We spent two weeks in Chico taking our time re-tooling The Joan and fortifying ourselves for the long southern leg of our journey. We camped out in the backyard of our house enjoying the company of friends and soaking up the final days of California summer. We spent a good amount of time winnowing out the superfluous sundries that have been clogging our space in the back of The Joan. We added a few key items (like a zip-on bug shelter for the ARB awning) and purged a ton (like a gold pan and second guitar). Eventually, we began to get itchy feet. We quit trying to find the perfect place for everything, threw it all in the back knowing it would settle into place over time and hit the open road.
First stop was Kelseyville to chill with my parents and load up the mountain of supplies we had ordered to their house from the internet (like an additional solar panel and a two-year supply of filters for our Aeropress coffeemaker). We spent a few days with them and their little dog, Roux. Scott made good use of my dad’s shop and installed the new solar panel on the roof rack of our truck. I woke up at the crack of dawn every day to walk a mile with Roux and my mom. This put me in the right place at the right time for the first cup of coffee. While there, we were lucky enough to catch up with one of my oldest BFFs, Erica, before she took off on a hunting trip. If there is anyone out there who has read more gear reviews than Scott, it is probably Erica. Thanks to conversations with Erica and her husband, James, we had one more item (prefilter for our truck’s fancy-pants air intake) to add to our shopping list. Eventually, we exhausted my parents’ repertoire of vegan meals and seriously depleted their wine stash. It was time to share some hugs and profound words before we ripped the bandage off of goodbye and hit the open road.
The open road led us to Walnut Creek where Scott’s mom and step-dad were awaiting our arrival with bated breath and a slightly smaller mountain of supplies we had ordered to their house from the internet. We spent a few days with them and their little cats, Maisie and Moe (in order of appearance). They were kind enough to drive us all over seeking out a few last-minute items for our journey (shelf stable tofu and many Costco delights) as well as hosting a family get-together so we could efficiently catch up with and squeeze as many family members as possible. We stayed up way past our bedtimes with Preston playing iPad DJ while Diane, Scott and I totally nailed the Top 40 of yesteryear with Di and me on the ukuleles and Scott on guitar. Having sampled the highlights of their inexhaustible repertoire of vegan meals it was time to share some hugs, last-minute driveway yoga lessons, and profound words before we, yet again, ripped the bandage off of goodbye and hit the open road.
That open road held many fabulous pit-stops on the way. Those stopovers included Alameda to commune with some of Scott’s besties, Santa Cruz and Los Angeles to commune with some of my besties, an unavoidable stop to ogle at the most adorable cuddle-puddle of elephant seals ever and two San Diego cousin stops (we both have cousins in San Diego!).
Plus, we had one less-than-fabulous pit stop tucked in there between LA and San Diego. The Joan Wilder’s battery light came on just as we rolled into LA. I was attributing it to the abnormal lightning-filled rain storm. Scott, on the other hand, merely scratching the surface of his automotive diagnostic know-how, narrowed it down to an alternator problem. We went to Pep Boys and had his suspicions confirmed, but we did not like the price nor time frame for them to fix the problem. We hit up the Googles and found a new alternator across town. We grabbed that alternator and figured we could limp to San Diego, and fix it there. That plan did not work out. We started losing power on the 405 about midway to our destination and Scott let me know that we needed a good place to park ASAP. We just happened to be passing through San Juan Capistrano (of the Swallows of San Juan Capistrano fame) so we took an exit and coughed and sputtered our way into an open space at a Park and Ride just as Joan gave up the ghost. Scott unearthed the Necronomicon of Toyota Tacomas, along with an array of wrenches and other such implements germane to the craft. I have always been satisfied being an Automotive Agnostic- I know it works, but I just don’t know how. Thankfully, Scott has an inquiring mind. I took on the role of chief light-holder and head picker-upper-of-small-items-dropped-into-the-engine for the two hours it took Scott to get The Joan back to the realm of the living. Just as we were buttoning things up a couple of guys drove up and asked us if we needed any help. Why yes, we do! The dying deed of our faulty alternator was to suck the last spark of life out of our battery. Nothing a simple jump couldn’t fix (even I knew that). Except it didn’t! I turned the key and absolutely nothing happened. Cue panic. Scott immediately remembered that the first thing he did was unhook the negative battery cable (so as not to be electrocuted while performing the alternator transplant). The next time I turned the key everything happened as Toyota intended. Cue relieved sigh. We were just so thankful that this happened while we were still north of the border and able to solve the problem in English.
