Follow our journey over the
Pan American Highway
Pan American Highway
Bus Life From Alaska to Argentina
On our way south we stopped at a small beach on the way. Playa El Requeson is located about 43 kilometers south of the city of Mulegé. The beach has incredibly calm shallow waters and even though there are no real facilities the spot is popular with RVers looking to get away from the larger more crowded RV parks in the area. The beach has small cabanas, garbage cans, and pit toilets and not much else in the way of infrastructure.
As if the bay wasn’t beautiful enough by day at we were treated to bio-luminescent algae which dimly lit up the water when you splashed and sparkled all around you as you walked through it leaving making you feel like Tinkerbell.
While at El Requeson we met and spent some time with two amazing couples who were on an extended vacation from the freezing Canadian climate. They made us clam chowder with clams they had pulled from the beach that day and Oscar pulled together the ingredients to return the favor with a baked flan. We set up the movie projector and watch the critically acclaimed movie Spaceballs under the stars on the side of the bus next to a roaring fire.
Every day on the beach in El Requeson, local vendors would pull into the camping lot to sell fresh fish, clams, shrimp, and fruit from their cars. The prices were very reasonable and nearly all the middle-men were cut out between the fishermen and the consumers. With such services, it was hard to pack up after a few days and continue our journey.
We continued down Trans-Peninsular Highway 1, which cut back from the east side of the peninsula to the mountains again. We stayed one night in Ciudad Insurgentes, where we were pulled over in the bus and asked to pay the ticket “on the spot”. At least the officers showed us to the RV Park outside of town afterwards.
We learned from other friends later that Ciudad Insurgentes is a very common place to be pulled over, so be careful! When the roads split with a median express road in the middle, large vehicles like a bus or RV cannot drive in the center road and must stay on the outside. There are also plenty of stop signs that locals will roll right through. You will be very unpopular with drivers behind you, but be sure to stop at every stop sign!
We woke up early to continue our drive down the peninsula, and made a full day of getting all the way south. We drove through the outskirts of La Paz, and connected to Highway 286 along the east coast of Baja California Sur. From here, about 40 KM south there is a road to the coastal town of La Ventana, where we were going to meet up with some friends.
We arrived into town just in time for the setting sun’s final light, and were flagged down by our friends in the “Main Camp.” The entire town of La Ventana is one stretch of road along the beach with a few side roads heading away from the water, and hotels and camping on the beach. We parked our bus on the beach and settled in for a great time in La Ventana!
A visit to Mulegé also offers another opportunity to visit local cave paintings. We inquired with the Museum director, and she told us her husband Jose gives tours to the area out of town. We called him and arranged a time the next day. He told us that the trip to the cave paintings would require wading through water up to about neck level, but that it was slow and easy.
So the three of us stripped down to our skivvies and waded through the river with our phones and cameras over our head, and were greeted with a fantastic overhanging wall of ancient cave art.
Like in Bahia de los Angeles, we happened to be in town during another annual event. The International Rotary Club of Mulegé has an annual pig race fund-raiser, with local bands performing, T-Shirt sales, food vendors, and of course piglet races. The animal activists in us were a little disconcerted by the handlers running the piglets around and scaring them, but no animals were harmed. The piglets were simply harnessed and attached to one of three ropes running down the track, then they were let go.
In a small town like Heroica Mulegé, it’s nice to see any event, even a bit strange, in which the foreign ex-pat community and local residents get together to have fun and raise money for a good cause.
On our way out of Guerrero Negro we drove for hours through the desert. Eventually we descended towards the town of San Ignacio, and the desert gave way to an actual palm oasis. San Ignacio has a population of about 700 people and grew from a Cochimí settlement of Kadakaamán. In 1728, Juan Bautista Luyando founded a Jesuit Mission here, and the Mission Church is a tourist site for the town.
In the downtown there is a small square which is dominated by the enormous church built completely from volcanic rock. The church, like most missions in Baja California, is open to visitors and remains mostly unchanged since the 1700s. Many parts of the mission, such as former living quarters, looked permanently closed to the public. There were also offices with clergy members offering tours, and a local band practicing in another room.
