Ushuaia or Bust

Attitude is the difference between an ordeal and an adventure

Christmas Eve posole

On the road from La Bufadora


Christmas Eve day started at La Jolla campground. I met the couple I had seen the night before in a white van that was obviously decked out for car camping. Super nice people from British Columbia – Mike and Kelley. They work summers in construction and give themselves 4 months each winter to travel. That’s a good life plan imo. We got contact info. and I may met up with them later on the way down Baja. [Note: I am posting this on the 28th, and I am now traveling with Mike and Kelley for a few days.]

I knew I wanted to head to Parque Nacional Sierra de San Pedro Mártir. But I had to decide to take the normally traveled southern route, or the northern way – which goes back through Ensenada and across Highway 3 towads San Felipe, then has a spur that heads south. Here’s what google maps shows as options:

Note the lack of any distinction between either route – Google is all “up to you dude, but this one’s a 27 minutes faster, whatever bro, just sayin’”. I did find it a little weird that none of my guide books mentioned taking this route all the way to the National Park. We will talk about this more in the next post.

I also needed to go back north anyway to hit Wal-mart in Ensenda up for some things (note to self: do not buy the cheapest, lightest camping chair if you weigh 250 lbs.) and see if they had some kind of locking carrier for the top of my car. However, the nice Canadian couple had recommeded AutoZone instead, which seemed a lot more user-friendly than trying to get help choosing and installing a locking car carrier at Wal-Mart on Christmas Eve. 

Some delicious olives I got on the side of the road for $1.

I went to AutoZone first – and they actually had a carrier that worked pretty well with my existing gas can set up. It was only $300 – and super bonus – the guy who helped me install it spoke near perfect English. I can’t say enough good things about AutoZone. Half the people in the parking lot were in the process of fixing their cars, and many were getting help from the AutoZone employees. Apparently they can call in traveling mechanics as well if you need one.

Wal-mart unfortunately did not have a camping chair, neither did the other Wal-mart across town. But I did manage to get some kind of folding kitchen stool thing that will work until I can find a proper camping chair. I know a chair doesn’t seem like the biggest deal – but my back is hurting and sitting on my cooler for hours just won’t work. Also when it gets dark at 5pm – I kind of want to sit and read for a few hours. Last night I ate, read for a while, then checked my phone – expecting to be about 9. It was 6:30. Camping in winter is weird. And then my chair back decided to become a recliner.

Folding kitchen stool thing in tow, I decided to YOLO it on the northern route and headed east on Mexico Highway 3. Since it was about 1:30 I knew there was no way I could make it to the National Park. I decided to head for something called Big Mike’s Sky Rancho which has the distinction of being one of only 3 items getting a big yellow highlighter treatment on the upper ¼ or so of my super-detailed Baja map.

My decade-old Baja book said something about this being a haven for off-roaders (which hey – I’m a bit of an off-roader). The iOverlander app (cool app that shows crowd-sourced camping info.) said they had rooms for $70 with meals and tent camping with showers for $10. This is more than I usually want to spend if I’m going to be out for 6 months. But given the lack of other options it was good enough, and looked like just the right distance to get there about dark. Actually the whole drive was like 90 miles. But google maps insisted it would take me 3+ hours. Hmmmm.

Almost immediately the city melted away into wide open spaces. The look is similar to the American Southwest – but just different enough that I knew I was somewhere else. A few areas have really cool sandstone rocks like they have at Joshua Tree. I passed up a chance to visit something called Cueva de Quesos (Cave of Cheeses). Google Maps still had me getting to my destination just about dark, so no time for side trips. I really want to know what is going on in the Cave of Cheeses though.

