Monday, June 29, 2009

Road Trip - Baja Style

As you begin to read this posting the conclusion is immediately obvious – that is – I MADE IT! Yes, I arrived back here in Calgary, safe and sound, after completing the trip from Loreto in six days, including a layover of a day and a half just outside of Los Angeles.

I left Loreto at 9:00 am on Sunday morning, after finishing loading the Yukon with all the last minute things – not least of which was the cat! Jazmine was travelling in her kitty cage travel box which I put on the passenger seat beside me. In behind the front seats there was about a four square foot area on top of one of the boxes that was her “patio” area where she could move around and stretch her legs. When she felt adventurous, she could range over the entire back cargo area, sniffing and exploring the various boxes and suitcases that filled it up to, and above, the back windows.

Because of slow traffic, it took me almost an hour to clear the first Federal Army Checkpoint which is only 25 km north of Loreto (40 km from Loreto Bay) – not a very auspiscious beginning to a 4,000 km trip. (I couldn't help calculating that at this rate it would take me 100 hours to complete the trip!) But progress speeded up past the checkpoint and about a half an hour and 50 km later I saw the south end of Bahia Conception, which is one of the most scenic features of the entire Baja.

About half way between Mulege and Santa Rosalia there was the first of several new bridge constructions. This one was major, with three long spans and it is a good example of the ongoing improvements to this highway which the Mexican Federal Government is funding to the tune of millions of dollars. At the 200 km mark I arrived in Santa Rosalia after two and a half hours of driving. This is a thriving Port with the ferry terminal to Guaymas on the mainland, and adjacent to the docks there is a large industrial site belonging to the copper mine which has been shut down for years, but it is currently being refurbished and the mine will be going back into operation when the restoration work is completed. Upon leaving Santa Rosalia you head west, away from the Sea of Cortez and up the Cuestra de Infierno (the Hill from Hell) and onto the high desert plain that stretches almost 200 km across the peninsula to Guerrero Negro and the border between the states of Baja California Sur and Baja California (Norte).

Just past San Ignacio, about 75 km from Santa Rosalia, I came to the second Military Checkpoint. These inspection spots are the most obvious and invasive part of the government's “war on drugs” and by evidence of the number of heavily armed, uniformed soldiers that staff these stops, they take their work seriously. The rigorousness of these searches varies widely; from a few questions through the open window about where you are going to and coming from, up to being told to leave the car while two men search under the seats, tap the door panels and thoroughly inspect the cargo area, opening a box or two to check the contents. It is my impression, however, that these soldiers, with the experience of inspecting hundreds of cars a day, have a pretty good idea of the profile of the smuggler types they are looking for, and, fortunately, I don't appear to fit that profile. However, I have watched while they have inserted long metal probes into trailer loads of hay bales, and dismantled entire loads of miscellaneous cargo from tractor-trailer units looking for drugs and guns. All of this diligence apparently pays off sometimes, as at some of the more established checkpoints there are large display boards with a dozen or more “mug-shots” of unlucky offenders that had been aprehended at that location – a combination of bragging rights and sober warning!

The trials and tribulations of travelling with a cat – about three hours into the trip Jazmine, who had been complaining fairly steadily off and on since we began the trip, suddenly started making a small gagging sound which was soon followed by throwing up what was left of her breakfast. Being the appropriately concerned “parent” that I am, I was distracted briefly by watching her, but that was long enough for me to sideswipe one of the ubiquitous white posts that appear by the hundreds on both sides of this highway, to mark it's edge for night-time travellers. Now in most of North America these sort of markers are made of flexible plastic, however in Mexico they are made of solid concrete reinforced with a piece of rebar (like just about everything else in Mexico). Fortunately, I just “kissed” the post with the front corner of the bumper, resulting in mainly cosmetic damage to the plastic bumper cover and a ding in the front fender. However, as evidenced by the white scuff mark on the sidewall of the front tire, I was probably within an inch of the post connecting with something solid which could have had a much more serious result. Because of the lack of any shoulders on the road, and very few spots where it is possible to turn off, it was several kilometers after my near miss before I was able to get off the road and inspect the damage.

