I realize its taken us more than a month to get this blog up but good things are worth waiting for right? Enjoy.
We spent three weeks in and around Palm Springs in southern California while we were waiting for my cousin Jim to arrive from BC and it was finally time to head to the Baja. We left Palm Springs on December 8, the same day the part arrived for the bus and we finished fixing the coolant leak. We had to make a quick stop in San Diego at the BMW dealership to get Jim’s motorcycle repaired. On our way there the front suspension in the bus developed a knocking noise. Luckily it was only a loose shock mounting bolt and we were able to fix it quickly in the BMW dealership parking lot. That night we stayed in the Costco parking lot in Chula Vista, just south of San Diego and only 5 miles from the Mexican border. We planned to cross the border as early as possible the next morning.
Bright and early the next morning we headed south on I-5 towards Tijuana, making a quick stop so Jim could get Mexican car insurance (which is mandatory in Mexico). The Mexican border stations use a red light, green light system when you enter the country. If you get a green light you keep on driving no questions asked, but if you get a red light you stop for a routine inspection. We’re not sure whether we got a red light or a green light in all the chaos but we ended up in the inspection line anyway because we were following my cousin in his truck. After a very casual search by the Mexican border patrol, including an impromptu air guitar performance, we were officially in Mexico. We had to make one quick stop at the border office to buy our tourist cards and have our passports stamped (you need a tourist card if you’re staying in Mexico more than 72 hours).
Our plan for Mexico was to drive to Cabo San Lucas at the end of the Baja Peninsula and back again. My cousin goes to the Baja every winter and stays in Juncalito, a small village about two thirds of the way down the Baja on the Sea of Cortez side. We were planning on spending most of our time in Juncalito as well.
From the border we followed Jim along Mexico Highway 1 through Tijuana and along the wall that separates Mexico from the US. You don’t see much of Tijuana if you stay on the highway. It circles around the northwest corner of the city and out to the Pacific coast where it becomes 1D, a divided highway that heads south to the coastal city of Ensenada. By lunchtime we made it to Ensenada about 100 km south of Tijuana. We stopped near the waterfront and Jim whipped up some lunch for us in his camper while Sue and I took a walk down by the harbour to check out the cruise ships and the giant Mexican flag in the center of the square. After lunch we hit the Walmart at the south end of the city for some groceries and jumped back on the highway.
Our original plan was to stop for the night in the town of Santo Tomas about 100 km south of Ensenada but we got there earlier then expected and decided to continue on. For the next couple of hours we drove through a lot of small Mexican towns where the only paved road was the highway through the center of town. Mexico has an interesting way of controlling the speed of traffic on their roads. Instead of traffic lights and stop signs in many places they have topes, massive speed bumps so large you would leave half your car behind in the street if you hit them at full speed. Luckily most of them were well marked, but there was the odd one that snuck up on us. You have to keep a sharp eye on the road when you’re driving in Mexico.
It got dark before we had a chance to pull over for the evening and we were told by a few folks not to drive in Mexico at night. Luckily we had my cousin Jim to follow who is a six year veteran of the Baja. That night we camped in the parking lot of the La Pinta hotel near the town of San Quintin. Jim had stayed there on a few previous trips and knew it was a safe place to stay for the night. We asked the hotel security guard if it was okay and he said si. Later on that evening there was a knock at the camper door. It was the security guard. He asked us if we were planning on sleeping in our vehicles (apparently this wasn’t clear when we first spoke to him). We told him we were and a few minutes later he came back and told us we had to pay him $3 to camp for the night. Where the money was going was unclear but in any case 3 bucks was a steal for a safe place to camp. We paid him and all was good.
The next morning we got up early and took a walk down to the beach. After breakfast we drove back to Mexico Highway 1 passing some large greenhouse growing operations along the way. The area around San Quintin is an important agricultural area, especially for growing strawberries and tomatoes. After a couple hours of driving we stopped to get gas in El Rosario. The only gas stations you’ll find in Mexico are Pemex stations. Fuel in Mexico is government controlled and is the same price no matter where you go, and at roughly 0.60 cents per liter it’s a great price. While we were filling up a cute little stray dog wandered up to us. She had two puppies following her that she hid in the bushes near by. We didn’t have any meat to offer her so we gave her a few slices of bread instead. She disappeared with the first slice to give to her puppies, quickly wolfed down the next two and took off again with the fourth one. We never saw her after that but we named her Rosario after the name of the town.