San Ignacio also has the opportunity for whale watching in the Sea of Cortez, which is one of the few places in the area that hasn’t yet been fully developed for tourism. Tours can be arranged by an eco-tourism company in the plaza.
The same company will be happy to arrange a tour and excursion to see the nearby cave paintings in the mountains of the San Francisco de la Sierra. Although there is a one-day option to see some paintings, it is recommended that you take the four day tour further into the mountains, which requires that mules and donkeys take you, your food, a guide, and provisions. Though tempted, we left our cave painting expedition for another day.
The town of Heroica Mulegé is much larger than San Ignacio and has about 3,500 residents. It has beautiful views from the coast, a relaxed atmosphere, a tourist and ex-pat scene, and very friendly locals.
When you cross the border from the state of Baja California to Baja California Sur, you are also crossing the 28th parallel and switching time zones to Mountain Standard. When you cross you’ll go through a military checkpoint, there’s the possibility of a agricultural inspection and they spray your vehicle with insecticide.
Right after the checkpoint the first large community you enter is the town of Guerrero Negro. Guerrero Negro was founded in 1957 when a saltworks was created on a coastal lagoon because of its high salinity. Today the saltworks produces about seven million tons of salt and employs about 1,000 people.
But before you reach the downtown area, right off Federal Highway 1, is Mario’s Tours and Restaurant. The establishment also has a basic RV campground in back with bathrooms, electrical hookups and two friendly dogs who are more than likely to greet you each morning.
Nearby is a natural wetlands preserve and bird refuge that has birds such as White Pelicans, Red Tailed Falcon, White and Red Egrets, Whimbrel and the Osprey. We also drove out to an old lighthouse that has been abandoned for years.
Coming face to face with these mother and baby whales was absolutely wonderful! We recommend anyone in Baja during the breeding season (January to March) come to Guerrero Negro to see the whales!
We woke up on Playa Gringa and were welcomed with a calm blue bay stretching north, south, and east of us. We had a few neighbors in RVs and campers spread along the coast.
The seaweed and lichen formed a nice ring around the bay where the tide went out, green from the recent tide, and another brown ring from the previous day’s tide.
The town hosts a local version of the much larger Baja 1000. The Baja 200 is held every year and race enthusiasts from all over converge on this small town. Once again we were incredibly fortunate to be exactly the right place at the right time and we just happened to be there the exact same weekend that the race was going to be run.
But alas, we decided not to trash the jeep in an off-road race, and the next day when we saw the cars and the course, were pretty happy we didn’t. We chatted with the Bahia 200 project manager, and she reminded us that if we come back north through Mexico, they’ll be running the race every year, and we can be ready for it then.
We spent most our nights in Bahia de Los Angeles enjoying the night views from Playa la Gringa.
The drive from San Filipe to our intended destination, Guerrero Negro, would have been possible in a day on a paved highway such as Highway 1. However, a few miles south of San Filipe the road turns to very rough gravel and many detours off the original highway. Most of the stretch of highway it is under construction, but I would not expect the work to be complete for at least a few years.
We made our way slowly from San Filipe on Highway 5 back to Highway 1. The slow travel gave us a great opportunity for site seeing, along the coast and into the desert of central Baja. We passed a few odd establishments seemingly in the middle of nowhere, as well as some permanently retired road trip vans and busses. It seemed a pretty good middle of nowhere coastline.
We came to an interesting point close to where Highway 5 meets back with Highway 1. Absolutely nothing else around for maybe 50 kilometers, here’s a house labeled “Coco’s Corner - Cold Beer” with cans lining a fence leading to a small house. We were pushing against the sun already on its way down, so despite our curiosity didn’t stop.
It was unfortunate to drive into the town in the dark, because the view coming over the final mountain into the bay is phenomenal. We made our way into the town, a very small beach front stretch with just a few open restaurants in the evening. One even had very slow wifi to tantalize the traveler, as there is no cell phone reception here.
