Winter Snowbird Trip to the Baja
Copyright © 2001 by John and Eleanor Coulthard
Permission to copy for non-commercial purposes is granted provided the source is acknowledged
Eleanor and I decided to find out what it is like to be "Snowbirds". The term "Snowbird" typically refers to retired people who like to travel south to warmer climates in the summer time. Most Canadian Snowbirds travel south in or towing some sort of RV. These normally take the form of Motorhomes and towable trailers, either normal or fiftth wheel trailers.
Eleanor and I looked at them all, including tent trailers. They vary tremendously in cost depending on features and age. Feeling suitable overwhelmed, in the end we threw a tent into our minivan and headed off.
November 29, 2000
Las Vegas is certainly an interesting city. The architecture is outrageous (I have been trying to think up an appropriate superlative but nothing appropriate comes to mind). Across the street we have the hotel New York - New York. See the attached picture with Eleanor, Rick (my brother) and wife Chris. The outline of the hotel is supposed to remind you of New York City. The Statue of Liberty sits out front. It is probably 10 stories high. The hotels here are absolutely huge. Rick and Chris are staying at the Luxor which has over 4000 rooms. Just down the street is Paris with a model of the Arc de Triomph in front. We are arguing over just how much smaller it is than the real thing. It is 50 stories high according to the brochure. We think it is about 1/3rd scale? - which is pretty damn big. Monday evening we watched the Volcano erupt in front of the Mirage. Each hotel seems to try to outdo the other in terms of outrageousness.
If you are playing the slot machines the drinks are free and you tip the waitress $1.00. Your spouse can sit right next to the machines in a cocktail area and pay $3.75 for the same beer (and tip the waitress of course). Shows range from free to moderate ($30) to expensive ($100.00) to impossible (The Magic Show at the Mirage is sold out for the next two months). Money flows around like water. Everywhere the hotels are offering two for one deals, or free drinks, or any manner of enticements to bring you into their hotel. The system erodes the meaning of money. Dollar bills become little scraps of paper. The gambling machines keep track of "credits" not money. It is very easy to get caught up in it.
There is a lot of automobile traffic. Las Vegas has apparently the third worse air pollution in the USA. From up in the nearby mountains Las Vegas is almost hidden in brown haze. Las Vegas is also a smokers paradise. There are few non-smoking areas (if any) in the Casino. Thankfully the hotel has non smoking rooms. In fact our whole floor is non smoking.
On Tuesday we (Eleanor, myself, Rick, Chris) escaped to the Red Rock National Recreation Area. A short drive out of Las Vegas took us up out of the incredible smog into a beautiful outdoor area which is very popular with rock climbers. We picnicked. Chris and I enjoyed a lovely 1 hour walk while Eleanor painted and Rick dozed.
On Wednesday we drove over to Lake Mead and the Hoover Dam. It was not what we expected. We thought we would find lots of vegetation near the lake, but in fact the area is extremely desolate, right down to the shoreline. We liked the Red Rock area much better. On the way back we drove down the long main drag of Las Vegas (The strip). This evening we enjoyed the Follies Berge.
Gambling doesn't captivate us very strongly, so getting away for the day provided a nice diversion. Three days is enough. Tomorrow we are heading for Death Valley.
December 4, 2000
Death Valley is only a short distance from Las Vegas (3 hours), but seems very remote just the same. There is no cellphone coverage. The gas price here is $US2.39 per gallon. The highways are great and the driving is easy. The best part was the canyon hikes. The worst part was the ever present very fine dust. Believe me - like baby powder, but you don't want it on your bottom.
We pulled into the Furnace Creek Campground (elevation -190 feet) and made our first try at true camping. We forgot matches! Eleanor solved that problem by going and introducing herself to some of our fellow campers. Kathy and Doug, your camping chairs are fabulous here. Daytime temperatures are about 70f (20c) and at night it drops to a chilly 40f (4c), or lower. We are covering up with our polyfill bags and comforter. The nights are sure long. The sun goes down at about 4:30 local time, and it gets chilly real fast. On Friday night we sat around our little fire drinking wine and playing the guitar until about 6:30. Then we wandered over to the nearby Paradise Ranch for supper. Who said camping was tough! We hit the sack about 8pm and get up at about 7am (11 hours... the biggest problem is what to do with the long hours of darkness). When we cook our own supper we eat about 5pm. The best bargain here was the superb swimming pool and showers at the Paradise Ranch for only $2.00. I was almost tempted to choose that picture, with the green, green golf course (lowest in the USA) in the background. But it is not really very representative of "Death Valley". (The golf course was surrounded by date palms and I enjoyed eating a few each time we passed. E.)
Our bikes have really come into their own. We used them to visit the local Borax Refinery museum a mile down the road. We also used them for all our local "cruising" around the campground. The canyon hiking is really excellent. The attached photo shows one of the scenes. The valley floor is desolate and not much for hiking, but is quite interesting. There are salt flats (the Devils Golf Course), salt creeks with interesting critters and big sand dunes.
There are lots of coyotes around here. These animals are the sleekest, healthiest looking coyotes I have ever seen. They trot right through the campsite. Local signs warn not to feed them. At night their howling fills the air with a fascinating chorus. I found it eerie without being scary.
