Baja, 1st to 7th January 2006
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
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.
Sunday morning we headed back to Berkeley. As we parked the car the trip meter read 2628
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
|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
|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
about the plant on the left but I do know that the cactus on the
right was huge and not even unusually large.
|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.
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