This article is from the May 1996 The
Mexico File newsletter.
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Driving Adventure down Baja
by Gordon Reiselt
Gordon Reiselt is a 49 year-old lawyer in private practice in Albuquerque, New Mexico, who primarily represents injured federal workers in claims before the U.S. Department of Labor. He has been practicing law for 22 years. He is married to a "wondeful and supportive" wife, Barbara, who is also a lawyer. She was born and raised in Calexico, California, just across the border from Mexicali. . .and Gordon says that this is probably the reason for his great interest in Baja California. They have three grown boys who live in Mississippi, California and New York. Gordon finally yielded to his need for adventure and hit the road, or what resembled road in places, driving from Mexicali down to Cabo San Lucas and then back again. He shares this "mile-by-mile, day-by-day" adventure with us. Parts two, three and four of this series will appear in subsequent issues ofThe Mexico File.
Flying in and out of the Los Cabos International Airport for vacations once a year did little to satisfy my overall curiosities about Baja California.
The Baja California Peninsula has always been an exciting mystery to me. And so, in January 1995, as I was being bused from Cabo San Lucas to the airport just north of San Jose del Cabo, I made the decision to drive the peninsula and take my time doing it. I fiilly realized that this was not a novel idea, but the upcoming trip gave me a genuine sense of exploration and adventure to discover a part of the world that had been calling out to me in a most compelling manner.
For the next it months, with the help and support of my wife, friends and coworkers, I prepared for my journey by reading books, studying maps, talking with people who had made the journey and learning Spanish. In speaking with people
who had driven in Mexico, I heard stories of poorly maintained roads with bandits strewn throughout. There were rumors of gasoline shortages, lack of automobile parts and bad water. But there were also tales of violent blue-green sudsy waves breaking on empty stretches of pure white beaches. ..a frog safely inching its way across a main street at dusk, untroubled by traffic. ..coyotes fishing with their tails for crab. The conflicting information I received made me wonder whether this would be a vacation or an endurance test. It also began to sound like a legal endurance test after I received misinformation from the Mexican Consulate regarding the necessity of an automobile permit.
Then, 11 months later, in early December 1995, I am driving west on Interstate 40 from my home in Albuquerque, targeted for Mexicali, my planned entry into the peninsula. As I drive, I realize that despite all my planning and daydreaming, this trip will come down to a mile-by-mile, day-by-day adventure, every moment of which I will try to savor.
During the planning stages of this trip, many friends expressed an interest in driving with me, but with one week until
departure, it looks as though I will be going alone This hypes my wife's and friends' anxiety levels, so I decide to enter Mexico at Tijuana and travel the safer route taking Mexico 1, the transpeninsular highway, to Cabo San Lucas. But with just three days before my departure, a friend of mine finds the time for adventure.
We decide to enter at the border city of Mexicali and travel south to San Felipe. . and then on to Puertecitos, where we will hit a rugged 85-mile stretch of dirt road that parallels the Sea of Cortez and eventually links us with Mexico 1.1 have been unable to obtain any reliable or current information about this road, other than what is on our AAA map, and this adds to the upcoming mystery and adventure
After spending the night in Flagstaff, we wake early and drive to Calexico, where we convert dollars to pesos, obtain Mexican liability insurance, purchase additional provisions and eat lunch at noon just before our crossing. About a block before we hit the border we witness a pick-up truck lose its poorly tied down scaffolding, sending its contents crashing into the windshield of the car in front of us. We cross the border with this accident fresh in our minds and definitely more cautious. We spend about an hour in Mexicali answering questions and filling out forms as required by the Mexican Immigration officials, who despite our broken Spanish, treat us with kindness and understanding. Many of the documents we were told were necessary, such as the original automobile title and registration, are not requested. The only document they pay attention to is the tourist pass.
After completing our immigration business, we easily follow the signs out of Mexicali south in the direction of San Felipe. The highway to San Felipe is a two-lane road, narrow by American standards, with no shoulders. No speed limits are posted, but we decide that 40 mph will do for the time being. We pass through barren mountain ranges and over a huge dry lake bed, passing a few Federal Police vehicles parked on the side of the road, and arrive in San Felipe without incident. We spend the evening in San Felipe at the El Cortez for $30.00. San Felipe, with all of its bars and liquor advertisements, impresses me as a college party/drinking town, the type of place where neither of us want to spend any more time than necessary.
The next day, we arise early and head farther south, 50 miles to Puertecitos, a small community where the paved road ends and branches into four unpaved roads that appear to be going nowhere in particular. Our map is no help in figuring which is the correct road to Mexico 1 and there are no road markings. The streets are empty at 10:00 a.m.; there are no stores in sight and the Pemex gasoline station stands abandoned.
