San Diego, California to Chetumal, Mexico
In this episode, for the first time on my trip, I really ventured into unknown territory. Gone were the feelings of safety and security as I entered Mexico. But, after three weeks there, I learned my conceptions were completely wrong about this beautiful country.
The video is presented first for those of you with that preference. I will tell you, though, for this episode the video is a bit different, and likely somewhat more substantial. In the video, there is less of a timeline perspective and more of a thematic outline.
I suppose I should preface this by saying I could never do Mexico justice in my writing or video. From the time I entered Mexico at Tecate until the time I left 22 days later, I was blown away every single day by a friendly and welcoming culture, beautiful scenery, and amazing food. But, I’ll give it a try.
After a couple of days in San Diego, I was ready and raring to get into Mexico, my third country after five months on the road. I had several “chores” to do before entering Mexico, such as buying some Mexico insurance online, hiding some cash about the bike, getting a fake wallet prepared, and ensuring my Open Street Maps were loaded and working on the Garmin.
I decided to cross at Tecate as I’d heard it was not very busy, and it wasn’t. I was also shocked to learn that there is no one waiting for you on the Mexico side, you could literally drive right through and into the country and I’m sure no one would stop you.
But, knowing I need to get myself and my bike stamped in, of course I stopped. This is where I saw my first of many types of topes, evil little methods for slowing down vehicles. These turned out to be my least favorite, the bike always hopped nervously between the bumps, although I could always see these coming, unlike most of the topes in Mexico (which I talk about later).
Stopping in at immigration and at the banjercito to get the bike permit, I quickly had to summon all the Spanish I’d learned, but they were friendly and helpful and patient and soon I made it through and was on my way.
My first stop for Mexico was Ensenada, a very touristy town a couple of hours south of Tijuana. The Spanish language, music, and taco truck smells filled the air and I knew I was finally in Mexico.
Ensenada had a cruise ship port visit feel to it with lots of small colorful shops selling a lot of useless stuff. I didn’t stay here long.
The next day, the goal was El Rosario, but I stopped off at La Bufadora just outside of Ensenada first. La Bufadora is a natural marine geyser, meaning that waves break into an increasingly smaller space and once a very high pressure is achieved, the water is blown up and out to 180 feet.
Ooops… couldn’t read the sign until I parked there…
On the way to El Rosario, I experienced my first military checkpoint. By the time I left Mexico three weeks and a day later, I think I went through at least 15 military or police checkpoints. They were always courteous, friendly, and curious about my trip.
El Rosario is a tiny town famous at least two reasons: it’s the first checkpoint on the Baja 1000 and is home to Mama Espinoza’s, an awesome restaurant and hotel full of sorts of Baja memorabilia (Mama passed away last year).
After El Rosario, it was time to cross back towards the Sea of Cortez for a stop at Bahia de Los Angeles. Along this route, I had my first taste of Baja Desert. This is also when the heat really started to climb and I was sweating bullets and drinking liters of water. Bahia de Los Angeles, as is all of the east coast of Baja, is beautiful, especially as you catch the sun rising.
MEX-1, which runs the length of Baja is a pretty good road. It zigzags across the peninsula, so each zigzag takes you up and over the mountains. In my opinion, the east coast of Baja is much more scenic.
The next few days took me through Santa Rosalía, Loreto, and finally La Paz, where I holed up waiting for the ferry. All of the towns in the Baja are unique and the vibes excellent.
No, this is not “the” Hotel California.
I will tell you, I was challenged on the some of the roads where construction was happening, particularly right outside of La Paz. There was a stretch of about 10 miles of this sandy, dusty crap.
Waiting for the ferry was bad planning on my part, really, as I’d wanted to take the ferry to Tolopobompo, which is supposed to run daily, but it was all booked up. The ferry to Mazatlán is longer, but only runs three times a week, and is a bit more expensive. So, I ended up staying in La Paz for four days (I didn’t want to leave after only one day in La Paz). It was a nice resort place, but only about $40 a night.
Next was the ferry over to Mazatlán, where I booked a cabin for about $50 for the overnight sailing. The total time onboard was about 16 hours, so it was well worth it to have a place to hang out.
