The downside of having a boat in La Paz is that eventually, at least in our reality, we have to get our selves home. The boat gets to stay down there, and enjoy the heat and sun for five months... while we head north and enjoy our own beautiful BC summer.
We still miss having the big boat up in the Pacific Northwest but after three (two and a half?) Sea of Cortez cruising seasons we are pretty confident with our decision to buy the N50 and cruise Mexico and maybe parts further south. We shall see.. all up for discussion!
But meanwhile... well, what goes down must come up and after driving the truck down to La Paz in January, it was time to bring it, and ourselves, home. Getting truck repairs done after our bumper-bender at the very beginning of the trip is first on our list of to-do’s. A new rim and tire might also be part of that - all in all, it was a rather eventful trip.
So... although I have written about travelling through the Baja peninsula already, I thought I would devote a few more lines to the experience. And it is an experience!
“Don’t go there you will die” - I believe I have already brought up that terse admonishment from our dear friend - sadly no longer with us but I would just like to say, Norman... wherever you are... we have done OK so far! Keep your fingers crossed for us and put a good word in with the Big Guy up there if you see Him!
But meanwhile, it’s just the two of us in the truck, and the days are long, and yes, we have heard all the stories and we take a lot of them to heart. At least I do - being the worry wart that I am...
So we have completed four trips- two up, two down. I guess the first question asked is Why, when there are perfectly good airplanes flying to Cabo every day? Well, I guess because we like road trips. Also having a vehicle down there is kind of handy...and you can take boat things down in a truck much easier than in an airplane. In fact some things cannot go in an airplane (last time we checked, defibrillators with their batteries don’t fly and transporting a bunch of parts starts to get expensive when you have a limit to the luggage you can carry on).
We have talked to many people, cruisers and land-locked adventurers, who have done the drive many more years than we have. And amazingly they do it in record time. That was the first order of business for us - how long will we take?
With the truck, camper and boat trailer, we allowed four days - three stops - for travelling down the Baja, and as it was our first time, I was admittedly extremely nervous. What would the campgrounds be like? Would we find decent places to eat? Drinking water? What about the checkpoints? Will we get arrested for just being there? I can’t speak a word of Spanish... idiot! Why didn’t I learn Spanish instead of French!?!?
As it turned out, the answers were pretty much:
OK; most assuredly; use bottled; probably not if you don’t do anything stupid ... and just get a dictionary or an app for your phone.
Yes, the campgrounds were somewhat...rustic.
Dusty, littered with refuse and dog poop...maybe the bathroom had a light, maybe not...maybe it had hot water...maybe not...but every campground we chose had an attached restaurant that was some of the best food we would eat in the Baja.
reputedly one of the oldest and best restaurants in the Baja!
And everyone was extremely pleasant. This isn’t Canada or the US...this is an adventure.. and looking beyond the little things became pretty easy after a while.
Hotels presented a whole new level of concern- we have stayed in some beautiful resorts and hotels down in La Paz and in Ensenada, but on the road, we need to get ourselves a room before dark (unbreakable rule : never drive at night) and these are small towns. I had no idea this time what I would find when we opened the door to our room, and in desperation we bought new pillows and pillow slips to travel with us so we at least knew what our heads were resting on.
our shiny new pillows..the room was tiny but clean and cute…the town had no water so the owner gave us a big bucket of his special water that he uses in his brewery…yes, a hotel attached to a restaurant and a brewery. Doesn’t get any better than that!
our little patio, which was just adorable and super private!
Turned out - not a big issue. Again- these weren’t the Hilton, but they were clean, relatively quiet... nothing fancy and in fact for the most part pretty funky and quaint.
headboards at the hotel… everywhere there was art!
Using common sense is the order of the day, and not leaving valuables around is good practice. And again, these hotels were all associated with some pretty good eating establishments ( yes, I love good food... feed me well and keep me happy...if there is a decent glass or two of Sauvignon Blanc involved I will be ecstatic!)
The checkpoints were unnerving - as you drive by, a young man all in camo or black with full on balaclava and bullet proof vest, holding a semi-automatic rifle would look up at you..wave you to a stop... sometimes they wanted to see in the truck, or the camper..most of the time they just waved us on. I became angry with myself for not speaking any Spanish and started to look up phrases I would need so I could tell them where we were going and where we had been. Most of the time they practiced their English on us with a smile.
