Road tripping through Mexico's Baja California

Every winter I seem to find a way to escape the cold weather of the northern hemisphere. In the fall I decided to try out a new kind of traveling: fall and winter backpacking in Europe. While it was fun to try out something new, I realized that I can't change who I am and what I love, which is a sun soaked winter by the beach. And so after just two weeks home, I set off for another new adventure that I'd always wanted to do: a road trip through Mexico. 

In the past few years I've traveled across the United States with my own car and anybody who knows me, knows that I love to drive. To be honest, I'd rather drive my own car for 11 hours straight than sit on a bus for 4 hours. While traveling by bus, I've always found myself dreaming of the freedom to stop at all the vista points in the mountains, hole in the wall restaurants in the middle of nowhere, and run out to catch the sunset. Having that freedom while traveling is is something truly special. Some of my favorite places I've found are ones that would be difficult to get to without your own car, and that is why I decided to take my own car down to Mexico. 

Driving through Latin America is quite different than driving in the States or even in the rural parts of Eastern Europe. In order to drive in Mexico, it's not only important that you are a confident driver, but you also must know how to drive both defensively... and aggressively.  Even with hundreds of thousands of miles behind my wheel, the idea of taking my precious Jetta into the wild world of Central America made me nervous. But knowing the key rules of the road will help on your Latin American adventure.

Key rules are as follows:

When another car is on your tail, signal with the left blinker to alert them that the coast is clear and it's safe to pass. When driving on a two lane road, cars from both sides will pass whether an oncoming vehicle is in the opposite lane or not. Therefore you must always be alert and know when to drive in the shoulder in order to allow sufficient space for three cars to momentarily line up without colliding. When looking for parking (estacionmiento), look for a sign with the letter E inside a circle and curbs lined with yellow paint (or no paint). Red paint on the curb is a no no.  When coming up at large intersections, the general rule is first there, first to go, but be aware of your surroundings as there are not always stop signs and people will not always adhere to that rule. If they're going faster than you, it's better to just let them pass. There are also many one way streets that are not clearly marked. If the road is short and wide in a smaller town, it's not a big deal to pass through. If it's a larger street in a major city, it's best to take a moment to check which way the traffic is moving and only turn in the correct direction.

Anyway. Onto the good stuff: stories and photos!

Shortly after crossing the border in San Ysidro (also know as the Tijuana crossing) I stopped for the evening in a town on the beach called Ensenada. I didn't have much interest in Tijuana, not because of it's reputation but simply because after months away from the Pacific I was ready to soak up all her glory. The crossing was painless and to my surprise when you enter Mexico through Baja California you don't even have to stop to have your passport stamped. This international border is essentially the same as a toll booth (but without the toll), where you slow down, get a photo snapped of your plates and are welcomed with a big sign for Mexico!

Even though it wasn't my first time in Mexico, there was a new excitement to cruising down Highway 1 south of the border. Within a half hour I made my first pitstop to take a photo. While the weather wasn't quite warm yet (actually I was still wearing the same coat I had on when I left San Francisco days before), the views were just what I was hoping for. 

I arrived in Ensenada with just enough time to shop around for some goodies before the shops closed. After chatting with a local shop owner in Spanglish, which has become my primary language here, I bought a beautiful hecho a mano (handmade) blanket for $20. Since the last time I was in the country two years ago the value of the peso has dropped from 12 pesos/1 USD to 20 pesos/USD, so now is the time to visit Mexico with the USD. 

Beginning the trip I figured that as usual, I would be doing most of the long distant traveling on my own with the possibility of new friends joining for a day or two at a time. But as traveling goes, surprises in the form of new friends were to come. The first night at the Ensenada Backpackers hostel I met Cynthia from Montreal who was spending a few weeks in Mexico without any solid plans. She ended up riding all the way down to Cabo San Lucas for the next week with me. While Ensenada was a nice town, I wasn't quite prepared for the cold temperatures at night. There was no heat inside the hostel and it had a heavy draft coming in, so I ended up leaving the next day.

Cynthia, just south of Ensenada at the beginning of our long drive through the desert.

Cynthia, just south of Ensenada at the beginning of our long drive through the desert.

A small town we stopped for lunch in.

A small town we stopped for lunch in.

Cynthia somewhere between Ensenada and El Rosario, where we pulled the car over and ran down a dirt road to catch the sun set over the ocean.

