Baja Ferry to Puerto Vallarta: A Tope Too Far!

Baja Ferry from La Paz to Mazatlan:

Late in the afternoon on Sunday January 20th 2013 Lynne and I were reunited on the ferry still anchored in La Paz, Baja Sur. As scheduled the large ferry left port at 5pm and we walked outside to watch land disappear. Dinner was served at 5:45 and for traveling coach it was a pretty good meal to be included with a fare. I had fish with my rice, beans and tortillas while Lynne had chicken. From the time I entered the boat a Men in Black movie about time travel was playing in Spanish with English subtitles. By the time the boat rolled out of La Paz that movie was over and Tin Tin began. After this The Hangover came on in Spanish with no subtitles- less useful for learning Spanish but about as useful for understanding the plot complexities or lack thereof. The last movie in our marathon was the Avengers. Hollywood action films seemed especially silly to us on a boat in the Sea of Cortez but it passed the time as we sat in seats similar to flying coach on a transatlantic flight. Little did we realize at the time of ticket purchase that without a cabin we were signing up for an experience to flying from the US to Japan. At least there was a deck to roam around on. I tried to buy a cabin around dinner time but they were all occupied. So when the last movie ended at 10:30 pm the lights were dimmed and we reclined in our seats. Lynne seemed to fall asleep. I laid there for 2 hours before deciding that was stupid and I was serious about finding a good spot on the deck. From our earlier roamings I had scouted a few possibilities. A number of Mexicans were laying on the boxes of life preservers on the main deck and various benches but I didn’t see anyone on the upper deck. Aside from all the people the strong smell of diesel exhaust and heat didn’t seem appealing on the main deck. I laid out my thermarest and 40 degree go light bag on a recess of the upper deck and fell asleep for a few hours. We joked this was our cruise for the trip. I at least had star views while Lynne had several vacant seats to lay down on. It wasn’t an ideal night’s sleep but it could have been a lot worse.

I was startled from sleep at 6am as Lynne found me on the upper deck. The stars were still out so I got up and gazed at the sky. She went back to sleep down below so I had the upper deck to myself for star gazing and soon the gradual fade to day over the water. After sunrise I went down to the cafeteria and tried to plug in my laptop to work on photos but outlets were unobtainable. We met some nice Kiwis at breakfast who were doing the Pan American on motorcycles and had started in Alaska in May. After breakfast we headed upstairs and wrote in our journals soaking up the sun. Desiring only short bursts of the strong southern sun we were back down in the cafeteria by 10am expecting to be in Mazatlan by then. Finally we spotted land and went outside to watch it roll in. The harbor there is pretty with white rock islands beyond its reach. A tug met the ferry and guided us into port. Finally around 11:30 I was allowed to enter the car deck. This being Mexico everyone started their vehicles immediately as I’m sure those mainland lungs had missed the smoke while away from the boat’s stacks. A haze of exhaust hung in the upper car/truck deck as we waited. 5 or so minutes later a slap on the back of the Roo sent me on my way. Down the ramp and into the sun. I rolled over to the terminal to meet up with Lynne.
We set about scouting our next destination and I cleared memory space on the Go Pro for the next leg of our journey south. Man I’m so hungry! we found some food in the car. Finally we rolled out of the port with some confusion at the gate as it had been a couple hours since others left they thought we were boarding the boat which was about to head back to La Paz. On our second visit we convinced them to let us out! We headed for downtown and searched for the Tourist office listed in the 2003 Frommers guide we carried. After a big waste of time we concluded it was probably elsewhere by now. I went to another bank and once again couldn’t swallow the big atm but we needed cash so I found a reasonable place to exchange dollars for 480Pesos as we rolled through downtown. I was happy to finally exit Mazatlan!! Later I was happy to learn that although we had been in the state of Sinaloa here our tenure was measured in hours. Sinaloa is a big state jutting northward from Mazatlan towards the state of Sonora & the US. It’s best known today by folks in the US as being home territory of the ruthless Sinaloa cartel. Soon we passed into our 4th Mexican state, Nayarit.

