Copyright (c) 1998 by Caryl L. Bergeron - Distribution for personal use permitted. Distribution for other uses with written permission.
Chapter 59 - October 21 to November 15, 1998 San Diego, CA to Silver City, NM 24,548 miles (39,594 km) cumulative
Once again we found ourselves aboard one of those incredible Mexican first class buses. Although this first class bus was far from the super, duper first class buses we'd experienced on the Mexican mainland. After all this is Baja, considered by mainlanders to be the bastard child of Mexico or as one lady put it, "If Mexico is third world, Baja is fifth.". So the best and most expensive usually doesn't reach this area. Despite this it was still quite nice, complete with horrible B movies and a bano, toilet. We had negotiated our way across Tijuana on the bikes, which was the usual episode of getting lost, asking for directions, getting turned around again, finally finding the right road, and dealing with traffic. In each trip to Mexico we've found it is nearly impossible to find good maps of any Mexican city. The best we've managed to find are all from the U.S. or in guide books. In fact the AAA and Lonely Planet book have some of the best available. But neither of th! ese ever goes much beyond city centers, the main tourist district. So if you're driving around the edges of a city you're usually on your own. The same goes for Tijuana. The only map we found was securely taped to the desk at the tourist information center right at the frontier. We tried to memorize the directions and failed to get it right when we needed to remember them the most. Somehow the maps always look so neat and orderly. But, when you actually get out there on the road, chaos reigns. We did make it in about an hour and had plenty of time to spare before loading us, bags, and bikes onboard.
San Ignacio in Baja California Sur, which literally means the rather redundant sounding lower California south, was our destination. A mere 500 miles down the 1000 mile stretch of the longest peninsula in the world. We'd ridden the northern portion to San Ignacio, a long desolate ride of 2 weeks through not much more than desert with few towns none of which were all that memorable. There was no way we wanted to repeat that section. So we chose to begin the final 3 weeks of our North American adventure riding the remaining 500 miles to Los Cabos. First, though, we had to survive another of those marathon bus trips. Fourteen hours at night in an over air-conditioned chilly bus. I never sleep well on buses and get car sick if I try to read or type on the computer. So I wound up watching all 3 terrible and violent movies.
Mexicans seem to be quite enamored with the most violent and bad movies the US has to offer. The first involved a town filled with New York City cops all gone bad, killing and shooting each other. The second was about a huge meteor hitting the ocean east of Washington D.C., millions of people die. And the third I never did quite figure out the theme but it did have lots of guns, blood, guts, and gore. There were a bunch of guys running around with guitar cases filled with such items as machine guns and rocket launchers. Out of curiosity I looked at the posters outside a video store in the town of Mulege a few days later. Every single one of them showed a bunch of men holding a frightening assortment of guns. On reflection I'm reminded of Shakespeare. Shakespeare was in a rather odd situation. His audience consisted of just a few wealthy, highly educated members of the merchant and nobility classes who sat either in the balconies or in chairs right up on stage. If you! were sitting on stage and found the particular production not to your liking you started participating in the action, actually more like yelling at the actors. Yet there was a much larger group of peasant rabble rousers who occupied the floor in front of the stage. The Bard had to keep these folks happy or else they were liable to start throwing things and what the heck why not have a riot. One tough audience. So to keep both groups happy he would write comedies to keep the peasant rabble rolling in laughter, A Mid Summer Night's Dream, Merchant of Venice, and Taming of the Shrew to name a few. Or he'd write a tragedy in which there were sword duels, with real swords I might add, lots of action, and essentially everyone died, Hamlet, King Lear, and Romeo and Juliet. To go along with the jokes and gore were complex plots of sufficient integrity to keep the educated viewers happy as well. The B movies shown on the bus seem to have all the blood, killing, and action desig! ned to keep the peasant rabble mentality happy period. But, the good plots and acting are entirely lacking. Oh well, who needs to keep those hoity, toity rich guys happy, they probably wouldn't condescend to riding a bus anyway.