Finally, after waiting for an hour, I see a man come out of his house, still yawning and stretching, fresh from sleep. I ask him for directions and information on the road conditions. He points to what looks like a crude foot path and tells us that the month earlier, in November, this road had been graded in preparation for the Baja 1000 auto race. Was this a joke? This road appears barely wide enough for the Jeep to pass through.. let alone host a major a race; does it radically improve later? I walk to the road's entrance, but am unable to see far ahead because of huge rocks and a drastic switchback that cuts off to the right. We begin to have our doubts about this choice of road, but at this juncture neither of us wants the alternative to turn back 200+ miles to Tijuana and proceed down Mexico 1. So, with white knuckles and sheepish grins, we aimlessly cast off our doubts, thank our guide and literally hit the road.
I have been on many rough roads before, but five minutes on this one and I know this is a serious test of our nerves and Jeep mechanics. The width of the road will not allow us to pass approaching vehicles. But of greater concern are the truly amazing and 4 challenging steep inclines without guard rails. At one point, as we head up the side a mountain, the front end of the Jeep is pointing so straight up that I cannot see anything but sky and find it necessary to get out of the Jeep to see if the road continues. The road is ruddy, rocky, sandy and constantly meandering, restricting our speed to between 5-10 mph. We begin to notice that on each side of the road there are sometimes two unofficial roads running parallel.
These roads appear to be sandy and begin and end abruptly. At times they appear to fade into nowhere.
The road we travel is not continuously bumpy but is constantly lined with small sharp hazardous rocks, each a potential tire slasher. And at mile 24, we hear the unpleasant sound of hissing air and know that our luck has run out. We have only a small utility spare; my planning did not include a full sized spare. We are in the middle of nowhere and the sand does not support our jack. But we manage to jack the tire up as high as possible and then dig a hole underneath the tire in order to remove it. After spending several hours mired in sand, we change the tire, but have little confidence that the utility spare will take us much farther. I learn later that the winner of the Baja 1000, Larry Raglan, passed this very spot one month earlier, averaging a speed of 57 mph by using a BF Goodrich TIA light tire. For the next 20 miles our speed will be 4-5 mph.
Feeling more apprehensive because we have no idea when we will be able to obtain a spare, we proceed with full realization that this is quickly turning into a touchy situation. We again question the wisdom of our route, but we conclude there is no turning back. Although we keep a keen eye out for a place to fix our flat, we figure that there is probably a better chance of our finding Frosty the Snowman. We do cut off the road into Campo Punta Bufeo looking for help, but no one is around. The day is growing long and it is now certain that we will not make it to Mexico 1 as planned.
Just then, on the side of the road, adjacent to a dirt airstrip, is a series of well maintained buildings, one of which is a huge garage. Our excitement peaks and we pull off the road. Several puppies come out to greet us from under a shade tree. The puppies are followed by a young man who politely asks what we need. Pointing to the flat tire is all the communication needed. Close inspection of the tire shows that its tread is pierced in two places. Our surge of excitement dissipates as the two huge patches, skillfully installed, prove to be completely ineffective. Our disappointment is almost complete when we discover that there are no other tires available.
Our temporary host tells us that we may be able to buy a spare at Papa IIernandez', a small campo about three miles away. Fortunately, he is right and we buy a slick used tire from Papa. We are told that our punctured tire will be functional with a tube inserted, but none
is available. We throw the punctured tire onto the Jeep's roof and launch a discussion about whether to go farther now that we have the newborn confidence of having a spare, but we are physically and mentally exhausted.
It has taken us almost eight hours to travel less than 50 miles, and although we still have another 35 miles to reach Mexico 1, we know the decision must be to spend the evening at Alfonshina's on the north end of Bahia San Luis Gonzaga. We eat a great fish dinner, accompanied by turtle steak, beer and a place to sleep situated on a beautiful beach, all for $20.00. We meet and have interesting conversations over dinner with some ex-patriots living at the Bahia and are later joined by a beer guzzling band of dusty dirt bikers who have been exploring the area for ancient missions. It seems that our misfortune has turned into a bonanza. If we hadn't had the blown tire, in all likelihood, we would have passed up Alfonshina's.
Before I fall asleep that evening, I wonder whether our treadless tire will still be holding its air in the morning. I am pleasantly surprised the next morning to see that it has. I go for a jog alongside the Bahia's airstrip, listening to music on my Walkman. Without warning, I run into a band of soldiers in camouflage and black face, performing their morning calisthenics by the side of the road. They appear to be as shocked to see me as I am to see them. I wave bashfully and get on my way, pretending that nothing has happened. On my way back to the room, the same soldiers pass in a military truck, smiling and waving.
