Baja California, Mexico: Our Entrance into the Baja Peninsula
"Have you ever been? Have you seen the recent news? Read the latest travel warnings? You’re bringing the boys? Be careful. I used to go to Baja back when it was safe, but now, I’ll never go again." These are just a few things people were saying to us before we left for Baja, Mexico. As I'm sure you can imagine, we were not totally psyched given all the "glowing" reviews. In fact, we were so nervous we almost threw our plans to visit out the window. Ultimately, we made the decision to go and are so thankful we didn't cave in to the fear.
Before leaving, it seemed nearly everyone we talked to had something negative to say about Baja. Were we going to be the only crazy tourists cruising up and down Mex-1, dodging bullets and running from drug lords? Where were all the Baja-lovers, I wondered. After having been, now I know the answer to that. They were already there. Bagging rays. Going on whale watching tours. Eating fresh fish tacos. And camping on the beaches packed with tons of other snowbirds. No bullets. No drugs. Just some happy and mostly repeat Baja-loving folks.
The first week felt somewhat rushed as we quickly caravanned our way through Baja California (Norte), the first “state” of Baja. We drove roughly 550 miles from the Tecate border crossing and south towards Baja California Sur that week. The scenery? It’s amazing. I don’t think I was quite prepared for the stunning valleys with layer upon layer of rolling hills as far as the eye can see. Or the desolate roads filled with thousands of cacti on either side, all of them desperately reaching straight up from the ground to worship the sun. The mountains too, they’re something to write home about. Mexico 1 (the main north/south artery through Baja) carves in and out, up and down through mountain ranges spanning the length of the entire Baja Peninsula.
About the main highway though, we realized it can be unexpectedly treacherous. Mex-1, which is just over 1,000 miles in length from Tijuana to Cabo, has no guardrails, no shoulders, many twists and turns, is one lane each way, and is known as one of the most dangerous roads in the world. There was one section we will never forget south of San Quintin, and if you've been then I'm sure you know exactly what I'm writing about. Picture vans dodging millions of potholes of all sizes for more than an hour of slow, painful driving. Eventually, they coalesce into one terrible road of patch and pothole that you realize provides no more dodging opportunities. That was enough to drive a man crazy. Chip’s ears were blowing fire and smoke out of them by the end (even after airing down the tires twice) as he exclaimed in a very grumpy tone “we’re going to see your whales, and then getting the hell out of here.”
I talked Chip off the ledge that day, and am happy to say that we fully enjoyed ourselves in Baja. He even agreed that the gray whale experience exceeded his expectations (more to come on that in a later post!). Each mile south has been better than the last. Each grand entrance into a bay is more stunning than the previous. Each campsite being our favorite until we hit the next. And the next Mexican meal consumed tops the one before. I can't put my finger on what it is exactly because it's intangible but Baja is MAGIC.
Day 1: Tecate, Mexico Border Crossing
Rewind to August when we were at a camping event in Washington, Chip met a man by the name of Sam who would be traveling into Baja around our scheduled time. Sam has been numerous times and in an online VW forum where we caught up on his plans, he invites others to join calling it the “annual Baja rally.” We thought what the hay, let’s join ‘em. So we followed the very simple and precise directions on the forum to meet up at the Golden Acorn Casino (in the US still but near the Tecate, Mexico border) on the night of Feb 4th. The next morning we were prepared to enter Mexico. Seven vans, four dogs, two kids, one border crossing, $25 per person, a Wal-Mart stop and an eight hour day in and out of the van later we had made it to our first destination in Baja: just south of Ensenada.
Villarino RV Park & Aguas Calientes
That first day Sam led us to a lovely if pricey beach-side campground called Vallarino RV Park, on Punta Banda just south of the congested and bustling city of Ensenada. I got the sense everyone was relieved to be stationary for the night when I heard the snap of beer cans opening only moments after the engines buzzed off. Along with everyone else, we began unloading our belongings like a well-choreographed dance. We have had plenty of practice by now and have perfected it. Chip pops the top up first, then I jump in to take the car seats out. Meanwhile the bikes and dump trucks get snatched up almost as fast as they're placed on the ground. Next comes the solar panel (if it’s sunny and early-ish), and on with the music. I quickly organize the interior of Spud while hanging my head out the sliding door every so often to see who the boys are chatting it up with. We don’t have a lot of stuff to organize but with our limited space, everything has a place. (Rhyme!)
