Our Baja California adventure started off innocently enough. We crossed the border into Mexico in the morning without a hiccup and drove for a few hours, then turned off the only main road, the Mex 1, and onto our first dirt road. We drove slowly through a small town, then along the coast for several miles to a lovely isolated beach overlook at Punta Cabras. The typical afternoon wind was blowing strong, but it didn’t deter our excitement at finally setting up camp in Baja. The van is so great to travel and live in, setting up camp really only requires finding a relatively flat place to park and voila! Given the conditions we could also pop the top and roll out the awning, but both of those steps only takes a few minutes. To celebrate the launch of our journey and our first border crossing we popped open a bottle of champagne given to us for the occasion by Emily’s sister.
This was a good place to test out our new longboard, which looks like a giant banana. The waves were a bit intimidating for Emily, who is just learning to surf, but Tim was able to catch some good rides while Hobie whined nervously. True to his herding instinct Hobie prefers to keep our little pack together and gets nervous when it appears that one of us is in danger, such as in the ocean. He’ll learn quickly that we’re ok, and that we’ll always come back to him, but for now when we both go surfing he runs up and down the beach and howls.
On the evening of our second day at Punta Cabras our peace and quiet was disturbed when a large van towing a trailer pulled up right next to us and about twelve members of a Mexican family piled out. The bluff was large and flat with plenty of great places to camp, but for some reason they decided to set up a compound about twenty feet from us. It must have been the irresistible lure of Chimera that drew them in, that happens to most people. We were entertained by people watching at first – the macho men taking turns riding a dirt bike with no helmet and evidently little to no experience, the women unloading garbage bags full of who-knows-what, probably clothes, several people working together to set up a sort of tent shelter against the wind, and the young woman who looked completely out of place in her high-heeled red leather knee-high boots standing awkwardly in the dust. We quickly realized that we should probably move, not just because they were loud, but because they might actually be a danger to us – they started grilling on a wobbly grill directly upwind, which meant that the embers were blowing onto the van. When we noticed that they were setting up another structure that appeared to be a bathroom tent of sorts, right there on the dirt bluff, we loaded up Hobie and found a new spot to camp further down the beach.
The next day we headed back to the Mex 1 and drove a few more hours further south. We filled up our gas tank, plus one jerry can of water and one of fuel in Santa Rosario, which is where the Mex 1 heads away from the coast and goes down the middle of the peninsula. A little further down the road we turned off of the smooth pavement and into the beginning of a grand adventure. We planned on driving the 40 or so miles out to the coast, hoping to find good surf at Punta Canoas, and from there who knows. Those first 40 miles were pleasant. It was all dirt roads, but mostly well-graded, with few large rocks and almost no washboards. We traveled through beautiful valleys full of a multitude of cacti and the wacky Boojum trees, many of which were in bloom.
Despite the relatively good condition of the road, the going was slow, and we started to get concerned about the stability of the roof rack. The Yakima towers on the rear rack were starting the sway quite a bit under the weight of our storage boxes and the more bumpy road we went down the more they wobbled, potentially stripping out their mounting bolts. After a few hours we reached Punta Canoas in waning daylight, only to find ourselves at the end of the road on a massive cliff with the wind howling. The only way we could see to get down to the beach was blocked by a rope near a house. Grumpy and tired, we turned around and took a side road headed south. Before long we found ourselves in a lovely little bay near the small fishing village of Puerto Canoas, which was really just a collection of derelict RVs and shacks. We found a great location right next to the beach and were treated to a lovely sunset.
In the morning we discovered that the bay provided some protection from the wind and small, well-organized waves, perfect for Emily to learn. After only a few minutes on Mr. Banana Emily caught her first good waves. We decided to spend the day at Puerto Canoas to surf, assess the condition of the roof rack, and plan our next move. It turns out that the bolts on the Yakima towers had just loosened up, no damage done, but to be safe we traveled the rest of the rough roads with the roof boxes inside the van in order to relieve the pressure on the roof racks.