As we say goodbye to Alfonshina, we are under the mistaken impression that the remaining 35 miles of unpaved road to Mexico 1 will surpass the quality of the 50 miles just traveled. While the road is somewhat wider and not as mountainous, it is still very rocky, taking us yet another 5 hours to Chapala where it meets Mexico 1. On this stretch of the road we are more relaxed and we stop often to look at the large array of huge cacti.
Our first glimpse of Mexico 1 is truly exhilarating and we are ready for the tires to hit some smooth blacktop. Our driving experience on the dirt road has been good overall but we are very dusty and gritty. The Jeep, as I later discover, has suffered greatly as a result of the harsh road conditions: four deflated shocks and a ruptured front-end stabilizer. Hitting the paved road at Chapala is, at first, like riding on a cloud. Travelling at 40 mph feels almost like flying, and best of all, I feel we are making progress. Mexico 1 south of Chapala is a two-lane road without shoulders. There are some unofficial places that allow one to pull off the road, but they are unmarked and easily missed. In addition, there are many signs indicating dangerous curves (Curva Peligrosa), and steep indentations in the road (Vados) where water rushes across the road during the rainy season. There are many potholes, rocks and other debris on the road, so driving requires devout attention.
As we cruise along Mexico 1, we decide to spend the evening at Bahia de Los Angeles (commonly known as "L.A. Bay"). When we reach this decision, we are travelling at about 40 mph and believe we will be able to arrive at the Bahia within a few hours. Without any road warning, we hit a washed-out portion of the road and the road turns into a huge series of potholes for the next 15 miles. From that point on, I realize there will be nothing predictable about the highway's condition. We get gas at a Pemex station at the Mexico 1 juncture to the Bahia and head southwest. The 42 mile stretch of road to the Bahia is much worse than Mexico 1. Sections are totally washed out.
About 20 miles in, we suddenly encounter our first of many military stops and searches. As we approach a curve before heading up a steep incline, a soldier carrying a rifle steps out onto the road and gives us a hand gesture to slow down. Up ahead, I see about 15 other soldiers standing around a stopped.
As we approach, the soldiers direct their attention towards us and slowly walk to the Jeep. The leader of the group is definitely under 20 years old and speaks very little English. We are told that the soldiers are looking for guns and drugs and they want to know if we have any. They ask us to get out while they search our belongings. This particular search is cursory, and takes only about 30 minutes. It is unnerving because it is our first and we do not know what to expect. While the soldiers search the truck, they do not say anything to us but we can overhear them speaking to each other in quiet voices as they rifle though our belongings and inspect under the seats and in the glove compartment. I have a Buck knife in the glove compartment that all the soldiers take a liking to, and I begin to wonder whether possession of a knife of that kind is illegal. But, after they all admire it, it is put back and we are sent on our way.
About 10 miles outside Bahia de Los Angeles, we come across a garbage dump on the side of the road. This type of garbage dump will become a familiar sight informing us that civilization is not far ahead. Apparently, in most Baja towns, if not all, there is no organized garbage collection, and people are therefore forced to take garbage outside of town, often dumping it along the roadside. As we cross over a hill, I get my first sight of Bahia de Los Angeles. Its blue-green crystal clear waters are magnificent and I feel we have made a good choice in stopping here. Once we get into town, however, I begin to have second thoughts. My second impression of the town is that it is very impoverished. Most of the roads in town are either dirt or very badly maintained asphalt. The town's electricity is supplied by a gasoline generator that can be heard everywhere.
After making one run though town, we decide to stay at Casa Diaz, on the beach, for $25.00. Our room lacks hot water, and is crusty and dank.. .but adequate. I stroll along the beach before dinner and meet a man who is living on the beach in a cardboard shack. He introduces him-self as "uncle Joe" and tells me that he is a dentist from Cabo San Lucas who is on vacation. His brother is to pick him up in a boat in 10 days for a return trip to Cabo. He invites me back to his home where he shows me his catch of fresh fish and invites me to have a cup of coffee. As we drink our coffee, we walk down to the shoreline where Joe cleans the fish and feeds the pelicans with the remains.
Joe and I then return to the motel where I find that my traveling friend has already met our next door neighbors. One of the neighbors, Skeeter, is a Norte Americano, fluent in Spanish who has settled in Colonet, and the other is his friend from San Diego. They are in the Bahia to fish for the weekend. Joe and Skeeter begin to talk and after a few minutes, Skeeter turns to me and says: "If bullshit were electricy, Joe here would be a power plant." As we drink beer on the porch overlooking the Bahia, I am feeling quite proud for having conquered the 85 mile dirt road and ask Skeeter whether he has ever traveled it. He tells me that he has, many times, and, on one occasion, had four blown tires. I can certainly see how that could happen but I am more concerned about how he was able to survive this ordeal. I am told that when he travels that road, he always carries at least three spare tires. After the fourth tire blew, it was taken off the wheel and stuffed with a sleeping bag and other clothes that were filled with sand. This acted as a padding, in lieu of air, preventing the rim from bending. This makeshift tire lasted until he reached a repair shop on Mexico 1.
