Jan 5, 2010

The Great Baja California Odisea Part 1

The theme of a temporary stint as an unemployed traveler and freelance journalist, which I took up for nearly two years, was road trips. Following The Great Pacific Northwest Odyssey, the winds of adventure this time were blowing south, leading me to the great and vast southern extension of California that is Baja.

My travel partner would not join me on the road this time due to the potential dangers that accompany driving deep into Mexico. After enduring wild experiences reaching Los Cabos, followed by stormy weather conditions during the adventurous return journey where I barely made it home, I don’t blame her for deciding not to venture on the Mexican roads with me. KerryLynn was to meet me at my southern destination, as I was to pick her up from SJD Los Cabos International Airport.

Before embarking on my voyage south, there were a lot of preparations I had to make to ensure safety, survival and peace of mind should disaster strike. I knew there were large stretches of road that didn’t have cell service, so I loaded a two-gallon jug of water, a bag full of energy bars, tire and other automotive repair kits, a Fodor’s guide book called Los Cabos & the Baja Peninsula, a tent, a AAA road map of Baja California, and a sleeping bag, all in the possible event that I could be stranded somewhere in the middle of the Baja desert.

I also stashed six joints into a tiny secret compartment in my camouflage cargo shorts to help me relax after long days of driving.

They look like ordinary cargo shorts...

...then voila! A special pocket hidden underneath one of the cargo pockets.

I understand how controversial and dangerous a decision this was, but after vast deliberation both with myself and friends, I decided this would make the trip far more bearable and enjoyable. Some people enjoy drinking; I prefer to burn one down. Guide books and websites all blasted cautionary warnings not to drive at night because of livestock and road conditions, so I knew I would be rising very early each morning and driving anywhere from six to ten hours each day to avoid an evening drive. It seemed worth it to bring something along to help me relax at night. Plus, a recent article by The New York Times talking about Mexico legalizing drug possession gave me some assurance that I wouldn’t be spending time in a Mexican jail in the unlikely, yet remotely possible event, that I would be caught.

The Drive South

Day one of The Great Baja California Odisea found me crossing the border after a poor night’s sleep in the Sheraton Hotel, in the mission district of San Deeahhhgo. Part of it was the anxiety and excitement of beginning such a wild adventure. Another part of it was the uncertainty surrounding crossing the border with a vehicle. I have walked over the border to Tijuana twice before (it’s like walking down any other sidewalk, only you’re suddenly in a new country after walking a couple of blocks), but driving south over the border was a new experience. With six joints stashed in the hidden compartment in my shorts (I originally thought I had packed five, then found out on the second day of my journey that I had accidentally stashed six – what a pleasant surprise!), I approached the crossing.

Surprisingly, there was no traffic. Granted it was around 7:30 in the morning, but I had expected a longer wait to cross over. I entered a line of vehicles that weren’t declaring any customs, and fortunately the light that decides whether customs officers check your vehicle for contraband and drugs was green. I made it through customs with relative ease!

The drive from Tijuana south to Ensenada is beautiful. The roads are in great shape, and there are multiple lanes going in each direction. You have to stop twice to pay a toll that costs around $3 for each stop (this is probably how they keep the roads in fantastic condition), but considering the easy flow of traffic and amazing views of the Pacific Ocean, it was well worth it. I heard a surf report on the radio earlier that morning in San Deeeahhhgo that said the ocean was flat. Despite this report, I saw an endless amount of very desirable breaks along the way. Countless surf spots with no crowds. If I wasn’t on a tight schedule, and had a wetsuit, I would have stopped at a few locations to catch some nuggies. Given the circumstances, I had a race against daylight that I didn’t want to lose.

After a brief stretch of road that included two military checkpoints (they just waved me through, I would discover later that they are far more concerned with drivers heading north) and a cluster of towns that slowed me down considerably, I stopped in a town called El Rosario to fill-up at the PeMex (owned by the government, it’s the only company in Mexico that sells gasoline), since my research told me that this was the last gas station for approximately 200 miles. The research was mostly correct. There were a couple of stops along the way where people sold gas out of huge oil drums. I didn’t want to take any chances of putting that potentially-unfiltered and unrefined fuel into my car. The stop in El Rosario proved worthy.

