Jan 19, 2010

The Great Baja California Odisea Part 2

The Drive Home

My expectations of the drive home differed starkly from the reality of the impending journey. The morning of our departure, KerryLynn made a comment that didn’t resonate with me then, but in hindsight foreshadowed the events that would come. She noticed that it rained the night prior. I had noticed there were a few spots on the ground that morning that were wet, but took it for condensation. KerryLynn said it was rain. Because we didn’t have access to the internet, and the only news channel our TV at the apartment received was Faux News (meaning naturally that we didn’t watch any news programs), we were oblivious to the fact that California and Northern Baja were hit hard with a major storm. Our parents had made mentions of the fact during phone conversations, but when the weather’s perfect every single day, you tend to easily dismiss such tidbits of information.

After dropping off KerryLynn at the airport, I was on my way back to Loreto, where I stayed two weeks prior. Initially the weather conditions were nearly identical to what they were during the drive down.

A view of Los Barriles, a quaint coastal village about an hour north of San Jose del Cabo.

However, after I passed La Paz, I noticed the wind kicking up strongly. Very strongly as a matter of fact. I could recall only the Oregon coast rivaling the strength of gusts I was experiencing. I passed a bicyclist on the way, and was amazed that he was able to withstand the violent wind (it absolutely blows my mind that I saw approximately 10 different groups of bicyclists on the trip there and back, especially when one of the groups consisted of a family that included children. Nuts.).

One of the many bicycle riders I passed by on Highway 1. La Paz is in the distant background.

It wasn’t until I reached the town of Ciudad Constitución that the rain started to fall. The rain was nothing out of the ordinary, but the road conditions were. There were patches everywhere of what initially looked like large puddles of water, but upon making impact with my tires turned out to be massive oil and grease spots. It was then that I first realized that these roads were not made to handle water. I was slipping and sliding repeatedly, and for an hour or so I had to drive at very slow speeds. Little did I know that driving at a sluggish pace would be the name of the game for the entire drive home.

After passing through the town of Ciudad Insurgentes, the road shifted east towards Loreto, and the weather eased up a bit. The rain lightened up tremendously, and as I approached my destination, the weather, while still very windy, was calming down tremendously.

First sightings of the Sea of Cortez after crossing the peninsula. It never gets old.

Loreto looked like it had received some rain, but upon my arrival, scattered clouds was all the weather presented. I was fortunate that Hotel Luna, where I stayed last time, was open again. After grabbing some tacos at a restaurant next door, I went upstairs to the hotel bar, where an older couple who was staying in the same hotel, and another gentleman, were seated at the bar.

The older couple were from Canada I believe, but it was the individual who was sitting at the end of the bar that I striked up a conversation with. I believe his name was Al, and because his father was born in Mexico, he was a dual-citizen (I could be wrong, but I think the law has recently changed where now you have to be born in Mexico to be a natural citizen). Al said he was from Campbell, CA, but was building a retirement home in Loreto. He shared stories about how 30 years ago, in 1980, when he was 30 years old, he drove a VW van all the way down the Baja Peninsula, and even took a ferry to the mainland, where his adventures continued. He also told me that before the Transpeninsular Highway (Highway 1 that stretches from Tijuana to Cabo San Lucas) was built in 1973, people actually drove all the way down on dirt roads. It sounded nuts then; thinking about it after finishing the journey, it now sounds straight loco.

Al was also driving back towards the Bay Area, and told me he was going to stay in Guerrero Negro the next night (the same city I was planning on stopping at), and recommended that I stay at the Malarrimo Motel. I didn’t see Al the next evening, but his recommendation was a solid one.

Through all the conversations I had that evening: Hotel Luna’s owner, Alberto; the Canadian couple; and Al; there wasn’t one mention of the storm that had, and still was, battering northern Baja. It seems to me now that Baja California Sur was, at least initially, completely oblivious to the happenings up north.

A massive flock of pelicans completely took over the Loreto marina.

The next morning I departed Loreto, and after fulfilling a personal promise of stopping to take numerous photos of the most photogenic part of the drive (primarily the area between Bahía Concepción and San Ignacio), I was about to begin the real adventure of The Great Baja California Odisea.

Where the road says adiós to the Sea of Cortez...
...and says ola to Volcán Las Tres Vírgenes.