Since we are getting up early the next morning, we find ourselves ready for bed right after the town generator shuts off at 10:00 p.m. As I turn the covers down on the bed, I see that my pillow is covered with thousands of tiny sandfleas, and I quickly toss it out the door onto the beach. Although the sandflea-infested pillow is out of sight, its vision most definitely interferes with my night's sleep. We are warned that the generator turns on at 6:00 a.m. the following morning, hut we are up and out by 4:00 a.m., with Mulege the target for our next night's stay. As we meander through the early morning fog and mist between two enormous mountain ranges, I notice a yellow cord crossing the road which must be some sort of signal, because quite unexpectedly, we are stopped right there again by a small group of soldiers. There is something about this stop that is downright frightening. As we answer questions put to us in rapid Spanish, one of the soldiers shines a flashlight though the rear window and I can see several more soldiers camped along the side of the road in a gully, all huddling around a small fire. They do not appear to be enjoying their duty and I do not want to trouble them further. They speak no English, but their purpose is clear and after an hour, we are finally on our way, relishing our freedom.
All told, we will be stopped about 15 times by the military and the federal police. There are also agricultural inspections at Guerrero Negro and La Paz. There appears to be no pattern as to the location of these searches. Many are conducted by the military when we enter a town and then by the federal police when we exit the same town. We note, however, vast differences in the personalities of our searchers. The military are very polite and friendly despite the overt display of automatic weapons on their shoulders. The federal police, or the PGR, are a harsher sort. These guys seem to have an agenda other than the stated one of looking for guns and drugs. Some are clad in black t-shirts with the white letters "PGR" on the front. They all keep their hands on their sidearms while their eyes dart back and forth between us and our belongings in the Jeep. They ask very pointed questions about where we are coming from, where we are headed, and even where we are staying. At several federal stops, there are no signs whatsoever of any sort of officiality other than a holster and gun. As time passes, the stops and searches become less intimidating but never are we comfortable with them.. .though we have nothing to hide.
This article is from the June 1996 The
Mexico File newsletter.
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Driving Adventure down Baja, II
by Gordon Reiselt
Gordon Reiselt is on attorney practicing in Albuquerque, New Mexico. In the May 1996 issue ofThe Mexico File he shared with us the beginning of his dnve from the border crossing at Mexicali to Bahia de Los Angeles (or "L.A. Bay, " as norteamericanos are likely to describe it). And so his adventure outinues
It takes us almost 1.5 hours to reach Mexico 1 because of the fog and poor road conditions. The next 80 mile stretch of Mexico us filled with gigantic cacti and potholes. The first stop we make south of Bahia de Los Angeles is Guerrero Negro where we stop to get gas and eat breakfast. Because the weather is cold and overcast, we do not get a good feel for Guerrero Negro, but I do notice huge pits around the town where salt water is pumped in and eventually evaporates, creating salt. The salt is then trucked out and sold as high-priced sea salt. At first, when I see the salt pits, I think that they are garbage heaps because of the trash that has accumulated around and in the pits. I decide that I do not like sea salt.
About an hour south of Guerrero Negro, the sun comes out and shines upon our next stop, San Ignacio, a true sunken oasis filled with palm trees, a large lake and a beautifal church located on a quiet town square. I want to spend more time in San Ignacio, but we still want to visit Santa Rosalia before stopping for the night at Mulege, another oasis further south.
From San Ignacio, Mexico 1 heads east to the Sea of Cortez and the port city of Santa Rosalia. Mexico I between San Ignacio and Santa Rosalia contains a very dangerous stretch of switchbacks leading down to the sea. We encounter several burros eating foliage from the rocks on the side of the road. Road barriers meant to protect drivers from falling into deep crevices are seen by the road side, disabled. Shrines dot this area indicating where motorists have failed to safely negotiate the road's dangerous curves. Semi trucks coming from the south are frequent and seem to be present around every curve. We drop approximately 1,000 feet to sea level in a very short distance, and it is a very pleasant sight to see the Sea of Cortez once again. As we approach the town of Santa Rosalia, we pass a large abandoned smelter, and it is obvious from the rows of tick-tacky framed houses that Santa Rosalia was once a company town. We learn that it was once a copper mining town, but the copper ore had been mined out. But there is still ferry service to the mainland's port city of Guaymas.
As we leave Santa Rosalia and travel south, we both realize that we have become very at ease yet excited about what lies ahead. About 10 miles south of Santa Rosalia, we pass a huge green fortress complete with patrolling guards carrying machine guns. It is obviously a prison, and I definitely feel better viewing it from my rearview mirror.
