Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Baja Mexico, what an experience!

Baja Mexico is according to some just an extension of California. It's not. Once you cross the border you enter another world. California stops at the border and just 20 metres further on is 100% Mexico. English stops at the border too, making communication all but impossible unless you speak Spanish. Which we don't.
The dramatic change in buildings, colours, language and people caught me by surprise. Mostly because of what we had heard: Baja is just like California… The other surprise was the border crossing itself. 'Entering Mexico is difficult' we were told, so we expected all the hassles, delays and corruption we were told about. In reality it was amazingly easy. Easier than entering the USA for instance where we were asked lots of questions in an interrogative style, had a bit of paperwork to fill in and were 'off' the road for about half an hour. Entering Mexico took about 20 seconds… We rode up to the sign, got a green light and before we knew it we were on the streets of Tecate! No stamp in our passport and still in possession of the US green-card… We returned to the border, went looking for the passport stamp and 10 minutes later all was well… we think.

Riding through the streets of Tecate I realised the fourth part of the trip had now properly started. The first part being New Zealand, the second Alaska and Canada and the lower states of the USA the third. This was going to be the biggest change. Bigger than I had expected. We found ourselves in a country that was different to anything we had ever been before. The colours, the food, the customs and the language, to name but a few. This was different and the general feeling was immediately positive. 
That good feeling didn't last long however as nothing could have prepared us for what we were about to encounter on the roads of Baja… it's absolutely mad! We had heard and read about what to expect in Mexico and thought we were prepared. During our travels we had encountered the famous Australian RoadTrains, learned to avoid Kangaroos and had ridden Outback dirt roads when I worked on a real iconic Australian Outback Station. We had also lived in Tasmania for 4 years where everything and everybody is allowed to drive and in New Zealand we had the Kiwis to deal with... and Kiwis are of course blind. So we thought we were prepared. We weren't.

We learned quickly that roadrules, courtesy and sensibility had stayed behind at the border with California too. It surprised me that I had not read about the aggression, the absurd overtaking manoeuvres, the enormous amount of death-markers by the side of the road, the smashed up and mangled car parts scattered all over the place and the complete disregard of human life. Even their own. Then I realised that virtually all I had read about was from people in 4x4s while we were on motorbikes, which are seen as easy targets. We have been ran off the road so many times that it's not funny. Trucks overtake everywhere. Even when they can clearly see it's not possible to overtake without pushing the motorbike off the road. The speed limits are low but nobody adheres to them, double of whatever is on the signs is about the average. It's a death race. What we saw in Baja was pictures from India. Not just the mad traffic where the only rule seems to be that the biggest has priority but also garbage everywhere, people living in plywood huts surrounded by junk and ghetto like living conditions.

What we didn't see was the beautiful Baja. The Baja we had seen in the brochures and on the various web pages. Sure there are beaches, but we couldn't call them beautiful and they didn't look anything like what the tourist brochures showed us. Just sand. Sand with, again, a lot of rubbish. Away from the coast it's nothing but a boring sandpit. The most desolate part of the Australian desert is far more interesting to see than this. 

Once we entered Ensenada that changed dramatically, for the worse. Insane wasn't even the word. There is no respect for motorcycles whatsoever. It might be somewhat idiotic if your driving a car but on a motorcycle it's downright suicidal! The first two days I was convinced they were just out to kill us. We had a handful of very close calls and were literally run off the road many times. I was hit by a minibus in Ensenada, the driver looked me straight in the eye as he pulled out and hit me on the elbow… I was ready to turn around and go back to the USA. Back to the safety of California(!) The intention of this trip was to enjoy ourselves, have a great time and be the trip of a lifetime; not to end my life prematurely and end up as another death-marker on a road in Baja Mexico.

Camping in Baja was an experience too. Not that we had never camped on a beach before but it was the first time I had a hot shower with salt water for instance, or toilets and showers without doors… not that the doors were damaged, they had simply never been there. Toilet paper is not included with the quite steep campground prices, nor is any form of cleaning. We found open sewerage pipes for RV hookups, no caps to seal them off and thus a sewerage smell everywhere. We had wooden outhouses so dirty that doing the business outside was safer. Next to quite a few is a plastic bucket where you're supposed to drop your used toilet paper in, buckets without lids… imagine the smell. Having seen with our own eyes the total lack of hygiene it's no wonder there are so many diseases still prevalent. We have 3 different maps with campground locations but found quite a few of them closed. People that we spoke to, who have been here many times before, say the tourists are staying away; I wonder why.   The insanity we saw on the roads stepped up a notch at the roadworks before San Quintin. While they are repairing the road, traffic is diverted to the side of it. Not that there is a road there but that's a minor detail. The dust is unbelievable and the sheer volume of trucks the same as on a busy western highway… except there is no highway and it's not 3 lanes but 1… The, hopefully, temporary 'road' is too narrow for trucks to pass. The dust so bad you can't see 5 metres away and yet the Mexicans are overtaking… wedging themselves between two trucks coming from opposite directions. Add to that worn out engines that spew out so much burned engine oil and diesel soot that we had headaches and stinging eyes in a matter of minutes; while we were locked in on the road works for half an hour. We felt truly sick at the end of the day. Jeanette was affected the worst and has been coughing for days now. The bikes started coughing as well. While checking them over the next morning, we took a handful of dust out of the airfilters.

