Toyota Cruisers and Trucks Magazine is for the traveler and Toyota enthusiast. They decided to publish one of our articles yet again… Thanks Beau… CLICK HERE to checkout the new April 2015 issue online…
For almost 20 hours, we trudged through the night’s dark sea. We left the brown desert of Southern Baja and arrived in Mazatlán, Mexico, the only gringos aboard a ship filled with drunken truckers who stood beside their rigs.
We felt comfortable aboard the vessel alongside the truckers; they were mostly old timers and family men. Colorful pictures faded from the desert sun–religious figures, naked women, photos of loved ones–plastered the walls inside their rigs. The ship’s diesel burned through the night while the stars made their way across a clear sky, the air cool against our skin. Exposed to outer space that shone from above, knocked out in a tequila-induced slumber, we slept through the night. The song of burning diesel was soothing while we were in our little tent on the roof of our truck.
After we were dropped off by the ship deep on the Mexico coast, we began heading south in our truck. No specific destination and no timeline; the feeling of total freedom was as distracting as it was overwhelming. There was always a cloud of smoke as we blazed down the camino–fires burned constantly on the sides of the road, filling the air with a cloudy familiar smell. It was the smell of chicken being cooked, fueled by burning wood in an old oil drum cut in half on the side of the road in Mexico. It was the smell of life on the road. It was the smell of being free.
An offshore breeze blew through the tent. It was hard to sleep because the ground was rumbling. Close by, heavy waves crashed the Mexican sandbar until dawn. The chilly morning quickly warmed us up. Like a piece of steak marinating before it gets cooked, we embraced the cool morning before getting roasted. The mid-day heat forces shady naps. It is a dry heat; it hasn’t rained in months.
The military and police presence was strong on the major highways, but in some of the villages and more remote spots we were on our own. On the flip side, there are the other guys. They’re the guys wearing nice street clothes with neatly combed hair. Bullet proof vests, hand guns wedged in their belt, shotguns casually leaned on their shoulders. Several clean cut men just relaxed in their truck or strolled down the beach. While the afternoon scorch melted the sand, they also liked to sip a cerveza in the shade, watching the waves crash on the shore. I walked past their truck after a session, board under my arm, and they spoke to me in Spanish. “How are the waves,” they asked. I told them they were good.”Buenas olas.” They were not cops, nor were they military. They left us alone, and we tried not to stare.
Three months in Mexico and we camped every night. Countless waves satisfied, just like the cheap street food. Young kids wandered through camp selling freshly picked papayas. We were invited to a Christmas Eve dinner at a local place in the village. The party was filled with just as many surfers as locals–perfect strangers breaking bread and sharing the familiarity of a holiday dinner. The clock struck midnight and time suddenly stopped; everyone embraced one an other with open arms. Fisherman, farmers, surfers, children, drunks, degenerates, Europeans, Americans, and travelers all tipped their mugs and wished a “feliz navidad.” A stout older gent, a complete stranger, hugged me and smiled. His face told a story, nostalgic of another year passing by. So far from home, I felt right at home.
The palm trees danced from the afternoon wind as I scoured the ground for fallen coconuts. With some help from my trusty machete, I learned how to drink the water from the shell. Coconut water quenches your thirst, like a swing from a machete just feels good to do. I drank the sweet water and remembered how much coconut water costs back in the States.
Siesta time beachside. As I enjoyed a rest between sessions, a middle-aged Texan, as loud as he was irritating, tried to sell me ecstasy in the desolate grassy camp. I brushed off this madcap and resumed my catnap. My dog did not like him and let out a low growl. He threatened my dog’s life and disappeared into the heat. One day, the jaded Texas tourist will get his. So I simply watched the ocean and waited for the breeze.
The life of a traveler is a simple life. It’s a good life. While moving from place to place, you have few priorities: keep your things safe, spend your money frugally, see how long you can go, and surf as much as you can. Live an interesting life while owning as little as possible. Some may say its the easy life, but it’s not the life for everyone.
