Ragamuffin Mon!

Sailboat, don’t mind if I do. Snorkeling with nurse sharks, sting rays, and thousands of other fish, don’t mind if I do.  Shrimp ceviche, don’t mind if I do.  Free-flowing rum punch, don’t mind if I do.  Middle-aged Italian women bumping and grinding to some reggae, not particularly enjoyable, but it’ll do.  Stuck on a reef in a sailboat full of drunk Americans, Italians, and a semi-sober Belizean crew, you better Belize it!

Perhaps I should start at the beginning.  After an incredible 42 days and 4,730 miles spent in Mexico, we reluctantly crossed into Belize.  Mexico had surprised and enthralled us and although we were excited to head into new territory we weren’t looking forward to $6/gallon gas and triple the prices.  The border crossing was essentially uneventful (full write-up to follow).  After stocking up on some delicious Belikin in Corazol, we headed down the dirt road towards Sarteneja.  Ahead, two hotly anticipated hand cranked ferries awaited us.  A mere six miles down the road we approached the uncrossable river.  On the opposite bank, we spied a wooden boat loaded with two cars slowly making its way towards us.  Didn’t look too sturdy to me, but Ken is the boat guru and he was practically salivating waiting to get on the thing, so it must be ok.

Load up!

Load up!

We loaded our trucks on with no difficulty, rasta music was blaring from the radio and the the hand cranking began.  Of course, Ken and Joe immediately jumped in and asked to take over.  What had seemed like a simple task as we watched the ferry approach us, turned out to be a bit more difficult.  IMG_0553The opposing bank moved slowly towards us, water visibly rushing underneath the gaping boards.  Kylee and I thought we could provide a bit more muscle and took over. IMG_0554 Big mistake.  The boys wandered off with the cameras, the ferry operators were inspecting our trucks, and me and Kylee were left to crank the rest of the way.  As we disembarked, the operator told us that the second ferry was out of commission requiring us to take a longer road, that he assured us would only take 45 minutes longer.  Forty five minutes later we were still twenty miles from Sarteneja, faced with the biggest pot-holes we had seen since Baja.  Luckily we made it in one piece to Backpacker’s Paradise and enjoyed a laid back evening exploring the town and swinging in some hammocks.

Hammock's are awesome

Hammock’s are awesome

After a night in Sarteneja and a few days relaxing at a family friend’s home in San Ignacio, we were ready for a vacation from our vacation.  Along with patagoniaorbust (yep, we are in it for the long haul with them), we parked our trucks in San Ignacio and hopped on our first public transportation of the trip.  Big, bad Belize City here we come.  Thirty minutes in I was cursing all third world country busses that lacked overhead storage for backpacks that stopped every 20 minutes to off and on load more passengers, and really missed the comfort and convenience of Suzie.  We survived an irate bus load full of Belizeans cursing out the gang suppression unit that thought our bus was loaded with gang members and made everyone disembark in order to search all the luggage, and a mere three hours and eighty miles later (but only a $4 USD versus $50USD for gas) we made it to Belize City, purchased our tickets for the water taxi to Caye Caulker, and prepared for our second boat trip in Belize.

Paradise

Paradise

Caye Caulker is paradise.  Street of white sand, colorful houses and storefronts, unimaginably blue ocean framed with palm trees and mangroves, bikes and golf carts zipping through the minimally crowded streets, with reggae music and ‘hey mons’ wafting through the air.  IMG_0619Definitely paradise.  We spent a few days wandering the three streets that make up Caye Caulker, lounging in the sun at the Lazy Lizard on the Split (the beach where the middle of Caye Caulker was split in half by Hurricane Hattie) drinking buckets of Belikin, and feasting on conch fritters and fry jacks.

The good ship Reggae Queen

The good ship Reggae Queen

The third day we boarded the Reggae Queen of Ragamuffin Sailing Adventures and headed out to sea.  Belize and it’s Cayes are world renowned for their snorkeling and diving, with the world’s second longest barrier reef stretching from Cancun through Belize.  Diving here is incredible, everyone has heard of the Blue Hole, unfortunately it is quite expensive and Ken is not dive certified, so we settled for some snorkeling.  Our crew consisted of Captain Kimani, Shane, and Dillon, all speaking lilting Creole and doing their best to accommodate the mixed group of gringos they were stuck with for the day.  First stop was Coral Gardens, true to its name beautiful coral as far as we could snorkel.  Next up, Shark Alley.  Not my cup of tea.  Snorkeling with whale sharks in Mozambique was a once in a life time experience, one I thought would be literally once in a lifetime.  Now I was expected to jump in the water with sharks and stingrays that had been lured around our boat by the sardine chum that the crew had thrown in the water.

Yep, sharks.

Yep, sharks.