We rolled south on MX 15D- the toll road and soon realized after the first toll this was going to drain us of pesos in a hurry. The first toll was 90 pesos! and when we got off the toll road to take the free highway we were hit with another 90P toll! We headed west towards the ocean. I checked hotels in a small town of Playa Novillero but no attendant at the decent looking one and cash only (400P) at the dumpy one was enough convincing to send me on a search for camping. I rolled south on the small road out of town. At first there were regular houses. Further down the road there were small huts followed by big beach houses followed by pasture.

Mainland Beach Camping:

As the sun was about to dip I found what I was looking for, a pasture with no fence. I drove out to the ocean treating it like Baja. Well, we were to soon learn Baja was a world away from us! It was hot and humid. Our night on the ferry had taken us across the Tropic of Cancer. We were officially in the tropics and felt it! No see-ems attacked our legs! This was one of the last days I would wear shorts for a long time. Driving as close to the beach as I could without getting stuck I ran to the ocean for the suns parting. We shared the beach with cows about a hundred meters down from us. A vaquero rode with them and was soon guiding part of the herd to another pasture for the night. I found a bit of shelter for the Roo shielding us a tiny bit from road visibility. The rest of the cows came on their own past us towards another fenced pasture with some horses. They gave us very inquisitive looks as they passed. Not a lot of gringos here we were to learn the next day.

In the tent I thought about the changes we witnessed as we came to the mainland. It seemed like everything was different! We were hot and sticky for the first time! I had already felt in need of a shower but doubly so now! Downtown Mazatlan felt crazy. The traffic was way more intense than Baja and Baja made US driving seem like a cakewalk. The city seemed to stretch on forever even though it’s small potatoes in Mexico. There seemed to be people and small towns everywhere on the mainland as we were used to the relative solitude of Baja. It was still over 80 degrees F in the car after dark!

Lynne didn’t feel well and didn’t want dinner. I was tired myself and settled on a quick easy meal of corn flakes and water. Classy! This was the day my dad had flown to Mexico. He made it from San Fransisco to Mexico City in the time we drove 140 miles from Mazatlan to our camp. Later I would realize this was a fast day of driving in Mexico while not exclusively on toll roads! Lynne’s misery index climbed as she coughed a bunch before bed and figured her plant allergies were red lining. After transferring more files off my Go Pro I went to bed at 9:15 and gladly slept until 5:45am when I awoke to the calls of vaqueros (cowboys) across the fields. It was neat to hear cowboys and the ocean simultaneously! The tent was soaked with dew! The instant switch from desert to humidity was really something.

The next morning we rolled south of our ocean pasture camp along the coast line. Our detailed mapbook showed a road connecting southward that promised good views. After about 10 km we went from narrow 2 lane pavement to dirt at Cuantla. Locals in this Pueblo gave us strange looks!  What were gringos doing in this tiny town!?! South we went as the road deteriorated to a walking pace. Cows parted from our path and soon were found ourselves in a teeny tiny fishing village of perhaps 15-20 people on the edge of a laguna. We looked at the map and soon realized it was flat wrong! There was no road across this laguna. North we went and after drying our tent in Playa Novillero we back tracked westward for 30 minutes via Tecuala (with fewer misdirections thanks to our ignoring the GPS unlike the night before) to the main route south, MX 15! We filled up with gas about an hour north of Toluca and found the right way to the small highway 54 to the coast after missing it the first time past. I found myself a good cowboy hat in Villa Hidalgo for 56 pesos. Sun protection was at the top of my list! Passing near San Blas we rolled down the coast on highway 76. I stopped at a Pemex station to recharge my Go Pro as it had died and I couldn’t find my spare battery and to recharge my brain. It slowly dawned on me that I was beat and we weren’t going to make it close to Puerto Vallarta that day!

Playa Amor:
I had seen a RV Park above the beach just north of us. We went back to check it out. I bartered a bit and we stayed at Playa Amor for 100 pesos. They had showers and internet- the first we’d really had either (aside from a few minutes of internet mid Baja). It was nice to call family on Skype and catch up with the world back home. Lynne was super excited about a shower (as was I!) and even had a nice cat to pet. We connected with my dad’s cousin Tim in Mexico City and talked to my dad a bit there too. I stayed up till midnight and woke up early due to the crashing waves on the rocks. So I headed out to take photos while it was still dark in the morning. I rested for a bit and shot sunrise. We skyped my friend Jesus who I met in Washington the other year. He’s back in Mexico enjoying life in Puerto Vallarta. We thought we would leave by 11am and be able to meet him by 2pm … well our day was about to get more complicated. In fact our month was about to be a lot more complicated but we didn’t know that yet. As I left Playa Amor our camp neighbors from Fairbanks AK told us to watch out for topes (Mexican speed bumps). I’d already driven over hundreds or possibly thousands already so I kind of shrugged it off.