Cynthia somewhere between Ensenada and El Rosario, where we pulled the car over and ran down a dirt road to catch the sun set over the ocean.

Different exposures of the sun set, whose colors seem to change from minute to minute in the last hours of daylight.

Different exposures of the sun set, whose colors seem to change from minute to minute in the last hours of daylight.

While the first day's drive was a beautiful one, Cynthia and I both quickly realized that northern state of Baja California wasn't exactly the sunny, hot beach destination we'd been looking for in December. We decided that the next few days would be spent driving as much as we could each day in order to reach the popular North American vacation destination of Cabo San Lucas.

Valle de los Cirios, a protected area in which the Cirios cactus, native only to Baja (and a bit of Sonora)....  It went on, and on, and on for hours. 

Even the cacti have a place to pray for their lost ones.

Even the cacti have a place to pray for their lost ones.

Muy grande!

Muy grande!

In terms of safety, there are quite a few check points run by the federal police, but other than a quick "De donde va?" (where are you going?) and "De donde vienes?" (where are you coming from) and the occasional request that you pop the trunk, they won't bother or bribe you like most people believe. We kept forgetting which saying was which and would tell them in broken Spanish that we were coming FROM the town that we were actually going TO... and yet, they always just waved us right along.

It may not be a sunset on the ocean, but this one in the city of Guerrero Negro was one of the best sunsets I saw in Baja.

It may not be a sunset on the ocean, but this one in the city of Guerrero Negro was one of the best sunsets I saw in Baja.

From El Rosario and onwards, there wasn't really many attractions until we hit Mulege in Baja Sur. The city of Guerrero Negro was large, but uneventful, although I hear that December-March is whale mating season and you can get on a whale watching tour to see the baby whales. I would have loved to do it, but I also wanted to get the hell out of there. Instead I bought a sweater which proclaims that 'I <3 whales' (I <3 Ballenas) at the hotel gift shop. If you do happen to stay in Guerrero Negro as a stop over, or just to watch the whales I would recommend Hotel Malarrimo. The man at the desk (presumably the owner) didn't seem so friendly, but nevertheless it was a nice, affordable hotel with a little gazebo to sit outside under. The most eventful things that happened here were: running into a woman in the parking lot who was also from New York like me, AND lives in the same San Francisco suburb as I do. The second was my car's check engine light coming on. I previously had a potentially engine fatal problem caused by a bad oil change by Jiffy Lube (avoid them at ALL costs!) and was concerned that there was something seriously wrong with my car. Turns out it was on because Mexican gas is a different quality... or something like that. I don't know much about cars, but note to anybody with a European car driving through Mexico: fill it up with premium (red) gas rather than the green. Since then it's been smooth sailing with the car..... when on the toll roads.

Stopped on the side of the road to pee behind this building... although no disrepect, because I agree with this statement.

Stopped on the side of the road to pee behind this building... although no disrepect, because I agree with this statement.

Long stretches of desolation in the center of the peninsula. 

Long stretches of desolation in the center of the peninsula. 

Four days in, we finally hit the winding coastal roads along the Gulf of California.

Four days in, we finally hit the winding coastal roads along the Gulf of California.

While this stretch of the road was truly stunning, we had our first and only terrifying near death moment on the road. While driving up a curvy stretch along the water in a light rain, we saw a car coming down the hill that had lost control. I don't know if he was drunk, his breaks were shot, didn't know how to drive when the roads are slippery, but he was coming straight towards us. Often on this road there was little to no shoulder, but at this point I had just enough room to pull my car to the shoulder before he sped past us, missing my car by mere inches. Watching in the rearview mirror I was convinced that I was about to witness something I'd been expecting to see one day: a car drop right into the ocean. Miraculously he managed to stop his car right at the edge of a pull off... also just inches from tumbling to his death. For the next two days I drove with extreme precaution, slowing down any time another vehicle passed me on a curve too fast. It's moments like these that make you grateful to be alive.

Our last two stops before reaching Cabo San Lucas were Mulegé and Loreto. Mulege is a palm tree oasis, that pops up out of nowhere after long stretches of desert. There's not too much to do there but it was a nice place to stop over for the night. We met some Spanish guys also traveling by car from California and hung out with them in the tiny main square. Here, some local boys begged us (and by us, I mean the boys) to play soccer/football with them... on a basketball court. I'm not much of a sports person, so I just cowered at the opposite end of the "field" until the game was over. Later on in the evening I found out that there's no need to be afraid of police or crime in Baja.... just the 14 year old boys who will surround you and pressure you to let them have some of your wine!