Luckily these sharks were merely nurse sharks, completely harmless to humans.  For the final snorkel we were split into two groups an followed our guides through the Hol Chan Marine Reserve, up against the barrier reef.  We were treated to incredible reef and coral with abundant marine life including moray eels and turtles.  As we motor sailed our way back to Caye Caulker, the crew prepared shrimp ceviche and deceptively weak tasting rum punch.  It began pouring.  No worries, everyone crowded into the cabin around the dreaded-headed captain who was navigating our vessel, and relaxed, out of the downpour.

Crowded?  Nope, just fun.

Crowded? Nope, just fun.

All was kosher until the sailboat came to an abrupt halt.  Ken and Joe sprinted to the top deck to investigate, returning quickly to direct everyone to the bow of the boat.  We were stuck on a reef.  In normal circumstances, sans four glasses of rum punch, we might all have been slightly panicked.  Instead, everyone cheerfully piled from one side of the boat to the other and eventually we drifted free and motored safely back to Caye Caulker.  IMG_0739Although we miss Suzie, Caye Caulker has been a welcome vacation from our vacation…I know, we are spoiled.

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Over the Mountains and Through the Jungle, to Belize we go!

After we survived Oaxaca and its curse, we decided we needed some good quality beach time in order to fully recover.  Patagoniaorbust (yep, we are still together) had headed to the Pacific surf town of Puerto Escondido the day before, so after our car alarm was installed and found to be in perfectly loud working condition, we said goodbye to Oaxaca and headed west.  There are two roads from Oaxaca to Puerto Escondido, both of which as we stared astounded at Google Maps, appeared to be tortuously windy.  Taking the advice of our local hostel owner, we elected to take the slightly longer, potentially less windy, better paved road through Puerto Angel.  We thought we had encountered dangerous curves in the States on Highway 1 in California and then again in Mexico on coastal Highway 200 out of Puerto Vallarta, little did we know, those paled in comparison to Highway 175.  After about the 30th complete steering wheel revolutions, and 2000 feet of elevation gain we were at the top of the Sierra Madre del Sur mountain range.

Sierra Madre del Sur

Growing up in Montana and living in Alaska, I know mountains.  Not these mountains, these were Mexican mountains and the only similarities were their height and beauty.  Mexican mountains have towns and farms perched at the summit, at a respectable ± 7000 feet.  Corn crops planted vertically down the side, are intermingled with boldly colored flowers, set amidst lushly green jungle with a few pine trees scattered here and there.  Neat houses made of wood (a rarity in a concrete dominated Mexico) seemed to hang over the edge of the mountain, supported by a few wooden beams, laundry flapping in the stiff breeze.

Great view for laundry day!

We drove through a beautiful little town, San Juan del Pacifico, and wished we could linger there for a few days hiking, mountain biking, and getting our mountain fix.  But the beach beckoned and we continued.

We rejoined Joe and Kylee at Zicolete Beach in Puerto Escondido and settled in for a few days of pure laziness aka heaven aka white sand, turquoise ocean, cold corona, and snorkeling.  The only real work we did involved walking to Playa Manzanilla every morning to plop our butts down under some umbrellas and melding our collective culinary skills together to whip up delicious red snapper tacos, pineapple salsa, and fried plantains.  It was tough work.  

When we tired of the beach, heat, and humidity we packed up and hit the road for our longest driving day in Mexico, 407 miles to San Cristobal de las Casas, and back into the cool mountain air.  Way too many toll fees and too much gas later, we made it.  Arriving at Rancho San Nicolas on the outskirts of town that evening, it was cold!

Crammed in Suzie with Joe and Kylee cause it was too cold to eat outside

I am afraid to report that I have absolutely lost my Alaskan indifference to cool temperature.  No longer is 65 degrees a warm day.  In fact, I believe it only dipped down into the mid 40’s that night in San Cristobal, an average spring or fall day in Seward where I would normally be in a t-shirt making my way up Mt. Alice.  Instead I was in Mexico, in the camper huddled under the down blanket as close to Ken as possible, debating whether it was worth the effort to   light the heater.  Luckily we survived the frigid temperatures and set off the next day to explore San Cristobal.  Here the indigenous tribes have a much bigger presence and women dressed in brightly colored traditional blouses, black woolen skirts,  and two tightly plaited braids crowded the streets.  We visited the Mayan Medicine Museum, a fascinating (at least to me) display of the traditional methods and medicines used by the Mayan healers.  We then found one of my favorite places thus far.  A wine bar with cheap delicious Mexican, Argentinian, and Chilean wine that also served popcorn and tapas.

Anaka’s version of heaven

I actually could’ve stayed there for at least a week, but I don’t think everyone else had quite the same enthusiasm.

