I’ve always wanted to see the Grey Whale calving in Baja California Sur. Of all of my trips to Baja over the years I’ve never been able to make a deep trip during the months before the whales migrate north to Alaska. The whales visit all of the major lagoons on Baja to raise their calves but are concentrated in Laguna Ojo de Liebre (Scammon’s Lagoon), Bahia Magdalena, and Bahia San Ignacio. We asked our good friend Lindsey Peavey, a marine biologist working on her Ph.D. at UC Santa Barbara, for advice on which one to visit. Her suggestion from years with Pro Peninsula and Wildcoast was to stay and tour at Kuyima in San Ignacio. Lonely Planet and Mexican Camping make the same recommendation.

Kuyima is great place to camp and seems to have the EcoLodge thing down. They have solar hot water, eco toilets, camping, cabañas, pre-pitched tents, and drive in sopts. We pulled in off the dirt road a couple hours before sunset, in time to really get excited as we could see whales spouting out in the bay while we made dinner. Super cool, but we had no idea. I can’t believe we live a two-day drive from this spot and we’ve never done this. The whales are incredible. They come right up to the boat and seems to get as big of a kick (sans legs) out of seeing the tourists as the tourist do them. While we were in San Ignacio there were approximately 40 or 50 whales in the bay, at the height of the season there are 200 plus. Apparently the whales in late February and early march are even more friendly with the calves having doubled in size and their mothers having become much less protective.

If you live anywhere near San Diego and you haven’t done this. Go. It is incredible. Hopefully the images and videos will inspire you. There are more photos over on Flickr and another video on our YouTube channel.

The ferries to and from Baja are the cause of a lot of questions and frustrations with travelers. There are numerous stories of people getting stuck in Mazatlan or La Paz waiting for an open spot. Apparently things have gotten a lot easier now that there are two ferry companies. The ferries from La Paz also serve Topolobampo and Los Mochis. In retrospect we probably should have driven down Baja on the way down and taken the ferry to Los Mochis in order to visit Copper Canyon but I didn’t realize how easy it would have been.

The two ferry companies are very different and offer extremely different amenities for Baja travelers. The Baja Ferries company offers very nice new boats with cabins, good food, state rooms and a nine hour travel time but you definitely pay for what you get. It is a little confusing to try to determine how much we would have actually paid for the van on Baja Ferries from their website but it might have been as much as US$1000 depending on what classification it fit into. We would have also had to purchase a cabin for another US$60-$70 if we wanted to get some sleep as you don’t have access to your vehicle.

By contrast, Transportación Marítima de California is the truckers choice. The boats are older and slower – 16 hours to La Paz. The bathroom facilities are borderline revolting. The food is passable and there are very few other amenities. But its significantly less expensive than Baja Ferries and you have access to your vehicle for the duration of the trip. For us that meant watching movies, drinking mescal, and sleeping in the van – and after the most non-romantic discussion of all time about benefits and taxes, we decided to get married. Smooth, I know. All for the low price of about US$350 (not the marriage stuff).

Boarding the ferry is pretty straightforward, if you are trying to get the ferry near the holidays you apparently need to make a reservation; but we just rolled up, measured and weighed the van, submitted to the most extensive military search yet, and kicked it on the docks while they loaded all the trailers and semis. The loading process is fairly long and semi-painful but the workers are total pros and work pretty hard to get the tourists on last. Last on equals first off! The first couple of hours pulling away from Mazatlan and the last few hours near La Paz make for some great sight-seeing especially the early morning views of the mountains of Baja Sur with huge pods of dolphins playing in the ferry’s wake.

There are a lot more pictures over on Flickr.

Once again we find ourselves in Mazatlan knee deep in van repair. Ever since the steep, uphill, overheating incident in Oaxaca the van has been gradually going proverbially down-hill. Our gas mileage has dropped from a pathetic 7-11 miles per gallon to a wallet emptying 3-5 miles per gallon and we have to gun it to get up the smallest of hill climbs not exactly putting on a demo of the notorious 460 big block power. Combine that with our previous van expenditures, an extra couple of weeks on the road, some bad math, poor planning and we are B R O K E. Broke like we can’t afford a bus pass broke. Seriously, we took the libre partway from Tepic to Mazatlan to avoid the last two tolls of the astronomically expensive cuota. I want to know what percentage of Mexican’s can afford that stretch, at over MX$500 pesos for 214 kilometers it comes to over US$0.50 per mile, totally ridiculous.

We had additionally thought that our problems were caused by some bad gasoline but by the time we rolled into Mazatlan, our tail pipe black like we were running diesel, the back of the van smelling like smog, and pouring our remaining cash into the tank, we realized that things were worse than dirty fuel.

