The Mexico Experience
Before beginning this tale of adventure, understand that my experience in the country is limited to the Baja Peninsula and well off the beaten tourist path. I cannot assume my experience would be matched in other areas of the country. I am sure there are ample locations for a safe, beautiful and relaxing stay in Mexico. That being said, I am not anxious to return.
Getting into Mexico was the easy part. On a somewhat spontaneous road trip with a fellow adventurous soul, we decided to leave our Seattle homes and head South of the border. Upon reaching the border, we were greeted by just a lone guard waving the cars through without so much as a second look. We found ourselves driving around the infamous Tijuana soon after.
Familiar with Tijuana's less than glowing reputation and now driving through the run down streets, we decided to spend as little time there as possible. We set out to arm ourselves with some local currency and then explore what Mexico offers beyond the run-down border towns. We stumbled upon a secure looking location, with high fences and armed guards. Just a simple strip mall, but the highly visible security makes you wonder how safe we should feel wandering around outside its well protected borders.
After exchanging some cash, we continued South, going through Rosarito and on to Ensenada. With some distance between us and the border we thought we'd check out the city with on foot, possibly find a place to stay. As soon as we left the car street peddlers began with their assaults, trying to lure us to their illicit businesses. Doing our best to ignore them, we walked on, but one continued to follow us around the city, becoming too persistent for comfort. With a growing distaste for the city and concerns of safety, we quickly made our way back to the car, hoping it would still be there.
We still had the car, but it was nearing nightfall and we do not have a place to stay. The cities no longer held any appeal, fortunately we brought along our camping gear and saw signs for a campground just outside of the city. A few pesos later we started looking for a place to pitch our tent. Having our fill of interaction with the locals, a secluded campsite was in order, leading us to explore the camping area in our car.
The increasing darkness added to the difficulty of our task. We soon found some hills behind the campground that showed signs of little use. The car transitioned from the dirt roads of the campground to... well... i guess it is best described as tracks in the hillside vaguely resembling a road. We aren't picky. Up the hill we go. But there's a snag. Just as we start seeing terrain we would like to camp on, the hill decides not to let us continue up. Undeterred we proceed on foot to scout the grounds. (Looking back, I am pretty sure we were no longer on any part of the campgrounds.) Finding a nice flat secluded area, we realize the only downside is we need to abandon the car in the "road" for the night. This is not a prospect we are comfortable with.
Back at the car, we figure we should be able to get past the chuckholes and loose dirt holding us back. This hill is pretty sparse in vegetation, with no trees to speak of. So, imagine if you will, looking out at this hill, from the campground or the city, and seeing a strange light, rocking back and forth, moving up and down, taking runs up the hillside, all in the middle of the night. That's us. Trying to rock the car up over the holes. Trying to push it uphill through the tractionless dirt. Trying to take running starts to finally make it up the last leg of our "road." Then the realization hits, what if someone is watching all this from afar... Maybe they just find some humor in it, but our foolish attempt at finding safe seclusion is now rewarded with concerns of everyone knowing for miles exactly where to find a couple of campers in a secluded location.
We abandon our hill. I remove my sunglasses and bandana, makeshift protective gear for tire flung dirt, and drag my tired and filthy self back into the passenger seat. We start scouting lower, grassier terrain. My friend drives as I peer out the window with a flashlight. At this point neither of us really knows where we are or where the campground is, details we didn't want to worry about until morning. The search drags on. We grow weary. At last, my friend stops the car. Perfect, we are in the middle of level, grassy field, the best we could have hoped for. My friend is very excited by his find. I am eager to leave it behind, and quickly.
His vision is limited to what the headlights illuminate. Looking around with the flashlight reveals the disturbing fact that, presently, our car is sitting directly in the middle of a large painted circle with an 'X' through it, place, my gut told me, we did not want to be. Sharing the reality of the situation with my companion we began to wish we had stayed at the campground. Fortune smiled upon us, and after driving over what looked to be a fence (not the first I am sure) we found a half-decent spot, which we were in no hurry to find something wrong with. We just set up the tent and went to sleep. Finally.
We were awoken in the morning by the sound of voices in the distance, a cause for concern. Making ourselves get up and out of the tent we are met with the happy realization we are actually in an honest-to-goodness campsite. Seeing the car in the daylight, however, made me glad it wasn't mine. Our little tussle with the hillside transformed the car from light blue to a lovely shade of brown. At least the caked on dirt hid any scratches from my friends eyes. Not to mention how it looked parked awkwardly on the grass, away from any road. On the upside, our car will no longer stand out in the cities.
Filthy and in need of relaxation, we now set our sites on finding a nice stretch of beach, far from our current location. South and East, down to the inner baja. The toll highways in Mexico are really very nice, and have very few cars on them. Getting to our destination, however, required leaving them behind. Between armed road blocks we enjoyed some pretty cool countryside views. Lots of boulders and rocky terrain. San Felipe is the target. Selected from our AAA road book, they have ample cheap beach camping listed and are a good distance away.