The next day we caught a collective (an old VW van to Ken’s delight) and headed to the Tzotzil village of San Juan Chamula, well known for its peculiar religious rituals.  As we hopped off the collective that cost each of us $1.68 each way, we were dismayed to see rows of tour buses belching out zip-off panted, fanny-pack belted, wide-brimmed hat wearing tourists.   We belined for the white stone church that sits at the head of San Juan Chamula’s zocalo, hoping to beat the crowds.  As we payed the 20 peso entrance fee, wafts of fragrant smoke and chanting floated out the door.  We entered into the barely illuminated interior, the floor carpeted with pine needles and flickering candles.  Statues of obscure saints lined the sides, candles on tables and candles on the floor (dangerously close to the dry pine needles) seemed to provide the lighting for the entire church.  Small groups of worshippers were huddled around their chosen saint, some kneeling in silence, some chanting, a few crying.  Combined it was a powerful scene.  Unfortunately, there were also groups of tourists, us included, far outnumbering those who had come to worship.  Any sense of spirituality was quickly replaced by the feeling that we were intruders peering into these peoples’ most private place.  We were merely curious bystanders here to watch the show.  It was a defining moment for the rest of our travels, and a concept I’ve struggled with in my previous travels.  What is the fine line that prevents tourism from becoming an invasive and disrespectful practice that might ultimately have a negative effect on the people and their culture?  As we continue on our journey we do not want to merely be the observers, making a spectacle out of someone’s every day life and practices.  Instead, we will strive to respectfully partake in their culture and way of life, not staring or comparing.  Some may call it responsible tourism, we think its basic human respect.

High rise church in San Cristobal

 

From San Cristobal we crawled at a painfully slow pace over a record number of topes (227 by our count) to Palenque, stopping for a refreshing dip in Agua Azul before arriving at Mayabell Campground.  As evidenced by the amount of tourists at Agua Azul and the next day at Palenque, we were back on the gringo trail!   That evening as we settled into camp we all eagerly listened for the first howl of the howler monkey.  Far off in the distance I heard a combination groan/burp/fart/howl, that almost sounded like a constipated donkey bray.  As these cries echoed all around us, we realized this was the infamous howler monkey.  Unfortunately, we didn’t get any sound bytes, but were entertained by a group of monkeys in camp the next day.

Baby howler monkey!

Palenque far exceeded our expectations.  We deftly evaded the persistent tour guides and the hordes of European tourists and along with our fellow intrepid explorers patagoniaorbust, we managed to discover and conquer every niche and cranny we could find.  Even imagining that we had found passageways that no one else had encountered and braving hordes of bats flying in our faces.  Actually, only Joe braved the lone bat, although it is debatable if it was a bat or a giant butterfly.

Obligatory ancient bathroom pic

From Palenque we headed to Campeche in a quest to find contacts (to replace the ones stolen in Oaxaca) and the makings for a traditional American Thanksgiving feast.  Campeche proved to be a quiet little city with a beautiful historic center.  That night instead of howler monkey cries, we were serenaded by an orchestra giving a free concert in front of the brightly lit cathedral right outside our hotel rom.  The next day we headed towards the Riviera Maya south of Playa del Carmen sans contacts and with the makings for a yummy albeit nontraditional Thanksgiving feast.  We pulled into the Xpu-Ha Campground set a little back from the perfectly white sand beach and found ourselves surrounded once again by Canadians.  Throughout Mexico, at every single campground, there has been at least one Canadian snowbird, and a glaring absence of Americans.  We admit were a bit apprehensive about the ‘safety situation’ in Mexico prior to the beginning of our journey.  That negative perception has been shattered.  Despite the incident in Oaxaca, Mexico has far exceed our expectations.  It is a beautiful, geographically varied country filled with friendly, welcoming people, delicious food, gorgeous beaches, towering mountains, and cultured cities.  Never once have we felt threatened or unsafe.  With a little common sense and travel know how, anyone can experience the amazingness that is Mexico, but I digress.  That evening surrounded by Canadians we enjoyed our version of Thanksgiving; pan fried chicken with gravy, instant mashed potatoes, green beens, corn, and a few bottles of wine.

Thanksgiving feast

The boys even put a Mexican twist on it, wrapping everything up in tortillas.  We enjoyed two days and nights at Xpu-Ha picking the brains of those Canadians, who between them probably had over 50 years experience RV’ing in Mexico and Central America and welcomed us young Americans in with wide open arms.

After Xpu-Ha, we based ourselves in Bacalar on the shores of the picturesque lake before crossing the border into Belize.

Lake Bacalar

More difficult days were spent lazing in the sun, paddleboarding, and cooling off in the freshwater lake.  We also managed to squeeze in a pickup soccer game and some impromptu Spanish/English lessons with the park groundskeeper.  Overall, Mexico was incredible.  We drove approximately 4,730 miles from Tijuana to Chetumal crossing deserts, beaches, oceans, mountains and cities and eating our weight in tacos, and we would do it again in a heartbeat.  Mexico we miss you already!  Check out our Facebook page for more photos.