So we decided to drive to Punta Maldonado, in Guerrero, Mexico. It’s only steps from the Oaxaca border. Punta Maldonado is an old African settlement on the South coast of Mexico, most of the decedents are derived from escaped African slaves. This area holds the record for the highest population of Afro-Mexicans in the entire country. Punta Maldonado was recommended to us by an older Canadian gent named David, who has apparently spent several years traveling around Mexico. Today Punta Maldonado remains an out of the way fishing village on a dead end road. Tourism is non existent, locals only, mostly fisherman and their families. Our caravan consisted of Sara, Lupe and I in our truck, followed by George and Rachel in their VW Vanagon.
We spent our previous days on touristy beaches, we fought for waves amongst surfers from around the globe. Although the swell was small, the crowds were not. The holidays just past, leaving the crowds still intact. All the “cool guy” surfer types still marched the beaches and lingered in the water. The “cool guy” is just an attitude. These types are all very serious, they are everywhere, aggressively fighting for a wave no matter how small the surf may be. They wont make eye contact with you because you are the enemy, the rival wave rider. You say hello to break the tension, but they usually just sneer and grind their teeth at your salutation. We decided to get away from this nonsense.
As we swiftly drove down the dead end highway, the sun was to set at any moment. We did not want to drive at night because the roads in Mexico are complete shit. Just when you think the pavement looks fresh, a piece of the road will be missing. Where does it go? its like the devil comes down with a giant spoon and launches a section of the road into the ocean. Sometimes half of an entire lane will have washed away, leaving a dried up water slide big enough for your truck to be sucked into the bowls of a Mexican canyon. These holes in the road come with no warning, no sign, no traffic cone to prevent sudden death. Sometimes there will be a rock roughly the size of a human head, painted white, only a few feet before the hole to warn its potential victims. Driving conservatively, in daylight is something to take seriously.
The sun had just set when we arrived in the town. It was a typical Mexican beach strewn with panga boats and palapas. Large palapas, covering loads of plastic furniture displaying fading beer logos on their backrests. The road that ran parallel with the beach was lined up with a few open air restaurants. The village’s tienda blasted merengue music while skinny shirtless men painted in tattoos and fishing scars played cards and gambled. They eyed and sneered us up and down as we slowly rolled by. They were not used to people like us coming into their village.
At this point in our travels we did not mind the eyes and sneers. Eyes and sneers are everywhere we go, in the USA, Mexico, family dinners back home, everywhere.
We were approached by some restaurant employees, almost forcing us to eat at their place. Quickly without warning they approached our crew, forcefully, they said they would make us all dinner. It was almost impossible to refuse. I wanted to make my own dinner because I’m cheap, but the rest of my party accepted the meal. I ordered what I always ordered, a whole fried fish with a side of plantains. I sucked the bones dry, and just left the spine connecting the head to the tail. When I was finished I looked at the meatless fish in the eye, and sneered.
I parked our truck on the beach while George and Rachel parked alongside the restaurant, Their van could not drive through the thick sand. Personally, I liked to be away from the lights, where I could sit on the tailgate and drink, while I watched the stars and listened to the waves. This came to be a ritual. Just starring into space not thinking about, or doing anything specific. Just drinking in the dark, alone, while Sara and Lupe the dog slept. I would take in the smells and sounds of a place I would never return to again.
In the morning when we saw George and Rachel, they said their was a fire in this middle of the night at the restaurant, right next to their van. The heat and smoke woke them up. They did not know how the fire started, but it grew quick, it almost burned the whole place down. George put it out with his extinguisher and went back to bed. In the morning George explained to the restaurant owners what had happened, but they did not seem to care or acknowledge the charred debris on the side of their building. Maybe they did not know what he was trying to say. The language barrier was always an issue.
Mid-morning we were approached by a fisherman, stocky with a thick neck, squinty eyes like I was shining a light in his face, his baseball cap was clean and and had a NY emblem on the front. He was probably the same age as us, mid 30’s. He spoke excellent English but had a very raspy voice. He introduced himself as Roberto, His voice sounded like he was gargling rocks. He asked us “how did you find this place, no one ever comes here.” He was friendly, he claimed he used to live somewhere in the Carolinas, USA. He then said, “My friends warned me not to talk to you. they think you are all very angry and miserable people, they said I should not talk to you.” He claimed that he told his friends to “fuck off,” and he came over out of spite and curiosity. I do not know what gave his friends this impression of us. I was simply drinking coffee on my tailgate, enjoying the sun.
