Following Recent Violence, How Safe Is Travel to Baja California in Mexico?

After three surfers were killed in Ensenada, travelers may be wondering what kind of safety and security measures are in place for travel to the Mexican state of Baja California. Experts offer their insights and advice.

Oceanside cliffs in the Tijuana and Ensenada area of Baja California, with little vegetation and calm blue seas

Locals and tour operators in the region advise travelers to use local guides and tour companies when they are traveling in Baja.

Photo by Yitzhak Rodrigguez/Unsplash

Baja California awoke to tragedy on Sunday, May 5. The bodies of three surfers had been discovered, tragically murdered under mysterious circumstances. The case is still under investigation, but it is believed that they were killed resisting a carjacking, CNN reported. The incident has sent shock waves through the tight-knit surfing community and the community of travelers who have been touring Baja for years. It has prompted concerns about the region’s safety among travelers looking to take a trip to the peninsula.

The victims, identified as Jack Carter Rhoad (an American) and Australian brothers Jake and Callum Robinson, were found with gunshot wounds to the head. According to CBS News, the suspect in custody, Jesus Gerardo “N”, aka “El Kekas,” is being prosecuted. The three men had been camping in a remote beachside area when they were killed in what investigators are saying was a robbery attempt.

“Our hearts are broken and the world has become a darker place for us,” Debra Robinson, the mother of the two Australian brothers, said in a tribute. “They were young men enjoying their passion of surfing together.”

The crime is a stark reminder of the inherent risks associated with travel to any destination, no matter how idyllic it may seem. It also is a reminder to travelers to be extremely vigilant.

“The incident took place in a remote region, and the victims were wild-camping alone with no facilities, campground, or other infrastructure—no electricity, mobile phone connectivity, or even paved roads,” Zach Rabinor, CEO of Journey Mexico, a luxury destination management company based in Mexico, told a concerned client—a response he then shared with Afar.

We need to keep in mind that this is a random act of violence and not the case for most of the Baja.
Sharon Walters, founder of Sharon Walters Travel, and a homeowner in Baja California Sur

Rabinor’s advice to travelers in the region is to avoid overnighting and wild-camping in remote areas. If you are going to adventure, it is best to travel in groups, even during the day, with a local expert planning and leading the expedition—an expert who has access to real-time, local intelligence.

“We offer our clients fully guided trip extensions in Baja,” said Todd Smith, founder and president of AdventureSmith Explorations, an expedition cruise and wilderness tour operator with tours to Baja. “A lot of people in North America don‘t realize this is a thing. You can go to the islands in the Sea of Cortez. You can go to beautiful beaches with not a soul around. There is this great adventure, and it‘s so cool. We want to raise awareness that fully guided trips are a thing in Baja.”

If you are traveling on your own, staying in reputable hotels or marked campsites is always the safer choice.

“There’s no boondocking in Baja. It’s all private land,” said Nathan Stuart, co-founder and guide with Legends Overlanding. “If you’re somewhere where you think you’re in the middle of nowhere and you think you’re staying for free, you’re only staying for free if the owner doesn’t come and charge you.”

The Mexican state of Baja California borders California. It is home to popular tourist destinations like Tijuana, Rosarito, and Ensenada. When it comes to tourism, Mexico is generally considered a safe destination for travelers, and any attacks directly involving tourists are extremely rare. Still, Mexico is a country that has its share of crime and corruption, like many other countries in the world. Violent crime, including kidnapping and human trafficking, is a risk in parts of the country. As of August 2023, the U.S. State Department has issued a Level 3 classification for the state of Baja California, advising visitors to “reconsider travel,” specifically because of crime and kidnapping.

“The aggression to these three people, a regrettable attack, had nothing to do with these three being surfers. They were killed because they were at the wrong moment,” said Baja California Attorney General María Elena Andrade Ramírez in a taped press conference.

Baja California is not the only tourist destination in the world with a Level 3 advisory. Guatemala, Colombia, and Jamaica also share Level 3 status.

“It‘s also important to put this into perspective in the context of international travel,” Rabinor‘s response continued, noting that violent acts occur throughout the world, including in developing and developed countries, such as the United States, the United Kingdom, and others.

While the incident was an unexpected and horrific tragedy, many parts of Baja are still considered safe, including the tourist areas of Ensenada and Rosarito, as well as the tourist destinations in the southern half of the peninsula in the state of Baja California Sur.

Baja California Sur, which has a Level 2 advisory, is home to popular resort destinations such as Los Cabos, Todos Santos, La Paz, and Loreto.

“I am so devastated about what happened to these young men. As a parent I cannot imagine the grief [theirs] are dealing with,” said Sharon Walters, founder of Sharon Walters Travel, and a homeowner in Baja California Sur. “Unfortunately, the border towns between the U.S. and Mexico along the northern part of Baja can sometimes be a difficult place to visit. While this part of Baja has endless beautiful beaches, there is an element of danger here due to lack of policing and remote locations.”

She added, “Just as you would in any location, it is best to stick to the touristed areas and check with locals and hotel staff about what places to avoid. When something like this happens in Mexico, it seems to get extra bad press than it would in other countries. But we need to keep in mind that this is a random act of violence and not the case for most of the Baja.”

The tragedy highlights the need for travelers to be responsible and informed when embarking on their adventures. This means staying abreast of travel advisories, heeding local customs and laws, and exercising caution and vigilance at all times.

Meagan Drillinger is a travel writer and Mexico expert who lives on the road full-time.
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