I never lost my respect for them, but the fear certainly receded! Mostly.
a checkpoint - the guard is in camo so he’s …hard to see
Driving in Mexican towns..another cause for pause... stories abound about local police and corruption and losing everything because of an unnoticed Alto sign. Never mind that in Mexico Alto seems to mean look left and maybe right and just keep going. Not if you are a gringo! One of the jobs of the navigator is to make sure the driver sees all signs and all lights ( seldom in the same place) and also give advance warning of that uniquely Mexican traffic accessory - the tope... sometimes a mere whisper of a bump, sometimes a veritable tire-shredding chassis-thumping mountain. It does the job...
So you get out of town, rested and fed and amazingly you haven’t paid an arm and a leg. You are on the road bright and early because you know not to drive at night and you want to have lots of time to get to the next town. You have checked trip advisor or travelocity or any of the sites that give you hotels and ratings so you know you have a decent place to stay (wifi and cel coverage is pretty consistent throughout the Baja...there are some dead spots on the road but in the bigger towns usually it’s good). (in fact cel towers are cropping up everywhere!) And now you need gas...
Old guide books warn you about lack of gas and how you will be filling up on the side of the road from someone’s steel drum.
not a chance! but the way it used to be…
Not anymore - we saw that in one town and even they are building a gas station. Stations are plentiful - they used to be all Pemex - but now outsiders are being allowed in- we even saw a few Chevrons. Like being home! Prices vary but it’s never cheap. Service is friendly - they always clean your windows - banyos are generally clean ( I remember a few horror stories of my own from many years ago of having to use a banyo behind some little store or cafe,...shudder.... not really a problem now) ( although in the middle of nowhere at that great roadside taco place you might have to fill your own bucket to flush the toilet...no big deal!)
And then you are on the road. The first year we drove down, 2016, there was a lot of road repair going on. The road is greatly improved from “the old days”.. when fisher persons and surfer dudes and hippy adventurers drove down bumpy grindy bone-rattling roads to get to the perfect beaches... Now there is a highway, of sorts. And two years ago it was under re-construction. Detours, which we called devastations, from their word desviacions, miles and miles of one-lane-two-way rock and dust and washboard road. Kind of like the old days, I guess. Horrible with the big truck and camper and Grady-white on the trailer.
not a lot of room!
But we survived.
Now those devastations are smooth roads, but still just a two lane highway with no shoulders to speak of. Sometimes the sections of road were riddled with deep big pot-holes (hence the flat tire on the way down... stupid low profile tires don’t work well) On the way home, miraculously, the worst sections of pot-holed roads were re-paved! In fact, long sections through some of the towns were repaired, repaved, and sometimes even widened. We were absolutely amazed at how much road-work has been done since we drove down in January. Mind you, it is an election year. Whatever the reason- we appreciated it!
lovely new road, same old curves peligrosas
However, what you cannot change is the topography. And Baja is nothing if not topographical! Being one big volcanic-created chunk of land, getting from one end to the other is not easy. Mountains and volcanoes stand in the way, and the roads follow a precipitous path, meandering along dizzy crests of hills and clinging precariously to narrow canyons, zagging back and forth in breathtaking knuckle-whitening abandon.
Sometimes there is a guard rail, but most of the time it has been flung off the side of the road like a piece of spaghetti, followed by some poor hapless driver who didn’t believe the 30 kmh sign. The side of the hills below the road ( past the non-existent shoulder, as the road is crumbling slowly to follow the guard rail down the cliff) are littered with bits and pieces of whatever vehicles have tumbled to their demise, and often over-seen by a poignant shrine to the driver.
looks harmless..until it’s you looking down over that edge
I took pictures of roadside shrines. Turns out it’s almost a full time job, there are so many of them
It is a humbling experience, and I am sure it is not one restricted to the Baja ( I have been on another such road in Peru.. they exist the world over) but this is a road we plan on doing a few more times so we need to master it! At least, Lawrence does - he is the driver, I am the taker of pictures and maker of occasional comments about oncoming traffic although I am usually silent, so as to not disturb the driver’s rather intense concentration.
But the scenery! One expects stark unrelieved desert, a sea of brown and grey with unrelenting hot sky and nothing to enjoy. Maybe when you hit the ocean, that will give you some beauty...
Well, yes, it is an amazing sight when you come around a corner ( steep, hairpin, frightening,) and catch sight of the Sea of Cortez for the first time. But that is just one of the many beautiful gasp-inducing vistas.
