Copyright (c) 1997 by Caryl L. Bergeron - Distribution for personal use permitted. Distribution for other uses with written permission.
Chapter 34 - Dec. 31 to Jan. 17 San Diego, CA to Santa Rosalia, BCS Mexico 21,776 KM (13,501 MI) cumulative
Eight weeks. Eight long luxerious weeks we made ourselves at home at Charlie's. Situated right on the Pacific Beach boardwalk, we could toss a frizbee into the surf without leaving our seats in the living room. We spent day after day watching the tides come and go, the winter cycle of sand erosion, the mass of humanity rolling or walking the sidewalk, and some of the most spectacular sunsets. Each morning we strolled the beach watching with anticipation for the mysterious costumed roller blader, a tall muscular man with long stringy brown hair and beard. Dressed in not much more than a breech cloth., he'd augment his daily wear with various acutriments appropriate for the day or season. He was a pilgrim/turkey on Thanksgiving, an aluminum foil covered leftover the next day, various forms of Santa, snowmen, and reindeer leading up to Christmas, a scantilly dressed chearleader, all sorts of wild Charger fans, indians. You name it, he's probably been it. He brought smiles and waves from all who he passed. Charlie tells us that no one knows who he is, where he lives, what he does for a living. But he's been an institution of Pacific Beach for years
We also had another one of those arm length lists of things to do. Seems like every 6 months we have to go through this hectic process of replacing worn equipment, rebuilding the bikes, and doing other stuff. It's a pain, but compared to the continual series of chores we had when we owned a house our current tasks are nothing. But after 8 weeks the time came once again to head on out. It was tempting to stay another week or so. The weather is getting more wintery and the mysteries of the Mayan and Aztec societies await. Time to go.
On the 31st of December we mounted our trusty bright red, metalic steeds and headed south. We slowly rolled past the eclectic array of densely packed houses and appartments in Pacific Beach, past the scenic and quiet harbors of Mission and San Diego bays, beyond the convention center and on into the neighborhoods of Chula Vista, National City, and San Ysidro. Then, at long last, we crossed the border into a country and society with both language and culture that is not like the U.S. Touring in the U.S. has been nice. But, we'd grown impatient to expand into different environments.
Stopping at the immigration office at the border, whipping out our tourist cards like we actually knew what we were doing, we got ourselves properly checked into Mexco for up to 180 days. Immediately we noticed a difference in people's attitude toward. People in California tend to be a bit callous toward bicyclists. Perhaps because there's so many or perhaps it's just the California "Do your own thing" attitude. But in Mexico, people immediatly offered assistance. A young cab driver gave us directions to the Ensenada free road, a man with gapping spaces in his mouth where teeth were missing warned us to be careful, people passing in cars honked and waved excitedly, and the campground owner at La Mision gave us the night for free. We think we are going to like it here a whole bunch.
I recall the very first time I entered Tijuana. Here I was, a recent college graduate having only been out of the U.S. a few times to visit Canada and France, I was used to the impecible neatness that typifies most U.S. towns, or at least the ones I'd seen up until then. I found the conditions of TJ absolutely appaling. But, with the addition of years of travel experience in far distant corners of the world I've come to realize that the stark cleanliness and order of the U.S. is actually quite untypical for the world. I've realized that my initial reactions were more like those of a spoiled gringo who grew up with all the luxuries life has to offer and little of the toil needed to get them. Now I view developing countries from far different eyes. I've learned to appreciate that these people are much the same as anyone anywhere. We all have the same needs and desires and generally we're all honest, descent and hard working. If only the whole world would come to this realiation. Maybe then we'd achieve world wide peace.
After arriving in TJ we went left to ride the free road, Rt 1, to Ensenada. We laboriously climbed a 4 mile hill as the humidity rose and our sweat poured. But, once the hill was crested we were treated to a long downhill and easy ro1lers for another 30 miles. The blue ocean graced our right shoulders while scrub covered hills looked upon our left. Recent rains had brought green to the hills making for lovely scenery.