After cleaning up the cat cage and confirming the car was OK, I was back on the road again. A short distance further on I came to an unmarked intersection where there were a couple of dozen cars pulled off the to the sides of the road with people milling about and a police truck with their lights flashing. I was naturally curious, but there was no sign of an accident or other reason for this congregation and I continued on. A short distance further I started to see a few scattered caballereos on horseback, then a few more and soon I was stopped behind a lane full of pick-up trucks pulling horse trailers travelling beside over a hundred mounted horses riding in the dust along the side of the highway. I was eventually able to pass this parade of trucks and trailers which was being lead, at a walking pace, by another police truck with lights flashing. When I eventually reached the front of the column of horses I discovered it was being lead by a truck mounted with a huge pair of speakers blaring mariachi music. What made this event even more peculiar was that it was happening in the middle of one of the most remote spots in the entire peninsula, over 100 km from any population, but yet here were over 100 horses and at least twice that many people congregating for a Sunday afternoon ride.

But that wasn't the only recreational activity happening on the highway – about 50 km further on, traffic was halted in the middle of nowhere by a small group of aparent officials, all wearing uniform yellow T-shirts. With about half a dozen cars stopped in both directions, we waited for a few minutes before we saw a dust trail approaching the highway from out of the desert. As it got closer we could hear the growl of the engine and then suddenly a souped up quad came to a screaching halt in a cloud of dust at the edge of the road where it was quickly checked out by another guy in a yellow T-shirt who waved it on to cross the highway and then it disappeared in another cloud of dust back into the desert on the other side. When the racer had disappeared the cars were waved on and my journey up the Baja continued.

I arrived in Guerrero Negro about 2:00 pm at the 400 km mark in about 5 hours, including a gas stop and the two Checkpoints I had cleared. This is where the border between the two states divides the peninsula north to south and there is a small Immigration Office (trailer) which is sometimes open where you can get a visa stamped as you enter or exit Baja California Sur. Because this office has been closed as often as open, when we have passed through here on previous trips, I took the precaution of having my FM3 visa exit stamped before I left Loreto. There is also a major military post here and this is also where there is a time zone change, when you cross the border going north you gain an hour going from Mountain to Pacific time. I stopped here to top up the gas tank as there is a long stretch ahead without services.

About 60 north of Guerrero Negro I came to the third Checkpoint of the trip. The officer in charge was polite and spoke a little English, while a couple of others did the regular inspection. However, Jazmine apparently doesn't like these strangers rummaging around her box, so she starts complaining and that brings the inspection to a fairly abrupt conclusion. It has been my observation that many Mexicans don't like cats – perhaps because they are relatively uncommon down here (as opposed to dogs, that are everywhere) and the ones that manage to survive here are probably pretty rank and possibly dangerous. In any event, Jazmine seems to have a discouraging effect on the dilligence of the inspection routine, another reason why I like cats!

Speaking of wldlife, there is one less vulture now in the Baja. About 50 km north of the Checkpoint a vulture took off from the side of the road, right in front of the car. This is not an uncommon event as they are often to be found nearby the highway, attracted to the roadkill. However this individual timed it badly and it hit the front fender on the driver's side. Fortunately the impact sounded much worse than the damage that resulted – these birds are about the size of an average turkey and probably weigh at least 20 lbs. When I was eventually able to stop, about 5 km later, I discovered that the collision had knocked the turn signal module partly out of the fender but I was able to snap it back into place and all the lights were still working. Unfortunately, the vulture didn't fare so well – I wonder if vultures scavenge each other's remains?

About 150 km north of Guerrero Negro I came to the first of the granite boulder mounds that become more and more common as I got closer to Catavina. This is a unique, almost unearthly, feature of this part of the peninsula – suddenly you are surrounded by huge mounds of rounded boulders, some of them the size of a small house, for as far as the eye can see in all directions. These rocks are the result of eons of erosion and after 50 km or so they disappear as quickly as they appeared with the changing geology.