The peninsula is made up of some very distinct and different eco-systems- and each one is beautiful in its own right. Starting out this trip, from bottom to top, after a few months of warmth and no rain, we noticed the first part of the trip was indeed mostly browns and greys ... after all, it’s hotter south! But we were passing by Bahia Concepcion, a most beautiful collection of white-sand azure-sea’d bays where we had actually spent some time this past trip... gorgeous to see them from land now that we had seen them up close and personal.
we were anchored looking up at these homes - it felt as if we were anchored off of Cinque Terre in Italy, or Positano
We then climbed up the first of the really gruelling sections, back and forth and up and up - and as we got higher and further north, the landscape changed and there was more green.
The mountains are also amazing, and In the distance hills are pink and purple and dominate!
I had found a very cool book that explains not only the geology of the land, using the mile markers for each section to give you a specific location - it also gives you what flora and fauna you may see. Which birds... which animals...well, not too many of those in the heat of the day but I did see a caracas this time, which is the national bird of Mexico! So if things weren’t too harrowing for the driver, I would read off appropriate passages as we passed through interesting areas.
Further north, as it cooled down slightly, things changed and we noticed that the cactuses were now in bloom…
and then, with another big long scary up and down, we were in a totally different almost moon-scape blasted environment.
volcanoes... huge red boulders...sand-dunes... and eventually high winds, dust devils, and rolling garbage...
Interestingly, on our first trip down, the garbage everywhere upset me, a lot. This time, we actually noticed down south a long stretch of relatively clean road and green garbage bags, full and sitting by the side of the road , every hundred yards or so. Garbage? We hoped so... and saw one ripped open - it was full of bottles and cans. Bottles and cans make up the most of the garbage on the road, so that stands to reason.
We didn’t see the garbage bags anywhere else, but I felt that, aside from some towns and outlying areas, overall it seemed cleaner. Good news if that’s the case!
So over three or four days, we saw an amazing diversity of what we label desert. In some places there is a good supply of water, and the local cooperative does a huge amount of farming, either straight in the fields or under cloth greenhouses. In other places, salt is the money-maker. Not a particularly beautiful town but everyone needs salt, and during the right season they also play host to lots of whale-watchers and Aquatic adventurers.
One coastal town has a working mine, and a small port for freighters. This town, and many other coastal towns, were hard hit by the last few hurricanes, and even now there are signs of the destruction and devastation that these natural events visited upon these already struggling people. But life goes on and if things don’t look perfect, the people are still friendly and happy to see you.
old train from the mining town of Santa Rosalia
Aside from towns, you may come around a corner and out of the blue there is a little oasis, a bright little house, a few cars or a truck parked outside, a brightly painted sign offering tacos or huevos rancheros.. our favourite all-time previously mentioned fish taco comes from one such middle of nowhere stand. It does take a leap of faith, and we actually don’t stop once we get underway except to find a handy boulder or cactus to pee behind.. so I can’t attest to any of the palapas anywhere else. But it always amazes me when we come across these tiny little mini towns.. there has to be something there!
And then there are the empty, crumbling, hopeless looking husks of houses and shacks that literally do sit in the middle of nowhere. Sometimes we remembered that yes, last time someone lived there but now it is empty...and we have no idea what the story is.
Not unlike our log cabins and old farmhouses in the idle of nowhere In our own province.. old stories, untold and unknown... interesting.
at one time it must have been something lovely
empty and abandoned, yet at some time someone called it home
The other thing you learn is how to pass like a Mexican. Not always, but there are times when you will feel comfortable that nothing is barrelling down at you in the other direction and you really want to get past the old truck or the big semi before the next brutal steep hill...and if the truck driver in front of you is Mexican, usually he will put on his left turn signal for you. Doesn’t mean he’s turning left ( though once it did - boy did that throw us for a loop, didn’t even see the side road). What it usually means is YOU are safe to pass him. He sees further than we can...and he will also, if there is any sort of shoulder to drive on (unlikely but it has been known to happen) he will drive on the shoulder so you can pass him.
Invariably, almost always, the drivers are courteous about this sort of thing. They also usually drive as if it is the last day of their life, with an abandonment and lack of concern for life, limb, or passenger... so it’s a good idea to stay focussed. ( it was two truck drivers who helped us on our on the way down, speaking no English but rolling up their sleeves and doing everything they could to change our flat tired! Amazing people!)
