So, yeah, we're in Panama City. We loaded the van into a shipping container yesterday and fly to Colombia tomorrow. You may be wondering, "What the hell happened in the rest of Mexico and Central America?" Good question and we hope to eventually get around to writing about all those adventures (jungle ruins and active volcanoes and new friends, oh my!). Going forward, we're planning to write shorter posts and keep more current here. (New continent, new motivation? We'll see how well that turns out ;) In the meantime, how about some photo highlights from the last few months?
From the ferry terminal, it was a quick drive to Hotel Lerma (described by one reviewer as "monk-like," which the single bare lightbulb above our bed validated) that had secure courtyard parking, showers and wifi. We loved this location - 2 blocks from the malacon and walking distance to numerous markets, plazas, and cathedrals. Besides walking (and taking the occasional pulmonia taxi) around old Mazatlán, we had a fun afternoon renting bikes and riding north to the tourist district.
[Side note: Nearly all of the other tourists we'd seen or chatted with to this point in Mexico were Mexican-American (in northern Baja especially) or Mexican. It seems that the timing of our trip has exposed us to a different experience than others might have during high-season in these same places. A beach full of North Americans would have a totally different vibe. At the same time, we wouldn't stand out as much. We had a few funny encounters where a vendor spotted our sunburns and went for the hard sell.]
We had a great time in Mazatlán (including our first margaritas of the trip and several great meals), but the heat was draining us (no a/c in monk-ville), so we decided to head to the mountains.
The change in flora and fauna after crossing into the state of Nayarit was striking. The hills greened up along the highway and at our camp there were such beautiful blooming trees and so many birds! Laguna Santa Maria del Oro is a volcanic crater lake with a bunch of resorts and camping around the shore. When we drove in (on a Sunday afternoon), every restaurant, beach, and roadside pull-off was packed. Luckily, El Ranchito had only one other group of campers and let us park the van in the primo lakeside spot. We arrived just before an evening thunderstorm and could not have been happier. (We literally sat in our camp chairs in the rain.) We cooked proper dinner (for the first time in weeks) and fell asleep to rain on the van roof. Aaah. In the morning, we busted out our kayak, paddled around the lake, and are happy to report that a divorce is not impending. It was lovely but convinced we could find even cooler weather, we packed up Tuesday and headed for our next mountain location.
Again underestimating the distance we could drive (especially after a late start), we ended up in Tequila for the night. Home of Jose Cuervo, Don Julio, and the like. In what may turn out to be our biggest fail in Mexico, we drank no tequila in Tequila. I had a terrible head cold (probably from sitting in the rain, duh.) and Scott was beat from some challenging driving, so we grabbed dinner and retired to an air-conditioned hotel room to watch a few episodes of El Chapo on Netflix.
Feeling better the next day, I drove while Scott navigated some serious craziness. [Side note: In Mexico, there are often 2 roads you can take, the free or the toll road. We got bit by some high tolls after leaving Mazatlán (to the tune of $18!), so we stuck to the free routes as much as possible, despite the topes (speed bumps). Small, large, marked, unmarked, so many topes!] Scott found a "shortcut" and we're pretty sure we ended up driving on an incomplete highway (later confirmed by google maps) for about 5 miles. Like, when we got to the next junction, there was no ramp to the direction we wanted to go because it hadn't been built yet. Oops! The funny thing is, we drove past a work crew at one point and none of them gave us a second look. Kind of sums up driving in Mexico in general. Our next destination (near the mountain town of Tapalpa) was the campground at La Ceja paragliding school. As you would expect, it had an amazing view of the valley below and also a restaurant serving wood-fired pizzas. The owner and all the employees could not have been kinder so we hung out for 3 nights, did some laundry, relaxed, watched a few flights and visited Tapalpa. Such a pretty town! They were setting up for the middle school graduation in the main square and we got to see some of the student projects showing their studies for the year.
