(Welcome to Baja!)
After such a glorious introductory trip to Mexico last winter (see my blog posts from Dec 2013 thru Mar 2014 visiting the mainland’s west coast and central colonial cities), I wanted to check out the Baja peninsula this winter to see how it compares.
As luck would have it, my View friends from Denver (Hans and Ursula), were planning their first RV trip to Baja, and thus the idea of a “mini Skinny Winnie caravan” was hatched! We would leave the U.S. in mid-December to hopefully get a jump-start on the post-holiday snowbirds.
Our rendezvous location was up in the very chilly hills about 40 miles east of San Diego, at Potrero County Park. Less that 10 miles from the Tecate border crossing, it’s a popular meet-up spot for RVs headed to Baja.
I rolled in just after dark, worn out from battling 2 hours of San Diego rush-hour traffic. Normally after such a travel day, I’d just heat up a can of soup for dinner and call it a night, but dear Ursula invited me to a beautiful and delicious pasta dinner with wine and even a fresh-baked desert. What a treat!
We poured over our maps and travel books to fine-tune our plans and decided to drive the Tracker and walk across the border at Tecate the next day before trying to drive it with our Views. Good thing we did as the border crossing is a very small area with no easily accessible parking for motorhomes towing a car or trucks pulling a camper!
But driving the Tracker to the U.S.-side parking lots and walking across was a super-easy affair. There’s a great currency exchange and good-priced gas station on the U.S. side as well so you can get yourself some pesos and top off your tanks before crossing the border.
There are lots of confusing posts in online RV forums saying you can’t walk across to get your FMM a day in advance and drive the motorhome across the next day, and I suppose technically that’s true. The FMM (Tourist Card) is not required for visits less than 72 hours to Mexico, or if not going beyond border towns or “tourist corridors.” But once you get your FMM card, you’re technically supposed to hand it back to Mexican Customs before leaving the country again (which must be within 6 months).
Fortunately, the Mexican Aduana (Customs) office in Tecate on our Saturday afternoon was so laid-back, they said it was no problem at all to cross back to the U.S. with our FMMs. They realize the parking logistics are not ideal for RVers, so they bend this rule a bit to compensate. One other difference about the Tecate crossing (compared to Nogales, AZ and Loredo, TX)—all the customs officers spoke perfect English, and all seemed to be in a much happier mood that the bigger, much busier crossings. We felt very warmly welcomed to their lovely little city!
Another difference about going to Baja vs. deeper into mainland Mexico—no vehicle import permits are required! What a pain those things are—for cars, you must pay a few hundred dollars as a deposit that you then get back when you leave Mexico. For motorhomes, your permit is good for 10 years but if you happen to get a crack in your windshield (as I current have on my View), don’t think about getting the windshield replaced until you find a Mexican Banjercito agent to officially remove your sticker first! (that’s now on my to-do list when I reach La Paz!)
And while I’m on the subject of vehicles, one other welcome difference about Baja & the border tourist zones-- Mexican auto insurance is a little cheaper than having to buy “full-country” coverage. I again purchased my insurance from Lewis & Lewis online a day before we left. Very easy process, and since I have Progressive Insurance on both my RV and car, I only needed to buy liability coverage for Mexico (as Progressive is one of the few , maybe only, U.S. insurers that continues to cover you while in Mexico. Everything except liability which must come from one of the Mexico insurers).
OK, now back to our regularly scheduled program—our trip!
We did the actual border crossing with the rigs on a Sunday morning—again, a very laid-back affair here in Tecate. Mexican Customs did a quick look into Hans & Ursula’s RV, and a quick look inside of my Tracker. Within 5 minutes (and without even looking at our passports, FMMs, dog papers, or anything else), we were now officially in Mexico and on our way. Best border crossing ever!
As we navigated across town, I don’t know why I failed to put 2 and 2 together earlier, but DUH! Tecate, Mexico is the home of Tecate beer!