We disembarked on the dry, dusty roadside next to one of those simple concrete bus stops found through upper Baja at the wee hour of 9 AM. There were actually some changes in the 2 years since our last visit. Actually only 2 changes. The Pemex gas station was closed and the military had placed one of their check points there. So under the careful scrutiny of a couple of very young, khaki clad, machine gun toting soldiers we assembled the bikes, bought water, lathered up with sun screen, and rode off to finish the 45 mile stretch to Santa Rosalia. Previously we had started off on this ride right into a howling headwind. We got about 5 km down the road, looked at the up hill we had to climb and declared we'd had enough. We were sick of wind, sick of dry desert, sick of Baja, sick of cold. We just wanted to get south as fast as we could. We hitched a ride to Santa Rosalia and caught the next ferry heading to the mainland. This day were were fresh, had spent most our sum! mer in green mountains so were not sick of the brown desert as yet, it was still warm, and the wind was calm. The ride was actually quite pleasant. Up and down rolling hills gradually moving into more and more rugged looking mountains, all still brown yet with careful observation you can note quite a few cactus and other gray/green leathery looking desert shrubbery. Suddenly the Sea of Cortez, also known as the Golfo de California, glitters in brilliant blue/green off in the distance. This is the sign that a long windy drop is about to begin. We raced down the hill, swooped into Santa Rosalia, stopped just long enough to get groceries, and rode to the so-so trailer park just down the road. No need to stop for longer as we'd already seen the church, hotel, mines, port, and everything else the town has to offer.
The next day we road along the ocean, rugged brown mountains to our right and sparkling blue water on our left. Hills greeted us at each turn, but compared to the previous 2 months we'd just spent climbing 2000 ft or more almost every day these were easy. We went as far as the town of Mulege where we found one of those tropical paradise campgrounds that seem to exist only in the minds of travel book writers. Mulege sits astride Baja's one and only navigable river. There is water in the river, but we sure couldn't tell if the water was moving toward the golf or if this was just golf water extending inland. One of the things the friars brought with them back in the 1600s and 1700s were date palms which they planted all along the river outside the mission they had established at Mulege. Today the entire valley is filled with these date palms. There are dates of the fruit variety just begging to be picked all over. I don't like dates, so wasn't so inclined. The Orchard ca! mpground, just 1/2 mile south along Mex Rt. 1 from Mulege, is nestled among these date palms which gives it that real tropical feeling. Huts and beach houses made with palm roofs, or palapas as they are called, line the river. There are clean showers and it's the only campground we've ever found in Baja that has picnic tables. All for a small fee of $4 for a tent. We'd found heaven. We stayed an extra night just because of this pleasant campground.
Mulege, the town, has not a whole lot to offer. There's a grocery store carrying a 7/11 sized variety of USA products, several small restaurants including 2 pizza parlors, the mission church, and the old territorial prison. The prison has been turned into a museum, a very small and unfortunately not well done museum. It has only 2 rooms with artifacts displayed in a haphazard manner. The most interesting thing to see is the old prison itself. The outside wall stands about 30 ft high and is perhaps 100X100 ft square. The front style was made to look a bit like the old mission fronts, a tall upward swoop in front, all covered with white plaster, and some coat of arms in the middle above the front centered door. No windows. The three rooms housing the museum are placed along the front wall. I suppose that's where the jailer and guards stayed. On the two back corners of the walls are guard rooms, just barely big enough for one man to stand, no stairs to get up to them. ! I suppose they used a ladder. Within the wall was another square shaped building probably about 20 ft thick enclosing a center courtyard. Lined along each wall of this building both inside and out are little rooms, maybe 5X8 ft and 20 ft tall. We weren't sure why they'd be so tall. These were the cells. All doors had been removed, the plaster was falling apart, and pigeons had taken roost everywhere. One cell on the interior and one of the exterior housed the original latrine pits. Another two housed more modern tiled bathroom and shower room. Everything was in a serious state of neglect and I imagine that without some preservation effort it will continue to deteriorate. We found it hard to imagine what life would have been like inside this old prison. It had just been replaced by the newer one just up the road in the 1970s. Pretty bleak. But we learned later that this particular prison had the nickname of being the prison with no walls. It was a work release pro! gram. Inmates went to work and home during the day and just slept in the prison at night. Odd prison sentence.