Our planned volcano hike at Nevado de Colima was thwarted by cold and rainy weather, so we made our way to Guadalajara. We were lucky to find Olga's Querida hostel, with a private room and bath, and ridiculously helpful owner Lucy. She got us a discount on parking for the van 2 blocks away and had great tips for enjoying the city. That night, we ate tortas abhogada and walked the historic district. It was kind of like Times Square, with superhero buskers and cheesy venders, but with beautiful buildings and the main Cathedral as a backdrop. The next morning, we decided to use the bike share to explore some other neighborhoods but turned a corner where we expected a bike lane and found the whole street closed to car traffic- Bike Sunday! We had missed our Portland neighborhood's Sunday Parkways while prepping to leave, so this was such a great surprise. We followed the route for several miles and then continued our walking tour around the city. We visited the enormous market, sidled up to an English language tour of the haunting Orozco frescos at Cabañas cultural center, and had Buffalo wings at one of the seemingly dozen wing joints in our hotel's neighborhood. The next morning we successfully caught a city bus to the fancy-pants suburb of Talaquepaque with lots of shops and galleries full of local pottery and other crafts. All very lovely, but not souvenirs likely to survive our trek (so many topes). We hopped on bikes again to get back and stopped in the beautiful Agua Azul park, with aviaries and a huge butterfly enclosure. We had a fantastic fusion-Mexican dinner in a hipster neighborhood, complete with non-lager local beers. Such a treat!
On Wednesday we made some serious miles (ahem, toll roads) to our most anticipated Mexican city, Guanajuato! It did not disappoint. From the challenge of getting to our campsite at Morril RV, to the gorgeous vistas, to the cool museums, we loved everything about it. One day we caught a bus north to Valenciana and took a tour of a silver mine and the next we took a bus up the hill to the mummy museum (seriously creepy, photos not included), so we're basically experts at navigating Mexican cities by bus now. We also got our first taste of rainy season. It started dumping after we got back to our campsite the first day and we hunkered down in the van. After maybe 45 minutes, Scott opened the side door and discovered that we had become an island in over 6 inches of water! By morning, it had drained but we moved to higher ground to be safe. Good thing, because the next day's drenching was even heavier.
We were sure this would be the spot where we would finally run into some overlanders headed south, but we were the only campers for the 3 nights we were here. We're starting to suspect that the smart travelers aren't on the road across Mexico and Central America during rainy season. Guess we'll keep looking for those other seasonally-challenged folks as we head south! (Spoiler: We find them!)
Our route and stops:
Next up: Waterfalls, festivals, ruins, volcanoes, and cacti in central Mexico!
Even though we arrived ridiculously early (4 hours) for our ferry ride to Mazatlán, the air conditioned ticket office was already full of truck drivers, so we bought our tickets and drove to the loading area. We watched some exterior ferry repair work with questionable fall protection procedures (Scott and I are trained, so we know what we're talking about here ;) and waited it out in the heat. We were the third vehicle loaded, so we got to watch the whole procedure for packing in the big rigs. The ferry crews definitely have it down - there wasn't a spare inch between any of the trucks. We ate dinner onboard with a Canadian-German couple headed to Nicaragua in their RV (who had many of the same thoughts we did about the roughest stretches of the Mex 1 highway through Baja), enjoyed the sunset, and retired to our cabin (aka the van) for a restless night. The low hum of the ferry engines and the slow rocking weren't bad, but the occasional starting of any one of the rigs around us was enough to wake us up (especially knowing they were doing so to run their air conditioning). In the morning, we got a close-up view of another impressive operation - a tugboat flipping our ferry around into the port. The tug operator, in a tank top and flip-flops in his captain's seat, nudged our much larger ship neatly into place and tooted his horn when we shot him a thumbs-up. It was another 45 minutes before we drove off the boat, but during that time we met ferry worker Marcelo. He's a Mazatlán native and was so excited we were visiting his city. He also happened to have spent 12 years living in Manatee County, FL (near where Scott is from)! He would have loved to stay in Florida (where both his children were born), but couldn't get his visa extended any longer. He told us he was especially happy that day (after we commented that he seemed a very happy guy) because it was his last day of work before spending a month at home with his family. When we saw him later with his son, his grin had gotten impossibly bigger than when we were talking to him. It was so great to have an actual conversation with a local! Hopefully our Spanish will improve so we don't have to rely on the English skills of others to do so as we keep traveling.
