Baja California Norte, Bandidos, Gatos y Cerveza
Day 1, Jan. 14, Wednesday
Mexicali – end of pavement on Hwy 5 (south of Puertecitos)
We crossed the border in Mexicali, exchanged some cash for pesos and immediately set about trying to orientate ourselves in a foreign country. We looked for the tourist office, because we’ve read we should get travel visas, but couldn’t find it. We didn’t feel like driving around in the city for a minute longer, so we just headed south. I figure we can look into that detail later?
We made it to San Felipe in time for lunch, where I embarrassed myself trying to pay for tacos. A few hours across the border was not enough time for me to figure out the exchange rate and what all the different pesos look like. We also hit up an ATM to get more pesos. Our biggest mistake was not getting cash out before we left the states. It would have been much easier to exchange our dollars for pesos than it has been using our debit card. First lesson learned. The most frustrating thing is that we both knew this and had even talked about it. By the time we got to Las Vegas we were already running on empty, totally drained from the move and the drive. We definitely had moments of saying FUCK IT, let’s just keep going, which is exactly what we did when we got to the border.
We continued south on Hwy-5 to the end of the pavement and only made it a few miles up the unpaved portion of the highway before we decided to make our first camp in Mexico. The road was burly; we were traveling between 5 and 10 miles an hour and it was getting dark. This first camp will likely remain one of my very favorites of the trip. The Joshua Tree-esque-ness of the boulders and desert were beautiful. We were totally secluded and probably as remote as we will get this entire trip. Sophie loved the rocks and with our permission would have climbed to the top of the highest ones. However we kept her on a leash and only went as far as we could without fear of losing her to the desert.
Day 2, Jan. 15, Thursday
Hwy 5 to Laguna Chapala, Hwy 1 to roadside south of San Ignacio
The unpaved last 20 miles of Hwy 5 were rough. We didn’t see any cars this morning, but last night we saw a few semis and a couple mini vans making their way down the road. It’s definitely pass-able by most motor vehicles. We expected the rough road to last much longer than it did, but in fact, south of Puertecitos lies the newest stretch of highway in Baja and it’s a super-highway, complete with shoulders and everything! So even though the last twenty miles felt rough to us, it’s mostly because we have spice racks and kitchenware rattling around in the van. The road really isn’t bad.
By the time we reached Hwy 1 we were spent. Sophie was pissed about the commotion of washboard driving and sentenced to her carrier for her own protection. As soon as we hit the pavement things should have gotten smoother, but the van was running like shit, and I mean like fucking shit. Going up hills neither of us were sure we’d make it. It felt like the transmission had gone out on us? Michael was having a hard time diagnosing the problem and the stress of not being convinced it was the transmission showed on his face. He wanted to know what was wrong with the van. We stopped in a tiny town and bought automatic transmission fluid and Tecate, by far the most popular beer here, which seemed to do the trick for both machine and animal, at least for a while.
We made it to San Ignacio and things were still looking bad for the van. We pulled over next to an auto parts store and tore the whole van apart getting to Michael’s tools. He changed a fuel filter and made some adjustments under the van that he thought might help. A few miles down the road and we knew the problem wasn’t solved. We could barely get over the most imperceptible of hills. The van had very little power. But we did have gasolina! We saw a family on the side of road hitching toward Santa Rosalia or in need of something. Apparently they were out of gas, which we were able to offer. Their two daughters stood on the side of the road sharing a bag of chips and making faces at me. When they were done with their chips they tossed the bag to the wind where it joined the thousands of other pieces of plastic that line the highway.
As our new Mexican friends drove off into the sunset in their beat up car with barely enough gas to get to the next town, I couldn’t help but wonder if they were better off than us. We decided to camp right there, down the dirt road that took us just far enough to be off the highway. I felt better about dealing with a broken down van in the daylight.
Day 3, Jan. 16, Friday
Limp into Santa Rosalia
From San Ignacio in the middle of the peninsula to Santa Rosalia on the Sea of Cortez, it’s a bit of climb up and over the hills. If it had been much steeper I don’t think the van would’ve made it. We topped out at about 45 miles an hour, maybe more, but only on completely flat ground. As soon we would start to climb the van would lose all power. Michael had to speed down hills trying to gain momentum to get over the next incline. Terrifying. Thank god it was a short drive, about 45 minutes. As soon as we rolled into Santa Rosalia we knew whatever the problem with the van was, we’d be able to fix it here. It was obviously an industrial town with a lot of mechanics and trucks. Whew.
Even with the van basically broken down, our first order of business was finding an ATM and withdrawing more cash, and the van still did well in lower gears and super slow speeds, so we had no problem driving around town. Not too bad.
On our way down the street we ducked our heads into an auto parts store and were able to get a recommendation for a mechanic. We left with a small slip of paper with the name Mario Ramirez and his number. The guy offered to send his son with us to show us where Mario lived but we still needed to go to the bank so we thanked them and decided to try to find Mario ourselves when we got to that.
Well, shit. My bankcard is blocked and I have to get ahold of US Bank before we can get any more money. Michael warned me about this in San Felipe. Our card has been flagged for fraudulent activity. We spent 4 hours walking all over town trying to find a Wi-Fi spot with no luck. We found a pharmacy where we were told the owner makes international calls for a small fee for tourists. We tried every number on the back of our US Bank card with no luck. 70 dollars (1010 pesos) later we had a new cell phone with some purchased minutes on it. After reaching US Bank and clearing our debit card, returning to the ATM and withdrawing cash we finally set out to repair the van. We’d already been in town half the day.
