The border crossing between the United States and Mexico at Tijuana is said to be the busiest in the world and as we traveled southward to depart California, little apprehensions swirled. Would the van be endlessly searched at military checkpoints or torn apart by the border guards? Would we need to buy our way out of encounters with the federales? Would Max be attacked by a rabid dog? Would we be run off of famously narrow Highway 1 by Baja’s famously aggressive long-haul truckers? Would Moby break down (again?) Certainly our large size would result in at least a brief detention at the border and a thorough inspection of our passports and interiors.
Reality could not have been further removed from these concerns. No long lines were encountered. Nobody even asked to see our passports (this was a disappointment as I was hoping for a stamp) and the one customs official who did wave us over met our explanation that ‘surfing and sunshine’ had brought us to Mexico with bored satisfaction. The swiftness of crossing into Mexico coupled with the complete lack of typical border formality was bewildering in its simplicity. However, the lack of ceremony did nothing to diminish the cocktail of emotions (three parts excitement, one part anxiety, dash of confusion) that most travelers encounter upon entering a country that is not their own. Across the border, houses spilled down the hills surrounding Tijuana proper and a Mexican flag that looked large enough to cover a soccer field flapped in a phantom breeze. Taco and juice vendors crowded street corners and traffic hurried along at a frantic pace, guided by merging and right-of-way rules of conduct that we had yet to learn. Winter and snow seemed far away in the rearview mirror.
Our travels through Baja marked a distinct shift in our trip from winter to spring, a change of seasons and activities that I sorely needed. We replaced the skis, avalanche gear and skins with boards, flippers and wetsuits and embraced the ability to cook outside, wear sandals and sleep with the windows open to the sound of the sea. For these reasons, and probably because of the steady diet of sunshine, sandy beaches and turquoise waves, Baja really felt like a vacation…from our vacation.
Perhaps I am a vanlife failure to admit this, but winter living in the van was surprisingly tough for me and I would hesitate to do it again on a permanent basis. Month-long van trip to ski and ice climb? I’m all in. Four months? The desert sounds nicer and consequently seems to be the winter roost of choice for many other folks doing the road warrior thing on a full-time basis. If you want to know more about our experience of living in the van in the winter and the lessons we learned in the process, check out this blog post.
But Baja! What a wonderful and weird part of the world! Entire forests that offer no shade, a verdant, green interior with snowy peaks reminiscent of the High Sierra, locals who kindly helped us out of a rut, literally, and the young military officers at every checkpoint whose “inspection” of our vehicle consisted primarily of petting Max. Time only permitted us to travel as far south as Guerrero Negro in Baja California Sur, but there is a lifetime of adventure to be had on the peninsula. Its understandable why so many expats choose to settle in Baja and why many travelers make Baja an annual pilgrimage. Many we encountered during our nearly three-week road trip were one their tenth trip to the peninsula.
To avoid rambling about our Baja trip in its entirety, here are a few snapshots and favorite discoveries.
Parque Nacional Sierra de San Pedro Mártir – This mouthful of a park bears the distinction of being “the least visited of all of Mexico’s National Parks”, though our visit coincided with a long holiday weekend and the campground was full of local families and the tantalizing aroma of their barbecues. The scenery is quite different from the rest of Baja, with high granite peaks reaching over 10,000′, cypress trees, pines, condors and even snow being the norm for most of the year. Not a cactus in sight. Getting here is not a quick affair as the entrance to the park is 84 km east of Highway 1, but with windy conditions wiping out the surf we had time and reason to head inland for a few days. There’s definitely adventure climbing to be had in the park though with Max in tow we stuck to hiking, star-gazing and the first campfire of our 2017 travels!
Flora Bizzaro – A lot has been said about the weird and wondrous plant life endemic to the Baja Peninsula, but you really must wander through a shadeless forest of looping boojum and towering Saguaro Cactus to fully appreciate its strangeness. Our best plant encounters were along the spur of Highway 1 that ventures east from Punta Prieta and connects with scenic Bahia de los Angeles on the Sea of Cortez. Here you will find an entire forest of the bizarre and spiky that is accessible as soon as you pull over to the side of the road. (Mind the sand!)
My favorite of all plants was the Boojum, named from Lewis Caroll’s poem “The Hunting of the Snark: An Agony in Eight Fits.” (For those interested, the Boojum makes an appearance in Fit the Third, the Baker’s Tale.) There isn’t anything uniform about these plants; they have a main “trunk”, or sometimes two or three main trunks which split off into smaller stems and eventually bend back down towards the earth when gravity prevails. Sometimes they are just a single trunk that looks like a giant, tapering whip that curves back to the ground and around itself. Reportedly they reach 70′ in height though I doubt that any stand up straight once they are that long. The stalks are covered intermittently with small clusters of leaves which in the spring and fall sprout little groupings of yellow flowers known as racemes. We were lucky to see these and much of the desert in bloom during our travels.
