Geckos, Gringos and Greased Palms: Lessons From Rural Baja

“Ladies and gentlemen, we’re getting ready to land in Los Cabos,” said the flight attendant. When I heard those words on my first trip to Mexico I had no idea what to expect beyond blue water, sunny skies and endless tequila shots. That four-day trip turned into a month, which turned into a year. In that time I learned to eschew crowded, touristy Cabo for the rural life an hour north on the Pacific coast, and I learned a lot of other things too. Here are just a few:

Baja mapIt may be called Baja California Sur, but it is not due south of California. It curves inland, which actually puts it south of Arizona and into Mountain time – unless it’s Daylight Savings Time. Mexico and the US switch to DST on different dates, which for normal people isn’t an issue, but I was working remotely as a software sales executive, and that time shift made life very interesting a few weeks out of the year.

The digital nomad lifestyle was made even more interesting by Mexican WiFi, which typically runs at 5mbps — when it runs. It’s amazing how quickly you become grateful for even that 5mbps.

Is it Cabo? Or Los Cabos? Or San Jose del Cabo? All of the above. Los Cabos means “the capes” in Spanish, and there are two of them: San Jose del Cabo, where the airport is, and Cabo San Lucas, about 30 minutes away. Both have lots of all-inclusive resorts. San Jose is more of a relaxed family town while Cabo is a party town. You can learn more here.

Baja, Mexico

Lands End, Cabo San Lucas

Found a too-good-to-be-true rate on a rental car online? Here’s the catch: the cost for the car is accurate, but you still have to pay for insurance. In Mexico, liability insurance is mandatory and there’s just no getting around it. Credit cards will often cover the collision and comprehensive portion of insurance, but rarely do they cover liability. So check your credit card benefits before you go, book that too-good-to-be-true online rate, and then expect to buy liability insurance at the counter. Expect to be quoted $20 for liability and $30 for full coverage. I’ve been able to talk them down to $15 on liability.

Baja’s long, empty highways lend themselves to fast driving and speed limits are merely a suggestion from a practical, legal perspective. But be careful: rural Mexican drivers tend to drive verrrryyyy slowly (old cars and expensive gas). Don’t be surprised to see strange things like horses standing in the bed of a pickup truck. Be especially careful at night. The highways are unlit and sometimes Mexican are cars too, and donkeys, goats and cows have a way of wandering onto the highway in the dark. Muy peligroso! (very dangerous!)

Baja, MexicoThe sunsets are as spectacular as you imagine. Tear your eyes away from the ocean for a moment to notice how the mountains to the east turn unforgettable shades of pink and purple.

Baja, Mexico

Sunset on the hills

Dirt roads. Bone jarring, skull rattling, nerve shattering dirt roads with the occasional car-eating sand pile to get stuck in. They’re everywhere and there’s just no avoiding them. Interestingly though, those crappy little rental cars actually work well on those roads. Their low center of gravity reduces the jarring sensation. Tip: when (not if) you get stuck in the sand, put your floor mats under your rear wheels to get traction. And don’t be surprised when random strangers pull over to help you.

Those dirt roads don’t have names, and the houses don’t have addresses. Getting directions sounds something like “Turn left at the OXXO, and you know where that dead cactus cuts into the road? You’ll see a turnoff just after that. Follow it past the big divot in the road and we’re the third house after the bright yellow one.” Bring bread crumbs to find your way back, especially in the dark.

The combination of desert and ocean means nights get cold here. In winter it can drop as low as the 50F (10C), so long pants and sweaters are handy.

Baja, Mexico

Cerritos Beach

Most of the Pacific beaches are not swimmable because of rip tides. Cerritos Beach, about 12 km south of Todos Santos, is a popular surfing and swimming beach.

The sky is bigger in Mexico. There just aren’t enough words to convey the vastness of the night sky, with billions of stars and the Milky Way directly overhead. Laying on the roof stargazing became my favorite nightly pleasure, especially because of Baja Midnight.

Baja, Mexico

Full moon rising over the mountains

Baja Midnight is the term locals use to explain how silent everything gets after about 9 PM. The gringo bars stay open until about 10 or 11, but everything else is shuttered tight long before then. (Note: this doesn’t apply to clubs in Cabo or to Mirabuena, Pescadero’s new gentlemen’s club, which stay open until the wee hours. I have also learned that starting in October, 2015, all bars will be allowed to remain open until 2 AM and liquor stores will stop selling at 8 PM to help increase bar business.)