The first challenge of the drive home actually had nothing to do with the weather or roads. It was a military checkpoint. When calculating where the checkpoints were while enjoying one of the joints I rolled for the return trip, I failed to take into account a checkpoint that immediately followed the oasis town of San Ignacio. I had mistakenly left half a spliff in my ashtray. Upon seeing the checkpoint, I quickly grabbed the roach and stuffed it into one of my cargo pockets. While they didn’t search my car once on the drive down, my car was searched at all but one checkpoint on the drive north. Fortunately, like the other Federalies who searched my car and asked questions, they quickly realized that I was a harmless tourist just cruising along. It was a nerve-racking experience to say the least; the prospect of spending time in a Mexican jail will strike fear into any reasonable person (even if I did carry the legal amount, you just never know).

What happened after San Ignacio, and the military checkpoint, can best be described as frightening, hairy, freaky, scary, exhilarating, I could go on and on describing how I felt when I encountered the first real piece of evidence that Baja was hit with a major storm.

All along the freeways, there are unusual signs warning you of what in Mexico they like to call Vados. A vado is basically a large valley in the road, where a small bridge would be if you’re driving in the U.S.

Your standard Highway 1 vado.

Vados are usually located where a dry river bed meets the freeway. After the Odisea, I now realize just how much I have taken U.S. roads for granted. Imagine all those thousands of tiny bridges that you drive over daily, often times unnoticed. Now imagine if they didn’t exist, and instead the road dipped where the bridge used to be. That’s essentially what a vado is.

With conditions near-perfect during the drive down, I didn’t think much of the vados because they weren’t that extreme, and I was able to maintain a steady speed as I passed through them. Based on this experience, I thought I could do the same on the drive home. I was wrong. Absolutely, 100% wrong.

I was driving at a speed of 65, maybe 70 mph when I drove into what I thought to be yet another harmless vado. Only when I entered the vado, I saw a pond of water. I would use the word puddle, but that wouldn’t be doing this body of water justice. It was a borderline lake. At least a foot deep, and extending 10, maybe 15 feet in length. I was going too fast to do anything about it except hold the wheel tight and just hope for the best.

I hydroplaned for literally two seconds. When you’re hydroplaning, that is an awful long time. One-one-thousand. Two-one-thousand. That’s how long I hydroplaned. Then when I hit the pavement again, I’m pretty sure my suspension instantly aged a year because I hit it with a loud thud. Keeping the wheels straight the whole time saved my car, and possibly my life.

I couldn’t believe what I had just driven through. I breathed heavily for a good few minutes, with my heart rate going extremely fast as I thought about what just happened. Apparently the signs warning you of an upcoming vado do mean something. Especially when it has just rained heavily. I took this experience to heart, and when I encountered the next vado, sure enough there was another pond inside of it. This time I was prepared, and gently drove through the body of water. This was the beginning of things to come. What I encountered a short time later made me realize just how bad road conditions in Baja truly were.

Shortly after passing the town of Vizcaino, I noticed a conglomeration of cars up ahead. At first I couldn’t tell why everyone was stopped. It wasn’t until I saw A FUCKING RIVER FLOWING RIGHT THROUGH THE FREEWAY that I understood. The current was moving fast, and it was impossible just from looking at it to tell how deep the water went. It looked very imposing, very scary, and clearly I wasn’t the only one feeling this way because there were around 30 people on each side of the road who had parked their cars, wondering what to do next.

Not the sort of thing you want to encounter on a foreign freeway.

After walking around for a while, talking to fellow Americans and ex-pats who were facing the same dilemma I was, a truck decided to go for it. They were tentative at first. They would start driving forward, then backing up, clearly questioning whether it was the right decision. Finally the truck went for it, and it made it through a lot easier than expected.

Slowly more and more cars starting making attempts at crossing the river. A big rig made it through easily, and even more impressive were some van-looking vehicles that had hardly any lift to them.

This big rig truck had no problems passing through.

Only one of these two vehicles made it across. Can you guess which one?

If you guessed the minivan, you win...NOTHING!

The river did grab itself a victim though; a minivan attempting to cross stalled, likely from a flooded engine.

An ambulance passing through helped push the stalled minivan out of the river.

All this was happening at around one in the afternoon. An older American I was talking to was even more nervous than I was about crossing (granted his truck didn’t have four wheel-drive, but it had as much lift as my SUV). The river was noticeably receding, and I told him that I would cross at 2 PM. With more cars making the attempt and passing, I decided to take my chances. The old guy then tells me, “If you do it, I’ll do it.” Like that helps. At 2:06 PM, I sucked it up and went for it, with the older American and his poquito cojones following.