I made it to my turn-off, which as expected was a dirt road – which Google maps had me spending an hour for 20 miles (having already saved the map helped – as there was no cel coverage for most of this drive) The first part was very flat and I was like pshawww – Google maps doesn’t know I am in an F. J. Cruiser. But then the road got a lot worse, nothing really bad – but I wouldn’t have wanted to be in an RV. Oh yeah – the iOverlander app said the road to Big Mike’s was fine – but it’s the road after that was “true hardcore off-roading”. At the beginning of the dirt road I thought well ok – whoever wrote that is in an RV and they just couldn’t handle some bumpiness. But then as the road got pretty bumpy I thought – how bad is the second part (which I need to take to get to the National Park)? I am pretty impressed at anyone driving that in an RV. I hope their toilets didn’t slosh around too much.

The road to Big Mike’s Sky Rancho

 

Big Mike’s Sky Rancho


I finally pulled up at 5pm almost on the nose, right as the sun was going down. My fear on the whole drive was that it would be closed. But I figured worst case I would sleep in my car, or try another place that was about 10 miles back on the dirt road. My fantasy the whole drive down was that the place would have a bunch of 4x4ers still flushed from their day of off-roading. We’d hang out over a few beers and I’d get to join them the next day on some fun off-road trails that my FJ could handle.

But as I pulled up the place looked fairly deserted. So scratch that. I saw movement though so I knew someone saw me. A very nice man who spoke no English came up and we established that they did have rooms and did not have wifi (he looked at me like I was a little crazy on that). But mostly we failed to coversate for a few minutes. I knew I would be mad at myself at this point in the trip for not studying Spanish harder the last 6 months. And I am.

Finally he took me to another guy who spoke pretty good English. I got the feeling both of them thought it a little off that a solo male traveler showed unnanounced up at 5pm on Christmas Eve – when the only way to get there is a long bad dirt road or a much much worse dirt road. I guess I could have called ahead, but where’s the fun in that? Also it’s rare someone answers the phone at these kinds of places anyway. 

I said I could stay in a tent or room – as I was just trying to be easy. But I figured I just wanted a room to recharge and relax. Also it was getting very cold. $70 as posted on iOverlander. But $35 if I didn’t want dinner or breakfast. $35 seemed kinda high for food, and I was fine with eating my REI freeze-dried rations another night. Although I know the point where I don’t want to look at those things again will come. So I figured I should probably save them for when I have no other options. Again I was just trying to be easy on them as I had a feeling I was the only guest in this sprawling resort that was clearly off-season. But I said yes to the food – sometimes my instincts treat me right.

I hung out in my room for a while. Oh yeah – all the rooms have racing stickers all over the windows. I finally figured out that the “4×4 off-roading” I thought I read about, was actually Baja racers. Duh. Apparently the Baja 500 comes right though here. I’m sure the place is jumping then.

All stickers and other swag from Baja 500 racing teams

At about 6:30, Jose, the guy who spoke pretty good English, showed up. He said his family was eating posole for Christmas Eve. I could have that or a rib-eye steak. First it took me a while to figure out he was saying rib-eye, then I thought he was telling me that both were on the menu and I said – sure that’s great. Then I realized I was to choose, and I said Christmas posole of course. He seemed to smile a bit at that.

I sat back on the bed and realized I just got invited to Christmas Eve dinner. It hadn’t really hit me yet that I was in the middle of nowhere on Christmas Eve. I had planned to call my Mom and family at our traditional Christmas Eve family gathering, but no cel phone + no wifi = not happening. I got more than a little emotional that this family invited me to partake in Christmas posole with them, when for all they know I’m some weird gringo psychopath on the run from something. I also remembered at the last minute to at least wear my jeans and try to look presentable (thanks Gramps).

Mamá serving delicious smelling stuff that’s been cooking all day in a big pot – always a good scene – anywhere in the world

I lost track of the generational connections
Posole -AKA pozole or pozolé  – which is basically hominy – which in case you were wondering is “a specially dried form of maize, a breed of corn with particularly large kernels”
Niñita photobomb
Jose – the patriarch

The family was wonderful to me and the posole was amazing. The meat is pork, but reminds me of very succulent roast beef. At the end of the bowl when all the juices mixed together was the best. I was trying to be polite and eat slow. But at some point I saw the madre looking at my bowl, so I wolfed the rest down and got a second bowl. Even though I was profusely complimenting her cooking, I know seconds is always the best compliment. I think hominy expands in your stomach though – because I am still somewhat painfully full as I write this.

