CENTRAL AMERICA OVERLAND #13

29-September-2010: Dallas, Texas (USA)

It was a hot and humid day when we crossed into Mexico at Subteniente Lopez. This was a busy but very well organised border crossing. We were able to follow the signs and directions of the border police to the Immigration Office, then to the Banjercito to apply for Troopy’s temporary import permit and finally clear Aduana inspection. We were also able to purchase liability insurance at the Mapfre office at the border. As usual, the border proceedings were straightforward. Everyone was very friendly and helpful. We could hear Mexican music blasting from passing vehicles and smell the tacos, enchiladas and asados from the numerous food stalls just past the border control. We could hardly wait to get going and experience the food and culture of Mexico!

We drove a short distance of about 11 kilometres to Chetumal on the Caribbean Coast. Chetumal is a pleasant city with big wide boulevards. Our first stop was to have our first Mexican meal of Enchiladas. It was great to finally taste more chillies and spice in our food and experience the hospitality of the Mexican waiters in white shirts, black trousers and black cummerbunds.

We camped at a very nice RV Park called the Yax-Ha Resort with an equally nice restaurant on site. As it was the quiet season, we were able to have our pick of where we wanted to camp. We picked one right by the water’s edge on soft grass under the shade of coconut trees. The weather was very hot and humid so the occasional Caribbean Sea breeze on the Yucatan Peninsula was very welcome. For dinner, we had Nachos and fresh Limonadas delivered to our camping table beside Troopy. It was very delicious! The Mexican mossies were also very friendly and welcoming which curtailed our evening of relaxing by the Caribbean Coast. That night, the clouds got heavier and heavier until it started to bucket down hard.

We awoke to Troopy being in a big pool of water as we were parked in a slight depression on the grass. We had to splash our way to the bathroom! After a leisurely breakfast, we headed West on Mex186 towards Palenque to visit another UNESCO World Heritage Site. There were Police and Military checkpoints along the way but they were all very friendly. There had been much in the news about the narcotics, kidnappings, gangs and violent murder problems in Mexico so it was reassuring to see so many check-points along the way. The soldiers were all very amused and intrigued to find that Troopy’s steering wheel is on the right hand side. This usually happens after they have completed their brief look inside Troopy. We were surprised that none of them had asked to see our passport, licences, vehicle permit and registration! We had been in the country for only 24 hours but already we have really taken a liking to Mexico!

Late that afternoon, it began to rain again. So far this trip, we have had rain nearly everyday. However, the rain usually falls in the afternoon and has not hampered our travels very much. We are travelling during the wet season and Palenque is in an area with the heaviest rainfall in Mexcio! We drove into the Palenque National Park without having to pay a fee as we entered late in the day. The office was closed and we think the rangers must have all gone home. We found the Mayabell RV campground as listed in our Mexico Camping book. It is the closest campground to the Palenque Mayan Ruins hedged in by dense forest with resident Howler Monkeys.

The weather cleared up in the morning and we were able to walk uphill to the entrance gate of the Palenque Ruins. This active archaeological site is set in very pleasant and well-maintained grounds. The whole park was a hive of activity with many workers busy raking leaves, sweeping and clearing footpaths. There were also many vendors setting up their souvenir stalls at strategic locations where tourists would have no choice but to walk past their colourful and interesting jewellery, tapestries, and carvings of wood and stone and ceremonial amulets. At every temple pyramid, there is a security guard with two-way radio, keeping watch over the tourists and making sure we did the right thing. Our visit started from the top of the hill taking us through different groups of temples and palaces. We were allowed to climb the many steps of a few pyramids up to the top to explore and admire the surrounding view. There were still a few mounds that were being unearthed. These have a big tarpaulin cover over the whole mound with archaeological assistants sifting through bucketfuls of dirt and meticulously brushing every clump of dirt with a small paintbrush. At the palace complex, archaeologists have restored some gargoyle-like carvings in a small plaza shaped like an amphitheatre. It is truly a labour of love what these archaeologists were doing.

Our walking tour took us gradually downhill alongside a small stream culminating in a very pretty, tiered waterfall. It was a very welcome relief from the heat and humidity to stand in the shade of the rainforest canopy. The National Park has done a great job maintaining this historical site with signs, designated footpaths and well manicured lawns and gardens for the enjoyment of all visitors.

We were also able to visit the excellent museum located just near the site entrance. Here we found very fascinating and well-preserved stuccos and artefacts recovered from the earliest unearthing of an ancient Mayan civilisation. There is also an impressive exhibit of King Pakal’s sarcophagus discovered by a well-known and dedicated Mexican archaeologist. The exterior of the sarcophagus is very elaborately and exquisitely carved on all sides, depicting the religious beliefs of the Mayan people and the reverence they had for their divine King. It was fascinating to view the ornate pieces of funerary pottery and other ceramics. These together with the stone tablet carvings gave a sense of how highly developed the Mayan Civilisation was at the height of its glory.

After Palenque, we headed north-west on the toll roads to Catemaco. The roads in Mexico are a pleasure to drive with very few potholes. These tollways typically have two to four lanes in both directions. The toll roads are quite expensive but they do allow you to get to your destination quickly. We averaged about USD $10 for very 100 kilometres we travelled. The free roads are typically one lane, are very busy with trucks and buses, and pass through every small town. There are also the ever present speed bumps making travel very slow.

About 100 km south of the town of Acayucan, traffic came to a crawl due to an accident. Immediately after the accident, we came to a military checkpoint. This was a big checkpoint as all vehicles had to drive through an X-ray machine to detect hidden drugs and guns. Then, an officer walked down the length of Troopy with a hand-held electronic detector. The noticeboard on the side of the checkpoint gave a clue that the soldiers were also looking for weapons. We asked the soldiers if it was safe to travel to Mexico City and they assured us that we would be safe.

