Mexico: Baja California

So many times, when discussing our trip, people would be really enthusiastic about the idea of travelling from North to South America…. until at some point they realized that we would need to cross Mexico. A concerned face would inevitably appear together with a lot of questions on the safety (“especially with such young kids”). Mexico has a really bad reputation (in the USA).  We had been in Mexico two times before and never felt unsafe or experienced any issues. But we must admit that we were not immune to all the horror stories (from somebody’s friend’s friend) and the fear mongering in the media. Had the country changed so much since our last visit? Had it really descended into the 9th circle of Dante’s hell.

Crossing the border into Mexico was a special experience. On the US entry side there were huge lines and lots of barriers. On the Mexico entry side, there were no lines and if we would have wanted, we could have just driven through without much formalities. But we had read the instructions of other travelers very well so we knew that for our trip we needed some more documentation than one would need for a quick trip across the border. From now on, we will not only need to do the usual immigration (pasports stamps or visa) but we also need to temporary import our vehicle (and export it again when leaving). Although thousands of people have done this at this border before us, we heard that somehow the custom staff always seem to do this for the first time. It took a couple of hours but all in all the whole thing went without any issues.

So now we found ourselves in Mexicali, one of the most dangerous places in Mexico (‘do not travel’ zone for US citizens). We decided not to linger around too long. So after doing grocery shopping we drove out of town and decided to camp at Rancho Mill. This eco lodge /campground was just what we needed. The last weeks in California had been really busy and the whole border crossing had brought quite some stress. We parked the van next to the river and the next couple of days we spent relaxing, watching the river, spotting birds and socializing with other travelers and Mexican visitors. It was also great talking to Don the owner of the ranch, who was able (unlike most of his fellow US citizens) to put a lot of the ‘bad reputation’ of Mexico in perspective.

After some rest and the reassurance from all the discussions, we were ready to go find our first ‘wild’ beach camping spot. Virtually guided again by our Dutch digital friends, we found a really nice beach spot. The perfect place to relax and wait for the arrival of our friends and godmothers of our kids on Christmas day.

The whole Christmas experience on the road was a special experience. With half the family missing the Christmas atmosphere while the other being relieved to escape it for a year, there was a bit of a limbo on how we would celebrate. We did get xmas lights for the van and presents were bought but we did not plan any special menus or long celebrations. But then we got new neighbours on the beach, a Canadian couple from Quebec. We chatted a couple of times and on Xmas eve, they proposed to build a fire so we could have a drink and talk a bit. It would turn out to be one of the best Xmas eves ever. The kids and Caro gathered clams on the beach to roast in the fire as an appetizer, another couple arrived and brought some potatoes, we served some  hot dogs and we had an fantastic evening with so many travel stories and plenty of inspiration for future travels.

On Xmas day we crossed the peninsula to meet up with Nele and Kristien who had landed in San Diego and would travel with us for 10 days. Together we traveled down to Bahia de Los Angeles, chased by the ‘curse of Montezuma’. On New Years eve we hopped on a boat to look for dolphins and we found them (or they found us) resulting in instant happiness with all involved parties.

New Year’s eve festivities were pretty subdued but that didn’t seem to bother anybody. It was great again to have visitors, hear the stories from the home front and be re-assured that our kids are still showing ‘normal’ social behavior after 7 months on the road with us.

Our friends drove back North to San Diego and we started picking up some speed again and beach hopped our way South. The beaches are really beautiful and wild camping here is really special, but we also started to long to cross to the main land to see the ‘real’ Mexico that we knew from our previous travels. But before that, there were still some people we wanted to see and  things we wanted to do in Baja.

We met up with the Swiss family who we had met in Utah and Arizona. We tested the second hand surf board we bought in California and which we hope to use a lot more on our trip to South America. And we finally met up with the two Dutch families (Mugjes link and family everywhere). For the kids it was awesome to play with Dutch speaking kids again after many months. For us it was an opportunity to thank them for all the inspiration and help we got in our travel planning. But it was also cool to discuss the joys, pains and challenges of living as a family on the road. Even though our travel styles are different (They travel without end date or final destination), it’s amazing how much we had in common.