We are now in Ridgecrest, about 3 hours away, 3 hours of driving through.... well... desert. We are washing the dust out of everything. This little town is well equipped, Walmart, Kmart, etc. etc. We plan to head to the beaches on the coast just a short distance north of San Diego next. (Maybe we'll get our bikes and car cleaned naturally although I hope not)
December 7, 2000
Our arrival at the San Clemente was rather comical:
"Are you surfers?" asked the park attendant? "No." I replied. "Then you don't want to camp here.", she said with a final tone. This was at the entrance to San Onofre State Park Bluffs Campground. "Why not?" I asked. "Well for starters it 's a parking lot". "Not only that but it is right next to I-5 and the railroad track is between I-5 and the campsite. You get to hear the State Police pulling motorists over with their bullhorns too. And you can't see the ocean anyhow."
We had just left I-5, with 8 lanes of traffic, so these were powerful arguments. She referred us to the San Mateo campsite (still part of the San Onofre State Park), which was a "real" campsite with pretty winding roads leading to shaded sites. We had our pick of sites and ended up on a bluff overlooking local military installations and the power line coming from the nearby Atomic Power plant. A mile away we could still hear the muted roar of I-5.
After 5 hours of driving from Ridgecrest my anxiety levels were pretty well elevated, so we pitched tent and headed off on our bikes to find a market. Eleanor, with a much better sense of direction, found a neat little trail that avoided most of the traffic. It is much warmer here. I slept for 11 hours and awoke greatly refreshed.
A pleasant 1.5 mile path, a short bike ride, took us to the beach. Lovely. The attached picture shows Eleanor in her bike helmet and green bike jacket. The people, as always, are very friendly.
The beach is great. From the bluffs you can see the surfers heading out to catch the waves while a pod of dolphins swims by. (John has not been able to convince me that the dolphins might not just be surfboards with their skegs up). While we explored by bicycle on Wednesday sporadic, thin rain showers plagued us. It was overcast and cool. Thursday dawned much sunnier and quite windy. It was easy to see Catalina Island offshore, an unusual event according to a local we talked to. Eleanor painted, I read, then we decamped and made our way to a motel in Oceanside, a short distance away, so we could "de-sand" before descending on our friends the Twyvers's near San Diego on Friday.
It is very refreshing to see Pelicans. I got very fond of these intelligent quizzical birds when we were on Galiander in Florida three years ago.
December 15, 2000
Last Sunday morning Eleanor and I approached the Mexican border for the first time in our lives with a little bit of apprehension - approaching the unknown? The cars were moving smoothly. There was no apparent lineup. Up ahead we could see signs directing cars with stuff to declare to head to the right. We had nothing so kept to the left. Ahead there was a traffic light, flashing green as each car approached. We passed some cameras, approached the light, and it flashed green - we were in Mexico!
We wanted to stop for a Tourist Card - A big pileup of cards was scattered around on the right where the people with stuff to declare. Everywhere else there were hawkers selling car insurance. Well we could leave the tourist card for later... We were carefully following the signs for the scenic drive 1D to Ensenada. The cars were moving steadily. Suddenly we found ourselves in downtown Tiajuana... Yipes...
Eleanor says I am a hero. We approached a military roadblock - they waved us through with their guns - into the wrong way on a one-way. I got out of that at the first opportunity. We stopped and asked people (4 in all) "Ensenada????". Arms pointed and we kept moving. Finally we ended up on 1D and had a wonderful drive down this lovely scenic highway to Ensenada.
Our instructions to find the Ecole de Idiomatic were excellent and we arrived a hour and a half ahead of time.
Sunday we were evaluated, were introduced to our homestay host Claudia and got settled in with two other students. Time went quickly. We had great camadarie. We had animated conversations and great laughs.
We learned some rules about driving in Mexico: "Never expect to find a street sign when you need one". There are 4-way stop signs everywhere here - when in doubt - stop - they often are not very obvious.
Eleanor takes to Spanish like a duck to water - she has the language background and is a real pro. I am suffering from severe vocabulary overload - the French background helps but also causes interference.
Our homestay has been great! Great food, great fun, great people!
I am learning how to use the Internet Cafe "Compuclub". It is slow but works.
We are heading for San Felipe on Saturday to explore a place to stay over Christmas. The weather has not been warm, in fact, I might say it is a bit cool. Eleanor wears a lamb's wool sweater and fleece. We had one day of heavy rain, but otherwise it has been sunny with highs to about 18-20c. Not bad at mid day.
Me hablo Espanol un poco but I have a much better understanding of the language and know that I need to spend some time building vocabulary.
Felix Navidad! (Merry Christmas)
Ensenada to San Felipe
December 19, 2000
Thursday was "Excursion" day at the Spanish Immersion school. We had heard that they planned an outing to the "Museo". There are only 4 students in our class and we were a pretty cohesive unit. We wanted to go to the Saint Thomas Winery so while we were working on our Tarrea (homework) we kept on working in expressions having to do with going to wineries. After only a brief period of resistance our instructor gave in and we got our tour. It is right in downtown Ensenada and was built way back in the 1800's. The cellar felt really ancient. A great outing although I had a bit of a headache the next morning.
We lived the Mexican timetable during the course. Breakfast at 7:30. School started at 8:30 and carried through to 2:30pm with short breaks. Then we scooted back to our homestay for the big meal of the day at about 3:30: beefsteak, chicken type stew, meatball soup, smoked fish dishes - always with beans and rice and lots of chili sauces. Always very tasty. We feel very healthy; maybe a bit too "gordo"! A snack would be available in the evening at around 8pm if we wanted it.