The THR Motorsport pit crew at work, 2 minutes to do
a full service, remove the headlights and change both
The only good time we've had during those first 4 days was the one evening when we camped with the American pit crew for Robbie Bell's Baja race. Great people! We had met them purely by accident. The plan had been to stay on a campground a bit further on, listed in our camping book, that turned out to be closed. We rode back and asked them if we could stay with them for the night, little did we know what we were getting in for... :-) They had bought 'some' firework... strapped it to a drinks-bottle filled with petrol... and set the place on fire! The Mexican family passing us, just as the fire-bomb went off, must have had a heart attack. We had a great evening with the whole team! Click on the movie below to get a fascinating view from Robbie Bell's helmet cam!

Unfortunately; as soon as the team left the next morning, when their rider had passed and they had done their work, the Mexican insanity took over again. The place became totally swamped with
Fascinating on board shots from Robbie Bell 
on the THR Motorsport Kawasaki
'campers' and turned into a filthy pit with used toilet paper flying around everywhere. We then heard the race trucks were delayed by several hours and decided to leave. The other option would have been to stay until we had seen the trucks and drive to a campsite in the dark, or camping with hundreds of drunken Mexicans as the only gringos…
It was a big disappointment, especially for Mike who had been so looking forward to see the Baja 1000. As it was so poorly organised, seeing it was just impossible.

The next morning, while staying in the grubby town of Guerrero Negro, we heard that the KTM rider who was second in the race was killed.
The team we stayed with told us that booby trapping the course had happened quite frequently in the past but in this case he apparently ran into a cow. At the 'campground' we met an Australian couple in a VW Kombi, who felt exactly the same way about Baja as we did. They hoped that the second part would be better, so did we. 
We crossed over to the eastern side of Baja, along the sea of Cortez. Compared to the days before the traffic was much better and especially less of it. Still, there are so many shrines and even graves along the road that it feels like driving through a graveyard. Some of them appear to be multiple shrines for a whole family, which wouldn't surprise me. Over a stretch of just over 200 km we saw close to a hundred death markers, shrines and a couple of graves. It's a grim reminder of what happens here. I was wondering how long it would be before we would end up there as well… Another 'tell-tale' of Mexican behaviour is the rubbish which is strewn everywhere along the road.

San Ignacio is a fuel-stop, nothing more, just another dusty town along a desert road. The landscape itself fortunately changed somewhat after San Ignacio. The closer we got to the sea of Cortez the better it became. Still Santa Rosalia, the first town along the coastal route was a big disappointment. We filled up with fuel again and left. We were filling up because the reports we we're getting on fuel availability in Baja were very vague, which is why Mike has been plotting the Pemex stations in the GPS as we went along so that we could post them on the blog for others to use. They can be found at the bottom of this post.

Slowly but surely Baja began to change! Mulegé, further to the south, was the first glimpse of southern Baja. It's the Mexico we had hoped to see, vibrant, full of colour, energetic and full of colourful people. We had a couple of pizzas outside at the little restaurant of Gato Gordo, which we can recommend, and enjoyed the colourful people that walked past. We drove further south and camped at the beach campsite of Playa Santispac. Great views and magically quiet. Pelicans diving for fish, quaint fishing boats in typical Mexican colours and a beautiful bay full of islands. The facilities are simple, run down and quite honestly disgusting; it's more an RV place than for tents. Of course we were still in Mexico, and Mexicans are not known for being quiet... especially in the evening when the radios started belting out Mexican music… and loud!

Waking up to a sunrise over the sea in front of us the next morning was something we hadn't seen for 10 months and a magic moment. The last time we camped along the coast on the sunrise side was in New Zealand. The first glimpse of the bay from our tent was of two pelicans sitting on a dingy with sunrise behind them and green islands in the distance. We took a rest-day at the beach, together with a couple of big RVs who spend the winter here. For some reason we were surrounded by Canadians from Alberta. Looking around me I realised that we were spoiled in Tasmania. The beaches here in south eastern Baja are nice and we camped along a beautiful bay but... compared to Tasmania and New Zealand....hmmm. 