We read an RV blog online that mentioned a few RV parks called “Archelon” and “Daggets” on the beaches north of town. We had just enough wifi to load some maps, and headed out of town on beach roads to the north. Unfortunately, the roads criss cross aimlessly that close to the beach, and are pretty difficult to navigate in the dark in a bus and questionable maps to lead you. We passed in front of and got near a few private residences and a few beach front hotel and RV camps, but ultimately turned back to the main road to keep looking.
We had also read of a beach further called “La Gringa”, so we followed the unnamed road north of town. The road connects to the main roundabout where Highway 1 comes into town from the north-west. The paved road gave way to gravel and slowed us down quite a bit. This was another section of very rough road that would have been much better to drive in the day. Please look at the map posted above (you can zoom in and pan) to see how to get to Playa Gringa.
We took it slow, kept going straight, and eventually came to a fenced in area with a “Bienvenidos a Playa La Gringa” sign, and another park services sign specifying that the area was a natural preserve. There are privately owned portions of Playa La Gringa on both sides of the natural preserve, so make sure you follow the road to the end and enter the fence where it says it is a “reserva natural.” If you are following a map, Playa Gringa is just after “Campo Jaurez.”
We were a quite a few kilometers from even the small town of Bahia de Los Angeles, and we were rewarded with a fantastic sky full of stars. We pulled to a ridge just above the bay’s tide line and stepped out to enjoy our night sky.
The Baja California Peninsula was first visited by Europeans in May of 1535 by Hernando Cortes’ expedition. Later Cortes sent one of his captains, Fransisco de Ullola, to create a chart of the Sea of Cortes which at that time was called the “The Southern Sea”. Ullola explored the area but the actual Bay of San Felipe wasn’t discovered for yet another year until 1536.
For nearly 200 years the Spaniards paid little to no attention to the Baja California peninsula until the mid to late 1700s when Spanish priests began to arrive to convert the native people to Christianity and hoped to establish themselves in the area to supply provisions to Missions already in the north of Baja.
San Felipe appears to be a town that once had thriving tourist industry but sadly, no longer. This small town, however, is still a common stop for travelers from Arizona and Texas who are able to drive south all the way along the east coast of Baja California. It’s especially attractive to those who are looking for a great fishing spot that’s close enough to the border to get away for a long weekend.
San Felipe is also famous for having one of the world’s largest tidal bores. A tidal bore is when an incoming wave moves up an inlet river or other waterway such as a narrow bay. Because of the Colorado River delta north of here, and the long narrow bay leading to San Felipe, the tide is very strong. The Bay of San Felipe is about three meters above sea level so at low tide the water can recede as much as a quarter mile.
We simply had a relaxing time in San Felipe, reading and chatting with snow-birds visiting from the winters of the USA. A day on the beach and another night under the stars and we were ready to hit the road again.
Ensenada to San Felipe (and attempting to visit the Observatorio Astronómico Nacional de San Pedro Mártir)
On Saturday we made our way east out of Ensenada on Trans-peninsular Highway 3, heading in to the mountains to visit the Mexican National Astronomical Observatory. About 60 kilometers from Ensenada, the route to the observatory (at least according to the GPS) turned off the highway to a dirt road heading towards “Ranchero Mike” (the only sign on the side of the road was for Ranchero Mike, also referred to as “Mike’s Sky Ranch”).
The off-road capabilities of a short school bus towing a jeep were put to the test, winding through unkempt, rocky and hilly roads (with a disparaging amount of garbage on the sides of the road for what felt like the middle of nowhere). Over an hour later, we had made it only half way to the ranch, and less than a third of the way to the Observatory road “San Telmo de Abajo Road.”
More information on the Observatorio Astronómico Nacional de San Pedro Mártir
The other (and more recommended) way to get to the Mexican National Astronomical Observatory is off of Trans-peninsular Highway 1. From Ensenada, go south about 140 KM through Punta Colonet to the town of San Telmo de Abajo. Exit and take the road east about 77 more kilometers to the entrance of the Parque Nacional Sierra de San Pedro de Martir. The road can still be snowy or wet in the winter, as well as very steep and rugged at times, so it may still be hazardous. We ultimately decided that our winter adventure in a school bus could not make the full journey, and had to leave this trip for another time.