On the subject of borders… We had our first southern border to cross! We chose to cross in Tecate, rather than Tijuana, both as an homage to our newfound tolerance for approachable lagers and because we didn’t feel the need to experience the world’s busiest land border first hand. The border crossing is not an intuitive process. There were a couple of lanes that had lights. Red means pull over so we can have a look and green means go on through. We got a green but pulled in anyways because we figured we need to talk to somebody about getting our Temporary Import Permit (TIP). The nice young fellow obligingly looked in our truck with distinct disinterest and let us know we needed to go park in town and walk back to go through immigration. There is a dearth of parking in Tecate. We ended up parking about 4 or 5 blocks away in front of a home with an unwelcoming cactus garden and an even more unwelcoming pit bull chained within. Taking careful note of where we were parked we hoofed it back to the border gates to see about getting some paperwork done. We mixed up our order of operations at first by trying to put the cart before the horse (The Joan is the cart and we are the horses) but quickly found ourselves in front of the proper desk filling out our tourist permit. The man behind the desk was super helpful when it came to entering our destination city and hotel. He said it didn’t matter and that we could put anything. I think I wrote La Paz and Scott wrote Ensenada. I left the hotel address blank. Once we filled out our forms with him he sent us over to the bank window to pay the fee I think it was $50 or $60 for the both of us. Receipt in hand from the bank we returned to the nice man at the desk. He checked our receipts and signed our tourist permits and stamped our passports. Next, we went back to guy at the bank window to get the TIP for The Joan. He sent us over to the pharmacy across the street to get copies of Scott’s passport and new tourist permit (because he is the sole registered owner) and the truck registration. Copies in hand we went back to the bank window and paid the deposit to get the TIP. Because The Joan is a woman of a certain age her deposit was only $200 plus the $60 nonrefundable fee. We should see that $200 returned to our card when we leave the country. We’ll see. They sent us off with a shiny decal for our front window that expires in 6 months. We were finally ready to hit the open road!
We hadn’t really made any sort of specific game plan for how we were going to tackle Baja so we just headed south on Highway 3 to Ensenada. I knew it would be easier for us to plan after I had a fish taco. We wandered through the fish market but opted to eat at a restaurant that might also have something for Scott as well. It was cool to be in a Mexican city but it wasn’t luring either of us to stay very long so we drove south to find camping at a spot up on the hill above La Bufadora (The Blowhole). It was an incredibly beautiful location up on a hill overlooking the Pacific. We were the only people camped there that night. That night turned out to be the windiest night of our whole trip. We barely slept because of the sound of our tent snapping and violently fluttering in the wind. Whatever. We were still happy because we were in Mexico!
The next morning, we drove down to put an eyeball on the actual bufadora but they wanted $4 US to park. We didn’t want to see it $4 bad and since we actually did come up with a plan that had us putting some real miles in for the day we just headed out.
Our big plan for the day was to go and visit Parque Nacional Sierra San Pedro Mártir to see the tallest peak in Baja and also to look for California condors. Google maps showed two ways to get there and if we took the northern route we could continue on to San Felipe when we had gotten our fill of tall mountains and giant birds. The road into the park from the north was a sand and dirt affair that crossed through desolate cactus country.
We drove for a couple of hours and only passed one person (actually, were passed by) and they were on a little buggy with a roll cage. This area is really popular with off-roaders. Eventually, we got to a place called Mike’s Sky Rancho. There was a guy standing out front and I asked him if we were still on the road to the national park. He looked at us askance and asked, “In that car?” He just called The Joan Wilder a car! I cheerfully overlooked his disparaging reference to our badass 4×4 and responded that yes, we were planning to go in the truck we were sitting in. He told us that we were not on the right road to get to the park. We would have to go back to Ensenada and take the southern road in. Apparently, the road beyond the rancho is more of a rock crawling route. At that point, we reassessed our plan. We could have stayed at the rancho for way too much money or found a spot in the desert to camp or hightail it to San Felipe to camp. The deciding factor for us was the temperature. We were really high up in the mountains and the nighttime temperatures were threatening to approach freezing. We were in Baja and if we weren’t going to see condors and high peaks than we wanted to be warm! San Felipe, here we come! With two hours of daylight left. One of the cardinal rules of overlanding south of the US is that night driving is strictly verboten. The roads don’t really have any shoulders to speak of and the free-range cows tend to congregate on the roads at night. Also, there are topes. Topes are (typically) unmarked speedbumps that herald your arrival into even the slightest hiccup of a village. They are brutal if you don’t see them coming. We had promised each other that we wouldn’t drive at night. Two days into Baja and we are rolling into nightfall. We would have been very close if we didn’t have to burn fifteen minutes at a military checkpoint. We spent the final half hour of our drive staring into the darkness looking for errant cattle.