Then after dinner we went outside for the traditional Christmas fireworks – whirly gig things for the little girls – and legit cherry bombs for the adults. For days I kept wondering why there are so many explosions at night in Mexico. Now I know. I threw one but didn’t want to press my luck any more than that. I remember getting those fast fuses as a kid – where you have about a quarter-second to get rid of the firecracker. Losing a few fingers would be a suboptimal way to start my trip. I have some videos of the firecrackers as well, but as I am on the world’s slowest wifi at the moment, those will have to wait.

 

That’ll leave a mark

I thanked the family profusely and called it a night. I laid in bed full and read for a few hours. I will never forget my Christmas Eve posole. I’ll choose a meal like that over fanciest restaurant in the world, in a nanosecond.

Tomorrow I get to find out just how gnarly the road to El Coyote is.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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And we're off...

The longest journey begins with the first beer. Pretty sure that’s how the quote goes.

[Note: Please forgive me while I figure out pretty much everything about how I want to do this blog – level of detail, tone, how to break up posts, style, whether I want to capitalize every word or just the first word of the blog title, the difference between “an interesting sequence of events” vs. “just a bunch of stuff that happened”, how much should I use italics?, is it ever acceptable to mix bold and italics?, how about with underline? etc. The list of decisions swirling around in my head right now is endless. So I may be a little all over the place at first, and I will almost certainly cover things in detail that I may not even mention later – as I will have been through them 100 times by then. But at some point you just have to start writing and see what comes out. 🙂 ]

 

Tijuana


Despite all the last minute insanity of getting stuff into storage, figuring out what to actually bring, and buying a bunch of last minute stuff – I managed to get out of town about noon – within 2 hours of my planned launch time of 10am. Traffic was actually not bad at all and I made it to the border by 3:30 or so. I got my FMM permit at the border, then drove around Tijuana for a bit trying to get my Garmin to work to find Plaza Rio – the mall that my buddy Gramps had directed me to hang out at while he was still working.

I found a Costco parking lot to regroup in. No luck on the Garmin. To my Pioneer in-car nav system, Mexico is a giant blank uncharted territory. It must have thought I was headed into another dimension. I wondered if it would be nice and at least have a little of Tijuana or something. Nope. So I tried Waze – which seemed to work but then kept wanting to send me back over the border to San Diego. Oh yeah – the line for the US border was a mile long – one false move on the confusing TJ highways and I could be stuck in it with no way to turn around. This was a concern. I tried Google Maps but it was doing something weird. So finally I tried Apple Maps and it worked!

I decided to kick off my adventure by getting scammed in the parking lot. A guy came up offering to clean my car. I said yeah – my car just got cleaned so good luck with that buddy. Normally I barely even make eye contact in these situations, but for some reason I thought maybe he was the parking lot attendant – as Gramps had mentioned some kind of VIP parking.  Then he showed me how scummed up my headlights were – and I know Mexican roads are extremely dark – if I do have to drive at night. He did walk in front of my car as I was parking, so I thought maybe he put the scum on there. But I scraped at the scum with my fingernails, and it was rock hard. So if he has some amazing quick drying goup that dries in 30 seconds – I guess that’s worth the price of admission. So at that point he started to clean one of the headlights, and I knew was screwed.

The real scam though is he fully cleans one headlight – to show you how much better it can be. Then he demands the money to clean the second one. So I had to decide if I want to have one clean headlight and one dirty one. Also everything I brought for the trip is in the car, and do I want to go into the mall with this guy pissed at me? The price? $10. For about 30 seconds of steel-wool elbow grease on each headlight. Hell I’d do that job for that rate in a heartbeat. I argued with him for a bit but then said screw it, lesson learned. Gramps said $10 sounds about right for what they charge. At least I didn’t scammed worse than normal. My only regret is not getting a picture with the dude for this blog.