If you visit the Observatory, you will pay a park entrance fee per person of 62 pesos, and this includes camping (the ranger station is open 7am-8pm daily). There are designated camp sites, and a parking lot about one mile from the observatory, hiking trails, and gorgeous scenery. There are also cabins for rent near the ranger station from 700-1700 pesos a night. The San Pedro Martir mountain range region features the highest peak in Baja, Pichaco del Diablo, at over 10,000 feet. There is diverse wildlife such as mule deer, bighorn sheep, cougars, bobcats, coyote, and has been used as a refuge habitat to introduce the endangered California Condor. The Cultural Center features information about the region and the native Kiliwa people.
The Observation station, Observatorio Astronomico Nacional, is open for tours 10am-1pm and 2pm-3pm Monday to Friday. It is world famous for its views of the cosmos, and was built here because of the low light pollution, clear weather, and minimal radio interference. It is home of the second largest telescope in Latin America, and two other deep space telescopes. As it is a working observatory, you may or may not be able to actually view the telescopes when you visit.
Ensenada is the third largest City in Baja California, 110 kilometers south of Tijuana on Transpeninsular Highway 1. It's a beautiful drive down the coastline, Ensenada is situated on the Bahia de Todos Santos, an inlet of the Pacific Ocean, and is locally referred to as La Cenicienta del Pacífico, "The Cinderella of the Pacific".
The area was first settled in 1542 under the name San Mateo by the Portuguese, then was rediscovered and renamed Ensenada de Todos Santos by the Spanish in 1602. Ensenada means 'bay' or 'cove.' The city was settled subsequently by the Jesuits in the mid 1600s to 1768, who were then expelled, resettled by the Dominicans, established as the capital of Baja California by José Manuel Ruiz Carillo in 1805, and briefly taken by William Walker, the self-declared President of Baja, in 1853-54.
Throughout this tremulous history Ensenada never grew beyond a small population of a few thousand until the growth of the US West and numerous migration waves in the 1930s and 1940s, and today Ensenada has over 500,000 people. Interestingly, Ensenada municipality is the largest in the world by land mass. We even spoke with someone who worked with the mayor's wife coordinating different communities in the municipality, and her job took her hundreds of kilometers.
When we woke up in Ensenada on Friday we decided our first stop should be the History Museum, Museo de Historia de Ensenada. The museum is in a beautiful old building whose construction dates back to 1930. The History Museum, much like many of the others we have encountered, had various displays which mostly centered on the history of European explorers and Catholic Missionaries and a room dedicated to mining in Real del Castillo. One resident we talked to stressed the importance of immigration to Ensenada in particular. As we’ve seen with other northern Baja cities, various waves of immigration from Europe, Russia, and Asia arrived and settled, creating a very diverse culture. The tragedy of this immigration, of course, is the often decimating impact on existing native peoples and cultures.
The museum had a very small gift shop where we purchased postcards and went exploring for another museum.
Later in the evening we met up with some residents at a nearby microbrewery where they introduced us to some local beverages. The brewery, Agua Mala, is in a building completely constructed from shipping containers and has a large array of beers from local brewers and a tantalizing food menu. While Agua Mala literally translate as, “bad water”, it is also one way to call Jellyfish in Spanish. This spot is greatly recommend to the traveler avoiding the downtown cruise ship tourist scene.
One of the residents we met, Andrea, works closely with some of the orphanages in and around Ensenada. She took us to an orphanage called Rancho de Los Niños, located about a half hour outside of downtown Ensenada. In order to get there you need to drive through Ensenada’s ever increasingly popular winery region. She explained to us that until recently many people in other parts of Mexico had never heard of Ensenada, but in the last few years the popularity of the wines produced there has given the area quite a bit of notoriety.
Rancho de Los Niños has been around for about 75 years but was officially licensed by the Mexican government in 1968 and is about to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary next year. The orphanage currently cares for approximately 80 children from the ages of about three to seventeen. The children have sometimes been abused and neglected and some have special needs. The orphanage is on a large plot of land, with separate living space for young children, teenage boys, teenage girls, as well as for special needs and disabled children. It was bright, colorful, had a garden, a playground, dogs, livestock, a stage for shows, and a general aura of happiness.
