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.

The hidden beauty of La Paz

You don’t have to look too far to appreciate the initial appeal of La Paz – mountain backdrop, sweeping crescent bay and hillside streets climbing up from the beachside malecon.

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Walking the malecon is the best way to orient yourself to La Paz. It runs the length of the historic centre and is lined with benches and palm trees. Amazingly, it is utterly free of touts pestering you about timeshares or boat rides. In fact, since the main road divides the malecon from the shops and restaurants, a stroll along the water lives up to the city’s name – Peace.  People-watching is what it’s all about.

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Maritime-themed sculptures dot the boardwalk – dolphins, mermaids and whales. We had fun watching the little boy to the right in this photo. We walked along with him as he took great joy in running away from his mother, grandmother and auntie – all of them calling him back with zero success.

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The northern part of the malecon is home to a great number of fishing boats – some of them still in use, others obviously retired.

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The southern end of the malecon has tour operators taking boats out to Espiritu Santo – part of a UNESCO World Heritage site comprising hundreds of islands. Snorkelling, diving and kayaking are all part of the tours and swimming with whale sharks is a huge draw.  Our timing was off – on the calm days we were doing other sightseeing and a number of days were simply too windy for the boats to go out safely.  We will try our luck when we stop here on our way back north.

Jacques Cousteau holds his rightful place on the malecon, casting his gaze over the Sea of Cortez, which he called “the world’s aquarium.”

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Even though the temperatures have not been that warm (18-22 degrees),  the sun is still very intense. I’ve given up on vanity  and we’re never without hats and water bottles.

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Most Mexican towns of any size have a cathedral and a plaza that form the centre of town. We parked in front of La Catedral de La Paz and returned to find pilons around our truck; they were attempting to clear space for a wedding. We wanted to watch for a glimpse of the bride, but needed to move out of there.

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We checked out the Saturday market, but were a bit disappointed. We were hoping for a great sprawling Mexican market with chickens and vegetables piled high and electronics and used clothing, but this one was quite small and catering to the gringo market. Vegan pesto, heirloom tomatoes, beach glass jewellery and artisan baking.

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All was not lost – this Italian woman and her son were grilling up sausages, but the real draw for us was the porchetta – a tender pork shoulder we had eaten before in Italy that could make you weep. A toasted bun, tomatoes, red onion, parsley pesto and as you can see from the photo, she didn’t skimp on the porchetta – whoa, so good.

When I commented to her about the number of Italians living in Mexico and why she moved from her home country, her answer was this, “Simple calculus. Italy has a negative birth rate and I wanted a future for myself and my children. My son was four when we moved (he is now mid-20s).” Although the economic advantage of moving to Mexico (for work) isn’t immediately apparent, it seems Italy and Mexico have a lot in common – the importance of family, appreciation for good food, proximity to the sea, rich agriculture and sun. It makes sense.

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Food in La Paz is very good; there is a thriving restaurant scene here. Admittedly, many of the restaurants and cafes are geared to the gringos, but this cafe had a good mix of clientele.

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This cafe, Doce Cuarenta, is a tourist hub. Very good coffee, baking and lunch items.

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We popped into this taco shop, which was mainly populated by Mexicans – usually a good sign. Communal tables, open kitchen, slightly gummy Tupperware containers of salsa, onion, cabbage and pots of salsa of varying degrees of heat.

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And the food – so fresh, so delicious. We had smoked marlin tacos, a “burro” with smoked marlin stuffed into a poblano pepper and topped with cheese, and my favourite – shrimp ceviche on tostado.

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We visited the Regional Museum of Anthropology and History, a small but well-presented history of Baja from prehistory to the 1910 revolution and beyond. All the signs were in Spanish, so we were able to get the gist, but missed the nuance of what we were reading.

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One section was photography devoted to cowboys, and the Mexican’s love of their horses.

I loved these two photos; they each capture essential elements of that life.

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La Paz is far more than the malecon, the restaurants and the tourist attractions. The hidden beauty of La Paz lies in discovering the little treasures that can be found by wandering the streets just back from the beachfront.

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A tile store and adjacent home.

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A sculpture outside a hotel

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Simple and perfect – white walls, red door, elegant sign, wrought iron, potted plants.

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Less perfect, but still interesting – more typically Mexican.  Great colours.

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The elegant Teatro Juarez

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A street view to the sea

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The travelling minstrels. Sooner or later, you will be serenaded by a singer with guitar, a mariachi band, or three old fellows who have played together for years. Levels of talent vary greatly and often they are largely ignored, but it’s fun and there are always extra pesos to drop in the hat.

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We stumbled upon this little park, tucked in off the street, with shady spots for picnics and a beautiful sculpture fountain. La Paz has a number of intriguing tiny parks – you just need to keep your eyes peeled.

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We talked to this family from Tijuana who were playing chess together. They told us they had driven straight from the border in 20 hours – obviously ignoring the often-repeated driving-in-Mexico mantra – “never drive at night.” Dad appeared to be winning.

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We drove out to Tecolote Beach, about a half hour outside La Paz, to see if the beach would be suitable for our trailer. Beach camping in Baja is incredible and in many cases is free, but not all beaches are accessible if you’re hauling a trailer or driving a big RV.

As it turned out, Tecolote Beach is completely appropriate, but can be quite windy. Since the weather for the next few days is calling for high winds, we will give it a try on our way back.

There is no water nor sani dump at Tecolote, but there are a couple of restaurants there, and a tour boat that goes out to Espiritu Santo. We drove out and took note of a couple of soft, sandy areas to avoid, but definitely will try and make it back. Very mellow, gorgeous swimming and snorkelling and nothing but starry nights and the sound of waves.

The backdrop to the beach at Tecolote:

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The beach:

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We’ve driven over some isolated mountain roads, some impressive potholes and topes, and endured that epic Hwy. 5 misadventure. So far, so good, but it is a common sight to see cars pulled off to one side, the hood up and a jack in place. Mexico has provided for highway mishaps in the form of angels – the Green Angels. This band of roadside saviours patrol Mexico’s highways and secondary roads to provide aid to motorists who have popped a tire, run out of gas, or otherwise broken down. Their services are free. We saw them a lot when we drove through mainland Mexico, but until now, never in Baja.  This off-duty Angel was at Tecolote Beach, enjoying the view.

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With such desirable beach camping and endless boondocking opportunities, you will see every imaginable form of RV in Baja – from rooftop tents to this beast. We arrived back at our campground a couple of days ago to discover this staggering vehicle, imported from Germany and clearly, the king of the road. We were not the only ones taking photos.

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It is far more likely you will encounter a varation of this old RV – a gentle version of transport that might have been right at home in what seems to be Baja’s heyday – the 70s.

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We’re spending a quiet New Year’s Eve, safely off the road and tucked into our campground for the night.

Tomorrow we will be in Todos Santos, about an hour away on the Pacific side, where we’ll hang out for a few days.

We wish you all nothing but good things for 2019 – good health, comfort, love, friendship and if it is at all possible – La Paz – peace.

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.