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Devil of a ride

17 Nov

PD, Zacatecas, Mexico

If you’ve ever travelled to high places with someone who has vertigo, you’ll know it’s not exactly a relaxing experience, for either party. But sometimes it just has to be done.

J has the proper spinny-head fall-to-the-ground vertigo when faced with extreme heights. But he loves mountains too. Like watching a horror movie, he really really wants to see these amazing high places in the world, but they often have to be viewed through the slats of his sweaty fingers.

Devil's Backbone, Mexico

If the road has the word 'devil' in it, take the hint.

And so it was as we drove over the Sierra Madre Occidental mountains from Mazatlan to Durango. Four hours of hairpin bends, culminating in a section of road named the Devil’s Backbone. I don’t think any further explanation is required. It was both stunning and scary, and I was required to do all the driving. When we reached the ‘spine’ the clouds hung in the canyon below us – it was definitely an unmissable sight.

Several incidents en route delayed the journey. These included a few baffled circuits around Mazatlan and the highway coming to an inexplicable and sudden dead end at one point – one more u-turn for the list! We also had to pay an unexpected visit to a mountain village mechanic (check engine light, again) who stared blankly at the engine for 45 minutes before we gave up and drove off, crossing our fingers. About an hour later the light went out of its own accord…

All this ensured we arrived in Durango in the pitch black, breaking our rule of not driving in the dark. We got horribly lost and ended up driving through the town square in the middle of a fiesta. Even at the time we saw the funny side. But when we discovered our destination had had a name change and no longer allowed motorhome camping, we were less amused.

It was refreshing to move inland and upwards to slightly cooler climes, and we wandered Durango’s beautiful colonial streets in jeans and jumpers that hadn’t seen daylight for a while.

Since our last post we have waved bye-bye to Baja. The day before our ferry to the mainland we collected the van from the mechanic’s and, my, how we’d grown! The suspension had been lifted and new chunkier all-terrain tyres added, giving us another 4 inches in clearance from the ground. Who knew tyres and springs could be so very exciting? Rogelio Vazquez Castillo, of Geraldo’s VWs in La Paz, has been elevated to hero status in our house now. Thanks Rogelio, you are a VW genius.

Leaving La Paz, Baja, for Mazatlan on the ferry

We left a stunning Baja sunset behind as the overnight ferry departed

And while we’re on the Oscar-style teary thanks, let us reiterate our deep gratitude to fellow campers Bud and Joan Winters, from Canada, who led us to Rogelio, drove us there and back, fed us with soup and gave us numerous little gifts to help us on our way. Thanks again and happy travels.

After J navigated the van into a postage-stamp sized space at the end of a terrifyingly long and steep ramp into the bowels of the ferry, we set off from Baja amid a spectacular sunset and arrived in Mazatlan the next morning. Our very nice campsite there was full of Canadians spending the winter in the sun. Is there anyone actually left in Alberta?

Our journeys of late have given us the opportunity to taste some new local dishes. We see lots of signs advertising ‘birria’ but never got round to finding out what it was – other than looking in the dictionary, which says it means ‘rubbish’. Hm, sounds like a tasty snack. So we stopped at brunch-time in a village en route to Durango and plonked ourselves in a birrieria.

We asked, rather obviously, ‘what do you have?’. He said ‘birria – do you want two?’. ‘Yes please, and some coffee’, we said. The birria – a meat stew served with onions, lime and coriander – was a welcome sight, even at 10.30am. The coffee was more alarming. We received a large cup of hot pink water, and a jar of Nescafe. I looked down at the water and asked ‘what is this? Agua rojo?’. Neither of us understood the explanation though. J thought he said it was good for the circulation, while I just assumed he was saying ‘we put that pink stuff in there to cover up the taste/smell/rankness’. We drank it, and three days later we are still alive.

Gorditas (a little filled masa cake, like a pitta pocket) – which are everywhere here – are another newbie on the block for us. We’re working our way through the various fillings, such as tongue, pork rind, cactus leaves and peppers with cheese, mostly served with a liberal dose of hot chillies. Ouch. Yum.

And now we find ourselves in the stunning old silver-mining city of Zacatecas. We are ‘camped’ in a hillside hotel car park which overlooks the city.

Wandering around Zacatecas reminded me of my first visit to Brugge. Every corner you turn offers a gorgeous scene – beautiful colourful architecture, incredible cathedrals, pretty squares, hilltop views and lovely restaurants. It’s all ‘wow!’ and ‘look at that!’ until you run out of exclamation marks and have to sit on a bench to recover.