Since both our Spanish-speaking skills are extremely limited calling Mario was out of the question. Luckily we found someone who drew us a map to Mario’s house.
The language barrier was inconsequential in matters of mechanics and after a quick drive in the van Mario assuredly told us it was not the transmission but una problema pequeña . Alright, well, what is it?? Parked in front of his house five minutes later Mario and Michael were tearing the catalytic converter off the van. Ahhh!!! That’s it!! Michael must have been relieved and frustrated at the same time. He’s incredibly adept at solving problems and although he wasn’t convinced we had a transmission problem, he had a hard time figuring out what it was. He thought maybe it wasn’t getting fuel, but I guess, in fact, it wasn’t getting air??? The bumpy drive down Hwy 5 must have rattled the catalytic converter apart because there was a bunch of metal and debris loose inside it, which was blocking the flow of exhaust…. Mario then drove us up a hill to the local welding shop where they were able to weld a pipe to bypass the catalytic converter. For all this Mario only asked us for 200 pesos, that’s less than 15 US dollars. We gave him more than double what he asked us for and the same to the welders.
In half the time and for less money than it took me to reach US Bank earlier in the day, we had the van fixed and newfound faith in the day.
If you’re ever in need of a mechanic in Santa Rosalia, Mario Ramírez is your man.
Our van is alive, our van is alive!! With the most relief either of us have felt since the beginning of our trip we bought some beer on our way out-of-town and decided to camp at one of the first turnouts we saw, within city limits even I presume. We’ve both been warned about the dangers of driving in Baja at night and after a long day we thought we’d enjoy an early night and a beautiful sunset.
Is it true what they say??
I’ve struggled with this chapter, whether to include it at all or how to paraphrase it, and if I do, how to not scare our moms.
I’ve decided to tell the story. That’s why I started a blog and what I value in the blogs that I find when I’m looking for an honest story.
It couldn’t have been any later than 8pm. We were set up on the bluffs overlooking the Sea of Cortez, just outside of Santa Rosalia, and celebrating our adventure for the first time. We cracked open a couple of beers, poured some whiskey and started a movie. Have you ever seen The Life Aquatic, you know, team Zissou? I adore that movie. I couldn’t have been happier sitting there in the company of the ocean, Bill Murray, Sophie and Michael.
A half an hour or so into the movie we heard a knock at our door, it was quiet, almost polite. Immediately we were on guard, closed the laptop, sat up, looked at each other, and slowly, Michael opened the slider door. Seconds later he was pushing a man with a mask over his head out of the doorway and repeatedly telling me to get into the front seat, to start the van and to go. I felt like I was moving slower than molasses. I was petrified. Every inch of my body was quaking as I shakily started the van. Thank god the keys were in the ignition, which is not a coincidence, Michael has worked hard to train me on the art of multi-tier defense planning. We always have an escape route, a weapon, a whistle and a bright flashlight. Whether we’re ready for zombies or bandidos or whatever, he’s probably thought most situations through. I fumbled to turn on the headlights just in time to see our little bandido with a white spandex mask over his head, red shirt and white shorts running towards the road. If there hadn’t been a large rock in my path, I would have accelerated in his direction just to scare him as much he had scared me. As I turned around in the gravel parking lot and headed for the road one foot was in the litter box we set up for Sophie and the other foot was on the gas pedal. Comedic now, but at the time I was all adrenaline. My main concern was that we couldn’ve been blocked in by a car or worse, more than one car, with more than one pinche puta. In actuality it was just the one little guy with a knife and a mask. Michael is a million times tougher than he was. At the top of the hill Michael jumped out of the van with a flashlight and proceeded to chase down whoever pulled a knife in his face and tried to get into our van, while I slurped down the whiskey left standing in the cup and mopped up the beer all over the place and tried to comfort Sophie.
Half an hour later or so, after our nerves had calmed down a little, we decided to drive south of town, putting some distance between the bad guy and ourselves. I guided Michael to a secluded road off the highway where we took cover for the night. Sophie and I were on edge most of the night. She was jumping at every little sound while I gripped a knife in one hand a flashlight in the other. We slept most of the night with our shoes on. Ridiculous really. But fuck.
Is it true what they say? Mexico is dangerous? Bandidos can scare you out of northern Baja? Maybe. But embarrassingly we most certainly put ourselves in that situation, in the spotlight. We learned some valuable lessons our third night in Mexico. It sucks because the best experience we’ve had was in the same place as the worst. Mario hooked us up, put us on the road again and we would’ve been safer sleeping on the street in front of his garage. Instead we were almost accosted a mile down the road. In the few days since Santa Rosalia, I’ve struggled to feel safe and to trust our neighbors, but even more, I’ve felt my confidence growing. We are surrounded by friends here in Conception Bay and I feel good about the people here.
Day 4-6, Jan 17-20, Saturday-Tuesday
Santa Rosalia- Conception Bay
It was a short drive from our hiding spot outside of Santa Rosalia to our coveted palapa on Coyote Bay, a small bay inside of a much larger one, Conception Bay, also inside the Sea of Cortez. It’s magical here. Locals from Mulege drive down every morning and all through the day selling tamales, empanadas, water, blankets, anything we could need. It’s the best room service ever, right on the beach. There is a small tienda down the road that sells vegetables and beer and a super cool bar right next door. We rode our bikes down there a few times for drinks or groceries. Mostly we have everything we need with us already in the van, so it’s easy for us to post up somewhere for days on end. We’re thinking we might like to stay here for a couple of weeks on our way back north. If we weren’t headed to the Todos Santos Music Festival to meet up with some of Michael’s friends and see one of his favorite bands, The Drive by Truckers, we’d probably never leave ;)