The Six-Month Road Trip: the results are in.

We are three days away from being back in Canada. After 191 days, 56 distinct stops, one accident, one flat tire and one possible concussion, we are ready to bring this trip to an end and get off the road for a while. We drove over 22,000 kilometres.

We know that after a few weeks, we will be restless and ready to go again. That is our new reality – the blessing and the curse of being unhoused means that “wherever we lay our hat that’s our home.” Every new home feels exciting.

We chose to stop in Las Vegas for a three-night respite before the long drive north. We had a wonderful time here in November with our friends and we were craving space, comfort and relaxation. The Tuscany Suites are set on several lushly landscaped acres a 15-minute walk from The Strip. Our room is 600 square feet, compared to our 120-square-foot trailer.

It was too cold to use the pool in November, but with temperatures in the low 30s in April, this was a different scene.

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Back in November those fire pits were lit and warming; we met our friends here each morning for coffee.

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After we left Vegas in November, I had no desire to return.  I realize Vegas needs to be accepted and enjoyed for what it is, but the ability to do that escapes me.  I still see the ugliness, excess and wretched souls.  Hustlers, jittery addicts, rock-bottom street prostitutes, aging C-list performers and the endless swath of tourists – it feels jarring to be here.

So back to what we wanted to share with you all – the gritty details.
I’ll begin with what you really want to know – how much did this cost us?

Expenses
Insurance.
 Costs vary tremendously depending upon age and duration of stay, but our insurance for six months  in Mexico and the U.S. (we’re both over 65) = $1700 (with a $5000 deductible)
Mexican car insurance – 2 months – we overpaid (long story)   = $850

The U.S. dollar costs roughly $1.35 – $1.38, which means everything cost at least one-third more. The difference for four months in the U.S.?   = $5000

Food, accommodation & misc.  – this figure is a moving target, as it will be affected by the type of campground you choose, whether you cook or eat out, if you take a helicopter ride over the Grand Canyon, etc.

Since we follow a fairly strict budget, we tend to cook most of our meals and to stay away from the luxury RV parks. With the cost of campgrounds,  groceries, wine and beer,  restaurant meals, firewood, laundry, three oil changes for the truck, museum and entry fees, we averaged $120 a day.  We never felt as though we were skimping or doing without and if we were more adept at boondocking (camping on beaches or public lands for free or very little), that figure would have been much lower. This lovely beach in Baja  was one of our best camping experiences and cost us nothing.

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If you are travelling through the U.S. for any length of time, make sure you pick up an America the Beautiful card.  It costs US$80 for a year and grants admission to all National Parks and National Monuments. With most of the big parks charging $30-$35 entry and the smaller ones charging $10-$20, it pays for itself very quickly.

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Our grand total for travelling for 191 days through the U. S. and Mexico?         $25,000

Campgrounds – reserve or take your chances?

If you want to guarantee a campsite in any of the National Parks and many of the state parks, you will need to book ahead – often six months or more. We were very lucky to snag spots in Zion and Grand Canyon, but they were last-minute cancellations and Steve happened to be online at the right time. A couple of hours later and we might have lost them.

It is a hard call – we changed our travel plans a number of times due to snow, and a few times we extended our stays because we were enjoying ourselves so much.

However, we met a couple who are on the road for a year. She booked up all the parks almost a year ago and they are simply making it work.

Campgrounds – private, public or boondocking?

We tried to stay in national or state parks as much as possible. Usually the setting is attractive, the sites are spacious and the campers are often of a similar mindset – they are there to enjoy nature and tend to be more respectful. Most sites offer dry camping or have electricity – they seldom have full hook-ups. Usually there are restrooms and showers and almost always there is a sani-dump and potable water. Occasionally, but not very often, you get wifi and cell reception. They cost from $15-$30.

The private campgrounds run the gamut from high-end costing $75 – $80 a night to more modest campgrounds that charge $30-$40. Private campgrounds almost always offer full hookups, wifi, and other amenities such as a small store, showers, laundry, firewood, book exchange, etc. We appreciated the private campgrounds when we needed to clean up ourselves and our trailer.  But private campgrounds are often cheek by jowl sites with little privacy and a couple of times we had  bad experiences with inconsiderate campers.

