I just looked over, and decided to ignore, a draft of a post I started a while back in Texas. Imagine, then, an elegant yet pointed observation on the human condition seen through the prism of travel. I didn’t write it, but that’s what it would have been. I’d have recounted doctor visits in Florida – and the subsequent ignoring of medical suggestions – re-crossing south Texas, and such. I’d have painted a picture with words of how the desert heals and calms. I’d have included pictures. Alas, none of that happened, nor will.
And while I chose to not write the last chapter, I am now writing this chapter in medias res. Pardon the disjointed narration. Some context is needed before I describe our descent into Mexico. I am sitting in a small campground in San Ignacio, Baja California Sur, Mexico, in the partial shade of date palm trees, watching a burro and a pair of Canadians. Holly is starting some art. (We recently revamped some storage to allow for acrylics.) And we are checking the weather for a whale watch on the lagoon at Ojo de Liebre. None of this more than hints at what the last month and a half have been like. I’ll begin, as I mentioned, here:
We crossed into Baja California, MX on Christmas Day, entering in the town of Mexicali and driving straight through to San Felipe. Passing through immigration was painless and quick. We had to step inside to buy our FMM cards, granting us permission to stay up to six months. Officers gave a cursory inspection of the van, and we got our first indication that Johnny would smooth out many interactions with Mexican authorities. Each time The Nowhere Van was stopped at checkpoints, soldiers or officers boarding were immediately taken with Johnny, saying, “El gato! Mew, mew.” When a Mexican soldier with full gear and automatic weapons meows, it is – pun intended – disarming.
And while I can and will extol the warmth of Mexico and its people, our hearts were daily touched with the gentleness and friendliness of Baja’s stray and wandering dogs. These dogs, with rare exceptions, do not travel in packs or try to bully people or other dogs. They just tend to hang out and come say hi. We didn’t feed any, but we did pet a bunch. There are actually active agencies helping spay, neuter, care for and place for adoption these animals – but there are just so damn many. The dogs in the gallery are not all strays. Some belonged to other travelers and were too nice not to photograph. Johnny tended to ignore the dogs. Other cats? That’s another matter. And yes, one of these dogs is a cat: Adeline from San Ignacio, BCS.
We were advised to head a few hours south to San Felipe after crossing the border. While we certainly were not – and are not – plagued by fear, we are aware of higher crime rates in border towns. Not knowing at all how to proceed, we actually booked a Harvest Host for the first night. It was fine, but not necessary. We easily found our first free beach nearby for the next two nights. Here’s how it works: Drive down a highway, pull off the highway where you have chosen a beach (typically from iOverlander), drive down an insanely bumpy dirt road, park on the beach.
San Felipe was also our first Mexican town. We had to pick up skills fast: How to say t-shirt, how to order tacos, how to buy water, how to read road signs, how to drive on tiny streets. One of our first tasks was buying drinking water. Even residents do not drink from the municipal supply – if there is one – so people shop for agua purificada, readily available in every town. Most people use 5-gallon jugs and bring them in for refilling. However, we have a 40-gallon tank on board, so we need a shop with a long hose. That has been an issue at times. We also had no gravity fill on our tank, so we learned fast how to use a hardware store. After we fabricated a fill port, we bought our first purified water, at a cost of one peso per liter (about 20 cents a gallon).
It’s a long drive down the Baja peninsula. About 1000 miles. The north has its charms, but we began to really fall in love with Mexico about the time we hit Mulege in Baja California Sur. It’s a small coastal town with micro winding vague streets, and lovely oasis-like river heading to the Gulf of California. We stayed for free on the public beach for a night and had our first astounding fish tacos. The town has its share of gringos (a term used neutrally to include all – mostly American – non-Latinos), but it truly does not cater to tourists. By now I was getting familiar with some Mexican basics: topes: speed bumps placed at random; narrow roads with absolutely no shoulder; pesos; kilograms (not *those* kilograms); the Spanish language; ubiquitous stray dogs; paying close attention to buying gas; and, military checkpoints. I have to say now that I am conscious of the trap of painting our experience as a stereotype – the nature of the Mexican people, the state of its infrastructure, the water, the police. So while virtually 100% of our experience was positive, each interaction was unique and grounded in respect and gratitude. We travel with that in our hearts, and in Baja it returned to us many times over.
We began to feel settled and truly benefiting from our journey during our stay at Playa Punta Piedrita, a beach south of Mulege on the stunning Bahia de Concepcion. This was not a free beach – we paid $200MX per night, with a discount for a week’s stay – but we immediately decided it was worth spending an extended time. Mexico has a quirky system for paid beach camping, and I’m not clear on what that system is. All beach in Mexico is public. However, the adjoining land, and the land one must cross to get to the beach are another matter. It *might* be true that some people get a concession permit from the government and can then charge for beach access. These folks tend to provide some level of service in return. Whatever the case, we came to accept it and paid our $200MX (about 10 bucks) now and then.