Catemoco is a small fishing village on scenic Lake Catemoco on the Caribbean Coast. We checked into the very nice Tepetapan RV Park. Apart from two other RVs which had been stored here over the rainy season, we were the only ones in the Park. After setting up camp, we wandered down to the village of Malecon by the lake in search of a restaurant in which to have dinner. We had a very nice steamed fish dinner with an assortment of salsas and corn chips. We were also serenaded by trio of Mariachis singing La Bamba. There were two guitarists and a harpist and they were very good musicians. The Mexicans are just so proud of their music, food and culture...very colourful!

The next morning, we were on the road again heading towards Teotihuacan near Mexico City. The congestion and pollution rules in and around Mexico City. To help alleviate this problem cars without a Mexico Province plate are not allowed in the province between 0500 to 1100 hours Monday to Friday. Also, vehicles with odd numbers are allowed on certain days whilst those with even number plates on other specified days. This was not going to be a problem for us since we will be in the area after 1100 hours. Travelling on the freeway to Puebla we passed wetlands teeming with many birds and butterflies. Farmers were busily attending to their pineapple, citrus and sugar-cane plantations. By late afternoon, we found the Arco Norte Eastern bypass around Mexico City without too much trouble. We were amazed that we were driving at an altitude of 2700 metres!

We arrived at peak hour in Teotihuacan town where there was traffic congestion from worshippers leaving the cathedral after Sunday worship. We tried to check into a camp-ground but the owners were nowhere to be found. After waiting for a couple of hours, we decided we should have dinner locally. We found a very nice Italian style restaurant where they cooked us a very nice pizza. Then we drove out of town towards the archaeological site of Teotihuacan. We made a note of the very discreet “Love Hotel” on the last corner out of town which would be our last resort should we be unsuccessful in finding suitable accommodation near the Aztec Ruins.

It was a short distance to the ancient city of Teotihuacan, another UNESCO World Heritage Site. The first fancy hotel we came to was asking an astronomical price for a room. It was a very nice resort but we were not prepared to pay so much. We then followed a sign advertising Hotel Quetzalcalli a little farther along. As we turned down a narrow laneway into the village, we stopped to ask a young man for directions to this hotel. It turned out that his uncle is the owner of the hotel and we were only 100 metres from it. Behind the street facade and tall imposing gate is Hotel Quetzalcalli. The owner, David Martinez is very friendly and also speaks good English. The spacious and comfortable rooms looked out onto a tranquil colourful garden. We were also within walking distance to the Teotihuacan Ruins and the famous strip of local restaurants. After a long day, we were very glad to have found a lovely place to stay for the night. Being at altitude, the temperature here was cooler and we found that we needed another layer to stay warm during the night!

After a quick breakfast, we set off on foot towards the Teotihuacan Archaeological site. There are 5 entrances to this ancient city. We decided to start at the Southern entrance and walk the whole length of this very expansive but well laid-out city. Teotihuacan was believed to have been established around 200 BC. It reached its peak around 400 AD with about 200,000 inhabitants but it began to decline during the 7th or 8th century due to prolonged drought and internal unrest. 

We were first confronted with a huge plaza called the Citadel. Amongst the collection of temples around the Citadel is the imposing Temple Quetzalcoatl or Temple of the Feathered Serpent. Carvings depicting the serpent god and the Aztec rain god formed part of the facade of this building. The Teotihuacan culture and religion seemed to be closely related to the Mayan civilisation in that the temples were also pyramidal in shape with lots of steps leading up to the ceremonial altar at the top. From the Citadel, we strolled along the very long and wide Avenue of the Dead past many other stone structures that formed part of the residential quarters of the day. We came to the largest pyramid in the whole city, the Pyramid of the Sun and it nearly took our breath away climbing to the top. We were climbing a great number of steep steps at altitude! At the top, we had an unhindered panoramic view of the whole city which once stretched further than what is fenced in today. We have read that only a small percentage of this city had been unearthed. We wondered how many little brushes would be required to uncover even half of this ancient city!

A little further along the Avenue, we came across a colourful mural of a Jaguar. Then there was a building or great hall that looked Greco-Roman with tall columns. Finally, we came to the Pyramid of the Moon. By then, Kienny was too tired to even contemplate climbing to the top. So Geoff was quickly delegated as the official photographer and was sent on his way up while Kienny sat and chatted to one of the souvenir sellers trying to convince Kienny why she needed to buy silver earrings, bracelets and pendants. Our last monumental visit at Teotihuacan, city of the gods was to the onsite Museum. Here, we saw a wonderful model of the whole city as it could have been many hundreds of years ago. We also saw more of the better preserved carvings depicting the feather serpent and rain gods and other mythical creatures.

There was no better way to end our visit than be compelled to walk along an avenue of colourful Mexican restaurants. Most of these restaurants had no names, just a number.  Each restaurant’s number was prominently displayed on roadside billboards. The English-speaking waiters were very friendly and welcoming, trying to secure our patronage with English menus and catchy Mexican music. We found the number of the restaurant recommended to us by David, the owner of Hotel Quetzalcalli and ordered their signature dish for lunch. The stuffed green peppers, guacamole, grilled meats, salsa, ensalada and limonadas which were all fantastic as was the very colourful decor in the restaurant. There was an atmosphere of fiesta in the hacienda with the jovial waiters, water cascading from a series of earthenware pots amongst many and varied potted plants and lively Mexican music.  After our feast, we waddled back to the Hotel and got ready to depart Teotihuacan. Since it was well after 1100 hours, we would be within our rights to drive out of Mexico State that afternoon without too much trouble.

Our quest to depart Teotihuacan was fraught with a couple of wrong turns. Whilst we knew which direction we should be heading, it was another thing to try and figure out how to get over the other side of the highway without being compelled to head towards the populous and congested Mexico City. At first, we found ourselves caught up in a very bad traffic jam through a small town which looped us back into Teotihuacan. Then, we found ourselves on the highway heading in the wrong direction! However as we kept going for quite a few kilometres more, we found a turn-pike which finally put us in the right direction away from Mexico City.

