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Baja is Real

Welcome to our second letter, which finds Dave and Whitney happily stranded in a beautiful apartment in La Paz, due to a ferry strike. We’ve been in Baja for exactly one month, and we hope to take the ferry soon to mainland Mexico, a.k.a. “The Real Mexico”.

Baja is a really great place; we’re both rather surprised how little we knew about this huge, isolated, relatively cheap natural playground that’s only a two day drive from San Francisco. As we’ve driven further south, the weather has become much warmer– not yet tropical, even though we’ve crossed the Tropic of Cancer– the beaches are whiter, the water more azure. It’s starting to look a lot like paradise! The topography has completely changed, too: the mountains are huge, there’s vast desert plains covered with strange types of cactus that grow only here, relieved by the occasional palm oasis which invariably signifies “town” and “water” and “gasoline”.

Cabo San Lucas, at the southern tip of Baja, looks more like a tackier part of Arizona than Baja. But from what we’ve been told, Baja’s not exactly Mexico, either. It’s so remote from the mainland, and historically, the Mexican government didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to it until it became interested in promoting tourism in the area. The government is very much in evidence, though, at the five or six military checkpoints we’ve passed on the highway. A 19- or 20-year old kid with a big automatic rifle flags you down and asks, “Guns? Drugs?” No, we don’t have any. “What’s in there?” Clothing. “What’s in there?” Food. “Any whiskey?” (Since when is whiskey contraband?) No whiskey. (Disappointed look from kid with gun. I think it’s basically bad to disappoint a kid with a gun.) “OK, you can go”. Turns out, these checkpoints are part of a really serious effort to stem the flow of drugs from Colombia up through Mexico into the States. Seems that the Colombians have delegated the task of transporting the goods to the Mexican mafia, who run drugs across the Sea of Cortez in souped up pangas (fiberglass dories) with 200 h.p. outboard motors. We’ve seen big black helicopters combing the coastline near Loreto, apparently looking for these drug pangas.

Meanwhile, the shrimp trawlers drag the bottom of the Sea of Cortez daily, killing countless turtles, dolphins, sharks, manta rays and God knows what else, and wrecking the habitat. Everyone agrees that the sea is being decimated by commercial fishing, much of it illegal. We were told that fishing laws are enforced by the highway patrol, who have no boats. So the government isn’t THAT much in evidence.

For those who like maps and itineraries, here’s an overview of the route we’ve traveled in the past month (for those who hate detail, try control-alt-delete, [or for Macs, turn-it-off]): we crossed into Mexico via Tijuana, drove 100 miles along the Pacific Coast to Punta Banda just south of Ensenada, home of the “Bufadora” blow hole (quite cool), then made the long haul across the interior to Bahia de Los Angeles on the Gulf Coast, where we camped on the beach next to a fish shack at the “Archelon” sea turtle research project. (Here’s a mind-blowing little factoid: a loggerhead sea turtle released by the Archelon project was identified the next year in Japan. That’s a long swim.) We rattled back out to the main road and drove south to Scammon’s Lagoon on the Pacific coast, outside of Guerrero Negro (which is accurately described by a guidebook as “Kansas, with cactus”.) Scammon’s is one of three favorite birthing lagoons on the Pacific Coast for grey whales. They not only let you approach in a boat, these whales actually like to “play” with the boats. We hired a boat to take us out, and could have reached out and touched one of the big guys if we hadn’t been seized with paralysis while considering the implications of having a whale show you her barnacled belly.

We then headed inland across a huge desert plain towards San Ignacio, which is one of those beautiful palm-oasis type places, a welcome sight after all that scrubby desert. As we wrote before, we blew up our shocks on a rocky road out to the Pacific to see the REALLY friendly whales at Laguna San Ignacio, the ones that like to “hug” and have their bellies scratched. We limped back to San Ignacio, then onward to Santa Rosalia (we’re on the Gulf again), where we spent a few days practicing our automotive Spanish (can you say, “amortiguadores del diablo?”). Then south along the coast to Mulege, a charming town, where we camped on a public beach bordered by the Sea of Cortez on one side, and a river-fed lagoon on the other. This is where we first saw what looked like a spotlight in the sky, or maybe a funny smear of stars, which we learned later was The Comet.

This is where we left off in our last newsletter, for those of you (like our mothers) who keep close track of our Last Known Whereabouts.