On Friday, after some sad good byes and weekend planning, we scooted back to our Homestay for supper then drove over to the "Oficina de Immigration" to get our Tourist Card, which is needed for travel south of Ensenada. The fellow in the office spoke excellent English. We filled out the forms, then he held onto our passports while we drove to the Bank to pay for them ($17US each). There was only a half-hour lineup to get to the cashier. I made good use of the time while Eleanor stood in that line, to stand in the lineup for the ATM machine to refuel our wallets. This ATM machine could deliver either peso's or $US so I topped up on both. Cash is clearly the preferred way to pay for things. Then back to the Immigration office to get our Tourist Cards stamped and retrieve our passports. Good thing we set lots of time aside for this sort of thing.
We were very fortunate to be joined in our trip to San Felipe by one of our fellow students, Jim, a retired dentist from Michigan, and Alfonso, our favourite instructor. We traveled together but in separate cars and switched passengers half way through, which provided us with new companions and a different language to chat in.
The narrow, two lane, scenic highway is in good condition. The trip takes 3-4 hours. We drove slowly and took our time. It was a very pleasant trip once we got out of Ensenada. For the first half hour we passed dumps, old cars and dead dogs. Not a pretty suburb at all. This area is beautiful but the environment has been neglected and abused.
When the hills cleared of "problem areas", the rolling hills became a flat plain of prickly pear and cochilla cactus. Then mesquite bushes gradually became hills of junipers and huge round rocks. In the two higher passes appeared a few huge saguaro cactus and a few larger trees along the arroyos. It was a bit greener up higher, even some low purple flowers and yellow tipped bushes.
We passed through a military checkpoint. As we slowed down we could see them tapping the door panels of a car coming in the opposite direction. I rolled down the window as we approached a pleasant looking young soldier. "Buenos dias", I said. He replied with a rapid burst of Spanish that neither Eleanor nor I understood. So I said "San Felipe". I guess it was the right answer. "Ahh..." he replied, "El sol, la playa, el mar... bueno". "Si, si si!" I replied. He said, "OK!" and pointed down the road. We passed through one more on our way to San Felipe. They do not feel threatening at all. Our fellow student pointed out that they are there to protect us.
As we dropped down out of the second mountain range we could see the ocean in the distance. Eleanor said it reminded her of Thailand. The colour of the water reminded me of the Bahamas. The four of us spent the night in a "5th wheel" RV in the Rancho Ed Dorado RV park. Yes, you can rent RV's at these places. Heated swimming pool, Jacuzzi, .. Beer and nachos beside the pool. The beach is gigantic. There are dune buggys buzzing around. Unfortunately their tenting area is on the other side of the highway, a long way away. But Pete's Camp, right next door, seems to be a unique place with camping right on the beach. We will try it later.
On Sunday we said goodbye to Jim and Alfonso as they headed back to Ensenada. Eleanor and I stayed in the Hacienda ($US25 + free margarita). San Felipe is real quiet right now, in fact "dead" might be a better descriptor, so there are good accommodation deals to be had. The Hacienda is in the heart of town. Walking distance to everywhere, although a bit noisy. We met a couple from Kamloops and went to a Karaoke Bar with them where we sang Jingle Bells to about 30 "cowboys" .. a sparse audience for these big tourist joints.
A strong Northerly whipped up the desert and beach sand on Monday. The sand drifted across the road just South of San Felipe. When it dies down we will go to Pete's and try tenting on the beach.
Pete’s Camp, San Felipe
December 24, 2000
San Felipe is a real touristy place. Lots of bars and restaurants with something to offer almost any visitor. A slow one way road runs between a row of shops and the beach, which is sand and has lots of boats pulled up on it, many staffed by eager Mexicans who want to take us out fishing. It is very pleasant to sit out in the front of the restaurants and have a meal. Local people come by to try and sell us trinkets. For the most part they are not persistent and leave after our polite, "No gracias".
After a few days we were ready for a change and moved 7 miles North of town to Pete's Camp, a facility right next to Rancho El Dorado, that offers tent camping right on the beach (and, of course, a restaurant and bar). The wind died down and the days are warm. There are very few campers on the beach. It has been wonderful to walk the beach during the day, then sit in our camp chairs, watch the sun go down and drink beer, tequila and a twist of lime (our "new" drink). The night sky is incredibly clear. Eleanor managed to see the moons of Jupiter through the binoculars one night. Out on the horizon we can see the lights of the shrimp boats as they head out from San Felipe to the fishing grounds. The first clear night the stars seemed to tumble down and mingle with the lights of the shrimp boats. When the sun goes down it gets cold - fast... First we tried sleeping in the tent, fully dressed with our sleeping bags and comforter. It works, but was marginal for comfort. A strong sea breeze develops at night, which really whistles through the tent. So we tried the Mini Van for our sleeps. It was more comfortable but a little cramped. Our next experiment was to rearrange the fly on the tent so less air is ducted into the tent. That worked very well so we have moved back into the tent again.
In the morning I get up and make coffee. We have cereal or toast and possibly a hard-boiled egg for breakfast. For lunch we will either have a sandwich or eat out, depending where we are. It is pretty dark by 5pm and it is not much fun cooking and eating in the dark (and cold!) so we typically fill in the evening hours by eating out. On Thursday night we wandered down the beach in the dark to the El Dorado restaurant. We enjoyed Chicken BBQ and danced to the DJ music of Neil and Diane. The prices tend to be very reasonable compared to home. (seems to me we wandered home that night through the sand singing "Can I have this dance for the rest of my life...Anne Murray wasn't it? Muchos sand in my shoes next morning. E.)