During this remote and isolated section of the journey ones thoughts tend to wander, so, in keeping with my mood at this point, here are a few random thoughts about gasoline. In Mexico all retail gas is distributed by the government owned monopoly Pemex. This means that gas prices are fixed nationally and do not vary with location. Currently gas is selling for about 74 pesos per litre – or 75 cents US, approximately equivalent to the US prices in the $2.85 per gallon range that I paid on the way home. There was an announcement in Mexico, this past winter, that gas prices would be frozen for the foreseeable future as part of an economic recovery package. This was in light of the fact that previously the prices in Mexico were being slowly escalated every week to raise more revenue for the government. Different than in our market based economies, fuel prices in Mexico are set by government decree, not world markets.

Although I could be accused of being a conspiracy theorist, I believe that this price freeze has been coupled with a gradual reduction in the octane levels in the fuel to offset the lack of increased revenues. My reason for this theroy is due to the fact that my Yukon has developed a persistent “knocking” problem for the first time this winter, which disappears when I use the more expensive, higher octane premium fuel. However, every time I stopped for fuel on this trip the Pemex stations only had regular grade fuel available, coincidentally they were all out of the premium grade – verrrry interrresting!

Now, some mental meandering on the subject of the current and future condition of this road, Mexico Highway #1. While most of this road is consistantly two lanes and 19 ½ feet wide with no shoulders, there are occasional stretches of new paving that have been built out to 25 feet or more with reasonable shoulders and white outside lane markings replacing the dangerous posts I had met with earlier. These wider stretches are, I hope, an indication of the new standard that will become the norm for the entire road in the future. On a trip from Loreto to Cabo earlier this winter, I was amazed to drive almost half of the 200+ km between La Paz and Cabo on a brand new 4 lane divided highway with wide bridges – dare to dream what it would be like to travel on such a road the entire 1600 km length of the Baja!

Back to my journey – at about 5:30 “mountain” time I was approaching El Rosario, about the 750 km north of Loreto. This small town is near the Pacific coast and is significant historically as the southern end point of the original road, prior to the opening of Highway #1 in 1973. One of the landmarks is a roadside diner called Mama Espinozas where the specialty is Lobster burritos and, from the profusion of racing team decals covering every window in the place, it has been a must stop location for the many Baja 1000 participants over the years. Leaving this town I am now less than 60 km from my destination for the evening in San Quintin.

Now that I have crossed over to the west coast of the peninsula I am travelling through more populated areas and I get a sense of the fact that Sundays here are truely a day of rest, as most people here work six days a week and so this is the only day they have to spend time with their families. As I drive through small settlements of a few houses, a bus stop and a “mini-super” selling a few basic provisions (always beer) I see people playing with kids, fixing cars, or just walking with friends or family, there are roadside picnics or soccer games and generally the simple pleasures that can be enjoyed on a rare day of rest.

As I approach the next Checkpoint just north of El Rosario, this is the most careful inspection so far. I am glad to have my Mexican drivers licence when asked for identification, I think it gave me a higher degree of credibiliy and sense of my belonging here. When they opened the rear window to inspect the luggage they asked to look into a conveniently accessible case, which revealed an innocuous collection of some of Cathy's music books which quickly ended the inspection and got me waved through. After several such trips I have learned to carefully position some easily opened and inspected things in the most accessible places that will reveal nothing to raise any curiosity or interest. Anything that might be of any questionable nature (like a box full of vitamin pill bottles that might be mistaken for more illegitimate drugs) are carefully located out of sight in the most inaccesible places that would only come to light in the event of a completly unloaded inspection. This may just be due to my natural paranoia, but, while I would never consider transporting ANYTHING of an even slightly illegal nature on this road, I feel taking some care and simple precautions in the way the cargo is packed can avoid any awkward questions that could lead to more extensive inspections and result in long and stressful delays.

Approaching San Quintin you get the first glimpses of the Pacific shore, dramatic in the low angle light as the sun is starting to set. There are also the beginnings of the intensive market garden industry that extends for much of the 200 km north to the border. Huge shade structures covering hundreds of acres extend as far as you can see on both sides of the highway sheltering millions of tomato plants from the sun and wind. These “plantations” supply a large modern packing plant that is surrounded by a parking lot filled with dozens of tractor trailer units ready to transport their cargo north to the markets in California and beyond.