The Rhythm of the Road

Our eyes open almost simultaneously around 7:30 (a straight up miracle for those who know me well) and we are ready for another day.  Every morning water is boiling first thing for tea and coffee.  Really difficult breakfast choices are then made, banana pancakes, fresh pineapple with yogurt, or eggs and chorizo?  I sip my tea and figure out how far under or over budget we were the previous day as Ken checks the truck and the camper.  Oil level, check, transmission fluid, check, air pressure in the tires and air bags, check, propane tank level, check, water tank level, check, fridge pilot light lit, check.  If we are in a city, we begin exploring after our morning routine.  Wandering the streets, poking our heads into shops, stores, whatever interests us.  Stopping in the zocalo’s (plaza) to take in the local sights and sounds, we inevitably find our way to the mercado.

My favorite part of San Cristobal. Vino and popcorn!

Each city’s mercado has different characteristics, but are essential the same.  A tangled labyrinth of narrow walkways, each section selling different wares.  A row of stalls selling DVD’s, a whole stall dedicated to remote controls, or shoe laces.

Outdoor mercado in San Juan Chamula

Then there is the carneceria  with stalls upon stalls of every cut of meat imaginable.  If the city is close enough to the ocean there are stalls of seafood displayed perfectly.  Inexplicably, the butcher stalls are always immediately next to the produce stalls where mounds of fresh tomatoes, avocados, peppers, bananas, pineapple and that regions specialty are heaped colorfully together.

Maybe not fruit, but colorful nonetheless.

And then our favorite portion of the mercado, the food stands.  Immediately, our ears are filled with the lilting calls enticing potential customers to choose a particular establishment.  “Enchilada, empenada, tamale, mole negro, tostada, tlayuda,” or some variation ring out.  If we happen to glance at a particular stand, the chant grows in intensity.  Finally we find someplace that suits our needs for that day and stuff our bellies with delicious food made in front of our eyes.

San Cristobal de las Casa mercado food

The afternoon might be spent in a museum or more likely enjoying a beer at one of the many cafes, watching the world go by.  Back at Suzie dinner is made, enjoyed, and cleaned up.  Some time is spent researching the next few days or watching a movie and we crawl into bed satisfied with another incredible day in Mexico.  If we are on the beach, we spend a hard day lazing in the sand, snorkeling or paddleboarding, eating fresh fish tacos and soaking in the sun and sights.

Fresh fish tacos in Puerto Escondido

On travel days the morning routine might be cut a little shorter, but usually not.  We try not to drive more then 200 miles in a day in order to keep our gas budget under control and to prevent too much of the country flying by our window without us exploring some part of it.  Fill up, drive, stop for lunch, drive, reach our destination and set up camp.

View from the road.

Such is our life in the road.  A day or two or three or more in a place, no real set itinerary, trying our hardest not to have anywhere we have to be.  This is how traveling should be and is becoming more of a reality for us every day.  By the time we reach Patagonia maybe we will be experts, but I hope not.  The most important part of the journey is the journey and we hope to be learning at every turn of the road.  We’ve found ourselves listening to this song a few times every day as we drive.  It always makes us smile and reminds us exactly why we are taking this journey.

The Tale of Cuatro Gringros and the Oaxacan Curse

We reunited with Joe and Kylee of Patagonia or Bust in San Miguel Allende after spending a few days stretching our legs in the windy, hilly streets of Guanajuato.

Streets of San Miguel de Allende…pictures courtesy of Joe and Kylee (aka patagoniaorbust)

After spending two lazy days catching up, updating our blogs, and exploring San Miguel we all headed to Cholula outside of Mexico City with the goal in mind to climb the pyramid and explore the churches of nearby Puebla.  Instead we were spooked by the ghostly empty, tagged up walls of Las America’s RV Park and ducked out after one night.  Our goal was Benito Juarez National Park 10 km north of Oaxaca where we planned on camping for the night in the clear air of the mountains before parting ways again.  Amazingly we found, or so we thought, the park relatively easily with only a few wrong turns.  As we inched our way up the dirt road on the side of the mountain, we marveled at the valley spread before us crammed with houses, people, and smog.  ‘Those suckers,’ we thought, ‘we are going to be sucking in the fresh air in no time!’  At the peak of the ridge as the mountains opened up before us, there was a lone gatekeeper’s house in front of a chain stretching across the road.  Forewarned by his two fierce guard dogs, who promptly wandered off to sleep, the gatekeeper came out to greet us a skeptical smile on his face.  We struggled to make ourselves understood, all we wanted was for the chain to come down so we could proceed up and camp undisturbed.  He mumbled something about permits under his breath and reached for his cell phone.  In rapid fire Spanish he spoke to some unknown higher up, all we could catch was ‘cuatro gringos’ and a couple of ‘buenos.’  We thought we were in!  As he hung up, he glanced over at us, shook his head and said ‘no permiso acampar,’ and retreated to his shack.  The last thing we wanted to do was head into Oaxaca at rush hour on a Saturday night to try and find a hostel, so we resolved to find a perfectly hidden pirate camping spot on the long dirt road we had just driven up.  As we descended, we spotted a rutted road headed up into the  trees.

