It’s 1977. Spellbound moviegoers watch agents of the evil empire approach the droids in Star Wars. Feeling the need to protect his tin friends, Obi-Wan raises a wise hand and breathes the immortal line,
“These aren’t the droids you’re looking for.”
Mexican’s are desperate for an Obi-Wan. Someone to shield them from stories in the media casting a grim shadow over the homeland they know and love. A virtual Death Star blocking light from a land filled with as much magic as anyone from Lucasfilm could possibly create.
Mexico is a country reeling from bad press. Those on vacation in one of Mexico’s tourist spots surely face the daily certainty of violent crime, those venturing further afield into the mainland mountains must have an even more alarming lack of security consciousness. What are these people doing? Why would anyone go?
I am no Alec Guinness. My Jedi ability seems to have waned since my late twenties. But I am here to tell you that ‘Those aren’t the Mexican’s you’re looking for’.
Mexico has been our home for eight weeks. Crossing the border into Mexicali from Calexico, California; one no less busy or dusty than the other and both heavily populated by Mexicans with a smattering of faces from other Central and South American countries adding to the thick dollop of Spanish dialect as we pick up our final parcels from the Post Office and point the truck south.
Dropping down into the cool of the bustling port town of Ensenada was bliss. Claire, ever the lizard, immediately reaching for a sweater as we head to a near-by craft brewery ‘Agua Mala‘ for a beer. Agua Mala literally translates to ‘Bad Water’ but also means jellyfish, a wonderful observation.
Eager and Helpful
Ensenada is a cosmopolitan place in the way that Mexico does cosmopolitan. Some modern-day finery gathered tightly in a center, surrounded by the rougher aesthetic of usual Mexican buildings.
A cool lunch spot had been mentioned online and we find ourselves standing beside a busy cart on a side street. Four Mexican guys forming a conveyor belt of cerviche—chopped seafood cooked only in the acid of lemon. As with many Mexican food carts, a formal line up seems absent, along with any regulation about where or when to order, or who was getting what, or what the options were. It is a locals hangout for regulars, they all know the drill. A nod getting them exactly what they want, some picking bowls of crisp salad and seafood, some getting their seafood mix on top of crisp tostadas, others in ubiquitous mais or harena (maize or flour) tortillas. A young guy approaches, offering words of recommendation about the ‘mixto’ on tostada, which he loves. His English is good, slightly broken but welcome given our lack of movement towards placing an order since we arrived. He tells us all about the food and then the town. We settle on the ‘Mixto’ and ‘Atun’ options and continue chatting, while others look over and smile. The guys behind the counter are keen to make sure we get what we want, suggesting different toppings whilst warning us on the volcanic traits of one or two of their chili sauces. We are ushered to plastic chairs by the side of the road, a couple, nearly finished, graciously making way for the foreigners in an effort to make us feel welcome. We already are. We sit down with our plates, feeling like we are already part of the food stall family.
Another Rip in the Wall
The highway from west coast Guerro Negro heads to the east coast. The final descent from the sierra punctuated by stopping to assist a truck with a flat tire. An appreciative driver indicates he has a small puncture in not one but both front tires. Like all Mexicans, the idea of carrying a spare seems lost. I unclip the side storage box to reveal my ‘air compartment’. A tire fix kit, dual ARB compressor, and air tank. I inflate one tire to 25 psi and hear a hiss. It doesn’t sound big but will not inflate any further. I poke my head inside the wheel well, past the shiny smooth area where tread once existed, checking the inside tire wall only to stare in disbelief at a 7-inch rip along the inside edge. The driver crouches down and grins, “muy grande!” he says, stating the obvious. His amigo is already en route with spares, so we pack up and drop into Santa Rosalia, another friend made.
No Soup for You
We accidentally stumble on San Lucas Cove RV Park in Ejido San Lucas after following a track from the road, opposite our beer stop, towards the ocean. The flat park is right on the beach and empty, aside from two young Americans in a muscular converted van. I grab four Overlander icebreakers and share them amongst the group, the cold beer hitting the spot after a hot day. Jen and Conor (@agirlaguyandadog) mention getting food at the restaurant just meters away and we wander over, increasingly aware of a large party of Mexicans enjoying a mini fiesta. The restaurant is closed. The party is for the recently graduated daughter of the restaurant owner. We say goodbye and wander back to camp, not getting far before a shout from behind attracts our attention. The restaurant owner is running toward us, already motioning that we should join their feast, her friends already creating a space and bringing chairs. Laughter and excited chatter as they now have Gringo’s to play with. Those who speak English come over to chat. Our basic Spanish making sporadic conversation with others. The barbequed fish tacos are unreal. From strangers to family in 60 seconds.
Tacos. More Tacos.
No one has ever said that there is a gap in the market for tacos in Baja California. Mulegé is no exception. Our appreciation for south Baja is amped up as we pull off the highway and through the town arches. The roads thin dramatically, shops lean towards the camper, the maze of apparently one-way streets are a secret that only locals seem to understand. We drift towards oncoming cars meeting smiles, waves and laughs coming the other way. Some towns you just know you will love. Mulegé is one.
The road out-of-town, towards a beach not worth mentioning, brings us to our camp spot. “Two nights I think” Claire states to the owner, Manuel. He smiles, knowing before we do that Mulegé’s magnetic charm will see us spending longer. He shows us to our site. Claire remarking on the abundance of mangos and papaya, Manual turning up with an armful of both within minutes. “You can pick it yourself whenever you like.”