From El Rosario the highway heads inland through the desert for several hundred kilometers with very few towns along the way and no gas. The vegetation changes quite drastically from here on in as well. There are cardon cacti which are the tallest cactus species in the world, fuzzy old man cactus and a plant called the boojum tree that we nick named the Mexican Christmas tree. The boojum looks like something out of a Dr. Seuss book. About an hour or so from El Rosario we pulled over for some lunch in a forest of cactus and giant sandstone boulders. Jim cooked us up some lunch in his camper while Sue and I explored the surrounding area.
The roads in Mexico weren’t as bad as we read. In fact they were quite good. The only scary part is that there is absolutely no shoulder and usually a six to twelve inch drop at the edge of the asphalt before you hit gravel. In some cases the drop can be much larger. Another thing that makes driving in Mexico interesting is the speed limit which seems to be more of a suggestion then anything else.
After lunch we drove for another hour or so until we reached the town of Guerrero Negro. Guerrero Negro is the last town on the Pacific side of the Baja before the highway heads east across the peninsula to the Sea of Cortez. It is also at the border between the state of Baja California and Baja California Sur. Just before town you go through an agricultural inspection station where you have to pay $10 pesos to have your vehicle sprayed with pesticide. Fun stuff. In Guerrero Negro we stopped for gas and groceries and ran into Jim’s friends from Holland who also spend their winters in the Baja. We were going to stay in town for the night but the camping was too expensive so we decided to continue on to San Ignacio where Jim knew there was free camping. As we headed out of town the sun was setting behind us. For the next two hours we followed Jim down Mexico 1 in the pitch black. There are no lights out in the desert to cause light pollution and it gets dark! Eventually we turned off the highway and drove down a side road that leads to the town of San Ignacio. Jim had stayed in this town on previous trips and knew where to park for the night. To our surprise he parked right in the town square. It was a Friday night and there were tons of people around wandering the streets. We were a bit worried about camping in such a noisy place but by the time we were done eating dinner you could hear a pin drop in the square.
The next morning we woke up to the sound of birds chirping. There was a man sweeping the square with a palm frond and Jim was making us scrambled eggs with fresh avocado on home made tortillas he bought in town that morning. San Ignacio is a palm oasis town with a fresh water lagoon. There is a Jesuit Mission in the town square that was built in the early 1700s and is still mostly original. After breakfast Sue and I explored the town and the mission before hitting the road once more.
From San Ignacio we got back on the highway and continued east across the Baja to the town of Santa Rosalia on the shore of the Sea of Cortez. Santa Rosalia was founded by a French company named El Boleo in 1884 who exploited copper mines in the area until 1954 when they shut down. They built houses made of wood instead of stone and installed the Santa Barbara parish, a metallic church building which is argued to have been designed by Gustave Eiffel. We visited a local bakery and bought some amazing pineapple tarts and had tacos de carne at a local taco stand. After touring around for a bit it was time to leave. On our way out of town we were following my cousin and he made a wrong turn down a one way street. All the locals were waving frantically trying to get our attention but we kept on going. At the end of the street a policeman was standing on the corner and gestured for my cousin to pull over. We thought that maybe he didn’t see us behind Jim so we drove around the block and waited for Jim to drive off. When he finally started to move we tried to sneak in behind him but the policeman waved at us to pull over. He got out his ticket book and started writing me an infracción de circulación o tráfico. After arguing Spanish to English with him for a several minutes I think he got frustrated and let us go. We said pedir perdón and were on our way once again. Just down the road we caught up to Jim who was filling his truck at the gas station.
From Santa Rosalia the highway more or less follows the coast of the Gulf of California (Sea of Cortez). The next town we drove through was Mulegé. Mulegé was badly damaged by tropical storm Jimena back in September. The storm came across the peninsula from the Pacific side and caused extensive flooding in the town. We didn’t stop on our way through south but could see the damaged buildings from the highway. The bridge where Highway 1 crosses the Mulegé River was not damaged that we could tell but the water line from the damage looked like it could have been as high as the bridge.
South of Mulegé the highway skirts the edge of the Bahía Concepción with its turquoise waters and white sand beaches. About 100km south of there is the town of Loreto and just south of Loreto another 25km is the village of Juncalito where we were staying. We rolled into Juncalito late afternoon on December 12. The road to the beach where we would be camping starts out as a dirt road but then ducks into an arroyo filled with large rocks. It was a bumpy ride but the bus made it no problem.