From now on we are travelling ahead of them and the tables are turned and hopefully we will be able to inspire them as much as they inspired us!

But we were not quite ready to leave Baja just yet, there were still a couple of animals on Leon’s to do list that we had to go look for. The first one was rather easy to tick off. Near the town of Todos Santos, the volunteers of the local turtle hatchery set out newly hatched baby turtles nearly every day in the winter months. They collect the eggs and let them hatch in a warm greenhouse like tent because in the colder winter months chances are very slim that they would hatch naturally. So we went down to the beach and witnessed how about 70 little turtles (hatched that same day) were put on the beach while the sun had gone down (to avoid that birds came for supper) and instinctively started to crawl to the sea when they heard a wave crash on the beach. An adorable moment and the kids absolutely loved it. We didn’t tell them yet that more than 90 % of those cute animals would not make it to adulthood…

So with the turtles off the list, we started looking for the next one on the list: the Humpback whales. These giants migrate from the North to the Baja region for the winter months and to calf. We had already seen some of them from shore, jumping in the distance, but our Dutch friends gave us a tip about a deserted beach where they came really close to shore. And they didn’t exaggerate. Never did we see whales this close to the shore, sometimes not more than 15 m from where we were standing. And they weren’t just swimming past us. They really put on a big show: slapping their tails and fins and even full on breaches. We felt so privileged to witness this

And so with this animal also on the list, we started driving back to La Paz where we would take the ferry a couple of days later. On the way we still wanted to do some snorkeling and so we planned to stay on a beach with good snorkeling. When we got there, to our surprise, we were greeted by our German friends from Utah again and they told us about a really cool trip they had done with local fisherman to see whales up close. We dropped our plans to go snorkeling and instead went over to the fishermen to see if they could take us the next day. We had to wait two days for a break in the weather (the sea was too choppy) but eventually on Sunday morning we headed out in a small fisher boat with a really cool Swiss couple. It took a bit of time but we did find a big whale with a calf. While we were slowly drifting next to the mother all of a sudden, the calf jumped out of the sea, right in front of us. And I didn’t stop, for about 15 minutes this calf was jumping around our boat before they swum away. This time the whale we could nearly touch the whales. And it was not over yet, because on the way back we came across a complete family mother (the largest), dad, a big calf and a calf that was not older than a couple of weeks. The small calf was still surfing on the back of the mom. Amazing! And again they put on a big show of breaching and fin slapping right next to us. Back on land we really had drive to the city. The road was pretty bad but after that magic morning it seemed that we were floating on clouds (of dust).

We had a booking for the ferry to the mainland on Wednesday so we had two days left and the weather was good so we tried our luck to see one more very special animal. One of the bays close to the city has a population of ‘juvenile’ whale sharks. Whale sharks are the largest fish in the world (up to 18m – a lot bigger than the great white shark) but unlike what their name suggests they are completely harmless, hence their nick name the ‘gentle giants’. They can live up to 80 years old and for some unknown reason the population in La Paz usually stays there until they are 20 years old before swimming off to places all around the world. We found a guide to take us out on boat for a very strict regulated (= good!) swim. Once we got to the bay we immediately saw a couple of fins sticking out of the water. The guide jumped in and we followed. We were supposed to keep some distance but this was quite difficult. The water was murky so we didn’t see anything until we were very close. And they were big!!! We thought ‘juveniles’ would be small but the first one we came across was definitely 10 m long. Lucie was so impressed that after one encounter she decided to stay in the boat. The three of us jumped in 4 or 5 times more to admire these amazing creatures

There is still a lot more to see and do in Baja California but with the successful whale and  whale shark encounters of the last couple of days, we could now leave the peninsula without too much ‘fear of missing out’. We boarded an overnight cargo ferry to the mainland that takes a couple of camper vans and cars to fill up the gaps between all the cargo trucks. We had dinner with the truckers in the small mess and were allowed to sleep in our van. The sea was calm, the freezer trucks on the other hand were extremely loud. But in the end we had a pretty good sleep. We were ready to start our journey on the mainland of Mexico in the city of Mazatlan.

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