Miles traveled: 254
Miles driven: 0
Hours onboard ferry: 20
Hours of sleep: <4
Next up, mainland Mexico! (Really.)
Alternate alliterative title: Sand, Sweat, Salt, and Sunscreen
We got savvy to southern CA freeway driving just in time to cross into Mexico (after we easily took care of our 180-day tourist cards at the border) where we encountered a whole 'nother driving experience. First, people walking along (and sometimes on or across) the narrow freeway. Then construction zones that do not adhere to the rules we're familiar with (Scott and I are trained in traffic flagging, so we know what we're talking about here). The only thing that seemed more unnerving than the driving was stopping, so we didn't until we reached Ensenada. Found parking right in front of a taco stand in the fish market and plopped right down for our first Baja tacos. These lived up to the hype, but what did we know. Got a SIM card for our phone, went to a grocery store, and headed south to our first campsite. Luckily Scott remembered that it was on the road to La Bufadora or else we might not have found it. (We were still sorting out our navigation strategy.) We pulled into La Jolla camp, found a beachfront site and settled in. There was only one other family camped along the beach, so we figured we were in for a quiet few days. Ha! Turns out the next day was Friday, and lots of people packed in around us (see pics for our favorite moment of the day). We were able to relax a bit, went for a swim, and cooked up some chicken mole (from a carton) and rice for dinner.
It was a great camp spot but we were eager to move on to the Sea of Cortez, so Saturday we went back to Ensenada for more supplies, and headed south. We knew we shouldn't expect to make the kind of time/miles (kilometers, I mean) we're used to on our US road trips, but we didn't know we would be playing dodge-the-lane-wide-potholes on shoulderless, narrow roads while making room for semis coming at us the entire time (except during a fish taco lunch stop, of course). Once we just slowed down and figured out the system for signaling drivers behind us to pass (not that they waited for us to), we relaxed and adjusted our planned stop for the night. So glad we did! We stayed just outside Cataviña (at Rancho Santa Inez), which has the most incredible array of cacti set among huge granite boulders. I've not spent much time in cactus-type deserts, but can't imagine any better. We hiked the hills around our camp that night and the boulder fields west of the town the next morning. It was all so beautiful and strange that I barely remember getting stabbed in the hip, and foot, and then other hip after walking a little too close to a few of the cacti. Those chollas are not messing around.
Sunday we were on to Bahia de los Angeles (42 miles off the Mex 1 highway, where apparently they patch potholes). A quick stop in town for more fish tacos (the absolute best so far) and then on to our waterfront palapa at Camp Archelon. Fantastic, friendly place, but holy heat. Once we got settled in, the breeze off the bay actually made it somewhat (er, almost) comfortable. Kayaking in the morning, more fish tacos for lunch (meh, and we have some basis for comparison now ;), and a proper siesta. Cooked up some pork for dinner and chatted with owner Antonio about where we shouldn't miss and where we could skip during the rest of our time in Mexico. Broke camp Tuesday morning (hot already at 7am) and headed back to highway Mex 1. Pothole-free diving all the way to Guerrero Negro (Baja California Sur!) where found our next camp (Malarrimo RV park, fast wifi and hot showers). After some tacos (not fish this time), I had a successful, if disappointing, exchange of pertinent information en español with the laundromat attendant (me: "Agua fría por [point to washer]," her: "Solo agua caliente (only hot water)," me: "Oh, ok. Baja calor por [point to dryer]," her: "Solo alta calor (only high heat)," me: "Oh, ok," while hoping my clothes still fit when I got them back). The point is, I understood her and her me. Those Spanish lessons are paying off!