Boondocking is the way to go if you can make it work. BLM (Bureau of Land Management) lands in the U.S. and the beaches of Baja are there for the taking (or for a nominal fee). In some cases, there are pit toilets, garbage cans but in the vast majority of cases, you are on your own. Once you figure out how to handle your water and waste issues, you’re all set. Drive in, pick a spot and set up camp. The camping experience is sublime – dark skies, coyotes howling, and utter peace.

We can boondock for four nights. We arrive after having emptied our grey and black water and filled our fresh water tanks. We have a six-gallon jug for our drinking water and are very careful with our fresh water usage. We have discovered we can go up to four days without a shower (never our first choice, but it is possible). After four days we need to hitch up, go to town, use a sani-dump, refill water, have showers and begin again.

Exercise on the road

Although we hiked a lot, our best intentions about maintaining a formal exercise routine quickly fell away. The excuses are easy – no space, no privacy, too cold, too hot, etc. We have a yoga mat, resistance bands, Pilates cards, and even a skipping rope.  I will freely admit that Stephen is more disciplined than I, and hauling out the equipment a few times in six months does not an exercise routine make.

Grooming

I have “accidental long hair”. After wearing my hair short for decades, I let my hair grow out last winter in India. Indian women have long hair and I was stymied as to where I would find a hairdresser who knew how to cut a short style. I have carried that sentiment forward as we continue to be on the road – how to maintain a style that needs tending every few weeks, without having a tragic cut? My solution was to let it grow long enough that I could pin it up. So far, I am feeling less soigné than I had hoped.

When you camp for a long time, you tend to retreat into a bubble. We are keeping good company with other campers who wander the grounds in their jammies, and brush their teeth into the bushes. It’s always a shock to come into town and see women with mascara and a color-coordinated outfit.

Health Issues

Sooner or later, you may require medical attention, or at least wonder if you should find a doctor.

Several weeks ago, I managed to bash my head so hard in our trailer that I literally bounced off the wall. While Stephen tried not to laugh, I sat there, tears streaming and a bit nauseous. After much online consultation, we concluded I probably gave myself a concussion, as I developed a headache, dizziness and mental wooliness that lasted for several days. If we had been in B.C., I would have gone to our doctor, but in the U.S., far from a decent hospital, I decided to wait it out.  It worked out, but it did raise the question of what to do in situations that aren’t emergencies, but could turn out to be serious.

Libraries

We cannot sing the praises of libraries enough.  Every small town has a library that is welcoming with its great wifi and in many cases – a book sale. We have replenished our books, usually for 50 cents or $1.00, and either discovered new authors or grabbed a book we’ve been meaning to read.

The People

Campers tend to develop a quick and easy rapport with each another. We’re all away from home, and everyone has a story. We have met such wonderful, interesting people – this is one of the highlights of this kind of travel.

The Cost of Travelling in the U.S. 

We were expecting gas to be cheaper than in Canada, but it varies from state to state. California prices are almost equivalent to Canadian, while Arizona, with exchange, runs to about $1 a litre.

I was surprised by the cost of groceries. Again, I expected food to be less expensive, but in most cases found prices to be the same as in Canada or even higher. For example,  fresh pesto costs $5.99 (CA $9), a loaf of bread costs $4 (CA$5.50) and Salad-in-a-bag – $4 (CA $5.50).

Cell Phone Plans: AT&T vs. Verizon 

WE bought an AT&T cell plan, which was supposed to give us unlimited phone and texts in Canada, the U.S. and Mexico. Calls out of Mexico to Canada were problematic, and we also found access to cell towers was limited in much of Arizona.
According to many other people, Verizon has much better service and coverage. 

Final Thoughts:

We had a fantastic trip and would highly recommend almost every place we visited. If you are contemplating a road trip, or contemplating buying an RV, or if you have any questions at all, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

We are back in British Columbia for a housesit on Gabriola Island, and we are looking forward to welcoming our grandson in early June. After that, we head up north to the Yukon and NWT for the summer.

Thank you for following along with us – it means a lot. See you again in July.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Quartzsite: Boondocking bonanza or land of broken dreams?

We first heard about Quartzsite from a couple of brothers we met while traveling through British Columbia last year. They spend their summers working for one of the provincial parks and their winters boondocking in southern Arizona. They appeared to be in their 60’s, in good health and good spirits; far from destitute or desperate.  Reading between the lines, it seemed that although they did not have a robust revenue stream, they had options and their ability to live and work outdoors was a healthy and desirable one.