We arrive in Mulege in the late afternoon and decide to stay at the Serenidad Hotel. The Serenidad sits at the mouth of the Mulege river, south of town. All the rooms are named after cities in Baja, and the grounds are peffeetly and tasteflilly groomed. We have a fantastic dinner and a honest night's sleep. The next morning we tour Mulege in search of an abandoned federal prison which sits on a hill overlooking the town. Unfortunately, it is not open, and after eating breakfast at Danny's Taco Stand, we start on what we think will be a short two hour drive to our next layover, Loreto. Instead, we spend a long hour in a mini traffic jam in Mulege waiting while workers block the highway replacing a highway sign. Two miles later, we are stopped for a short search by the federal police just south of Bahia Conception. The trip from Mulege to the southern tip of Bahia Conception is exquisite. As we traverse mountain passes, it is difficult to keep from looking at the breathtaking views of the sea and beaches. South of Bahia Conception, the road cuts through over-dried and barren mountains on the way to Loreto.
Several miles before we reach Loreto, we see the ever-present trash dump site at the edge of town. As we enter Loreto from Mexico I, we find ourselves on a dirt road that is approximately 100 feet long and connects to an asphalt road. There are several people on the dirt road sweeping the dirt to the side. I will never forget that sight and continue to wonder why the road was being swept. We stay at the Oasis Hotel which is on the beach. The coastline and malecon are extremely windy, but as we walk into town, the area is protected and seems to be at least 15 degrees warnier. We visit the mission at Loreto, eat lunch and walk around town. It seems quiet in the middle of the day and the sun is hot. We eat supper at the Casa Blanca located on the second floor of a bar, a restaurant that was recommended to us by the Gonzaga Bay ex-patriots.
We leave Loreto at about 6:00 a.m. the next morning and decide to head for Todos Santos, a town on the Pacific side of the peninsula about 50 miles north of Cabo San Lucas. We stop briefly in La Paz for lunch at the Los Arcos and proceed to get lost looking for Mexico I From Loreto, the road goes south over some high mountainous terrain and then drops drastically, turning to the west and then due south again. At this point, we pass a lot of agricultural ranches and gas up at Cuidad Insurgentes.
As we drive to Cuidad Constitucion, we are stopped again by the federal police. As much a search veteran as I think I have become, this daylight search seems a lot more alarming. There are 10 federal black and white patrol cars lining the road with flashing red and blue lights. All vehicles are funneled to the side of the road to a tented area which is flanked by two large military trucks, each carrying about 20 armed soldiers. Either something major has happened or the searches are getting more serious as we go southward. We are asked to get out and stand by the tent. As the Jeep is thoroughly searched, we are being watched by the soldiers from their vantage in the truck No one is smiling and all of the fire-power on the soldiers' shoulders is making me edgy. All of our property is taken out and the Jeep is tapped lightly all over on its sides with a padded stick while soldiers with mirrors look underneath the truck. The search is concluded an hour later. We are detailed the job of repacking and finally given approval to move onward. This search is different than any we have encountered or will encounter in the fliture. In Todos Santos we will discover what we believed has happened to cause such a search.
South of La Paz, Mexico 1 bifurcates at San Pedro so that Highway 19 skirts the Pacific side with Mexico 1 following along the Sea of Cortez for a few miles and then travels through the Sierra de Ia Laguna range. Whether one is traveling to Todos Santos or Cabo San Lucas, Route 19 is the faster and better maintained road. It is newly paved with bright yellow painted road markings, and for the very first time, we are on a road with shoulders.
Upon our arrival in Todos Santos, we check into the Hotel California and are given a room with a large balcony overlooking the main street. After unpacking and getting something to eat, we head to San Peralita Beach, about 5 miles south of town and spend the remainder of the day walking the beach and marveling at the huge crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean. We eat dinner at Tres Fuentes because our first choice, Cafe Santa Fe, is packed. After dinner, we sit in on part of a movie that the hotel presents in the lobby and then wander to our room for sleep. For a small town, Todos Santos is not quiet after dark on this Saturday evening. From the time we go to bed until around 4:00 a.m., we hear loud music accompanied by cars without mufflers cruising up and down the street. When these noises stop, the roosters start. When the sun is sufficiently up and the roosters cease, the town's dogs begin to bark.
We eat breakfast at the Hotel California with the mapping crew from the Automobile Club of Southern California. They are also travelling the peninsula to update their map and travel guide, both of which I find to be excellent resources. Using The Mexico File, we easily locate several isolated beaches before heading south to Cabo San Lucas.