I made it through safe and sound, albeit with my nerves frayed and my hairs sticking straight up. I could have easily reached out and touch the water as I was driving through. A short while later I reached Guerrero Negro, a town known mostly for its proximity to lagoons that feature whale breeding grounds. Tourists visit the city for whale tours that allow them to get up close to baby whales. If I hadn’t gone on a whale tour the previous summer up in Vancouver Island, I would have considered taking a day trip.

When I first checked in to the Malarrimo Motel (it’s quaint, definitely a good place to stay given the location of the town and the lack of any appealing features outside of the motel itself), I walked to the bar to get a drink and maybe a bite. At the bar were two older gentlemen having an animated discussion. Immediately after I sat down, one of them asks me, “Are you a Democrat or a Republican?” I answered neither. He scoffed at me, saying that in the end all Americans are one or the other (he was from British Columbia; the man next to him was from Saskatchewan). I put him at ease when I responded, “Let me put it to you this way; I’ll never, ever vote for a Republican.” This seemed to make him happy, and the three of us started having a discussion about politics, the Baja 1000 (the gentleman is part of the over-60 team riding dirt bikes, he was 72 himself and looked to be in great shape), and his Baja home in Bahía de los Ángeles.

He mentioned that the isolated town resting on the Sea of Cortez had a paved road going there. This surprised me a little given the remote location of the city. The two gentlemen then expressed concern about whether President Obama would be elected to a second term (I told them that it looks questionable now only because the other side doesn’t have a candidate yet), and they asked me questions about what makes Americans so conservative. I told them that there are three key components that make an American conservative: Ignorance, greed and selfishness (inn hindsight I should have added the fear component). They seemed to like me more and more with every answer I gave them.

They left a short time later, and afterwards I started to sense a nervous energy around the motel. There were a surprisingly large amount of Americans and Canadians at the motel, and I soon found out why: To my horrifying surprise, a bridge south of Ensenada had reportedly collapsed, preventing all traffic from entering and leaving the Baja Peninsula. I had noticed the previous two days a rather surprisingly lack of big rigs and buses on the highway. I thought that maybe it was because of the weekend. Turns out they had been prevented from heading south.

Picture of a collapsed bridge south of Ensenada, courtesy of Ensenada.net.

I decided that night that I would drive to El Rosario (which is close to 300 miles south of San Diego) and stay at the BajaCactus Motel, where people have left great reviews about the price and ambience. I figured I could wait things out there until roads opened up. I hung out that night at the motel bar and restaurant, drinking and eating while chatting it up with a friendly local named Saul. Little did I know that the next morning would surprise me with very grim news.

The place was stirring that following morning. The news that came in to the motel manager was bad; not only was the bridge south of Ensenada out of commission, but as many as three other bridges had collapsed as well. Including one just south of El Rosario. Meaning that my plans had been altered. Furthermore, one American there was telling me that based on someone he knows in the government, the bridges and roads could be out for as long as 15 days!

Picture of the collapsed Vicente Guerrero bridge courtesy of BajaNomad.com.

Picture of the bridge gap south of El Rosario courtesy of BajaNomad.com.

At first I was in vehement denial about this news, but considering that the reports on the internet were questionable at best, and there seemed to be no solid sources of reliable news, I was at a loss. I started asking myself questions: Do I just stay at this motel until the roads open up? Do I drive through a desert that has no gas stations for over 200 miles, only to be potentially stranded in the desert? I honestly didn’t know what to do.

Apparently I wasn’t the only one both lost and desperate to come back to the States. A couple of people said they knew of a dirt road that, while extremely long (it measured out to approximately 60 miles) and rough, would eventually lead to San Felipe, and from there one could drive north to Mexicali and enter the U.S. Slowly a group that numbered around 15, including some with large campers, decided to give this road a chance.

As the map shows, the dirt road starts in Chapala and ends over 60 treacherous miles later in Puertecitos.

I decided to give it a try as well. It felt stifling to just stay in Guerrero Negro. It had the feel of a Bakersfield. The Mallarimo Motel was a nice place to stop for the night, not to camp for days on end. I wanted to move on.

It took about two hours of driving north on the Highway 1 to reach the turn off to the dirt road at a spot called Chapala that hopefully would be permissible and lead us to San Felipe and onward home. As I turned right towards the Sea of Cortez and started what I knew would be a daunting task, a site beheld my eyes that made me think rethink this mission.

That body of water is called Laguna de Chapala. It's listed on the map as a DRY lake. It didn't look dry on this particular day.