We continued our ride along that gorgeous coastline past one sandy and now RV and palapa filled beach after another. Bonnie Wong, the author of our cycling guide book, actually says she has a photo of these beaches before the RVs moved in. But she has been riding this road ever since it opened in 1973. The next coastal town is Loreto. It was founded in 1697 by Father Salvatierra. It was the first European settlement on Baja and was the home of the mother mission for all of the Californias. It was from here that the friars, including Junipero Serra, were sent out to establish that string of missions extending from the tip of Baja clear to San Fransisco. It was from here that the church and government of Spain exerted its influence upon the native peoples. And it is here that the Camino Real began. The El Camino Real is still remembered with a string of mission bells and street names extending the length of California. The heyday of mission life lasted about 100 years.! Their demise occurred due to power struggles with the governments of Spain and then an independent Mexico and also due to the decline in neophyte natives. The native population of Baja dwindled from around 41,000 when the friars first settled to only around 4,000 when the missions closed. There were few precious metals to be found in Baja, so the ranching and mining concerns moved in to fill the vacuum left by the missions. Yet even today, the population of Baja is still quite sparse. There's no water, the mines were played out a while ago and weren't all tht prevelant to begin with, there's little to attract people to move there except the tourists swarming down from the States and Canada to escape the northern cold. There is some fishing and some farming, but without lots of water not anywhere near the production of other areas,.
Loreto is a pleasant town, a little touristy but not too much. There's lots of greenery, lots of trees planted along the streets, clean well maintained buildings by Baja's standards that is, several nice hotels. The inhabitants are used to a heavy gringo presence so there's no hawking cheap tourist junk, no asking for money, no trying to drag you into trinket shops. It's a town you can walk around and actually feel like you fit in. It seems to be relatively affluent I'm sure due to the tourist dollar. Many hotels are undergoing renovation and there is some new construction. We didn't see nearly as many of those half finished projects we'd seen further north. It's got a great boardwalk right along the coast where an evening sunset stroll is an absolute must and a good selection of excellent restaurants. Of all the towns we'd seen in Baja both 2 years ago and now this was the first one we actually really felt we could be comfortable living in. Mulege is just too small, ! Santa Rosalia seems too poor and uninteresting, San Ignacio is too isolated and small.
The narrow, 2 lane Mex Rt. 1 winds along the coast for another 25 miles south of Loreto before making the steep climb over the eastern escarpment of the Sierra de la Giganta mountains. From the peak there's a gradual descent through cactus dotted desert to the farming towns of Ciudad Insurgentes and Constitucion. These are both just plane, Jane desert towns set up solely to support the ranchos scattered along the western face of the mountains. Yes there really is farming. Deep underground is a huge ancient lake. The citizens have taken to drilling deep water wells and are now rapidly sucking up every drop in order to water the fields as well as the trees grown in the cities. We did have to wonder how long it will take for the lake to finally run dry as I can't imagine the water will be replaced as quickly as it's taken. About the only redeeming feature in either town is the pleasant Manfred's RV Park. You read me right, Manfred. Not exactly one of your common Mexican ! names. Manfred is an Austrian who with his wife, Ida, decided Austria was too cold. How and why they ended up in a place like Ciudad Constitucion we never could fathom. But they've got a large place with 85 sites, a nice pool, soon to be hot tub, palapas, an Austrian restaurant, and lots of shady trees. An oasis in the desert and a great place to get refreshed in preparation for the final 210 km desolate desert riding to La Paz.
And desolate it was. Actually, the first 30 miles south of Constitucion wasn't so bad. It's a low land area that, according to the AAA map, often qualifies as a swamp. Consequently there were large green bushes, some almost tree size, for quite a way. With the cool early morning temperatures and the reduction of traffic once we'd left town this short section of riding almost to the town of Santa Rita turned out to be not quite as bad as we had anticipated. After that, however, nothing but dry brown scrub and large cardon cactus accompanied us to La Paz. It was also getting hotter, much hotter. We started each morning at 6 AM, rising with the sun, and by 10 it was steamy hot. Sweat poured off my arms, back, legs, and face, dripped into my eyes making them sting and tear, and our clothes would cake up with white salt crystals becoming stiff like cardboard. Sleep at night without a shower is difficult as I always feel sticky, wet, and uncomfortable. Give me dry climates! anyday.