Roberto talked our ears off. He had stories of living in the USA, making a lot of money as some sort of private driver, a private taxi of sorts. Roberto said, “I was making so much money, over $1200 a week, cash.” not to bad for an illegal immigrant, I thought. He said he became an alcoholic and drug addict, spending all his money on cocaine. “I did so much cocaine, I spent all my money, and the cocaine messed up my throat, thats why my voice sounds like this.” Ahhh, I though, that explains that. Roberto then explained how during a New Years celebration, a week earlier, him and his friends were drunk, shooting guns in the air, celebrating. One of his drunk friends had a gun in his waistband and drunkly fell over, triggering the gun to fire, sending a fatal shot through his friends body. His friend left behind a wife and two young daughters.
Interrupting Roberto’s story, Lupe the dog bolts after a beach cat. Sending sand in the air, the cat heads straight towards an open air kitchen. The kitchen was filled with half a dozen chubby old Mexican women. They cooked with massive crusted pots over large flames. Meat, beans, broth, everything stewing, smoking. The cat jumps on the stove, diving through the flames and the food. Im frantically chasing Lupe, but my speed is no match. Im yelling, chasing my dog, causing a scene, it was a bit of a spectacle. Lupe chases the cat through the kitchen, jumping on the counter, bolting through the fire. The Mexican women are screaming waving there hands in the air. They were scared of my dog. I ran in the kitchen and grab Lupe by the collar, apologized to all the women, not making much eye contact due to the embarrassment. I dragged Lupe back to camp. We decided maybe we should hit the road sooner than later.
We spent less than 24 hours in Punta Maldonado. It was just another stop on the Pan-American highway. Although the town claims to be Afro-Mexican, the people looked more Mexican than African. Roberto looked Mexican, everything looked Mexican. Come to think of it, Im not 100% sure we were in the right place. It doesn’t really matter. It was just another day on the road.
The sun was freshly set when my stomach began to bubble. I felt the “plato del dia” sink low, to the dark haunting depths of my bowels, making its way to the end of the line. We have all been there. This can happen after eating 3 Brothers Pizza on the Jersey boardwalk, or even in your own home. This specific instance, while at high elevation in a Mexican forest, we were able to pull into a roadside posada during the early evening hours. Not wanting to drive at night, and desperate for a place to camp, we approached a small bundled up Mexican gent and asked for permission to camp in his lot. He was enthusiastic regarding our request, and welcomed us to camp for the night. We had been traveling Mexico via automobile for the past 3 months. This was just another day on the road.
I strolled to the restroom just like I had done a million times before. I did not have much time to spare. The restroom was in my peripheral vision and appeared to be vacant. This was child’s play- no worries. I will mail the package, then resume my evening plans of sipping cerveza and discussing tomorrows drive to Oaxaca.
I finished my restroom meeting and reached for the flush handle. It was night time and there was no functioning light source. I pulled out my flashlight and inspected the situation, soon to realize, a flush handle did not exist. “Ok, just relax,” I thought to myself. “I can solve this riddle. I can pull the plug up from inside the tank and then be on my way.” Next, to my continued amazement, I shone my light to the depths of the tank and startled the insects inside. Not only was the tank bone dry, but there was a golf ball sized hole in the bottom where I could clearly see the grey concrete floor below.
I contemplated just leaving the scene, as is, and later warning my fellow campers to not use the “stall on the left,” but this would only prove that I am not just inconsiderate, but a complete asshole. The poor Mexican man that owned the establishment was extremely generous. He does not deserve such a gesture of disrespect from American travelers, especially those privileged enough to tour several countries over extended periods of time.
This predicament might baffle even the most “off the beaten path” traveler, but after being presented with situations such as these, numerous times, one has no choice but to educate him or herself on proper 3rd world bathroom use. This includes the ins and outs of how a toilet properly functions. One becomes an “amateur plumber,” in a way. You will soon leave these situations confident and coming out on top, literally.
-Bring your own toilet paper: Toilet paper is usually absent from both public and private bathrooms. On occasion, you can purchase it on the spot, but it is always a good Idea to keep a roll handy when traveling. There is no guarantee that a given location will have some to sell, and exiting a bathroom with only one sock or sleeve will make you an easy target for possible humiliation.
