Seven weeks of overland travel in the Baja States of Mexico (Baja California and Baja California Sur) and we live to tell the tale. It has been an interesting experience…
Pros: friendly people, sunny warm weather, beaches, cheap beer, killer margaritas, stroking grey whales, vineyard tours, laid-back atmosphere, sunrises, sunsets, warm ocean waters, sea turtles, bougainvillea, natural hot springs, highway 19, Todos Santos, Cabo Pulmo, Bahai de Concepción, snorkelling, free camping, good medical services…
Cons: potholes, most plumbing, poor internet, incessant sand, early and long evenings, lack of signage, American dollar pricing.
As this was our first overland trip, we decided to join a caravan (Baja Winters). This group of 9 RVs (4 from Canada) plus a wagon master and tail gunner met near San Diego and got our immigration papers together a couple of days prior, our auto insurance, and organized things like water filters, CB radios (Stuart’s dream come true – “Silver Fox” was our handle), and any food items that would be difficult to obtain down south. We crossed at Tecate and spent the first 10 days together on an pre-arranged agenda. Once we reached Los Barilles, we were all on our own time for 26 days. Then we met up at Mulegé for a 4-night tour back to Tecate. For us, it represented the perfect combination of group time and solo time and we learned all the ins and outs of overland travel. For example, in the Baja, one uses their left turn signal not to turn left, but rather, to indicate to drivers from behind when it is safe to overtake. This is rather important on a 1900-km road that is mostly narrow single lane through mostly mountainous terrain.
So…the driving. Driving the Baja peninsula in 2017 is a walk in the park compared to even 10 years ago. Highway 1 is “paved” all the way, and massive road and bridge building continues to modernize sections of both Baja California and Baja California Sur. But driving here is very different than it is at home. One must basically plan for twice as long to cover half the distance as north of the border. Most of the route is a mere 18 feet wide (9 feet per lane) with no shoulders, crumbling edges, and potholes galore (where the “fix” is to fill them repeatedly with sand!).
Then there’s the topes (“tow-pay”aka “sleeping policemen”)–essentially speed bumps of various sizes, seemingly randomly placed (although one can predict with time, such as through towns or near bus stops) and often unmarked. It is more than a little ironic that all along the route, the mechanics are set up just beyond the topes. The road and bridge works also mean several detours when a side road is created from dirt or sand that mean gingerly negotiating steep, rutted, uneven sections.
Then there’s the mountains, which are ubiquitous, but involve high and steep winding sections where we hold our breath when two 18-wheelers pass each other or pass by larger motorhomes. Apparently, there are many side mirrors shorn off.
Next, there are the cities which might have the best roads, like La Paz or the worst roads, like Ensenada (lack of maintenance) with the traffic making for extremely slow passage. Even where there are great roads, like in the Cabos corridor, the roads that branch off are usually dirt, so entering and exiting the pavement may be at best challenging and at worst dangerous. Lastly, there are the dirt roads, which theoretically come in 3 types or levels: type 1 is an improved and graded dirt road, drivable by any vehicle except perhaps after a storm (and in reality, when it hasn’t been graded in a long time…); type 2 is rougher and recommended for 4WD high clearance vehicles; and type 3, well this is hardly a road but rather a rocky track designed for the overland drivers who relish the thought of a bone-rattling, kidney-bruising “fun run” in a stripped down and highly modified dune buggy type vehicle. As a rule, one only drives in Mexico in the daytime, which we previously thought was mainly for reasons of personal safety (e.g. road banditos), however, in reality, this rule is so that you are not caught on invisible potholes and topes, or meeting cows on the road at night (but can happen at 10 a.m. too).
And this is what happens to dirt roads following a rain…
About cycling…we found our bikes very useful for riding around campgrounds and around the towns where we stayed a while, with a few outings along the way. However, we quickly put aside our original idea to do a multi-day cycle tour in the Cabos area. With today’s heavy traffic, one-lane roads with no shoulders, steep drop-offs, and potholes, it would have been dangerous and more stressful than we wanted. We saw only a handful of people travelling by bicycle even though this time would be the best for weather. Particularly challenging, and a new kind of riding for us, were excursions on “improved” dirt roads that were really roads of sand. Imagine (or actually try) riding your bike on a beach and feel the awesome leg workout you will get. See how far you get in an hour while trying to stay upright. On the other hand, our bikes were perfect for getting around Loreto, taking our laundry to be done in Guerrero Negro, or getting groceries/beer in Los Barilles.