We whizzed past the factory so fast that neither of us got a photo of it—so here’s a web pic of the brewery for the curious. They supposedly have pretty great tours of the place, which would have been a fun thing to do on Saturday when we went to town for the tourist visas (had we known)—oh well, next time!
Ursula had scoped out a large, company-owned Telcel store at a nearby modern strip mall. So, our first stop was to get her and Hans a SIM card for their unlocked smartphone, and to get my SIM card from last year working with my new smartphone. Last year, I had not gone to a Telcel store until I was 250 miles south of the border, and as a result, it was difficult to find a store rep with good English skills. But here in Tecate, our Telcel rep spoke perfect English and quickly got our phones up and running.
With all that finished, it was now time to drive 120 miles to our first overnight stop south of Ensenada. The route from Tecate is a beautiful drive through the Guadalupe Valley that is reportedly the birthplace of the Margarita as well as the “Mexican Napa Valley” for its abundance of vineyards (WV-reader Jeff highly recommends a “world-class” Monte Xanic Merlot which I’ll be hunting for on my return trip to the U.S.)! Yep, I think we’re on the right road for wine!!!
Wine tourism is becoming such a big deal down here that they even have a handsome, new Museo de la Vid y el Vino (Museum of the Vine and the Wine) that features wine tastings from various local vineyards as well as exhibits of the history of the area. Another place I hope to visit on my way back!
Before we knew it, the Pacific Ocean was glistening on the horizon as we made our way down the hills into Ensenada. We didn’t stop in town, but it looked clean and more inviting than what I’ve always heard about Tiajuana!
Ensenada even has a Walmart, Costco, Home Depot and other big stores if you just can’t live without them!
As it was getting later in the afternoon, our task for today was first and foremost to find a campground for the night! Ursula was the designated route-planner for the trip as she had all the latest camping guides and books for Baja, and it looked like there were a number of camping options south of town on the road to La Bufadora.
We stopped halfway down this road at a couple of the campgrounds—one was totally empty (perhaps because they were wanting $35/night USD!), and the other was loaded with dumpy permanent trailers and not that appealing. Both camps only had bay views which were also not that exciting. So, on we went down the road to see what the boondocking campgrounds might look like.
Good call, as we stumbled upon a wonderful little place called “Campo #5” right at a scenic overlook of the Pacific Ocean before you make the turn back towards the bay and La Bufadora. For just 120 pesos a night (US $8.50), we got an unobstructed scenic view of the ocean right out our bedroom windows!
We had never stopped for lunch, and by late afternoon, were all now famished. On to the tourist attraction, La Bufadora, to see what restaurants we might find for an early dinner.
Most folks park at the lots right as you come into town, but seeing a long “gauntlet” of souvenir stalls and vendors hawking their wares, Hans had the smart idea that we should drive down the gauntlet to see if there was any parking at the end…indeed there was! We parked right next to the restaurants overlooking the bay--
and could now admire “the gauntlet” without having to walk the whole thing!
The bay was just gorgeous with the setting sun…
We kept hearing a distant thundering sound every minute or so….oh yeah, the blowhole, La Bufadora itself! There was a nice 2-level terrace to get right up next to it. Quite impressive and a fun time had by all!
Finally, we made our way over to a restaurant for the classic Baja fish taco dinner. Typical tourist fare (rather bland), but not too overpriced and our table had a great view of the sunset. By the time we left to drive back to the campground it was dark and I was breaking one of the cardinal sins (driving after dark in Mexico)! Fortunately, it was only about 2 miles!
For my first night in Baja, I fell asleep listening to the gentle waves rolling in against the rocks a couple hundred feet below. Not too shabby!
Millie woke me up the next morning, as she routinely seems to do, just before sunrise. When I saw the sky bursting with a 360-degree panorama of colors, I quickly grabbed my little camera and headed down the bluff with Millie.
What a magnificent way to start the day, and quite a great welcome to Baja!