Our small campground was fortuitously situated just behind Aguas Calientes (hot water or hot springs) that I had found online months earlier. After setting up camp, scarfing down a quick dinner of ramen noodles (so healthy!), and chatting with our new (and old) van friends, we made our way out in search of steam rising from the sand. A few minutes later we spotted the warm air wafting up and began running excitedly toward it, the sand immediately heating our toes and the bottoms of our feet up. After flicking off our clothes, we plopped into our homemade sand hot tub to relax (or if you’re a toddler, to splash us in the eye with sand and scalding water). Here we gazed out at the horizon, watching the sun dip behind the mountains that hooked out into the sea forming the beautiful crescent-shaped beach that we were currently lying on. Things seemed to be starting off on the right foot, I thought.
Our guards were up for that first 24 hours in Baja. Not only were we just settling back into the van after comfortably living in Hawaii for two months, but we were also a little anxious being in a foreign country. I’ll never forget camping that first night. At some God awful time of night, I stirred awake. No one else seemed bothered. I checked my phone for the time. Just after 1 am it read. That’s when I heard it. A car, with its lights off, snaking its way creepily through our campground at a slow and steady speed. Fear gripped my entire body and my heart began to pound like a jackhammer. I thought to myself “Great, this is it. Here comes someone to steal all our things and murder us in our sleep. Mom is going to be so pissed when our heads show up in a cooler on her doorstep." I decided not to wake Chip up and suffered through my mini panic attack solo. Ten minutes passed, then thirty. Then the next thing I knew it was just after 6:30 am and Spud’s interior was dimly lit, thanks to the rising sun. Hallelujah, we had survived to see more of Baja!
Los Olivos Campground
When I sit in Spud and watch the world go by from my cozy window seat, my thoughts naturally wander to what life must be like elsewhere in the world. Traveling has that affect on me. Here, in Mexico, it’s a visual barrage. I mentioned it earlier, and from a distance the peninsula is appealing, wild, rugged. Much like a cactus, from afar it's beautiful and commanding but up close the needles make the eyes wince and the fear of getting pricked sets in. Maybe Baja feels a little bit like that to me. I'm not completely comfortable here but it's enough to have me on the edge of my seat wanting more. I love taking in new cultures, trying a new language, way of life, but not having been to Baja yet I wasn’t sure what to expect. I'll admit, some things threw me off. The trash, stray dogs, young kids dodging cars in order to cross the road, police/military trucks with officers in full bodysuits holding machine guns, military checkpoints, half-constructed buildings are all common sights in Baja. But none of that overshadows the true beauty of this place.
A few miles outside of a an area that perhaps made me feel uncomfortable driving through sat a darling campground among the olive trees fittingly called Los Olivos. We felt we could let our hair down here (traveling with kids through Mexico is an added stress). There was a big playground, zipline, pool, well-kept grounds, showers with hot water, and grass. You don’t see a lot of grass in Baja (it is a desert after all) so when you get some beneath your feet, you cherish it. We spent one night at Los Olivos and while it was lovely we were surprisingly eager to get back to the "real Mexico."
Bahia De Los Angeles, Sea of Cortez
On our third day we were in for a long haul (5 hours of drive time), this time through Baja’s interior and over to the Sea of Cortez side to Bahia de Los Angeles. I always mentally and physically prepare for long days. I stash a couple special matchbox cars, books, crayons/coloring pads, and two suckers up near the front of my feet area. I have reflexes like a cat, and at any moment I could be ready to whip back one of the said items to hopefully entertain them. The boys are used to driving at this point though and often are less antsy than Chip or I to get out. This particular day they were incredible. The first hour was music and chatting. Next, we stop for lunch, pee break, and gas up. Then an hour or two of car napping. The final push is when we busted out the special stash.