Headed to pirate camping outside of Oaxaca

Our scouting mission was cut short by the tuk-tuk that came barreling down the road.  The words from numerous blogs came to life in front of me.  “When we had reached what we thought was the limit of our 4WD rigs, a crappy 2 wheel drive car would inevitably come cruising past us in no apparent distress at the conditions of the road (loosely adapted).”  We decided that this spot would work.  Ken gunned Suzie, she seemed ready to tackle the uneven terrain.  As we traversed the ditch, Suzie became airborne.  Rather one wheel left the ground and she seemed to teeter to a stop, balanced on her front axle, leaning towards the passenger side.  A million things happened in the space of a second.  I assumed we were not only high centered but about to go over so I leaped into Ken’s lap inadvertently grabbing the steering wheel.  Ken locked eyes with Kylee, noted the expression of horror on her face and hit the gas.  Somehow, miraculously, the other three tires grabbed and Suzie jumped out of the huge hole that Ken had accidentally driven into.  Joe and Kylee did not follow our example and managed to safely negotiate their truck into a ‘hidden’ nook next to us.  We cracked some beers and watched the sunset over Oaxaca.  After a delicious meal of chorizo, potato, peppers, mushrooms, rice, and squash, we started doing some dishes.  I was in the camper scrubbing away and saw some headlights approaching up the road.  We assumed they would continue past us considering we were so well hidden from view.  Instead, they stopped at the bottom of our illicit entrance and five separate lights approached us.  ‘This is it,’ I thought to myself, ‘Ken’s mother’s prediction is about to come true.’  I considered grabbing the bear spray, but instead stepped from the camper.  Ken and Joe nervously bellowed “hola” in a very friendly, nonthreatening manner (at least I thought so).  Soon five gauchos were milling around us.  After initial greetings and queries we were able to determine that we were not in fact camped in the national park, but were in fact camped on the town of San Pablo’s public grazing and farming land.  When the gauchos realized we were harmless, clueless gringos, they loosened up considerable and made us promise to not leave any basura (trash) behind.  Relieved that we weren’t about to receive harm to life, limb, or wordily goods we offered them all a cerveza and enjoyed a bit of awkward half conversation as they taught us some new words, warned us of the dangerous plants, and admired our vehicles.  As they left we all looked at each other with ear splitting grins, this is exactly the reason why we were all doing this trip.  Sure it was not the smartest or safest move to pirate camp outside a major city, but if we hadn’t we never would’ve experienced these men and their way of life.

Trying to get some dishes done

The next morning we woke up still high from the previous night, packed up and headed into Oaxaca for a day of city exploring and hot showers.  We found the Hostel Casa de Sol, got into the room and hopped into the showers.  We were excited to have soft, real beds, internet, and hot water for a night and we had even scored parking directly in front of the hostel.  Less then an hour after we had gotten there I asked Ken to get something from the truck.  He came back a few seconds later, pale, and announced, “I think someone broke into our truck.”  Our worst nightmare.  We knew before we left that we did not have the most secure locks, and intended on installing a car alarm at some point in Mexico, we just hadn’t gotten around to it yet.  Sure enough the lock was popped on the driver’s side and the thief had made off with our phone and three bags of stuff that we kept in the crew cab of the truck.  Initially we were not too upset.  The thief had stolen a bag of books (including our Central and South America guidebooks), air compressor, sunscreen, bug spray, first aid kit, and a lot of contact solution and tampons.

Video evidence from the hostel camera. The thief’s head is barely visible. Couldn’t see the license plate on the get away car either.

No items absolutely necessary to continue our journey.  The owner of the hostel was very apologetic and helpful, even arranging and guiding us to the locksmith to get the lock repaired.  As we were waiting for the repair, we began cataloguing the items stolen and figuring out what we needed to replace.  That is when we realized that our camera had also been in the back.  Then the anger and depression really set in.  Everything else that had been stolen was not vital, a camera is vital.  On the bright side, I have been lusting after a new camera body for quite a while, now I can with a clear conscience buy one.  It seems that the oaxacan curse is still in full effect and determined to make recent overlander’s experiences here difficult ones (see Home on the Highway and Drive Nacho Drive’s accounts of Oaxaca).  Again we learned lesson numero 1,000 of the million we will learn on the road, albeit a harsh one, and are getting a car alarm installed tomorrow.  We are thankful that nothing of vital importance was stolen including our truck and after a few tasty fried grasshoppers and some mescal life is looking up again.  After all we are still on a trip of our lifetime, with many more miles and incredible experiences ahead of us.

An Unfortunate Series of Events

The night that Suzie sprang a leak was a very unfortunate night.  We were sleeping soundly on the beach at Barra de Nexpa after a day of driving the windy highway 200 on the Michoacan coast.

Barra de Nexpa.

