2006 January 1st to 7th
They take their homes where they go, we are at home wherever we go.
On Sunday morning, the first day of the new year, Em and I decided to spend the following week in Baja. Despite staying up past midnight we managed to clean the apartment, pack and hit the road a bit after 9 am. 12 hours and 670 miles later we stopped for the night at the $25/night Hotel Sonora somewhere in Baja. Later we would determine that it was about 4 miles north of Colonet, about 145 miles south of the border.
Our inspiration for the trip was an adventure that Em took part in about 10 years ago, before I knew her, when she and 3 friends drove all the way to Cabo in her beloved red Ford Probe over spring break. The highlight of that trip, as recounted to me many times in the subsequent years, was discovering the spectacular beach called Playa Santispac, about 10 minutes south of Mulege. For reference, it is 619 miles from Tijuana to Mulege and an additional 441 miles from Mulege to Cabo. Although Em and her friends didn't stay at Playa Santispac the memory of the crystal clear water, white sand beaches, and camping opportunities remained embedded in her cranium.
Our first day of driving went smoothly. We were absolutely giddy to be able to fly through the bay area including the usually stop and go traffic when 580 meets 680 in Dublin/Pleasanton. High winds and moderate rain prevailed during the first few hours on interstate 5 and after getting gas and attempting to get back on the freeway we had to go around a tumbleweed that was larger than our car! Approaching the border near dusk we had three concerns, all of which turned out to be unwarranted. First, we were not sure if we would be able to buy the required Mexican auto insurance just north of the border given that it was: late, a Sunday, and New Year's Day. As it turns out, just north of the border many companies are open 24 hours a day. Secondly we were unsure how we would pay for the tolls just south of the border, not having had time to exchange money. Once again this was not an issue as the tolls could be paid with dollars. Finally I wondered how we would get pesos late a night and worried about using an ATM on a dark unknown street. This too was a non issue as we were able to use a well lit ATM directly after paying at the second or third toll.
With insurance and pesos we stopped in Ensenada for superb $1 fish tacos, not unexpectedly at a stand Em had been to before, and then drove until we saw a hotel in the middle of nowhere at 9 pm.
We both slept well and were up before dawn, hitting the road at 5:30 am driving 525 miles. The maximum speed limit was 80 km/hr but we spend a great deal of time at 80 miles/hr. 299 miles from the border, we stopped for a decent but expensive sit down breakfast in Catavina. In Guerrero Negro we had to hand over our fruit, had our car sprayed for fruit flies, and had to fill our forms that we would later have to take to a bank and pay ~ $20 each to have stamped in order to pass the checkpoint during our trip north. In Santa Rosalia, just 38 mile from Mulege, we stopped at the towns famous bakery and loaded up but found it somewhat wanting.
At 3:30 pm we reach Playa Santispac and found that much had changed in 10 years. Before, the beach was dotted with a few RV's and tents but now, just 30 feet from the water, the gringo's RV's were lined up, forming and impenetrable wall across the entire beach. Additionally, many of the RV's were supplemented with temporary living structures made from local wood and palm fronds, although given that some of these structures were two stories high and had glass windows so I'm not sure that temporary was the right word. Additionally, the tide was low, revealing a less than desirable beach, the water was not very clear, and the sand was dirty.
Somewhat in shock, we walked along the beach, past the portable homes of the happy Americans, deciding what to do next when we were accosted by Padilla, a small Mexican man who was trying to sell us hammocks and other wares from his beat up minivan. In broken English and Spanish we had a nice conversation and he suggested that we try driving a bit further south, to Playa Los Cocos, where he knew a nice "palapa" was waiting for us. We jumped at the bit of local knowledge and soon found ourselves inspecting our shelter for the next 4 days.
The palapa was a structure with two walls and one roof that was about 7 feet high facing the sea, 6 feet high at the back, and about 10' x 10' in plan area. This was about what we expected and would provide a nice place for us to pitch our tent and spend the next several days. Unlike Santispac, at Los Cocos all six of the palapas were at the south end of the beach while the RV's were at the north end. There is nothing worse than "roughing it" next to an RV. The palapa was the only one remaining of about 6, just a Padilla had told us. Our neighbor to the right was a tent camper, just as we would be, but the one to the left appeared to lack the funds to be an RV'er and instead made it up by bringing everything in a car, including a radio. As we further inspected the palapa we found quite a bit of trash, found the sand to be dirty, and the water to be less than desirable. Once again, we hit the road but before settling on a $35/night hotel in Mulege we tried several more beach campsites but to no avail.
After showering under the lowest water pressure stream I have ever experienced (it was difficult to feel the water on your skin) we walked into town under the night sky to look for dinner. The walk took about 25 minutes each way but since we had been in the car for almost 12 hours Em humored me. Once in town we checked out two restaurants and promptly walked out of both of them as they filled with gringos and featured televisions blaring ESPN. After looking into other dining options we walked all the way back to the hotel and then drove away from town to a restaurant on the sea recommended by the hotel. After being seated we looked at the menus and then once again walked out due to high prices and our expectation of mediocre food. Back in the car, we drove into Mulege and plunked our selves down into stools at a hot dog stand across from the Pemex (gas) station and devoured two bacon wrapped hot dogs each, personally prepared by the very large and surly Bertha. We both agreed that the dogs were the best, being covered with tomatoes, chili's, green onions, and cream. After two I was quite full but Em still regrets not getting a third. During our time at the bar we spoke in broken Spanish with Bertha and the other locals who turned up to get hot dogs of their own.