Next destination was Bahia Concepción, the place I had most been looking forward to in all of Baja. We planned to check out a few beaches before deciding where to camp but driving into Playa Escondido we couldn't imagine finding anywhere better (and we were right). Again, the heat was crazy, but the occasional breeze and the great swimming and snorkeling made it quite (er, somewhat) bearable. Also, the tamale vendor who came by each day meant we didn't have to cook much, which we couldn't even imagine doing in those conditions. Our weather station (aka thermometers, one degF, one degC) only briefly dipped below 90 degF a few mornings and spent most of the time hovering around 100 degF. So, yeah, hot. But we met a nice couple headed back to WA who gave us some tips for places to see and also shared a kilo of fresh scallops with us. Besides them and caretaker Manuel, we had the beach to ourselves each night.
After four nights of sweating it out at Bahia Conception, we headed to Loreto for showers, laundry and wifi (Riviera del Mar RV park perfectly fit the bill). One thing we didn't count on was suffocating humidity. We had adjusted somewhat to the heat, but this was something else. So after one night there, we decided to head back to the Pacific side in search of cooler temps. The only place we could find on our way south was 10 dirt miles off the highway at a surf camp (Punta Conejo). The Tin Can finally got roughed up a bit on some washboards and rocky roads! When we got to the camping area, it was totally empty, so we went searching for the best ocean view campsite. Let's just say that I am perhaps a bit less cautious about the van's capabilities than Scott so, yeah, I got stuck in some soft sand. Several times. But we got out without any gear or tools, so now we know a bit more about road conditions the van can handle, right? (Scott shaking his head.) In the end, we didn't get our ocean view site but we did get 60-70 degF temps and slept without sweating on our pillows for a night, so it was all worth it. (Scott still shaking his head, but conceding my point.) Even though we enjoyed the cooler weather (and gorgeous sunset, stars and sunrise), we decided to move on to La Paz.
Our first stop was the ferry terminal to get our TIP (vehicle import permit, needed to visit mainland Mexico). Immediately, we were told that the listed (not actual) gross weight of our van is too heavy to be considered a regular van (as it is registered). We were sent to customs to get a stamp classifying it as a motor home. The folks there could not have been nicer (so much bad Spanish on our part), but it took almost an hour of multiple inspections to convince the person in charge to give us the stamp. We think pointing out our bucket baño sealed the deal. (We're not quite sure what would have happened if we hadn't gotten the approval from customs, but we know that the people at the TIP office would have done everything they could - So helpful!) With stamped registration in hand, we got a TIP good for 10 years instead of the normal 180 days for passenger vehicles. At the office next door, another amazingly patient person walked us through our options for ferry passage to Mazatlán. After taking care of business, we found a great free campsite a few miles north of the ferry terminal at Playa Tecolote. And had a fan-freaking-tastic cold seafood platter for dinner at one of the restaurants on the beach. Perfect for our last night in Baja!
Next up, mainland Mexico!
We're STILL working on the best way to show our route as we travel. For now, here's a map of some of our tracks in Baja and all our campsite locations. (Turns out we STILL had loaded too much info into our GPS and it ran out of memory AGAIN before Scott cleared it out.)
Summary Statistics (Baja/Total):
Miles driven: 1183/2484
Driving time: 27:45/55:45
Average MPG: 22.5/21.0
Number of fish/carnitas tacos eaten: ~20 (We should have had more.)
Since leaving Portland (whew!), we've been slowly making our way south through Oregon and California: Williamson River, Mt. Lassen NF to US 395 South. Drive, camp, repeat. Not long driving days as yet (300 miles at most), but we had one white-knuckle windy day that felt much longer. We hoped to camp in the Mammoth Lakes area that night, but most the campgrounds were still inaccessible due to snow! We settled for Convict Lake, which was nearby and met my request for an Instagram-worthy view out the van back doors.
A visit to the Public Lands office in Bishop the next day led us to a campground much more our style (Grandview in the White Mts). Also recommended was the hike through the Ancient Bristlecone Pine forest just up the road. Since we had inadvertently acclimated ourselves to higher elevation with our previous few campsites, we went to check out a bunch of 3000-4000+ year-old trees at 10,000 feet with views of the Great Basin, northern Death Valley, and the Eastern Sierras. Loved this campsite and this hike!
