In March 2004 we drove the motorhome over the border from Arizona into Mexico. We drove south down the Mex 1 to Baja South and went to see the 'friendly whales' in San Ignacio bay. We returned via Ensenada during Mardi Gras and headed north again to Lake Havasu City in Arizona. The site of the re erected London Bridge.
6th March 2004
When we last wrote we were in Quartzite in Arizona. Sadly it remained cold and dull so we decided to head south and travel into Mexico. On the way we stopped in Yuma, site of the first state prison. There was a museum and the chance to see the cells. This included an underground pit used for unruly prisoners. It sent shivers down the spine. It was very well presented and we certainly got some insight some of the characters of the wild west.
The Baja (pronounced bahar) Peninsula extends south from California with the pacific on the western side and the sea of Cortez on the Eastern side dividing Baja from mainland Mexico.
We had heard various reports of what to expect in the Baja.
‘It’s just an extension of California, not really Mexico at all’
I’ve lived in California all my life and I’ve never been there’
‘It’s too dangerous’
‘The roads are terrible’
We looked up a website that had information for R.Vs in Mexico and all in all it didn’t seem to present too much that was different from parts of Europe. They recommended campsites as boon docking (what we call wild camping) was dangerous in terms of theft. They also recommended carrying a cosh in case of trouble and always locking your vehicle. This didn’t seem any different from our experiences in Spain so we decided, on balance that we could probably cope. We also learnt from our guidebooks that Mexican law operates on the basis of guilty until proved innocent and that if you had an accident you would be thrown into jail until you had proved it wasn’t your fault. Although driving insurance isn’t actually a legal requirement it seemed wise to buy some. Everyone also advised not to drive at night as there are no street lights, no cat’s-eyes, few road markings, a non existent shoulder on the side of the road, rare crash barriers and animals wandering around. The army are able to come inside your vehicle to inspect for drugs or guns at checkpoints. We had been warned that this could be intimidating but we found them very friendly. Just nice young boys in uniform!
At one check point between North and South Baja we had the underside of the van sprayed with insecticide for 10 pesos (about a dollar). Ironically it was the only place where flies flew in!
So, the peninsula is twice the length of Italy with one road running down the middle; the Mex 1. There are many dirt tracks but only suitable for 4 wheel drive. One section of road has no fuel stations for 195 miles.
One of the objectives of our trip was to see the grey whales that travel south from Alaska for the winter. We took a trip from a place called San Ignacio because we had heard that the whales here were reputed to be friendlier. This is based on a theory that the whales at Guerrero Negro a bit further north were hunted by whaling ships until the sea was red with their blood. Subsequent generations of whales are supposed to ‘remember’ and as they return back to the same place each year it has been passed down, a kind of whale mythology. We thought this was a nice idea, however, if they were that bright surely they would have told each other and all gone to the safe waters at San Ignacio where the whalers couldn’t get in due to the shallow waters.
It was a two hour drive along a dirt track to the lagoon where the whales were and then a further half an hour on a small wooden boat with an outboard. It was incredible. We saw at least 20 whales in total, all mothers swimming with their babies. After they give birth they stay with the youngsters to teach them how to swim. They came really close to the boat, even swimming underneath and then looking up at us through the water. The mothers also raised their heads out of the water to look at us in the boat. Sometimes they come up next to the boat if they want to be touched but unfortunately this didn’t happen to us. Nevertheless it was a great experience to see them so close, trusting humans in small boats.
The village of San Ignacio, about 39 miles inland from the whales, was a very pleasant oasis in the desert. The Spanish bought dates with them in their exploring days and they had taken well to their new life in San Ignacio. The village was tiny, mainly situated around a central square with an old Spanish mission.
After a couple of nights in San Ignacio we headed south to a small town called Santa Rosalia. This came complete with a church designed by Eiffel. (Yes, the same one) It is a prefabricated building (Mike was delighted) that Eiffel had designed for the same Paris exhibition as the Eiffel Tower. After the exhibition it was packed away and placed in storage. A town dignitary in Santa Rosalia heard about it and thinking this to be a bit of a waste he purchased it and had it shipped over. It has stood the test of time well.
The Mex 1 then took us past Mulege (Moolahay) and on to the Bahia de Conception. This was the section we had heard likened to paradise. We certainly agreed. We stayed for 4 nights on a beach which is reputed to be in the world’s top 5. It consisted of a spit of sand with a small bay each side running out to a small island, only accessible at low tide. There were no facilities there at all apart from a pit toilet complete with what looked like a cockroach nest on the ceiling!
I could have stayed there a lot longer but we ran out of water and supplies, which were about 33 miles up the road. One couple wintering down there to escape the harsh Canadian winter treated us to roast beef and Yorkshire puddings cooked in their outdoor oven. Rob was actually originally from Little Downham in Cambridgeshire-practically a neighbour! Rob and Judy took us clamming on the next beach. I have never done this before. What we did was scraped the sand with our fingers until we felt their shells about 2 inches under the surface. In half an hour 6 of us collected 2 whole buckets full. I really enjoyed foraging for fresh food in the wild. It felt like ‘Laurie Lee by the sea’. The next evening Rob boiled them and Judy made a delicious butter dip. We had a huge fire. It was an excellent way to spend our last evening.
Now I am mindful that we have gathered an extensive American readership and I don’t wish to cause offence-however ‘only in America’, applies here. We have heard that some Americans appear to feel unsafe when they leave America. Companies take up to 20 vehicles to the Baja in an escorted caravan. They travel in a long line, sticking together for safety. There is a wagon master at the head and another one bringing up the rear. Apparently on some tours they get fined for not wearing their name badges. Mike was asked if we were with wagon train one or two by one traveller. He explained that we were travelling independently, ‘Gee, you are SO brave. We’re going to do that in 3 or 4 years time when we’ve plucked up the courage’. We walked into a restaurant on a campsite and they were all dining together, singing songs and rhythmically banging their spoons on the table. In the morning we watched as they had a group meeting with their wagon master. They were then helped to pull out onto the main road by another wagon master with a walkie talkie. Every time we saw a wagon train on the road Mike would shout ‘Wagons Roll!!’ delightedly at the top of his voice. Imagine how the poor locals must feel; overtaking becomes a nightmare and they can drain a fuel station dry. I’m sure the local economy benefits though.
Before leaving the Baja we stopped off in a town called Ensenada. Our arrival coincided with Mardi Gras. Wondering why the roads were cordoned off we walked into the carnival parade, headed up by a dancing horse! The atmosphere was great; there was a fair, street stalls and lots of people. The next morning we went for a run along the promenade and were treated to some sea lions in the harbour putting on a performance for the passers by. They were lying on their backs showing off waving their flippers in the air and making lots of noise-they must have picked up some of the Mardi Gras spirit.
So having survived the Baja intact we drove back north into Arizona and Lake Havasu City. Across the border US immigration completed the documentation to extend our visit for a further 6 months. Unfortunately their HUGE Alsatian sniffer dog left ENORMOUS black greasy paw prints all over our carpet and cream upholstery. We were angry and upset and didn’t notice until we were too many miles away to complain. A different standard of treatment to those nice young boys in Mexico.
Anyway, Lake Havasu City is where London Bridge was purchased by a local real estate developer in the early seventies, shipped across and re erected in the middle of the desert. We thought it was an absolutely wonderful eccentric idea that must generate a fortune for tourism and his business. There was a London Tavern, the odd red telephone box and post box to match. It was quite surreal and really well done.