We headed towards the old colonial city of Guanajuato. The military checkpoints along this route got a bit more substantial. At one checkpoint, we saw machine-guns mounted on a couple of jeeps with soldiers wearing bullet-proof vests. We passed many truckloads of soldiers, presumably to patrol the troublesome border areas in the North-East of the country. We also noticed that the weather had improved significantly as we journeyed North-West. We have had no rain that afternoon! The countryside near Guanajuato was also picturesque with undulating hills. This was strawberry country. After passing a few roadside stalls, we finally succumbed to the lure of luscious sweet strawberries and cream. We shared a big tub for dinner. As it was still light at about 7 o’clock, we were able to find our way to Bugamville RV Park. Being the off-peak season, we were the only ones in the RV Park. Enrique, the friendly and knowledgeable owner of the park made us very welcome. The bathroom facilities were basic presumably because most of the American visitors who spend the winter travelling in Mexico come in their big motor-homes with everything that opens and shuts including bathrooms. Kienny is thinking seriously that we need to upgrade our transport and accommodation before our next overland trip. As we were still around 2000 metres in altitude, the evening temperature was very pleasant for sleeping inside Troopy.

As time was getting on and we needed to try and make the ferry that plies between Los Mochis and La Paz on the Baja California Peninsula, we did not venture into old Guanajuato. This was supposed to be a very charming former colonial city by the Rio Guanajuato, with beautiful architecture and small narrow streets. They said the best way to see this city was to go on foot. Sadly, we did not have enough time for this.

We left very early in the morning and travelled 780 kilometres to arrive at the resort city of Mazatlan on the Pacific Coast at around 6 o’clock in the evening. After 2 months of camping mostly in the wild, it was a big culture shock to be in Mazatlan. There were many five-star hotels, motels, apartments and exclusive resorts. The little grocery shops have been dwarfed by big supermarkets offering everything under the sun. There were a few bronzed tourists scantily clad in mini t-shirts, shorts and flip-flops with straw hats and beach totes. Also the familiar golden arches of a McDonalds greeted us as we cruised into town. We could smell the Pacific Ocean breeze. Through the small spaces separating the hotel buildings, we could also see the waves rushing in and crashing onto the beach. Down the middle of the main thoroughfare, tall palm trees were swaying back and forth like giant pendulums.

The first two caravan and camping grounds we tried to check into were closed and looked like they had gone out of business. We finally managed to find one that was open but we were the only happy campers. We were directed to a site close to the security guard and where we would not be easily seen by passing traffic.

That evening, we had a beautiful Mexican dinner at La Casa Country Steak House. We were treated to an entree of fresh salsas and corn chips made fresh at our table. We then had a mixed selection of very tender skirt steak, chicken enchilada, guacamole, beans and stuffed pepper. The waiters were very friendly and efficient. The manager made a point of visiting every dinner table to speak to all the customers. It was sad to hear that the drug wars in Mexico have had a negative effect on tourism. Resort cities like Mazatlan and Acapulco rely heavily on tourism to support the local economy and livelihood of the people.

After a very hot and humid night in Mazatlan, we were very relieved to get going again if only to be able to keep cool with the air-conditioner running as we drive along. We headed in the direction of Culiacan on the tollway parallel with the Gulf of California coastline. We passed many broad acre farms with towering grain silos. The police check-points were also more frequent with heavily armed police wearing bullet-proof vests. Each check-point had a line-up of police cars with flashing lights visible from quite a distance away. We felt sorry for the police who had to patrol their designated territory in the heat and humidity. At one check-point, we were asked if we were a film-crew from the Discovery Channel. All the police officers crowded around asking about our trip - we felt like celebrity. After the usual questions and viewing of our passports, we were allowed to continue on our way.

We arrived in Los Mochis and found the turn-off to Topolobampo, the port where vehicular ferries make the crossing across the Bay of California to Baja California, a long strip of peninsula which joins the mainland United States of America. Our plan was to book a passage for Troopy and ourselves. We found out that there was to be a ferry leaving on the weekend which would give us enough time to visit the Canon del Cobre (Copper Canyon) during the week. So we returned to Los Mochis where we found a Greco-Mexican hotel (Hotel Corintios) to stay for the right price. Los Mochis is a big city in the North-West of Mexico, at the gateway to the northern border regions, the south and to Baja California. It is also the terminus for the Che-Pe or Chihuahua-Pacific Railway through the very heart of Copper Canyon. There were big shopping centres, American fast-food outlets and fancy restaurants and hotels. After checking in and finding secure parking for Troopy within the hotel courtyard, we walked a couple of blocks to look for a tour to the Copper Canyon. We found a travel agent at Hotel Balderrama that offered a train trip and accommodation package to Posada Barancas.

The Ferrocarril Chihuahua al Pacifico or ChePe train departed promptly at 6 am from the Los Mochis station. The whole train was fully air-conditioned with comfortable reclining seat. We were glad to have our polar fleeces with us as it was freezing cold in the carriage. Geoff even had to resort to putting on a pair of long trousers. Our very colourful train had 3 passenger cars, a lounge car and an a la carte dining car. There was an armed police officer who patrolled the train on a regular basis. Each carriage had a steward who checked our tickets and answered any questions. The whole train journey passes over 37 bridges and 86 tunnels. The ChePe stops at a few villages including Davidasero, Posada Baranca and Creel. The journey from Los Mochis to Posada Barancas took about 8 hours, rising in altitude from sea level to 2165 metres.

The Copper Canyon is formed from 6 rivers that carve their way through the western side of Sierra Tarahumara, combining to form the Rio Fuerte which flows into the Gulf of California or Sea of Cortez. Overall, the Canyon is said to be a larger system and in some places is deeper than the Grand Canyon in Arizona. The flora and fauna here is plentiful with lush green pine trees, fir and oak along with other shrubby and scrubby varieties. The scenery is incredibly breathtaking especially when one can stick one’s head out the window just as the train was about to loop round the mountain range over a precarious bridge crossing with a dizzy view of the canyon deep below. As the train stopped at Davidasero, quite a number of the indigenous Tarahumara women and children approached the train with arms full of woven baskets, jewellery, textiles and even rock carvings hoping for a quick sale. The young mothers would have their babies wrapped snugly in Mayan wraps tied across their backs with the cutest and most innocent of grubby faces peering out from their pouches at the gringo tourists on the train.

