Finding Mexico in Baja

Baja was causing us some consternation. It had the landscape of southern California, with roads like a war-torn country, upon which we rattled along, encountering scarcely another soul.   We were disoriented – where were the grand plazas, the early morning roosters, the music blaring from car windows? Where was the colour, the life, the history? We saw beautiful scenery, but few signs of life.

Then, on the road to Mulegé, we began to see reassuring signs of the country we know and love.  The volcano, the fields of cacti, the bent guardrails – oh, yes, now you’re talking. We were quite pleased to be driving on fresh pothole-free pavement, but take a closer look at these roads. The lanes are narrow and there are no shoulders. Trucks blaze through here at all hours of the day and night and don’t give an inch. Luckily, there is not much traffic and it is possible to navigate without mishap.

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Although clearly not everyone  gets through unscathed. The remains of this truck cab have been lying there for a long time. Without having a clue of the trucking industry standards in Mexico, I’m guessing the drivers may well drive longer hours than might be advisable. We heard trucks on the road above our campground south of Mulegé, driving late into the dark night on those mountainous roads.

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Among the nighttime driving challenges are the animals that wander onto the road. We passed a few burros and many an untethered cow and drove by with caution, but at night they present a true hazard.

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Our first glimpse of the Sea of Cortez, about 20 minutes from our campground:

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Our campground was on Playa Santispac, about 20 minutes south of Mulegé and on the mouth of the protected Bahia de Concepcion.  It is situated on a gorgeous wide sand beach, a first-come, first-served campground. Pick a spot, set up camp and wait for the fun to begin. The campground is rustic and does not have any services (including cell service), but it does have a dump station. Everyone else comes to you.

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First comes Chico, who offers to wash our truck and camper for US$50. While we are quite sure he would do a stellar job, we decide to wait until we hit Loreto.

Then, the water guy arrives and fills up our tank. We have propane, we have solar, we have water and we have wine – we’re all set to stay a while. There are two restaurants and a small store on the beach – the former which provides great food and entertainment every second night, and the latter which has a small store and turns out home baking when they feel like it.  We ate at Armando’s a few times, in equal parts for their food, their warm hospitality and their free wifi.

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The vendors come by every day, including one entertaining soul who drove by in an old truck so laden down it barely cleared the ground. He had blankets, jergas, door mats, hammocks and even a mini hammock,” you can hang bananas in your trailer.” Our “no, gracias” went unheeded – he also had chicken tamales and banana bread and at the last minute remembered silver jewellery. He left without a sale, but with all of us laughing.

We watched this man paddle out to a sailboat, with a couple of plastic bags that he handed over, contents unknown. Clean clothes? Takeout food? Beer? Home delivery, even on a sailboat.

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We did buy shrimp from a vendor one day – so fresh and sweet, it was more like eating lobster. We made a messy meal of shrimp in butter, sopped up with freshly baked bread and a chopped salad of tomatoes, cucumber and avocado.

We saw dolphins a few times playing quite close to shore and were hoping to go out for a boat ride into the bay to perhaps see them a little closer up.  The weather was not particularly cooperative – a bit of rain, very windy and quite cool, so we had to take a pass.  We lazed about and Stephen went in swimming twice. Mainly we relaxed, read a lot, enjoyed meeting our neighbours (a young Brazilian couple who have lived in Vancouver for a number of years and are taking a year off to travel), and went for beach walks. We were ideally situated to enjoy both the sunrise and the sunsets and by the time we left five days later, we were completely unwound.

Our 6:00 am wakeup call:

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The view an hour before sunset:

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We drove into Mulegé a couple of times, to buy groceries and do a bit of sightseeing. Mulegé is a cute little town set in a date palm oasis on the river. The winding, extremely narrow streets make it impossible to enter with any vehicle larger than a truck and even at that, it was a tight squeeze.

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We found Mago’s bakery and restaurant – a local hangout for both Mexicans and gringos with good food, a personable crowd and fantastic wifi. We used this opportunity to charge up our devices, catch up on emails; and I read about the latest Trump malfeasance and the ongoing fake news war between the Duchesses.

Mago, on the right.

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We walked over the dam through the mangrove to get to the Mision, which holds a command post on the other side of the river. This river is great for bird-watching and would make for a tranquil paddle  on a kayak.