A lot of new construction has happened since we last drove to Ensenada. New condo and housing complexes boasted signs, in English, telling of their features and low prices. But most unusual was the movie set just south of Rosarito. This was where they filmed much of the made for TV movie, the Titanic. smoke stacks and profile of this huge ship. From the north it literally looks like a ship in dry dock. Continuing down the road to the other side you quickly see it's only half a ship. The other side is just scafolding. Well, why build a whole ship when only half will suffice. Now, I wonder what they'll do with the set now that the movie's done and been shown?
Getting into Ensenada was a test of nerves and fortitude. Bicycles are not allowed on the nice, wide, smoothly paved toll road. Instead we have to take the narrow, windy free road, along with all those semi trucks who who want to avoid the toll. There's about 10 miles of almost continual climbing with short segments that are sort of, but not quite, level. There's no shoulder. In fact, the road has had so many layers of asphalt piled one atop the other the shoulder often has a 6 inch or more drop. Add to that drainage ditches that line the sides on every curve and you've got quite a drop-off right where you most want to put your tire. On top of it all, we had a thick, pea soup fog. The worst part about fog is not so much that you can't see because of the fog itself but all those water droplets that collect on the glasses make it doubly difficult. So we spent the morning riding a few miles, stopping to wipe the glasses, riding another few miles, pulling off for a truck, riding some more, wiping the glasses, and so on. But, finally, as we reached the crest of the hill leading into town the fog broke, the sun peeked out, and our spirits soared as we glided downhill.
Ensenada is a town we've visited many times without really ever seeing. Founded in the early 1800s as a small ranching community, a gold strike in 1870 brought people looking for riches in gold or real estate and it became the state capital in 1882. But, in a few short years the gold panned out, the land offices closed, and the state caital was moved to Mexicali. Ensenada faded into obscurity. But, in the 1900s this was to change as Ensenada became a draw for tourists. First in the 1930s, movie stars and other famous people would come down to stay in it's very elegent hotel. Later, after the road was built, folks from California discovered it's attractions. Now, the toll road is a mojor 4 lane highway that draws an enormous weekend crowd and it has been discovered by the cruise ships. It has also become the major shipping port for the produce of Mexicali. Even in the 15 years we've been visiting we've seen an enormous change. Large, modern hotels and shopping centers have sprung up, parks with trees and flowers have been added, and all the roads including side streets have been paved. New housing districts abound. A lot of money has definitly been spent in Ensenada.
But, the typical tourist, including ourselves, never sees beyond this new found glitz. There are two roads that make up the major shopping districts. One is where the tourists go and the other is where the locals shop. The tourist street for all it's modern appearence, is the most artificial. Stores are packed with the usual gawdy sombreros, iron work, stained glass, pottery, blankets, knock off perfumes and watches, and generally anything that rich American gringos might want to buy, take home, and put into their next garage sale. Small women of indian descent with a gaggle of even smaller children sit on nearly every corner with hands extended for money. The children push cheap bracelets or boxes of chicklets in your face or just put out their hands to get cash. Sit on a bench for a while and one will be in your lap in no time. Store and restaurant owners stand outside trying to intice you to come in to buy. Everyone it seems is out on the sidewalk trying their utmost to separate you from your hard earned dollars.
Three streets over is where the real people of Ensenada shop and where we finally chose to spend most of the day. Here you'll find everything the average Juan needs to live; clothing, toys, appliances, cards, office products, groceries, fabrics. And best of all, no one bothers you. We were able to wander around, look in any window, muse over a sidewalk snack cart, and not have that continual pushing for our money, At last we could watch the population go about their business without becoming their business.
There are subtle differences that make this Mexican shopping district so different from its U.S. counterpart. There's a bit more specialization in the stores: one sells meat, one sells bread: things are a bit more compact, and contrasts between stores are more distinct. Fancy, modern stores that are impecabily clean sit next to small disorderly stores with dust covering everything or next to outdoor stalls made from a mish mash of lumber covered with tarps where they serve menudo and cervesa for lunch. Even the care of the streets changes. In the tourist district men push around little carts sweeping up litter. But on the real street, litter tends to collect. There are none of those big street sweepers found in the U.S. so street cleaning is labor intensive and not done all that often where it's not absolutely necessary. With all its differences, we found we loved seeing the real Ensenada. It's so alive and vibrant. Not artifical.