It had been cloudy all day, a fact that we reveled in, it was a break from the unrelenting heat and humidity of the previous few days.  The night before in St. Patricio-Melaque we had even enjoyed a thunder and lightening storm before going to bed.  In Barra de Nexpa, gusts of wind began shaking Suzie, flashes of lightening lit up the windows.  We snuggled a bit closer and closed our eyes until ‘drip, drip,’ Ken was rudely awoken by several splashes of water to the face.  Suzie’s roof was leaking!  Unfortunately it was one in the morning and pouring, and there was absolutely nothing we could do until the morning.  A pot was placed under the leak and we fell back asleep to the ‘plink, plink’ of the water.  In the morning, we expected to wake up to blue skies and heat, after all this is Mexico, it doesn’t rain here, right?

Michoacan coast, reminiscent of the Oregon coast

Wrong.  It was still pouring.  Instead of lazing on the beach for another day in the sun, surf, and sand we packed up and headed towards the colonial city of Morelia in the mountains of Mexico hoping to escape the rain.  However, as we proceeded north, it continued to rain.  Sometimes a sprinkle, sometimes a downpour.  We tried to push the worry out of our minds and enjoy the scenery, which was incredible, imagine soaring mountains strewn with yellow, blue, red and pink flowers, but it was difficult to do so considering the extensive water damage the roof had sustained the prior winter (read our post about repairs here).  Trying to keep our spirits up I read about the beautiful catherdral in the historic centro of Morelia that according to Lonely Planet was lit up by fireworks and spotlights every Saturday, and it was Dia de los Muertos weekend, even better!  ‘This is going to be incredible,’ we thought to ourselves.  Arriving in Morelia around 4:00 we found Hostel Allende relatively easily and it even had a covered parking garage nearby, because yes, it was still pouring.  Again, unfortunately, due to poor prior planning on my part, the hostel was completely booked.  So were the next four or five hostels/hotels we managed to stumble upon as we circled the city center for two hours.  Morelia is a beautiful city, but its streets are very narrow, cobblestoned, filled with throngs of people, and were flooded due to the storm.  Ken did a magnificent job navigating the hazards.

Morelia Cathedral fireworks. Stolen from the web, because we did not make it there that night.

Luckily we had a few contingency plans.  A WalMart had been spotted on the way into town and every WalMart we had encountered in Mexico had large canopies over its parking lot.  Perfect!  A free place to sleep and shelter for Suzie.  Unfortunately, this WalMart was the first one without canopies.  Fortunately, they did have wine, a soon to be necessary salve for the disappointments we had experienced throughout the day.  Our second contingency plan was an Auto Hotel.  For those of you not in the know, an Auto Hotel in Mexico is not a hotel for your automobile although each room does have its own private parking garage.  An Auto Hotel is code for a hotel of ill repute, without the girls, or so we thought.  We had read and heard from previous travelers that if you were absolutely out of options these were the place to go.  Sure you had to pay by the hour, but the hotels were remarkably clean and as mentioned before secure, covered parking was available.  For some reason though, the lady would not let us enter.  I tried over and over again, “Cuentos cuesta para todo noche, para doce horas?” I’m sure something got lost in translation as she rattled off a string of words and numbers that I could not sort out with my limited Spanish.  We deduced that this Auto Hotel must come with a girl in each room, and instead of taking advantage of us poor clueless gringos, this kind lady was actually doing us a favor and saving us from a potentially extremely awkward situation.   Defeated we got back on the road.  Things were getting grim.  We couldn’t pop the top unless we were under shelter and our bed and clothes were most likely getting soaked with the continuing rain, not to mention the newly reconstructed roof could be slowly becoming saturated with water again, and we were violating our one and only rule by driving at night.  Eventually we found a Quality Inn, broke our budget, and lived it up with two double beds, unlimited hot water, internet, and television!  The next morning we found a WalMart with a covered garage, because it was still raining, and Ken examined and recaulked the roof.

You gotta do what you gotta do

Hostel Allende had plenty of room for us the next day and we donned our raincoats, missing our xtratuffs, and explored Morelia despite the rain.

Dia de los Muertos decorations, a bit soggy, but pretty nonetheless

We ate a lot of delicious tacos el pastor and met a fellow traveler, Mike an Irishman living in Australia who has been traveling since January and covered the majority of the US and Canada.  He is planning on shipping his BMW bike from Panama to Chile and driving north. We hope to run into him on the road!

I love tacos!

Smoke filling the place from the open kitchen.

Morelia is truly a special city.  At night the streets fill with people stopping and chatting at cafes and bars.  Guitar and mariachi music spills from open doorways.  Couples kiss in plazas, on benches, under street lights, everywhere.  Even though there was no light show, the cathedral was still breathtaking.  We thoroughly enjoyed it despite the travails of the prior day.

We are now in Guanajuato, another incredible Mexican city.  Here the streets are even narrower then Morelia.  There are more people crowding the streets, sitting in plazas, sunning on the steps of the theater, and chatting it up in cafes.  If there wasn’t a continuous flow of Spanish all around us, we might think we were in any city Europe.  We are camped above the city center in a great little campground, and true to form have been serenaded at night by a cacophony of barking dogs.  Guanajuato is an amazing city and we are thoroughly enjoying exploring as many corners and winding alleyways as we can.  Luckily it hasn’t rained for the past few days and an inspection of Suzie has revealed less water damage then we feared.  Just another adventure to add to the growing list.