La Paz is one of the oldest cities on the peninsula having been settled quite early by those same missionaries that settled Loreto. Actually, the Bahia de la Paz, bay of La Paz, is the first location where the Spanish landed. A guy by the name of Viscaino landed there in the early 1500s. He was forced to leave when he tried to get the natives to reveal the location of the black pearl oysters growing naturally in the bay and some of his men tried to rape some of the women. It is from this landing, however, that the peninsula and our own state of California gets its name. There's an ancient myth about a woman warrior named Calafia who lives on an island named Calafornia. When Viscaino landed they are said to have been greeted by a half nude female warrior that the natives referred to as their queen. Naturally this encounter reminded them of this legend and hence the name followed. Today the city of La Paz is the major commerce, military, medical, and college town for the! entire state of Baja California Sur. Its economy is not simply based on the tourist industry, although tourism does play an important role. Consequently it is a much nicer and more pleasant town to visit than Cabo San Lucas. The main tourist area is the long stretch of boardwalk, hotels, and restaurants, called the Malecon, that extend from one end of town to the other along the crystal clear blue/green waters of the bay. Yet just one block off the water you find the main business and shopping district. There are some, but not too many, signs in English, some gringos wandering the streets, but not too many, and no tiny Indian women sitting on the corners selling chiclets gum, dolls, or just sticking their hand out for money. It is a Mexican town, period, and we loved it for being just that.
We camped at the somewhat run down El Cardon RV park located just 2 miles west of town. It's the town's oldest trailer park having been established by a German immigrant and his Jalisco wife several decades earlier. Looking at the concrete picnic tables, the blue tiled pool, the tiled bathrooms, and the palapa covered campsites you can tell that at one time the park had been carefully maintained. What else could you expect from a German. The original owner died, his daughters had married Mexican men, and in the typical Mexican fashion things were being maintained just enough to get by. No money is being fed into it and the wear and tear is beginning to show. It's still a pleasant enough park, if you don't mind cool water showers, and at half the price of the much newer and better maintained Casa Blanca park up the street it's a real bargain. Besides, you meet some real characters there. There's the fat New York Jewish BMW motorcycle riding expatriate who gladly declare! s himself to be a misogynist, woman hater, and claims he's smarter than everyone younger than him. "We both have the same intelligence, but I am smarter than you. And you know why? Because I'm 20 years older than you." he proudly declares. Egad, what a braggart. There was also the interesting couple, Art and Daniel, who showed up on our second swing through town after the ride to Cabo. This couple has been visiting La Paz for years, staying in the same RV park in the same palapa covered site. They're from Colorado and as soon as the weather starts to turn they pack up and head south. They spend about 2 months around La Paz, walking, biking, swimming, etc. Then they store their van, these aren't big RV folks, head to the mainland where they spend the next 3 months visiting one small region of the country. They've spent 2 full months in Mexico City, 1 full month in Jalapa, a month here and another month there. What a great way to get to know the country. I must admi! t I often feel that we're simply rushing through. But it is a big world and we want to see as much as we can before settling on one place. These were neat folk and we enjoyed their company.