I found a nice sushi bar in the mall (wifi and beer!) and made my first friend of the trip. Very nice kid who was educated in the US, aspired to move up from host to waiter, and wanted to build an apartment complex on his family’s land. I told him from experience that learning to wait tables is a million times easier than learning a second language, and he already has that, so he should just go for it.

At 5:30 I headed over to Gramps’ place, which has an amazing view and is in a quiet part of the city. Gramps proceeded to take me out for a fun micro-brewer/gastropub tour. TJ has a lot going on – each place was great. Apparently 10 years ago there were a bunch of gang wars and violence, which drove all the gringo tourists away. But this part TJ rebuilt as a thriving locals nightspot.

The kiddie table, we both almost fell a few times. Gramps pointed out that it probably wouldn’t be allowed in the US for liability reasons.

We ended the night with tacos. Spicy as hell but best al pastor I’ve ever had – totally worth it. Well actually, I ended the night with an ill-advised crepa. I ate about 200 calories the next day to try to make up for it.

That’s a happy scene.
al pastor is Middle Eastern in origin
These burned their way out the next day. We found out the radishes actually help with the spiciness. Yes the wrapper says McChicken. I have no idea why. This place didn’t even have pollo on the menu.

Gramps gave me a lot of good advice about how everything works, and how not to be an ugly American in Mexico – which I am trying to take to heart and not forget. I left his place in the morning and headed for Amistad Park aka Friendship Park – where the border with the US meets the see. However apparently there are multiple Amistad Parks in Tijuana – which I found out about the same time I realized I was 15 miles from the ocean and headed east. No problemo though – I got to see a different side of the town, got myself turned around and finally headed to the correct Amistad Park.

We are strawberries we want to be food. Do not step on me!

I didn’t see any authorities on either side. I wondered if I started swimming out towards the end of the fence how long it would take for armed border patrol agents to come swarming down. Literally you could get around that fence in about a minute.
Pigeons wondering what all the fuss is about.

 

Ensenada


My back and stomach were both extremely unhappy with me, the former for a week of packing, moving and working out leading up to the trip, and the latter for the aforementioned shitshow of eating and drinking. I decided to get a cheap hotel room and recover. Note: the hotel rooms that advertise $240 pesos are more like $750 pesos. Not sure how that works but $240 seemed ridiculously cheap (about $12 US). So I wasn’t surprised. (Note: as I write this I am stating in a $350 peso hotel room about an hour south of Ensenada. So maybe they can get that cheap.)

I pretty much just slept and dealt with bills and things the rest of the night. It felt weird to not go out and see the town. But I’ve been to Ensenada a few times, and I’ve got a long journey ahead of me so I figure I have to baby myself when I don’t feel well.

The next day however, I was able to make it to an anticipated highlight of the entire trip – La Guerrensene. I first saw this food cart on the Baja episode of Tony Bourdain’s show. It’s been called the best food cart in the world. The tostadas were incredible. I thought they’d be spicy but the flavors were much more delicate and sublime. The ceviche as well was perfectly smooth and not as acidic/limey as I’m used to. If you find yourself in Ensenada and can’t remember the name – just google “tostada lady Ensenada”. I did not see the actual tostada lady who created the recipes – maybe she was off for the holidays.

La Guerrensene

LA has conditioned me to expect a line of hipsters an hour long – especially at noon on a Saturday of a major holiday weekend. But nope, just walked right up and ordered. It actually startled me (KC natives will relate to the “Hi, may I help you!” phenomenon). So I just picked the top two items on the middle menu. I didnt even notice there was a menu on the right. I need to go back and try that. I think with that menu you get a base and you kind of finish it yourself. Next time I plan to sit back a little and watch someone who seems like they know what they’re doing.

