Tuesday, March 16, 2010

There's no place like home

The last day of our trip to Loreto was mostly uneventful. We checked out of the Malarrimo Hotel (decent and even charming in a bare bones kind of way, but overpriced for what you get) in Guerrero Negro early in the morning and headed south.

The landscape had flattened out, making driving easier and less stressful.
We stopped for gas and headed out with a sense of excitement knowing that an end to our road trip was finally in sight.

Other than getting stuck for a half hour or so behind a huge piece of machinery that took up both lanes of the highway (we think it was an electric sub-station maybe), we didn’t have any real excitement until we hit the fifth of the six military checkpoints on our journey.

As soon as we stopped and put the window down, the soldier who motioned us to a stop very impatiently and abruptly ordered us out of the car. This was unexpected based on our previous experiences, but we quickly got of the car and stood off to the side so he and his fellow soldiers could search the car. We kept smiling while they poked and prodded our belongings and didn’t expect any trouble as we weren’t trying to hide anything.

The soldier who’d ordered us out of the car was going through a big straw bag I had packed with odds and ends, one being a new LED mini-flashlight that George had bought me expressly for the trip. He pulled the flashlight out of the bag and grinning he asked, “Is this for me?” He was looking right at me and I just shrugged and said, “If you say so.” He didn’t like that answer and asked again. As uneasy as I was, I wasn’t going to give him permission to steal from me, so I said the same thing again. It was an uncomfortable few moments and I’m not sure I responded the way I should have. But George and I both kept our demeanor neutral and polite, so maybe that’s what counts in the end.

Maybe he was just bored and decided to have a little fun bullying the gringos. Whatever the case, he gave up or lost interest and tossed the light back into the bag looking annoyed. But he did let us continue on our journey and we were more than relieved to pull away.

The incident was minor, but definitely disconcerting as it was the only unpleasant exchange we’d had during the whole trip.

As we neared Santa Rosalia, we groaned as we saw more mountains in the distance, but it was exciting to be so near the Sea of Cortez for the first time in our trip. We’d read a little about Santa Rosalia but were still surprised by the town, which was hilly with narrow and hard to navigate streets.

We stopped for a quick lunch and hit the road again. By this time, we were both very anxious to reach our destination, so other than slowing for views of the beautiful bays south of Mulege and one final military checkpoint, we weren’t going to stop unless absolutely necessary!

That final military checkpoint more than made up for the bully at the previous stop. The soldier who motioned us to stop asked where we were from and where we were headed and when I told him we were from New Mexico he looked puzzled until I said, “Nuevo Mexico.” He laughed then and very sweetly motioned us to leave.

The rest of the trip seemed to take forever. That last hour was agony, but finally we reached Loreto.

Hallelujah! We were home.

Next up: Getting our bearings and a nasty case of the flu

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Dangerous curves and tsunami alerts

The most notable thing about our drive from Ensenada to Loreto was the one thing that we’ve never seen mentioned in all the blogs and Web posts we’ve read about the drive and that is how much mountain driving is involved. There’s a lot of it and it comes with all the curves and switchbacks you expect in that terrain. Don’t expect to make very good time.

Our day started with a light mist, which rapidly progressed to a steady downpour by the time we’d checked out of our hotel and made our way to Home Depot. We were helped with our shopping by a sales associate who spoke very good English and was eager to warn us of the impending tsunamis up and down the Baja coast. This was the morning of the big Chilean earthquake and the threat of tsunamis had been issued from Mexico all the way to the Pacific Northwest.

“Just the Pacific side?” we asked. “Oh, no”, he said, “on the Sea of Cortez, too!” Armed with that dire prediction (which turned out to be unfounded for both coasts), we set out for Guerrero Negro in the rain. And it rained, and rained and rained for a very long time that first day. The mountains were beautiful even in the rain, but we moved at a snail’s pace through the mountain passes and it looked like we’d have to stop in Catavina for the night, instead of Guerrero Negro.

By the time we reached Catavina, it was about an hour or two from dark so we decided we should spend the night at the Desert Inn. It had finally stopped raining an hour or so before we got there, but still it was windy and chilly when we stopped at the motel. I should also mention that you could miss Catavina if you happened to blink.

We went into the hotel for a pit stop and to decide if we’d stay or press on. That decision was made easy when it appeared there was no electricity and the staff was less than helpful. No one even asked if they could help us. I had to go back to the car for a flashlight to find my way to the restroom!

But everything we’d read said “DO NOT DRIVE AFTER DARK!” We talked about it and decided that a little night driving would be OK. And it was. But don’t do this if you don’t have to! It was scary and stressful. We did make it to Guerrero Negro, but it was a long couple of hours.

As for stopping for gas, believe everything you’ve ever read about it! Fill up every chance you get. A map we’d gotten at the Ensenada visitor center indicated that Catavina had a Pemex station so we didn’t stop in El Rosario (I think that was the town), even though George wanted to. “Oh, no,” I said. “We’ve got plenty of gas until we get to Catavina.”

And we did, but it turns out that the Pemex station in Catavina is closed! I’m not certain it’s ever even been open, because it sure didn’t look like it.

We still had enough gas to make it to Guerrero Negro (probably), but not wanting to take any chances, George pulled over to get a few gallons from the guy selling gas out of cans by the side of the road. I can always count on George for the smart moves.