We arrived at Posada Barrancas and were met by a guide from the Posada Barrancas Mirador Hotel. What a quaint, lovely and tranquil setting for a hotel. The view from our balcony was absolutely and incredibly breathtaking! We felt like we were eagles perched above the canyon with a bird’s eye view of the amazing colours and different aspects of the Copper Canyon. Imagine the Mirador like an eagle’s nest perched precariously on the top edge of part of the canyon. The whole building being of Adobe style was of bright orange/salmon stucco with extensive use of “Vigas” or exposed timber beams on the ceiling throughout. Our room was quite luxurious with a “Kiva” fireplace. The soft furnishings were of the traditional Mexican textiles, very colourful!

After a scrumptious 3-course lunch, we were taken for a hike to visit a small Tarahumara Village. In this village, there is a sacred cave nicknamed “Chinaman’s Cave” which was thought to have been the shelter of the Chinese coolies who came to Mexico during the gold rush days. Our guide also pointed out the different types of flora and fauna in the area as we trekked along Indigenous walking trails. We stopped to take a closer look at the villagers weaving baskets and children showing off their stamina as they ran from one escarpment to the next to watch the tourists from a safe distance!

We returned to the Mirador in time for a very entertaining “Happy Hour” with a musician serenading us with his beautiful guitar-playing and singing. The colourful Humming Birds on the restaurant balcony were a delight to watch. It is amazing to think that Humming Birds could flap their wings many hundreds and thousands of times without dropping from weariness. They would hover and feed from the birdfeeders that have been filled with fruit and nuts by the hotel staff. Dinner was once again very impressive and we left the restaurant very satisfied, ready for bed after such an early start that morning!

We had a comfortable night’s sleep as the temperature was very pleasant. After a hearty “Huevos Rancheros” breakfast, we took a leisurely stroll through the hotel grounds and inspected the arts and crafts at close range. It was possible for some people to take a bumpy drive to Creel by Jeep, to view another section of the Canyon. However, we opted out of the tour as we did not want to miss the train trip back to Los Mochis. We were taken a short distance by the old school bus down to the railway station to meet our train. The weather was slightly overcast which great for taking pictures but it was also meant that we had to contend with a few showers along the way. Nevertheless, we were able to enjoy the spectacular landscape. We got into Los Mochis at about 9 o’clock and were glad to see Troopy safe and sound in the secure carpark. The staff at the Corintios Hotel gave us the same room as before, for the next two nights.

Next day, we did a bit of laundry after breakfast. Then we went in search of a haircut for the both of us. We found a barber who did a great job on Geoff though he could not understand why he wanted a No. 2 clip. Then he asked Kienny if she wanted a haircut and at first, Kienny said “No Thanks” for fear of being the No. 2 clip as well. Then he introduced his wife sitting in the chair next to Geoff and said she would cut Kienny’s hair. We paid a grand total of US $7 for both of our haircuts plus we got a lot of entertainment as well.

A homeless fellow carrying a guitar came into the barber shop while Kienny was on the chair. Obviously a regular visitor, the barber seemed to welcome him. Mr. Hobo gave the guitar to the barber who proceeded to tune it and then started to serenade us all while Mr. Hobo helped himself to all the razors and combs on the counter to trim his beard and nasal hairs! This reminded us of a scene from one of Mr. Bean’s comedies. Like Mr. Bean, our Mr. Hobo was twitching his nose side to side, contorting his upper lip up and down to allow the clippers better access to all the excess hairs in his nasal passage. If he had persisted any longer, he would most probably have the grooming clippers trapped in one side of his nostrils just like Mr. Bean! After he was done, he grabbed his guitar back from the barber and took his leave and walked out. The barber merely shook his head and carried on reading his newspaper. Life in Mexico!

With newly shorn heads, we drove down to the Topolobampo Ferry Terminal to organise our passage across to the Baja Peninsula. We were given a cargo slip which had to be filled in by a port worker recording Troopy’s measurements and plate number. This would then have to be presented to the lovely cashiers who would calculate the appropriate price for Troopy in the cargo section and a two berth cabin for us. We came away from the bookings office relieved to know that we had a booking for the next day’s sailing. It would be quite a different boat ride to the 5 day barge trip we had on the Amazonas.

We had another full day to catch up on emails, photo sorting and doing “housework” on Troopy as the Baja Ferry was not due to leave until later in the evening. We also had a very nice sushi dinner in Los Mochis before heading for the Ferry Terminal. The huge parking lot at the Ferry Terminal began to fill with big long trucks. Passengers had to wait in the terminal while drivers needed to stay with their vehicles. At around 9 o’clock at night, the signal was given to load the vehicles. Firstly, all vehicles had to get in a big queue to be inspected by police sniffer dogs and customs officers. After passing inspection, we were then directed to the ferry loading ramp. When it was our turn, one of the port workers showed us where to go. We drove down the ramp into the bowels of the huge ferry. Parking was at a premium here as Troopy was squeezed into a space with only inches to spare. After locking Troopy, we weaved our way to the passenger section and climbed about 4 levels of stairs to get to the main passenger reception area.

The Baja Ferry is a very luxurious vessel. The ferry reception is just like a 5-star hotel reception. We were made very welcome as we handed over our passports and tickets. We were shown to our cabin by our very own steward. Oh what a nice cabin! Geoff took the opportunity to remind Kienny how fortunate she was to be travelling in 5-star luxury yet again! Not long after we checked in, Geoff was called down to the cargo hold to move Troopy as the oil tanker parked behind Troopy was leaking and dripping blobs of black tarry substance. So, Troopy had to wait dockside while the oil tanker was removed from the ferry. It was almost an hour before Troopy was finally loaded, this time on an upper deck with other smaller vehicles.