We stayed in the La Paz area for 2 days and then headed south on Route 19 toward Lands End, also known as Cabo San Lucas. What a mistake. Of all the roads we've ridden throughout Mexico this road to Cabo was the absolute worst. Like most Mexican roads it's narrow, 2 lanes, and has no shoulder. In fact, often there's a 5 ft. cliff down right at the edge of the pavement. Yet there's a big difference here. For the first time ever in the country of Mexico we actually found mean drivers. Not just inconsiderate, they were downright mean. It's also where we had our first accident. Brian was out in front, his usual spot, and I was running about 2 bike lengths behind. Up ahead coming toward us was a car followed closely by a red pick-up. The pick-up driver was in a hurry. He moved over as if to pass, looked at our position, moved back into his lane. Brian thought all was safe. Suddenly, just as the cars were about to pass he pulled into our lane leaving no room for us. B! rian, seeing this, slammed on his brakes and tried to pull off the road. But I was blind, could not see the cars in front of Brian and did not realize he had stopped. My bike slammed into Brian's. I fell over into the ditch, rolled once, and landed on my back, my legs curled up on my chest and the bike right on top of me. Brian, having also fallen over, runs over yelling out my name obviously scared to death that I'd been seriously injured. I lay there for a few seconds taking stock. My hip, shoulder, and neck all felt strained and I had a shooting painful headache. When Brian got the bike off me and I managed to dizzily get to my feet, he saw that I had a large dent in the side of my bike helmet. I had come down head first on a rock. Based upon the pain in my head I am convinced that had I not had a helmet on I would have had a concussion or worse. I've always been a helmet advocate and now I am even more so convinced.
This was only one incidence, albeit the worst, of mean and bad drivers we encountered along this road. There were at least 2 more similar incidents that, fortunately did not result in an accident. Yet the most obvious incident of meanness was the two men in the old pick-up who, coming from the opposite direction, swerved toward us as if trying to run us off the road. No where else in Mexico have we seen such behavior and we were having a hard time accepting it. That is until we spoke with the owners of the El Molino RV park in the town of Todos Santos, Dick and Marg. Turns out the local Cabo newspaper has been running articles and editorials slamming the state of California claiming that they are treating the Hispanic residents very badly. They seem to be particularly upset about the resent election whereby the Californians voted to discontinue bilingual education. The original idea for the bilingual education was to gradually transition Spanish speaking children into E! nglish. However, what has been happening is the children have been taught in Spanish only, never really learning English at all. It's true. We saw an example of it in Lake Tahoe. A group of school children were having a tour of the public library. The librarian would say something in English and the teacher would then translate it into Spanish. The kids simply did not speak English at all. So Californians decided this was not in the best interest of the state or these children and the news reporters in Cabo are all upset about this. Yet, there are people in Mexico who pay good money to learn to speak English and who recognize that by learning English they can find better paying jobs and have better opportunities for advancement. Hard to believe teaching Spanish speaking kids in the US in English is bad for them.
We were so disgusted with the drivers by the time we got to Cabo San Lucas that we decided that was as far as we were going to go. Most bikers will finish the loop, La Paz to Cabo and back, but we stopped. Later we learned that the traffic on Rt 1 , the other side of the loop, is supposed to be worse than what we found on Rt 19. So we feel it was a wise decision. We ended up taking the bus back to La Paz.
Cabo San Lucas is one of those just plain awful touristy towns. The outskirts of town look much like your typical Mexican city, lots of poor houses clustered along dirt roads. Further in even looked Mexican, small abarrotes, meat markets, fruit shops, scattered among an eclectic array of houses and apartments. Run down shacks stood next door to fancy well maintained houses. Only the main roads leading into and out of town and the roads right near the water were paved. Once you get within one block of the water the entire character changes. Here you find fancy American style restaurants and discos, such as Planet Hollywood and the Hard Rock Cafe, a perfectly maintained and spotless marina, and expensive hotels. A bit of Miami transplanted to the south of Baja. There is none of the quaint old fishing village left to see. Considering that in the late 70s the town had a population of only 3,000 and now it's well over 200,000 I can see why. It's grown enormously just in t! he last decade. There wasn't much old stuff there to begin with.
Gringos are everywhere on this street. In fact, they seem to out number the Mexicans. A problem we have with a lot of these types of tourists is they have this "I'm better than you" or an "Anything goes in Cabo" attitude. They're often loud, obnoxious, snobby, and many times just plain drunk. You see gringos wandering down the street, beers in both hands. I'll bet they wouldn't do that in the states. In Todos Santos, a conservative small village, we saw a group of 4 gringas looking around. Obviously from the Cabo scene 3 of them wore short shorts and bikini tops. They even went into the church, one of the original missions, dressed like that. I can guarantee they would not go around dressed like that to do their shopping in the US. It seemed disrespectful to both the people and culture of Mexico. I was so tempted to go up and ask them if this was the way they would dress to go downtown at home.