Just after 6:00 pm (Loreto time) and 800 km I arrived at my destination in San Quintin, the Hotel La Villa de San Quintin. It is a newer motel that is past the second set of traffic lights from the south end of town just over a small bridge “Punta San Quintin” where you bear right onto a service road, paralleling the main paved road. There is another hotel just before it called the Maria Celeste Hotel which is also pretty good, but La Villa is newer and the rooms are superior and it has a nice modern restaurant overlooking the main road with protected off-street parking in front of the actual motel accomodation building. (By the way, a word of caution for any future travellers, neither La Villa or Marie Celleste accept pets. Not wanting to incriminate myself I will leave it up to you, my loyal readers, to come to whatever conclusions you wish as to where Jazmine spent the night – but suffice to say, we both passed a quiet (shhhhh!) and restful night and we departed the next morning leaving no incriminating evidence behind.)

The next morning I left the hotel by 7:30 am and stopped for gas before I left town and I noticed how busy the town was as people went back to work on a regular Monday morning – rush hour, San Quintin style. About 70 km north of San Quintin, after passing through a pretty ugly agricultural/industrial area of market gardens and factory farms you start to go into a more mountainous area which will eventually evolve into the wine growing regions further north. Two hours later and 140 km north of San Quintin I arrive at the 5th Checkpoint which is the busiest one so far with three lanes and more than 30 cars waiting in line north bound and a separate “unloading dock” area that transport trucks are ordered to back into for more extensive inspections of their trailers. While waiting, I saw my first ambulance pass through a Checkpoint, one quick glance through the back window and they were on their way again, much to the relief of any passenger, I'm sure. After a longer wait in line than usual when I reached the front of my (slowest) lane, they gave me a quick glance and waved me through without any questions or inspections. Leaving me to believe that 50 something gringos with long grey hair driving dusty 10 year old SUVs don't fit the profile – thank goodness!

Just under 50 km from Ensenada I encounter my biggest detour of the trip, almost 5 km of heavily rutted sand with occasional muddy spots where they have tried to control the clouds of dust with liberal attention from water trucks patrolling the roadside. In spite of the length of the detour there are little or no provisions for the traffic and I find it hard to imagine what this track is like in a fully loaded transport truck or – God forbid – a Motorhome driven by a senior citizen of limited capacity!

As I approach the outskirts of Ensenada, a city of almost half a million people, it is obvious this is a major city and very different than the rural towns and villages that I have passed through so far. I'm on a four lane divided road, traffic is heavy and rules of the road, while relaxed by North American standards, seem to work. As I approach the centre of town the “Big Boxes” appear; Costco, Home Depot and a Walmart Supercentre, they're all here. But five years ago things were much different, I don't think that Costco had opened yet and now, this concentration of major retailers has created the best source for hard to find consumer goods between Tijuana and Cabo.

There is a critical turn off the road that you arrive on, it is sign posted but the Office Depot/Sorriana Mall is perhaps the more obvious landmark. Here you make a left turn toward the “Zona Touristica” and the harbour on the waterfront. If you don't turn here, you can continue with the road on what is identified as a “Truck Route”. I made the mistake once of taking this Truck Route, thinking (reasonably?) that it would be a more direct less congested route through town. Big mistake! It wound through residential areas with many twists and turns, stop signs and local traffic and I realized that this route wasn't intended for the smooth and efficient passage of truck through a large city, it's sole purpose was to divert the heavy vehicles from the shorter and more scenic Tourist area by the waterfront.