We planned to stay on the beach in Juncalito for a few weeks. After scouting out the beach for a place to camp, and getting the bus stuck in the sand twice, we found a nice spot and settled in.
For the next couple of weeks we explored the area around Juncalito. Juncalito is a beautiful little village nestled between the 5000 foot high mountains of the Sierra de la Giganta and Bahia Loreto on the Gulf of California. The land here like much of Baja is very rugged and covered in cactus and mesquite trees. Although it is considered desert it seemed like anything but desert. All the trees were green and all the cactus had new growth. There were all sorts of birds like hummingbirds, pelicans and vultures. One day we went hiking into a canyon in the mountains and it reminded me of prehistoric landscape. We had to crawl through narrow caves and wade through cold mountain streams as we climbed higher into the mountains. The view from the top was well worth the tough climb and after a freezing cold dip in the crystal clear water to cool us off we headed back down.
One morning in Juncalito my cousin came knocking on the bus at 6am to tell us there was a whale in the bay. We quickly jumped out of bed, threw some clothes on and went out to check it out. What we were expecting to see was a whale swimming far off shore. What we saw was a sick whale floating slowly towards shore in the waves. It ended up floating right up on shore about 100 feet from our campsite. We wanted to do something but felt totally helpless. Here was this 40 foot long, 20 ton whale being pounded by the surf and getting cut up on the rocks and there was nothing we could do. At one point I got in the water with the whale and attempted push it off the rocks and point it back out to sea. I don't know what I was thinking trying to push a 20 ton whale and after a few feeble attempts and fearing that the whale might roll over on me I gave up. A little while later someone on the beach used their cell phone to call the local park officials. After about an hour a dozen or so national park officials showed up and worked out a plan to get the whale off the beach. They decided to use ropes tied to boats to tow the animal off the beach. Another hour went by and four boats showed up. They tied ropes to the whale's tail and towed it slowly back out to sea. We hoped the whale wasn't too badly injured from being beached and it would survive. Unfortunately about four days later my cousin Jim spotted a white balloon-like object floating about 500 feet offshore. It was the whale. It had died and its bloated body was floating ashore. My cousin and a friend of his went out in his boat and towed the dead whale to a rock outcrop away from the beach.
A few days after the whale incident Sue and I decided to pack up and head further south to Los Cabos at the end of the Baja. We were planning on taking five days to make the round trip and be back in Juncalito on December 23 to celebrate Christmas with Jim. We packed up the bus and after getting some travel tips from Jim and some other folks on the beach we hit the road once again.
Just south of Juncalito Highway 1 heads west over the Sierra de la Giganta mountains where it again heads south to the city of La Paz. From La Paz the highway splits in two directions heading down both shores of Los Cabos to form a loop that ends in the resort town of Cabo San Lucas. We took the west route to head in a counter clockwise direction. The first major town south of La Paz is Todos Santos on the Pacific coast. Todos Santos is a well known surfing destination and is home to the famous Hotel California where the Eagles supposedly stayed while they wrote the lyrics for the album that bears its name (this was later dispelled).
After looking around Todos Santos for a place to park the bus for the night we decided to head just south to the surfing town of El Pescadero. We had an old travel guide from the early nineties that said there was a trailer park on the north side of town right on the ocean. We drove around El Pescadero for an hour or so and finally managed to find the spot where the park used to be. It had closed down years ago and all that was left was a sandy road leading to the ocean where a small group of surfers had set up camp. It was perfect. We pulled the bus up next to a fellow traveler from Colorado, cracked a cold one and watched the sunset over the Pacific.
The next morning we woke up to a beautiful sunrise over the mountains and surfers already in the water catching the early morning break. We spent the morning hanging around and watching the surfers before heading back to Todos Santos to explore.
Back in Todos Santos we went to visit the Hotel California where it was rumoured the Eagles wrote the lyrics to the song. We also did some souvenir shopping and headed to a local cafe for lunch and free wifi.
From Todos we got into the bus and headed for Cabos San Lucas at the southern tip of the Baja. Cabo is only 70 kilometers from Todos Santos but we new it was going to be a busy city and we wanted to leave plenty of time to find a place to camp.