Most of the people here are retirees of some flavour. Some own property nearby while others are "camping" like us (Us true "tenters" are definitely in the minority). Everyone is very friendly and we have been meeting all sorts of people. It is interesting and very educational to chat about the different approaches they take to moving south for the summer. (Motor homes, 5th wheels, own property... etc. etc.).
Arriving back from the sand flats beach combing John said "Look whose here!" With great joy we saw Mike and Rob driving along the beach, the Honda moving along a bit top heavy with sail boards etc. Mike and his friend Rob had driven down from Vancouver in 3 days. And as further gift we have been treated to one of the nicest days to date. It is sure nice to have them for Christmas. Good times....
Merry Christmas everyone!!!!
December 26, 2000
December 24th dawned sunny and calm. By 8am we were in shorts. Normally "El Norte" get's going by mid morning. We drove into town for supplies and hurried back so Mike and Rob could launch the sail boards. But El Norte didn't develop - we had probably the warmest day to date. Mike launched the "Kite" for his kite boarding (that is sail boarding, but using a kite to pull you around instead of a sail). It is 30 feet across. The wind was barely strong enough to keep it up and we had fun running around the beach. It was interesting to see how it worked. I was surprised to see how much pull it had, even in such a light breeze.
Late in the afternoon we had cocktails, snacks, played the guitar and finally headed up for supper. OOPS - the restaurant closed early, 5 minutes before we got there. So we had Riceroni (by John) and burritos (by Mike) in the campsite, then joined our neighbours by their fire. As we listened to Jimmy Buffet's Christmas Carol CD in the background we knew this was yet another "quite different" Christmas.
Mike and Rob got their Christmas present on Christmas Day and again on Boxing Day. El Norte decided to kick up a storm so both of them were out there scooting back and forth in the waves. Mike's kite boarding attracted quite a bit of interest. About 6pm we retired to the restaurant for our Christmas Day feast. It was quite crowded. Ah... Christmas you think? Sorry - it was Monday night football that attracted the crowd. Our feast was the Mexican combo special.. . pretty good actually, but it didn't feel Xmasy.
El Norte died down and we had a quiet night. There is no "Boxing day" here so Tuesday we went into town early to shop and visit the Internet Cafe to do our banking. El Norte built up to a decent level again (15-20 knots) so Mike and Rob are making the best of it with their kite boarding and sail boarding. In the background dozens of "dune buggys" dashed to and fro kicking up a continual background of sand.
We will join Mike and Rob for a quick 3-day drive down to La Paz. We prefer to travel with others, if we have the option. I don't know what sort of Internet access we will have, so don't worry if you don't hear from us.
Have a Happy New Year everyone!!!
San Felipe to La Paz
December 30, 2000
The road down the Baja Peninsula is a paved two-lane highway with no shoulder. The speed limit of 80 km/hr is widely ignored. On the good sections speeds of 110kmh+ are typical. Eleanor quips that the trip is good for a decent adrenaline rush every half hour. The problem is that when I said "no shoulder" I meant NO SHOULDER. The road is narrow and the shoulder is basically nonexistent for most of the trip. Passing trucks can be a real hair-raising experience. You cannot let your attention wander for the smallest interval. Eleanor would not even let me listen to the Spanish radio stations in case it might distract me!
Most people make the trip in three days. Few travelers consider driving at night. Day one (7:30am to 4:30pm) took us from San Felipe to Catavina. Catavina is a good stopping point for people making the 3-day trip starting from San Diego. Day two (7:30 to 4:00) took us to Loreto on the east side of the Baja. Day three (7:30 to 1pm) took us to La Paz. Some travelers will go direct from Catavina to Cabo in about 12 hours.
It is a fascinating trip. I have never seen so much desert and so many cactuses in my life. It is a trip well worth doing at least once in your life. The problem is that now that we are down here how do we get back? I am considering hiring a delivery crew and flying (just kidding!).
Catavina sports a La Pinta hotel, quite a nice facility way out there in the middle of some of the most fascinating desert country I have every seen. There were boulders the size of houses scattered around willy-nilly. Boojum trees and gigantic barrel cactuses sketch grotesque shapes in the setting sun. Reaching the East Coast reminded me again of the Bahamas. We saw pelicans and tropicbirds. We camped in a National Park near Loreto next to a wonderful wide sandy beach (but not white sand like the Bahamas). Eleanor and Mike went in for a swim in the morning. We are now at a beach called La Ventana, a favourite with wind surfers. It has a real nice atmosphere. The campsite is quite crowded but is incredibly friendly. Mike and Rob are in heaven; after 6 days of serious driving.
We bought some "camarones", large local shrimp, and had them for dinner tonight; campers say the vegetable man and bakery truck come by tomorrow. Already we are anticipating the shark and shrimp tacos for 10 pesos ($1.00). Mexican food is addictive. We loaded up with salsa, beans, tortillas and eggs as we passed through La Paz today.
Is it true that most of the surfers here are over 50 as our neighbour tells us? Also there is good snorkeling right here and cycling along the beach. Maybe we'll stay a while. The weather seems to suit us old folks!