When we first arrived we were introduced to three girls named, Alondra, Fernanda, and Lupita, the youngest of the three. Even though they were young and shy, they were happy to discuss the community they lived in. Though very camera shy, when we told them we wanted their help painting a representation of their community, they lit up. We broke out our paints and canvass board, and some of the boys playing nearby joined the girls to help paint a picture of their community. Everybody had fun and it turned out great! Chatting with the children as they painted, we found that some had been there a few years, and one quiet boy just a week or two. It was nice to see the other children welcome him so quickly and tell us that he was a part of their community as well.
We talked with some of the staff and got to interview some of them while we were there. One of which was the director, Jorge Fonseca, who jokingly told us he had been the director for twenty-five years. He laughed and said of course he’s not that old, he’s been the director for just a few years. But after talking to him a bit longer, we found that his answer was truthful in a way. Jorge was raised at the orphanage from the age of two, where he met his future wife, was given enough education and head start to leave and attend university, and ultimately came back to be the director of the facility.
Jorge was incredibly grateful for the opportunities he had because the orphanage helped provide a safe home and community, as well as an the chance to attend school in the nearby village. When we asked if everything was going well in the orphanage, he said they got by, that they had more children than they probably should try to care for, but they found it impossible to turn any away. We asked what they could use for assistance, and without hesitating he responded "school supplies.” Jorge simply wants the children there to have the opportunity that he had, to attend school and become educated. If you would like to help raise money for school supplies for the orphanage, please visit our fundraiser Here on YouCaring.com.
The next day we had the good fortune to meet with a local artist named Esther Rubio. Coincidentally we had seen her work in two different places before even meeting her. Murals in Bahia de Los Angeles, as well as the art on the outside of Agua Mala. Besides being an incredible artist, Esther is a beautiful, amazingly genuine human being. She teaches drawing and art history at CEARTE. She graciously invited us into her home where we took the opportunity to interview her about the community she grew up in, Sonora, and her new home in Ensenada. We are thrilled with our good fortune that Esther will also be contributing a piece of her art to our project.
You can see more of Esther's work on her Facebook Page or on her Instagram account: @negricita
Esther even took us out on the town to see a local jazz fusion band at Ultra Marino, a live music and DJ bar downtown. We also greatly recommend Ultra Marino if you are downtown and trying to avoid the tourist traps! The atmosphere was relaxed, the locals friendly, and they have a large variety of music throughout the week.
On our way out of town, Esther showed us her favorite local taco shop, and probably the best fish and shrimp tacos I've ever had! Another great spot away from the typical tourist shops, 16 and 18 pesos for large fish and shrimp tacos. A great way to end our trip to Ensenada!
On Wednesday we headed to the Tijuana Cultural Center which is called The Casa de la Cultura Tijuana where we met Alfredo. The Cultural Center was an old university building that had been converted to an arts center where locals can take classes in everything from dancing to painting. It also contained a library where Oscar stepped in to snap a photo and met Alfredo. Alfredo was the librarian and was happy to tell us about the history of Tijuana. He flipped through a large book, showing us old photographs and told us of the history of the city. The pride he felt for his city was apparent. It was clear to us that Alfredo would be an excellent person to interview about the community.
He wanted to stress upon us the benefits of having a multicultural history. He discussed the various waves of migrations from the indigenous people to the Spaniards, the cattle ranchers to the Chinese, Russians and Americans. He was proud of the history of Tijuana. It’s much more than just a border town, but a cultural stomping grounds that many have influenced throughout the centuries and left a lasting impression on the people, culture, architecture and food.
