Mexico: Baja

Okay, we tried to get caught up, but Baja was so great we couldn't wait. We'll get back to the West Coast at some point.

Here we go!

After days of pumping ourselves up for our big day: all necessary paperwork in order, passports accessible, tank full of gas, we were finally ready to go to Mexico! Crossing the border into Baja was both easy and complicated. As we passed through the border zone at Tecate (not Tijuana, because that place is scary), a patrol officer simply waved us through. That's it. No passport check. No vehicle inspection. Nothing. That was the easy part.

Luckily, we knew that we needed Temporary Vehicle Import documents and a tourist visa since we were going to mainland Mexico. So we circled a few blocks before finding a nice older man in a uniform and asked him where we go for such things. He moved a few construction cones and insisted we park there, that he would watch our jeep and gave us directions to the Immigration Office.

Here’s how it goes: First, you have to go to the Customs office or “Aduana” to complete the application for a tourist visa. Then take that paperwork to the “Banjiercito”, kind of a bank (it’s a walk-up window to the right of the customs office) to purchase said visa. THEN take that receipt back to Aduana as proof that you paid and receive the visa and stamp in your passport. THEN take that information back to the bank and apply for your Temporary Vehicle Import Permit (TVIP). Walk 4 blocks to the nearest ATM to get cash (Yes, it’s a bank. No, they don’t have any ATM). Then, you have to walk down to the corner store to get copies of some of the papers they have just given you, your registration, and passports. The TVIP is just a way for the country to insure that you’re not trying to sell your vehicle while you’re in town. All together it cost us around $468, $400 of which we will get back once we leave Mexico.

Things were going fairly smoothly until just before we received our TVIP. After asking about our travel plans, the gentleman working at the bank left the walk up window and returned with a young lady who spoke very good English. With a stern tone, she warned us that we shouldn’t go past Ensenada, that we should turn around and either head back to the U.S. or take a mainland route into Mexico. “It’s not safe”, she said. That’s it, no further explanation.

We found out roughly two weeks before crossing the border that Baja had suffered one of it’s worst hurricanes in history. Odiel ripped through southern Baja, tearing down structures and dumping rain across the desert, flooding small towns and destroying tourism. Crime was obviously high due to the fallout. Looting, etc. However, we had ‘on the ground’ info from a couple who were traveling in Baja just a week or two ahead of us, that everything is getting cleaned up and the roads are passable.

So we took a second to think about it, and decided to cross the border and head to Ensenada. We could always turn around and take another route if necessary, but we needed some time to think. A beer or two would help.

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Once we got to Clam Shell Beach Campground (they have internet, flush toilets, showers), a recommendation from our online friends who were traveling ahead of us (check them out at ourcanvascastle on instagram), we calmed our nerves by swimming in the ocean and reminding ourselves that this is part of the adventure. We can’t control the weather; we just have to be smart. So we stayed a few days at Clam Shell beach and made a tentative plan.

Had dinner at La Fonda near Alisitas and watched dolphins play in the waves. Visited Rosalito and had the best fish tacos yet in Ensenada.

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After a few days at Clam Shell beach, we felt confident enough to proceed further into Baja. Headed east on highway 3 to Mikes Sky Ranch, a legendary Overlander’s hang out and a must see for anyone running the Baja 500/1000. A dirt road leading out into the middle of nowhere was the first of the big time off-roading we were hoping to do in Baja. The drive was fun, but unfortunately for us, it was a Sunday and Mike’s was totally empty. The bar wasn’t even open. So, we pressed on to San Felipe and found a tiny little slice of Margaritaville Heaven at Pete’s Camp.

We pulled in late, of course, and had a drink at the bar. Within minutes, most of the locals (mostly ex-patriots, retired and living out their days neck deep in a glass of tequila) were our new best friends. Pete’s offers hot showers, cheap camping and flush toilets. Not to mention the tiki bar and restaurant serving up mediocre food and stiff drinks. We felt like a couple of cheeseburgers in paradise.

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We heard that there was a new storm moving in, a hurricane called Simon that would eventually turn into a tropical depression by the time it hit San Felipe, so we decided to wait it out at Pete’s.

The most interesting thing about this section of the Sea of Cortez (aside from the fact that somehow it draws tourists) was the tide. When it goes out, it goes way out. Like, a half mile. So if you want to swim, you do it at noon or not at all.

We were still feeling a bit of trepidation about heading south into Baja. We heard reports of tourists being mugged, windows smashed, etc. But we met a couple of wonderful ladies who gave us some much needed encouragement and even a few recommendations on sights to see along the way. As soon as the storm passed, we were back on the road.

Next stop: Bahia San Luis Gonzaga (Gonzaga Bay). They say it used to take nearly eight hours to get to Gonzaga Bay from San Felipe, but now the road is mostly paved, so it only took us about two and a half hours. Not much to this beach aside from a few palapas you can rent for $10 a night, a market that has a surprisingly good beer selection (IPAs!) and a restaurant that sells no booze at all. The pit toilets were pretty terrible and the recent rains made the sandy entrance a bit messy. Other than that, the water was pretty and warm. There we ran into Carl and Kathleen, a couple traveling to Tierra del Fuego from Washington on an adventure motorcycle.

We were all headed to Coco’s Corner (another mainstay in middle of nowhere Baja) in the morning, and knew that the dirt road that lead there was probably a mess, so we offered to lighten their load by stashing nearly all of their gear in our jeep.

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The dirt road to Coco’s corner was not as bad as anticipated, but still bad enough to be fun. We weren’t really sure what to expect at Coco’s because all of the descriptions we had read seemed to be intentionally vague. We’ll try our best to describe what to expect if you ever find yourself rolling into Coco’s Corner.

Coco is probably in his late 60’s to early 70’s, legless from about the knees down, and a bit strange. Legend has it, that he wheeled himself out into the desert in a wheelchair about 35 years ago and that’s where he’s been ever since. Coco’s Corner is little more that a shack with a covered patio and various junk/art scattered around. We found Coco manning the counter in front of a refrigerator stocked with beer and sodas for sale. That is about all there is to Coco’s corner. The covered patio has a large collection of panties hanging from the ceiling that he isn’t shy about asking ladies to contribute to, and if you are female, he will probably ask you to sit on his lap for a photo (the desert is a lonely place).

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A beer each, and some trail/road reports from Coco, and we were on our way.

Lunch in Guerro Negro, and then we pressed onward to San Ignacio. We had heard good things about San Ignacio and were excited to get there. We hit some traffic for road repairs just outside of Guerro Negro, and were getting dangerously close to breaking our no driving at night rule, but rolled into town right at sunset.

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We could tell instantly that San Ignacio wasn’t going to be the beautiful Oasis we had heard about. The town had been hit hard by the storm, and the rains had washed away the campgrounds and the bed and breakfast that was to be our Plan B…and it was getting dark.

While Brian was negotiating a price to park in the parking lot of a rather shady looking hotel, Carley spotted a Westy and a Ford Transit Connect pass by with some couples our age in the cockpit. It was obvious that they were also in search of somewhere to sleep, so we chased them down and asked if they minded us joining them just to have the added security of “safety in numbers”. They were glad to have us along and we all caravanned to “Rice and Beans” hotel and campground. In the Westy were Jason and Shaina from Washington State, and in the Ford, TJ and Joey from LA. In the otherwise empty bar at Rice and Beans we met Kara and her dog Coco from Canada. We all instantly became friends, swapped travel stores, drank all night, and had a blast!