-Keep spare change handy: Often times you will need to pay to use the restroom. It is never much, but it is indeed a reality. Also note that having to break a 100 peso bill might prove difficult for some establishments, not to mention the lack of enthusiasm from the attendant to finish the transaction quickly. In this situation time could be your worst enemy.
-Toilets missing water tanks are still functional: When presented with this predicament, you can flush the toilet by pouring a bucket of water in the actual bowl, or in the hole where the tank once lived. Most likely there will be a giant drum of water outside the bathroom with a smaller scooping bucket for doing this.
-No toilet seats are common: In this situation, one may develop his or her own methods to cope with the inadequacy. You can do “the hover”, which can be tough on the thigh muscles. There is also “the one-cheek lean”, which people have mixed feelings about, but after a quick bowl rim cleaning this might prove to be sufficient.
-Do not flush toilet paper: The plumbing in most countries South of the border can not handle toilet paper. There will be a receptacle usually within arms reach. In the rare case the receptacle is absent, you can either throw it in the corner, or take it with you and find a trash can. But do not flush, because clogging a toilet can prove to be not only embarrassing, but also a messy job to clean up.
Sometimes one needs to step out of their comfort zone and see what’s around the corner (no matter how dark it may be). You might have to sacrifice luxury in order to get a unique travel experience. Roughing it proves necessary in order to get things done when things get rustic. And to conclude the story above: I managed to find a large drum of water outside the restroom. After using the “pouring water in the bowl method” I was on my way.
We dove for clams, and now we will show you how to cook them. In Baja, Mexico. The “Sea of Cortez”
Check out our recently published article on Baja, Mexico in Toyota Cruisers & Trucks Magazine. I posted the article below, along with some screen shots of the magazine, but I recommend you go to their website and check out the entire issue. CLICK HERE TO VISIT THE ENTIRE ISSUE.
“You’re driving through Mexico, are you crazy, it’s so dangerous, you might die.” This is a common response we receive when telling people about our upcoming travels through this unaccustomed country. My usual response entails something along the lines of, “Really. What do you mean? Have you ever been there?” This is traditionally followed by an answer of, “Nooo. No, I’ve never been there.”
In the overlanding community, it is a fact that Mexico stands out as a major highlight of any Pan-American adventure. This is mostly due to the country’s abundance of culture, incredible food, warm people, and one cannot forget that it’s great on the budget. As these parking lot conversations arise before your departure, attempt to just nod and smile. Don’t be rude. You know the real deal. You did your homework.
On Halloween 2013 we headed West in the Toyota Tacoma (the Taco) on the Southern most road in California. We were making our final preparations to cross into Mexico, at the Tecate border. This sleepy border town had no line and no stress, but we were rookies. There was no denying that we were nervous. After all, it was our first international border, and with us we carried a truckload of personal possessions that would be bringing us to the southern most tip of South America. In the end, we psyched ourselves out for no reason. It was easy, and Baja awaited with an abundance of possibility.
Baja has fish, and fish is good. We camped in Punta Conejo close to the river mouth. When I say river I actually am referring to the dried-up dirt arroyo that bared more resemblance to a Fred Flintstone highway. But over millions of years of floods and river deposits, a giant river rock reef translates into an abundance of fish to eat and waves to be surfed, making this desert wasteland paradise to some. It was paradise to us. Sunrise surfcasting off the point was a guaranteed meal, or should I say meals. It was here that enough fish were caught, in 45 minutes each morning, to not only feed ourselves everyday, but also our fellow campers. The fish was also provided to the landowner who happily accepted Pargo instead of the small suggested camping fee. In the surf lineup they called me “the fish slayer”. This was a good thing. Amongst the catches were Snapper, Corvina, and trigger fish, just to name a few. As a result of the ocean’s bounty, we were able to invent new recipes and make some new amigos. When you catch your own food, you don’t have to buy food. It is like putting money in your pocket, which extends your trip. This is Baja.