Driving through towns is often an adventure too. There is the main road- the one you are on. Then there may be paved side roads running parallel to the main roads... or maybe it’s just a wide swath of dirt road on either side of the main paved road. That is where the action really happens. Cars, carts, horses, dogs, bikes - anything and everything can come out from any direction to cross the main road ( where you are) to get to the other side ... and maybe back again. It’s a free for all and in amongst it all there are stores and vendors and moms with babies and buses letting off school children and it’s just one big happy crazy cacophony. In other words... slow down, pay attention, and enjoy. Further north the towns are bigger and almost run into each other, and traffic in the early afternoon seemed to be much heavier, as workers were getting off and going on to their shifts and kids were let out of school and getting on and off their buses or walking in noisy happy groups along the road. Throughout the whole thing the wind was blowing at least 25, dust from the fields whipping around everything and everyone one - happy chaos.
And then we were near the coast, and approaching Ensenada, the first big town since La Paz and Loreto.. and we could breathe a sigh of relief because we have a few days stopover at the other boat, time for the driver to relax even though we have chores to do - and the next section of the drive is through the Guadalupe valley, to Tecate and the American border.
A trip we have done numerous times and one which I very much hope will be uneventful.. a long wait at the border is probably in our future but after that it’s a layover in San Diego before we start the final leg of the trip home - driving America!
We enjoy Ensenada, and it is always nice to spend a few nights on board Northern Ranger I. She is being well looked after, and every time I come aboard I have a little argument with myself about why we traded up... there is something about her that feels shippy and nautical and safe. But... we love the 50 too... in a perfect world - two boats! But... not in this world.
she is in good hands in Ensenada! looking beautiful!
Driving through the Guadalupe Valley should be done with lots of time available and usually around lunch and afterwards. There are many wineries, some of them with attached restaurants... down dusty winding bumpy side roads that make you glad you have a truck.
as usual more food than two of can consume… no one’s complaining though!
Last few times we did it, there was a lot of head scratching as to where the wineries actually were. This time, the route was positively blooming with signs indicating which wineries were down which roads. Unfortunately we were on a mission - get to the Tecate border early. We have enjoyed some amazing meals along the way, only to arrive at the border with a two hour line up ahead of us in over 100 degree temperatures. Now we come with ice and cold drinks and snacks, prepared for the worst but... it’s early and there were only a few cars ahead of us.
Perfect! Missed out on the wineries but maybe next time.
As for the wines... well there are a lot of wineries to choose from and they have come a long way since we first tried Mexican wine at a club med in Oaxaca 20 years ago. And much of the enjoyment comes from meeting and talking to the proprietors... best to give yourself plenty of time to sit and relax and enjoy the scenery. And the wine.
So... there you have it. The only other thing I would mention is supplies...and safety stuff.
A few good spare tires. They may have filled the potholes but generally they do it with a shovel and their boots. And if they do repave, the pavement has a tendency to sag and create new potholes pretty quickly. Good tires and spares are a must! And llanteras ( kind of like pop up tire stores) abound, but generally they won’t be carrying the spare you want. They do however bend over backwards to try to help you!
Lots of water...snacks...toilet paper...water...snacks...first aid kit...
Maps...guidebooks...gps...sense of humour...Spanish/English dictionary or an app on your phone... make sure your car/truck is running well, oil is topped up, coolant is topped up...
And know where you are going and when you plan to stop. I am pretty sure people who have done this lots of times become pretty cavalier about where they stay and how long they drive... personally I think Be Prepared is a good motto to use for a while for us neophyte Baja travellers.
Our drive up through the Baja was just the start of our adventure- after a few days in San Diego we hit the I-5 and headed north.
our stopover in San Diego - hard to beat the view! no wonder we love it here!
(Ironically we found sections of the I-5 around LA to be worse than a lot of the highway through the Baja...who knew?) Three days later we were in Canada, and then- after another longish drive... home again home again, on the Lake. Lawns to mow, gardens to weed, and The Baja and Northern Ranger II seem a long long way away.
But soon enough it will be October and we can do it all over again!
And in case you are wondering because I mentioned not driving at night but didn’t explain it... it’s not always about dangerous people. Along the road, the local livestock hide out in the shrubbery, waiting for dusk, when the side of the road cools off. That is where most of the yummy green stuff is - so at night, you never know if there is a cow or a horse or some other animal snacking. And farmers don’t take too kindly to losing a cow. Not to mention it would sure put a damper on your trip!
Yes, there are also crazy drivers out there and no lights to help you see the road ... so for that reason too - daylight is best!
we aren’t in Kansas anymore..we are in California, Toto!
And just because…this is another reason we like the drive..I have used this picture before but it bears repeating…
Side of the road, middle of nowhere. Can’t get there by boat.
BEST TACO EVER!!!