Guanajuato

The Crossing

We locked eyes across the counter, neither of us blinking.  A bead of sweat slowly trickled down my brow cooled briefly by the coolness wafting from the air conditioned office.  Scorn and indignation radiated from every pore of my body.  ‘How dare you call Suzie a mini-motorhome!  She is clearly a small truck camper! Just look at her measurements, she is petite! She is a truck!’  Unfortunately, my Jedi mind tricks did not work on the stoic Baja ferry employee.  We were faced with either an enormous ferry fee of $10,667 plus a $975 passenger fee and an additional $500 for a cabin (roughly $930 USD) or driving north back through Baja and over to mainland Mexico.  For the first time I felt utterly defeated and drained, the thought of driving north made me want to cry.  Little did we know that there was an angel in the form of a Banjercito teller who was watching over us.  She shook her head in horror at the price, hustled us next door to the TMC ferry office and in rapid fire Spanish booked a reservation for us for a mere $3,650 ($280.53 USD).  Better yet we would be able to sleep in car!  Our minds at ease we headed to Todos Santos for a beautiful night of boondock camping next to an abandoned bar.

Its hard, but someone has to do it

We then headed to La Ventana and spent an amazing two nights camped outside of a house thanks to Joe and Kylee of Patagonia or Bust.

Thanks Joe and Kylee!

It was such a luxury to have a full kitchen and a shower.  We spent our time watching windsurfers, doing some truck and camper maintenance, and I did my first load of dry bag laundry.  We also celebrated Kylee’s 23rd birthday with the folks from Southern Tip Trip, whom we had randomly run into, and we all enjoyed a delicious dinner and giant margaritas together.

Happy Birthday Kylee!

The next day we caravanned with Joe and Kylie to La Paz to embark on our 18 hour ferry ride to Mazatlan.  From reading prior blogs we knew that we wanted to be parked on the top deck, but well away from the deafening ventilation fans.  Unfortunately we were motioned to park directly in front of the fans and right next to the “work bench” which stunk of diesel fuel and paint fumes.

Damnation!

With my history of sea sickness there was no way we could sleep in the car.  Again, thanks to prior blog entries from tranquiloadventures and the dangerz, we knew to set up shop in the bow, sipped some beers, ate some dinner, read some books, watched some dolphins play on the bow, and created some cozy beds to sleep in for the night.  We would definitely recommend TMC Ferry over Baja Ferry.  Although the ship might not be as nice, we had full access to our trucks, the food was decent, and there were fairly nice bathrooms and hot showers!  There was even a movie room, albeit full of Mexican truckers.

Hull of the boat, a bit rusty and lots of layers of paint

We disembarked in Mazatlan, said goodbye to Joe and Kylee, and headed for either San Blas or Sayulita.  Again we were amazed at the beauty surrounding us as we drove.  Mountains, jungle, and palm trees as far as we could see.  It finally felt like we were really in a foreign country.  Baja was beautiful and its beaches amazing, but at times felt like an extension of California.  This was the real deal.  The heat and humidity was also the real deal.  Guess we better get used to drip sweating starting at 8:30 in the morning!  We wandered around San Blas but decided to continue on to Sayulita primarily because every guide book and blog we had read had said the bugs were absolutely brutal and we did not relish the idea of getting eaten alive.  About 30 miles down the road we noticed a familiar truck in the rear view mirror, Patagonia or Bust!  We decided it was fate for us to continue traveling together for the time being and headed for Sayulita.  Our first night was spent at Palmar de Camaron Campground and we would not recommend it.  The owners were extremely inhospitable and refused to let us pull our trucks up onto the deserted beach.  The next day as we were searching for an alternative we ran into Kellee and Jamie of tranquiloadventures who were camped at Sayulita RV and Bungalow.  We all set up next to each other and have been enjoying the sand, surf, SUPing and sun together for the past few days.  

The 5 T’s

Ahhh, Baja

Topes, tacos, Tecate, travelers, and tore up roads, these are the 5 T’s of Baja that we quickly learned in our first week in Mexico.  Number one, topes.  These invention of the Mexican devil, known as Mexican highway 1,  are put on the roadways to plague the unsuspecting overlander as they make their way to the nearest beach.  Although numerous books, blogs, and warnings have been made of these suspension wrecking bumps, we were not quite prepared for the entity that is a Mexican tope.  Sometimes, there might be warning signs on the road such as a innocuous appearing car ascending a sudden steep hill, or a bump outlined by rays of sunlight as if to foretell an amazing feature in the road ahead, but not always.  Often topes precede towns, but not always.   If you are lucky, there are topes are in the middle of towns to warn of stoplights at intersections that are not really intersections, but not always.  Occasionally, topes are preceded by a series of mini topes, but not always.  From what we can determine from our Mexican driving experience thus far topes are just what they are, there but not always.

