Wednesday, June 24, 2015

600 Miles of Baja

Day 2

The second day of our road trip dawned in Ensenada, a lovely Pacific facing city with a pleasant tourist area of restaurants and shops. Kip had been to Ensenada once before when he and two other guys sailed our little sail boat from Marina del Rey to Ensenada, unofficially tagging along a caravan of sailors participating in the world famous Newport to Ensenada race, but this was my first time to Ensenada and at some point I would like to spend more time in this charming little seaside city.

Waking up early in Ensenada.

The kids were immediately fascinated with Ensenada, its surprisingly modern areas as well as its dirt road, taco-stand areas; and our daughter who has been looking at all kinds of post high school options even mentioned she would be interested in learning more about a Bible college that we had heard about in Ensenada. I’m not sure if she will follow up with that, or even if it would be the best thing for her to pursue, but I was really happy that our adventure was opening her heart to new ideas and opportunities. One of my goals for the trip was already accomplished.

After leaving the hotel we made our first stop at the gleaming, enticing Starbucks. And I was immediately disappointed with some of the worst coffee I have ever consumed. But it was a good experience in that it helped us break from the “safe” and launch into the local fare.

As we got on the road our GPS immediately told us it would take 17 hours to get to our destination, which scared us. I had known that we lost time by stopping in Ensenada and not pressing on to our original destination, a dot on the map mentioned in several Baja travel blogs I had been researching; but I had not considered that it might take us until 2 a.m. to get to the house I had already rented in Loreto Bay. And that is when I realized that we would have to either get a hotel somewhere short of the original plan or press on and drive at night. We had already decided we would not drive at night. Even while standing in line at Starbucks we heard rumors that recent tropical storms may have washed out parts of Highway 1.  One woman was telling me a story about semi trucks ferrying people across washed out areas (which never saw). But all the blogs agreed that night driving in Mexico is dangerous, and I was already feeling nervous about taking our family so far from our safety net, so we decided to do what we always do. We kept going and decided to decide later.

Once outside of Ensenada the road changed from a modern, well-kept, well-lit, interstate-style highway, to a two-lane road with a single yellow line down the middle. All signs were in Spanish, no English translation.  But for the most part the road was good enough, similar to what you would expect on a secondary road in rural areas of the US. It was windy in places where it went through the mountains, but with the help of our GPS we could see when the curves were coming and it was not too difficult to manage.

For about 1,000 miles I thought that meant don't trash your tires. It actually means "Do not litter." Thank you Goggle Translate.

Another sign I saw a few dozen times and never bothered to translate until I got home. "If you drink, don't drive." Didn't need that sign either. You would have to be loco to drink and drive.
The first four hours between Ensenada and El Rosario were a progression from city to scenic mountains and new wine vineyards, to flat agriculture plains and dusty towns with tire repair shops and taco stands. 

Everyone seemed to largely ignore the speed limit signs which were in kilometers per hour. At times it felt like a cross between the wild west and the Autobahn. Semi trucks and buses generally progressed pretty slowly, especially up and down curvy mountain roads, but there were a few drivers who felt comfortable taking the road faster. I got passed by a few pickup trucks when I was driving 75 mph in a 80 kph zone. But even with such a disparity of speed, it seemed that drivers were respectful of each other. Slower traffic often pulled to the side to give us room to pass.

In Baja slower drivers have a confusing custom of putting their left turn signal on to let motorists behind them know that it is safe to pass them, but I always waited until I could actually see far enough down the road. After a few hours of driving I became comfortable with passing buses and trucks, something I probably would not have done in the US, but I always required a quick high five from Kip because I need that kind of affirmation for being brave.

In the little towns all the traffic slows to a crawl, mostly because there are children and dogs running in and out of the street, and the city has significant speed bumps, some of which are unpainted. Hitting one of those “welcome” bumps at 30 mph is enough to bounce the kids in the back seat to the ceiling. I only hit one or two before I learned where to look for them.

One thing that disappointed us about the road south of Ensenada was the fact that you could not see the Pacific Ocean from the road. There must be hundreds miles of untouched, undeveloped coastal land hidden from Highway 1.

So when we got our first sneak peek at the ocean, we forgot about needing to press on, and took an unmarked dirt road that looked like it might lead to the ocean. We were not disappointed.

Turning from the road less traveled onto a road even lesser traveled.