The area of modern Tijuana was originally inhabited by the Kumeyaay, a tribe of Yuman-speaking hunter-gatherers. The largely inhospitable region lead to a simple lifestyle of the native populations, with little of the cultural, trade, and city development found in mainland Mexico at the time. Though mapped by various explorers between the mid 1500s to 1700s, European settlement didn’t take off until the end of the Mission Era of Mexico, when governor of Baja and Alta California, José María de Echeandía, awarded a land grant for cattle ranching to Santiago Arguello, in 1829. The 100 square km cattle ranch was named Rancho Tia Juana, where the modern city derives its name
At the end of the Mexican-American war in 1848, Alta California was annexed by the United States, cutting it off from Baja California and creating a border right through the large cattle ranch Rancho Tia Juana. Most Hispanic families of Alta California remained in their homes, which was now part of the United States. Other Hispanic families moved south to the new Mexico-USA border, and development of a new city began, and Tijuana officially became a city in 1889. Around this time, migration from China began when President Porfirio Diaz allowed increased migration to help develop the northern states and build railroads. In the early 1900s, Spiritual Christian Pryguny (colloquially known as Molokans) immigrated from Russia to establish a colony in Baja, as well as many Russian ethnic Jews into Tijuana and the surrounding areas.
The new city quickly became of destination for “excursionist” tourism, trade and entertainment during the California land boom. One early point of contentious history in the city was in 1911, during the Mexican Revolution. Revolutionaries loyal to Ricardo Flores Magón took over the city for a month before Mexican Federal troops and local resistance routed them from the city. From there, Tijuana continued to grow unabated, and with the eventual prohibition of alcohol in the USA in the 1920s helping expand tourism, even Al Capone made regular visits across the border here.
Tijuana is now the largest city on the Baja peninsula in Mexico, with over 1.7 million people in population. The close proximity to San Diego has spurred development from numerous multinational companies and made Tijuana the medical device manufacturing capital of North America. As it shares a 15 mile border with its sister city San Diego, it is the most visited border city in the world, with the San Ysidro Port of Entry being the busiest land border crossing in the world, with as many as 300,000 daily crossings.
After leaving the Casa de la Cultura Tijuana we went to the Centro Estatal de las Artes Tijuana (CEART) where we went through an exhibit detailing the history of the Californias. We also viewed another exhibit that highlighted the history of the city of Tijuana. The museum contained mostly replicas and photographs, and was not particularly well curated or appealing.
One of the captivating details that Alfredo pointed out to us in the history book was the Tower of Agua Caliente, what he called the most iconic building in Tijuana. He said “Just show any Mexican this building and they’ll know it’s Tijuana”. It was reminiscent of an “Arch de Triumph” on a smaller scale, and was the heart of the Agua Cliente Touristic Complex, opened in 1928. The Complex included a hotel, spa, golf course, private airport, gambling casino, horse and dog race tracks. Though only open eight years, it was one of the most famous destinations in North America, attracting Hollywood stars and gangsters alike, and was where a young Rita Hayworth was discovered. The Tower of Agua Caliente burned down in 1950s and was recently rebuilt by the city’s Lion’s Club. Interestingly, the second floor contains the Sports Hall of Fame for Baja (it was unfortunately closed when we visited)
We also took a stroll down Calle Independencia through the tourist and nightlife district. We happened by Hotel Caesar’s, home of Caesar’s Restaurant and allegedly the birthplace of the Caesar’s Salad. The story goes that on July 4th, 1924, Caesar was short on supplies and did not want to disappoint a group of musicians dining that evening. With no prepared salad dressing, he whipped up a dressing of garlic, raw eggs, parmesan cheese, olive oil, vinegar, and black pepper, on a bed of Romain lettuce, croutons and anchovies. The salad was a hit and the rest is history, love it or hate it.
We stopped by Mamut, a local micro brewery and bar built in an old church (8158 Calle Carrillo Puerto, still in the tourist and nightlife area). The bar was spacious and beautiful, and rife with hipster vibes, delicious micro brews, and pizzas in a wood burning and propane fed brick oven shaped like a mammoth’s head. Mamut is named after the mammoth (mamut in Spanish), an homage to one of the first prehistoric residents of Baha California, according to the bar owner. We wrapped up our night in Tijuana with some friends and beers at the Telefonica Gastro Park, a food court made of food trucks that caters to the hipster palate. We tried some of the local beverages, sampled elaborate hot dogs and ramen. We had a really nice evening with our gracious hosts that put us up for a few days. We are grateful to them fitting our travels into their busy schedule.
Community Through Colors is interested in exploring the fabrics of society, historical and modern.
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