I love the Lyle Lovett song, "The Road to Ensenada," and I love the road itself (click on that link to hear the song, it really is a lovely tune). While the rutted, poorly maintained, pothole pocked road of my youth is still there, these days we don't like to live such a harsh life.
That's why we'll pay the 6 or 7 dollars it takes for the smooth, well maintained, and fast toll road from the beaches of Tijuana to the outskirts of Ensenada, a little more than an hour south.
Only this time, we're not stopping in Ensenada. Today, for the first time, we're venturing beyond into unknown territory as we head another three hours south, looking for the twin towns of Vincente Guerrero and San Quintin.
First, we must arrange the proper paperwork. When you cross the border into Mexico, there is a signal. Supposedly, get a green light and off you go. A red light means further inspection. We have found, though, that if you are driving a van, you'll be directed into the secondary inspection bay no matter what color of light you got.
We planned on stopping anyway to get tourist permits at the immigration office, so it's not a big deal today, but it's annoying at other times. An inspector tells us where to park after he's given our car a cursory search. After getting Tim and his chair out, another guard tells us no, this is not the correct place. Put Tim and the chair back in the van, drive across the road (100 feet or less), park there, and walk into immigration.
Can I just move the van and Letty and Tim walk over? No...you must put everybody back in and drive.
Such is the bureaucratic maze you go through in our neighbor to the south. To be fair, although it's much more straightforward to come back, getting into Mexico takes but a few moments. On the best of days, coming back into the States takes hours.
It's hard to get straightforward information on getting a tourist permit (AKA a tourist visa) online. You need one when you go south of the border area (Ensenada, in this part of Baja) or stay longer than 72 hours. Online, the instructions are a mishmash, but basically it said to go to the immigration office, fill out the form, take it to the bank next door, pay the approximately $25 fee, go back to the immigration office to get your permit and have your passport stamped.
In reality, that procedure is just for those who stay more than 7 days in Baja or go into any other part of the country for any amount of time. If you're here less than a week, there is no fee.
We simply filled out the forms (one for each person), had our passports stamped, and we were on our way. The exit of the parking lot goes directly to the ramp for the Ensenada road.
A short but hilly drive puts you at the beaches of Tijuana with its giant bullfighting ring sitting a few feet south of the international border fence. The first toll plaza awaits here. Today, the toll is $2.25. There are three toll boothes, so the total toll will be $6.75. The toll varies with the exhange rate. You can pay with either Mexican or U.S. currency but you must choose one or the other (you can't, say, pay with dollars in the first toll booth, pesos in the next one, etc.).
While the extreme northern Baja coast is getting a big dose of urban sprawl, with not a lot of empty land between Tijuana and Rosarito, there's still sections of coastal beauty that rival Highway 1 in northern California. In fact, this highway's number in Mexico is 1. While hordes of tourists decades ago contributed mightily to this, big industry and moviemaking has put it over the top.
When Hollywood found that they could make big blockbusters for much less down here (it's only a three hour drive south), they transformed the town of Rosarito into a movie town. The large studio on the south side of the city, whose backlots can easily be seen from the toll road, is where James Cameron came to film "Titanic."
It's been a busy studio ever since.
The rest area bathroom stops near the first toll booth are pretty palacial, even by American standards. Beyond Rosarito, not so much. When it's time for a needed break, the first rest area we pull into is closed and has pretty much been taken over by vendors. We keep going.
Another rest area soon pops up. It's open, sort of. The bathroom has pretty much been abandoned by the government but enterprising local men have taken to keeping it up hoping to get tips from stopping motorists.
The college student manning it today keeps it as clean and friendly as he can, even though there's no longer any running water, with a couple of large barrels of water outside. He explains the situation to us and he uses his tips to pay for his schooling.
Letty is impressed with his industriousness and leaves him with a bag of her cookies, along with the tip. I look over the side of the parking lot and see a lovely campground down below, with cabins for rent (pictured in the video preview, above).
What a beautiful, lonely spot to hunker down for a couple of off-the-grid days it would be.
Back on the road, we soon pass Bajamar, a resort with one of the best golf courses on the West Coast, and then into the city of Ensenada itself. We're not stopping here today, though (see our trip to Ensenada here). This is just the halfway point.
The cities and towns that make up the bay of Todos Santos (All Saints) have made it a pretty sizeable city. It's a lot of stop and go for the next 20 miles until we make it past the last stop sign at Maneadero, the last town we can go to without a tourist card.
Since we have ours, we push ahead to the Valle de Santo Thomas. Gone are the litter strewn streets of the cities and towns, along with the shanty towns of the poorest parts of each town. The scenery turns from occasionally very nice to spectacular as we wind through Baja's wine country.
It's late December and recent rains have made everything green and lush. Vineyard after vineyard flashes by. We need to do some wine tasting down here sometime but today we're just passing through.
Once we leave the Ensenada area, the road becomes a fairly well maintained two lane highway. There are two mountainous areas to climb over with some parts having perilous drops down into the chasms below with no guard rail to retard your fall.
The hundreds of small roadside memorials we pass today remind me to be ever-vigilant while driving this road.
I'm doing well but some local drivers can be very reckless and idiotic, passing on blind mountain curves hoping their luck will hold out and a large truck won't be coming the other way.
I see a semi truck going just the speed I want to go and being careful on the road. I tuck in behind him as protection to let him clear the way for me (that's why you see the truck in front of us in several of these photos).
Over the mountains, we come back to the coast and endless fields of tomatoes, strawberries, and other assorted produce. Most of this will end up in the supermarkets of the U.S. west coast.
We go through several towns, almost identical, with shops and dirt parking lots right on the highway. It's the same in every town...small bumps on the road leading to a large bump in the middle of town. It's where the pedestrians are supposed to cross.
Halfway through one town, I almost miss the Mission Inn. Breaking fairly hard, Letty and Tim are asking "what's wrong.?"
There's our hotel...I almost drove right by.
We settle in. It's a decent, clean, and modern hotel in the middle of town. The room is good with two queen beds and a bathroom with a roll-in shower. Quite a find down here in the land of the inaccessible.
It's dinner at the hotel's very good restaurant then we'll settle in for the next part of our adventure.
Copyright 2015 - Darryl Musick
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