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The Mision Santa Rosalia was founded in 1705  by the Jesuits and Dominicans and finished in 1766. Unfortunately, rather than saving the souls of the native population, they introduced European diseases that managed to wipe out large numbers of the intended congregation. The Mision was abandoned 50 years later – one of a number of missions in Baja that were founded with the same intent and the same tragic outcomes. Today, the Misions sit as well-kept and photogenic reminders of their misguided past.

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We’re starting to feel like we are in Mexico now, but perhaps “Mexico Lite.” Less people, less noise, less colour. More rocky and monochromatic, but still very beautiful.

We left Playa Santispac on a warm, sunny day (perfect for swimming or boat rides). We’ll quite possibly stop there again on the way back. We drove along this twisty road that snaked along the water and climbed up into the hills.

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The view from the passenger side – on the way to Loreto.

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Now we’re in Loreto for two weeks, parked in an amiable RV campground, with a large  British Columbia contingent! See you again in a few days.

 

 

Off-roading on the hurricane coast of Mexico

There are two main roads that head south on Baja – the Mex. 1 highway that winds down the Pacific and crosses over to the southern tip and the much shorter Mex. 5 that runs from the U.S. border town of Mexicali south of San Felipe along the northern end of the Sea of Cortez. We decided to take that route because we had heard big chunks of Mex. 1 south of Ensenada were at a standstill due to construction (not true, according to fellow travellers). There is always road construction in Baja, but none of the forums warned us about the severity of Mex. 5 (described as being “rough in sections”) and had we known conditions were this bad, we would have avoided that area entirely.

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We were off to a great start with our drive to San Felipe, a small fishing village easily reached by a very good road which ominously, had no-one on it. The first signs of life we encountered were just north of town –  a collection of homes and stores that cater to the expat population.

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When we were there, there was a fiesta celebrating some ATV racers event; swarming with racers, plenty of beer from the San Felipe Brewing Company and a band with the requisite 60-something rockers struggling through Margaritaville.  Several big racing events are held in Baja each year, notably the Baja 1000. This countryside is just begging for speed – there are miles and miles of sandy paths winding through the desert.

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We arrived at our campground in San Felipe and stayed for five nights – long enough to get off the road, do laundry, wash our truck and trailer, meet some lovely people next door to us, and just…relax and enjoy this view.

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In Mexico, you will be hard-pressed to find a way to wash your own clothes or clean your own car. And that’s a good thing, because when you hand your car over to a Mexican, it will sparkle.  There are many car washes, but there are also the guys on the street with buckets of water and rags. We grabbed this man to wash our car – he asked for 50 pesos (about $3.50). We paid him double and it was a deal at twice the price.

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Laundry is another Mexican delight. You take in a bag of scrunched-up dirty clothes and later that same day, you pick them up – T-shirts with sleeves tucked in and undies folded in thirds. We dropped off clothing, sheets, towels, tea-towels, washcloths and two hours and $11 later – we were all set. This is the lavanderia in San Felipe – typical in most of Mexico and a beacon for travellers.

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We were not in San Felipe in high season – apparently this is more of a Mexican destination and really takes off in the summer. We were among the very few gringo tourists wandering the waterfront and we disappointed the good-natured vendors who could not convince us to buy knock-off sunglasses or “almost-free” straw hats.

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San Felipe has an international airport, a glorious waterfront and easy access to the U.S. border, and yet it has missed that magic tourist bullet. The influx of foreign investment, snazzy shops and great little restaurants hasn’t happened. The south end of San Felipe is lined with a string of condo and resort investments that people have walked away from – the business just never materialized.

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And yet…we met Gabriella and Christian, a young couple (Mexican and French-Canadian) who met in Canada and who have committed to building a business in San Felipe. Their shop, C and G Cava, where they sell home-baked goods, coffee and cheese is open Monday to Friday, and they lead tours to the countryside on the weekend. Their energy was infectious.

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One of the nearby attractions is the Valle de los Gigantes, a region of the Giant Cardon, or Saguaro cactus. Much of the area is only accessible to 4×4 vehicles, but we were able to park a couple of kilometres from the gate and hike in from there.

The Saguaro reach heights of 50 or 60 feet, and some of the more majestic ones are over 2000 years old. Here I am, feeling positively petite and youthful beside a typical cactus.