Side note: It seems that we spend a lot of time admiring trees. Ponderosas (my favorite) surrounded our first few nights' campsites in the Cascades, then aspens in the Sierras, then pinion pines and junipers in the White Mountains. Yesterday I saw my first Joshua trees driving through the Mojave Desert and we’re now sitting under orange and palm trees in an LA suburb. Pretty amazing that we’ve camped in so many of California’s ecological zones in just a week. Also, I needed a title for this post and couldn't resist the alliteration. There you have it – the theme for this post is trees.
Next we were on to the Alabama Hills, an area of rounded granite formations (with no trees at all) in the valley below Mt. Whitney. We went for a short hike to see some arches and found a nice camp spot nestled among the boulders out of the seemingly incessant wind. Another short driving day and we’ve arrived in Redlands, CA. Thanks to my Uncle David for hosting us for a few nights! We are very glad to have a comfortable break (hot running water!) after a week on the road. Especially before our first border crossing in a few days!
We're still working on the best way to show our route as we travel. For now, here's a map of our tracks since we left home and our campsite locations. (Minus the last section to Redlands. Turns out we had loaded too much info into our GPS and it ran out of memory.)
Miles driven: 1154
Driving time: 23:40
Average MPG: 20.1
Highest elevation (ft): 10,050
... Yeah, ok, it's now June 6. I wrote the following entry and then neglected to post it so I'm doing it now, surely in violation of some blogger code. Anyway, TODAY is departure day! For real.
Haha, just kidding. We’re not going anywhere today.
We had actually been hoping to hit the road a day or two before June 1, but our plans were derailed by the van’s check engine light. Scott’s research of the error code (from our handy ScanGauge) led him to believe it could be an easy part to replace. He told our mechanic about it when he went to pick up some spare parts and found out that it could be something more serious. We dropped off the van last Thursday to have it checked out aaaand the van’s transmission had to be totally rebuilt. Seriously. Converter and clutches and steels and seals and other words that mean absolutely nothing to me in this context. Huge thanks to Elliott and Dave and the crew at Upscale Auto. They've gone out of their way to squeeze us into their schedules and keep our costs down, while still making sure we’ll have a reliable rig. We should get the van back tomorrow and are now aiming for a June 4 departure.
We are fully aware how lucky we are to have this happen now instead of down the road but, damn. We’ve both been suffering a strange combination of preparation fatigue and departure panic, the only cure for which would be to. just. leave. already. But a few extra days to wrap things up isn’t a bad thing, so we’re keeping busy with house cleaning and yard work. Thrilling blog material, I know.
And speaking of lucky... over the last few weeks, our friends and coworkers have shown us so much love and have been so supportive (and a little jealous, they’re not ashamed to admit :) that we’re even more appreciative of this unbelievable travel opportunity. And once we finally do depart (in what should be a completely invincible van after all the work that’s been done to it over the last few months), we’re now more motivated to keep everyone up-to-date on our adventures. Which will not include tales of mopping floors or weeding garden beds. Promise.
Scott and I have a funny bit we do whenever we show the van to someone new. I sit on the sofa and proudly open the drop-down table. I pretend to eat off an imaginary plate and then pretend to type (apparently on a manual typewriter by the way I bang on the keys). On cue, Scott says, "New blog entry!" and we have a good laugh. Because the idea of us being bloggers is ridiculous. Neither of us are writers, or photographers, or even particularly sociable. But everyone asks where they can follow along during our trip, so I guess we're now bloggers. (No, YOU are, says Scott.)
We're hoping to post regular updates here with our route, a few photos, maybe some super-insightful commentary about our personal growth and the state of the world, but Instagram or Facebook will certainly be more up-to-date if you want to know what we're up to. Also, in the years I've been following other traveler's blogs (many of whom actually do offer insightful commentary), I've noticed that they tend to start off strong but post less and less frequently as their trips progress. I see this as a good sign, because they must be too busy enjoying life on the road to be bothered with writing about it, right? So, I'm going to make a prediction and say that if our blog posts aren't especially timely once we're on the road (planned departure June 1!), it's not because we've been kidnapped by a drug cartel. Or because we've driven off a cliff. We're just too busy on this crazy road trip that we've spent years planning for a new blog entry.