Thursday, October 18, 2012

Poking Along Down Baja California (Norte)

This evening we arrived at Guerrero Negro, the first town south of the border of Baja California and Baja California Sur, about 500 miles south of San Diego.  

We drove on Mexico 1D – the cúota (a toll road) -- to Ensenada, where the well maintained divided toll road ends.  The toll from Tijuana to Ensenada (about 70 miles) was about $7.20.  Worth it if you can afford it, as we have since learned.

From Ensenada south we have been on Mexico 1, the free “highway” that runs the length of the Baja Peninsula.  This “highway” has been, for the most part, a well-marked, single lane road without shoulders.  The paving has been good in most places, and curves and entries into communities are clearly identified by long washboard sections of pavement and topes (speed bumps) that force drivers to slow down or risk some damage to their vehicles (and teeth)!  Further incentive to slow on the curves is provided by periodic road-side shrines in memory of those that have died on the road. 

Mexico 1 traverses flat desert, winds through desert mountains and passes through a variety of small towns, villages and dusty ranchos.  It passes huge agri-business farms; in some places giant plastic greenhouses stretch for a mile on either side of the road.  We have shared the road with farmworker transport buses and pick-ups rigged with over-the-cab-and-bed metal frames that allow for double-decked cargo.  These trucks should be the subject of “we’re the toughest truck in Mexico” advertisements. We followed one waddling truck loaded down with a mountain of used appliances that was – well, scary to follow!  Would we survive an avalanche of old refrigerators if the ties that held them to the frame proved defective, we wondered. . . ?

We have been stopped at several military check points – usually to undergo a cursory glance at our back seat, but on one occasion our trunk was searched (or at least the bags in our trunk were shuffled around).  Bryce got a nice compliment on his Spanish from one young officer.

At times, the drive has been tedious.  We have been kept alert by the washboard entries and exits from all the communities along the road, the excitement of passing truck and busses on a narrow road, and a book-on-CD of Morgan’s Run read by Tim Curry (thanks, Frank and Irene!).  There's nothing like "reading" about the establishment of the Australian penal colony in the 18th century to take the sting out of a hot and dusty drive!

As we have driven south, the towns have gotten smaller and dustier, and our accommodations less charming.  The restaurants have become somewhat less trustworthy and we have begun to remind ourselves to take paper with us to the banos.  We’re easing into life in the rural Baja mile by mile – so we’ll be ready to sail into the Gulfo de California (Sea of Cortez) when the time comes. 

DAY ONE – San Diego to Ensenada:  100-ish miles and 3 hours -- including stops for one last boat part in Chula Vista, California, customs and immigration. 

We entered Mexico using the “nothing to declare” lane, got a cursory inspection by the Mexican army (a 19 year-old in desert fatigues looked into our back seat with a stern expression on his face), and proceeded to drive right past the Mexican immigration office.  We must have lost sight of it in the sea of “buy your Mexican auto insurance here” signs that are one’s first welcome to Tijuana.  By the time we realized that the one-lane entry to the cúota was past the immigration office, we could see the giant Mexican flag waving in the distance, a maze of indecipherable highway overpasses separating us from where we should have gone.  The good news is that tourist cards are not required for Americans until Ensenada, and in Ensenada the immigration office was easy to find and easy to navigate, even though the officer was a bit grumpy (think of the reaction of the desk clerk at the California DMV when you say you’re there without an appointment . . .).

With our 180-day tourist cards in hand, we drove to Ensenada, and had lunch at the very quiet Estero Beach Hotel and Resort.  

The estuary from our room.

We walked the wall along the estero (estuary), watching people looking for clams and water fowl searching for yummy insects in the tidal flats, and some big fat seals swimming in the lowering tide.  

We walked through a really funky mobile home resort next to the hotel’s grounds.  Apparently, over the decades, owners have built around and added to their mobile homes (some that look as though they arrived in the 1960’s), and many of them now resemble beach casitas (little houses).  The resort is a fascinating study in the evolution of a community. 

A "mobile home casita".

One single-wide casita was for sale for $18,995 USD.  Life at a Mexican resort may be within your means regardless of how much you lost in the last real estate crash!

Yours for less than $20K USD!

Night comes to the estuary:  

DAY TWO – Ensenada to El Rosario:  150-ish miles and 4.5 hours - including stops for gas and lunch.  Gas cost about $3.60 a gallon - using the combination of a rough pesos-to-dollars conversion, and a liters-to-gallon conversion.

Reminiscent of travels on Abracadabra, we began this day with a weather check.  When we left San Diego Hurricane Paul was projected to generate high winds and heavy rains in the center of the Baja, but by this morning it was beginning to look like a non-entity.  We decided it looked good to leave Ensenada and head further south.

We stopped for a lunch that included “must have” smoked clams in San Quintin (very good).  Our night was spent at the Baja Cactus Hotel (recommended by fellow sailor Marlene Verdery of Damiana). 

The Baja Cactus

For the equivalent of $30 USD we had a clean, nicely decorated king bed room and bath.  The bathroom was "ripped from the pages" of Home and Garden Network.  The TV was uncannily similar to the one not a single thrift store in Sacramento would accept as a donation – big and boxy and completely functional.  

The Baja Cactus has the added benefit for road travelers of being next to a new Pemex station (Pemex is the Mexican national oil company).  Our only quarrel with the location was that from the door of our room we looked down on the gas storage for the Pemex station -- which abutted the wall of the room below ours!  

Dinner was at Mama Espinoza’s – a legendary stop along Mexico 1 enjoyed by the famous off-road Baja drivers (or so the signs there suggest): 

DAY THREE -- El Rosario to Guerrero Negro:  250-ish miles and 7 hours -- including a couple of photo ops, a soda break and lunch. 

After breakfast at Mama Espinoza’s we drove through some huge cactus “forests” - miles and miles of cacti, 25 feet high or more:  

 -- and the Riscal de Cataviña - a “boulder field” which looked like giants had cleared their fields and piled all the boulders together by the side of the road . . . for miles. 

Amazing sights.  Even so, we were ready to arrive at Guerrero Negro after winding our way through the heat and the dust at an average speed of about 40-miles an hour.  The road is not frightening, but it’s not a super-highway either – and we have agreed that it does not inspire a desire to drive at night or during bad weather. 

Guerrero Negro is a dusty strip of border town, and our hotel (Hotel Don Gus), though clean, isn’t very aesthetically pleasing.  Our room looks out on a muddy parking lot which suggests that our delay in Ensenada to track the progress of Hurricane Paul was a good idea.  The hurricane-generated rains we had heard about clearly visited central Baja - and seeped under the door of our room sopping the first foot or so of the indoor-outdoor carpeting (NOT aesthetically pleasing).  And did we mention that Mexico 1 is heavily signed for washout areas?  

Tomorrow we’re off to see some (we think) more picturesque towns.  We are looking forward to a couple of lovely churches and a night at Loreto.  More to come!


  1. Updated the map with your new travels (and I added routes and new icons!) ~Tara

  2. Molly & Bryce,
    I enjoyed reading your two day travelogue describing your trip to La Paz. I'm thinking the mobile home park in Ensenada might be a good place for me to end up in a few years.
    Enjoy your months of sailing.
    Mark Paxson