Viva Mexico!

 

At least topes are followed by tacos, in our 5 T’s of Baja.  I used to be able to  wax eloquently about the attributes and virtues of tacos for quite some time as they are one of my top five all time favorite foods, but I had no concept of a true taco until I ate a taco from a dusty roadside stand in Baja Mexico.  No fancy sauces or cheese on this taco, simply tortilla, beef, salsa, and a squeeze of lime.  In other words, pure delicious heaven.  Since that first taco in Ensenada, the only meals we have eaten out are at roadside taco stands.  Most of the time we have a hard time understanding the Spanish (mostly because we are major slackers and didn’t put any effort into learning before we left…major mistake), but we can understand a few words, rez, pollo, o pescado? maize o harina? and then hand gestures towards the heaping mounds of lime, salsa, chiles, and cilantro….yum.  We have also recreated a few delicious vegetable tacos in the Skamper, but are still building up our courage to buy meat at the market.  

 

Those who know us well know we enjoy a good cold beer.  Adjusting to the Mexican heat after 4 years of Alaska living, aka temperatures never above 70 F, has been difficult for us, this difficulty has been eased by a wonderfully cold Tecate (or 2) each evening at camp.  I miss the hoppy IPA’s from the states, but put a squeeze of lime into any Mexican beer and it turns into a refreshing, tasty beverage.  From the RV park in Santa Tomas to the cool crisp air in Parque Nacional San Pedro Matir, to Playa Santispec in Bahia Concepcion on the Sea of Cortez we always look forward to popping the top, raiding the fridge, and that first sip of refreshing coldness.

Guess its not always Tecate

 

In the first six days we spent in Baja, we met a total of four groups of travelers embarking on the Pan American highway.  Our first day after making it through the Tijuana border relatively intact, we headed through Ensenada with our first beach camping destination in mind.  Its only 17 miles down a dirt road, and we have no information about the conditions of the road, but we knew we could make it.  Lesson numero uno of Baja was learned a mere 4 miles into the the 17 mile road, guide books are outdated and always research road conditions before turning down one.  We were pummeled by huge, merciless washboards and feared that Suzie would get shaken off the back of the truck so we turned around.  Not 5 minutes after we turned around a sweet Toyota land cruiser type vehicle with European plates roared by us, stopped and we pulled up beside it.  We had met our first fellow PanAmer’s!  Aly, his wife and 4 year old daughter are from Germany and plan on taking 8 months for their journey.  They are experienced overlander’s and interesting people and we look forward to seeing them on the road.  Our third night in Baja we pulled into Bahia de Los Angeles after a long day, on the tail end of the storm/hurricane that had swept up from Baja Sur.  The next morning we explored the beach and the town and were relaxing at the campsite when 2 gringos approached from the beach.  It was Joe and Kylee of Patagonia or Bust.  We knew they had left San Diego the day after us and were camped just down the beach.   They spotted Suzie from the water and that evening we enjoyed some cervezas and conversation, hopefully the first of many such meetings!  After two nights in Bahia de Los Angeles and a night in Punta Chivato we headed to Bahia Concepcion, from all reports full of beautiful sandy beaches and crystal clear water.  Pulling into Playa Santispec we noticed a group of 3 Sprinter vans, we had ran into Bryan and chatted briefly in San Ignacio, but here was the whole crew from Southern Tip Trip in one place.  Joe, Kylee, and Aly and his family were also all camped at Santispec and we gathered around discussing our vehicles and plans for the rest of the trip.  It was so much fun to chat with everyone and we enjoyed a good time at the restaurant that evening with the overlanders and the entire snowbird population of Bahia Concepcion.  Those snowbirds sure know how to party!

Meeting of the minds

 

We came into Mexico expecting the roads to be rough, but they have held a few surprises.  As I mentioned above, the topes have been a bit more brutal then anticipated but Mex 1 hasn’t been too horrible.  It has mostly been every single dirt road we have turned onto.  Washboards, ruts, rocks, and washouts have plagued us and limited our ability to get off the beaten path.  The first night we were determined to make it to Todos Santos 17 miles down a dirt road, only to be thwarted by 6 inch deep washboards.  Undeterred a few days later we headed for Punta Chivato past Santa Rosalia, 10 miles down a dirt road.  We had heard that the road was decent, but the storm damage from the hurricane a few days earlier had turned the road into a washed out river bed.  We persevered past not one, but two stuck graders and made it to a pristine, deserted, free beach.

Oops!

The next day the graders had freed themselves and the road was in much better condition. We then attempted a dirt road on Bahia Concepcion, but that was washed out and required 4WD as well.  The hurricane had wreaked havoc everywhere!

Climbing like a cat in 4WD

 

Overall Baja has been everything we expected.  We are savoring our time here taking in the pristine beaches, ocean, delicious food and friendly people.  One more week in Baja then to mainland we go!

We will be back