We found an incredible store in the suberbs of Ensenada. Called Gigante, it's a cross between a Kmart and a grocery store. Upon entering you immediately walk down an aisle that's as wide as a 2 lane road. The floors are squeeky clean and everything sparkles white. But, there was so much space. If you think of your typical Kmart or Walmart you think of 9 ft. tall shelves stacked full of stuff, six or seven varieties of the same item. The tops of the shelves are piled ceiling high with more things. Even in front of the checkout counters are more ceiling high piles of stuff. Aisles are narrow and you're always bumping into someone. In Gigante shelves are at most 5 ft high, nothing is piled to the ceiling, aisles are wide, and selection is limited to just one or two choices for each item. It seemed to be much less a "push the customer to buy, buy, buy" atmosphere. Much more low key and easier to handle. We quickly learned to like shopping at Gigante.
South of Ensenada and the next large town, Maneadero, one passes beyond point where gringos lacking tourist cards can go, beyond the land of major population centers, into the realm of small towns and light traffic. The road narrows, climbs hills, and passes through fertile valleys filled with farms. The towns are quite different from those found in the U.S. They tend to consist of groups of small, individual buildings clustered in one area. Some are residences and others are stores. But, apart from most businesss being along the main road, there appears to be no real distinct "downtown". So it's a bit difficult to tell when you've actually hit town center. Every town has at least two or three little abarrotes (grocery stores), auto mechanics, tire repair, motels, and liquor stores.
The only road that's paved is the main route 1. The rest are a dusty, dry dirt which quickly clings to everything. Put something down on the store shelves and a few hours later it looks like it's been there for months. The buildings are predominately made from concrete block often covered with stucco painted in various pastels. They're small, appearing to be at most one or two rooms. I also noted that some of the houses had concrete block, barbcue like kithens in the rear. Women use large steel pots to cook over open fires in much the way early settlers in the western U.S. used to cook. It makes a lot of sense as the heat from the fire would be too hot in summer and the danger of fire quite severe.
Agricultural crops of the region seem to be lettuce, brocolli, cauliflower, oranges, nuts, tomatoes, and beaver tail cactus. The cactus growers had some unusul looking fields. A small block house would be completely surrounded with cactus. Imagine having this yard when you're a small kid. Hide and seek takes on a whole new, and quite painful, meaning. Just a few short decades ago these farms did not exist due to the lack of water. Now they tap into ancient underground lakes using wind and gas driven motors. Yet I'm sure the water is not being replaced at anything close to the rete it's being used. So, someday this area may experience a major financial collapse as the water runs out.
Beyond the town of San Quintin the farms give way to desert. Even with the light rains we'd been receiving the desert was not about to turn green. It's pretty in it's own way. Puffy white clouds covered the mountains to the east, the brown rugged hills contrast sharply with the bright blue sky, the ocean sparkles to the west. There are few roads, little traffic, and few houses. Baja is a remote, unsettled, desert region.
We stopped for two nights in the tiny town of El Rosario. It has a population of only a few hundred and is located at a sharp bend in the road (curva peligrosa) at the bottom of a brake burner 800 ft. hill. It's claim to fame is the Mama Espinosa's's restaurante. A small brick building right at the corner it used to be one of the main stopping points for the Baja 1000 race. The Baja 1000 was an auto race from Ensenada to La Paz going over the rough dirt roads before route 1 was built in 1973. Must have been quite a race, bucking and bouncing along in some beat up old car over dusty roads with steep curves and slopes, no services, no pit stops. The town is now a sleepy little berg with at least 5 abarrotes, 3 hotels, 2 baseball fields, a very blue school, and an orphanage. El Rosario, the last stop before heading into 220 miles of desert and a great place to stop and refresh.
South of El Rosario the road takes that sharp turn and heads inland and uphill. For 25 miles we did lots and lots of up interspersed with little downs. Perhaps one of the more frustrating aspects of bike touring is knowing full well that the sumit of a climb is at some altitude, yet the road doesn't go direct. To go down, even for just a few hundred feet, means you have to reclimb that same altitude all over again. I'd rather just go up and get it over with. So we climb and climb and then go down, grumbling at those road engineers all the way.
