All the news you hear in the U.S. these days about Mexico is bad. It's either about immigration or about all the people getting shot in the drug war. Needless to say we were a little freaked out at first about going down to Baja California (which is the full name of the Mexican state, not part of California, U.S.-which i didn't know). It turns out we felt completely safe the entire time.
We originally wanted to cross the border at Tecate rather than Tijuana because it's a much smaller city and the border crossing is typically less busy than Tijuana. We left San Diego and one thing led to another and before we knew it we were at the Otay Mesa crossing in Tijuana.
Once we crossed (without incident) we thought we'd be right on the highway but, of course, we weren't. Neither of us had ever been to Mexico before and I'm not sure what we were expecting, but nothing could have prepared us for the drastic difference between the two countries after traveling just 20 feet. Obviously none of the signs were in English and i think we got pretty lucky to end up on the right road heading in the right direction. The next thing that just hits you in the face is the poverty. The highway ran along the outside of the city through miles of shanty towns. The people here were extremely impoverished and it was even more shocking after having just driven through rich southern California. I'd seen pictures over the "Wall" before but it was nothing like seeing it person.
Even before all the violence we've been hearing about at home Tijuana has had a reputation for not being very safe so were happy to leave it behind. Like i said, we got a little lucky and found our way to Mexico Highway 1, also known as the Transpeninsular Highway. It runs from Tijuana all the way to the southern tip of the peninsula at Cabo San Lucas.
We weren't sure exactly where we were going to end up, but we wanted to get as far south as possible. Looking at a map, a little town called San Quintin looked like a good distance for our first day. Once you're on the highway, there isn't much between towns, and there's not many towns in general. There's usually little stop areas where there will be some little restaraunt or taco stand and a Pemex station. In Mexico, they have a nationalized oil company, so there's only one kind of gas station and gas is the same price through out the entire country. For some reason you aren't allowed to pump your own gas and you can't pay with credit cards. This took a little getting used to but once we figured out how to say "full please" or "lleno por favor" we got along fine.
I'll just go off on a little tangent here to talk about how neither of us speak any Spanish. We realized this very quickly and we felt pretty shamed that we live so close to Mexico and have never really learned to speak their language. We had read in the guide book that most people will speak a little English and you should be able to get by without any Spanish. Guide books can be sooooooo wrong and we also realized this very quickly. But you'd be surprised how quickly you learn the basics when you have to.
So after Tijuana, the next big town south is Ensenada. It's a pretty town and a little touristy, being just a couple hours south of San Diego.
On the way out of town we stopped at our first taco stand for lunch and it was amazing. It still tops Natasha's list for best taco stand on the trip. South of Ensenada we almost immediately ran into road work and they had the roads so torn up we weren't even sure we were still on the highway.
We stopped to get gas and a little kid came up to us selling tamales. We bought three for 10 pesos (about 80 cents) and they were delicious. We made it to San Quintin as the sun was starting to go down and we couldn't find the campground we were looking for. Again, guide books can be wrong, so we ended up at a hotel called Cielito Lindo.
They informed us that the campground we were looking for no longer existed. This ended up being a blessing because the hotel was straight out of the 70's, awesome, and only 20 bucks.
The sweetest dog ever. We named her Rosalito.
The next day we drove to Guerrero Negro. It was a nice little town, famous for whale watching, but we didn't really do anything here. it was mostly a stopping point for the night. To get there we had to drive through the desert and it was hot. No it was really hot.
Through this stretch of desert there were no gas stations To compensate for this people sold gas out of barrels on the side of the road.
After Guerrero Negro we stopped in an oasis town called San Ignacius. We had never seen a real oasis and it was crazy how it just appeared out of the middle of the desert.
After lunch we went to the old mission in town. It's been there for hundreds of years and is still in use for Sunday mass. The architecture was incredible.
We left San Ignacius with plans to drive to Loreto on the east coast but got side tracked by the Bahia Concepcion. We some how missed it in the guide book the first time, but Natasha was reading through one more time to see what we would be driving past on the way, and said "Hey, this place sounds nice". We still can't believe we almost didn't stop. The Bahia Concepcion is a large shallow bay on the Sea of Cortez dotted with white sand beaches.
This is the place that ends up on most Baja guide book covers. Most of the beaches have campgrounds where you camp right down by the water and each of the campsites has a "palapa" (a little pavilion covered in palm leaves.
Our camp at Playa Santispac
There was a guy named Chicho who kept his boat at our beach and hired himself out as a fishing guide and clam diver. On our last day there, he came by with a bunch of clams that he had caught that day and offered to sell them to us for 5 pesos a piece (about 50 cents). It sounded great but we weren't sure what to do with them so he offerd to prepare them for us. He split them open, squeezed fresh lemon juice on them and little squirt of hot sauce, and they were the best meal we had the entire trip.
He also had some trigger fish that he had caught that day so we bought that and cooked it that night.
It was very hard to leave our little paradise but we had reservations that Natasha's parents had gotten us in San Felipe. San Felipe is also on the Sea of Cortez but there isn't a road between there and Bahia Concepcion. So we backtracked up to Ensenda and then down to San Felipe.
In San Felipe we stayed at the Marina Resort right on the beach. We've gotten a few hotel rooms here and there but this is the first time we'd gotten to stay in one for a whole week straight.
We had the hotel and the beach all to ourselves most of the week. I think we saw 3 other groups of people.
Overall Mexico was great. We did get pulled over once and the guy tried to get us to pay a bribe. We kind of played dumb and asked if he could show us where to pay the ticket and he got a little frustrated and told us to go on our way. There were also a bunch of military checkpoints which is a pretty foreign concept for Americans. Some of them just waved us through and others searched our car but they were all very nice and didn't hassle us. There were almost no tourist anywhere and a lot pf places seemed completely deserted which was a little weird and when we asked around we got a lot of different answers. Some people said were just a couple weeks ahead of tourist season, and others said it was because people were freaked out by all the bad press in the States. It was nice for us to basically have everywhere we went to ourselves, but it was sad to see all the locals, who depend on tourism for living, struggling.
To get back to San Diego it was faster from San Felipe to drive to Mexicali to cross the border. This is a pretty busy crossing and it was a Saturday so it took us about an hour and a half to get through. We had to get tourist cards when we came in to the country since we were staying for over 72 hours and the guide book made it sound like the end of the world if we didn't turn it in to the immigration office when we left. We didn't have a way to get out of the border crossing line once we got in so it turned out we had to walk back across the border to turn them in and it looke like it wouldn't take long. As soon as we got back into Mexico we saw that the pedestrian line going back into the States was about a mile long. We found immigration and it seemed like they really didn't care if we turned the cards in or not. We got back in line and it took another hour to get through. I feel lucky to have made it back across the border because I thought Natasha might kill me once she saw the line.