I also grabbed lunch at a small restaurant called Mama Espinoza’s. Apparently she’s over 100 years-old, and from looking at the pictures inside, I could tell this is a very famous stopping point for the Baja 1000 race. There were autographed pictures on the walls of a lot of the drivers, each telling Mama Espinoza how wonderful her food is. Based on reviews I read online, I tried the Lagosta (Lobster) Burrito. Yummy! It was a bit pricey, but well-worth it. I planned on stopping here during the return voyage and picking up some souvenirs, but I would later find out this would not, and could not, be the case due to unfortunate circumstances I would experience during the return drive home. Circumstances you'll shortly read about.

The final stretch of driving on the first day led me into the most barren stretch of desert I have ever experienced. Despite the isolation, it was amazingly beautiful. Cacti that reached heights well over 20 feet stretched as far as the eye could see. As I approached the remote town of Cataviña, you could see massive boulders the size of houses all along the road. I also saw a big rig flipped over, either from taking a turn too fast or colliding with another big rig (big rigs on this stretch of road are an insane wonder, day two of the drive south is where I realized how loco big rig drivers are).

I spent the night in Cataviña in a hotel called the Desert Inn. While a bit expensive, the room was excellent. After taking a walk in the desert (and barely avoiding disaster when a rusty nail tack that was laying in the barren and littered desert facing upwards punctured my flip-flop, and amazingly didn’t break the skin of my foot) and enjoying a stunningly-beautiful sunset, I ate dinner at the hotel’s restaurant.

This rusty nail tack almost spelled doom on just the first day of the Odisea.

A Cataviña sunset is hard to beat.

I ordered beef fajitas but the waiter brought me shrimp fajitas instead. Ever since I experienced a horrific case of food poisoning in a surf trip to Mainland Mexico last year, I’ve become skeptical and afraid of eating nearly any kind of food south of the border. This is why I was more than surprised at how good the shrimp was. Tasty, great size, fresh, and coupled with the grilled veggies, tortillas, chips, salsa, Negro Modelo and shot of Don Julio, I was a happy man.

I was also an exhausted man, having slept a combined 10 hours the two previous nights. So after the 350-mile haul, I was out by 8 pm. I knew I was exhausted because my alarm went off the next morning at 6 am, and I was still tired. Despite my exhaustion, and relative ease in falling asleep, there was a clear sense of loneliness being in a random hotel room, in the middle of a secluded desert, and without my usual traveling partner KerryLynn. Not having any cell phone reception added to this isolated feeling (fortunately the hotel lobby had wireless internet, so I could e-mail the parentals and KerryLynn, letting them know that I was OK). The past few years I have found, as part of the maturation process humans experience in our constant evolution, a feeling of loneliness drifting away, replaced by a feeling of being alone. Similar to the great quote by Robert Dinero’s character in the movie “Heat” when he said, “I am alone, I’m not lonely.”

However, on this particular evening and in subsequent days, there was a sure feeling of loneliness coursing through my veins. To me, it is experiences like these that test our mettle, showing us what kind of person we are. Being alone in a remote desert in a foreign country, will bring out a mixed bag of emotions.

Day two of the Odisea found me back on the road, departing Cataviña at the crack of dawn to begin the most arduous part of my journey south. The length of the drive was over 400 miles, with the first third of the drive in the barren desert. And this is where I realized for the first time just how crazy big rig truck drivers in Baja truly are.

I didn’t notice it right away. Early on, truckers were driving at adequate and safe speeds, even giving me the signal when it was safe to pass them. However, after entering Baja California Sur and passing through Guerro Negro (surprisingly, the Federalies at the military checkpoint here didn’t ask for a tourist card, contrary to what was written online and in guide books) and then San Ignacio, the first of the crazy truck drivers began to make their appearance.

These are huge big rigs carrying massive payloads. And on stretches where I considered it safe enough to hit 70 mph, these big rigs would be right on my ass! And when I would pass a slower car, a big rig would be right behind, passing cars on narrow, windy stretches of road! I even saw one big rig pass another big rig (I saw this again later on the way down). Scary shit. The best way to paint this picture would be to imagine yourself driving on a standard U.S. highway, and to have big rigs passing you in the fast lane. Big rigs make a really strange noise I had never heard before when the pedal’s to the metal. I saw the second big rig of this trip turned over on its side, with Federalies at the scene. No doubt the big rigs here were taking sharp turns way too fast.

Before reaching Guerrero Negro, I drove through the region's famed fog desert, one of a few that exists in the entire world. It was a weird phenomenon to pass through, and a bit dangerous considering vision was very limited.