With full bellies we walked around the quaint town of Mulege, poking in and out of the stores that were still open but pretty much deserted at this time of night. At one store we struck up a conversation with Pancho who was duly impressed with Em's Spanish skills and told us of the time he spent as a student in the US.
We weren't quite sure what we wanted to do today but after getting food from a panaderia and seeing Mulege during daylight hours we decided that the Baja trip just wasn't meant to be and headed north. We stopped for lunch at a roadside truck selling tamales and then again for dinner in Ensenada. We had some so-so ceviche and the biggest shrimp coctel, but the most delicious sauteed squid and octopus al mojo de ajo. 789 miles later, at 11:30 pm we pulled up in the driveway of Em's parents house in Rowland Heights. The drive back was long but quite spectacular. Indeed, all of the photos below were taken during the drive home. Our only mishap was somehow getting lost in TJ to such an extent that we crossed the border not into San Ysidro but rather at Otay Mesa, 6 miles east. If not for a 7-Eleven Super Big Gulp purchased in San Diego we would have been hard pressed to make it.
Days 4 to 7
For the next few days we relaxed in Rowland Heights and then we drove to Annie and Bill's house in Rancho Mirage (Palm Springs) for a couple days sunning/loafing in their beautiful home on the second green of the Mission Hills golf course with spectacular views of Mt. San Jacinto. Saturday afternoon we drove back to Rowland Heights, and had dinner at the best sushi restaurant ever (Sushi Koyo in Diamond Bar) with Chef Hiro. We love this restaurant because he has signs that say "We do not serve rainbow roll or crunchy roll or teriyaki bowls here. Only traditional Japanese sushi." Plus, Chef Hiro is a total character. He will often make fun of everyone or lie uncontrollably and just when someone gets uncomfortable or questions what he just said, he'll throw his head back and laugh raucously.
Early Sunday morning we headed back to Berkeley. As we parked the car the trip meter read 2628 miles.
The Playa Santispac of my youth is gone and it makes me sad. What was once a pristine beach is now a horrible RV park for wintering gringos. I was tempted to just be mad at the RVers for ruining my paradise, but on further thought, I guess they have a right to go where they want. They've created a little U.S. in Mexico by bringing their giant RVs and staying in their rather insular RV community. From what we saw, they interact very little with the surrounding host community apart from buying gas and getting food. Even when they go out, the places they go are all ex-pat bars and restaurants. When we go to another country, we don't want the tourist experience and we certainly don't want to hang out with a bunch of other gringos. If we did, we'd just stay in Gringoland! Uh... I meant the U.S. I had an epiphany on the drive home. The difference between us and the RVers is in the mentality of travelling; that they take their homes with them wherever they go and WE try to make ourselves at home wherever we go.
One other thing.... The Lonely Planet Guide to Baja is not very helpful. Neither is the Foghorn Guide. All of them steered us towards expensive, gringo establishments for eating and sleeping. We did much better and had better experiences when we went off book and just chanced it at local eateries and motels. So the question is, is there a guide to Baja like Rick Steve's Guides to Europe? Real insider's guides?
Ay dios mio! Hay vacas en la calle! Baja guide books warn motorists against driving at night due to the cows. We saw many wild cows, donkeys, and horses along the road but on only one occasion did we have to avoid one on the road.
The cows just north of Santa Rosalia were kind enough to pose for our picture.
No caption required.
Between El Rosario and Guerrero Negro is a 224-mile stretch of desert and not much else. It is quite beautiful and has unexpected features such as seemingly random rock piles. We zoomed through this part of Baja with the cruise control set at 80 miles/hr, just a wee bit over the 80 km/hr limit.
Most of rocks were really big piles of smaller rocks, but not always, as this picture shows.
Is it a cactus or a tree? I'm not sure.
This is a cactus. It is huge but not especially large for this area.
Em and the beautiful skies of Baja. Or is it beautiful Em and the skies of Baja...
Volcanoes! Traffic was light enough that to take pictures we could pose on the road. The hard part was pulling off the road since it doesn't have shoulders and sometimes the drop offs are quite severe.
Heading north we, along with everyone else, had our car searched for drugs and guns. The photos on this billboard show some of the more ingenious ways that people had hidden their illegal goods.
We didn't get to relax on a beach in Baja but Palm Springs wasn't a bad plan B!
On our last night in Rowland Heights we ate sushi and drank sake. Em's mom and I had a bit too much. Hiro was attending to our sushi and was pretty funny. He would make fun of his customers and then after several seconds of uncomfortable silence he would bellow in laughter.