So all I can say is “Zacatecas, wow”.

Days: 45
Miles: 2253.9
Things we now know to be true: If you’re going to ask why the water is pink, you better know enough Spanish to understand the answer.

Tails of the unexpected

8 Nov

JD, La Paz, Baja California, Mexico

I’m generally with Billy Connolly when it comes to the sea – if we were meant to go in it they wouldn’t have filled it with so many things that bite and sting and nip.

But a day’s snorkelling at Cabo Pulmo has changed all that – although the last words I heard before plunging in to the depths was “this is where I saw a grouper the size of a man”. Gulp!

Calm, beautiful clear waters above Baja’s only coral reef, amazing colourful fish, including a shoal of thousands and, to top it all, a colony of sea lions that swam below and around us. It was a magical experience finished off with a couple beers and some seafood tacos overlooking the bay.

The coastal drive to Cabo Pulmo was an experience in itself – 30 miles of washboard road and pot-holes, with the occasional sand trap. Apart from banging the propane tank off the odd rock and unnecessary speed bump the only casualty was a hub cap which we spied rolling down the road, retrieved and secured back in place.

Kitesurfers, La Ventana

Kitesurfing - looks great from here, but no thanks.

Completing the southern loop of Baja Sur we visited (and camped on) the beaches of Los Frailes, Los Barriles and La Ventana where, as the name suggests, it’s pretty windy – and a major centre for kiteboarding and windsurfing. Snorkelling was dangerous enough for me, so the idea of being blown through the air whilst strapped to a kite, suspended above the sea or crashing through the waves is a step too far. But it’s amazing fun to watch….

The state of some of the roads and the fact that we seem to enjoy heading for ever more remote beaches and villages has convinced us we need to get the van’s suspension raised if we are to avoid doing it permanent damage. So we’ve tracked down a highly recommended VW mechanic who is busy working on the van as I write. By the time we pick it up this evening it should be four inches higher.

So in the meantime we’re busy practising our Spanish… something we need to do more of after, well, let’s just call it ‘fishgate’. Misunderstandings are common when you travel. Even as as a four-year-old I recall my dad marching into a chemist and confidently asking for a shampoo for his horse… sadly the words for horse and hair are very similar in French.


Mmm.. barbequed fish for dinner.

There’s already been many a time when meaning to say ‘I don’t understand’ we’ve told someone they don’t understand. And I did ask a policeman if there was a bench in the town instead of a bank.

So what of ‘fishgate’? I still maintain it wasn’t our fault. We’ve been buying whole fish (pescado entero) to BBQ regularly. Only last night entero not only meant with head and tail, but guts too. It was a messy business.

And so to avoid similar mishaps in future we turned to the dictionary. But all I can say now is “I am gutted”. I was… but it shows why more practise is necessary.

Baja Sur: Click here for the latest pics

Days: 36
Miles: 1,792.5
Things we now know to be true: Sometimes whole really does mean whole.

Another crappy week in paradise

29 Oct

PD, Cabo San Lucas, Baja California, Mexico

A friend emailed us this week and expressed astonishment at our mechanical knowledge. Now, I don’t know what blog they’ve been reading but they perhaps got the URL a bit mixed up and typed in

But we are learning, and what we lack in technical know-how we try to make up for in common sense. So we know when that ‘check engine’ light comes on, then you have to stop and go to a guy who knows how to check the engine. We turned back from our planned 350km journey to the state capital La Paz on Sunday, and waited til Monday for a mechanic to tell us, thankfully, it was nothing serious. (catalytic converter, um, something to do with the different fuel here. Look, I wouldn’t want to baffle you with the details…)

Surfers, Playa Los Cerritos

Boondocking and bodyboarding, Playa Los Cerritos

My dad, who provided a stream of advice, lists and tips when he and mum came to California to help us choose the campervan, will be delighted we took the cautious route. A story he had told us kept ringing in my ears. It was about “someone they know” whose campervan engine caught fire “because they ignored all the warning signs Paula!”

One guy we met that day said to us: ‘oh, that check engine light is so annoying, I’ve worked out how to switch mine off’. We’ll never be that blasé – not when this camper is our home, our wheels and pretty much the only thing we actually own.

La Paz, when we got there, was a beautiful city with one of the most picturesque seafronts imaginable – palm trees lining the immaculate malecon and a tiny pristine beach that provided a decent backdrop to a lunch of octopus cocktail and shrimp tacos the day after we arrived.