Shortly after passing the oasis town of San Ygnacio, I witnessed some of the most beautiful, photogenic views in my brief yet well-traveled life. After passing a very large and stunning mountain peak (I would later learn that the peak is called Volcán Las Tres Vírgenes, the Volcano of Three Virgins), I experienced what would be the scariest and steepest descent in my life. A freeway with a vertical grade that must have passed 10%. It was on par with many of the steepest streets in San Francisco. And while trying to navigate this stretch of road (even the big rig drivers are smart enough to slow it down here), I was blessed with spectacular views of cacti forests leading up to two separate mountains (one of them being Volcán Las Tres Vírgenes), with their peaks reaching nearly 10,000 vertical feet. An amazing sight. The road was too chaotic to stop and take pictures, but I found a few patches off the road that would be good places to pause and take photos on the return journey home.

After making it down the steep and curvy drive, I came across yet another amazing view. The Sea of Cortez makes an astonishing appearance, and with it different shades of blue and scattered islands as far as the eye can see. Along the coast here are beaches that rival the most beautiful I have seen in the world. I stopped at one of them just to take a breather, take a leak, and relax. There are quite a few of these beaches along the way, some with RVs camped for unknown lengths of stay. Most of these beaches, and their accompanying islands, make up Bahía Concepción, one of the most beautiful bodies of water in the world. A kayaker’s dream location.

The only downside to this part of the drive are the road conditions. Some parts are absolutely terrible, with potholes and a plethora of “topes” which are small speed bumps that force you to slow down when going through any town in Baja. Slow speeds are the name of the game here.

Eventually I made it to the end of my longest day on the road. The destination was Loreto, a fishing town that looked clean, calm, and fairly modern. I spent the night at a very pleasant hotel called Hotel Luna. I took a walk along the beach, and found a small bar facing the water that served a few basic Mexican dishes. I forked down some nachos (very tasty), then went home and passed out at around 8 pm (note that when crossing the border into Baja California Sur, the time zone changes to Mountain Time, so I actually passed out at 7 pm).

A view of Loreto's coastline from a nearby beach.

I slept long and hard that night, waking up at 7:30 the next morning. This was the first time during the trip that I felt truly refreshed from getting proper rest. Day three of the drive south was the most uneventful of the trip, and is probably the least appealing of the three days of driving. The spectacular views give way to cities and shrub deserts. There are a couple of random agricultural towns that I passed through on the Pacific side of the freeway (the road zig-zags back and forth along the Peninsula) called Ciudad Insurgentes and Ciudad Constitución. The roads were in good shape though, and I could tell this was another stop of the Baja 1000, as there were a lot of mementos from the big race all over town.

La Paz, which is the capital of Baja California Sur, is a big city. So big, in fact, that I got lost going through it. This was the only time during the drive south that I resorted to using the GPS device on my cell phone to get me back on the right track. Without my GPS device it would have taken me at least an hour to find my way. I was that lost. I eventually found the freeway, and was back on the road for the last stretch of the journey.

After seeing a couple of amazingly beautiful towns on the east coast called Los Barriles and Buenavista, I finally made it to my destination: San Jose del Cabo. It surprised me to find that the town was actually a really big, modern city. Car dealerships lined the road with brand new vehicles. Major traffic. Dirty air (this is one of the foulest parts of Mexico, cars emit exhaust like it’s going out of style; clearly smog checks are not implemented here). I found the apartment I was going to stay in for two weeks, unloaded my stuff, and then went in pursuit of the first beach I could find.

The beach was called Playa Palmilla, and it provided the perfect setting to leap into the Sea of Cortez and celebrate my adventurous feat! The water was warmer than I expected ( a trip KerryLynn and I took last April to mainland Mexico, near Puerto Vallerta, had very similar water temperatures), and I took a swim before heading back to the apartment.

I passed out early, around 9 PM. However, I was awoken at midnight to the sound of a party in the apartment above. The neighbors were raging, and didn’t shut down the party until 4 AM. Bitter, party of one that evening.

The next morning found me in slight disarray from the previous evening’s lack of sleep. Memories of my 18th birthday surfaced, when my Mom took my sister and I on our first trip to Hawaii. We had stayed in Maui the first part of our trip, and enjoyed the relaxing environment tremendously. The second part of our trip was a complete shock, because our hotel was based in the middle of Honolulu, and we had no idea how little calm and peacefulness Honolulu had. It lacked any sort of feel of being in paradise. And I found a similar feel in my first day in San Jose del Cabo.