Just a few miles into the drive, there was congestion.

Not the sort of thing you usually see on a remote dirt road in Mexico: Traffic.

A camper got stuck in an extremely narrow portion of road. The entire left side of the truck was tire-deep in mud. It blocked traffic going both ways, as a few Mexicans coming from the other direction couldn’t pass because of this camper. Everyone got out of their cars to not only help with getting the camper out, but also to rebuild this demolished portion of road with tires and rocks.

Eventually, after about an hour of working on getting the tires traction, fixing up the road and clearing a lot of mud, the camper got out. However, right when it got through, a camper coming from the other direction got stuck in the mud. The road was blocked again. At this point, it was past 1 PM, meaning there was less than four hours of daylight left. I didn’t want to wait around for another camper to pass, only to find other patches of road similar to this further up the road. Demoralized, I turned around and headed back towards Guerrero Negro, dejected at the notion of being stuck in the middle of the Baja Peninsula.

A thought then occurred to me. The town of Bahía de los Ángeles, the one that the Canadian Baja 1000 racer lived in, was actually closer than Guerrero Negro. Plus it had gas, places to sleep, and it was right on the Sea of Cortez. Granted it was a 41-mile drive off the main highway, but the gentleman said the road was paved. Plus, part of my decision to come to Baja was the pursuit of adventure. So why not check out a new town right on the ocean?

I drove to the intersection that marked the turnoff for Bahía de los Ángeles, and headed east. The drive was smooth and relatively easy, especially considering what I had been through thus far.

After almost an hour, I reached my destination: The picturesque, and very isolated, town of Bahía de los Ángeles.

The town is apparently geared strictly towards tourists, most of them being fishermen and kayakers. Apparently these tourists didn’t come here during January, because it felt like I was the only outsider in town. I used my guide book to find a place called Los Vientos Spa and Resort (I didn’t see a spa anywhere), which was situated right on the beach. While there wasn’t any cell reception in town, the hotel did have wireless internet and a satellite TV, so I was able to watch the AFC and NFC Championship games (Brett Fav-ruh threw an interception to send the Saints to the Super Bowl).

It wasn't the most comfortable of rooms, but it got the job done.  Plus having a porch right on the beach doesn't hurt.

The biggest downsides to the situation were the weather (windy and cold, most likely due to the storm) and the isolation. I was the only guest there, and it felt pretty weird and a bit lonely. Plus there was no hot water, and the power would cut out every half-hour or so. It was a weird place to be. The star show at night was unbelievable though, as I awoke in the middle of the night (the power was completely out) and went for a short walk. I also saw the craziest-looking bird earlier that afternoon while taking a stroll on the beach. I had never seen this species of Aves before, and unfortunately I didn’t have my camera on me to take pictures. After doing a little research, I discovered that the bird, which makes a very unusual bird call, is a Black Oystercatcher.

I awoke the next morning with the firm conviction that I was going to make significant progress in getting out of Mexico and returning home. With another day passed, the mud was drying, water levels lowering, and confidence brimming.

People were finding all sorts of ways to get across the floods. Some used ropes...

...while others used the assistance of bulldozers...

...and some just drove through the mud. Photos courtesy of BajaNomad.com.

Plus I read a report on BajaNomad.com that said the patch of road I encountered the previous day was the roughest part of the drive to San Felipe. I knew I was going to get through that dirt road and make to within a reasonable distance of the border. I filled my car up, and spoke briefly at the gas station to an older ex-pat who told me he’d been living in Bahía de los Ángeles for the past 16 years and tremendously appreciated the fact that its isolation allowed him to not deal with too many human beings. I learned here that this was the trend of ex-pats: To escape the madness and crowds of the U.S. for peace, quiet, and quality of life over chaos and greedy pursuits. I bid adieu to the town and made my way back to Highway 1, where I would make a second attempt at the dirt road that would hopefully take me home.

There are no proper words to describe the endless drive that day. It started with the craziest stretch of road I’d ever driven on – an extremely narrow piece of dirt and gravel held barely together with the help of tires and rocks. Some of the damage inflicted the day before by the campers was repaired, but it was still complete madness to be driving my car over a road that was five-feet wide and crumbling at the sides. Amazingly, I made it through this crazy stretch, only to start a tedious, body-aching, mind-numbing drive on a gravel road that was rough, extremely rocky (some of the rocks protruding through the ground were 2-3 feet in height). I could never drive faster than 10 mph for the vast majority of this stretch of road. My mind was tested. My body hurt from constantly avoiding tire-popping rocks. Despite a beautiful coastline accompanying me to my right during the vast duration of the drive, I could never appreciate it because the second my eyes strayed off the road, I would hit another rock or come dangerously close to driving off the road.