These were the first two I ordered. The right is cod fish and octopus ceviche. Delicious. The crab salad and scallop on the right was really good – but very filling – which upset me a little because I was here to eat ceviche. But my philosophy is you always have to try the top thing on the menu.
(for some reason this photo is upside down on my iphone – weird)
This was my favorite – tuna ceviche with, shrimp, octopus, sea snail, scallops mussels and clams. Incredible.

After that I headed out of town towards La Bufadora – which seems to be the name of the entire peninsula, and means “the blow hole” although I didn’t know that. I sometimes like just knowing the vaguest idea of what I’m heading towards. If I hear something that comes up a lot in recommendations, I’ll go there. I don’t need to any more details than that. I just pointed Google Maps to La Bufadora and took the road as far as one could drive on the peninsula.

Oh yeah – Gramps says google maps is the best for Mexico, and I finally got their turn by turn directions working. The coolest thing is you can type ‘ok maps’ in the search bar when you’re looking at a map – and the app will save the map on your phone for 30 days. This came in very handy later on when I was wondering in the boonies with no cel signal.

Fire twirlers at a stoplight on Mexico Hwy 1

La Bufadora


After a very scenic drive of rolling hills, bluffs and Pacific ocean views, the road comes to an end for all intents and purposes. You basically have 3 choices at road’s end – 1) park in one of the lots that hawkers are aggressively waving you into, 2) keep going to the left where it says something in Spanish that obviously means “authorized vehicles only” (which I think leads to the part of town across the cove – but apparently they don’t want tourists wandering all though that for some reason), or 3) keep driving through a mass of people with hawker stands on both sides.

I wasn’t really prepared for any of this so I ended up awkwardly turning around and blocking traffic for a bit. As has been my experience so far in Mexico, everyone was very polite waiting for me. The only negative traffic interaction I’ve had so far was some American dude with a Go Army bumper sticker that I made slightly slow down while I got around a truck. I would call the TJ/Baja driving style “politely aggressive”. No one is going to wave you in if you just sit there. But if you make a move like you want to go, people are extremely polite in letting you in. Also people are very good about pulling over to the side if you’re going faster to them to let them pass. Not sure why Americans struggle so much with getting out of the way when they have a train of cars behind them.

One time I saw a truck in front of me aggressively riding the car in front of his (his’s?) bumper really hard. The car in front refused to pull over – which surprised me. I was hanging back as I didn’t want to get in the middle of whatever was going on up there. Eventually they both pulled over and I thought they were going to fight or something. Then I got up next to them and realized that duh, the car was towing the truck.

Anyway after turning around, I regrouped at a restaurant parking lot a few 100’ up the road. I decided to just park and see whatever was going on with the hawker stands. Also I needed a blanket – as I planned to camp out on the beach that night, and it was really cold the night before in TJ. I picked the second parking lot, got out and walked towards the hawkers. I assumed I’d have to pay for parking but no one asked me for any money. Once I got to the hawkers they were pretty mild, I’ve been through much worse. Lots of free samples and amazing smells and some steamed clams in big shells that seemed to be a local delicacy. I found my blanket – one of those thick Mexican wool blankets like I’ve had since my first trip to TJ in 8th grade that I still use every day. I inadvertently bargained my way down to $25 because I said I’d buy it on my way back. But later in my walk hawkers were offering me a second of the same blanket for $8. I am so shrewd. I’m sure this will be the first of many epic bargaining failures on this trip. Never go with the first store is the lesson here. 

At the end of the hawkers a 100 or so people were gathered around “the blow hole”. It was pretty cool as blow holes go I guess.

You can’t tell from this, but this guy was soaking wet. I think the first time I’ve ever seen a wet squirrel.

Interestingly I’d say 1/3 of the conversations I overheard at the blowhole were in English. I made my way back through the hawkers and resisted the urge to pull over and have a beer at one of the bars. My normal vacation pattern is to find a place with beer and wifi and plop down a few hours. If I’m going to be out 6 months to a year that just won’t work. I will gain weight and be miserable. I decided beer must be earned with a hard hike.