Everything was going smoothly this day until the infamous pothole road. I don't want to relive it for fear of Chip's PTSD relapse but let's just say it was the worst stretch of highway we've ever driven on. We've been up and down all sorts of gnarly "4wd-only" roads, this wins, mostly because of the pace you must keep to avoid being rear-ended instead of attacking it at the 10mph it deserves. But it all was worth it when we crested the final hill and began to descend into Bahia de Los Angeles. Our necks were craning, sweeping from left to right and left again, our eyes trying to soak in every offshore island, dramatic mountain peak in the distance, and mesmerisingly blue waters from above. See video below...
For our first night in Bahia de L.A., we camped with the group at Daggett's, a family-run campground with sportfishing tours on the sandy shores of the bay. The temps were starting to warm up now that we were venturing further south on the peninsula. And you know we were happy about that. While Daggetts was a lovely little place, we were craving solitude for the first time in Baja (perhaps we were finally settling in!).
The next day we bid adieu to our pals (but only for one night) and headed up a dusty gravel road about 15 minutes north of Daggetts. Our mission: to find Playa La Gringa, where free, dispersed camping awaited. To say we found what we were looking for was an understatement. A wide open rocky beach was spread out welcoming us as we determined our favorite spot to lay rest for the night. We felt at home here, even if we only claimed it for 24 hours. Daytime events included dump truck walks, haircuts, meeting the "neighbors," kite flying (also note: the trucks went kite flying as well which means we hooked the kite to the truck and let it go several hundred feet at a time), bike riding, and and two afternoon jogs along the beach.
At nightfall, and after the boys had fallen asleep, Chip and I slipped out of the van to enjoy the peace and quiet. I'll never forget two things that night: the sky and the water.
I remember stepping out of the van and my eyes were immediately drawn to the night sky, as if begging for me to witness its brilliance over a new moon. Never in my life do I remember seeing such an expansive sky, so wide that it took me several seconds to gaze from one side to the other, in awe with the millions of stars that lay before me. The milky way had never twinkled so brightly nor was it as obvious to the eye as it was on this night. Each constellation was radiantly lit but I recognized it was tweaked due to our location south of the border. The Big Dipper was upside down and in a new location, as with other starry favorites.
But icing on the cake was when I strolled the few steps down to the water to rinse my hands before retreating for the night in Spud. As I dipped my hands in, waving them gently back and forth, I noticed small flickers of light in the water. I splashed a little harder and the lights appeared again! I yelled up to Chip, deterring him from opening Spud's door. "You gotta get down here. It's bio-luminescent!" I exclaimed. We stood there for several minutes splashing and throwing pebbles into the water in various formations until we were finally ready to say goodnight. We fully enjoyed the light shows that night.
More to Come!!!
We remained vigilant during our time in Baja but as you can see, we were already enjoying the heck out of this country. And quite honestly, we felt very safe and are eager to share the rest of our experiences with everyone. The people, the places, the food, THE WHALES. It's all coming, so be ready!
Lindsay, Chip, Reid, and Bennett
Baja California Stats:
Total miles driven on this leg: 560 miles
Number of unfriendly Mexicans met so far: 0 (everyone is so nice!)
Number of people in our caravan group on day 1: 16
Best thing about Mexican Walmarts: Besides the abundance of fresh veggies and fruit, THE BAKERY!!
The first three days Chip was: On edge (new country, with kids, and a van that could break down had him worrying)
Most consumed drink: Tecate Beer (equivalent to Bud Light...)
Average Price Per Meal: Under $5
Spanish words the boys learned and practiced (no swear words yet!): Hasta luego, como se llama, me llamo Reid/Bennett, gato, perro, hola
Number of tacos consumed so far: Only 4 (don't worry, it's about to take a turn for the worse. Or should I say BETTER?!?!)