The ferry set sail promptly at 11 o’clock that night. It had a very nice restaurant with attentive chefs waiting to serve a long line of diners. We did not realise that dinner was included in our ticket price but it was too late and we were too full of sushi and sashimi anyway! Across from the restaurant was the lounge/bar and disco area with satellite TV and mood music to entertain the truckies and other passengers. Up another level was the economy section with many rows of quite comfortable aeroplane seats. We thought we would ask at Reception if there was any WiFi service on board. Unfortunately, there was no WiFi service but the company is working towards offering the service very soon. It did not take long for us to fall asleep once we returned to our cabin. Unlike crossing the Drake Passage, this journey was amazingly smooth. One could hardly notice the ferry in motion.

Our wake-up call came all too soon as we neared the port of La Paz on the Baja Peninsula. We arrived into port at 6 am. As soon as we moored, the ramps were lowered and trucks began to stream out from the ferry. All other passengers made an orderly exit down a set of escalators and out from the ferry. Geoff had already gone to pick up Troopy and had to take Troopy through customs inspection again. Kienny simply followed the other passengers through the bag searching customs and proceeded to the waiting area where passengers can take a bus, taxi, walk or wait to be picked up by their own vehicles. It was a good hour before Geoff came by to pick Kienny up. Geoff went through quite a thorough customs search and fumigation process. Unfortunately, Kienny had all the car paperwork hence things took a bit longer. Troopy’s fumigation cost 30 pesos but since they did not have change we were not charged. Finally, we were on our way to explore the Baja California Peninsula.

We have heard so much from other people and seen a bit on TV about the Baja California Peninsula. The whole length of the Peninsula is a unique territory of Mexico, mostly desert and arid landscape with a hot dry climate. From La Paz, we headed south for Cabo San Lucas. The journey started out with undulating hills and winding roads, then as we neared the coast we had a magnificent view of a very blue Pacific Ocean. Along the coast between San Jose de Cabo and San Lucas, boasts some very expensive real estate. There were many luxury hotel resorts with private beaches.

Cabo San Lucas is at the southernmost tip of the Baja Peninsula and is very popular with tourists for whale-watching, marlin fishing, para-sailing, horseback riding, hiking, and swimming and sun-baking on deserted, unspoilt beaches. The Baja Peninsula is a very popular destination for American tourists, especially retirees who drive very substantial motor-homes across the border to escape the harsh northern winters. Many also like to fly in or take a commercial coach package as all of Baja is very accessible by road, sea or air. Many of these resorts have marinas boating ramps for boating enthusiasts and fishing sports. It was really refreshing to see white sandy beaches, turquoise blue waters of the Pacific Ocean, desert and cacti, blue sky and palm trees swaying in the breeze. In the harbour, there were even a couple of very big multi-storey cruise ships with colourful streamers flapping in the breeze. We also crossed the Tropic of Cancer once again. We saw a big Walmart Centre and got the sense that we have entered a different phase of our trip. More than ever, we felt like we are travelling in a very civilized world with more American English being spoken and the imposing presence of the big Walmart, Home Depot, and other will known fast food chains. Our campground this night was at the Vagabundos Del Mar Campground, well-run with great facilities and very secure.

We had a very big drive the next day, over 500 kms to Loreto on the eastern coast of the Baja. We crossed the Tropic of Cancer yet again on the road north to La Paz and onwards through Ciudad Constitucion. The weather was a bit warmer inland too. From Ciudad Insurgente, we drove through farmland cultivating citrus and livestock as well as a vast area of cacti forest before we arrived at Loreto on the Bay of Cortez.

Loreto is a small cosy city of about 10 000 people founded by the Jesuits in the late 1600s. Today, it is a popular tourist town where many tourists from the US fly in or drive in with their motor homes in search of sunshine, warmth, fishing and other recreational activities. During the peak tourist season, Dorado and Marlin fishing is a popular sport. The clear blue waters are perfect for diving, snorkelling, sailing and kayaking.

We arrived at a nice quiet RV Park called Rivera del Mar owned by an American with a Mexican wife. We met an American couple who were in their motor-home. They were staying there to oversee the building of their new home in the area. They gave us very good advice on the best roads to take, where to stay and where to eat. We also found out that we should have turned in our temporary vehicle import papers at La Paz and got our passports stamped out of Mexico. It seemed a bit strange but technically we were still in Mexico. They advised us to try to sort out the paperwork at Santa Rosalia, another ferry port on the Bay of Cortez. We had thought about taking the Tijuana border crossing into the US but we were advised to go 30 miles inland and use the Tecate crossing instead. Tijuana is the busiest border crossing in the world and currently a dangerous place to be in due to the drug wars.

After a very still, hot and humid night, we were eager to get out of bed and shower just to feel refreshed again. We chatted some more with our neighbours before taking a drive along the waterfront and having a look around in Loreto town. From Loreto, our route north to Santa Rosalia virtually hugged the coastline on the Bay of Cortez. About an hour into the drive, we came across our first military checkpoint on the Baja Peninsula. We were driving through barren undulating hills with some jagged peaks. The landscape was filled with cacti and thorn bushes for as far as the eye could see. The road was in very good condition, built up but without any shoulder. Then all of a sudden, the undulating arid landscape dropped right down into the Bay of Concepcion. This has to be the most beautiful coastline we have seen in Mexico! Our eyes beheld the sparkling aquamarine blue waters of the bay contrasted with a milky white sandy beach. On one end of the coastline, a sand-bar provides shallow access on foot across to a small island. There were a few thatched shelters with spartan facilities for those who are looking for total seclusion from civilisation.