As the day progressed, I began settling in a bit. I talked to the property managers to let them know the noise situation, and they seemed genuinely concerned. I took a stroll first to the Costa Azul Surf Shop, where I discovered that the winter season rarely has surf of any kind. This completely contradicted everything I read about surfing the Los Cabos area. All the guides I read said the surf was smaller, but nowhere did I read that it’s completely flat during the winter. It looked like a lake. I could find more swell in Lake Tahoe. Maybe the surf shops and hotels down here collaborated to make sure the public didn’t know this sad fact. I’m here to tell you the truth: Winter surf conditions in the Los Cabos area are minuscule at best. The woman who worked at the Costa Azul Surf Shop was very friendly, giving me a free rope tie for my surf leash, and in later days offering some surf tips and giving me great discounts on sunglasses and clothes. She also reassured me a little and told me that while the surf in wintertime is small, there are days where a modest swell will produce some waves.

The historic downtown area of San Jose del Cabo is quaint. Compared to the chaos and big-city feel when you first enter the city, the downtown area, while touristy, is a very nice break from the madness. There are a lot of police patrolling the area, which is probably the reason why everything is clean, calm and friendly. I met a fishing tour guide named Pedro who hooked me up with some Mexican schwag. Nothing new here. The price was a complete rip-off though. For a bag that looks like a half-ounce, he charged me 800 pesos (a little under $80 U.S.). And when I came back a short while after giving him the money, he asked for a tip! Interesting individual, this Pedro guy was. At least I had something to calm down my nerves.

KerryLynn, who was supposed to meet me on this day, pushed her trip back a day because she wanted to see if the situation with the neighbors would chill out. Fortunately, after walking to a restaurant called La Salsa that night (it was my third trip there, the owners are a family from Oregon who are really nice), and then hitting a bar nearby, I came home to peace and quiet. While San Jose del Cabo is different from what I expected, I found myself starting to settle down and appreciate the beautiful weather and beaches.

San Jose del Cabo

Once KL and I were settled in to both our apartment and our general surroundings, we became extremely fond of both San Jose del Cabo and the Costa Azul neighborhood we were staying in. We frequented La Salsa regularly, where Barsen, Brandi and the rest of the crew were extremely friendly and helpful. They had wireless internet and even allowed me to use their phone (which was very helpful when my bank, Chase, suspended my account twice because they thought someone stole my card and was having a field day in Mexico).

L-R Forgot his name, Barsen, Brandi, yo & KL outside La Salsa's Restaurant.

We also visited a neighboring restaurant called Costa Azul Restaurant a few times, where Mario (don’t know if he owned the place or was just a manager) not only served us great food and coffee, but he also had a connection for some ganja that was actually really good (by Mexican standards). However, it was the beaches that truly made us feel like we were in paradise.

Within walking distance from our apartment were a set of three different world-class surf breaks: Zippers, The Rock and Old Man’s. The Rock showed potential, but sharp, jagged reef sat just inches below the ocean surface where the takeoff point is. I know this because one day I pulled back from catching a wave at the very last minute when I saw the potential disaster sitting just underneath the crystal-clear water. Zippers was non-existent. I never saw this famous break’s potential. Of the three, the only one that ever served any kind of consistency was Old Man’s. I only caught a few rides here, with one of them being on the last day of our vacation, but it was nice to be in warm waters and not have to deal with heavy crowds (I was all alone in the water the last two days I surfed there).

Catching a tiny little nug at Old Man's on my last day in San Jose del Cabo - notice how I didn't use a longboard like most pussies do.

Our most enjoyable day during the two weeks we stayed in San Jose del Cabo was a long hike that took us along a beach that started at Zippers and concluded at the beautiful Playa Palmilla. The hike was probably a mile in total length. The walk is absolutely gorgeous, and considering how isolated Playa Palmilla is, it made the entire day that much more enjoyable. This is hands-down the best beach in the entire area. Crystal-clear blue water, soft white sand, no crowds. It’s hard to find a better setting. Absolute paradise.

One of the views from our apartment. The hike started at Zippers (bottom left) and ended at Playa Palmilla (upper right).

A low tide on the hike back opened up interesting new pathways for KL and I to walk through.