Cat in a pram

At our campsite we encountered yet more generosity from our north American cousins. Canadians Bud and Joan had looked at our Flickr page, seen photographic evidence of the camping toaster we were using, and immediately came over with a superior version made by Bud’s own fair hand. With decades of camping experience behind them we do not doubt their toaster will get the job done – thank you.

While there we also met the first travellers we have seen who are also heading to Argentina in their campervan. Until then all the other foreigners we had met here were on holiday from the US/Canada, or spending the winter in Baja.

Now, I must stress that the vast majority of those people have been lovely, sane, and unbelievably friendly. And we don’t wish to use this blog to keep deriding people from the US. It’s just that the minority of really crazy ones we do meet are so hilariously off the wall that it’s hard not to mention it. This week alone there was the trailer park full of old soaks, fugitives and a couple who kept their cat in a baby’s pram, to the guy who was convinced – and he had been round the world with the US Navy, so he knew – that Argentina, Australia and New Zealand were all “owned” by Britain. It all got rather confused, but I tried to politely explain the situation in each case.

Dia de los muertos is coming - Todos Santos

"Has Paula stopped going on about the dog shit yet?"

He wasn’t having it. Re Australia he said: “But you British are citizens of Australia, I thought you were all just one big country.” I explained again that Australia, like the US, had gained independence. He thought about it and (honestly) declared: “Well, I’ll be darned.” Funnily enough we’d just been reading about the Scottish independence referendum on the BBC that day. J gave me a look that said: “Don’t you dare start trying to explain that…”

Just 26 days on the road and we’ve hit rock bottom – the southern tip of Baja California, that is. Cabo San Lucas is the Benidorm of Baja. We have gone from isolation and solitude to the land of cruise ships, high rises and shopping malls. Today we shall visit Land’s End, the tip of the peninsula, and then eventually loop back up to La Paz to take the ferry to the mainland.

But Cabo is not typical. Our journey back to La Paz should take us to yet more spectacular and barely developed beaches – the major selling point of this peninsula. The night before last we boondocked for the first time, by a surfers’ beach on the Pacific coast. After breakfast we rented bodyboards and spent an hour flying across – and, not infrequently, tumbling into – the waves. Superb.

I know this has been a lengthy post but I’d just like to mention one other thing. It’s about a floor mat we have that was provided with the van. Granted, it’s quite a dull subject, but do read on! I have a love-hate relationship with this heavy dirt-collecting mat, but this week it redeemed itself. One night we came home in the dark, someone had let their dog shit outside our van, and one of us (J) trailed a big chunk of it inside. Bad in any situation, catastrophic in a confined space. Out went the whole mat (and J) and, hey presto, clean floor underneath.

See – you thought we were getting away from all the trials and tribulations of suburban life, but no. No matter where you are in the world, there is still plenty of bitching to be done about dog crap.

Days: 26
Miles: 1,402.7
People who are now off the Christmas card list: Anyone who thinks it’s okay to let their dog shit outside our van.

Surfing the (short) waves

22 Oct

You can keep your iPod touch, your Spotify or digital downloads, for we have discovered the beauty of shortwave radio.

Ok, admittedly you have to stand on top of the van, contorted in a grotesque manner holding the aerial towards some mythical point in the sky and turn slowly in time with the rotation of the earth to gain entry to this mysterious world. You need the hearing of a dog to make out real words amongst the hiss and crackle but, oh, when you get all the elements aligned what awaits you has to be heard to be believed.

Camping at Bahia de Concepcion

Still not bored of the beach yet, Bahia de Concepcion

Thanks to the cuts you can’t get the BBC, and it’s not the latest mariachi bands or club remixes of Mariah Carey’s back catalogue which have drawn us in but – and there’s no kind way to say this – the crazy people who apparently are allowed to broadcast from the US, presumably as part of their rehabilitation.

We have learned so much from them. We now know, thanks to the plethora of creationist radio shows, that “iPhones don’t come from no slimeball”. Apparently those who believe in evolution think they do.

We know that Barack Obama is a communist and, from one caller, that he goes in to patriotic Americans’ homes and steals money from their wallets. It’s not a metaphor, he’s actually seen it happen! And, if you hadn’t heard already, Idaho is being run by the Chinese Communist Party.

Mision de Nuestra Senora de Loreto

But there's culture too - Mision de Nuestra Senora de Loreto

From the survivalist stations, we learned that we need to be stockpiling guns and ammo and food and many other things because we have enemies out there and they are coming to get us.. oh and so much more.

