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.

How do we afford this: FAQ’s about life on the road.

We’ve been at this for almost a year now – this life of being unhoused and on the move. What we have discovered is this: your former life tends to follow you around – you bring yourselves along for the ride. If you were a worrywart or a neat freak in Canada, chances are you will be that same person in Dubai or Duluth. Being a neat freak at home is easy – you hang up your clothes, wipe down your counters and organize your paper clips and elastics in one drawer. Being a neat freak on the road means you will be pointlessly rearranging your backpack and double-checking your reservations – you’ll need an outlet for those organizational skills.

Life on the road requires tons of organization. We are always looking ahead – to the next night, the next week, the next year. In less than a month we will be in India, but six months after that, we will begin a several-months North American odyssey – travelling as far north as the Arctic Circle and as far south as Baja. India is top of mind, but we’re also checking out the Dempster Highway. Right now we have family with us for the Christmas holidays, which involves daily planning. We look at all this as being a pretty great part-time job.

What we’ve discovered so far: we LOVE the open road. Road Trip – two of our favourite words, especially when they are used together. Who knows where the road will lead you – we never get tired of wondering what is just around the bend.

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So, let’s cut to the chase – the most important factor in choosing to be unhoused is knowing you will be able to return to your former life one day without having left your savings on the road. We don’t mind being unhoused now, but we don’t want to be homeless in the future. A number of our friends have asked us how we afford this lifestyle, and we are happy to share.

Finances

1. We live on our combined pensions and have set a monthly budget which allows us to both spend and save. We are far from wealthy, but a combination of careful money management, modest lifestyle and good luck has worked in our favour. Stephen has a couple of pensions from work, and we both collect CPP (Canada Pension Plan) and OAS (Old Age Security). Stephen has an interest and ability in self-investing and our savings and our home equity are securely invested.

2. We don’t live anywhere, which means we don’t pay mortgage payments, property tax, home insurance, cable, internet, heat, hydro or other utilities. We don’t have maintenance costs or replacement costs. We don’t have to buy a snow shovel, or paper towels or potting soil.

3. We still have to eat. But…because we don’t have a kitchen (most of the time), we don’t have the expense of a fully stocked pantry and fridge, and we waste very little. We buy small quantities and when we eat out, it might be a $4 bowl of noodles on the street.

4. We have a car, but when we are travelling overseas, our car is on storage insurance, with zero operating expenses.

5. We don’t buy stuff. We don’t buy new towels, or cute little vases, or fresh flowers. We don’t have gym memberships, or magazine subscriptions. Our only clothing purchases are items that can withstand heat, cold, rolling up and getting wet.

How We Live When We’re Not Travelling

We live in British Columbia six months of the year, in a variety of ways. We house and pet sit, which works out really well. We get to stretch out in a normal home, see our friends, reciprocate with dinner and lunch visits, and hang out with someone else’s dogs and cats. Like grandparents, we enjoy the pets and then hand them back.
If we don’t have housesits lined up, we rent short-term though Airbnb. If we are on the move within Canada, we camp or stay with friends and family.  

Expenses on the road

When we’re travelling, our expenses are accommodation, transportation and food, all of which vary widely, depending upon where we are. In Mexico, SE Asia and India, we set a daily budget of $110, which averages out quite well.  We still treat ourselves. We stay in clean, comfortable hotels like this one, that cost about $50.

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We eat, drink, stop for coffee, buy snacks off the street, pay admissions to museums, art galleries, plays, movies, concerts and special exhibits. Even a family-style restaurant in Vietnam feels exciting to us – every day brings a new adventure.

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Maintaining our health on the road

First and foremost, we never travel without health insurance. We take out insurance with  a fairly high deductible to keep costs lower, and with the intention to cover catastrophic events, such as serious illness or accidents. Our illnesses so far have been the unpleasant, but fleeting GI variety, and in most countries we’ve visited, we opt for “pay as you go” – doctor’s visits and medicines are so affordable.

In developing countries, we drink only bottled water and we drink two to three litres of water daily to avoid dehydration. We brush our teeth with the tap water –  the theory being that by introducing trace amounts of local bacteria, our guts may be less likely to react negatively to our street food forays. Speaking of street food – we have never had a problem. The trick is to go where the crowds are eating and choose something that is fully cooked. We’re a little more careful with salads and cut fruit – we only purchase fruit that still has its peel.

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As for ongoing health maintenance, while we are back in B.C., we visit our doctor and have annual checkups. We go to our dentist and have our glasses updated. Blood tests, mammograms, suspicious moles, updated shots – we do this all while we’re “back home.”

