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Report #2
Baja North – Tijuana to San Rosalia

March 19, 2007

First chore this morning is to fill up with cheap gas – we’ve heard the price is considerably steeper in Mexico and heaven knows it is already expensive here. We’ve been paying as high as $3.25 per US gallon in California..

Turns out we were dead wrong about the gas. The price of Mexican gas is fixed by the government at $65.20 peso per litre. This works out to $2.53 US per US gallon. Considerably cheaper than California for sure.

Second chore is to stop in Chula Vista and get some Mexican insurance for the truck/trailer since Canadian/US insurance is not valid in Mexico. We had tried to do this in Los Angeles but the AAA office there was pretty clueless about what was involved. Chula Vista is a border town and they are totally organized about it. Full coverage for truck including legal assistance, liability etc was $257. The trailer is covered for liability but not for damage to it.

It was suggested we check prices along the border and buy it at some gas station (they all have sigMexican Flat at Ensenadans advertising insurance policies) but we felt better about doing it through AAA. If there are any dramas they will help us sort them out. The insurance includes legal assistance.

So then, through the border. We were pulled over for inspection but all the fellow did was poke his head in the trailer door and wave us away. I tried to give him our passports but he just said “Vamanos, vamonos.”

We need a tourist visa and since we are going over to the mainland in a few weeks, an import permit for the truck. In the guide books it says we can take care of this in Ensenada, where we are heading for the night anyway.

At the Immigration office in Ensenada, the official managed to convey (he spoke little English, we little Spanish) that we would have to pay a fine since we did not get our tourist visa at the border.

“But the border guard said Vamanos!”

Shrug of the shoulders. Since we have only been in Mexico one day, actually more like one hour, the fine is only 50 pesos, about $5 each. But there is more. The paperwork must be filled out in triplicate at another office. Where is that? Why next door, of course.

Next door a lovely young woman with impeccable English explains the process to us and apologizes for the border guard pushing us through. The paperwork is completed, another $5.50 each, please.

So, now to pay for the tourist visa. At the Immigration office? No. At the bank. Where is the bank? Why next door, of course. Sure enough, across the hall a bored looking fellow is watching soaps behind a glass partition. The sign over the window says “Banquo.”

Fifteen minutes of key punching on an ancient computer and much officious stamping of forms, and 574 pesos poorer (about $28) we walk away with our tourist visas. But no import permit. That can only be issued in La Paz. We hope. And since we will have been on the road several weeks by then, we hope there is not another daily “fine” for failing to secure the permit in Ensenada or Tijuana. One can only hope.

Carried on to the campground recommended in the guide books: Campo Playa on theMEX 1 south of Ensenada outskirts of Ensenada. This is typical Mexico. Dusty, pot-holed lanes, no lights in the toilet block. Most things do not work. But the owner is a cheerful, friendly fellow. He overcharged us, I am sure. $25 US because, ” I am in the city limits of Ensenada and have to pay $10,000 per year taxes, not like those guys down the road.”

Whatever. I only had a ten and twenty so he gave me $3 change and said he would get the rest to us. When he didn’t show up again Steve chased after him till he got the final $2! That’s Steve.

So we settled in and went for a walk. Ensenada is not a great introduction to Mexcio – dusty, dirty, garbage strewn squats on every empty plot of land. Salsa music blaring at eardrum-splitting levels from the car dealership across the road. The proprietor of the campground assures us that it will all stop when the dealership closes in the evening.

While out for our walk we come on a place making tacos and they smell so good we pull up a stool and order a couple. I was busily heaping them with chopped fresh vegetables and guacamole when I realized that fresh veggies is the one thing we are warned not to touch without soaking in some purifying fluid ...oh well. First night in Mexico and we may be heading for disaster in the bowel region. We’ll see.

Price was right – 25 pesos each for 2 tacos and a coke. People were friendly when they saw how much we enjoyed the food. Fellow sitting next to me helped me with my Spanish. When I asked the price, “Quanda costa?” he corrected me and said the more correct expression would be, “Quanda fue?”

March 20, 2007

Well, the bowel thing worked out alright. Either due to good luck or the expensive Dukoral vaccine we took before leaving, we both feel fine. Today we proceeded down Hwy 1 through many dusty little strip-mall towns till we got to Cataviña in Central Baja. It’s high desert and the cacti are incredible. There are huge boulders and cacti of so many different varieties. It is so quiet and beautiful here. The people managing the campground live onsite but we are the only campers.