But after that 2000 ft summit we had mile after mile of rolling desert hills with only an occasional rancho (small cafe serving tacos, burritos, and cervesa) providing breaks from the bright winter sunshine. We camped behind one our first night in this desert. Rancho Progresso, a small brown building with a big palm frond covered rotunda out front made from the dead, swiss cheese looking trunks of the cordon cactus, cousin to the saguaro of Arizona but often much larger. During the highway construction it was a major construction camp. Consequently there are piles of rotting car carcases, smashed rusted beverage cans with the old style pull tab, the remains of an old refrigerator, and an old Aeromotor windmill used to bring water from a deep well. The cars were strange. There were fronts, rears, axels, frames, hoods, trunks, all sorts of bits and pieces that didn't appear to be from the same car. We could account for some of the missing halves by all the homemade trailers we'd seen, trailers made from the back half of a pickup truck. But where the rest of the pieces went, we have no idea. With the amount of metal contained in all those carcases you'd think it'd be profitable to salvage some, cleaning up the mess in the process. But, alas, it just sits, deteriorating at a insignificant rate as all trash in the desert does.
The vegetation of this high desert is some of the most unusual desert stuff we've seen so far. There are those cardons, huge columns of pale green cactus eminating from a single point reaching up to 20 or 30 feet high. There are also the cirio. Unique to this desert, these are tall narrow inverted cones sometimes having several branches on top. This time of year they have a yellowish trunk and are covered with pale green fuzzy looking leaves. Our tour book describes them as huge upsidedown carrots, which isn't too far off. There are also Joshua trees, creosote bushes, lots of grey looking low lying bushes, and huge, huge boulders. Each night the sky comes alive with a zillion diamond bright stars. If I knew my constellations I could pick out Andromeda, Pices, Sagitarious, Aquarius. With virtually no light pollution it's easy to see why the observatory in the mountains to the east is world famous.
Coming up over the hill we see a row of orange cones and 8 or 9 khaki clad, machine gun toteing boys standing by the road, just waiting. Each and every car gets stopped and searched for guns and illegal drugs. The penalty for carrying either is quite severe. In between Ensenada and Guerrero Negro we've seen no less than 5 of these search points. They're all manned by federal soldiers rather than local police, so perhaps this is the government's way of breaking the huge drug rings that so often involve the local policia. People who've been traveling this road for years tell us this is the most number of times they've been stopped. Fortunately, they just let us pass with big smiles and waves. But I must admit, it's quite intimidating to have these awfuly young 17 or 18 year olds guarding both sides of the road, machine guns slung across each small frame just waiting for someone to make the wrong move. We nervously smile and wave back as we pass.
One of the things we're having a hard time adjusting to is the shear quantity of trash found along the road. Tons upon tons of trash is scattered the entire length of the highway with major concentrations occurring at every intersection, town, and rest area. We've seen no less than three huge piles of case upon case of broken coke bottles appearing much like a coke delivery truck toppled over. Rusting car and truck relics are found everywhere, even the remains of a gasoline delivery truck is to be found. Cans, glass and plastic bottles, toilet paper, plastic bags, and lots of dirty baby diapers. The concept of saving your trash for proper disposal in a trash bin just does not exist. You're done with it, toss it out the window and forget about it. The problem is, in the desert it stays where it landed for generations.
But, we gringos can be just as guilty of littering. One of the trashiest highways I've seen in the U.S. is I-15 between LA and Los Vegas. Also, I recall traveling with my parents back in the 60s and not thinking twice about tossing stuff out the window. It took years and years of public education through the schools, TV, and other advertising to make most people aware of the consequences of their littering habit. Remember the Indian paddling through floating trash with a tear in his eye. Even still, there are many people who have not gotten the message.
In Mexico, this message is just starting to be delivered to the children and not very strongly. Subtle messages about caring for the environment can be found in some of the tourist literature for kids. There's no strong anti litter campaign, no "this highway adopted by" volunteer litter control program, no $1000 fine for littering. The Mexican government has a long way to go toward changing people's attitudes and with so many economic concerns it's probably not high on their "to-do" list. But, maybe with the new push toward improving tourist facilities in Baja they'll pay a bit more attention to this problem. I would love to suggest a cash incentive program that would get people out to clean up sections of the road; minimum cost to the government, clean roadsides, extra cash in people's pockets, and all that glass, plastic, paper, and metal could be recycled to help fund the program. A win-win deal. But, I doubt it would ever happen and if it did it would probably become onother bureaucratic spider web.