In the past few days we’ve enjoyed such gems while camping at Playa Los Cocos on the gorgeous Bahia de Concepcion. We kayaked to a remote island (thanks Joe and Carol for the kayak), swam in the crystal clear waters, visited Mulege and its picturesque Jesuit mission and drove the winding but beautiful coastal road to Loreto where the lovely historic town is preparing to celebrate the 314th anniversary of its founding. Let the party begin…

JD, Loreto, Baja California, Mexico

Days: 19
Miles: 989.6
Things we now know to be true: When you pee in the sea jellyfish come over and sting your bum.

The kindness of strangers

17 Oct

We promised to ourselves that the blog couldn’t solely become a platform for showing off about stuff. But there are certain pinch-yourself moments you just can’t not mention. Take the other day. I got up for a pee as the sun was rising and there were dolphins leaping about in the fiery red bay in front of the van. I rubbed my eyes and they were still there.

Sunrise, Bahia de Los Angeles, Baja California

Sunrise, Bahia de Los Angeles, Baja California

A couple of days later I was standing in the water, gazing at the stingrays around my feet, when a dolphin leapt out of the water about 30ft in front of me. I kept asking J: “Did you SEE that dolphin?” (he had, he confirmed repeatedly), because I started to wonder if I was just making it all up in my head. Nope, it’s really happening.

We’ve spent much of the last week camping on beaches, and while it is still obvious that Baja’s tourism numbers have plummeted, we have encountered a few more people than we did in the initial few days.

Our fellow campers have proved to be kind and generous. Perhaps we look like malnourished mature students (not likely after six weeks of eating gargantuan portions of steaks and ribs in the US), because many of them have been moved to giving us food parcels when they leave.

Bob and Gail from Twentynine Palms, in California, kindly handed over a sack of potatoes and garlic the night before they headed back to the US, following five months on the road. They took off early the next morning and when we woke up we found a bag containing two fat juicy steaks on our table outside. So if you are ever, by chance, reading this blog Bob and Gail, muchas gracias. We fried them up with some eggs for breakfast and they were bloody lovely.

We had to fib about the veggies we were carrying when we crossed the military checkpoint at the ‘border’ between Baja California Norte and Baja California Sur. So seriously do they take this state divide that a symbolic puff of disinfectant is deposited on the underside of your vehicle as you cross.

Playa La Gringa, Bahia de Los Angeles, Baja California

Not a bad wee camping pitch, Playa La Gringa, Bahia de Los Angeles

We ended the week with a wedding anniversary treat – a couple of days in the beautiful desert oasis town of San Ignacio. We lounged in the square by the church, then had a late lunch and a couple or three cheeky beers. It was an intimate affair. Just me, J, and most of the village’s old boozers, who had gathered at the other end of the terrace. They were all set for a raucous afternoon – a little mound of salt, a pile of limes and enough tequila to sink a few marriages.

Part two of the splurge was two nights in a hotel. Aaah! Although we haven’t hankered after it half as much as we thought we might, it was lovely to have a bed big enough for two people, running hot water and constant electricity with which to charge our many appliances.

We have power sockets in the van but have to be careful, when we’re not on the move much, not to leech the engine or auxiliary battery of power. We discovered this to our cost this week when we, er, leeched the engine battery of power during a couple of static days on the beach. Got all packed up to leave on the morning of our departure. Ran through the checklist – propane off, check; nothing leaking, tick; pop-top locked, brilliant. Start engine. Click-click-click-click. Bollocks.

But the kindness of strangers was evident again when a lovely Canadian man with a huge truck came to the rescue. Luckily he knew how to work our jump leads. And now we do too.

Click here for pics of Baja California Norte

PD, Mulege, Baja California, Mexico

Days: 13
Miles: 874.5
Current average number of tortillas consumed per day: 572 (approx)

There are no kangaroos in England

10 Oct

We’re camped on the shores of the beautiful Bahia de Los Angeles, a stunning deep blue bay surrounded on three sides by arid desert mountains.

Jeremy at beach near San Quentin

Empty beach means all the more space for star jumps

It’s a week since we crossed in to Mexico. Over the 500-plus miles we’ve covered since then we’ve traversed the peninsula – via the stark and atmospheric desertio central, with its forests of boojum trees and cadron cacti – from the blowhole and dolphins at La Bufadora and the surf beaches of the Pacific, to the calmer aquamarine waters of the Sea of Cortez.