Now we had a decision to make. We knew that there were no gas stations along the Mex 1 for at least 100 miles further south and we were now about 50 miles from the highway. We could either retrace our steps all the way back to Santa Rosario to refill our gas tank, or we could head off into the wilderness on the dirt road toward Punta Blanca and hope we made it back to civilization before we ran out of gas. With our one full jerry can we estimated that we had a range of at least 200 miles, which was more than enough to make it the next gas symbol on the map. However, we didn’t know if the road down the coast was passable, and if we made it a ways down the road before we had to turn back then we wouldn’t have enough gas left to make it back to Santa Rosario. We studied the dotted lines on our map, tried to calculate mileage, and pondered the condition of the roads. Then we opted for the third possibility and drove over to the fishing village. Through our meager Spanish we asked about the condition of the roads to Punta Blanca, to which the fishermen responded positively, pointing to the van and nodding, although Tim was pretty sure he heard something about a river. Then we asked about buying some gas to fill our second jerry can and at first they were reluctant, but when we offered a very generous price one of the fishermen became quite willing and helpful and proceeded to mouth-siphon gas from a large barrel into our jerry can. With that our decision was made, it was off into the unknown!
The first 20 miles or so of the road south was well-graded and easy, with only a few steep sections where we had to use the granny gear. Then we arrived in the tiny fishing village of San Jose del Faro and that’s where the real adventure began. When we rounded a corner and came into the village we saw that the road ended on a beach, or so we thought. So we assumed that we had missed a turn and went back to find it, but there were no obvious turns or side roads. So we went back and asked some of the fishermen. They pointed to the beach and then to a shed on the other side and said something about a river. Hmmm. So we drove down onto the beach, which turned out to be totally solid, and up the bank on the other side and then turned right at the fork, toward the shed. We drove through a few more houses, noticed an old Vanagon half hidden under a tarp (hello friend!), and then took the only obvious road heading out of the village. However, we only went a few hundred meters before we came to two washouts in the road with large rocks, where we heard our first awful scraping of Chimera’s belly. Looking up the steep hill we saw that the rest of the road was just as bad. We decided to get out and walk a bit, only to discover that the road further on was gnarly. Assuming that we must have taken the wrong turn we carefully turned around and headed back past the Vanagon and the shed to the fork and went the other direction. This road seemed much better, for about a quarter mile that is…then, sure enough, the river. The road ran between the water and a cliff and got narrower and narrower until the left side was underwater and then for about 30 feet the whole road was submerged. There was no chance we were going to attempt to cross. Here’s a little video that Emily took of the road, you can just see the water covering it right at the end:
So we turned around again and headed back past the shed and the Vanagon, where this time we saw a guy sitting nearby with his dog. We stopped and asked him for the road to Punta Blanca and whether there was a better way. He pointed to the rough road up the hill and seemed to think it was just fine and said something about the road being good on the beaches. We collected our nerves and I hung onto the “Oh Sh*t!” handle while Tim bravely maneuvered across the washouts, over the rocks and up the hill, with only a few awful scraping and grinding noises along the way. Just over the hill and around the bend we came to another fork in the road. At this point our map was of no use to us as we clearly were no longer on the only dotted line in the area, and the detail was poor to begin with. So we chose to turn right, thinking the quality of the road looked marginally better and it seemed somewhat better traveled. Well, we chose wrong. Less than a mile further on we came to the end of the world. The road dropped down a steep hillside, which on its own would have been doable, but it was covered with medium-sized round rocks, the kind that makes a van start sliding and then tip over and roll down the hill. We walked all the way down and up the other side of the canyon, which was just as steep, before we decided that there was no way we were even going to attempt it. So once again we turned around. By this time it was nearly dark so we set up camp right there on the top of the hill, in the howling wind, dusty and tired. Before the sun set, however, we noticed another road crossing a hill not too far away and we decided that in the morning we would try to find that one and if we couldn’t then it was time to turn all the way back towards Punta Canoas and Santa Rosario.
The morning brought renewed optimism and before long we were back at the last fork in the road and headed the other way. The road was rough, but soon enough we were climbing the hill on the section we had seen the night before and we were hopeful again that we could reach Punta Blanca.
