[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. 🙂 ]
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.