A beach to ourselves

Notice my son has a GoPro. I can't wait to see the movie he makes of our trip.

Back on the road we headed to El Rosario, home of the Baja Cactus and a dirt biking race that Kip had heard about. We got the famous, crab burritos that were amazing and too much, all at once, and filled up the car with gas since it was over 200 miles until the next gas station.

This next stretch of road crossed a national reserve and was a showcase of desert cacti, colorful rocks and unfortunate abandoned tires.

Beware of cows, in the desert? This is no joke as we learned later.

The only gas station for over 200 miles as you pass through the

Water running over the road near the Oasis town of San Ignacio
 The most bazaar moment of the afternoon was when we heard what sounded like someone throwing a bucket of water at our windshield. I looked up at the blue sky without a hint of rain and realized that we had just driven into a swarm of bees. I counted at least 30 on the windshield.

Bee swarm collision.

The speed limit is 40 kph or about 24 mph. Would you pass?

Not a scarecrow, but a friendly sign dressed in combat clothing to warn drivers to slow down for the mandatory military check points. I had read that some travelers are nervous about these check points, but once I got used to seeing young men holding machine guns, it was fine. They were all really nice to us.

We pressed on through the agricultural area near the town of Guerrero Negro and across El Vizcaíno desert, oasis towns, an extinct volcano and a challengingly steep canyon the dropped us into spectacular views of the Sea of Cortez bathed in sunset light. By my estimation we still had a couple hours driving so we kept going. 

I've heard this incline is similar to dropping into the Grand Canyon. They call it the Inferno and it is right outside Santa Rosalía, above the Sea of Cortez.

We passed through the intriguing French influenced mining town of Santa Rosalía and played a fun game of "Is my English good enough to beg you to let my teenager use your bathroom?" in the very friendly little town Mulegé, but for the most part we were aware of the growing darkness and anxious to press on to our destination.

This is the town dump, the first thing visitors see after they drop out of the mountains, glimps the Sea of Cortez and head into the little town of Santa Rosalía

Through the whole day of driving the kids had not complained at all, not a word. We were all deeply engaged in the audiobook Peter and the Shadow Thieves, the second book in the prequel of Peter Pan by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, and so it came as a sobering shock when out of my peripheral vision I saw an enormous brown cow nibbling grass inches from the road. 

The cow was probably not enormous, but regular cow size, but to pass one at 80 mph on an eerily empty road in a foreign country was nerve-wracking for me. We slowed down, turned off the audiobook and had a serious game of cow spotting. We also had a family prayer time and only passed one more cow. 

The cow we passed in daylight didn't seem too scary, but we heard several people relate horror stories about drivers hitting livestock on the road. Turns out banditos are not the problem. It's the cows.

 So by the time we arrived in Loreto Bay, a fairly new, mostly American and Canadian-owned community of upscale villas, we were all fully awake despite the fact that it was near midnight. It was hot and it took a while to find a security guard to let us into the villa we had rented. But once we settled in and the kids went to bed, Kip and I sat on the expansive balcony, amazed at our new home for the next few days, and watched shooting stars.


Monday, June 22, 2015

Baja Family Road Trip Part 1

How We Decided to Pack Up the SUV and Drive 2,000 Miles with the Kids

A few weeks ago, as the Kip’s busy work season began to slow and his co-workers started talking about taking family vacations to all-inclusive beach resorts, he began suggesting we do the same with our family. Although we have taken the kids on a few extended family trips and at least one work related trip this past year, we have not gone on a vacation-only trip with just the four of us since we went to Hawaii in 2008. The kids are 13 and 16 now, and we are acutely aware that our foursome family days are limited. This time next year our oldest will be a high school graduate and our baby will be getting ready to start his freshman year in high school.

Hawaii in September 2008

They are almost all the same height now. Father's Day, June 21, 2015 in San Ignacio, Baja California Sur, Mexico

But when we broached the topic of vacation with the kids we got a lot of push back

Why are we always planning trips? Why can’t we just stay at home? I’m going to miss my friend’s birthday party. 

The very thought of staying at a beach resort seemed repulsive to them, totally boring to sit on the beach and read books. Our 13-year-old was particularly concerned about being away from friends for a week or two. Kip, on the other hand, dealing with his first year at the most demanding job he has ever held, as well as an hour-long, one-way daily commute to work and an extended season of aggressive international work travel; seemed to be needing a stress-free vacation as an almost medical necessity. He was longing for sun, sand and days of no work calls, no early morning crisis e-mails, no after dinner dishes, no driving to work.