We arrived in San Felipe without incident and found an RV park on the beach where Scott was able to negotiate our rent for the night to half price if we didn’t use electricity or shower. Our spot was beachfront with a rather unstable looking double-decker palapa. The town of San Felipe seemed to be still gearing up for tourist season. There wasn’t much activity at all. We cruised through town looking for lunch before heading south and found a passable fish taco for me and another plate of rice and beans for Scott.
Our destination that day was Puertecitos where there were reportedly hot springs on the beach. The scenery along the way was beautiful. Distant cliffs and huge cardón cacti kept us company as we headed south.
The road was in really good condition until it wasn’t. Hurricane Rosa had passed through about three weeks before our arrival and she pretty much systematically removed all of the bridges on Highway 5. I had read that the highway would eventually no longer be paved but that wasn’t supposed to be the case until after Puertecitos. The road was passable only because they had graded a second road into the desert alongside the damaged road. It was really slow going. When we arrived at Puertecitos, the only gas station for miles was closed. We were low but not too low. Not quite panic time yet. Also, the town looked really beaten down and dusty. We decided to keep heading south to find a more inviting place to camp.
Papa Fernandez campground on Punta Willard ended up being the place for us. The best part of that place was the tall dune covered in pickleweed that blocked the majority of the wind for our camp. We thought we would have the whole place to ourselves but another couple and their dog, and a small group towing boats arrived just before sunset. As we were eating our dinner we heard gunshots coming from down the beach. We had become accustomed to people shooting guns in campgrounds while we were in Alaska but now we were in Mexico and it made my heart jump. Turns out neighbors weren’t shooting guns they were shooting fireworks! Giant County Fair worthy fireworks! That, I can handle. We talked to our neighbors about the potential for gas further south since we had been unable to fill up in Puertecitos. They were pretty confident that if the gas station were closed there would be a pickup truck with tanks full of gypsy gas parked there ready to charge an exorbitant price. Gas availability was definitely going to dictate our next steps.
The gas gods were smiling on us and the station was open. We went ahead and filled a jerry can too just so we could venture out with more confidence. Isolated gas stations being closed was new to our travel experience. We also borrowed their spigot at the gas station and topped off our water jugs (we have a filter to save us from Montezuma’s Revenge). Now we were completely provisioned to head out into the desert for some exploring. Our first stop was at Coco’s Corner. The fence surrounding Coco’s Corner is decorated with hundreds of empty beer cans blowing in the breeze. Coco, a double amputee walking on thick leather knee-pads, welcomes visitors into his home to sell them a frosty beverage (beer, soda, water) and get them to sign in his giant three-inch-thick log book. Apparently, he has filled eight of them. He is recording the full name and birthplace (“Where your mama kicked you out”) of everyone who passes by. The ceiling of his living room/bedroom is entirely covered with over 25 years accumulation of signed panties. I was having flashbacks to Chicken, Alaska and wondering if I needed to add mine to the collection when he asked me if I wanted any of them because he is planning on taking them down and redecorating. Very generous, but no thank you.
We told him we were thinking of heading to Bahia de Los Angeles. He didn’t think that was the best idea. Implied that all of our worldly possessions would be stolen. Instead, he drew us a map to a place that he deemed superior. Coco is not the world’s finest cartographer. He drew us a map with his house, our starting point, in two different places. It was all very confusing but we filled in the gaps with vague downloaded Google maps and found our way to Calamajué Canyon. The road was actually just the riverbed of an arroyo that wound its way through the desert.
One thing that made this route special was the natural springs. They popped up periodically allowing for the growth of thick grass and palm trees only to disappear again leaving nothing but sand and cactus between the canyon walls. We found a wide spot in the canyon and hunkered down for one of our most peaceful night’s sleep.