A Tope Too Far!!
Just south of Playa Amor I accidentally turned into the town of Santa Cruz. Looping through the small town i ran over a tope at ~10mph or less. Bad sounds and I knew the Roo was injured. I got out and saw a trail of oil from the tope. Our driver’s rear shock absorber was in two pieces! EEEEEKKKK! I’d never seen this in person and trust me I’d had plenty of opportunities to attempt this wonderful feat in the past. The simple task of lifting the rear wheel off the ground was challenge enough. We finally found a use for the Frommers guide from 2003! It raised my bottle jack just enough to get the rear wheel off the ground. The upper shock came off without difficulty. The lower shock mount put up quite a fight but I finally removed it. Working in a street in some tiny Mexican town makes it even more fun! We drove back to Playa Amor and joked about prophesy to our Fairbanks camp neighbors. WOW! We let Jesus know we were running late. I also spoke with my friend Reuben who has friends in Puerto Vallarta. Finally we were on the road at 3:30pm, well after we had expected to arrive in PV. I stopped at an Autozone in Buceria. They said they could order a shock and have it there in 2 days if I ordered before 9pm. I seriously considered it but we were in a hurry to make it to Mexico City. In retrospect this was a big mistake!! Lynne ran in the Walmart there and soon we were on our way into Puerto Vallarta as the sun was setting.

Puerto Vallarta:
We headed to the Valllarta Sun Hostel where Jesus was volunteering in the evening. It was a nice hostel but I was taken aback by the price thinking it would be <100P total it was 195P each or $30. There are plenty of small town hotels in the US for this price and you don’t have to sleep in the same room with snoring Euro fems. Ok really this wasn’t a big deal but the price was shocking after camping for so long! Jesus met us at the hostel and we looked at maps together. He showed us a lot of neat places to see in Colima & Michocan! He treated us to dinner and thus began our extensive education in giving from the many generous Mexicans we have met. Here I had been fretting over money and he treated us to a wonderful dinner at his favorite restaurant in town enjoying a number of courses. Thank you Jesus! He took us out for a walk along the beach to see the sights as he headed towards home. After a long walk to end a long day I was exhausted back at the hostel but some folks had the lights on hours after lights off. It was so hot that it took me a while to get to sleep. Lynne turned the AC back on when she came in the room but someone turned it off later. I mainly listened to someone rasp away with a cough and others snore. I’m not so sure hostel life is for me.

In the morning Lynne polished off her blog post from Baja while I worked on catching my blog up from the Yukon! Jesus met us late in the morning looked over routes with us once again with his manager through Guadalajara. He took us for another walk to help us buy a sim card for our cell phone and to show us the market and more sights in Puerto Vallarta. It was quite enjoyable to walk through town seeing the things he enjoys! He treated us to a coconut/honey treat that has been one of Lynne’s favorite foods! (it’s sweet) we walked through the craft market and the art garden. and back down the beach as we returned to the hostel. I changed $60 for 780P and should have changed $20 more but still didn’t realize how expensive the toll roads would be or how important they are if you want to average over 30mph for a day! It was sad to cut our time with Jesus short but we left Puerto Vallarta late in the afternoon and slowly made our way out of town as Lynne convinced the GPS that Jalisco hwy 544 to Guadalajara actually exists. It was slow going but pretty! We were happy to be heading into the hills where it was cooler and not humid!


BCS- Baja California Sur!