We stopped at a small restaurant at Buenaventura. It is right on the water’s edge with the waves lapping almost at the door! We had fish and salad for lunch, which was deliciously fresh! A few enterprising local boys also managed to persuade Kienny to part with her money in exchange for a set of red coral earrings and a bangle made from abalone shell. Not half an hour after we left Buenaventura, we came upon another very nice pristine, unspoilt beach at Playa Coyote. Once again, the camera got another good workout. Near Mulege, the sand dune country was right on the water’s edge. In order to get to a suitable campsite, one had to take a small track down to the beach and follow another obscure looking track through scrubby country before coming onto another stretch of pristine beach. We can now understand why so many American tourists love to make an annual pilgrimage down to the Baja Peninsula in the winter in their well equipped motor homes.

We arrived in Santa Rosalia in the late afternoon. We were told that it might be possible to find a “Banjercito” or Mexican Customs office at Santa Rosalia so that we can turn in our temporary vehicle import permit instead of having to do it at Tijuana or Tecate. We found the ferry terminal very quiet with only a security guard on duty. He told us that there has not been a Banjercito office here for the last 5 years and that La Paz would be the only place to have one. Well, it looks like we will have to try and get that sorted out at the Tecate border post when we get there. We were told when we entered Mexico that it was imperative that we cancel the permit or we would have to pay a fine. We decided not to stay in Santa Rosalia as there was an overbearing fishing odour about this old historic mining town. So we pushed on westwards inland till we arrived at San Ignacio.

San Ignacio is a welcome oasis in the desert after driving through arid sand-dune and cacti country. The temperature was much drier and warmer. It felt like a 40 degree Celsius day in the Alice. We passed a beautiful fresh- water lagoon on the way into town where we thought we could possibly camp. However, road works at the entrance prevented road access so we had to find another campground. We drove along a leafy avenue with hundreds of tall palm trees on either side of the road. We then came upon the cosy and historic town square with is shaded by a canopy of Indian Laurel trees. There was a beautiful historic church with amazing timber carvings. As we have arrived in the off- peak tourist season, everything in town seemed to be in recess. As it was going to be too hot for sleeping in Troopy, we were glad to be able to hibernate in an air-conditioned motel room for the night.

We awoke, had breakfast and were on the road very early while the temperature was not as hot as the night before. We travelled through more cactus country, this time quite flat with dry salt bushes all the way to Guerrero Negro on the western coast of the Baja Peninsula. It was here that we also switched to the Californian time zone.

From the chilly Gurrero Negro, we followed the highway inland through the Catavina Boulder field where it was a searing 36 degrees Celsius! This is a very pretty part of the Baja Peninsula set in an arid desert landscape. There were big boulders amongst white sandy desert terrain. A great variety of flora and fauna thrive in this beautiful desert. We saw different varieties of cactus: Cardon, Boojum (more like an upside down giant carrot), Elephant tree, Prickly Pear cactus, Spiny Staghorn Cholla (one would not want to fall onto one of these!) and tall palm trees near dried-up creek beds. Some of these were in flower displaying colours of red, yellow and orange. Rattlesnakes, lizards and other birdlife are also very much at home here in this desert. As we journeyed north, there were a few more Police and Military checkpoints. These vehicle inspections and quick chats were all carried out very professionally. They were always very courteous and friendly.

We arrived at El Rosario near the Pacific Coast in the mid- afternoon. Once again, the climate was much cooler and pleasant.  El Rosario’s claim to fame is the Ma Espinoza’s restaurant and her lobster taco or burrito. We checked into the Baja Cactus Hotel, a very fancy hotel quite up to Kienny’s usual standard. It was recommended by the people camped next to us in Loreto as being very nice and very well priced. Indeed, it was a lovely respite from the hot day’s drive through the Catavina Desert. We wasted no time in making a bee line for Ma Espinoza’s. It is conveniently located right next door to our hotel. This restaurant used to be the last frontier of town where the bitumen ended and only the fool-hardy would venture south on the dirt road. The food here is absolutely fantastic.

We left El Rosario mid-morning and followed Highway 1 North. We passed through San Quintin which seemed to be the agricultural hub of the Baja Peninsula. There were large acres of greenhouse agriculture, lots of pineapples and onions. The highway was quite busy with trucks fully laden with produce. We could have stopped to collect cucumbers, onions and tomatoes as they fell off the open cages of the trucks! By lunchtime, we had arrived in Ensenada. Ensenada is about 100 kilometres south of San Diego (USA) and is a very popular getaway location for many Americans in search of a warm Mediterranean climate and a relaxing holiday centred on the beach, sun, sand, seafood and all kinds of water sports. What a busy place this is. We felt like we were in America...well almost! The main highway and side streets were all very busy with many big off road utes and trucks. We saw big supermarkets like Walmart, Home Depot, KFC and McDonalds. We turned off Highway 1 and headed east towards the ocean.

We had read about safe and secure camping at the Estero Beach Resort and what a resort this is! The resort caters not just for campers in cars and tents; it has designated sites for huge motor-homes, cabins and beach bungalows, apartments and luxurious hotel suites. There are also quite a few very nice privately owned homes with ocean front vistas within the resort. Upon checking in, we had to wear our identity wristbands so that security would know we were legitimate guests at the resort. We were assigned a camping site right on the water with our own coconut palms. We had WiFi access at the community lounge, ice-creams were at a premium and the pool, playground and public amenities were well maintained.

The RV camping ground only had a handful of campers as this was the off-peak season. We took a stroll along the esplanade to check out the resort. It is very well set up with different sites catering to every kind of holiday maker. The whole resort is fenced off from the outside world and security guards regularly patrol the grounds on foot and on pushbikes. There is also a boat launching ramp straight into deep water on the Pacific Ocean. The protected cove is also a nice playground for people on jet skis, kayaks and parasailing. The five star hotel is very posh with outdoor restaurant, swimming pool and water fountain. The bungalow village even had a hotdog and seafood taco stand on the esplanade, along with other small cafes, art, craft and book stores. Apart from boating, fishing and other water sports, holiday-makers can also rent bicycles, horse-riding on the beach or even a game of golf. There are also many choice restaurants in Ensenada, seafood and steak being the most popular. We returned to Troopy in time to watch a glorious sunset, our last in Latin America!

