Baja California, meaning “Lower California,” is right below California on the other side of the border. That makes it one of the most popular day trips and weekend destinations in Mexico for Americans, especially people living in California.
Featuring coastal towns like Rosarito and cities like Tijuana, Baja California has a lot to offer in terms of beaches, nightlife, and family fun – not to mention its fantastic food, such as the famous fish tacos.
However, is Baja California safe for tourists, both single tourists and families? Are there any dangers to know about before crossing the border? Read on to learn all about staying safe in Baja California, Mexico.
Is Baja California Safe to Visit in 2023?
Baja California is relatively safe for US tourists, as evidenced by the large numbers of travelers who cross the border by car or on foot.
However, there is an increased risk of crime and kidnapping in Baja California, which is why the State Department has released a “Level 3 – Reconsider Travel” advisory for Baja California state.
The most common trouble Americans will face in Baja California is petty crime. Violent crime is possible as well. Pickpocketing, muggings, and home break-ins are all risks to be wary of. Cartels also operate in Baja California.
While they don’t usually target tourists specifically, tourists may get caught up in cartel violence and shootouts between the police and cartels. Finally, earthquakes may occur from time to time as well.
Most earthquakes are, fortunately, low-magnitude earthquakes, so you are unlikely to experience harm. However, higher-magnitude earthquakes may happen as well. By keeping track of earthquake warnings, you can better plan your trip.
Crime in Baja California
Crime in Baja California typically falls into one of two categories: cartel activity and thievery. Due to its proximity to the border, Tijuana and its surroundings are hotspots of cartel activity.
The cartels control important drug and human trafficking routes across the border. While the cartels’ primary income source is not robbing tourists, that’s not to say it never happens.
The other category is petty crime and robberies. Tijuana is a city, and it experiences crime like all cities. Due to it being on the border, various malicious actors are present, which only increases crime levels.
Tijuana consistently ranks in one of the top five most dangerous cities in the world based on homicide rates. Fortunately, most homicides are cartel-related and occur in neighborhoods tourists don’t frequent.
Various cartel groups and gangs often fight for turf, leading to shootings and deaths. Rosarito is generally safe, but crime can still occur. The same goes for Ensenada.
Before I continue, it’s important to distinguish between Baja California and Baja California Sur. The two states are next to each other, but Baja California Sur is further south, below Baja California.
Baja California Sur is safer than Baja California itself. The US State Department gives Baja California Sur a “Level 2 – Exercise Increased Caution” travel advisory, compared to the “Level 3 – Reconsider Travel” advisory it gives to Baja California.
Note that travel advisory warnings change all the time. One of the reasons the State Department increased Baja California’s advisory to a Level 3 warning was the arrest of a cartel leader, which led to increased violence between cartels and the police, according to the US Embassy in Mexico.
It’s essential to check the State Department’s current travel advisory and recent safety alerts from the US Embassy in Mexico before your trip, so you are well-informed of any potential dangers.
Avoiding Bad Neighborhoods
The main tourist destinations of Baja California all have neighborhoods that are unsafe to go to. You will want to avoid the red light district – Zona Norte (the “North Zone”) – in Tijuana.
Many travelers visit the red light district of Tijuana to hire prostitutes, visit massage parlors, or simply enjoy a drink at one of the many lady bars or strip clubs in the area. However, it’s not a safe area.
It’s not entirely clear who owns the bars in Zona Norte, but the cartel or gangs likely exercise strict control over the place. Prostitution is legal in Zona Norte, but the area is unsafe.
Drug deals are standard, which means that drug dealers and their henchmen are also present. The entire area is seedy, and bad things can go down quickly. Some prostitutes may drug and rob men who visit them, and thieves may operate in the area.
Another area to avoid in Tijuana is Zona Centro, or the city’s center. During the daytime, it’s mostly safe. However, at night, it gets rather sketchy. The east side of the city is another area to avoid.
Finally, avoid wandering around near the border except for the official border crossings. Various illegal activities occur near the border, and you never know what you’ll bump into.
In general, you might want to avoid Tijuana altogether. Besides good food and affordable medical care, there’s just not much to see in Tijuana as a tourist. If you want to visit the beach, Rosarito is a much safer town that offers a much better beach.
If you wish to enjoy excellent nightlife and a relaxing city on the water, Ensenada is a quiet and small city that is much safer than Tijuana. The center of Ensenada is safe, as is the promenade on the water and its touristy beaches.
That’s especially true on the weekends when there are large crowds. As always, watch out for pickpockets and be careful when walking alone at night.
The further away you get from the touristy area, the more dangerous it gets. Ensenada has some bad areas, but they tend to be on the city’s outskirts. As in many Latin American cities, you’ll notice neighborhoods on the hills surrounding the cities, which often feature colorful houses.
These informal settlements frequently have increased gang activity and high poverty levels, making them unsafe for Americans to wander around alone. Don’t let the cheery colors confuse you – they paint the houses those colors to make those areas look more welcoming.
While Ensenada has some good hiking trails, it’s essential to ask your hotel or Airbnb host if it’s a good idea to go. Some tracks may be unsafe, while others may present no issues.
Also, like Tijuana, Ensenada has a Zona de Tolerancia – a “tolerance zone” where prostitution is legal. It’s best to avoid Ensenada’s red light district as well. Rosarito is generally safe, but avoid isolated areas of the beach, especially at night.
Stay in a secure hotel, hostel, or Airbnb instead of camping on the beach. The Valle de Guadalupe (Guadalupe Valley) in Baja California features many wineries and restaurants.