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We were told that in the desert, flowers can spring up within hours after a rain. There had been rain the area the night before, and the valley was filled with these luscious purple flowers. We also loved the “bearded” cactus.

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A parting shot – the saguaro bracketed by ocotillo – an octopus-armed cacti which pops bright red flowers on the stems.

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And then…it was time to move on, and although we had been warned by our fellow campers in San Felipe about the “goat path” that lay ahead, nothing could have prepared us for the non-road we were about to travel on.

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This stretch of highway between San Felipe and the intersection with Highway 1 has been plagued with many years of hurricane damage and washouts. Repeated attempts have been made to repair and replace, and each year nature wreaks its havoc.

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For the first 20 kilometres outside of San Felipe, we drove through garden variety potholes and patched roads. Then…the construction began. At the same time that repairs are being made to hurricane damage, there is ongoing construction to build a new road.

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A double whammy – slowdowns through construction sites combined with at least a dozen areas where roads and bridges had been washed out from the latest hurricanes that passed through this fall. These areas were served with bypass roads – goat paths of the first order – clay, sand, sharp rock – that were, to put it mildly, “creatively engineered.” With nowhere to go but forward, we climbed down, up and over these roads, our little truck gamely pushing forward and our trailer following behind. At times we struggled, but always made it.

By the time we saw this sign, all we could do was laugh.

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Kilometre after kilometre we crawled at 20 kph, driving over sharp rocks, praying our tires would not puncture and then, as we were inching down a slippery hill, we met up with a tractor trailer that had jack-knifed and obstructed most of the road.

Imagine this: We are just up the road from the tractor-trailer. Stephen stops our truck and I run down to see if there is a way out.  There is – just barely – to the left of the truck. With about two feet to spare, we decide to go for it. We spoke to the truck driver – he agreed we could make it – and then Stephen began. You can’t see it from this angle, but there is about a 30-foot drop off the side. Stephen inched forward, sliding but keeping control, watching the truck driver who gestured encouragingly, (and not me, who was frantically waving and grimacing), until he made it to safety on the other side.

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We found out later that we made it through just in time.  On another bypass road, a truck dropped a load of scrap metal. An hour or two later, traffic backed up with no way out and was stopped for the night. The only vehicles getting through were motorcycles.

Our destination for the night was Gonzaga Bay – an idyllic swath of beach we had almost to ourselves. First we stopped for water – delivered to us with an inimitable Mexican work-around – a hose inserted into a sawed-off plastic bottle.

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Our respite from the road.

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And next morning – back at ‘er – the last stretch of the Road From Hell – it took us two and a half hours to travel 60 kilometres  from Gonzaga Bay to the shimmering mirage of Highway 1. This was a mild version of the road that included rockfall, confusing signage, multiple roads to choose from and almost no-one on the road.

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Today was a very slightly less terrifying than the day before, but with the added bonus of a most enigmatic diversion – Coco’s Corner.

We don’t know the story of Coco – a Mexican man who speaks English quite well, is a double amputee who lives alone, and sells beer and water to passers-by. We had heard about him, so stopped by for a welcome break from the road.

This is his home and small store – the only sign of life anywhere on this stretch of road.

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We were greeted by a young woman from Ottawa who, with her boyfriend, had stayed the night on his property. They found themselves at Coco’s Corner late in the day, and decided it was too risky to carry on in the dark, and were invited to park for the night. We spoke to them for a bit, bought a couple of beers from Coco, and pondered the room full of autographed undies. There are questions you just don’t ask someone you don’t know, but boy, I would love to know Coco’s story.

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And voila – just like that – it was over. The horrible road, the uncertainty of what lay ahead, the worry about puncturing a tire (or two) – we turned left onto Highway 1 and headed south. Over two days, it had taken us twelve hours to drive 400 kilometres. Our advice if you are wanting to visit this area? Consider yourself warned.

We are in Guerrero Negro for the night – the first town south of the Baja Norte border. This is one of the prime sites of the grey whales as they come to give birth. Since the season is not quite underway, we will stop here again in a month or so on our way north.