Don’t Drive on Sand – I forget how many times we’ve had to learn this lesson now. We weigh close to 8,000 lbs and lack 4WD so one would think that we would not repeatedly have to test this theory. (And by we I mean that only one of us has driven Moby to stuckness in the sand. And that individual is not me.) The highlight of our Baja ‘don’t drive in the sand lesson’ occurred on a beach north of Rosario that was not only sandy but covered in deceptively large, smooth stones that looked like maybe they could support some weight, but probably, definitely not. Since said stones were sitting on sand. Moby became so embedded on this beach that the sand reached the undercarriage and the entire bottom half needed to be excavated. (We had retained one avalanche shovel for this purpose and it did come in handy.) Still, every attempt to reverse out of our hole only sunk us lower into the sand and I began to wonder if and when the tide would reach us. Locals came to our rescue with an old school Tacoma and tugged us out with a plastic tow rope. They then also helped us out of a gravel rut using the curious method of repeatedly reversing the van at full speed until it was able to clear a particularly deep section of gravel. Video is below. Watching it still makes me nervous.
Living off the Land (& Sea): We came to Baja with grand plans of spear and deep-sea fishing, but cloudy waters and high winds thwarted these efforts. Instead, on Punta Gringa, we observed some women digging for clams on the pebble beach and followed their lead. This led to a five-pound haul of clams which we steamed with white wine, butter and garlic while watching the sun set from our campsite along Bahia de los Angeles.
The Wandering Brooks Family: It was while enjoying said clam feast in the gathering dusk that an enormous RV pulled into the campground and began to navigate its way into the vacant spot to our right. Half a dozen bikes hung haphazardly from the back and a guy with shoulder length hair hopped out to help the RV driver back the behemoth into the spot. It looked like a Burning Man vehicle and we were somewhat certain that our new neighbors would be loud and drunk and up all night. Instead, this was our introduction to the Brooks Family.
James and Yvette have spent the past year traveling with their four children in an RV, exploring North America, home schooling their kids on the road and searching for a new place to call home. They settled on Brevard, North Carolina and we can’t wait to reconnect with their clan again this autumn. Their story is not mine to tell but the thoughtfulness of Yvette and James, their curiosity-driven approach to educating their children and the unguarded openness that we all shared in connecting with their family left a lasting impression on Remy and I. Yvette kept an occasional blog during their year on the road which you can find via the hyperlink. And thank you Yvette, once again, for taking our recycling back to the United States!
Sea Pigs!: I actually don’t know what this is. They were littering the beach at low tide at Punta San Carlos. Some of them smelled bad, not in a decomposing sort of way but in a “I emit foul odors in self-defense” sort of way when handled.
Useful Travel Tips:
Talk Baja: This facebook group seems to be comprised primarily of expats, several of which are very active posters. There is the usual trolling and online infighting but also some useful tips and inspiring photos posted by other travelers. We found our campsite at Bahia de los Angeles via Talk Baja and consequently met the Brooks family.
The Baja Adventure Book: This books takes you down highway 1, km by km, and describes in great detail all of the possible adventures that you can dream up from end to end of the Peninsula. It also does a fantastic job of describing the geology and flora that you encounter as you travel south, and often I read aloud from it as Remy drove, treating it as a sort of audio guide for the plant life that we were passing. The writing is humorous, full of the author’s misadventures and an enjoyable read in addition to being informative.
A Surfer’s Guide to Baja: Surf specific guidebook that doubles as an enjoyable read thanks to the author’s wit and sarcasm. Maybe a little out of date but it led us to some good stretches of surf that we enjoyed in solitude and probably wouldn’t have found otherwise.
Thanks to Jeremy for turning us on to the above literature and for the extensive loan of said literature.
The San Diego Museum of Natural History publishes a very thorough field guide to Baja. A must have for other plant nerds.
What We’re Reading/Listening To:
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie captivated both of us and Ngozi Adichie has quickly become one of my favorite authors. Her characters are imperfect and very human.
We quickly dusted off S Town, season 3 of the Serial Podcast. If you haven’t already listened to it, you should. The release of all episodes at once worked well for us as we devouered the entire series on the drive back to San Francisco, much like an audio book.