In the morning the veil of solitude was shredded by 4 dirt bikers blazing through the canyon. It was fun while it lasted. We took our time packing up in the shade offered by the high canyon walls that morning and headed out in search of pavement. At one point we veered right when we probably should have veered left. We were pretty far off the “road” but still following a smaller riverbed mostly in the right direction. Scott was losing faith in my navigation skills as we passed by a burned-out car. My reassurances that it had a good vibe and that we had plenty of gas were, apparently, not very assuring. We finally pulled over in a patch of shade so that I could show him that the little dashed blue line on the map that we were following would eventually lead us to a small dirt track that would lead us to a larger dirt track that would lead us to pavement. We found those dirt tracks right where they were supposed to be and they did eventually lead us out to pavement.
That pavement took us to Bahia de Los Angeles. We stopped at a mini-super and picked up some beer and veggies and filled up our water off of their spigot outside. We cruised through town in search of a snack and a break from the truck. A little motel with a beachfront restaurant fit the bill perfectly. We had some chips and salsa and a couple frosty adult beverages while we discussed our sleeping options for the night. The wind had really picked up again and we were not looking forward to sleeping in a wind tunnel. We headed south of town to check out a place called Playa La Gringa which was free to camp on. On our way, we stopped back at the mini-super. Over our snacks, we had been marveling about how cheap it was there and looked a bit closer at the receipt. She had charged us for a bottle of beer instead of a 12 pack. We figured it was a good idea to stay on the right side of fortune’s wheel so we popped back in to give her the pesos we owed. She was very thankful. Anyhow, Playa La Gringa was a pebble beach that faced back toward the town. We drove around some hills behind it to try to find some wind protection but in the end, we gave up and resigned ourselves to the wind. It was really pretty and we stayed a couple days snorkeling, dolphin watching and lounging.
The snorkeling was fun but mediocre. We saw a couple of puffer fish and some stingrays but the water was too chilly to stay in for very long. Low tide at that beach revealed hundreds of beautiful starfish just hanging out on the sand.
After three nights at Playa La Gringa, we headed over towards the Pacific side of Baja to see what there was to see. We weren’t too keen on backtracking all the way out to the highway the same way we came in so we found a little scenic dirt track back to the highway via Misión San Francisco de Borja Adac. Our stop at the mission was very short. There is a caretaker there who gives free tours (for tips). It was remarkable to see such a structure out in the middle of nothing but cactus and trouble. We could have camped at the mission for way too much money but we opted to go find a piece of desert solitude somewhere between the mission and the highway. A side road off of a side road littered with unopened cans of Tecate Azul (dropped by an off-roader?) lured us deep into the desert. We settled on a spot surrounded by close to every type of plant that was to be found there.
We were camped in a cornucopia of spiny yet succulent vegetation. That night we experienced one of the most vivid sunsets of our lives. It was a 360-degree riot of color. Once the colors faded, darkness showed us a brilliant array of stars. That peaceful night sky invited us to go to sleep early.
When we woke the next morning, our camp was enshrouded with mist. All of the beautiful buttes in the distance were hidden in a thick low cloud. Out of that early morning mist emerged a beautiful white unicorn (its horn was very tiny)! We stared at the unicorn in silence. The unicorn stared back at us in silence and then skipped away into the mist (unicorns love skipping!).
Scott and I started laughing at the absurdity of it all, crawled out of our tent and made some coffee. We slowly packed up as that strange mist burned off of the desert. By the time we were ready to go, it was as if it had not happened.
Scott let me pick up Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumb trail of Tecate cans on our way out but was not interested in helping me drink them (he is a stickler for proper beer storage and desert sun for unknown periods of time is not proper).
We were still heading towards the Pacific side and did not have to go too far to find it. We aimed for a deserted beach south of the tiny fishing town of Santa Rosalillita. We parked ourselves in a little gully with a view of the ocean as well as a bit of protection from the afternoon winds. The ocean there was very pretty but not very approachable. We had been spoiled by the clear placid waters of the Sea of Cortez.
We spent the evening cooking up all of the fresh produce we had with us for fear that it would be seized the following day when we crossed the border into Baja Sur. So much cabbage! The winds died in the evening leaving us with a placid night. I spent most of that night regretting the order of camarones del diablo that I ate before leaving Bahia de los Angeles…
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