We climbed up and over the mountains, dropped onto the flat flood plain having virtually no vegetation, past the modern looking statue of an eagle marking the 28th parallel and the state line between B. Calif. and B. Calif. Sur,, and on into the the town of Guerrero Negro. Not a pretty town, it sure was a good sight for two tired bikers who hadn't seen a hot shower for 5 days and who were terribly out of shape a mere week earlier. It seems to be quite an affluent town as attested to its paved main road, nice hotels and restaurants, nicer than average homes, and the biggest mercado we've seen since Ensenada. It's major product is salt. The biggest salt producing factory in the world, in fact. There's also tourism as the grey whales spend winter in the nearby bay, calving and mating. Whale watching tours are readily available for $35 dlls. per person. And, of course, it's the first stop after that long 230 miles of nearly no services. Those big RVs all stop to get their 100+ gallon tanks filled. For us it was a hotel, hot shower, and good meal.
Guerrero Negro consists of a bunch of miscellaneous commercial establishments spread along about a 2 mile stretch of pseudo paved road, the center of the road is paved and dirt side streets parallel it on both sides. This street appears to be the newer section of town with lots of in-work construction and relatively new buildings. Toward the west appears to be the old section of town, looking a bit more like a town center than most anything we've seen so far. Streets extend out in a rectangular pattern from this town center and the one road filled with businesses extends to the east. Our biggest difficulty with the town was in locating the post office. Rather than having a prominent building, flying the Mexican flag making it easily recognizable it was in a small run-down quanset hut style building, painted white and blue, located on a small side street. It took us 4 tries to finally find it. The post office department doesn't appear to be a major part of the government.
About bidway between Guerror Negro and the small town of Santa Ignacio is the rapidly growing intersection called Vizcaino. Turn right to head to the beaches of the Pacific and straight to the Gulf of California. Other than providing services for travelers on Rt 1, there is no other plausible reason for this town's existence. However, this was where we met the most friendly campground owners we've encountered so far. Just past the intersection is a small brick restaurant, the brick being unique to Baja, and the tiny 5 room Motel Kaadekman, who knows where the name comes from. Adjacent to the motel is a large empty field for RV parking. But between the field and motel are huge trees shading a small round table and odd chairs carved out of a single log. For 40 pesos it was a great place for the night. But, the amenities did not stop there. Our oh so friendly hosts provided us with access to one of their regular room for a shower, complete with their own towels. Later in the evening they presented us with fresh strawberries, rolls, and donuts. These weren't for the regular RVers. Just us bikers. Certainly we would recommend to any bike tourist passing this way to forego the first motel at Vizcaino and head right for Kaadekman.
Mexico is filled with mysteries, both everyday and extra ordinary. Two we noticed all the way down Baja. Next to the road in every town and village are hundreds of half finished buildings. Foundations with the spindly rusted spines of steel rebar corner reinforcements sit, abandoned. Block walls; one, two, three sides with stair stepped ends and piles of loose concrete blocks on the side appear as though the builder had just finished for the day and gone home. Or even empty hulks of houses with completed walls, but no roof, windows, doors, or interior. Private houses, commercial establishments, small and modest or grandiose lie on virtualy every town street corner waiting to be completed. We were stumped. The only plausible explanation is lack of funds. "But why," we asked, "would anyone start a building project without being sure they had the funds to finish it and why do people start new projects rather than finish an existing one thereby saving a lot of money?" Is it lack of careful financial planning? Is it because there's no external entity, like a bank, making sure things get completed? Is it corruption on the part of the builder, owner, investor? We couldn't help but think of all the billions and billions of wasted pesos spent on building projects that now sit, abanonded. Then again maybe building is completed in a stepwise fashion, finish as much as you can afford each step of the way. We see this in the way houses often have a finished first floor with rebar for the second floor still in place. As the family or finances expand, the house follows suite. But, that doesn't explain the shear number of unfinished structures.