La Ventana to Cabo San Lucas
January 5, 2001
La Ventana is a fascinating place. There is a surprising mix of people. Lots of retirees as well as the expected younger people. It is amazing to sit and chat to a 75 year old woman, lean and fit, talking about sailboards and techniques. Everyone is united by one common interest - sail boarding. I have never seen so many sail boards in my life. The campsite here is packed with RV's and tents of every description. One simply drives in, finds a space, and squeezes in. The choicest spots right on the beach are taken by sail boarders who arrived before the end of October! Whether you are in a Motor home or a tent, the charge is the same, 30 pesos ($US3.00) per day. The services provided are flush toilets, water for washing and cold showers. Local Mexicans provide quite a few "drive in" services. Each day a truck with jugs of drinking water comes through, and a bakery truck, and a vegetable truck... A senora does laundry for 20 pesos per load just a short walk down the road. A little restaurant and bar called Pablos is right across the street. Everyone is extremely friendly and social. Life is not difficult. It is a nice scene.
The weather is ideal for wind surfers. The wind typically picks up by 10 or 11 in the morning and conveniently dies about 5pm to allow us a quiet night's sleep. These people are serious about their hobby. They didn't even party late on New Year's eve. Of course after a serious day's sailing everyone is tired. Eleanor reported that the campsite was very quiet on her late night excursion to the toilet, but the local Mexicans were partying up a storm.
Occasionally the wind doesn't develop. That becomes a day to rest and repair gear. And, of course, there is beach volleyball, which is played in the morning before the wind develops.
It certainly gives us yet another perspective on retirement lifestyles.
It was less than a 3-hour drive to Cabo San Lucas. We are camping at Club Cabo until the 6th. Hot showers, hot tub, pool - easy walking or cycling distance from downtown Cabo. We like the camping life. The camaraderie is great. We had a pot luck with the campers in the next site, a couple and two children from Victoria. They had been fishing and brought back "pescado", yummy Dorado which we worked into our quesidillas. The weather has been overcast and rain. Yes - it has been raining in Cabo San Lucas! On Wednesday it rained almost all day but very lightly, just enough to dampen the dust. Good for the bougainvillea and fichus that surround the campsite. Like in the tropics, red and yellow birds visit from time to time. This morning a very colourful but noisy kite-cum-ultralite flew over; pretty against the blue sky but noisy.
We will be moving down to San Hose del Cabo on Saturday. We will be camping at the Brisa el Mar RV Park.
Cabo San Lucas, San Jose Del Cabo & La Paz
January 13, 2001
Drivers do not seem to pay much attention to speed limits. Baja drivers do pay attention to speed bumps however. In order to slow drivers going through small towns on the highway - speed bumps. Enter a school zone - speed bumps. Want to keep down the speed on the four lane highway along the hotel beach strip? - speed bumps. Serious speed bumps! You ignore them at your own peril - or perhaps I should say the peril of the undercarriage of your auto. They have speed bumps for every occasion. Big ones, gentle ones, steel ones, plastic ones.... The first one you tend to approach like it is a wimpy Canadian speed bump. After you get your car back together you treat them with respect like the rest of the drivers.
We sure meet fun people camping. Eleanor went Para Sailing in Cabo with a girl named Lisa while her man, David, and I went along as passengers. It was a great ride. They take several riders out in the boat at a time so we were out sightseeing for quite a while, not just the brief time Eleanor was up in the parasail. Then we rented a "SeaDoo" (Wave Rider?). It was fun although we found we spent a lot of time visiting and chatting to the people on the boats anchored in the harbour. It felt good to be out on the water again.
On the 6th we moved to San Hose del Cabo at the East end of what is called the "Corridor", the 4 lane highway connecting Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo. There is a tremendous amount of construction and real estate activity here. They are talking about a 1000 slip Marina at San Hose del Cabo (Cabo San Lucas has a 300 slip Marina).
Our friends, Joe and Anami, arrived on the plane from Vancouver on the 6th. They did a fair bit of Scuba Diving during their seven day visit. Eleanor joined them for four dives. I joined them as an observer and snorkler on one of their outings. I also took the opportunity to do some exploring on my mountain bike. The newer roads have a generous right hand lane for parking which works out well for us cyclists. I cycled to La Playita, a somewhat more remote beach near here. It was a great ride, but unfortunately, as soon as one gets off the paved roads the dust becomes a real problem. I found a wonderful path along an estuary, loaded with bird life.
Eleanor speaking: The diving was totally wonderful. So many fish of brilliant colours and different shapes and sizes. The dive masters were adept at showing us the best of the walls and the bottom of the sea: wolf eels, manta rays, barracuda, (Joe and Anami saw a turtle, they come to the sand to lay eggs this time of year). Brilliant yellows and navy polka dots, puffer and angel fish, trigger fish, amber jacks, grouper etc, etc, etc. Schools of beautiful fish down 30 to 90 feet. We need to get a book to learn all their names.
Our "camp" at the RV Park was quite nice. We were right on the beach. A short dash across the sand took us into the ocean. Then we would rinse off in the pool and have a hot shower. We slept very well during the nice nights. We would leave our tent flaps open and in the morning we could look out and watch the sun rising out of the ocean.
The night before Joe and Anami left we all had a most wonderful meal together at La Ceneduria, a Mexican restaurant (San Jose, being a touristy place, has about every type of restaurant you would want, Italian, French, McDonalds... whatever). We ate and danced out on a second floor patio as a Mexican band played in the plaza below. It was quite magical. The food was almost as good as it was at Mia Casa in Cabo. There we had Mexican specialties: chicken with "molle" sauce (37 ingredients starting with peanuts, chocolate, bananas...) and the best of all ... a dish from Pueblo called "chiles de nodolgo", stuffed chiles with a walnut cream sauce which was out of this world.