A few things happened at Piedrita that started to cement our love of Baja. First, we met Chuy – a common nickname for Jesús – the caretaker of the beach. Chuy has lived for five years in a tent on this beach, having previously lived in various cities in Mexico and in the US. He is here by choice. Chuy is smart, funny, selfless and just a great guy. He takes pride in the beach and making visitors feel welcome. He shared a campfire with us one night, along with with others friends Drew, Tanya and their daughter Addie. Chuy was kind enough to share a bit of his story with us. It was a possibility that we might feel like outsiders, coming to Mexico with a fancy rig, not accepted by the different communities we found ourselves in. Chuy played a great role in helping us just be us, enjoying good people, a campfire, the quiet surf.
On the beach at Piedrita, and elsewhere, residents come around selling things – blankets, rugs, handmade crafts, fish, scallops, baked goods, veggies – you name it. We quickly got ok with buying fish out of a car trunk. One evening, I had cooked maybe a kilo of scallops, too much for the two of us. A Subaru pulled in, towing a little off-road camping trailer. It was dusk, late for them to make dinner. (Midnight in Baja is 9pm) Thus, I offered up a plate of hot scallops to the new folks. I can say now, weeks later and having stayed at their home, Casa Mango, in Todos Santos that we count Derek and Laura and their dog Navidad ‘Navi’ as friends. Within minutes of having met them, we had an invitation to Casa Mango. As always, I try to leave the personal storytelling to the people themselves, so I’ll say simply that Holly and I found Derek and Laura to truly embody love and hard work and justice and adventure. We camped at their place for several nights, watching baby turtles waddle into the ocean, hearing the waves crash from afar, taking a Spanish class in town, meeting local artisans, and eating very well.
From Todos Santos, we headed south to Los Cabos – Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo – a major tourist area. Being a major tourist area, we had little interest in spending time there. We did some provisioning in Cabo San Lucas and left. San Jose del Cabo was more to our liking. It is a genuinely old city with world class art galleries. Still, it really wasn’t for us. We did have an oddly enjoyable few days, parked in a beach lot jammed in between resorts where people pay sometimes thousands per night. We parked for free and enjoyed the prettiest beach we have ever seen.
This post is not an exhaustive timeline of time in Baja. It may not even be in the right order. I expect I’ll post separately and with focus on some of this in the future. For now, I’ll graze the highlights and consider topics worth digging into later. That said, we did go back north a bit to Cabo Pulmo – a sidebar that will have to wait – and head back to Tecolote Beach outside of La Paz for a weeklong vanlife gathering called Escapar a La Baja. Nearly a thousand rigs descended on this beach and stayed for a week, for free, leading up to a major national holiday, Dia de la Constitución. The recurring thought that kept swinging around and hitting me in the face was this: Turn the tables and see how this plays out in the US. For one, it couldn’t because we guard the beaches zealously. I pictured over 900 vans of Mexicans and others taking over, say, Hammonasset State Park in CT for the week leading up to our Independence Day. We can each say how that might go. Yet, never once did we ever feel unwelcome – and we asked and expressed our thanks with local residents often.
Following the vanlife meetup, Holly and I spent a few days in La Paz. We stayed at a small joint called the Peace Center, where there was the host family, other travelers, and people renting modest rooms. We had the chance to walk the town a bit, going into the neighborhoods away from the Malecon and its tourists. Even with tourists, the Malecon was lovely and not geared overly to gringos. The neighborhoods we walked, though, were just wonderful. The bustle and energy of the shopping district was palpable. I have a thought – probably informed by my privilege – that I would like to return to La Paz for an extended time to really engage in the community. There is depth to the community, obviously, far beyond what is geared for tourists. There is art, animal rescue, all manner of ways to engage. Whether I return for a long stay or not, the town is now in my heart.
I have a ship made of paper... It's made from a page where I had written my illusions. It has no anchors nor moorings. I want to sail in him, in the seven seas; in the eighth, where I know there will be hidden in a longed for port. ...have you seen someone brighten the light of their lighthouse?