When you make the turnoff for the Zona Touristica the street ends at a rather impressive naval base with sharp uniformed guards at the gate where you turn right and proceed along a wide divided boulevard with large Hotels and marinas and many bars and restaurants. At the end of this commercial area you follow the signs for Tijuana and wind around the freight port and start to leave the northern outskirts of the city. I was watching for the turnoff for the Highway #3 to Tecate which is near the signpost showing the distance of 100 km to Tijuana and I take the “Ruta Vinacola” exit to the right. Within half a kilometer the road becomes a beautiful 4 lane divided highway of pristine asphalt that lasts for about 10 km. before it turns into a construction zone and then a few kilometers later reverts back to the original two lane road.

I have always chosen to exit through Tecate to avoid what can be lengthy delays crossing the border northbound at Tijuana, which holds the record as the busiest border crossing point in the world. With the distance from Ensenada almost the same for both exit points, and the Tecate road being much more scenic, travelling through mountainous wine country, and now the work being done to upgrade the road to four lanes, all added to the much less congested border crossing, makes me think that this route will become even more popular in the future. There was a temporary Federal Police stop on the road, they asked me where I was coming from and going to (kind of obvious as this road only goes between Ensenada and Tecate) but they waved me through after a few questions. Their presence, however is a comfort, given the close proximity to the border and a few reports I've heard about some earlier drug related problems in the area.

About 70 km. from Ensenada there was a temporary military Checkpoint that I had not seen on previous trips. I got a perfunctory once over and was waved through again which was followed by a stretch of one lane road work which was followed by more fresh paving. I arrived just in Tecate just after noon and made my way down the winding approach to the city, then crossed a large bridge into the “downtown”. From the bridge you follow the San Diego / Highway 94 signs, for which you take the second right turn after the bridge. You follow that road for several kilometers watching for a left turn signposted for San Diego/Border Crossing which takes you to the east end of the aproach road to the border that runs back westward beside the border fence until it reaches a recently upgraded US border crossing. On this trip there were only two cars ahead of me and I was through the border in less than 5 minutes. So after 5 hours and 300 km since I left San Quintin, following the 9½ hour 800 km trip from Loreto I travelled a total of 1100 km in 14 ½ hours including 3 gas stops and 6 Checkpoints to the border crossing in Tecate.

It is hard to describe the feeling entering the US after a day and a half of driving Highway #1 in the Baja. It's not just the width of the roads, the prosperity of the homes and businesses you pass, the fact that signs are in English and place names are familiar, it's a sense of calm and order, and yes, security. As a Canadian citizen I am usually concious of the differences between the US and Canada, and I have strong personal feelings about the contrasts between our lifestyles and societial influences. In spite of the fact that I perceive there to be significant differences between Canada and the US, and that I readily admit to my bias towards my home country in many aspects of day to day life, when I cross this border between Mexico and the States I realize how closely I identify with America as a Canadian, and a partner in North America. There is a sense of relief and belonging that I feel on the US side of the border that makes me understand and appreciate how much closer we North Americans are as a culture, and the differences we have in common with our Mexican friends and neighbors to the south.

This brings me to the end of my travelogue about my trip back from Loreto. For those of you who are interested, I continued on to San Clemente California that day and stopped over there with a friend for a day and a half, giving me and the cat a welcome break from our travelling. On Wednesday we hit the road again and drove from south of Los Angeles to Cedar City Utah about 450 miles in 9 hours. Then from there to Dillon Montana, just over 600 miles in 10 hours. Finally, the last leg back to Calgary covered 330 miles in the States plus 385 km in Canada and took about 9 hours. The total distance travelled from Loreto to Calgary was just about exactly 4,000 km. and it took 4 ½ days of driving time.

I plan to put “Living Loreto” on hiatus for the summer while I am “Living Calgary”, but I will resume writing again in the Fall when I return to Loreto. My next posting will be the reverse trip back to Loreto, again by car, and I expect to publish it by the end of October. I would like to thank all of you who have sampled my writings here over the past seven months, I have felt honoured and priviledged to have attracted over 14,000 hits to this blog during that time. I would particularly like to thank those people who have expressed their thoughts and enthusiasm about the blog by word and message, your encouragement and support has kept me writing, and will insure that take up the challenge again in the Fall. Untill then, I trust you will enjoy a safe and happy summer and I look forward to meeting you again here in the Fall when we will return to “Living Loreto”.