW or LDW) from the car-rental company, which eliminates your liability for damage to the car. Some credit cards offer CDW coverage, but it's usually supplemental to your own insurance and rarely covers SUVs, minivans, luxury models, and the like. If your coverage is secondary, you may still be liable for loss-of-use costs from the car-rental company. But no credit-card insurance is valid unless you use that card for all transactions, from reserving to paying the final bill. All companies exclude car rental in some countries, so be sure to find out about the destination to which you are traveling.
American Express offers primary CDW coverage on all rentals reserved and paid for with the card. This means that the American Express company—not your own car insurance—pays in case of an accident. It doesn't mean your car-insurance company won't raise your rates once it discovers you had an accident—but it provides a welcome amount of security for travelers.
Most rental agencies require you to have CDW coverage; many will even include it in quoted rates. All will strongly encourage you to buy CDW—making it difficult to discern whether they are recommending or requiring it—so be sure to ask about such things before renting. In most cases it's cheaper to add a supplemental CDW plan to your comprehensive travel-insurance policy than to purchase it from a rental company. That said, you don't want to pay for a supplement if you're required to buy insurance from the rental company.