We read a little more about Quartzsite and were curious to check it out for ourselves.  In and around Quartzsite there are thousands of acres of land belonging to Bureau of Land Management (BLM) that have been designated as Long-Term Visitor Areas (LTV).

Boondocking on BLM lands is common in the United States – there are no facilities and there is no charge.  To make the distinction, boondocking on LTV lands is set up in Quartzsite to allow for the demand. It requires a permit, charges a fee and offers minimal facilities such as a dump station, water fill-up, trash dumpsters and a few toilets.

Fees are ridiculously inexpensive; one can camp for seven months for $180; the land is open from September 15 to April 15.  Since we were there for just four nights, we paid the minimum charge of $40 (for a max. 2-week stay). It is a democratic system; there are no assigned spaces – you drive into the desert and pick a spot. As someone told us, “If you don’t like your  neighbour, you just move.”

Here, our cozy space, tucked in beside a dry creek.

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We arrived at Quartzite last week, just as the winter season was drawing to a close. At the height of the season (November, December, January, February), there are hundreds of thousands of RVs staked out in the desert. Estimates have reached as high as 500,000.  By mid-March, the desert clears out considerably, as normally the day-time temps would be getting uncomfortably hot. This year, with much of Arizona being colder and wetter than usual, we just experienced mid-80s, but such an intense sun.

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Cyclists, hikers and dog walkers are here to take advantage of the trails that circle the area. Off-roading is hugely popular – dozens of ATVs ride up into the mountains and are gone for hours. Surprisingly, we found it extremely quiet – the only noise was one generator in our area; and it ran for just two hours every afternoon. I’m sure it is a different scene in mid-January.

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So, while we enjoyed our space and privacy, we also did not get a true picture of the community of Quartzsite during its peak.

Tens of thousands of people are drawn to the area to attend numerous events such as the Gem and Mineral Show, the RV Show and the ongoing swap meet.  The swap meet is famous – vendors come from all over to sell everything from jewellery to socks to RV parts to antiques. It’s a five-month garage sale.  By the time we arrived in mid-March, many of the stalls had packed up; all that was left was the junk that nobody wanted. We could have picked up cookies for 50 cents, but their best-before date was September 2018.

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Buying things is a major pastime here, but if shopping is not your thing, every day offers activities from Spanish lessons to line dance to pickle ball. Although it is most definitely not our scene, we could see the attraction for snowbirds. Quartzite is affordable, warmer than wherever you live up north and has a built-in community.

This is also the place to find spare parts of your RV, or tend to those pesky housekeeping issues you’ve been putting off.

We were struck by this sign (a multi-generational business, no less), and wondered what essential maintenance we may be neglecting with our own rig.

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Quartzsite is not pretty; the entrance sign is the most attractive part of the town.

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Camels? Why yes. Back in 1855, Jefferson Davis (later president of the Confederacy) hatched the idea of importing and dispatching camels to build a wagon road through the Southwest. After 77 camels were brought to Texas, they needed actual camel drivers. Philip Tedro, (who was born a Greek in Syria, and later converted to Islam and took the name Hadji Ali) was their main man. He became known as Hi Jolly since no-one could pronounce his name. By all accounts the camels were a great success. Unfortunately, when the Civil War broke out, the camel project was abandoned and some were sold, but the rest escaped into the wild.

This colourful tale is related on a plaque in the Hi Jolly cemetery, named in honour of the famed camel driver.

Hi Jolly’s tomb

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There is very little to do in town – a scattering of fast-food restaurants, some dollar stores,  and a little library. Off-season, it becomes a sleepy, dusty town.

Since there is not so much as a creek within many miles of town, we wondered about this restaurant (which now appears to be closed.)

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Back in the late ’70s, a local businessman decided that a little humour and business savvy was needed and revived an old bar, renaming it the Quartzsite Yacht Club. His motto was “long time, no sea.”  He worked around the obvious water challenges by offering a one-time membership fee of $49.99 (which would be reciprocal at other yacht clubs in the world), and it took off. Memberships sold like hot cakes (over 10,000 memberships), and his restaurant was a success.

After driving around town for a bit, the inspiration for this ice cream parlour became a bit clearer.

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We wandered around some of the outdoor stalls. Rumour had it there is a naked bookseller in Quartzite, but we didn’t run across him.

We did see piles and piles of T-shirts. There are clever, funny and thought-provoking message T-shirts on the market, but there are just as many that are crude, vulgar and cretinous and they always makes me wonder: Who makes these shirts? Who buys these shirts? Who wears these shirts?