We left quite early the next morning, bound for Tecate. Since hearing about the unpredictable security situation at Tijuana, the busiest border crossing in the world, we had decided it might be prudent to use the Tecate border crossing, about 30 miles east of Tijuana. Our route started out following a foggy Pacific coastline before turning inland on MEX 3. This route is also called the Ruta de Vino, a scenic and undulating grapevine and wine producing region. As we drew closer to Tecate, the landscape changed to semi-arid rocky hills. We arrived in Tecate around 10 o’clock and spent the last of our Mexican Pesos buying diesel.

The Mexican-US border post at Tecate is also known as Garita. We were hoping to be able to turn in Troopy’s temporary vehicle import permit at the outgoing Mexican border post but we could not find the Banjercito anywhere. We asked a Mexican Customs officer about this but were told that there has not been a Banjercito office here for the last 3 years. The only place to cancel the temporary import permit would be in Tijuana and Santa Rosalia, both of which were not worth the extra fuel and potential exposure to being at personal security risk. The Mexican customs officer said that we could not exit Mexico where we were standing talking with him as it was for pedestrian and incoming vehicular traffic only. The outgoing vehicular traffic bound for the US is located beside the Mexican post but is only accessible by driving a couple more kilometres and turning into a small side road that takes us up and over a big hill and then following a heavily fortified and guarded iron fence for almost a kilometre before coming to a sophisticated set of boom gates.

Since we decided not to worry about the temporary import permit we joined the queue of vehicles waiting their turn at USA immigration and customs. When it was our turn to drive through the gates, the US officer looked at our passports and vehicle and directed us to a customs checkpoint to be processed. We had to apply for a Visa Waiver which cost us US$6 each, had our picture taken and fingerprints photographed. The customs office had a cursory glance in the back of Troopy after which we were welcomed into the US and drove through the border gates into the state of California! No questions were asked about Troopy and no temporary vehicle import permit was provided. It was all quick and straightforward!

We felt a sense of joy and elation as we pulled over at the “Welcome to California” sign. We had completed a major section of the journey we started two years ago, from the very bottom of South America meandering our way through to Central America and Mexico. Now we have completed Latin America and we are set to continue to the very top of North America. One could say we are endeavouring to overland from “Pole to Pole!”

Our first stop in California was to visit Su-Lin the panda bear at San Diego Zoo. We have heard about this panda bear many years ago bearing the same name as our daughter. It is an incredible feeling to be driving Troopy in the US. We got a few stares and a few beeps of the horn from passing traffic giving us the thumbs up. Not sure if they thought we were the Beverley Hillbillies or if they realised just where we had come from and how far we had come. America is amazing! We had stopped to check our GPS route when all of a sudden, our laptops picked up free WiFi service and we were not even in a McDonalds! Anyway, Su-Lin the panda is very cute and adorable. We were fortunate to be seeing her as she was due to leave on a trip back to China to meet her prospective suitors. The San Diego Zoo is a fantastic zoo for all the family, young and old. It was a very busy Saturday afternoon but we had great fun visiting all the animals, riding the cable cars and marvelling at the gigantic portions of food and refillable sodas being served up at the restaurants in the zoo. It was music to our ears to hear English being spoken everywhere....even Geoff understood every word and Kienny did not need to translate from Spanish anymore! We stayed one night in downtown San Diego.

The next morning, we could not wait to get into Troopy and drive to Los Angeles to see our daughter and son-in-law who moved there just months before. It took us a big day as we followed the coastline as much as possible. Finally, we arrived at Joe and Su-Lin’s house and what a lovely re-union we had! We had a wonderful 10 days catching up, visiting friends who we have not seen for a long time. We also went to an American football game and experienced the electric atmosphere of fanfare, brass band and fireworks.

After sorting out a few things in Troopy and giving it a good clean-up, it was time to leave Los Angeles. We made our way to Las Vegas, an easy drive through the desert to see the city of colourful neon lights. It was a very hot day and we were glad for the air-conditioning in the hotel room. It is mind boggling to be in a city that is well known for its casinos and gambling. All the hotels here are on a grand scale with elaborate facades, waterfall gardens even a volcano that erupts on the hour at night! Just walking through another hotel, one can catch a pirate show on the hour complete with fireworks, pirate ship and wenches...all to drum up more business for the casinos within.

After Las Vegas, we headed towards the state of New Mexico via Hoover Dam. Security was paramount at this important reservoir as all vehicles were stopped and searched at the police check point. It is a real pleasure to drive the freeways and highways of America as the roads are wide and in very good condition, with the interstates being two-lane dual carriageways. We were passed by lots of trucks and saw lots of trains hauling container after container of freight for the UPS, DHL, Fedex and other companies. New Mexico feels like the last frontier, home of Native Americans and cowboys. One can just imagine John Wayne or Clint Eastwood on horseback riding through the red rock canyons and undulating grassland. Everywhere, there are signs along the road to say that we were entering Navajo, Apache and Hopi country. They are very enterprising with many “trading posts” offering Native American rugs, jewellery, pottery and moccasins. Some of the building structures are shaped like tee-pees to give the passing tourist a real cultural experience. We crossed over a few creeks and rivers with fast flowing murky waters. We also encountered a few showers along the way.

We were very excited to arrive to a very warm welcome at Ken and Carol’s house in Santa Fe. We met this lovely retired couple on board the Clipper Adventurer when we did our adventure cruise to Antarctica. They were in the cabin next to ours on the ship. They had been travelling around the world for the past two years, staying months at a time in each country. They live in a beautiful adobe/pueblo style house with stucco, timber beams, viga ceilings and kiva fireplaces shaped like beehives. The house is in a quiet estate at an altitude of just over 2000 metres. Our charming hosts took us to downtown historic Santa Fe where we saw more of the pueblo style buildings and a glimpse into the southwest way of life. We were also enthralled by the clever design of the Santa Fe Opera House, an open amphitheatre in a gorgeous setting with an amazing view of the surrounding hillside. Santa Fe also boasts a lively and varied art and music culture. We can understand why Ken and Carol chose to retire to Sante Fe. We finished off the evening with a scrumptious Southwest dinner at a favourite restaurant of Ken and Carol followed by a beautiful caramel flan baked by Carol. After doing a bit of star-gazing, we adjourned to bed and did not stir until the howling coyotes woke us just before sunrise.