Interesting island near the blow hole

As I got to the parking lot I kept expecting them to ask for money but no one did. I had the same experience at La Guerrenense – but when I looked at my ticket it said “gratis para una ahora” (free for one hour). So that made sense. But why these guys would be competing to wave people in for gratis parking made no sense. Maybe gringos are free? That’s the only reason I could come up with. If so then I will try to remember that when I have to pay the more expensive “gringo price” for something further down the road. What goes around comes around. Either that or I just unwittingly jedi-mind tricked my way out of paying somehow.

The original Baja Sharkeez – the douchiness beckons…

I debated camping at one of the rustic camp sites near the end of the peninsula – which had mind-boggling views – but no showers. I decided to head to the more established La Jolla Beach Camp instead, as one goal is to meet other “overlanders” and pepper them with questions. La Jolla was very nice, and with tent you get – free tamales! I know it might be subjective because they were free, and I am in Mexico, and I am not really a seasoned tamale connoisseur – but I swear these were some of the best tamales I have ever eaten. Maybe it was the view.

 

I found a spot overlooking the beach, only a few other spots were taken.

I talked to my neighbor, a very nice French Canadian guy who lives in Santa Monica now and drove his car with pop-up trailer down for the holidays. The view was amazing but holy cow was it cold at night.  I was so glad I had that blanket. I stayed up reading my Baja adventure book – that I bought in like 2005, which is how long I’ve been thinking about doing this, until I couldn’t take the cold anymore and my cheap chair broke. Reading the book I realized I could have been coming down here for years. I routinely drive much further distances for long getaway weekends. As long as I settle back in LA after my trip – I will be back for sure.

Next up: Christmas Eve posole – a night I will never forget.

 

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Itinerary Part 1 - Mexico

Well I’ve been fighting with various map/route plugins for a few hours. I’m not happy with any of them, so for now you just get a nice screenshot! 

Things can and will change constantly of course, but here’s the opening semblance of a plan:

  • Leave Wednesday (the 20th).
  • Chill out with my poker buddy Gramps in Tijuana for a night.
  • Maybe camp at La Jolla campground in La Bufadora south of Ensenada – or maybe barrel further into Baja.
  • Camp and hike for a few days in Sierra de San Pedro Martín national park in central Baja. Snow! Woo hoo.
  • Make my way to La Paz, take the ferry over to Mazatlan on the mainland (ignore the map, which doesn’t realize there’s a ferry to Mazatlan apparently.
  • Maybe head down toward Puerto Vallarta and chill on the beach for a bit
  • Go north a bit to San Miguel de Allende for a few days
  • Make my way to Puebla for a week-long intensive Spanish school a this place: https://www.livitspanish.com/ which comes highly recommended
  • Hang out in Oaxaca for a few days at a couple campgrounds which are hubs for “overlanders” – who are people doing what I am doing, except most of them have some sort of camper van or RV, and eat lots of mole. Food in Oaxaca is a highlight of the trip
  • Make my way over to Tulum by Feb 1 – to meet up with some friends who are doing a similar trip (except the whole world) on their motorcycles: http://endofallroads.com/ (they’re all pilots with a lot of seniority, so they’re taking a month on/month off to ride – 3 year trip around the world).
  • Hang out in Tulum for a couple weeks
  • Then all signs tentatively point to my friend Shauna coming to hang out with me for 3 weeks, drive from Tulum, check out Belize for a week, then Guatemala.
  • After that it’s pretty wide open, but I will probably try to find another week-long intensive Spanish class in Antigua, Guatemala.
  • Then my motorcycle buddies will be driving the rest of the way through Central America starting March 15th. So I may meet up with them somewhere a long the way.
  • Then I still have to be in Patagonia on 4/16 for a photo expedition – but I will probably fly out of Panama City or Costa Rica – because I have determined it’s ridiculous to try to drive down there that fast.
  • Then I will deal with shipping my car to South America after the photo trip

 

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