We’ve had only one “deadline” during the trip: we had to be in Loreto for a sea kayaking trip we’d booked from home. The idea of sea kayaking in Baja in March was the genesis of this whole adventure: since kayaking in Alaska last August, we’d been musing about Baja, and that was the seed for what is turning into our Central American odyssey. We were starting to enjoy the pace of our traveling, so it was at first hard to leave our van (sniff!) and follow a set itinerary, but the group was great and it was time to get into some back country where our car couldn’t go. During our trip, the comet grew brighter each night, we saw whales (finbacks, which are as long as blue whales, and maybe some Minkes), ospreys, blue-footed boobies (apparently we can die now… blue-footed boobies are the ultimate goal of the bird-watcher), sea lions, etc. We camped on the beaches, and while Whitney overcame her fear of scorpions, Dave was mostly paralysed by his fear of sand, (a.k.a. “Evil Sand”). In spite of being a couple a van-potatoes, we were able to keep up with the group, even though Whitney’s stroke “couldn’t stir a cup of coffee”. (Who would say such a thing?) Harumph. A real highlight for us was hearing the adventures of one of the guides, Darryl, and his family, who live in Baja half the year on a 41-foot sailboat, and spend the rest of the year near Banff, Alberta, running their whitewater rafting business. Darryl’s wife, Linda, does the home-schooling for their two teenage daughters when they’re not in school in Canada. Darryl is the kind of quietly competent guy who spearfishes dinner for 16, bringing in fish that you don’t even SEE in a day of snorkeling. Darryl and Linda have been virtually everywhere in Mexico by camper, boat or bike, and mentioned casually that they’d been to this or that place during their bike trip. To Guatemala. From Salt Lake City. Fifteen years ago, before real mountain bikes were even invented. “Oh”, said the aging dorks from the north.

An interesting Darryl-story: Darryl and Linda went to a circus in Mexico where they saw a two-headed girl (obviously fake) and another tasteful attraction, “Throw a Ball at a Negrito”. This poor black kid would shout obscenities at passers-by until they became so enraged they just had to pay the fee to throw a ball at him. Wow.

Moving right along (quick!): after the kayak trip, we headed south out of Loreto, and took a 70-mile dirt road that was at first pleasant and graded, then rough, then devolved to a depressed area among rocks. It is part of the route of the Baja 1000 back country race. As a result of this detour, we smashed the rubber bushings in one of our new shocks to smithereens, which created a bone-jarring metal-on-metal sound when traversing 35 more miles of washboard roads.

As a result of this little adventure, we had to blast south to La Paz in search of a mechanic. We haven’t had much trouble, we just keep having the same one over and over again: shock absorber hell. The bottom line is that a VW camper van is a very heavy vehicle that doesn’t take well to back country driving. The good news is that Dave has had ample opportunity to use his 2,000-piece Sears Craftsman He-Man Ratchet set, so we don’t feel stupid hauling it around Mexico anymore.

Mexican mechanics are generally very good. Most of all, they’re resourceful and they think outside the dotted lines. We heard a story about someone who had taken his RV to several different mechanics in the U.S. to clear the fuel line. Every time, the U.S. mechanics check to see if the fuel filter is clear. It is. But still, the RV’s not working. Takes it to a Mexican mechanic, who checks it and says “maybe there’s another fuel filter”. Another fuel filter? Crawls way up inside the engine. Sure enough, there’s another fuel filter, installed by a previous owner.

Another Mexican mechanic story. Guy hits a big rock going down a bad Mexican road. Rips the gas tank right out of the car, leaves it 10 feet behind him. Mexican guy wants to look under the hood. “No, no”, says the American, “the problem’s not under the hood, the problem is back there!” Mexican guy still wants to check under the hood. They pop the hood, Mexican guys rigs a hose to the carburetor, puts some gas in a jar, puts the hose in jar of gas, says to the American, “Hold this up high, out the window, like this”, and they drive off down the road, leaving the gas tank behind in the dust.

A couple we met on the kayak trip, Ed and Deb from McCall, Idaho, invited us to join them for a few days at a place they were staying near San Jose del Cabo, on the southern cape of Baja. After ANOTHER dirt road and ANOTHER set of crapped out bushings, we were ready for a change of venue. So we made our way to a subdivision of very impressive gringo beach houses 10 miles east of San Jose del Cabo, at Punta Gorda. The house where Ed and Deb were staying (owned by “Hobie” of Hobie Cat fame) is situated right on the edge of a bluff that overlooks the water. We spent the first day with binoculars glued to our faces, watching the whales go by, and we had the whale-watching experience of a lifetime when, right in front of the house and our disbelieving eyes, a couple of humpback whales began “breaching”, jumping straight up out of the water and flopping over on their sides.