After a week in San Jose we were ready to move on though, and are now nestled in a real room at the Las Palmas Suites in La Paz. It sure feels good to lie on a real bed again... The wind is blowing hard. We hear there is a front raising havoc up in California.
Tomorrow (Sunday) we plan to head to La Ventura to see how Mike and his friends are doing. We are curious to see how his kite sailing and surfing skills are after two weeks practice. Then we will start North again. We expect to be home sometime in the first half of February.
8pm - time for bed - seriously!
La Paz & La Ventana
January 18, 2001
Eleanor and I spent a pleasant few hours exploring the downtown waterfront in La Paz. The large harbour here is protected by a low barrier island which shields the boats from any wave action generated by El Norte. I would judge that there were about 100 boats anchored. There is a fair amount of current in the anchorage, and shallow water that could easily be seen from shore. Navigation aids mark the channel at the end we were on. Looked pretty nice, although we didn't see much evidence of the Yachties.
By contrast, the anchorage at Cabo is very exposed to southerly winds. We watched one smaller sailboat in a very uncomfortable anchorage situation due to the wind and swells. There are not a lot of boats anchored at Cabo. The marina at Cabo is protected but expensive by our standards. A fellow in the RV park at San Jose del Cabo said he was paying $US600 per month to leave his 26 foot fishing boat there.
Snowbirds who choose to stay in RV parks must be prepared to live very close to their neighbours. If you are a person who likes to socialize this can result in a very pleasant life. If you value your privacy and solitude you may not find it to your taste.
A conversation overheard: "Why don't you control your dogs. I am supposed to be in paradise and I have to put up with the barking of your F.....ing dogs. ...." I could cite other examples, but you get the idea. Living in an RV on a 15 foot lot can generate social tensions.
Some Snowbirds purchase a condominium. It is not as mobile but allows you more privacy.
Mexico is a smoker's paradise. Cigarettes are cheap here and smoking is allowed nearly everywhere. People smoke cigars inside closed restaurants, something I have not seen in a long time. Fortunately most restaurants are open air. Eleanor commented that some people don't seem to have anything to do but "smoke their brains out".
Paradise is a state of mind, not a place.
It rained overnight twice here in La Ventana. When it rained in Cabo it was a very light rain that hardly seemed to dampen anything. Here the rain was significant enough to leave the ground damp in the morning. The air smelled simply wonderful. The weather has been unusually cloudy and the normal wind patterns have been disrupted, leaving the sail boarders a little frustrated. We hear there have been big storms up in California. The "regulars" are complaining about the cold.
Mike is getting better at his Kite boarding. Eleanor watched him do a little "air time", which means jumping high in the air. Kite boarding is a very pretty sport to watch, especially when they come in to shore and make their turns. The better sailors will often soar 30 feet into the air as they make their turn and head out to sea again.
There are a lot of people from BC here. The other day I commented to Eleanor, "That guy there looks a lot like Bucky (old neighbour - like 20 years ago - from Kitsilano).". . . and it was! He is down sail boarding with his son Mike. It has been great to renew this old acquaintance and find out what has been going on in our lives. We went snorkeling with his son - a wonderful reef off a luxury fishing lodge about a half hour from here.
Eleanor and I have also been doing some biking. We have found that the dirt roads here are not necessarily busy with cars. We enjoyed a wonderful hot spring just 6km down the road. The super hot water (watch out! - some people have suffered burns) sort of seeps out of the sand along a wide area of the beach right at the water line. Some pools have been hollowed out. When the tide is right... so is the temperature. We had a bucket and would pail buckets of hot water from the hot side of the pool and pour it over each other - wonderful!
For breakfast we wander over to Pablos for a very generous Canadian style breakfast that keeps us going all day. For supper we might wander down to Captain Kirk's for their tacos or join others here in the campsite "pot luck" style. Vendors come through with all sorts of offerings. One time the fish vendor had lobster tails. There is a pickup truck full of melons. And the pastry truck... ah yes - we can't forget the pastry truck.
I suppose we should move on - but life is good...
La Ventana to Mulege
January 24, 2001
On our last night in La Ventana Eleanor went to a Bongathon. It was supposed to just be a house party but it turned out to be the Pot smokers equivalent of a drinking match. The point was to smoke a finite quantity of pot in as short a period as possible. Much inhaling and flicking of lighters to the beat of the bongo and cheers of the crowd. So it was a little strange. She went with Mary and Clay, an elderly (64 & 68) pair of sail boarders. They abstained from the smoking binges and just shared a joint. So they returned back to the campsite no worse for the wear.
We didn't get away from La Ventana fast. Nor did we get very far. After a final fabulous breakfast at Pablos we drove the half hour to La Paz and got caught up in shopping and sight seeing again. On this visit we decided to stay in an RV Park at the west end of the city. It is surprisingly difficult to find places in the Baja. The street signage is poor and often the business does not seem to attach much importance to putting a sign on their establishment. Thank heaven for Eleanor's rapidly improving Spanish skills. She fearlessly approaches the most menacing looking Mexicans to ask directions. The Mexican unfailingly, and magically, changes into a smiling and extremely helpful person.