Breakfast reminded us of our time on board the Clipper Adventure in Antarctica with hot waffles topped with fresh fruit and maple syrup. Carol wore her Antarctica t-shirt and HG Stern earrings, which every hotel guest gets to visit when in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Back in the walk-in pantry, we found Ken enjoying a slice of toast with Vegemite. He is one of a rare breed of Americans who loves Vegemite. So, we were very thrilled to be able to give Ken the rest of our Vegemite supply, promising to send some more when we arrived back in Australia. Together, we had a fantastic time sharing our travel stories! Thank you Ken and Carol for your wonderful hospitality and kindness.

Sadly, our time in Santa Fe could not be extended. After bidding fond farewells to Ken and Carol, we were on the road again, south towards Texas. We passed through Roswell where instead of green aliens with pear-shaped heads, we found mostly normal looking citizens with their wide-rimmed Stetson cowboy fur or straw hats, jeans with enormous belt buckles driving big gas-guzzling Ford utilities. We drove through Crane and McCamey where the countryside was full of hundreds of tall wind turbines erected atop the flat-topped mountains for many miles as far as the eye could see. We turned East on the I-10 and ended up spending the night in the little town of Ozona.

The next day did not start out well. We thought we had an easy morning’s drive to San Antonio to visit Su-Lin’s parents-in-laws, Hala and Magdi. After driving for about 110 miles, Kienny suddenly remembered that she had forgotten to retrieve the camera charger and battery from the wall in the hotel room. It was a rushed 220 mile round trip back to Ozona. Thankfully, the hotel had the charger in safe-keeping.

We did not arrive in San Antonio until late afternoon. Once again, our amazing GPS took us to the exact location where Hala and Magdi live. We had a very warm welcome and a beautiful Egyptian dinner lovingly prepared for us by Hala. After dinner, Magdi and Hala took us downtown to visit the Riverwalk and the site of the Alamo.

The atmosphere along the Riverwalk was very festive with colourful party lights drawing big crowds of locals and tourists just out enjoying the lovely summer evening. There were lots of restaurants with river frontage serving Italian, Chinese and South-West cuisine. We were treated to a delightful boat ride exploring the canal system along the river. One of the big hotels even had a canal right on their door-step where guests can take a boat-ride to dinner. The captain of our river-cruise gave us a quick history of the Riverwalk and pointed out landmarks of architectural and historical interest. Whilst on the river cruise, we even saw a wedding party having their photographs taken under a beautiful willow tree. All this reminded us of our time in Venice and the river-cruise in Disney World.

The Alamo, the former Catholic mission and fortress is the site of the famous Battle of the Alamo in 1836. The whole compound houses a chapel, the Long Barracks and a museum portraying the history of the Alamo compound from its mission days through the Texas Revolution to the present day. Being late in the evening, the compound was closed so we were unable to look through the complex. We shall have to return to San Antonio on another visit!

After a very scrumptious breakfast, we were sad to have to say farewell to our hosts and family. Our trip was fast drawing to a close and we had to get Troopy to the Christners’ farm an hour’s drive from Dallas. Instead of seeing hotels and restaurants advertised on large billboards, we saw advertisements for different Southern Baptist Churches. We were definitely in the Bible belt of the USA!

Along the way, we ran afoul of the law in Hubbard County for speeding in town! There were so many varying speed limit signs enough to drive anyone confused and insane. We happened to be following another vehicle in front of us through town and were the unfortunate ones to be nabbed by the Hubbard County cops. They were very cross with us as they said they had been following us for over a mile. We never heard their siren but Kienny happened to notice their flashing lights in her rear vision mirror when we were stationary at the traffic lights in the heart of town. They threatened to drag us out of Troopy and wrestle us to the ground and arrest us for failing to stop and trying to evade the law. With shaking hands and racing heartbeats, we handed over our insurance papers, passports and licences. After checking out the paperwork, they calmed down somewhat and proceeded to write out a citation or speeding ticket.

After our encounter with the Hubbard County police, we travelled at a snail’s pace to finally reach the Christner’s farm. It was so wonderful to see old friends again. We got there just in time to go with them to the Sunday evening Praise and Worship service at the local church. What a wonderful time we had singing all the old hymns and choruses with a very talented band and keyboard player who was blind!

The next two days were very precious spending time catching up with the Christners. We also spent time cleaning up Troopy ready to be stored on the Christner’s barn. We enjoyed yummy pancakes on the morning of our departure. Then it was time to say goodbye to Troopy and head for the airport at Dallas Fort Worth. We had allowed plenty of time to travel to the airport but the traffic was particularly bad that morning which resulted in us arriving at the airport with about 15 minutes to spare before we were due to board our flight back to Australia.

So, that was the end of Stage 3 of our South to North trip of the Americas. What an amazing journey we had! What incredible experiences we encountered from different cultures, languages, foods, peoples and animals to breath-taking mountains, glaciers, waterfalls, icebergs and very picturesque landscapes. It seemed like we have done and seen an awful lot but in reality, we have only scratched the surface of all there is to see. We would recommend to anyone contemplating just such a trip, that they do so without delay.

The pictures for this section of our trip can be found by clicking
here and here or by selecting the Next arrow button at the bottom of this page.
 

A map of our trip can be seen by going to http://dreamers1.com/americas/GoogleMaps/Americas.html or by selecting the Map button at the bottom of this page.

The WEB site containing our travels in Africa, Russia and South America is http://overland.dreamers1.com or by selecting the Contents button at the bottom of this page.

Best Wishes,
Geoff and Kienny Kingsmill
Email: gkingsmill@yahoo.com
WEB: http://overland.dreamers1.com

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