Baja / by Kenneth Benson

Foreign places are not really new to us. We have been to parts of Asia and Central America but always by plane. There was a totally new and distinct anxiety that came with driving across the US Mexican border, and then on top of that, doing it with a kid.

In prepping for the trip we read all sorts of experiences and heard much advice. People either encouraged or admonished us. But it was essentially unknowable what it would be like for us until we did it ourselves. For anyone thinking of a similar trip we will not admonish you, do it, just don’t be stupid, it's been fine.

With each night the anxiety and worry receded. I had many mornings where I would wake, still in a bit of a fog, and not really understand for just a brief moment that I was NOT just camping in some US campground.

The most unexpected thing was the weather. We thought Mexico = warm, but it was pretty cold. Of course we weren’t that far from California on our first few nights and it is winter. After a couple of days it also started to rain. We awoke one morning south of Ensenada in our first campsite to a campground that was one giant puddle.

To find warmer climates we decided to book it south. We stayed one more night on the Pacific side and then started the climb over winding roads to the Sea of Cortez. This was one of my favorite scenes in Baja. The desert with giant Cardon Cacti and Boojum trees. It was alien. We camped at the height of the crossing in Cataviña and dried ourselves out. That night we were robbed. People warned us about leaving our things out at night. I woke in the morning to find that a coyote had stolen my flip flop. 

That was the worst of the Mexican crime we experienced in Baja, and it wasn’t so bad, they were pretty stinky and I had contemplated throwing them out anyway.

Back on the road we turned south stopping overnight in Gurerro Negro then east again to Bahia Conception, landing at Playa Santispek.

We spent several days here. It was exactly what we had been looking for. Warmth, beach and sun. Our second day on the beach we met another couple (Colby and Christine) who’s boat was docked off shore. They had a daughter just 1 month younger than Vega. Devon went clamming with Christine and then Christine cooked a meal with the clams and some pasta, delicious. The next day we all pilled in the van and spent the day in Mulege, a very nice and quaint town just off the coast.

The next day we said hasta luego and planned to possibly meet again in Mazatlan, then headed further south the next day to the town of Loreto. More time could have been spent here, a picturesque colonial little town but we were fast approaching the day to pick Glenn and Mona up from the airport and needed to get nearer La Paz.

In La Paz we stayed at a bayside RV park walking distance to the center of town. On first experience La Paz seemed like a frenetic city. It only took a couple of days to realize it was just that one street we came in on that was so busy.  Our main goal here was to get supplies, make an appointment to get the car serviced, possible get the dog a good shearing and tint the windows of the van. We had success with all but the shearing, and only because we ran out of time.

To set ourselves up for an easy drive to the Los Cabos airport we moved further south to Los Barilles. Some other campers had recommended Los Barillies so we headed there. It turned out that this was the location for an international kite surfing competition that weekend we arrived so we luckily snagged the last of the camping spots in the RV park. Turned out our neighbors were from Hood River. We played with Vega on the beach and watched the kite surfing.

Two days in Los Barillies and it was off to meet some friends.  Glenn and Mona had rented a small property in Todos Santos for the week for the four of us.  It was a welcome reprieve from “van life” and an even more welcome reunion of friends. Vega loves them (so do we) and we got a small break from full time care of V. :) Can’t thank them enough for putting us up and making the effort to come see Vega (and us).

It was a great week for us. The Todos Santos Music festival was on while we were there so for $50 pesos we got to see live music.  I especially loved it. Jeff Tweedy played which was awesome, but the highlight for me was Mike Mills and Peter Buck from REM playing with Death Cab for cutie covering songs from Murmur. We spent lot of time on the beach at Cerritos. I tried my hand at the Costco long board we have been toeing around with us (minor luck). Twice we visited a beach where the fisherman would come in for the day with their catch.  To get in they had to perfectly time the waves and charge their boats at full speed beaching them on the sand. We bought yellowfin and snapper right off of the boats and had sashimi with the yellowtail. We ate a lot of Guacamole and marveled at how easily we could drain a bottle of Tequila. Devon, Vega and I slept in the upper palapa in the open air.