So we had a few family conversations.

I found myself, self-appointed family referee, saying things like “Ok, now don’t tell me what you don’t like. Tell me what you do like.” And I found that while Kip remembered our past anniversary trips to all-inclusive resorts for their blissful moments of sipping margaritas under beachside palapas with nothing to worry about, I also remembered sunburns and the environment created by people gorging on all-inclusive food and alcohol. My favorite vacation moments over the past few years have mostly been from the international work trips that I tagged along on: discovering medieval castles in Germany, riding bikes up mountain roads in Norway, early morning running through the streets of Istanbul, sailing a Hobie Cat with Kip in Cancun, exploring Greek islands on a Vespa. But all of these moments were just Kip and me. This time we wanted to bring the kids.

I asked the kids what they have enjoyed the most on family trips and some of their answers surprised me. My daughter, almost apologetically, said she really enjoyed walking around gift shops and buying little souvenirs with our family in Alaska. My son really enjoyed riding bikes through Central Park on a recent trip to New York City. And of course, although he wanted to do some shopping, he was not interested in “walking aimlessly around.” And I remembered that the biking through Central Park was more stressful than fun for my daughter who may have been overwhelmed by the adventure of navigating crowded streets and figuring out how to maneuver a different bike than the beach cruiser she uses at home.

We were at a vacation planning impasse.

Then Kip suggested we could drive to Cabo San Lucas, all the way, and suddenly that seemed like the perfect adventure. For years Kip has been dreaming about taking a motorcycle there, but I have always been concerned about road conditions, banditos, drug cartels, the fact that we don’t really speak Spanish. But for some reason when we started talking about the adventure of taking the kids on a road trip through the Baja peninsula with the goal of making it to a restful margarita-on-the-beach resort destination, it seemed to be a win-win for both me and Kip.

Family adventure with a bonus margarita in Loreto, Baja California Sur, Mexico

It took the kids a few more days to get on board with the plan. But by the time we bought new vacation bathing suits and downloaded fresh audiobooks and music playlists of their choosing, we were all ready for the family road trip.

Day 1


Characteristically, we started our Baja trip about 8 hours late, but we had been ambitious to think we could head out of town with the first light of day anyhow.

Kip had just returned from a business trip the day before and I was frantically trying to make sure that we had everything essential packed and that the house was clean for friends and guests who would be staying here while we were gone. Kip, of course, spent more time rigging up a new GPS, DVD, Bluetooth, digital device thing and changing the car battery, than picking out his clothes. But despite the delay the GPS was incredibly useful, and as always, Kip packed all the right clothes anyway.

So with kids ready, house ready, SUV ready, we headed out by late afternoon and immediately hit Los Angeles rush hour traffic. 

We tapped into both of the kids’ music playlists, only stopped for ice cream once, and hit the Mexican border at Tijuana just after dark, the one thing I had anxiously not wanted to do.
We crossed the border and began looking for the tourists office to get our required tourist cards, and not only could not find it, but found ourselves circling the poorly marked border crossing buildings and getting stuck into a lane going out of Mexico and back into California. 

It was a stressful, but once back in the US, we stopped, took a deep breath and used our mobile phones to look up maps, motel listings in Ensenada and allusive information on how to get to the supposedly 24-hour tourist office. We also changed money, took one lasts trip to an American potty, and went for a second try in finding the tourism office.

This time when we crossed the border we pulled into a lane for declaration, asked someone for help and after several misguidances, found the office, spent $100 and got our “required” tourists visas that we actually never used during our whole 2,000 mile, 12-day trip. No one asked to see them at the multiple military and police check points, and we did not need them to re-enter the United States.
With all our proper paperwork we headed out into Tijuana, a border town whose notorious reputation intimidated me, around 10 p.m. and realized we were already breaking our resolution to avoid after-dark driving in Mexico. 

But not wanting to go back into San Diego, we loaded up the GPS and headed south to Ensenada and I gradually realized we were going to be just fine. The toll road from Tijuana to Ensenada is well-lit, well-traveled and probably just as safe as driving through Los Angeles in the middle of the night. We arrived in a charming, touristy area of Ensenada around 11 p.m. and found a decent hotel that was perfect for a one-night, family stay. I set my alarm for dawn and the next morning we got up and began our real Baja adventure.