Now comes the choice, the initial condition in a chaotic system, a butterfly flapping its wings that causes a hurricane. The choice seemed innocent enough. Heading toward San Felipe there are a myriad of beach sites with rooms or camping. We just needed to pick when to take a left, and pull into one. And that's what we did. It took us down yet another dirt road to a chain across the road. We stopped. Looking around we saw nothing and no one.
Just before we turned around a guy came running up to the car from somewhere. There seemed to be an abandoned-looking shack in the distance. He spoke no English and our Spanish is rusty. We keep telling him we would like to camp there. He keeps telling us, no we don't. He shakes his head, warns us repeatedly there is no shower. It took quite an effort to finally get him to agree to take our money. It seemed very strange at the time. We settled on three nights and he seemed to relax once we agreed we would be gone by Friday at noon. Whatever, we just wanna hit the beach.
The chain removed from our path, we headed into the "resort." At least it looked like it had been a resort a hundred years ago. Only the skeletons of buildings remain, roofs and walls missing. It was cheap, and we were just there for the beach. The beach does not disappoint, we can look for miles in either direction and see nothing but more empty beach. The vacation may begin.
We scout the campsite. Set up the tent on suitable location, near one of the two clumps of palm trees, and explore the rest of the "resort." I found bathrooms.. sort of. A quick check of the men's room revealed four stalls, only one usable, and usable just one time at that. The plumbing clearly hasn't worked in years, though that didn't stop them from being used. Given the situation, an inventory of the women's side was called for. Dirty.. Clean.. Clean.. ????? RUN!!!
To this day I don't know what I saw, though I have some ideas. What I know is that at the time everything in me screamed leave that bathroom and never go back, which is exactly what I did. You might say whatever is in the fourth stall of the lady's bathroom of that ghost town of a beach resort in San Felipe is like whatever was in that briefcase of the Quintin Tarrentino movie, 'Pulp Fiction,' you'll just have to use your imagination.
I exited the bathroom in hurry, spooked to say the least. Outside I started to regain my composure, thinking I was acting silly. I reported the restroom inventory to my friend. He was suspicious of my report of the fourth women's stall, but did not have the desire to see for himself. We decided to spend the afternoon in town, maybe use one of their restrooms. It felt good to know where we would be sleeping that night.
San Felipe is a quiet little town. They have a nice public beach with better sand than our stretch, so we spent some time hanging out and swimming. We remained cautious in our actions. Only one person would swim at a time. When using an ATM we would separate so one would approach the ATM from one side while other watched from a distance. While our car blended in, we definitely stood out as tourists. It finally started to feel like we left the taint of the border area behind. As evening approached, we headed back to camp, no more dirt roads at night.
The relaxation continued with a little more swimming, sunbathing, and my friend even brought along a kite. Things are calm on the ground, but the winds up high are strong. He just tied the kite to one of the trees, before retiring to the tent for a quick movie before crashing. We may be "roughing it" but laptops and cell phones are handy devices. "Sum of All Fears" ended, appropriate flick to put our concerns in perspective, and before we could fall asleep, we discovered we were not alone, though miles away from any sort of civilization.
It started with the sound of footsteps. In this situation, you really want to believe you are just hearing things. Seeing a man standing through large bug net window of the tent makes that hard to do. Our only solace in the situation is that, worse comes to worse, the door is actually on the other side of the tent. The man starts to speak to us in Spanish. Really not wanting anything to do with him, it is primarily a one sided conversation.
We slowly piece together from his unfocused ramblings two things. One, he is hungry. Two, he was stalking around our campsite when he got tangled up in the kite string and cut it loose. At least we hope that is what he was talking about cutting. Anyway, we stick with our refrain of "No entiendo, we don't speak Spanish," until after over half an hour he finally gives up and goes away. We spend the next half hour listening intently to be sure of it. Then everything but the sleeping bags and items that could be used as weapons are locked in the car. Now to try and get some sleep...
We woke up in the morning only to have our breakfast rudely interrupted. This times bugs are to blame. Yes, there are smaller bugs swarming around, but the ones we're concerned about first come time attention when I hear what sounds like a plane buzzing by my head. It doesn't take long to spot the thing, since it is bigger than a lot of birds I've seen. So, back to the tent for the weapons...
Preparing for this trip, we brought enough food and water in the car to be self-sufficient. We didn't need to add "Montezuma's Revenge" to the experience. We did want to try some authentic Mexican cuisine. San Felipe seemed like the perfect place, so we headed toward town.
One thing I like to do while traveling, is to take pictures of the different police and military vehicles I come across. On the way into town there's a sign pointing toward a military base. It is only a few blocks away. San Felipe is a small town. My friend happily obliges my request to check it out, and we take the turn. I roll down my window and get ready to take a picture, when suddenly I notice he isn't stopping. Then I see why. The military guards aren't acting too happy about having pictures taken of their base. So scratch that idea, how about some food?