The other is the lack of eye glasses. After over 2 weeks in Mexico we could honestly say the number of people we've seen wearing glasses could easily be counted on one hand. And these are usually men working in banks. One couple we met said that often they can't afford glasses. They told a story of how their daughter came down to a small town as part of a used glasses distribution program sponsored by the Lion's club. Lines of people waiting for glasses spread out the door. But, in a relatively affluent town like Guerrero Negro you would think there'd be at least a few people walking the streets wearing glasses. Surely there must be some people, like me, whose vision is so bad they'd stumble down the street and would have difficulty performing almost any task. We saw none. Is it vanity? Is it because there is less emphasis on doing close reading? Book stores are not that prevelant and visions of 20/50, 20/40 can easily be tolerated for most work. Is it perhaps the genes of the native Indian population so prevelant throughout these people does not have that high degree of nearsightedness as northern European blood lines? Maybe it is entirely a matter of cost, but I don't think so.
45 miles beyond Vizcaino is one of the nicest and most unique Baja towns we've seen. Tucked within a wide arroyo, right over a location where a large underground river surfaces is a huge shadey glade of date palm trees. Turnng right off that dry, dusty road surrounded by grey, brown, and pale green desert you are suddenly surrounded by tall, lush trees, flowing streams of water, grassy fields. One could pretend, just for a while, that the stark desert just outside did not exist. The town, San Ignacio, located at the end of the paved road, is what I would picture as a true Mexican village. There was a beautifully maintained central plaza bordered by tall ancient trees. Three sides of the plaza were surrounded by stucco style merchandizing buildings and at the head of the plaza, in a place of prominence, stands one of the few intact Baja mission churches. The church was bult in 1786 by the Dominican friars. With white stuccoed walls embellished with pink stone borders and statues of four monks it's ornate exterior bespeaks of the far distant time in which it was built. Inside it houses 3 intricatly carved gold painted alters containing exquisite paintings of various religious scenes. A definite highlight of our Baja tour
We stayed in town for several hours after the general throng of tourists had retired to the gringo RV park. This was when the town came alive. The plaza was filled with younger boys playng an ad-hoc game of soccer, older boys played foosball. Girls generally were not in sight. The small "hot dog" stands parked nearby did a brisk business as adults stopped by during their evening stroll. We found a seat to watch and revel in the feel of a real Mexican atmosphere.
Our trek into San Ignacio had been one of those desert endurance trials we had grown to know so well and hate so much last year. Rounding a corner we were suddenly blasted by harsh winds out of the north-east turning an easy leisurely ride into a tortuous crawl. The morning we left San Ignacio the winds once again lashed out. We'd had enough. When we decided to ride down Baja we did so only because of the time we needed to wait before starting our malaria regime. Neither of us really wanted to spend another month riding in the desert after last year's 3 months. So, with a bit of asking around, we managed to hitch ourselves a ride with a friendly Canadian, named Carl, and his big furry black dog, Nell. Piling our bikes and bags into his already well loaded Ford Bronco, me on Brian's lap in the front with Nell in between and Carl at the wheel, we took off for the last 45 miles to Santo Rosalia. There we would catch the ferry to the mainland and then a bus to the Yucatan to be where we originally wanted to go anyway.
Appendix A - Route
Pacific Coast Highway and other city streets through San Diego
Baja California & Baja Calif Sur Free route 1 to Ensenada Highway 1 to Santa Rosalia
Appendix B - Campsites
Holiday Hotel in San Ysidro ($)
Los Asistos Trailer Park in La Mision, Campo Playa RV Park, Ensenada ($), Unamed motel in San Vincente ($), Don Pepe's Rv park in Colonia Vincente Guerrero ($), Hotel Sinai in El Rosario 2 nights ($), Near Rancho Progreso, St. Iniz near Catavania ($), At intersection with road to Bahia Los Angeles, Near Rancho Esperanza, Hotel Ballena in Guerrero Negro 2 nights ($), Motel and RV Park Kaadekman at Vizaino ($), Padrina RV park in San Ignacio ($), Las Palmas RV Park in Santa Rosalia ($)
($) indicates fee camping
Copyright © 1995-2011 by Caryl L. Bergeron - Distribution for personal use permitted. Distribution for other uses with written permission.