We camped at the Faro Viejo trailer park restaurant just 12 blocks away from the marina. It wasn't a great trailer park, some shade but no pool or other amenities. But it was the closest one to town. What amazed us was the restaurant. It is the most expensive place in the whole of Cabo and what shocking prices they are. Quoted in US prices, the cheapest meal which consisted of Mexican tacos, burritos, and quesedillas cost $16 US. I wouldn't pay that much for a Mexican meal in the US let along in Mexico. Prices started there and went up to the ultimate of $150 US for a dinner for four. Wow. And it was busy every single night especially on Sunday. No Mexicans, though. Just gringos. Needless to say we cooked our own dinners. We did get the benefit of free Mariache music from one of the best bands we've ever heard. They left out the trumpets and just stuck to the accordion and string instruments. Sounded more like music from the Champs Elysee in France than Mariache!
Well, that was it, the end of our summer bike touring. From there we took a bus back to La Paz where we spent one more day wandering around the Malecon and having an inexpensive seafood lunch. From there we needed to get back to the van in Silver City, NM. There were several options, most of which involved long bus rides. Being well below our yearly budget we decided to treat ourselves. We took a flight from La Paz to Tijuana, rode across the border, rented a car in San Diego, and drove to Silver City and on to Albuquerque. Amazingly the entire car rental, not including gas, was a mere $43. No drop off. If you're in the right place at the right time you can do real well with car rentals. We couldn't have gotten to Silver City any cheaper. The van was waiting for us when we arrived. It was in great condition and even started with just a few cranks. It's back to the van life for a while.
This is it, it marks the end of our North American journeys. We'll spend just a little time wandering through Oklahoma and Arkansas the last 2 of the 50 states we haven't visited, but the majority of the winter, January through April, will be spent taking time off from traveling. Where we'll settle is still undecided. But we've decided a rest is in order. Besides we need to get ready to begin our European adventure next spring and we have to do a lot of research on the web for this journey. We started out 3 1/2 years ago thinking that N. America would only take 2 years to explore. But we soon discovered, it's one very big continent and we extended our stay another 1 1/2 years. In this time we've seen a good cross section of what this continent has to offer. We've delved into the history of the US through it's National Parks and Monuments, ridden terrain ranging from flat swamp, dry rugged desert, to alpine mountains, seen the wondrous natural environment of western Can! ada as well as the sophisticated French districts of east Canada, wandered through the narrow streets of colonial Mexico, and peeked into the world of the ancient Mayans and Mexica. It's been a great experience and we can still think of dozens of other places we'd love to explore. But after 3 1/2 years, it's time to move on. There's a whole lot more world out there and we've only scratched the surface so far.
Next spring, around mid May, we'll be catching a flight to Europe. The next 5 to 7 years or so we'll be exploring both west and east Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, at least those places we feel are safe to visit. We'll continue to submit newsletters. In fact, that's one of the things we need to research this winter, how to get access in those countries. But I'll be taking the winter off from newsletter writing. Until then we'd like to thank all those who've been reading our ramblings and rantings for these 3 1/2 years and thank you all for the supportive comments we're received. We'd especially like to thank Wendy and my dad for their support. You'll be hearing from us again sometime in May.
Appendix A - Route
Baja Calif. Sur Bus from Tijuana to San Ignacio, Mex Rt 1 to La Paz
Appendix B - Campsites or hotels
California San Diego KOA($), Travelodge in Chula Vista ($)
Baja Calif. Sur Las Palmas RV Park in Santa Rosalia ($), The Orchard RV Park in Mulege 2 nights ($), San Buenaventura RV Park ($), Posada San Martin Hotel in Loreta ($), Tripui RV Park south of Loreta ($), Manfred's RV Park in Cuidad Constitucion 2 nights ($), out in the desert one night, Oasis RV Park at El Centenario ($), El Cardon RV Park in La Paz 2 nights ($), El Molino trailer park in Todos Santos ($), Faro Viejo Trailer Park in Cabo San Lucas 2 nights ($)
Copyright © 1995-2011 by Caryl L. Bergeron - Distribution for personal use permitted. Distribution for other uses with written permission.