We spent three days with Ed and Deb, and felt really grateful and fortunate that they offered to share this beautiful house with us. We moved up the coast with the intention of finding a place to lie low for “Semana Santa”, the Easter holiday week, when the Mexicans move their large families to the beach, set up huge encampments, and party for a week. We passed beautiful beach after beautiful beach, then installed ourselves for the next four days on a bluff just south of Cabo Pulmo. Cabo Pulmo is a pretty cove with a dive shop and three restaurants, as well as one of only three live coral reefs on the Pacific Coast (the other two are in Costa Rica and Panama). The snorkeling was the best we’ve had, the village was an easy walk down the beach, and we shared our bluff with only a few other low-key camper folks.

Next stop was Todos Santos, to the north of Cabo San Lucas. Todos Santos is a charming, quiet little town which more and more Americans are discovering, creating a small but impressive boom in real estate. We love Todos Santos. In fact, Dave liked it so much that he spent most of the few days we were there questioning every gringo we met about the prospect of buying land there, and even entertaining the idea of asking a broker to take us around. We spent hours sitting in front of cafes listening to people’s stories about how they’d come to Todos Santos, and why they stayed, and we really liked what we heard.

We left Todos Santos and drove north along the coast a bit, got a little lost, and found an isolated place between the shore and the desert to make camp for a couple of nights. Our friend Lori had given us a killer yoga workout tape, and we decided to give it a try. Only two cars had passed by all day, so we laid out a mat and started the tape, and just when we’d get in some funky position with our legs wrapped behind our ears, we’d hear a car coming. While the car passed, we stood there casually like we were talking, then jumped back to the position as soon they were gone. It was pretty funny.

We headed to La Paz, a highlight was swimming with the sea lions at a small island, Los Islotes. A colony of maybe 50 to 75 sea lions (in Spanish, they’re called lobos marinos, or sea wolves) greeted our little panga enthusiastically, jumping into the water when we arrived. We jumped in the water, too, and Dave really whipped the younger ones into a frenzy by doing flips and turns in the water. One of them got so excited he jumped right over Dave a few times. They would imitate what you did, just like dogs. A favorite trick was to swim upside down on your back, so that a sea lion would swim upside down on his back, looking you right in the eye. They like to swim straight for your mask at full speed and then veer off when they’re just inches from you. The rough ones like to open their mouth at the last second like they’re going to bite, but they’ve never bitten anyone (who’s lived to tell about it, anyway). It was a heart-stopper, especially when the massive bull jumped in the water to check on things.

We have found a wonderful, inexpensive place in La Paz called “Las Palmas” where we’ve rented a small apartment with a veranda for the budget-busting amount of $25 per night. This kind of blows our $30 per day allowance, but we can’t leave, we like it so much. The other reason we can’t leave is because the ferry to the mainland is temporarily suspended due to a strike over fare increases. The ferry system is really a lifeline for Baja, which is more like an island than a peninsula. So we’re stuck in paradise.

Small World Episode of the week: we met a great couple, Bob and Spark, both kayak and whitewater outfitters who have traveled and floated all over the world. After two hours, 10 beef tacos, and four bowls of ice cream, Whitney remembered that she and Bob had met 10 years ago in Bettles, Alaska, north of the Arctic Circle. Bob has guided many trips in Guatemala, and gave us some great advice for our travels there. We’re also staying in contact via e-mail.

As we’ve traveled, we’ve learned a lot from other travelers about places that lie ahead, and more of our trip is starting to take shape. We’ll probably be in Mexico at least through August, sticking to the highlands during the summer rainy season. We’re very excited about visiting Guatemala and at least tentatively planning to continue south into Central America. Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, haven’t really come into focus yet. We’ve heard dreadful things from a few people about Belize, and basically decided to skip it until we read an article that explained that there are two types of people: those who despise and those who love Belize. So we may need to go there to find out which type of people we are. What started out as a three month trip keeps extending itself (as though we have no control over it!) It seems unlikely that we’ll be home before Christmas.

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