The Aquamarine RV Park turned out to be a real gem. It is a small place and includes a small Marina and dry storage for boats. One was Ariel, a 29 foot C&C, from Vancouver, BC. And who should show up at the same time but Norma and Steve, the owners from Surrey. This is the second year they have had Ariel down in the Baja and it was very interesting hearing about their experiences. Nearby, Mark, from San Francisco was working on his Bristol 27. Aquamarine was quiet and very tropical. A loaded orange tree was in one corner. Eleanor made fresh juice from some of the oranges. It was a little bitter - a cross between an orange and a lime.
I reported that a barrier island protects the harbour at La Paz. It turns out that it is not an island but a peninsula. But the harbour is still plagued by currents and so the anchorage is not as pleasant as one might expect. The boats perform what they refer to as the "La Paz Waltz", which means that they may respond in unexpected ways to the combination of wind and current.
We had lunch in La Paz at the "Super Taco" roadside stand (world famous). For something to drink we had a huge glass of fresh squeezed orange juice - squeezed right on the spot while we waited. For supper we cycled a short distance to a lovely shore side restaurant at the next Marina down the shore. Eleanor and I shared a grilled Red Snapper and Manta Ray Salad.
On Saturday we headed across to the Pacific side to take in some Whale watching. We passed through some of the most desolate country I have seen yet. Flat, and so barren practically nothing seemed to grow in it. As it turned out the whales have not appeared yet, and the locale was so uninspiring we decided to continue Northward and Eastward to the East side of the Peninsula. We came back to the Marine Park (Ligui Beach) we stayed at with Mike and Rob on the way down. We had an absolutely wonderful campsite. We snorkled, were entertained by the pelicans, and enjoyed some very interesting desert walks. I loved sipping my coffee in the morning whilst watching the Pelicans almost in a feeding frenzy only a short distance away.
Tuesday and Wednesday were set aside to find prehistoric Indian rock paintings. We went on a strenuous 2 hour hike near Loreto. Great views but only a few interesting petroglyphs.. On Wednesday we went on a guided 7 hour tour to a Canyon about an hour out of Mulege. This was an area that is protected by the Mexican government and is only accessible through a licensed guide. Our guide, Ciro, spoke English quite well and did an excellent job of not only showing us rock paintings, but also identifying a great deal of the local plant life. Some of the paintings were 2000 to 4000 years old. The images included a deer, turtles, fish, whales, a "cactus man" and a body with six fingers and six toes and arrows through him. We also saw a ram, a seal, a coyote, a wolf and many children's handprints.
Mulege is a real charming little oasis. We stayed at the Orchard RV park. We actually pitched our tent on grass!!!. There are mangroves, palm trees...
Tomorrow(Thursday) ... we head further north to San Ignacio, another oasis in the middle of the Baja. After that we will go to Guerrero Negro to see whales (we hope).
Mulege to San Diego
January 28, 2001
San Ignacio had an interesting old mission. Otherwise it was not terribly inspiring so we carried on to Guerrero Negro for the Whale trip. (Guerrero Negro means "Black Warrior" which was the name of an Hawaiian whaling ship which floundered there when it over loaded with whale oil in early 1900's). Because of the density and temperature of the salt water, many Grey Whales, who have migrated from Alaska; mate, and give birth in Scammon's Lagoon nearby. This generates tourism for Guerrero Negro but otherwise the town is without any particular interest. The RV/Campground site was the worst we have endured (although it did have hot showers). The town thrives on salt export from the wide salt - sand flats on the ocean's edge. Sand dunes fall right into the sea.
We saw lots of whales on Friday morning, and since we were back in the awful campsite about noon, we immediately decamped and headed north again - getting all the way to El Rosario. And it was raining in El Rosario!!!! (about 200 miles from the USA border).
We spent the night in Mama Espinosa's Motel and had a delicious supper (lobster burritos) in Mama Espinosa's famous restaurant - definitely worth a repeat visit. All night long the rain pounded on the roof of our motel unit. We couldn't believe it! Glad we didn't plan to camp.
In the morning we drove to Ensenada, did some last minute shopping, then headed for the border crossing at Tijuana. Our travel books advised against using this crossing when returning to the USA. However we were heading towards San Diego to visit our friends the Twyver's and the general advice in that case was that you would be better off with the wait. "Follow a car with California plates", one traveler advised us. "Just follow the signs", advised another.
The crossing was about as hectic as it could possibly be. The closer we got the more frantic the traffic got. The signage was terrible. I navigated a "u" turn that would have made Sterling Moss proud. Mexican police blocked the first turn into the lineup and we missed the second one in the melee that followed. The third opportunity worked however and we probably only lost 5 minutes for missing the second turn. The pileup of cars was quite awesome. Mexican peddlers took opportunity of the lineup to give us a last chance to purchase our Mexican blankets, or other trinkets. Drivers seemed to want to change lanes for no reason at all and occasionally there would be a tremendous burst of noise as everyone started to lean on their horns, for reasons completely unknown to us. I asked a guy beside us if he had done this before, and with an affirmative answer, got firmly planted on his bumper until we got through. That was a smart move as he got us into an HOV lane that probably saved us 15 minutes. After an hour we were through.... Triumph!!! ("We are never going to go through that crossing again!", Eleanor)
Quite fortuitously in Mulege we took on a third passenger. Joanne had enjoyed the cave painting excursion with us and was wanting to get back to California so we shoved and packed everything a little tighter and enjoyed her company all the way to San Diego where we put her on the airplane. Joanne and I (Eleanor) had a great time together: we discovered a fascinating unmarked cave with more recent paintings: magico-religious paintings that recorded the conflict between the missionaries and the original Indian beliefs, we think. Joanne was good at speculating about meaning of the symbols: smallpox, missions, moons, snakes, etc. The discovery happened near Catavina, a scenic area of huge boulders and cactus, high up in the interior mountains.