It’s a very safe area, but public transport isn’t always available. You may even have trouble finding a taxi, and Uber may not work as you get further away from the city. Therefore, arranging private transportation is critical before visiting wineries in Guadalupe Valley.
Either go on a tour, drive down from California, rent a car in Mexico, or hire a private driver for the day. Wherever you stay, ask your hotel receptionist or Airbnb host about which areas are safe to visit.
Staying Safe on the Road
Many Americans drive down from San Diego or other California cities and make a road trip to Baja California. Some people even rent or buy camper vans and sleep on the road.
It’s important to realize that driving in Mexico is not like driving in the United States. As soon as you cross that border, the situation changes drastically.
Dangers on the road come in two forms. The first is the driving behavior of other motorists. Drivers in Mexico don’t always follow road rules like in the United States. Watch out for drivers who are speeding or driving while drunk.
Many drivers may not even have a valid license. Road signs and markings may be missing or not well organized. In addition, you will notice more potholes and poorer road conditions than in San Diego, so drive slowly.
While driving in cities like Tijuana, watch out for dogs crossing the road. In addition, you will likely see more motorcyclists (usually riding low-powered motorcycles or scooters).
These motorcyclists are often in a hurry, as many deliver food for apps like Rappi or Uber Eats. As such, they weave in and out of traffic, and you may not see them in time if you are not accustomed to sharing the road with so many two-wheeled vehicles.
Crime is another issue that should concern you. Cartels and gangs may make illegal roadblocks, demanding money for the privilege of passing or outright robbing you. Armed muggings can also occur at traffic lights, even in busy cities.
The French government warns against picking up hitchhikers. It also advises you to always stick to the main roads and highways. Even if your GPS app suggests a “better” route, remember that it may not be safer, so try not to go off the main road too much.
Understanding the Kidnapping Risk
Kidnapping is a risk in Mexico, and Baja California is not exempt. Kidnappers may attempt to extort money from family members as a ransom, or they may take you to ATMs and force you to take out cash in exchange for your freedom.
It’s improbable that you will be a kidnapping victim, as most victims are not foreigners but Mexican nationals, but it’s essential not to wander around alone at night. If you are kidnapped, never resist.
Understanding Corruption in Mexico
Many police officers in Mexico are highly corrupt. They may demand bribes for traffic violations – whether or not you actually violated any law. You should pay traffic fines on the official Multas de Transito (Traffic Fines) government site.
Be wary of fake police officers as well, and always ask to see an ID and speak to a superior. According to the Australian government, some kidnapping victims claim that police officers have been involved in their kidnappings.
Some tourists have found it easier to simply pay a bribe and give in to the extortion rather than ask the police officer to accompany them to the station. However, bear in mind that it is illegal.
Watching Out for Earthquakes, Hurricanes, and Diseases
Both earthquakes and hurricanes can occur in Mexico, according to the UK government. Check the National Hurricane Center for hurricane warnings.
There is also a risk of Zika virus along the coast, according to TravelHealthPro. Always check the CDC’s travel notices for warnings about hurricanes, Zika, and other diseases and natural disasters.
Avoiding Unprofessional or Unlicensed Doctors
Many Americans travel to Tijuana for affordable medical and dental care. Some go for cheap plastic surgery. However, not all doctors are professional or good at what they do. Some plastic surgeons may not have the proper licenses.
It’s worth paying a bit more for a doctor, plastic surgeon, or dentist who has good reviews and recommendations from other foreigners and who speaks English.
Things to Consider
Before your trip to Baja California, Mexico, keep the following advice in mind.
- Inform a family member or friend that you are traveling to Baja California, and update them about your movements.
- Keep a photocopy of your passport with you at all times.
- Stay in safe neighborhoods and hotels.
- Keep your valuables hidden and maintain a low profile.
- Learn some Spanish so you can communicate with locals.
- Visit the red light districts.
- Swim in choppy waters or when there is a warning flag.
- Flag taxis from the street; take Uber or Didi instead.
Frequently Asked Questions
Here are answers to some of the most common questions we see from our readers about staying safe in Baja California.
Is Baja California safe from cartels?
No. While the cartels are stronger in some areas than others, and other states like Sinaloa have more cartel activity, Baja California isn’t safe from cartels. Despite that, they don’t usually cause trouble for tourists.
Is driving through Baja safe?
Driving through Baja is generally safe. However, you should stick to the main roads and avoid hitchhikers. Don’t stop to sleep in sketchy areas as well.
Is Baja worth visiting?
Yes! Baja is easily accessible from the United States and offers an opportunity to experience Mexico’s gastronomy and beaches. For the best beach resort towns, like Cabo San Lucas, you’ll want to go further south to Baja California Sur.
Is the food in Baja safe?
Not always. It’s best to eat from established restaurants with good reviews. Street tacos are abundant, and it’s worth trying them at least once. However, look for a place popular with locals and tourists, as the ingredients will be fresher.
Do I need a passport to go to Baja California?
Yes. US citizens need a passport or passport card to cross the border. A driver’s license is not acceptable. You may also have to fill out a form from the Mexican immigration authorities. If you are driving into Mexico, you’ll need your vehicle registration.
So, Is Baja California Safe to Visit?
Baja California is one of the safer areas of Mexico, especially if you stick to Rosarito, Ensenada, and Guadalupe Valley. However, it does have cartel activity, and crime is also a risk. So be sure to avoid sketchy areas and always be aware of your surroundings. Happy travels!