We took care of some daily life matters while in La Paz. We had an oil change on the van, got it washed, got a windshield wiper, had a camp chair repaired and bought bike tires and tubes. All of it was a chance for me to practice Spanish. Twice, I got nervous and said adios instead of hola. The time I said it to a soldier at a checkpoint, he wasn’t amused. I found that by trying to use Spanish and leading with a smile and respect, all of these transactions were a breeze. I don’t have a pic of the man who sold me the wiper. Here’s how it went. I bought what I thought was the right part, only to learn I made a mistake. I went back into the shop, and they did not have the right one. In the US, that would have ended with me leaving empty handed. Not in La Paz. The man in the shop offered to dismantle the old wiper and the new, and to transfer the rubber blade to the old wiper. He had both apart down the the smallest clips and back together in about twenty minutes. He came out to the van to make sure it would work. He could not accept a tip, but we went in and called his boss to make sure his kindness and hard work were noted.
Once we pointed the van north from La Paz it was in many ways all about getting back over the border. We still experienced plenty. I’ll tell one lovely story in a moment, but it was still heading north. I am often torn over staying versus leaving. Oddly, there’s a safety in leaving. Maybe it’s a job to do that can take my attention. I can’t really say. We did a lot heading north: we revisited Bahia de Concepcion and camped at Playa Requeson where i counted 15 bird species; we stayed at the little oasis at San Ignacio (I’ll tell about that shortly); we visited whales; we traversed the vast central desert; we stayed in wine country in Guadalupe Valley. Still we were heading north, emotionally safe for me, but not without pitfalls. For one, I am now facing a winter storm watch with 90 mph winds forecast for the mountains east of San Diego.
Here’s what happened in San Ignacio: We’d heard the best tacos in Baja were to be found at San Ignacio, along with free parking near the mission. The taco place was closed, and street parking had been banned – too many vans. We took a spot at a small rv park called Paraiso Misional. The town is an oasis in the desert with date palms and small lagoons. The property has been in the hands of a couple, Miguel and Tere along with a son, Andres, and a small donkey Princessa, for the past 15 months, and they are conducting an amazing transformation. When we arrived I saw that work was still underway. I love physical work and miss it. I offered my help to Miguel and flexed a bit so he could see I was the real deal. Nonetheless, he declined my offer and encouraged me to enjoy my stay. Holly and I did enjoyable things, and after two nights we prepared to leave. We thanked Miguel and Tere for providing such a respite. Miguel, an honorable and thoughtful man, confessed that he had been thinking about my offer and felt that he had shown me a lack of respect by declining my help. The lesson was instantly familiar to me. It’s a lesson that I imagine many men find hard. When a person offers help, it can be a dishonor to decline it. We surmise we are being gracious in shouldering things alone, but we can cast away good people in moments that build bonds. Miguel had slept on this, apologized, and made good on it. He walked with me to his new garden, which I had seen him clearing the day before. He asked me to plant his very first plant – a tomato vine that is destined to climb a tree this spring. I was honored to kneel in the dirt with Miguel and get his garden off in a good direction.
There’s more to say, but it will wait. I’d be happy to hear questions about particular facets of our travel in Baja and write on specific things in depth. Like whales. Or dogs. I want to do that, to relive it. Please ask questions. I have answers ready to go. The cover shot is an elderly woman at Playa Requeson on Bahia de Concepcion. She had come around selling little turtle sculptures made of abalone. After her quiet request, she made her way back to a small blue shack on a bluff overlooking the bay that is her life.
3 thoughts on “Termina Pavimento”
Of course you had an amazing time in Baja and connected with people. You guys are so good at that! People are very welcoming in Mexico. We have had some amazing experiences this winter in Mexico with people inviting us into their homes.
I’m always thinking about turning the tables when we travel in Mexico. I often joke that Mexicans would surely be disappointed when disembarking from public transportation in the US wondering, where is the food? I’m amazed at all the food stands absolutely everywhere in Mexico. Greg always says if the Grand Canyon were in Mexico, there’d be a zip line across it. And the music! There is always entertainment.
What a disappointment that San Ignacio has banned vans from staying overnight in the square. We have stayed there a few times. But it seems that this new rule caused you to have an even better more personal experience.
I can identify with the feeling of feeling emotionally safe back in the US. I find it odd that I mostly feel at home anywhere in the US – even when we were in Alaska (it felt so American despite the differences) – but being outside of the US always makes me feel a little uneasy, far from home. I have felt this unease dissipate with time and experience but there is always this feeling that we have to “go back.”
I’m trying to think of good questions, like did you go on a whale tour, what did you do in Cabo Pulmo, but I’m hoping there will be more posts and those questions will be answered.
So sorry you are back in the frozen area back above the border. I hope Spring comes soon!
We had that uneasy feeling initially like we were far from home. But that feeling went away and soon we were talking about coming back. Yes we did a whale tour. There’s a video on our YouTube. Will write on that.