By the time we reached Guerrero Negro, we’d already gone through four military checkpoints (there were a total of six from the border to Loreto) and we’d had no problem whatsoever. The soldiers were civil and we hadn’t been searched or questioned beyond, “Where are you going?” and “Where are you from?” We weren’t particularly worried about the checkpoints because we look like exactly what we are – a couple of American geezers who are no threat to anyone! And we weren’t carrying contraband or anything that could be considered suspicious so we felt safe.

Next up: A Mexican bully and home at last!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

A different kind of border problem

Crossing the border at San Ysidro was surprisingly easy… which makes it that much harder to figure out how we could have screwed up and missed the Immigration Office!

Traffic was very light into Tijuana and we were in the very far left “nothing to declare” lane. We got a green light and sailed on through feeling pretty darned pleased with how the day was going so far.

What we didn’t expect, though, was how confusing and crammed in all the official offices were on the far RIGHT of the crossing, which meant we’d have to cross several lanes of traffic in the space of a very short block to make it over there. And to make matters worse, we couldn’t make out where the office was in the jumble of buildings. After the problems we’d already encountered, this glitch seemed like small potatoes, so we decided to keep on going and try our luck further along.

We crossed at San Ysidro because we didn’t want to do any driving in Tijuana proper and that route allows easy access to the toll road that skirts the city. The signs to the toll road were easy to read, we had a good map and we simply followed all the arrows to Rosarito, Ensenada and the toll road, which was easy to drive.

Once on the toll road we stopped at an official pull-off area and it was there we learned we’d need to stop at the Immigration Office in Ensenada and pay a fine for not having our FM3s stamped in Tijuana. Luckily, the lady who helped us was able to supply a hand-drawn map of where Immigration was located and she was right on the money!

The drive to Ensenada was mountainous and lovely, except for the scores of partially-completed hotels and developments all along the way. A depressing sight and a reminder of how bad things could have been for Agua Viva home owners without Beck and Stan Barton. The drive took the expected hour and a half, maybe more as we were being very cautious about the speed limit.

The Immigration Office was near the harbor and very near a brand new visitor center, which we took advantage of after having our papers stamped and paying $5 each for the oversight. It was only around 3:30 p.m., but George started having back spasms (the stress we’d been under would do it to anyone), so we decided to stop at the Posada el Rey Sol in the downtown area. It was a charming place, reasonably priced with interior parking that looked and felt very secure.

It’s evident how hard a hit northern Baja has taken with the downturn in the economy, as well as the drug violence along the border. There were almost no people out and about and it was a very nice downtown tourist area which should have been filled with vacationers. We didn’t have to wait for a table on that particular Friday night. Ensenada is an especially pretty town (at least in that area) and we hope things pick up for the businesses there soon.

We stopped by Costco that evening and had fun roaming the aisles and noting the differences between a Mexican and U.S. store. It had a lot of the same stuff our Costco in Albuquerque carries, but the size of the store was smaller, with the food area significantly smaller.

There was a Home Depot across the street, but we decided to try our luck there in the morning and that ended up being a big mistake!

Next up: Will it be a wash-out?

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Mangled Menaje and more

The big day finally arrived on Monday, Feb. 22. Our house had closed a few days earlier and we were ready to hit the road after packing up our household goods into a 26-foot Penske truck. We went through the checklist and all was well. We had our FM3s, as well as our approved Menaje de Casa, the list of household items to be moved by our shipper, Victor Diaz, to Loreto Bay. We breathed a big sigh of relief and headed out early in the afternoon for San Diego, where our goods would be transferred to Victor and his truck.

But that relief was short-lived because we found out from Victor that evening, well into our trip to San Diego, that our Menaje de Casa was invalid. Our consulate had failed to stamp every page of our inventory, which meant it had to be fixed fast.
We couldn’t go back to Albuquerque, so we decided to try our luck with the Mexican Consulate once we arrived in San Diego.

What ensued was a stressful mess! George drove the moving truck into downtown San Diego with me following in our SUV. We found the consulate, but where the heck were we going to park that behemoth downtown? We traded vehicles after finding a parking space for the SUV near the consulate. For the next half hour, I drove that Penske truck around downtown looking for a place to park while George was in the consulate. I finally came upon a large parking lot near the harbor and gratefully pulled in, even though the sign expressly forbade oversized trucks. For more than an hour I waited to hear from George and when he finally did call, the news was not good. The consulate could not help us. We had to get our Menaje de Casa fixed by the consulate in Albuquerque.

The rest of that day is a blur. We made our way to a motel and started making phone calls. The end result (after a FedEx mistake that lost our overnight letter to the consulate in Albuquerque) was that our consulate was able to FedEx stamped copies of our Menaje de Casa to us, but not before we spent two stress-filled days waiting in a Travelodge off I-5.

With double and triple stamped papers in hand, we delivered the documents to our broker/shipper but learned they wouldn’t be able to ship our goods until Wednesday. Undaunted we crossed the border (as well as our fingers) at San Ysidro about 1 p.m. Friday, Feb. 26. And thanks to the generosity of our friends and future neighbors, Karen and Terry Stepp, we had a place to stay in Loreto until our belongings arrived – their beautiful new house in Agua Viva.

Next up: Trip tips and driving dilemmas!