Boulders as far as the eye could see lined the landscape - and the road.

Six hours and 60 miles later, I experienced tremendous joy and relief when I finally hit pavement about 15 miles south of a town called Puerticitos. With a peculiar-looking island marking the spot where gravel met pavement, I celebrated by lighting up the last of my spliffs, which I was saving for this momentous occasion. One could never understand the joy felt at that moment.

If you see this rock, it marks the end - or the beginning - of an arduous journey.

Sweet, sweet pavement. The view was nice too. The rock marking the end of the gravel road is in the bottom right of the photo.

The road presented one final challenge as I attempted to reach the town of San Felipe by nightfall. The vados I described earlier were of a whole different breed as I approached San Felipe. These weren’t vados; these were straight dips in the road. Without slowing down to speeds of around 20 mph, I would have bottomed out when hitting each one. And not all of them had warning signs! Luckily, I made it to San Felipe before it was completely dark, and spent the night in a motel called La Hacienda de la Langosta Roja.

Driving towards San Felipe, a lovely sunset marked my final evening in Mexico.

San Felipe changed a lot in the seven years since I last visited. Still beautiful, but a little dirtier and a lot busier.

Prior to reaching my final Mexican destination of Mexicali and heading home, I drove passed what I believe is Picacho del Diablo, which is the largest mountain peak on the Baja California peninsula. The peak and its neighbors were coated with snow.

I passed through Mexicali (which, in a nutshell, is a cleaner version of Tijuana), and made it home. It’s worth noting that in the drive between Calexico (Mexicali’s sister city on the U.S. side of the border) and San Diego, I passed through a state park called Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. Some of the views were stunning. The park consists mostly of mountains as far as the eye can see covered with boulders the size of houses. Beautiful place, and it’s less than two hours outside of San Diego. For anyone reading this in Southern California, make a trip here sometime. You can thank me later.


The Great Baja California Odisea was an adventure every person should experience at least once in their lifetime. At no point during this entire journey did I ever feel unsafe due to banditos or other violent individuals. In fact, every local I passed in the entire peninsula would smile and wave in my direction. I forgot how uncommon this sort of gesture is back in the U.S., until the first time I nodded and said hello to a person I walked past in San Diego. He looked at me like I was going to mug him. I knew right then I was back in the U.S. And like the majority of my travels to foreign countries, I was reminded yet again of a principle flaw in my home country: That people still put money first, and lifestyle second. Peace of mind, in addition to happiness in a mental and physical perspective, should always precede career and monetary ambitions. Life is too short to worry about how large one could make their bank account. It remains a sad reality of life in the U.S.

As my drive back home to San Francisco neared its end, President Barack Obama’s first State of the Union address was airing on the radio. What an inspirational and honest speech. And it reminded me of a great Obama quote from not too long ago, one that is lost on so many Americans. "Focusing your life solely on making a buck shows a poverty of ambition. It asks too little of yourself. And it will leave you unfulfilled." Go out and see the world. You’ll be surprised just how much your perspective on life will change with each new adventure you experience.

The Great Baja California Odisea Epilogue

I need to give credit, and say thanks, to certain books, websites and individuals who helped with vast amounts of valuable information and advice that helped prepare me for this adventurous journey. Special thanks to BajaNomad.com and all of its moderators and contributors in the forum section who provided priceless advice, information and photos when I was stuck in the middle of Baja with no knowledge of how I was going to leave the country and return home. Thanks to BajaInsider.com for great information prior to the trip (their page on road conditions was worthless after the storms, but it was a great site in terms of preparation). Thanks also to Ensenada.net, the only Mexican website I could find that had any sort of road information. I have to thank John M., who made his e-mail address available on Craigslist to assist those wishing to make the Baja drive (his information and advice was priceless). Special thanks as well to Eric Rench, whose website ErickRench.com provided the most comprehensive detail on crossing the Tijuana border. Credit is due to Fodor’s Los Cabos & The Baja Peninsula guide book for helping me find places to stay when I was alone in the middle of Baja. I must thank the parental units for showing their tremendous support during the adventure, and letting me know that even when I didn't have cell reception for days on end, there were people out there thinking about me. And special thanks to KerryLynn for taking amazing photos and being perfect company during our two-week stay in Los Cabos.