We also leam from Mario, one of the proprietors of Hotel California, what may have been the reason for the extensive search we underwent in Cuidad Constitucion. In early November 1995, on a dry lake bed near the edge of Todos Santos, a mysterious and unmarked jet plane made a pre-dawn landing and was greeted by 30 men wearing Mexican federal police uniforms. These "police" helped unload the plane's cargo and then tried in vain to conceal the plane by dismantling it and burying its parts with a bulldozer. When the local authorities appeared on the scene to investigate, the men in the federal uniforms ordered them away. The Mexican officials now have admitted that the jet plane was carrying several tons of cocaine worth approximately $2,000,000. The men and the cocaine remain unaccounted for. The remnants of the plane, at least in mid-December 1995, could still be seen protruding from the dry lake bed.
(Editor's Note: In February, 1996, authorities issued 19 arrest warrants against federal and state police in connection with the incident described by Gordon and three people were arrested. The rest fled and are still at large.)
This article is from the July 1996 The
Mexico File newsletter.
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Driving Adventure down Baja, III
by Gordon Reiselt
Gordon Reiselt is an attorney who practices in Albuquerque, New Mexico. In the May 1996 issue of The Mexico File he wrote about the first leg of his driving trip down the Baja Peninsula from the border crossing at Mexicali to Bahia de Los Angeles. Part II of his adventure, which appeared in the June 1996 issue, described the rest ofhis journey down to Todos Santos, nearly at the tip of Baja. Part IV, the last segment of the drive back home, will appear in the August/September 1996 issue.
The tourist Mecca of Cabo San Lucas lies approximately 50 miles south of Todos Santos. Although Cabo is definitely a lot smaller in area and population than La Paz, at first impression it seems to me a lot bigger. The streets are crowded with cars and the sidewalks are jammed with people. We actually experience bumper-to-bumper traffic. Since I am going to be spending a month in Cabo San Lucas, I decide then to spend three days in San Jose before my stay in Cabo San Lucas begins. My friend and driving companion is going to leave the next day from the airport outside of San Jose, so we drive to San Jose Del Cabo, 20 miles north of Cabo San Lucas on tlie Los Cabos Corridor.
At the recommendation of the AAA map platters whom we met in Todos Santos, I stay at the Tropicana Inn. The Tropicana has a great restaurant, is located in the center of town, and is within one mile of beautiful and isolated beaches. Life is slow moving in San Jose, and I reflect that I am lucky to be alive, in good health, and able to enjoy my surroundings.. .one of which is the estuary at San Jose del Cabo.
For the next month, following my San Jose stay, I will be staying in Cabo San Lucas, taking occasional day trips accompanied by multiple runs to and from the airport to pick up and drop off visiting friends. As the month progresses, I grow somewhat apprehensive about my solo trip north. If anything of consequence would happen to me or the Jeep, I know there is no one else to rely on. I am keenly aware of the many miles of desolate geography that lie between Cabo San Lucas and Tecate, the place where I plan to reenter the United States.
After dropping my wife and friends off at the airport, I am packing for my journey north the following day. It strikes me that, despite the planning I did for the trip south, I did not plan to the same extent for the trip north. I sit down and look at a map to try to plan how far I will travel each day and where I will stay. I am aware that no matter how much I plan, it is very likely that there will be obstacles such as searches and other various reasons for me to stop that will interfere with my timed itinerary.
As I leave Cabo San Lucas on January 11, 1996, I decide that the first leg of the trip will be to Loreto, about 300 miles north. I again take Highway 19 to the juncture at Mexico 1, stopping several times along the way to take pictures of huge black birds spreading their wings while sitting atop cacti. After again getting lost in La Paz, I go through an agricultural inspection at the north end of town, and about ten feet later, I go through a military search. I have some candy and American cigarettes sitting on the passenger seat, and when a soldier opens the passenger door, the cigarettes and candy are the first things he sees. He asks me if he can have a cigarette, and when I indicate yes, five other soldiers approach me and ask for cigarettes. I find myself handing out cigarettes, and for those soldiers who did not smoke, candy. Needless to say, the soldiers stop searching, and with smiles on their faces, wave me on. From that point on, I will leave candy and cigarettes on the front seat in plain sight.
From La Paz, I push through to Cuidad Constitucion and pass the place where we had gone through such a rigorous search a month before. Just as I breathe a sigh of reliet, I am stopped for another search conducted by the federal police. I continue on, traveling past ranches and then through the green striped mountains on the way to Loreto. As I pull in off the highway to Loreto, I am stopped again by the federal police. I am asked in harsh tones where I am going and, much to my surprise, where I am staying. The question about where I am staying rattles me because I have no idea where I might be staying. I am unable to recall the name of the hotel we had stayed at on the way down and begin nervously looking through my materials. This nervousness no doubt prompts the police to think that I have something to hide, and so another fill-blown search is conducted. This takes approximately one hour. By the time I check into the Hotel Plaza Loreto, I am very tired. I have been on the road for about ten hours and have undergone two searches. After I check in, I am told I would not be able to get into my room for an hour because the hot water is being restored. I then walk down the street and have a delicious fish dinner at Casa Blanca.