Mexican Wine: not an oxymoron. The wine business in Baja is booming. While the wine making started out as family businesses in the 1920s (actually the missions introduced vineyards in the 1700s and 1800s, as seems to be the case globally), a recent influx of investment from California has seen the wine region grow to about 170 wineries. There is a nice, new wine information centre and looking out the window we could have sworn we were in the Okanagan. And the wine is really good! and cheap (e.g. a reserve cab-sauv for less than US$10). We did 2 wine tastings, one at each end of the trip, with the final one where we camped in the winery itself and included a wine-tasting while touring the vineyard in a tractor-pulled truck and a “sensory” wine experience in the cave where we compared and self-blended two wines that were identical except for the French oak barrels coming from different parts of France. Interesting. (First row of photos is from L.A. Cetto, the second row from Santo Tomás, 2 different wine valleys). For Stuart, both experiences constituted research for work.
Whales: from December to March, the nursery for the grey whales is the lagoons of Guerrero Negro, where not incidentally, the major industry is sea salt production (industrial and table). The grey whales both mate and have their babies in these shallow, high-salinity lagoons where they are protected before they migrate up to Alaska for summer. We felt so very fortunate to have gone on a “whale-petting” tour where the whales (numbering over 1700 in this lagoon) are social and curious such that they come right up to the boats for stroking. It was an unbelievable experience which we would do again and recommend.
Mountain Experiences: Cataviña, San Ignacio, San Javier, Agua Caliente, Miraflores offered up experiences of local hospitality, historical missions, oases, artisanal crafts, and little-known backroads villages. Michaela was very happy with asking for and receiving directions using her limited Spanish in order to find our way back to the highway to Los Cabos. Driving through the high plains included learning about the various cacti (some of the 500 species only grow in very limited areas) and about the ancient rock paintings that are not yet fully understood here, but are probably from ancient Indian tribes of which 3 have been identified in the Baja (they were nomadic before the missions came).
Beautiful Bahia de Concepción: one of the most beautiful bays in the Baja, on the Sea of Cortez. Lots of RVs (especially Canadians, and especially from B.C.) set up camp for the season on one of the beaches, building their palapas or shelters around their rigs. Dry camping means being able to live cheaply ($5/night) and you go into town (Mulegé) for supplies and internet while the shrimp seller, propane and honey trucks make the rounds weekly. Some of the beaches have a restaurant making it easy to obtain good and inexpensive food and drinks. The bay is calm making it particularly attractive to kayakers, SUPs, and small boats. Others come to this area and don’t go further–they buy a house or cabin, as one couple in our travel group did last year.
El Requeson Beach
Loreto: a lovely city that is historical (centred around it’s old mission) and very well-maintained. Loreto has recently become a destination for cruise ships so there is increasing development along it’s shore with golf course resorts and condominiums being added. Once again, RV parks are disappearing and the remaining ones are often full. We stayed in an urban RV park that made it easy to ride our bikes a few blocks into the plaza and pedestrian area the is ringed with restaurants and shops and is filled with locals and tourists alike. There is also the Missions Museum where one can learn about the history of the missions and unfortunately, the decline of the indigenous peoples of Baja. We hope Loreto can maintain it’s charm in the face of development, but some are already lamenting the losses that come with tourism while trying to position themselves to meet the demands.
Los Barriles & East Cape: Los Barriles is the provisions centre for the vast area known as East Cape. A tiny place that is known as the “kite-boarding” capital (indeed the King of Wind competition was on while we were there) and a good centre for off-road fun (the Baja 300 went through while we there). It has also become a magnet for those who want to escape the touristy centres of Los Cabos, with American and Canadian ex-pats (full and part-time) constituting more than half the population. Ex-pats either buy a house or condo, or more popularly, they “rent” a camping site on a long-term lease and build up around a permanently parked RV. Los Barriles is a fully-functioning town with schools, day spas, restaurants and bars, coffee shops, thrift stores, groceries, a Montessori preschool, a weekly food and craft market, and a medical clinic that Michaela took advantage of to treat bronchitis. It also still has only one paved road meaning that cows and dogs commonly roam throughout. Of course, similar to Bahai de Concepción, the sunrises are rather spectacular.