We had a lovely visit, and wind down, with the Twyver's. On Sunday we through LA to Ventura so Eleanor could visit Carol Becker, who has done a lot of genealogical research on the McConnachie family (Eleanor's mother's side).
We are now motel'ed some where on I5 north of LA (it was too dark to tell where). We should be home on Wednesday.
February 3, 2001
A final comment on the Tijuana border crossing. I did not see a single motorhome or trailer in that long lineup. Definitely NOT recommended!
Route I-5 is a pretty straightforward highway to drive, but it is a long, long way from LA to Vancouver. Except for rain from Portland to Seattle the weather was excellent and the roads clear and dry. There was no lineup at the Canadian border - and I mean none! The guy wanted to know if we were Canadians and how much we were bringing back with us, and we were through. It probably took about 30 seconds.
We went through a police checkpoint on the highway between San Diego and LA. It reminded me to summarize our experiences with the police in the Baja. The "Federalies" are the Mexican Military. They have permanent checkpoints set up on various points on the major highways in the Baja. They may or may not be staffed when one goes through. They tended to be staffed by young men and they were always polite, although very few spoke any English at all. My understanding is that they are primarily there to check for drugs and guns. On two occasions they looked in our glove compartment and peeked under the seats. Each city seems to have it's own local police. We were never stopped in the city and on the occasions when we asked questions they, again, were very polite and friendly. Neither police organization can be counted on to speak any English, so even a rudimentary knowledge of Spanish is a big help.
We heard two first hand stories from people who bribed the local police. One, a student in our Spanish class, was an experienced Baja traveler. He did a traffic infraction in Tijuana and bribed the officer $US40 to avoid the time and hassle of going to the police station to pay a fine. The other story was from a fellow in Guerrero Negro who said he would never come back to Mexico. He said the police approached him when he was in a gas station. They waved an "infraction" book at him. He wanted to go to the police station but when he thought they were taking him into the country he refused to go further. He paid 200 pesos (approximately $US20) to be allowed to continue on his way. I don't think he spoke Spanish.
The Baja highways are patrolled by an organization called the Green Angels. This is a government service that is there to help Tourists in trouble on the highway. We saw them a couple of times. They have green AAA style trucks that look very clean and modern. They reportedly charge only a nominal sum for their services and seemed to have a good reputation amoung Gringos.
Only unleaded gas was available at the gas stations, often only regular grade (Octane 87). The stations were for the most part reasonably modern. I encountered two stations that were self-serve. The gas stations are widely separated on many sections of the highway. The rule of thumb is to "drive on the top half of the tank".
The $US is widely accepted in the Northern Baja (Ensenada, San Felipe), and down on the southern tip (Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo). Pesos work everywhere. ATM machines that dispense pesos were very common. If there was a bank in town they would have an ATM machine. (Some small towns don't have banks though). ATM machines that dispense $US were not common. So it was more convenient to work in pesos. Travelers cheques are not very useful. Banks will limit how many they will cash. My son reported that it was difficult to find a bank that would handle Canadian travelers cheques. Stores do not handle travelers cheques. Only the most upscale establishments seemed to handle VISA, and even in those cases sometimes quite reluctantly. You quickly get used to living in a "cash world" and keeping your wallet topped up.
Camping in a tent is a very mobile way to see the Baja but is definitely not typical. Except for the southern tip the nights tend to be cold. It was often windy. Most people use "hard" accommodation in the form of a camperized van, camper on a truck, trailer or motorhome. I liked the camperized GMC style van. It is not wide (good for the highways) and has the clearance to go on secondary roads (which gets you into some interesting places).
Most Snowbirds tend to go one place and then stay for several months. We met them at every place we stopped. The "movers", like us, tended to be working people on a vacation.
Why Snowbird? You can turn up the heat at home and purchase a hot tub for less than the cost of one of these trips. Well,,, it is hard to find the sunshine at home. Still, paradise is a state of mind. I have a need to nurture my mental and my physical side. I missed our friends and family. I missed my computer projects (I still sell a software product on the Internet) and the various projects I have around me here on Galiano. A RV of some sort might be able to allow me to carry on with my computer projects while we are away - that would be a big improvement.
A trip of one month can be thought of as a vacation, a break from your normal routine. Much more than that and it becomes "normal routine" and there is a need to somehow bring your hobbies with you. The best example was the community in La Ventana. They tended to be united by a common interest (sail boarding). The lifestyle was very healthy. Many of the fishing people fell into this category (The Baja is a fisherman's paradise). The worst example were the people who have come down to "paradise" and don't have anything to do but smoke and drink. Of course if you are into smoking and drinking Mexico is definitely a cheap place to do that. For them, perhaps it is paradise.
Right now Galiano Island is paradise. It was raining all night. The sun is peeking through breaks in the clouds and filtering through the trees. The water glimmers. I have a big workspace, 17 inch computer screen and a real keyboard and mouse. What could be better than that?
Go to John & Eleanor Coulthard's home page.
Create: February 19, 2001
Revised: March 19, 2001