Upon returning to the hotel, I am assigried a room. Right outside my room sits a drydocked Boston Whaler speedboat with the insignia of Policia Judicial Federal on its side. With the comfort of the Policia just outside my door, I sit down and plot how far I will travel the next day and decide on Guerrero Negro. This trip will be approximately 255 miles with one stop, again at San Ignacio.
The trip between Loreto and Mulege is breathtaking and I have the opportunity now to see it coming from the opposite direction. I almost forget how dangerous sightseeing from a car can be. There are many curves with open ranges and grazing cattle on the side of the road. Another hazard is in the moming...drivers heading south have the sun directly in their eyes. I stop briefly in the south part of Mulege to get gasoline.
As I start to exit town, I notice several people standing by a Pepsi truck in a driveway. As I pass the truck, I look in my rearview mirror and see a man in uniform waiving his arms at me. By now, my instinct when I see a uniforrn is to think I am about to be searched. I pull over to the side of the road and watch the uniformed man run toward the car. He opens the door and without invitation jumps in. He speaks no English, but with what little Spanish I know, we are able to introduce ourselves. He is Guillermo Palma, a Mexican naval soldier from Mulege who is called to duty. He needs a ride to the Mulege airport where he would be flown to Acapulco. I tell Guermillo that I am from the United States and am traveling back home. He tells me that his family lives in the San Quintin area, through which I will pass. He asks that I stop and visit with his family and writes me a short letter of introduction along with a map. I tell him that I will stop if I have the opportunity, but think that will be unlikely. After a brief twenty minute ride, I drop my new-found friend off at the airport and give him two cans ofjuice for his trip. We shake hands, and at that time, I realize that when Mexican men shake hands, they shake very gently. I have read since that a Herculean hydraulic press of a handshake in Mexico is considered domineering and quite rude. In any event, I conclude that if there was any doubt, it would be best in Mexico to shake hands like a wimp.
I stop in Santa Rosalia and eat breakfast at a little restaurant overlooking the sea. I am enjoying the day and my breakfast when a Chevrolet Suburban pulls up at the side of the restaurant. A man gets out of the passenger door and suddenly begins to vomit uncontrollably. The car has no license plate on it, and the two police cars that pass the Suburban do not seem to care. There are school kids on a hill overlooking the restaurant who are making cat-calling noises to the passing cars. The drivers and passengers smile and wave back, and the kids are firther encouraged to continue.
After a brief stop for a drink at the Plaza in San Ignacio, I continue on to Guerrero Negro, arriving there around 2:00 pm. I stay at the El Morro Hotel... adequate despite the powerftil odor of disinfectant. I walk the main drag of Guerrero Negro, Boulevard Emiliano Zapata, and find it to be a peacefil place lined with a variety of taco stands. This time I walk closer to the open salt pits and after again confirming the unclean conditions, decide to cut back on my salt intake. After a quiet dinner at Cocina Economica Letty, I return to my room and again plot my course. The following day, I will drive about 250 miles to San Quintin.
This article is from the August-September 1996 The
Mexico File newsletter.
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Driving Adventure down Baja, IV
by Gordon Reiselt
Gordon Reiselt,an attorney who practices in Albuquerque, New Mexico, shares with us the last 300 miles ofhis trip back to the States in this, the fourth and last part of th is series. We thank him for providing a sumptuous description ofhis excursion down this enchanted leg of land.
I start my journey from Guerrero Negro at 6:00 a.m., but before exiting town, I am quickly forced to turn back due to the dense fog. I return to my room and wait for two hours before the sun peeks through the clouds clearing the way. I realize that I have no idea of the true time because my watch has stopped and I am on the edge of a time change between Mountain and Pacific time. As I continue north, I pass Chalapa, the place we entered onto Mexico 1 in early December after travelling the rugged dirt road. From Chalapa north, Mexico 1 will be new to me. Just south of Catavina, I am stopped again for another military search that lasts for half an hour. Catavina is a beautilul and isolated town in the middle of spectacular large boulder formations and dense cacti. I pass through several deep arroyos coming out of the desert which carry water over the road. I turn off on an unmarked dirt road and travel about a mile~ I sit under the shade of a rock, gaze at the blue sky and eat my lunch.
From Catavina, Mexico 1 leads in a northwestern direction through small villages. I stop to help a couple abandoned on the side of the road near San Pablo with two flat tires and drive them to the nearest tire repair shop at Tres Enriques, a tiny settlement located about 4 miles off Mexico I on a rugged dirt road. I am rewarded with three fresh tortillas.