A highlight was a day trip to Cabo San Lucas for whale watching.  We used Cabotrek a great outfit that deserves anyones business.  Each boat is led by a biologist so information abounds, but also good practices. These guys will if necessary place their boat in the path of bigger boats just to keep them from getting to close to the whales.  Thats good for everyone. When boats get too close the whales just move along and you don’t get to see any of the behaviors you came to see in the first place.  I would highly recommend them. As the week ended it was sad to leave them at the airport, but I have a feeling they will be back soon. After dropping them off it was back to La Paz.

So, the ongoing saga of the Van continued in La Paz, but to a very satisfying end. As I recounted in the last post there were several minor repairs that came up as we were leaving the states. Even with all of that there was still a nagging issue that I could not let go of. For everything I read about the vans I believed that the temperature of ours was running very high, too high.  Each of the mechanics we visited in the states assured me that it was “within parameters” and to stop perseverating over the gauge. But I couldn’t. Even though I had no reason to assume I knew better, it still felt like there was a problem that no one seemed to want to take the time to address. I burned excessive amounts of oil and the oil would be blacker than black 500 miles after an oil change.

We dropped the van off at Geraldo VW and booked a room in a nice little hotel across the street from the shop. I asked that they inspect and repair anything that was really needed and look into my (perceived) cooling issue. As day one came and went, then day two my nature of thinking the worst was tested. 4 days after dropping off the van it was done. 

Repairs done…

  • Dropped and resealed the fuel tank
  • Replaced the power steering lines with lines that I had brought from the states (These lines apparently were not the correct fit, so instead of the typical “we’ve got to order a new part” they made it fit, they welded and created the parts they needed right there in the shop.)
  • Changed the oil
  • Tune up (plugs, wires, cap, valve adjust and air filter)
  • Flushed the cooling system. (they found a small hose that had a blockage and cleared it, fixing my cooling issue and dropping the gauge by 30% to where it normally should be! This is what had eluded every other mechanic. This also was apparently the cause of me burning so much oil and having it go black so quickly)
  • Replaced 1 rear drum and turned the other
  • 4 Wheel Alignment

I was pretty shocked when I saw the list and even more so the price $6300!!! But wait, thats in MX pesos. Again shock when I realized that all of that was $340 US! Anyone who has a VW and needs repairs should make a trip to Baja.

After getting our vehicle, we decided to kill some time before the ferry and head back north to Bahia Magdelena to see some Grey Whales. The drive was nice especially now that my temp gauge was riding just below the mid point and the camping was gorgeous, right on the beach. We did see whales but it was a bit underwhelming compared to the show we were treated to in Cabo.

It was time to head back to La Paz and take the ferry to the mainland. 

We camped for free at Tecalote beach north of La Paz past the ferry terminal. It was super windy though and sand dunes would form over anything left out for more than a few hours. We were sitting in camp as we watched another Westy roll in, with kid bikes on top to boot! Vega made a beeline to the van to meet her new friends.  Forced sociality is something Devon and I are still getting used to but it comes with traveling and even more with traveling in a Westfalia and then double that when you travel with kids.  It’s good for us and in the end it usually turns out that we meet some great folks. Mark and Jen and their girls Gabriella and Charlotte (twins) were our new camp partners for the few days that we waited for the ferry. but finally it was time to move on.

Our first choice of transport across the Sea of Cortez was TMC, due to cost and the ability to stay in our vehicle. TMC is a ferry that is normally intended for commercial use but will allow private vehicles like ours if there is space. When we went to check on getting our ticket we were told that due to the weather women and children were not allowed and they could not say when/if that restriction would be lifted. Our only other option was Baja Ferries where our vehicle would be below deck, we would have to get a cabin and Kohbi would spend the trip in a crate that we would have to supply.