Nothing much happens during the day at Playa Santispac. The only 'excitement' being the Mexican fishermen that come and go trying to sell you whatever they have in the back of their trucks. All the action comes when the sun goes down. First by a group of 10 that got completely drunk with all the noise that goes with it. When they left in their cars in the dark completely drunk… the next lot arrived at midnight… setting up their tents with as much noise as they could…

If you are willing to disregard the rubbish, the trip from Playa Santispac to Loreto is actually quite nice. The road leads through the mountains with beautiful views to the many inlets along the coast. It's the first place where I've seen cactuses grow along the coast and in a rather green surrounding. Loreto itself is a nice little town too. Leaving Loreto the Mex1 takes you back inland and the dull and boring scenery takes over again. 

The beautiful Baja
As nice as Mulegé to Loreto are; the beautiful Baja, for which we had been looking for days, starts in La Paz. Take the Carretera Transpeninsular to Los Barilles and San Jose Del Cabo and you'll be amazed y the scenery along this winding mountain road.

I'm not much for bigger towns but the scenery here is beautiful. We crossed the Tropico de Cancer, the 'border-line' into the tropics. Cabo San Lucas, a bit further on to the west, was an absolute mess as there were some sort of festivities going on. Before we knew it we found ourselves locked in a maze of narrow one-way streets chockablock full of cars.
The traffic was worse than in Ensenada but unlike Ensenada they weren't out to kill us. Somehow roadrules, courtesy and sensibility had returned. The GPS went mad and tried it's best to keep us locked in Cabo San Lucas' maze of narrow streets by sending us round and round in circles. Further up along the west coast we found Todos Santos, where the famous Hotel California can be found that inspired The Eagles to write a song about.

The good feeling we had about Baja Sur quickly fell apart when we returned to La Paz. First the HSBC ATM machine swallowed our card and didn't give it back (see our previous post). Then we ran into the unfriendliest bank manager at HSBC La Paz we have ever met, followed by a bank that does absolutely nothing to help. As I write this, the card is still in the ATM, 7 days later. No-one has been to repair the machine, no-one at HSBC Mexico returning our e-mails. Then the Banjercito decided that Mike couldn't get a temporary import permit for his bike... We're working on a solution on that one too. Of course the ATM machine or Banjercito have nothing to do with what Mexico or Baja Sur is like. We had a difficult start here, felt for the first time in our lives really unsafe on the road and were disappointed with Baja California. Baja Sur is very different from the north and has given us a good feeling.

Practical info on Baja
Along the way we have found two extraordinary places to camp. Places that are well worth a visit and staying a bit longer. I've mentioned them below in the order in which we found them.
The first one is Rancho La Venta, along the Carretera Transpeninsular at km post 144.5. There is no sign telling you it's a campground and it's not suitable for RVs, tents only. They're more into horseback riding through the mountains and guided hiking tours but it's also a magically quiet place to camp with lovely owners. We should have spend a few days there but were on our way to catch the ferry, little did we know what the Banjercito had in store for us. You can find the file with camping GPS coordinates for Mexico here.

The second one is where we are staying now; the Aquamarina RV park in La Paz. More setup for RVs than tents perhaps but clean bathrooms, showers, good level spots to setup a tent, power, good quality Wifi, secure and close to the beach. Owned by the lovely 81 year old lady Maria Luisa Valdez Lazcano (Mary Lou) and her son Roger who built this park with their own hands. Maria planted all the trees and to ensure that it stays dry in heavy rainfall and flash flooding, they raised the whole park by several metres! It was our home while we waited for the HSBC to finally give us our credit card back and tried to solve the import permit issue for our son's bike. We weren't in the best of spirits but Mary Lou and Roger went out of their way to help us, contacted immigration, drove us around town to get there and went with us as translators as well. Wonderful people. The park has just been re-opened and we wish them all the best. You can find them at www.aquamarinarvpark.com

For motorcyclists the distances between the Pemex fuel stations can be quite big in Baja. One stretch is 320 km between fuel stops and a few are over 200 km. The reports we found on where there is and isn't fuel weren't always correct, which is why we have plotted them in our GPS as we went along. The GPX file should work with any Garmin and can be found here. Obviously we haven't plotted each and everyone of them in bigger towns. There we simply show where there is or isn't fuel.