On the Sea of Cortez we managed to find a less traveled nook not far from the highway and we were able to park right on the beach. The sea was calm and clear, like a toilet for the gods. There was no one around. “Lets get snorkley!” After about an hour of diving in the shallow crystal sea, I counted over one hundred chocolates in my black mesh bag. Chocolate pronounced, “cho-ko-la-tae,” is a clam native to Mexico. “Clams for days” was the phrase of the week. When we craved some variety, we switched over to scallops. These were additionally as abundant as the clams, but required more work. In hunting for Scallops, the end of the shell peeks out of the sand like a shy man at a singles retreat. Armed with a gloved hand, I wrenched at the creature. After a period of strangling and struggling, the ten plus inch shell fish finally revealed itself in its entirety. The process of cleaning scallops is messy and takes some time, but when your camping in Baja, time you have.
There are fish stories for days when overlanding Baja. I’m only scratching the surface. In addition to the surfboards and fishing gear, it is wise to pack a camera, because your friends won’t believe you. When you are not surfing, you will be fishing, and when you’re not fishing, you will be eating your catch. This baron desert is surprisingly abundant in sea life and if you should have the urge to fish, you will be successful. Besides remote camping and hunting for your meals, Baja provides plenty of opportunities for organized campgrounds (with hookups), cheap accommodations, and fish taco stands for miles. After not showering for weeks at a time, and finding fish scales in your pockets, campgrounds begin to provide a certain unprecedented sense of comfort. There is an ability to get a room in town, or gorge one self on the never-ending array of tacos, simply due to amazing affordability of this region.
If you’ve spent time in the desert you know that it possesses a magical quality. You know the polarity of it’s landscape, representing both strength and an undying sense of unforgiveness. Baja is all beautiful, spellbinding, and dangerous rolled into one narrow peninsula jutting off California. It is best to remember that one must always travel with water, the proper recovery gear, and perhaps extra gas. On some of the roads, you might not get a passer-by for weeks at a time. Also bring your warm cloths because Baja can be cold, depending on where you are at any given moment. And always bring paper maps because your GPS might stop working all of a sudden.
We spent over 6 weeks surfing, fishing, driving the dusty dirt roads, buying hundreds of fish tacos, and traveling with friends we made in the desert. The stars were bright and the whales were swimming, but, as always, there is a time when one must move on. We drove the Taco aboard a two-story ship, parked on the top deck exposed to the sky. We were the only noncommercial, non tractor-trailer truck aboard the crowded vessel. The sky was clear, the truckers were drunk, and we departed La Paz before sunset. We set up camp as if we were back in the lonesome desert, popped the top, and spread the blankets. On the chilly clear night, the constellations were stunning. In less than twenty hours we landed in Matazalan, Mexico.
OR READ IT BELOW
From my experience propane tanks can be filled on the outskirts of select towns across Mexico, Central America, and most places we’ve been. It seems logical that these filling stations are not actually in the towns, because If an accidental explosion was to occur, only the employes and current patrons would be the unfortunate individuals to be taken down, instead of the surrounding bystanders in a crowded pueblo. We have a 5 liter tank that can fuel our stove for well over a few weeks, depending on how much we cook. The tank will cost between $2 and $5 to fill, dependent on the country and who happens to be working the register that day.
We are somewhere on the central coast of Mexico on the hunt for propane. We are caravanning with George and Rachel (southtonowhere.com), following their vanagon through crowded Mexican streets. They also need a fill. We find a station, the van gets filled, but we do not. Our tank adapter does not match with the stations hose. While this seems odd to me, we are still relatively new to the South of the border vagabond lifestyle and our Espanol is no bueno, so perhaps something is getting lost in translation. Either way, we shrug our shoulders and start problem-solving.
The chubby Mexican man perched on a small motorcycle with a plastic bag full of canned beer witnesses our current dilemma. He watches and crushes a couple empty cans. He wants to help. He is communicating a strong desire to guide us to another filling station across town. He assures us through hand motions, that he knows the way. We accept his offer with hesitation. Sometimes locals see gringos in a pickle and they want to help, but they also want money. This has been our experience in a couple different situations. We need propane, and navigating unfamiliar cities in Mexico is a feat not for the meek. So, we take the easy road, deciding to follow this complete stranger through winding back streets, wrong ways, down one ways, cutting off busses, all in an attempt to keep up with this intoxicated hooligan. Where are we going? is this legit? is this dude alright?