The next several days were a blur as I visited Durango, Zacatecas, Guadalajara, Guanajuato, and then finally Pátzcuaro. These cities, all modern and most large, share several common attributes:
Lots of motorcycles, mainly 125cc,
a main square with at least one elegant church,
lots of people walking around, smiling, and having a good time,
great food (that’s Mole on the left, a chocolaty chili sauce),
and a really positive vibe that you can feel.
I absolutely loved visiting and hanging out in these cities. I just wish I’d more time.
In Pátzcuaro, I met up with an old shipmate at her house there. Pátzcuaro is an arts scene full of vibrant colors and open air markets.
I took a morning while staying in Pátzcuaro and visited nearby Tzintzuntzan, where I found another cool church and some ruins dating back to the 12th century.
The next few days, I went through Puebla, just east of Mexico City, Oaxaca, Tenuantepec, and then San Cristobal. Again, all of the cities were exceptionally beautiful, full of colonial architecture, and smiling, happy people.
In San Cristobal, I ran across a pair you might know… Ed and Rachel. We had dinner, some laughs, and then some chocolate that I think gave me an orgasm.
Ed checking out someone’s handiwork. Rachel guiding us to dinner…
Gorging on delicious chocolate…
Next, I made my way to Palenque, site of some decent ruins, where I walked around in the jungle heat for a couple of hours.
Finally, I arrived in Chetumal, a staging point for crossing into Belize. I spent 22 days in Mexico and I could honestly say I would live there in an instant. The people are amazingly friendly, the culture vibrates all around you, the food is excellent (although a bit fattening for me), and is as diverse in landscape as any place I’d ever been. Interestingly, much of Mexico (mainland) lies on a plateau rising between two and eight thousand feet, so in my trip across the country in October it was quite cool. It is hardly some hot, dry desert country.
Lessons learned (I talk about them in the video a bit more, too):
1/ Mexico is a wonderfully inviting place full of friendly people, beautiful scenery, and great food. Stay away from the tourist areas, like Cabo, Mazatlán, and Cancun, and Mexico is also very cheap to travel around in, about one-half to one-third the costs in the U.S.
2/ Driving in Mexico is an odyssey. They have several different customs, shall I say, that took some getting used to. 1) The speed limit signs are ignored for the most part as far as I could tell; 2) topes… they are everywhere and most are not marked. It’s the quickest way to bite your tongue off if you’re not paying attention that I know of; 3) You will encounter animals being tended alongside and in the road nearly everywhere you go; 4) Cuota (toll) roads are great and fast, but expensive; 5) people will indicate it is OK to pass them with a left-hand blinker – are they turning or telling you it’s safe… ? Usually context provides this answer; 5) in some places the lane to turn left through an intersection is actually in the far right lane – confusing as hell, just pay attention to the signs; 6) In towns near topes you’d often find people asking for donations or handing out pamphlets. This just slows things down a bit; 7) Stoplight entertainers and windshield cleaners are everywhere; 8) Yes, I think dogs might outnumber people in Mexico, and they all live beside or in the road…; 9) I encountered demonstrators blocking the road three times – once, I was rerouted through a town with burnt out buses, once, I managed to slip through the trucks that gave me just enough space, and once, I had to pay 50 pesos (about $2.50USD) to pass. In no cases did I feel in danger or threatened; 10) I skipped the state of Guerrero – too many warnings from the locals (and the US State Department). There were stories (from the locals) about severed heads in the streets of Acapulco now that the town is no longer on the gringo tourist trail. I could be all wrong about this, but I went (or didn’t go) where the locals suggested; and last, 11) Military/Police checkpoints are everywhere. I think I went through at least 15 crossing Mexico. They were always polite, even friendly, and sometime curious about my trip. No worries here – they are mostly young kids and trying to make Mexico safer.
3/ Learn the language!! I found in every case where I tried to speak Spanish, I would see the other person light up, take a pause, and in turn, get much more receptive to my communication, even helpful, even if my Spanish was horrible. I said frequently, “Yo creo que puedo entender si hablas mas despacio” and always got a smile. (I believe I can understand if you speak more slowly). I learned a great deal of Spanish before I left, but I still have more to learn. I learned a lot of slang terms in Mexico, too, like chela for beer, and ¿Qué ondo?, for what’s up. I got chuckles every time I used those, but they understood.
4/ Open Street Maps for Garmin. They worked great for me almost 100% of the time. And they are free!!