Sukhothai: Dawn of Happiness

Sukhothai is a small city divided into two zones – the riverside New City, where the bulk of guesthouses, shops and restaurants are located, and Old City; the site of Sukhothai Historical Park, formerly known as Dawn of Happiness. New City is rather charmless; there would be no reason to visit if not for the historical park.

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We wandered around New City on our first day here, and were intrigued by these matching T-shirts. A kinder version of “I’m with Stupid”, but with the same twist – the  wearers would need to line themselves up appropriately before heading out.

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We also discovered the answer to a question we had about a fruit we kept seeing, and finally tried – green, apple-shaped, kind of pucker-y, not that sweet. Turns out it is guava. (or farang, the Thai name, also for foreigner). I was so surprised – I imagined guava would be soft and sweet, like mango or papaya. Working our way through Thailand’s many wonderful fresh fruits – one stand at a time.

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Time for the temples! Now I’m a fan of trudging around in 36 degree heat with 90% humidity as much as the next guy. As fascinating as ancient temples can be, after a few dozen they can fall into the camp of ABC (Another Bloody Church), and our sightseeing can quickly move from being engrossing to feeling obligatory. But when the view looks like this, the temples pull us in:

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Old City is located 12 km. from New City, and is easily accessible by songthaew, a truck-like conversion with bench seats that is short on comfort, but long on local colour. Since many of these drivers eat, smoke and text while they drive, we rely on the hanging flowers and talismans to keep us safe. Plus, it’s great entertainment for $1.

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The Sukhothai Historical Park was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site 25 years ago, but the ruins date back to the 14th century. It is a vast area, spread out over 70 sq. Km., encompassing the moated, walled old city and sprawling into the countryside. If you keep to the main sites, it can be done on foot, but we wanted to see as much as we could, so we rented bikes for the day. It added a lot to our visit – so much fun to cruise around and feel the wind (light breeze?)  at our backs.

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To give you an idea of the layout, this map shows the main temples (called wats) as well as the outlying areas. We stuck to the sites inside the walls, and visited Wat Si Chum, the large temple at the northern edge.

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The Park is gorgeous, but one delightful aspect of this area was the moats, the trees, lily ponds, and small lakes – all serving to soften and highlight the ruins and to provide much-appreciated shade.  Although there were great busloads of tourists, we often found ourselves alone – there is more than enough room for everyone.

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We began with the site’s largest and most important ruin, Wat Mahathat. It featured a number of chedi (the lotus-bud topped conical structures) and Buddhas and columns.

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We visited this same wat later in the day, from another angle and came upon these two gentlemen, lighting incense and praying. It is interesting to observe how Thais pray quietly and reverently in public outdoor places. Buddha provides great solace, in his many incarnations. It is a religion I know very little about and am curious to learn more.

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There were mobs of schoolchildren at the historical park. In many places in the park, they were lined up listening intently to their teachers. To our teacher friends and family – come and teach in Thailand –  these kids are a dream come true. Neat little uniforms, no acting out, very attentive.

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Whenever we ran into them, they were quite curious and friendly. “Hell-ooo”, they would call out, and then all giggle when we called back to them. Since we are finding Thai a very tricky language to get right, we were the cause of great amusement, even among the teachers. Below, the boys lined up to buy incense  to pray at the wat.

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The outer reaches of the park have both a stone wall and a moat. The moats were full of water lilies – so beautiful during the day. All that still water must bring out the mosquitoes at night.

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There were a couple of small islands with ruins, accessible by bridges. Such a painterly quality to this scene.

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Wat Si Siwai has three Khmer-style prang; a bit distinctive from the other wats.  We entered into the centre  prang and peered up inside. Nothing but a hole in the wooden roof and the unmistakable smell of bat guano.

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One photo op after another – this atmospheric shot as we pedalled past.

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And finally, we reached Wat Si Chum, just outside the gates. The 15m Buddha stares down from his perch in the square shrine. If you can see the man in the bottom right of the photo, you’ll get a sense of scale.

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One of the notable features of the Buddha are his giant, gold-fingernailed hands. I asked this young woman to pose beside them to give you an idea of their size.

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We’re into the rhythm of the road now – time has slowed to a dreamlike state and even though we may not get used to the heat, we’re figuring out how not to fight it. (Pulling at my hair and waving at my face has not worked so far.)

We’re heading north to Chiang Mai tomorrow and will spend at least a week there.