Todos Santos

Todos Santos was the most charming, quaint, and pristine out of all towns visited on The Great Baja California Odisea. A fun little town, it has amazing works of art, entertaining people (including an interesting character originally from Santa Cruz who called himself Bob, but is really named Ted. We met him in a bar called Shut Up Frank’s), and great taco stands all within town.

Todos Santos also has the largest ratio of gringos to Mexicans.

It’s the one thing that prevents this little city from being a fully, authentic Mexican town. I had read in guide books that ex-pats were taking over this area. The books truly underestimated their size. Ex-pats are everywhere. Not to say this is a bad thing, but it does take away the Mexican feel a little. Still, compared to the hustle and bustle of Los Cabos, this was a welcome retreat (damn were we spoiled; we had an apartment that overlooked the ocean, and I’m sitting here complaining about too many gringos in another beautiful coastal town).

We stayed at a hotel called The Todos Santos Inn. What a beautiful place this was. Situated just a couple of blocks away from the town center, it’s very hard to tell just how pristine of a spot this place truly is. The rooms don’t have TVs or radios, but they have high ceilings, nice beds, and old-fashioned Spanish authenticity. The courtyard and swimming pool is situated within a beautiful garden that houses humming birds who take baths in bird pools just feet from your face.

A closer view of a rare occurrence to observe and enjoy: A hummingbird taking a bird bath.

The pool itself has a small waterfall with warm water streaming into the heated pool. The bar had excellent ambiance, playing Frank Sinatra while serving any drink your mind can conjure up.

The day we left, we drove for over an hour on a small, dirt road to a surf spot named El Batequito (at the time, KerryLynn and I were very unhappy about the poor road conditions; little did I know then the length and condition of this road would pale in comparison to what I would be driving on later in the trip). A woman named Hailey, who was staying in the Inn and had friends living in town, suggested the remote location.

The surf was a heavy beach break that didn’t look appealing at all. There were a handful of other surfers there - none of them were in the ocean surfing. Coupled with a disappointing outing the day before at a spot just south of town called San Pedrito, the dogs of winter were abound on the southwest coast of Baja California Sur. I was amazed at how warm the ocean water was though – it felt warmer than the waters at Zippers and Playa Palmilla.

Despite the lack of good surf, the trip to Todos Santos was a very enjoyable experience. Todos Santos is a very special place that ranked among the highlights of the trip.

Cabo San Lucas

The epicenter of Los Cabos is also the most chaotic and grotesque part of the area. Stereotypically obese, loud and ignorant Americans litter the landscape. The tourists and venders thinned out a little as we ventured away from the Marina area, as you could feel a little Mexican authenticity in the areas surrounding the town center. Playa Medano, which is Cabo’s main beach, and the neighboring Marina are absolute chaos. Ugliness abounds. Fortunately, there is an opportunity to escape the madness and see the most beautiful part of the Cabo San Lucas area: Playa del Amor (Lover’s Beach) and El Arco, which is located at Land’s End and is only accessible by water taxi.

The water taxis all have glass bottoms so you can see the wide variety of sea life that swim in that part of the ocean. And the time we spent at Playa del Amor was very enjoyable. It’s a beautiful place. It actually consists of two beaches; one on the Sea of Cortez side, the other on the Pacific side. We stayed there for a couple of hours before heading back to Cabo.

Water taxis line Playa el Médano, waiting to take passengers to Playa del Amor (Lover's Beach) at Land's End.

This narrow pathway connects Playa del Amor (located on the Sea of Cortez) with the Pacific Ocean side.

A short hike up some rocks and through some cacti provides this view of the Pacific side, and the southern tip of Baja California.

We decided to make a quick stop at Sammy Hagar’s Cabo Wabo Cantina. It was pretty fun. We sat at the snack bar, ordering surprisingly yummy tacos, downed añejo shots of Cabo Wabo tequila, and drank a couple of cervezas. If the walls of Cabo Wabo could talk, they would have a novel-sized length of stories to tell.

We found ourselves saddened when leaving our apartment on the final day. We had an amazing view of the ocean, and we never witnessed more beautiful sunrises.

A typical sunrise in San Jose del Cabo. Stunning. We awoke regularly to capture the beauty.

One of our neighbors were a pair of Aussies who provided great conversation and all-around friendliness. In all my travels, I’ve come to learn that Aussies understand what life is truly about better than anyone else. They’re just good, fun people.

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