The town itself is full of people as friendly as Manuel. One taco restaurant in particular, Dany’s, is proof that not all tacos are created equal. They apparently open whenever they like and the three choices of filling may or may not be available, but whatever you end up with is delicious. We join them as Brazil vs Belgium fight it out in the world cup on a large TV behind the only fan. Mulegé is humid and hot. The fan doing little to combat the heat from the grill as our tacos are prepared. We head back many times, becoming regulars. Welcomed like family into their tiny restaurant home and waved at whenever we wander into town.
Baja is a polarizing place. The heat and wind of the summer make it inhospitable, highlighted by the so-so reviews from other overlanders we meet. Like us, they feel the beaches are misrepresented, not quite the ‘best beaches ever’ we had been promised.
One thing we all agree on is that the people are simply outstanding. Everyone we meet, gas pump attendants, restaurant owners, those we pass by in the street or chat to in plazas, possess a welcoming humility. ‘Mi casa es su casa.’ It’s not just a saying, it’s their state of mind. A simple nod towards a Mexican will result in the kind of beaming smile a mother usually reserves for a child.
Venturing south brings greener pastures, both literally and metaphorically. Mexican culture becomes more evident from Mulegé onwards, heritage Spanish architecture surrounding ubiquitous plazas with just enough detail to give it a regal appearance and enough faded glory to make it Instagram worthy. Community members in rural attire sit in pods on cast iron benches, chatting the hours away whilst kids run around chasing a ball or each other. The towns surrounded by palms, pines and other trees starkly missing from Baja Norte.
Cabo San Lucas is every inch as bad as we imagined. Gaudy neon and terrible bars clamor for tourism in the most eager way possible. The focus on being drunk rather than having a drink. We’ve been to worse package tour centers, but we don’t stay. We don’t even stop. Thankfully failing to find a parking space and directing the truck towards the highway; out-of-town toward San Jose.
Back in the Dirt
We check the map and notice a wonderful ribbon of trail stretching around the southeastern tip of Baja. Camino Cabo Este literally means East Cape Path, but to us translates to ‘the highlight of Baja’.
The unpaved route hugs stunning shoreline. The meeting point of the Sea of Cortez and Pacific, joining forces to crash majestically against golden sand and picturesque driftwood, possibly left by the recent unwelcome hurricane. Everywhere is a photograph. The barren beaches of the north have given way to barren beaches of the south, but the difference is clear. The sea bluer, the water alive, the beaches bigger, brighter, more impressive.
The trail is easy and enjoyable. Not too bumpy sections allowing plenty of time to observe the ever-changing landscapes; the occasional very easy rock crawl, sand traverse or bumpy hill climb providing some stress-free technical sections. A good chance to test our new-ish Yokohama Geolandar M/T which perform admirably. Wild camping is everywhere. Strips of sand with no names accessed almost immediately off the trail. Some deserted, some with a vehicle or two. Those with good swell usually having a clutch of converted vans or campers that have delivered excited surfers to long and perfect left or right-hand breaks.
This was the Baja we expected. Golden sand beaches against a backdrop of pines and a comical number of cactus standing guard over the inland. Surf pounding against rocks in some areas or lapping the sandy extremes of others as we make our way spellbound along its edge.
Sure there are issues with Mexico. Sometimes these issues are bigger than in other countries. But the perspective has been spectacularly lost. If there is one issue for every twenty thousand visitors, then ‘Twice as many issues’ is still only two in 20,000. It’s data. It gets skewed depending on who is peddling the narrative.
Traveling through Baja was an entirely stress-free experience. The people helpful, welcoming, warm. Friendly in the way that ignores your tourist dollar. Money never once being a feature of any interaction. No haggling. No rip-offs. No scams. Money is a side issue, to be dealt with after your meal at the end of the transaction or service. Almost an apologetic afterthought that belies the friendly interaction to that point. Even buying at a street stall requires you to sit and enjoy your food, pay at the end. No longer asking the price beforehand because we know it will be fair and cheap.
Safety has never been an issue. We have camped in the wild (boondocked), camped in restaurant car parks, campgrounds and once in a Pemex gas station—a right of passage. We have never been hassled, other than by some curious children keen to learn English and take a look inside our camper, their friendly moms wandering over to keep an eye on them and welcome us to their town. We are runners. We have got up in the morning, run down country lanes and through small towns, through back streets of little villages. Always smiles, always waves. Even the dogs are friendly.
Mexicans are rightly upset that much tourism, especially that on the mainland, has been badly affected by the press Mexico has received and the reputation they have. Those waving accusations seemingly failing to fully appreciate the similarities in their home country. Better the devil you know. For those willing to break past the media frenzy, Mexico awaits with welcome arms.
Hi James, great article. Started on the truck camper life about a month ago – made it from Wisconsin to Seattle, so our rite of passage is complete. On the way down south for the winter, we’ve been considering dipping into Mexico. Have you heard of anyone having trouble crossing the border recently?
We visited Obregon in Mexico some years ago. The report in this article precisely mirrors our experience there, other than that we flew in rather than drove there. The food was outstanding and the general politeness of all the public was so wonderful that we were almost ready to pack up and move there.
Keep an eye out for our next installment. We moved over to the mainland some time ago, people are just as friendly but the mainland is a revelation with regards to travel. Such a stunning country, it blows Baja into the weeds in my opinion. Horses for courses though, I know.