Laguna San Ignacio:

On Wednesday January 16th, 2013 we rolled into Baja California Sur, BCS. This was our second state in Mexico. Our first order of business was a stop at a gas station in Vizcaino but they didn’t take visa so I just befriended by a cute puppy that Lynne was immediately attached to! On the road again we made our way to San Ignacio. There were tourists aplenty as it’s the hopping off point to a fantastic laguna with the best grey whale calving to be found. We added 200 pesos worth of fuel to the tank (depleting our peso supply further) and cooked lunch in the shade and protection of the town square’s big shade trees. The pemex attendant really liked the Roo and once again we heard the exclamation SOOB A ROOO! I showed him the engine as I added a quart of oil. He said it had been pretty windy for 3 days straight. We checked out the cathedral. I searched for a bathroom eventually settling on a vacant corner of a courtyard as the price was better. Oh my! I asked at the bank about changing dollars or using my card- no dice! Out we rolled on the road to Laguna San Ignacio. The road was good for a ways but eventually turned to dirt for the last 10 miles. The mexican spanish word for dirt road- terreceria- translates to rough road. YUP! It was slow going! Arriving at Laguna San Ignacio we found an abandoned wood building and used it as a windbreak with the ROO on the other side. We weren’t going to be battered like the night before! I shot pics of another beautiful sunset over the Laguna as well as some night shots before retiring. It’s satisfying to go to bed with some beautiful shots on your memory card, lulled asleep by a kinder & gentler wind thinking of the stars over the laguna 20m from the tent.

The next morning I wrote in my journal as Lynne slept in and considered how disconnected we were from the world of facebook updates and the daily lives our friends and family were living. How do you communicate such an experience to people a world away? Even well crafted words and photos seem to fall flat. My cold was still going strong. Being in the wind a lot didn’t help destroy the snot factory. Whatev, such things are temporary! After noon we drove out a bit further and watched vultures feast before turning around. Ethan had spoken highly of his time in a small boat on this laguna, greeted by a whale and her calf. Such experiences between two species communicating without language is beyond words. For us though the cold & wind combined with our colds was also beyond words in another way. We put that down on the ‘save for later list’ in our heads knowing we’ll return to Baja as it’s essentially an extended US road trip. Retracing the path out from the Laguna on the bone shaker we headed back to pavement and eventually the main route south from San Ignacio. At the transition to pavement we met a nice couple from California who had traveled down Baja 23 years before and were seeing some of the same spots this trip. They suggested Agua Verde. We wisely heeded their advice.

Heading south and across Baja from the Pacific side to the Sea of Cortez side we got gas in the old ferry port & mining town of Santa Rosalia while Lynne marveled at some of the wonderfully decrepit structures! Further south we took a drive through Mulege, an old french town. Although after driving through it both of us thought of the entrance arch to be the main visible french identification. Otherwise it was all mexican. But that’s just us. Leaving the faux frenchies behind we headed south to search for beaches. Seeing a dirt road leading off the highway just north of El Coyote we did some scouting and soon light 4X4 work took us to the shore. Looking out from the bushes across a small inlet we saw a RV park across from us set in a bay. We had neighbors for the first time in Baja! A few night shots and it was time for sleep again. In the morning we rolled south and gassed up in Loreto where they gladly accepted Visa. Wooo! Heading into town we stopped at a Mercado and bought tortillas, a tvp like veg protein and 20L of water for 15 Pesos but when we went to pick up our big jug of water they were out. I also stopped by banks but their exchange rates were terrible. We stopped for our only internet time in all of Baja and spent 10-15 minutes writing our family an email to say all was well from the southlands.

Along the Sea of Cortez- Agua Verde:

By Noonish we were on our way and found the turnoff to Agua Verde 30 some miles south of Loreto. I was happy the road was better than I pictured as I was able to crank out 20-30mph for the first half before the hill. The hill was steepish, narrow and pretty! The vally below revealed a number of secluded coves, the sort of landscape one sees in dreams. We passed up and over several hills dividing these valleys/ coves until we reached the teeny tiny town of Agua Verde. After some exploring we turned around and headed back a little ways to a cove we spotted on the way in. It took a bit to find the road to the beach but 4×4 and some skills took us out along to the beach proper. The search was worth it. Quite worth it! This was by far the prettiest beach we camped at in all of Baja! The views of distant hills and towering cliffs in the distance were beautiful along with islands out in the sea of Cortez!