Chillin' in a hammock in our little courtyard oasis at the hotel in Mulegé.

Chillin' in a hammock in our little courtyard oasis at the hotel in Mulegé.

Turns out Mexicans are spacially challenged. Not the best position to place the toilet!

Turns out Mexicans are spacially challenged. Not the best position to place the toilet!

The one shop in Mulegé that sold Mexican blankets was owned by a woman from Oaxaca (famous for it's handmade goods). I bought this extremely bizarre one from her. This warrior will always protect me!

The one shop in Mulegé that sold Mexican blankets was owned by a woman from Oaxaca (famous for it's handmade goods). I bought this extremely bizarre one from her. This warrior will always protect me!

Another few hours down the road, we spent the night in Loreto which was uneventful. There was a nice hostel called Casas Loreto and the owner was very friendly and enthusiastic about Loreto, but I wouldn't recommend staying for more than an overnight stop.

We tried on these sombreros. We didn't buy them. I wish we did.

We tried on these sombreros. We didn't buy them. I wish we did.

We did manage to find margaritas that were 2 for 70 pesos ($3.50 USD)

We did manage to find margaritas that were 2 for 70 pesos ($3.50 USD)

Not so good photo of the church in the main square.

Not so good photo of the church in the main square.

Once we got past Mulegé and Loreto we reached La Paz, which is a fairly large port city and much warmer and pleasant to visit than anywhere else we'd been so far. We stayed at Baja Backpackers owned by an American guy who was sent to Baja many years ago to work in the mining and construction industry. It was here that I met Claudia and Sara, two girls who had hitchhiked all the way from their home in Cuernavaca (an hour south of Mexico City) to Mazatlan, the city across the Gulf from La Paz, and then took a flight to Baja. They left home with a minimal amount of money and only slept on the beaches and in the homes of people they met on the way. The best part is that they weren't even staying at this hostel when we met; they had just stopped in to use the shower there. I didn't know it at the time, but I would soon end up changing my entire plan in order to drive across mainland Mexico with them.

My favorite beach that we visited in Baja, Bolandra Beach.

My favorite beach that we visited in Baja, Bolandra Beach.

After a few hours of lazing around we hiked up to a mountain with epic views of the bay.

After a few hours of lazing around we hiked up to a mountain with epic views of the bay.

I bought a wood carved cactus and mantaray from this guy near Tecolote Beach in La Paz.

I bought a wood carved cactus and mantaray from this guy near Tecolote Beach in La Paz.

On Christmas Eve I made my way down to Cabo San Lucas with my two new friends in tow. We chose to stay at a hostel called Ocean Tigers Divehouse which is owned by a French man who offers good deals on diving courses in addition to accomodation. Other than some of the rowdy, drunken guests, I did think it was a very nice hostel and the owner was helpful with any info we needed. Our second night the house was fully booked, but he let us pay half price to sleep on the couch on Christmas Day. I even had a space in the driveway to park my car.

This dude from San Diego hitchhiked all the way from California to Cabo. At one point a cop gave him a ride and then would drop him off an hour later with another officer in the next region down. He got at least a few hundred miles this way in a single day.

This dude from San Diego hitchhiked all the way from California to Cabo. At one point a cop gave him a ride and then would drop him off an hour later with another officer in the next region down. He got at least a few hundred miles this way in a single day.

Claudia, Sara, and I gazing out the window at the beach across the street from the hostel in Cabo San Jose.

Claudia, Sara, and I gazing out the window at the beach across the street from the hostel in Cabo San Jose.

At the start of my trip I planned to drive to the bottom of the peninsula and then head back up, spending maybe two weeks in Mexico this time around. But low and behold, I am always making spontaneous decisions to make trips I never dreamt of taking and before I knew it, I'd agreed to take my car on the ferry across the Gulf of California and drive back towards Mexico City with my new friends. Two months later, I've made it to Chiapas, the most southern state in the country and am soon headed to Guatemala. 

My overall thoughts on Baja are that the drive had some interesting sites to see, but it was more like things you'd stop to marvel at for 20 minutes and then move on from. Honestly, I probably wouldn't do the drive down the 1,000 mile peninsula again, but I am glad I had the opportunity to do it. In my opinion, mainland Mexico is much more interesting and enjoyable, but more on that later...