We head back toward downtown, but then my friend makes an odd turn... and another.... I hesitantly ask what he's doing, and I don't like the answer. We are being followed. And now we are being pulled over. I quickly finish off my roll and change the film in my camera. We pull to the side of the road and they pull up next to us. Their uniforms are clearly military and they are driving a dark colored sedan. They look anything but happy.
This is the point where our instincts for self-preservation kick in and my friend and I go into stupid 'Innocent' gringo mode. We stare wide eyed at the soldiers. The angrier of the two speaks first. It seems as if he going into a riot act we're not going to like the end of. He says there are three things. "Numero Uno," he growls holding a finger up stiffly, when our "we don't speak Spanish" act and looking like we won't be needing clean stalls anymore gets through to the other soldier. He stops the angry one, telling him not to bother. He reluctantly gives up and they pull away.
It is now Thursday, almost lunchtime. The odd turns we took left us on the road back to camp, so we decide to pull up stakes, leave a day early, and try to take a vacation from the vacation. We figure we can pack up, hit the town for a quick lunch, say farewell, and mosey on up to the border.
While breaking down the tent, about 60 yards away by the restrooms, I see something out of place. There are two clumps of three or four trees in this spread out, run down, abandoned resort, one by our tent and the other by the restrooms. I see a truck camouflaged behind those other trees, as much as a fifty foot truck can be camouflaged by three palm trees. Now I wouldn't be too concerned, if it weren't for the twenty armed guerillas sitting in the back of this truck.
Not wanting to attract any more attention of gun wielding hombres, I quietly get my friends attention and we stop packing and instead just throw everything in the car at an accellerated pace. Acting as best we could like they were not there. After scrambling in the passenger seat, I turned back to look through the window. One of the soldiers hopped out of the truck with his rifle. He marched straight into the lady's restroom. I don't think it would be hard to guess which stall he was headed for. As we fled, leaving a cartoon-like trail of dust behind us, I noticed it was only a little past noon and began to wish the caretaker of our campground had not mixed up his Thursdays and Fridays, or at least been more convincing in telling us we didn't want to stay there.
Once we hit the road, we took off as fast as the car would take us and didn't look back in case we saw something. Our worries compound when we hear a loud thwacking from one of the tires. We reluctantly pull over. My friend jumps out, checks one tire, then the next. I hear a loud rip and a clunk. He jumps back in and we are back in flight. The wheel well had come loose a little and is now somewhere on the side of the road in Mexico. At this point I got on the phone trying to get a message through as to what happened if they don't hear from us in a few hours. But the signal drops as we see our fears come to life.
Speeding down the highway at over a hundred miles an hour while fleeing from armed soldiers, the one thing you do not want to see is a military road block. The last obstacle between us and the nearest border town. It is unlikely a convoy truck could have kept up and chased us this far. Our concern is the radios. If anything turned up missing from that fourth stall, we did not want to be in the country when they found out.
We did not know at the time, that just our presence that deep in Mexico without a visa or papers for the car was crime. They could confiscate the car. They could fine or imprison us. After what felt like forever, they let us pass. We make it to Mexicali. After a brief panic trying to get on the right road to the border, we are forced to sweat it out in a long line of cars waiting to get through. When the U.S. Customs agent asked, "Anything to declare," our response, "It's good to be back," did not seem funny in the least. He didn't even ask for identification. I can only imagine how we looked, the car.. trashed, us.. no showers for a week and looking as desperate as possible to get out of Mexico. We didn't even made sure to put some distance between us and the border before we could finally relax.
The main lesson I learned from this trip, is that sometimes it is better not to know. My mom does not want to know when I'm currently fleeing a country. Not knowing can save you from unwanted communication. Not knowing the truth behind stories of Mexico from experience may keep you from dropping a couple years off your life expectancy. Not knowing what's in the fourth stall of the lady's restroom may save your life.
I also learned later that the large painted circle with an 'X' through it was most likely a drug drop target. Drug running planes would fly over and drop their payload on the target. If we had sent up camp, with our luck we would have been woken up by a thump on the top of our tent, followed shortly by the arrival of several armed guests. At least we avoided some trouble on this adventure. And after all, we did survive.
I don't want to leave the impression that Mexico is all bad. My friend and I have a way of finding trouble and taking the road less traveled. The few locals we met at grocery stores and such were very kind and pleasant. While I do now understand where Mexico gets the bad half of its reputation. I hope to someday experience the good half. I am working up to it. Years after this trip I worked up the nerve to dip my toes back in the water with a brief border crossing to finally try that authentic Mexican food I missed out on, and it was excellent.
- Tale Provided Courtesy of smallChaos Adventures™ -