We hiked to the far end of the cove and watched the clouds roll over us. The pretty green hills were soon crowned in crimson, a sky on fire! I was enthralled with the light show! After dinner I took some night shots and went to bed. Better night shots came in the morning with the moon out of the picture when I awoke early. Once the sun was up I shot more and watched a coyote rush past me on the beach at full tilt <4m from where I stood! Lynne was as excited as I was to see my shots as I showed her back at camp, convincing her morning wasn’t so bad after all. It was hard to leave Agua Verde! On the way out from the beach we passed a small house before the main dirt road. I thought they were asking for propane. It wasn’t until later we figured out they were asking for a tip. Whoops. I felt bad for that for some time but there wasn’t anything I could do days down the road. It took 2 hours to drive the 24 miles back to the main highway. 40 more minutes down the pavement and we were in Ciudad Insurgencia. we stopped at a grocery store and bought some yogurt (the best we’ve found in Mexico!), tortillas, bleach (for treating water), cereal and cheese. We stopped at another store looking for water and with empty stomachs we bought a kilo of hot tortillas!! Roosters would later finish some of these. The fresh cheese tasted like the cheese of Georgia- like cows.

Back to the Pacific Coast: El Conejo

Further south we drove the 10 mile dirt road to El Conejo (the Rabbit) to a surf spot back on the Pacific side of Baja. We had yet to witness this culture and since it’s the reason a lot of gringos head south of the border we figured we should learn a bit more. First we checked out the lighthouse. It was the most sparse beach yet- no other islands or land to see- just ocean. We rolled over towards where we saw people camping. A gal from Tofino, BC, Canada was laying in the sun becoming darker than most mexicans. Another gal greeted us with, “You’re obviously new here, you’re so white. Well, good luck.” Lynne’s response in her head, “I’m gonna stay white- I’m not a surfer.” Some have been coming to this spot every year for over 25 years now. There was a sort of cultish / elitist vibe but the few who spoke to us were nice. A tight community! It was breezy on the ocean but not as bad as some of the beaches we had stayed at to the north and we were protected by the dune. Lynne cooked a yummy dish of Polenta, garlic, cow cheese & salsa that we had on tortillas. All the surfers congregated in small groups or solo on the dune or beach to watch the sunset. I did the same with my tripod and camera in hand. Coyotes woke me up at 2:30am. The waves were crashing hard. Falling asleep again the coyotes woke me up for star shots around 5am. I stood on the dune to watch the pre-sunrise color ease into the horizon. There’s something special about that time of day where light gradually changes from night to day. Magical.

We ate breakfast and headed back out to the pavement. I added my last quart of oil from Spokane and we headed further south towards La Paz. It would have been neat to see Cabo San Lucas but that’s another trip. Baja’s easy remember- just like traveling in the US aside from the fact you’re in Mexico. Arriving in La Paz a couple hours later we stopped at a Walmart on the way- a store I never buy goods from in the US. Here it was our only easy place to find Mobil 1 Synthetic 5W-30 that I was running. It wasn’t cheap either- 160 pesos is about $12.60 for a liter! We picked up more food and some detergent imagining that someday we would do laundry. After a while we were winding our way out of town towards the ferry terminal. Once there we had to figure out where to buy our ticket. Upon finding this office we had to go back to the terminal and find the place to buy our vehicle import permit, the pre-req for buying a ferry ticket. That was ~$49 + a $200 USD deposit that should be refunded upon leaving Mexico. They calculated a weird exchange (converting the dollars to pesos with a poor exchange then charging me in pesos) making it come out about $8 more on my CC statement. Back we went to the Office to purchase our ferry tickets. The boat to Mazatlan from La Paz is almost double the fare to Los Mochis but we had no desire to be so far north in the narco state of Sinaloa. I paid the 3318 Pesos for us (2200P for car and I + 1000 for Lynne). We didn’t get a cabin figuring we could later if we wanted. Whoops. We packed our things in preparation for the 3pm boarding and soon it was time to go. After pressing a button that turned green I had no idea I had just randomly selected ‘no search’ on my way through customs. In fact I didn’t know we were passing though customs. There was another fee for use of the port- 148 pesos- before I drove to the boat’s entrance. There I learned Lynne had to get off at the terminal, go through customs and ride a shuttle over to the ferry. Only the driver is allowed on with a vehicle. After dropping her off I returned and soon the Roo and I were on a boat bound for mainland Mexico! YEAAAHHH!! WOOHOOO!