You remember the popularity of T-shirts with messages like, “Gas Tank for a Sex Machine” (to be stretched over a bulging male belly, with an arrow pointing southward, in case the meaning was lost). Another shirt that made the rounds was, “I’m with Stupid” (again with an arrow pointing sideways, which would require a little thoughtfulness –  “Stupid” would need to be walking on the appropriate side).

Well, in these  dark days when thoughtlessness is celebrated – even “The Stupids” have packed it in.

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We wished we had come to Quartzsite a month earlier to experience it properly. As it was, our time there was conflicted and nothing as we had imagined it to be.

We were not surprised to see Trump flags – this one flew on a jewellery store.

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But we were very surprised to see Trump flags flying on RVs, camped out in the desert.  As Canadians, it is not always easy to understand the American obsession with flying flags of any stripe – we don’t tend to be flag-wavers. But somehow flying a Trump flag at a campground feels like an aggressive act, ” He’s my Man. Make America Great Again. Build the Wall. YEAH!!!”  Stephen thinks I’m over-reacting.

But I was not over-reacting to seeing a Confederate flag flying. Now, it was only one flag, but it is such a controversial statement to make that it was hard to ignore.

And possibly, because the crowds had thinned out so much, we really noticed the poverty.  An older man had pitched a tent in the gully just down from us. He spent a lot of time sitting in his small car, and from time to time would make the slow shuffle down the road to the toilet. It was cold at night, he was alone and we wondered what he ate. We saw what his life looked like now – what would become of him in a few years, or when his health gave out? Would someone find him in his tent one day?

There were a number of old RVs that were barely road-worthy; someone’s home until the mold or the mechanics claimed them and left their owners homeless. We saw people sleeping in their cars, with makeshift shelters.

I had romanticized Quartzsite before we arrived. I appreciated the idea that a low-income person could live a life of greater choice and dignity here than in a room up north. To a point that may be true, but a 60-year-old travelling in an old camper is still just one health crisis away from being in a very dire situation.

There are tens of thousands of people who come to Quartzsite, enjoy the activities and the community and take the best of it away with them. At the height of the season, we can appreciate that attraction to the area.  That side of Quartzsite – people with mobility, financial comfort and choice –  is every bit as valid as the fact that there are nonetheless a good number of people who live here as a refuge. That disparity may have been more obvious to us at this time of year, with so many of the snowbirds gone.

Todos Santos – all saints, all sugar

Todos Santos had its start in sugar – it was the Baja sugarcane capital during the 19th century when eight mills ran full-time. After the natural spring dried up in 1950 and the last mill closed in 1965, Todos Santos ran into decline.   There are still remnants of  old sugar mills to be found around town.

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Luckily, the spring returned in the early 80’s and agriculture began to flourish again. Then the new 4-lane highway was paved through, which helped to encourage tourism. Today Todos Santos has completely transformed, with numerous art galleries and restaurants. It has been declared a Pueblo Magico, and a stroll around the streets is a feast for the senses.

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While most of the buildings have been immaculately restored, there are still a few that are a work in progress – this one appears to be waiting for a shipment of windows.

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Roped off  and waiting for the restoration to begin.

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Purity of colour and form.

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Bicycles everywhere.

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And flowers everywhere. If there is anything more unabashedly lush and overgrown than a Mexican garden, I don’t know what it is.

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The artistic appeal of the gallery exteriors is almost as great as the paintings and sculptures that are displayed within.

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I love the use of brilliant colour contrasting with the sharpness of geometric lines and stone. img_0023
Mexicans are masters of making stone, brick and concrete inviting – of course you want to go into this gallery.

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There are a number of bespoke galleries, including Ezra Katz.

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And then there is this silliness – poking fun perhaps at the tourist kitsch that floods Mexican markets. Irony must be dead, as it looked to be long-shuttered.

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When you’ve decided your collection of one-size overly-patterned bias-cut rayon beach dresses aren’t doing it anymore. Enter: the insouciance of a simple frock or white linen pants.

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Careful renovations have been done to maintain and enhance the integrity and beauty of the old brick trapiches or mills that are now re-purposed into shops, offices and restaurants.

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And then, there is…the Hotel California with its many rumours about being the inspiration for the Eagles iconic song of the same name.