We get to the station and fill the tank for a couple bucks. This means hot meals for the next few weeks, beachside under the stars. We strike a conversation with our new amigo, the beer drinking Juan G. He asked for nothing, but we handed him some beer, observing his love of the beverage. He refused the suds explaining that riding the moto with a bottle is more difficult than riding with a can. We then reveal to him our surfing paradise destination, Saladita. He knows it well, has family there, and says that it is close by. Cool. After thanking this man for his help, a few high fives and posing for a couple photos, he now insists that we follow him to the beach. Once again we accept his offer with hesitation. I mean, this is our new friend after all.
The Taco (our Tacoma) and the van follow this motorcycle madman down the Mexican highway at generous speeds. As he rides helmet-less drinking beer swiftly, he tosses his empties like a bean bag at a town fair into the green roadside brush. One, two, three beers down on this 30-minute caravan. Yikes. Should we be concerned? As we tailgate this swerving rascal, he makes a variety of hand gestures. He points to a smoke stacked factory on the horizon, removes both hands from the handle bars, makes a typing gesture, and then points to himself. He is trying to communicate that he works there (or so we think). The message is not completely clear. He points to the sea, makes gestures of fishing, and makes a motion to convey that this fish is BIG. No hands on the bars, beers in a plastic bag swinging from his handlebars like a pendulum. Caught up in this moving game of charades, we missed the turn. No problem. Juan G illegally U-turns on the uncrowded highway, gesturing for us to follow suit. More than a few times during this trip we have been put in odd and, at times, uncomfortable situations. Although this was more odd than uncomfortable, sometimes you need to trust your gut. My gut was telling me to follow Juan until the bitter end. So this is what we did, and we made that illegal U-turn.
We arrive at the beach. It is a dead-end dirt road with no one in sight. It is beautiful. A rocky coast with a perfect spit of sand, perfect for relaxation. The late afternoon sun was hitting the sea with a dramatic orange glow. We began to envision the hammock hanging. Juan stops his bike, pops kickstand down, stands up, and raises his arms in such a way that a referee might during a field goal kick. He is a proud man and he has shown us the way. He smiles with an aura of satisfaction and accomplishment. He looks to us, perhaps gauging our reaction to the arrival at this small paradise. We exit our vehicles and take a look around with a bit of confusion.
Our destination of Salidita, from what we read, is a popular surf-spot littered with traveling surfers, as well as accommodations and campsites. This beach was a nice one, but had none of the above. We look at each other because we know we are not at our desired destination. We consult the map. We show our new navigator where we are trying to go. He says “Salidita? I thought you said Saydita, this is Saydita.” Several beers deep this could have happened to anyone. We all have a good laugh,share a few brews while Juan G tells stories of his time spent in the states. He shows us photos of his life, exchange Facebook info, hug, and wish each other well. Juan rides off into the Mexican sunset like the outlaw he was.
Juan G did not want anything for his favors, he merely wanted to help some gringos in a jam. It turns out Juan loves the United States. Juan used to work in the states and managed to make enough money to go back to Mexico and build a fantastic home for his family. Most people we have met on our southbound journey have been warm and generous. There are a ton of Juan G’s out there.
I remember the day we crossed. The feeling of nervousness. A sense of uncertainty about this new place with it’s curious smells. Driving down Baja, heading South, the roads becoming increasingly narrow, winding through a barren cacti-strewn landscape. We camp alone at pristine settings composed of red-tinted mountains and deep marine hued water. The days are slow, the sun is hot, and most hours are spent in self-reflection. We continue to explore deeper into the country, venturing across the Gulf, a freighter chugging diesel through the night.
There are many wonderful meals eaten, recipes discovered, fish caught, and street food enjoyed. Friends are made, moments are shared. I recall full moon parties, party waves, dog parties, and all that goodness. The late nights of conversations, storytelling, and laughter. So much laughter. We explored new towns, cities, villages, markets, beaches, and sites of the archeological type. There are markets with meats. So much meat. But, what about the avocados, mangos, limes, and papayas. One must include warm, hand-pressed tortillas, and the spicy flavorful soups. We discovered the warmth of people, richness of a culture as expressed in the vibrancy of their art, music, food, and dance. There were waves to be surfed, and surf to be reflected upon. We stared at the ocean for hours on end and the days just seemed to melt away. Adios Mexico. I will really miss you.
Here is some footage of our drive down the Pacific Coast of Mexico…