Along the way we’ve camped on the beach, in a car park and at an abandoned tourist resort in Puerto Santo Tomas, a small fishing village at the end – literally – of a 16-mile dirt road. Our pledge not to drive ‘off-road’ lasted a full 24 hours… and provided a hair-raising introduction for me to driving in Mexico. It was that or yet another U-turn. We’re getting good at them! We suffered our first loss during that rickety journey – the cap on the all-important external propane tank – but hey, didn’t we buy those food bags for the emergency vehicle repairs?

Puerto Santo Tomas is exactly the kind of place we have always missed out on seeing in the past, when travelling only by local bus. Having our own vehicle has also allowed us to get to some of the harder-to-reach places or just stop off to walk, look, eat and experience things along the route between two destinations.

And the overwhelming sense we’ve had during the first week is of a tourist industry in crisis. The resort at Puerto Santo Tomas is not the only deserted one we have seen. RV parks, hotels and many other places have shut up shop, slashed prices or have an air of abandonment. It is eerie to walk into a derelict museum in the middle of the desert with doors banging in the wind.

Desert, Baja California

Okay I suppose we expected the desert to be deserted

It is tragic to see the impact of the economic crisis on this beautiful region – so much for the much-vaunted free trade agreements! We may only be 500 miles from the manicured ‘burbs of Los Angeles but it’s a world away.

Talking to locals and long-term residents from the US, they cite a combination of 9/11, recession and security concerns as the cause of an exodus of American tourists – the former mainstay of many local industries.

Many of those who remain are long-termers who have been living in Baja for 10 or 20 years or, as one old boy told us, been coming since the early 50s.

In one place with a functioning bar, it was lively with long-termers who lined up the brandys during happy hour from 4-5pm. They were a hardy bunch – funny, crude, with a hint of redneck about them and generous with a beer! And despite the fact they live ‘abroad’ some lacked a sense of the wider world – perhaps best summed up by the larger-than-life Gerry asking us, upon hearing that we had come from London, if kangaroos really did hop across the road in our country.

JD, Bahia de Los Angeles, Baja California, Mexico

Days: 7
Miles: 509.9
Number of repairs to van successfully executed with a plastic bag and three elastic bands: 1

Bienvenidos a Mexico – twice

5 Oct

After all the daydreaming, saving and wondering; months of researching, planning and packing, we are here. In Mexico. The road trip starts now and – if all goes to plan – ends in Argentina.

Final preps, San Ysidro, USA

Final preparations the day before departure, San Ysidro, USA

We’ve spent our first night camping right on the Pacific Ocean about 80 miles south of the US-Mexico border – near Bufadora in northern Baja California.

Keen to navigate the world’s busiest border crossing without too many hitches, we got up at 5am on Tuesday and set off clutching all our paperwork.

It wasn’t the most dignified of beginnings. We crossed the border into Tijuana – twice! It will be the first of many cock-ups. With so much new paperwork to focus on for our campervan, we passed the brief customs search and headed directly to the vehicle permit office – sailing straight past immigration and entering Mexico without the necessary tourist visa. Bugger.

Realising our mistake, we backtracked and ended up going right round the city, took a wrong turn and went back out of Mexico, then in again! If nothing else it will have provided an amusing tale for the baffled US immigration border guard. “Yes officer I know it appears we are trying to drive into the US, but in fact we are just looking for somewhere to do a u-turn so we can go to Mexico, from whence we came just moments ago…”

Those kooky Brits!

Paula gets the giggles, Mexico

Border angst + celebratory afternoon beer = slight hysteria.

Turns out there would have been a much simpler solution to our dilemma – ah, we shall become very close friends with Mr Hindsight during this trip.

Some people might remember waving us off 3 months ago, and yet the road trip proper is only just beginning. What have we been doing since then?

We spent a month in Costa Rica for some R&R after leaving London, then flew to the US to buy a campervan, equip it and test it out. While that process was going on, along with all the bureaucracy required for registering and insuring the vehicle, we spent 6 weeks enjoying the sights of California and saw some amazing (and plenty of weird ‘it could only happen in America’) stuff (see pics here).

By the time we left, however, we had had quite enough of visiting auto shops for obscure VW spare parts.

So enthused were we about final entering Mexico, we decided to do it twice.

– PD, Punta Banda, Baja California, Mexico

Days: 1

Miles: 81.6

Wrong turnings: 1 significant one