Cacti at CatavinaWhen the government built the highway down through the Baja in 1974, they also installed government campgrounds. They were well equipped with cement pads, fencing to keep the banditos out, showers, toilets, and generators for electiricty in the remote areas. Why, I don’t know, but sometime in the past 20 years the campground operations were abandoned. Now locals have basically taken them over and are running them.

This one at Cataviña is very nice. Neat and clean as can be with lots of cactus gardens planted all over. They work very hard at making it nice. But there is no water or electricity here. The bathrooms are as clean as it is possible to be when you have virtually no water, but they have not been repaired since 1974. There is no door of any kind on the women’s which I only know is the women’s because Steve tells me the other one has urinals. Inside the men’s there is a big barrel with some stagnant water. You put a bucket in and haul it over to the women’s where you squat over an ancient toilet, then pour the water in. This is the bucket flush method. Not the Westin, for sure, but when nature demands, welcome enough.

Cataviña is not much of a town. There are the relics of a Pemex (petrol) station – stripped and non-functioning. Other than that, a functioning (barely) hotel which had a couple soldiers marching around in front of it fingering their guns.

Very strong military presence here. Every few hours we are stopped at a military Bunkercheckpoint. These are kind of interesting. They actually have these bunkers made of old tires painted white with a palm frond roof. The bunker is some distance from the inspection station. A soldier sits in it, with his machine gun in his hand. I snuck a photo of one as we sped past.

They are looking for guns and drugs. A few times they have looked in the trailer, but just poke their heads in. Usually they just wave us on through.

But back at the campground we were enjoying our after dinner coffee when suddenly there was a loud growling noise ...then another, then another. We were surrounded by 22 units, mostly large diesel pushers all traveling in caravan. They actually came into the campground and drove round and round, until the units were all circled, like wagons.

Catavina campingThese Canadians and Americans left El Paso over three weeks ago and are traveling in caravan through Mexico. Friendly people but very insulated and isolated from the people and the country they are traveling through. Almost like they are in a submarine. In these massive buses they have complete facilities from showers to televisions to washing machines. They almost never leave their unit. They socialize only with each other. The whole trip is organized and run by a wagon master and tail gunner who make all the arrangements and deal with officialdom from immigration officers to campground proprietors. It seems like the caravaners never really leave home.

They are also scared to death of everything and everyone, certain that: the water will kill them, the locals will steal everything, the food will make them sick, the electricity will fry their appliances. Just plain scared of everything and will probably stay that way for ever.

A handful of them came over to talk to us and it was always the same: “You are doing this on your own?” Absolute awe. It’s the craziest thing.

Unfortunately, their style of travel does bring a lot of frowns from the locals. The roads are very narrow on the Baja and when you have 22 humongous buses in front of you, with a whole raft of extremely timid drivers (they told us they were averaging 25-30 kph while Steve was doing 60-80 kph), the truckers go nearly nuts. The roads are only 18 feet wide, that’s 9 feet per lane and NO shoulders. The trucks and buses have a very tight fit of it. In fact, this caravan had suffered 2 lost mirrors and one of them was actually clipped by a truck.

They also cause a lot of problems at the gas pumps. When 22 huge buses show up to fill up it closes down the pumps for everyone else for hours.

As mentioned, the roads are extremely narrow which wouldn’t be so much of an issue Cactusexcept that, most of the time, there are no shoulders. The road drops straight off ...at the worst, right into space. So it is white knuckle driving at times.

The small towns we pass through are all similar ...very, very dusty because the only thing paved is the highway. So every car that drives to a shop is raising a dust storm. We are both finding that our noses and throats are very irritated. Wish we’d brought a case of Halls throat lozenges along.

The one thing I really hate here is the garbage. There is so much of it. And plastic bags? An abomination on mankind. I can still remember when the only kind of grocery bags were paper. Then somewhere along the way these cheap plastic bags were invented. Now they are everywhere ...even caught in the cacti. Every time you approach a town it’s like there are plastic bag gardens out there. The person who invented them should be shot.

When I was shopping in Escondido the cashier was putting nearly every item into its own bag – eggs, bread, crackers. I re-bagged them all into the same bag and she looked at me like I was touched in the head. I was feeling so guilty about using any bags and she was giving me my goods in their own bags. It’s craziness.

March 21, 2007

Left Cataviña on a bright, but nippy note and the day just got progressively colder. This is Mexico? We were planning to stop in Guerrero Negro so we could take a whale watching tour in the morning. But when we got to Guerrero Negro it was freezing cold, the wind was blowing, the sky was billowing charcoal and spitting rain. So basically we were faced with spending the afternoon sitting in the trailer staring at each other, hoping for better weather in the morning. We had a look at the campground and there was NOTHING there. Not a bush or a tree. Nothing but brown dirt ...rapidly turning to mud.