Sanitation – Since many bathroom facilities are less than pristine, or involve aiming at a hole in the ground,  we never travel without toilet paper and wet wipes. As a friend in Mexico once said, “the day I can’t squat is the day I can’t travel.” If this all sounds too off-putting – look at it this way: forget you are in a festering hole with flies and germs and smells. Pretend you are wilderness camping…with fresh mountain air and a lake nearby. Same act – different surroundings. I’ve become quite OCD about hand-washing and try to curb my unconscious habit of touching my face. So far, so good.

Exercise – we’re still wrestling with this one. Sure, we walk for miles and we swim and in many cases, we climb three flights of stairs carrying our luggage, but none of that produces the same effect as having a regular exercise routine.  We carried a couple of resistance bands in our bags last year, and used them not even once. Maybe this is the year I will follow my zumba routine in my hotel room. Stephen, who is known for swimming when the ice first leaves the bay, will always be found leaping into bodies of water.

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Personal grooming – Although most products are widely available in most places, I try to bring enough of my favourite moisturizer and lipstick to see me through. Everything else can be substituted. Getting a haircut can be interesting – I have emerged from a top salon looking like an old lady and from a hip barbershop feeling pretty pleased with myself. Not being able to go to my regular hairdresser is one drawback – it is almost impossible to maintain the same haircut. On the other hand – getting a mani-pedi in Vietnam costs about $10-$15.

Buying things while travelling –  Since we have no home and we are travelling with only what we can carry, shopping has become a true spectator sport.  The world is full of beautiful things and they can be mighty hard to resist. How do we walk by markets filled with handwoven scarves, intricate carvings, rustic pottery? Even the idea of bringing back gifts is impractical – we simply don’t have enough room in our bags. So…for now, we admire, enjoy and know that one day we will be bringing back mementos.

Clothing and footwear – So sad – my days of owning really beautiful shoes are over, at least for now.  I look for good tread, wide toe box and waterproof materials. I schlep past local women in their heels and feel distinctly dowdy, but it can’t be helped. Our clothes must be easy care, able to sustain the rigours of a local laundromat, and not require an iron or even a hanger. “Does it wick?” are three little words that until recently, were not a factor in my clothing decisions.
Also, I’m tired of my clothes. Really bored with them. I look forward to buying some bright colours in India.

Hobbies – when you give up your home, you give up your hobbies, unless they are small and portable. While we are on the road, I will not be planting, weeding or tending to a garden or cooking at more than a basic level. I won’t be picking blackberries and making jam. I won’t be sewing or knitting. I won’t be refinishing furniture, or haunting garage sales and thrift shops. I won’t be attending classes, or learning a new skill.

What I can enjoy is reading, writing and photography. I can visit some of the most important museums in the world and learn things I would never otherwise know. I can practice Spanish. I can talk to someone who lives in a different culture and really see our differences and similarities.
We exchange one set of interests for another. As the Vietnamese are fond of saying, “same-same, but different.”

Friends and family – and therein lies the rub. We cannot bring our circle of loved ones with us, and the longer we are away, the less connected we are to everyone. Oh yes, everyone is happy to see us, but their lives no longer include us. We don’t know the minutiae of our friends’ lives, and the small moments that create and sustain the intimacy of close friendships. Of course, we meet people on the road, and make new friends along the way, but even with Facebook and emails and phone calls and this blog, we no longer have the same community. That is the biggest price we pay for our way of life, and we can only hope that we are able to keep picking up the threads.

Stephen and me – do you like and love anyone well enough to be with them 24/7? As it has turned out, yes, we do. We have had our moments, of course, but probably less than if we lived in one place and had a stable life. We may be together all the time, but we are also being bombarded with experiences and stimulation and challenges that keep us engaged and on our toes.  We laugh until we cry almost every day – either a sign that road fatigue has kicked in, or that we have the same sick sense of humour.

Future plans – We will be in India until mid-April, and then back in Ontario, and British Columbia to see family and friends. Beginning next July, we will be travelling by truck and trailer all the way up north, possibly as far as Tuktoyaktuk on the new road. Back down the Pacific Northwest all the way south to Baja for a couple of months next winter. Up along the Gulf states and the Eastern seaboard – back to Ontario. Back into the U.S. again – to Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.  Up into British Columbia again and then …plans TBA.

So many places to see – Peru, Ecuador, Guatemala, Argentina, Tanzania, Sri Lanka, Portugal, Malta, Morocco, Greece, and our always favourite Italy. We look forward to picking a place and staying put – living in a small village for a couple of months. We’ve never been to the U.K, never raised a pint in Ireland.

We look forward to more situations like this one – sharing the path with animals who may or may not be friendly.

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We had set our sights on living without a home for five years.  When we talk about possibly settling somewhere and still travelling extensively, we both react the same way. “Not yet, not ready for that yet.” This life is still suiting us very well.

If you have any other questions,  please feel very free to ask. We highly recommend this way of life, but we know it is not for everyone. If you are intrigued, let us know. We’ll hold your hand and talk you through it.

We’ll be in India on January 2 – see you again soon after that.