In El Rosario, a town about 80 miles from Catavina, I am again stopped by the military and the federal police. I have become somewhat calloused, but am still very respectlul during these stops. Everyone is friendly and I am allowed to sit in the Jeep while answering their questions. Three of the soldiers, seemingly bored with their duty, write their names in the crusty dust on the hood of the Jeep while four other soldiers peer in the windows looking for whatever. This search lasts only 10 minutes, but is followed by an interrogation from the federal police. They want information about my identity in addition to a search. The leader asks me, in a not so polite tone, to step out and turn the engine off. He wants my keys and I give them to him. I am escorted to the side of the road and am asked to produce my tourist pass and a picture ID. I am questioned about whether I possessed guns and drugs and about any liquor that I may be carrying. I show them two bottles of wine...which they take without any explanation.. .and send me on my way.
My plan is to spend the evening in the San Quintin area, about 35 miles north of El Rosario. San Quintin is situated on the Bahia de San Quintin known for its beaches and sport fishing. After passing through the San Quintin-Lazaro Cardenas scattered business area on Mexico 1, I decide to stay closer to the beach at the Cielito Linda Hotel. During my search for the Cielito Linda, I recognize a landmark church that my Mulege naval soldier told me about. His family lives near and I still have the letter of introduction he wrote, and so I feel compelled to make this visit to his family. As it turns out, I spend the evening with the Palmas and the next day they take me crabbing and clam digging. It was a memorable time and as an afterthought a wonderfiil choice.
The following day I check into the Cielito Linda. The road is partly paved but eventually turns to dirt. I am met in the parking lot by an American named Gary. He tells me that today is "Dog Day" in Mexico and in several hours the hotel will have a party with beer and chicken. The room, on the weekends for $35 US, is adequate. It has two double beds and overlooks a common area. The rate drops to $25 US on weekdays. After cleaning up and walking to the beach, I go to the party and meet travelers who are headed both north and south, as well as residents of Cielito Linda. After eating, we watch some young kids scamper after a greased pig for a $20 prize. I like Cielito Linda's ambiance and decide to stay for a few more days.
The next day I go to the beach and collect sand dollars. I walk to the La Pinta Hotel and make a phone call home. When in Mexico, beware of collect long distance advertisements for cheap prices. When I arrive home I am shocked to see that a 25 minute collect call from Mulege cost $137!
That evening, several of the Cielito per manent residents have a birthday party and I am invited. For $10, the dinner consisted of all the fresh lobster, crab and clams one can eat. Wine and beer are provided free by the house and a Mariachi
band plays in the background while several dogs roam freely about. Porky, a pot-belly pig, sits by my feet begging for food. During dinner, Ron and Judy Baker, the owners of a sport fishing fleet operating from the Cielito Linda, invite me for a day of deep sea fishing and so I stay another day to pursue this adventure. I had been deep sea fishing only one time 30 years ago and was sick the entire time~ However, I am willing to give this a try. We fish for almost five hours in very rough and open waters and catch many yellowtail tuna. I am sick for most of the time and so weak that when we land on shore, I fall face forward in the shallow waters. After helping clean these fish, I return to my room where I fall asleep from 3 p.m. until 6 a.m. the following day.
That next day I drive to the border town of Tecate. As I leave the San Quintin Valley, I go in and out of fog for the next twenty miles. I stop for a short time in Ensenada and am unimpressed. It seems too busy and I was feeling the urge to return to the States after being in Mexico for almost two months. On the north side of Ensenada, I take the turn off to Tecate and travel at a slow pace through the mountains and pass vineyards for 70 miles. In Tecate, I become lost when I lose track of the directional traffic signs. I stop at a Pemex station to fill up and ask for directions and I am told that the bordei is only two blocks away. Upon exiting the Pemex station, I see the border that sits at the top of a hill. Within a block ofreachmg the border, I am stopped again, but this is not a search. In my anxious state to reach the border, I did not see a traffic light that hangs high from a pole over the street and a motorcycle police officer quickly pulls me over. He walks to the rear of the Jeep and proceeds to remove my license plate. I watch in amazement and wonder what is going on. He gets back on his motorcycle and motions for me to follow him. I follow, although I did have thoughts of darting across the border. At a small office building, I meet with a magistrate, who advises me of the offense and I admit the charge. I am fined $15. And upon payment, I shake hands with the officer and magistrate and am given my license plate. I am even personally escorted to the border by my arresting officer and he waves to me as I pass over the line into the United States. As I answer questions from the US Customs, I can still see the officer as he sets up to catch the next traffic offender.
I have mixed feelings about my reentry into the United States. I am certainly happy to be home and to be free of searches, but I am already missing the sense of exploration and adventure that I left behind in Mexico. My trip was an experience that I will never forget.