So we kept going another 140 or so km down the road, hoping that things would improve by San Ignacio, also a place you can get whale watching tours from. Nada. Worse weather in fact.

So we continued to a bigger town further south, Santa Rosalia. This town is on the Sea of Cortez and is soooo different from the other towns we’ve been passing through on the Baja. Whereas they were rundown, everything dirt and dust and despair, basically one street strip malls, this town is neat. The roads are paved, the sidewalks are clean and the people look happy.

CactusSo ...it was an interesting day of driving, sometimes through cactus gardens, other times the cacti were the tall skinny kind that look like a kind of tree so it was like driving through a forest of cacti. Other times we drove through totally flat valleys, sometimes agricultural areas, then into mountains, right past a big volcano called “three Virgins”. Try as we might we couldn’t figure out what the three were, because there was just one humongous volcanic type mountain with some surrounding humps. The lava flows were extensive with the road cutting right through them.

We were surprised at how diverse and interesting the landscape is through central Baja.

In San Rosalio we are staying at the premier RV park. The guide books describe this as a well-kept attractive place and the fellow proudly display all manner of certifications from major tour companies on his very dusty walls. But it’s really just a big sand/dirt field with a fence around it. There are washrooms and hot showers but they are totally decrepit and falling apart. Fortunately, my expectations are low.

None of this is cheap by the way. Well, Cataviña was at $6, but tonight we are paying $18 for this dirt field. The shower was hot – thank goodness I have my system for showers in dirty places.

First, I wear rubber flip flops. Then I take off all my clothes in the trailer and put on my t-shirt dress. Then I take my shampoo, soap, towel, etc in a cloth bag with straps. There is usually at least a nail to hang the bag and the dress on. I keep the flip flops on. After the shower I dry off then just slip the dress back on to walk back to the trailer where I dress.

I developed this system in Africa where the showers were even worse – sometimes just a couple of old boards in the dirt to stand on with a barrel of cold water overhead. By not trying to dress or undress in the shower I avoid dragging clean clothes along the filthy floors. By using a bag with straps to put everything in I avoid putting my stuff on the filthy floors.

The town of San Rosalia is picturesque Mexican instead of desperate Mexican. This means colourful old buildings leaning into each other, everyone is an entrepreneur, everything is painted a different, bright colour, lots of music. The sidewalks are all different levels with lots of holes and drop offs. You need to watch your feet. I am used to doing this so have no problems but Steve has never had any trouble and takes a tumble because he just walks along without looking.

We stopped at some shops ...bought some bleach in one to purify our water for washing up, picked up a couple boxes of kleenex, and some fresh buns at the bakery. Mexicans love their pastels – pastries. Every mercado has an extensive selections of cakes, pastries, cookies, etc. Hard to resist except that in most situations they are sitting out on open shelves. You take a pizza pan and tongs, then move along the shelves, putting what you want onto the pizza pan. Then the lady bags them up and tells you how much. Early in the day this is okay, but by late afternoon every kid in the shop has hung his nose over them, the flies have had their nibble and the whole enterprise looks less appetizing.

Stopped for dinner at what must be the town’s best restaurant – blue tablecloths covered with smaller white tablecloths, nice atmosphere. I ordered enchiladas, Steve wimped out and ordered a pepperoni pizza. We were given a basket of nachos with four different sauces ...muy piquante salsa, yogurt type dip, sour cream, and another muy piquante red pepper sauce.

Then I was given a bowl of soupa. It was pasta y pollo (chicken) in a savoury tomato broth. It was beyond excellent and between the nachos and the soupa I would have been happy to have stopped right there. But then the enchiladas came and they were excellent – a soft tortilla stuffed with sweet green peppers and cheese, covered in cheese and a tomato sauce and broiled. They were accompanied by refried beans and a lovely saffron rice. Excellent meal that I could not finish.

We had great coffee con leche and I ordered a pina con leche as well. This was a drink I fell in love with in Costa Rica ...basically a pineapple milk shake. But obviously it has not made it this far north because I got a glass of pineapple juice and a glass of milk!

Excellent meal that neither of us could finish. Steve brought his pizza home with him for lunch tomorrow. The bill for all this wonderful? $20 including the tip.

Tomorrow we head for the beautiful Bay of Concepcion.

Carolyn Usher

Report #3 - Bahia Concepcion to Cabo San Lucas to La Paz

Unless otherwise noted all prices are quoted in US$ or Mexican Pesos. At time of writing, 10 pesos = $1 US or CDN.