There has been much controversy over the past decade in light of an on-again off-again proposal for a large scale luxury development south of town, on the edge of the marine preserve near Cabo Pulmo, the size of which would rival Cabo San Lucas. It is currently off-again as largely, such development would drain the entire region’s water, which the locals are struggling to get. Everywhere in Baja, actually, we saw the slogan “el aqua es vida” so this is a very real issue. The gringos can afford to buy water licenses to re-sell at rates the locals simply cannot afford. (Resorts in Los Cabos must now have their own de-salination systems to provide water). Cabo Pulmo, which is still only accessible by a dirt road, gave us a glimpse into the “old Baja” as the whole area was before the road to Cabos was paved. Cabo Pulmo only has about 150 residents, but 7 dive shops. This is due to the community deciding to trade in their traditionally fishing for eco-tourism with the establishment of the National Marine Park in the mid-1990s. A wonderfully quiet place to really get away, but with several sports bars if you need that (the Superbowl was on!).
San José del Cabo and Cabo San Lucas (aka Los Cabos): as Clyde and Denise were on vacation in Los Cabos, we took the opportunity to stay in their resort for 3 days (the booking of which was a feat that would take another entire conversation). So Van Gogh was parked at the resort because the campgrounds, with the exception of one last holdout (which we only learned of later) have progressively disappeared. The RV parks have been slowly sold to developers as the entire corridor continues it’s journey to wall-to-wall luxury resorts and condos.
Apart from some beach time and evenings of rummy games in the lobby bar, we took the local bus to Cabo San Lucas, then a boat out to Land’s End with some beach time where you can go into the Gulf side and the Pacific side just a few metres apart (aka Lover’s Beach and Divorce Beach)…
…and an evening in the historic Mission plaza of San José during the weekly Art Walk and where we celebrated Denise’s birthday over dinner in a lovely courtyard restaurant…
…and drove up to Cerritos beach for a dip in the Pacific ocean surf and the most spectacular sunset from a rocky point over wine and cheese and topped off by spotting whales and pelicans below…
When Stuart insisted one morning that we go for a walk on the beach to see sunrise, we were well rewarded with not only a great sunrise, but witnessing a sea turtle lay eggs in the sand by the estuary (separates Los Cabos from East Cape).
Todos Santos: long a favourite for surfers and ex-pats, and having been repeatedly told that we must visit, we were fully prepared to dislike TD as probably kitschy. Very quickly, this became our favourite place on the Baja–where we could envision spending several months at a time. TD is a small mission town that is known as the artists’ town. Located just north of Cerritos beach, it draws not only artists but surfers and wellness seekers. It is located about a mile inland from the beach, has only a few paved streets, and offers fresh fruits and veggies in local stalls, art studios galore, lovely boutique hotels and a broad range of restaurants, a well-known English bookstore, a Mexican street market, an awesome yoga studio, and one tiny, old-style campground tucked behind the town’s little baseball stadium. Many days, there are groups of tourists from the Cabos cruise ships and we expect that this keeps the town prosperous. Once you find beach access at the end of little sand roads below the main town centre, you can walk for miles and miles with seeing nary a soul.
Additional random Baja moments included street food (like fish tacos and fresh coconuts), border crossing logistics, the numerous military and police checkpoints and searches (we honestly don’t understand the need for a wall given the high military border presence on both sides), flowers, collecting the affection of local stray dogs, making margaritas (a little differently each time), the Tropic of Cancer monument, playing (almost) daily games of scrabble and cards, collecting sand dollars and sea shells, and reaching 100,000km on the van somewhere around La Paz (the first time).
We enjoyed our time so much that we decided not to go back into the U.S. with the group (a few of which already jumped ship at Guerrero Negro). So we veered off on Highway 2 at Tecate and headed east into the state of Sonora. You’ll have to wait for the next post, which will be much briefer, about Puerto Peñasco.