We learned quickly to stop every time we saw a particularly rough section, or an option of various tracks to follow, and walk them to plan the best route and move any particularly rough rocks out of the way. This made the going very slow, but we were in no hurry, we had plenty of gas, food and water, and with the solar panels humming away we always have plenty of electricity, so we took our time. This eased the stress quite a bit, and before long we had made it 16 miles from the small fishing village where the road degraded (which took a few hours) to a gorgeous little beach with gently rolling waves. It was only midday but we decided to stop and camp there. It turns out that the little bay had some good gentle waves rolling in, which provided a good opportunity for Emily to surf.
Over the next few days we very slowly made our way south along the gnarly road, in four-wheel drive the whole way, usually driving only in first gear, and frequently in granny gear. We went up and down steep embankments, over rocks of every type – gravel, sharp and large ones, round and rolling ones, boulders, and pebbles, through “moondust” that wrapped the van in a thick cloud and poured down the windows like liquid, balanced on the mud ridges left across deep tracks, on steep angles on the side of the road where it was too rough to go through, straight over the bushes and cacti where the road was impassible, through deep grass, mud, and sand. We were very thankful that there hadn’t been any rain for quite a while or else there would have been no way we could have made it through many of the washouts.
Only once did we get stuck. We attempted to cross what looked like a dried-out wetland. As it turned out, there was a dark, sticky mud that lurked just beneath the sandy surface and sucked us in. But we were prepared for just such a circumstance and quickly extracted the wheels with the use of the shovel and sand ladders.
Along the way we saw some spectacular vistas – isolated beaches with beautiful waves, huge points and little coves, small canyons with interesting rock outcroppings, blooming cacti and agave, and endless birds – pelicans, osprey, great blue herons, terns, vultures, gulls, and many more.
Chimera was amazing on the back roads. In four-wheel drive she could climb up, down, and around anything the road threw at us, however, we were limited by her clearance. Weighed down with all of our gear, water, and fuel there isn’t much room under the van, so we frequently scraped over rocks, which caused horrible grinding, crunching, banging sounds. We quickly got used to those noises. Tim had planned well for just such a road by installing custom skid rails (thanks Blake!) to protect the delicate underbelly of the beast. So all of the awful noises we heard we just banging and scraping on the armor, no harm done.
About 75 miles south of Puerto Canoas we made it to a maintained road, well graded gravel at last! However, in some ways this made the driving even worse. We no longer had to worry about whether there was an impassible obstacle around the next bend, but now we had to deal with endless washboards, which rocked and shook the van, as if trying to pry every bolt loose. From reading other travelers’ blogs we’ve learned that washboards are just a part of life in Latin America, so we’ll have to learn to make peace with them. Not long after making it onto the “nice” road we found a perfect little cove to duck into for a few days – our prize for making it all the way down the coast on the back roads. We camped next to a little point called either Punta El Diablo or El Cardon, depending on who you ask. It was clearly a popular camp spot, with several well-established fire rings and camping areas, but we were lucky to have it all to ourselves and camped right on the beach.
From El Diablo we continued down the coastline along all of the well-known surf points to Punta Rosarito, also known as The Wall. On this broad point the wind blows almost constantly, so campers and surfer have built many rock walls and other structures as wind blocks. Someone, or more likely many people, have invested an amazing amount of time with the rock art at The Wall, from rock mosaics to rock paintings to a very impressive arch.
As we pulled into our chosen campsite we heard an unpleasant grinding sound coming from one of the rear wheels, uh oh. After all that we had put Chimera through in the past week we certainly weren’t surprised that there was some mechanical issue, we just hoped it was easily fixable as we were still quite remote. So we got to work jacking up the van, removing the wheel, then the stub axel and drum brake, and after finding nothing wrong, putting it all back together again. It seems it was only a slightly bent brake guard plate, likely from a thrown rock, and nothing to be concerned about.
We certainly jumped right into the deep end on our adventures in Baja California Norte. This forced us to adapt quickly to van life and learn the tricks to rough roads. It also significantly built up our confidence in the van. After 165 miles on dirt roads, much of it extremely rough, Chimera was still running like a champ. What a great van!
We are now in Guerrero Negro, just across the border into Baja California Sur, enjoying our first internet and showers since we left the US. We restocked our food, water, and fuel and are ready to head out on new roads and new adventures!