The Eagles have vehemently denied that this hotel (or any hotel) was the inspiration for their song and launched a successful lawsuit.

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While the current owners continue to dispel that myth, the rock-and-roll whiff still clings.  Originally built in 1947, the hotel sat empty for a number of years until the late 90’s, when Canadians John and Debbie Stewart (from Galiano Island), bought the crumbling property in 2001.  They took four years to meticulously restore it. Today it has 11 guest rooms, a gorgeous garden and swimming pool, restaurant, bar and gift shop and hundreds of visitors stream through daily.  I had a chance to speak with Debbie and she filled us in on the history of the hotel, as well as her personal attachment to both the hotel and Todos Santos.

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We did not stay at the Hotel California. After trying and failing to find a suitable campground in the area, we took the advice of a neighbour from La Paz and decided to try beach camping.

Here are the facts to consider about camping in south Baja – the more expensive and built-up the destination, the less your chances will be of finding a reasonable RV park. The tourist shift down here is notable – high-end restaurants and hotels proliferate, to serve the planeloads of tourists who fly into Cabo and La Paz. There is way more money to be made in hotel rooms than in campgrounds. Todos Santos is just an hour away and has developed its own polished aesthetic. “Expect higher prices“, was one apt description of travelling through this area, which is code for: “Expect American prices.”

The best camping experiences in Baja are also the ones where you can boondock right on the beach. It really is as romantic as it sounds – falling asleep to the sound of waves, having a fire on the beach, watching the stars at night. And it’s free! But… many of the dirt roads that lead to the beaches are not suitable for many RVs – they are rutted and gnarly with deep dips and drop-offs – and that’s before you arrive at the beach. Once there, you have to watch for tide lines and deep pockets of soft sand or mud.

We took the chance and slowly rocked and bumped along until we found a spot on the beach and parked beside a dune. Right next to us was deep sand, but there was a bit of a path we could navigate. We were in. That van behind us? People from Gabriola – chocolate-makers Ron and Nancy.  We sat together over a fire one evening, along with a couple from North Carolina and another couple from Germany.

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If you camp on the beach, you have no electricity, no water, no place to dump your waste water and if you aren’t bringing a toilet with you – no toilet.  You need to be inventive – we still don’t have the hang of boondocking, but we’re getting there. At this point, we know how to dry camp for three days before we need to get hookups. We both went four days without showers, which is never my first choice –  something not even the best wet wipes can remediate.

But…this is the sunrise that greeted us every morning at 6:30 a.m.

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We’d make coffee, stroll down to the beach and watch as the surfers would roll up. If the waves are behaving, this is a pretty sweet surfing area. Most days there were no more than half a dozen surfers in the water.

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These beaches are not considered safe for swimming, unless there is no wind and the water is calm. Despite the warning signs and the fact that there was not a single other swimmer in the ocean, Stephen went in swimming twice, although he did admit that the second foray was “intense.”

This is a stretch of the Pacific Ocean that is not to be messed with:

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That magical moment when the sun is beginning to drop and everything is touched with silver:

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Besides watching surfers, scanning the horizon for whales and flying manta rays, we were treated to the tireless joy of kids and dogs, playing at the beach.

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Although we cooked at our campsite every night, during the day while we were sightseeing we ate in town.  You don’t need to drop a bundle (although you certainly can) to eat well in Todos Santos.  You just have to adjust your expectations a little. Want an authentic taco stand that has been in business since 1995 and serves fabulous fish tacos? Look no further than Tacos Barajas.

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Their fish tacos are served with a platter of condiments and as long as you realize this same dish has previously graced another table and been handled by other diners,  you’re all set. This is common in most taco joints – one cannot be queasy about the open-air condiment dishes that are shared by all. It adds to the ambience.

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There are many really scenic beaches around Todos Santos and plenty to do in town. We could happily have stayed another couple of days. We check out La Poza, a laguna on the south end of Todos Santos, but in true Miller-Burr fashion, managed to miss the “easy” road to the coast and ended up driving up another goat path that took us above the town and back down over a hill where we met up with a dead end at a hotel. We parked there and clambered to the laguna over rocks. Well worth the adventure.

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Just past the laguna, we saw a pod of whales breaching quite close to shore. No photos of those, but I’ll end with a shot of the beach.

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Now we are heading for the other coast – the Sea of Cortez, to Los Barriles to explore that area and use it as a base for interesting day trips.