Speaking of gringos, there’s a robust population of Canadian and US expats living throughout the Baja peninsula. Cheap real estate, low cost of living and friendly locals make this an attractive choice for snowbirds and retirees. Making friends here is as easy as showing up and just being yourself.

Baja, Mexico

The Little Lebowski Lounge in Pescadero, where the Dude always abides

The locals really are very friendly. Very few speak any English, but that doesn’t change the fact that for the most part they enjoy having gringos in town – especially gringos who go out of their way to avoid the Costco in Cabo and buy everything local from the small shopkeepers in town. Even the most feeble attempts at speaking Spanish go a long way toward earning the respect of locals here.

Baja, Mexico

Nobody drinks Jose Cuervo tequila.

If you see a store with a Corona sign, they also sell Pacifico but not Dos Equis. If you see a Tecate sign, they sell Tecate and Dos Equis but not Corona or Pacifico. OXXO, Mexico’s version of 7-Eleven, is a Tecate shop.

June bugs, tarantulas, cockroaches and gecko shit. Gross stuff abounds, but you get used to it. You also get used to feet that are always dirty and the incessant itch of mosquito bites. It becomes part of the charm.

Baja, Mexico

Buying today’s fresh catch at Punto Lobos

You can’t flush TP down the toilet. That one took some getting used to.

Leave your fancy dresses and high heels at home. Once you leave the resorts of Los Cabos and get into “real” Mexico it’s all about cutoffs and flip-flops.

Baja, Mexico

The military has a strong presence in Baja, much more than we norteamericanos are accustomed to. It’s common to see armed vehicles traveling the highways, and small convoys can show up any time at even the most remote beaches. After a while it becomes a comforting sight. Plan to be stopped, questioned, and sometimes searched at a military checkpoint if you’re traveling two hours or more. Usually they are quite friendly, but don’t carry any drugs – they take that seriously. Men traveling alone or in pairs can expect more in-depth questioning than women or couples.

It’s pretty hard to get busted for drunk driving with a legal limit of .4% blood alcohol content (you’d have to drink five times what you’d drink in New York) but cops don’t like to see open containers. And make sure you stop at all stop signs in La Paz. Those two infractions cost me 1,000 pesos (US$65) to get out of. Oopsie.

Baja, Mexico

The Mexican military has a strong presence throughout Baja

Crime: Petty crime, especially theft, abounds. It’s a product of the poverty the locals live in and the relative wealth of the gringos. Lock your car and hide your valuables. Beyond that, it’s pretty safe here. I spent a year here on my own and never once felt in danger.

Things get done on “Baja Time,” so don’t expect norteamericanos service levels. The gardener might show up on the allotted day, TelMex, might send the repairman out…or maybe not. It’s the price you pay for paradise. Relax and drink a Corona and it won’t bother you so much.

Whether you come for a weekend or forever, let yourself live in a world of “yes” here. Should I see where that dirt road goes? YES. Should I order a superburro from the creepy looking one-eyed grill cook? YOU BET. Should I skinny dip in the ocean in the moonlight? ABSO-FRIGGIN’-LUTELY.

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About Testarossa Travel

Testarossa Travel is a collection of stories about the amazing people of the world and the places they live. Adventurous, funny, and often humbling or downright embarrassing, these stories capture my experiences with authenticity and are meant to inspire readers to get out there and see the world. Each tale is designed to give the reader a true sense of a place, its sights, sounds and smells, and most of all, its people.

6 Comments

  1. I’m ashamed to admit I never really knew anything about Los Cabos until reading this! some great insights and really interesting time for you I’m sure #expattuesday

  2. Wow! What a GREAT post!

    Despite the bugs because bugs LOVE me, I really want to go now! 😀

    Btw, great tips on car rentals and insurance! I’ve never rented a car before, and this is the first time I’ve seen tips on the subject outside of Canada or the US.

    I have a question about what you said about the police being strict about drugs; does that include medication from other countries? Over the counter, or prescription?

    Thank you very must for linking this on Trekking with Becky’s Expat Tuesday – http://www.trekkingwithbecky.com/first-expat-tuesday/ – I’m looking forward to reading future posts! 😀

  3. Great post. My husband left his passport in a taxi in todos Santo. They returned it to our resort. I was shocked at how honest people are there. We were fortunate.

    • You were definitely fortunate. It’s crazy how much development is going on here, but they’re doing it in a great way so far. The new condo/hotel in Punto Lobos worked out a deal with the fishermen to build a market for them outside the property so the fishermen get to retain their way of life. There’s something really special here. Glad you enjoyed the post!

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