A little depressed and not sure where to start, I dropped my car problems on a fellow van camper that had wandered over to chat and check our ride. Neil Hanlon is Canadian snowbird that has been escaping to Mexico from his snowy winter confines since before I graduated from high school but you’d never know it from looking at him. His blond hair, vernacular, and easy, smooth manners defy his real age (which I don’t actually know but can guess based on 26 year old kids). It took him all of about 3 minutes to tell me that the choke was failing and she was running rich. He conferred with another resident mechanic and told me that we could dial her in come morning.

Natalie and I then cruised over to Isla de la Piedras to see Warren and Joyce from our first car repair dominated visit to Mazatlan, reclaiming our propane splitter in the process. It was a little bit of Déjà vu sitting in their Chieftain (Jefe de la jefes) motorhome and recapping our days since last in Sinaloa. But great too. Great in the sense that we feel totally different and totally accomplished since our last cocktail with those crazy Canadians. Joyce made my favorite Mexican safety joke of the whole trip, telling me that they didn’t go to Tuscon, that it was too dangerous and there were too many shootings there.

The next morning we were up at eight, pulling apart the van, removing the dog house and breaking out the wrenches with Neil. His wife made us copious amounts of coffee and we managed to right her wrongs and fix a few miscellaneous issues along the way. We pulled out of the Mar Rosa beachside trailer park at a quarter to one, hoping to score a spot on the ferry; power plant restored, smog emissions greatly reduced, and fuel economy restored to previously dismal, although better than recently atrocious levels.

Tepic is widely regarded as one of the most dangerous cities in Mexico, the Sinaloa, La Familia, and Zeta cartels shoot it out in the non-tourist sectors of the city on a semi-regular basis. Occasionally the violence spills out onto the pereferico and into restaurants and public arenas. Regardless, your odds of ending up anywhere near such events as a gringo tourist are somewhere in line with the same odds of a direct hit lightening strike or the powerball jackpot. In other words, totally safe. Still, better safe than sorry right?

The best campground anywhere near Tepic is a world apart and about an hour north up the cuota in the volcanic crater lake of Santa Maria del Oro. The Koala Bungalows are a quiet peaceful place to spend some time swimming in the lake, kayaking and straight chilling, and I can’t think of a better spot to spend our second to last night in mainland. Beautiful, peaceful, perfect.

If you think that you might sort of pretend to maybe, possibly, like something to remotely do with nature than you have to make the pilgrimage to eastern Michoacan to visit one of the Monarch Butterfly Sanctuaries. Incredible. Amazing. There is no hyperbole, no still, and no video to adequately describe the phenomena of the culmination of the migration of butterflies from Canada, to the southwestern United States to these mountains of central Mexico. At somewhere over 10,000 feet these vagabonding insects congregate in the millions to mate and die during the multi-year and four-generation sojourn. Thought at one point by the locals to be a plague on the incredibly valuable lumber resources, the butterflies now have tens of thousands of hectares of reserve to reproduce and clue scientists into their singularly accomplished exodus. Monarchs are not endangered as commonly thought, huge colonies exist on Africa, Asia, and Austrailia, but none commence a migration like the ones in North America. The videos and photos don’t do it justice, you have to see it for yourself but in case you can’t get enough here there are many more photos over on Flickr.

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Once you get passed the over 300 silver shops hawking their wares, some authentic, some eclectic, some silver plated, and some the award-winning real deal, you realize that there is a distinct reason that Taxco is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The sheer act of constructing the place over three hundred years ago is concept that requires some deep contemplation. The impossibly narrow and insanely steep streets wind and twist their way up the mountainside, turning the average daytime stroll into a heart-starting hike up to the Templo de Santa Prisca at 6000 feet. The Catholic church itself is in serious competition with it’s brethren in Oaxaca for the greatest combination of splendor and the grotesque; with almost every conceivable space adorned with intricate baroque, bas-relief sculpture and Anglo-Christian frescos, Prisca out-duels Santo Domingo on engineering prowess alone.

The actual mined silver from Taxco is long gone, the bulk of the current stock imported from newer Mexican resources, China and India, but the silver maestros remain. Some of the technical silver artisans are amongst the worlds best and it shows. But there is more to just dropping your remaining tourist cash on some 925 trinkets. Our personal find was a small doorway hidden below the central zocalo. Initially manned by an unassuming and intimidating Mexican abuelo, the Bazaar San Francisco was a painstakingly adorned personal collection, all for sale of course, of some of Southern Mexico’s most ubiquitous art. The owner, an obsessive-compulsive collector, made it clear that while he’d sell anything, including his original Mayan and Toltepec carvings and figurines, this was his home, his passion, his life. He said that if he had enough money he wouldn’t sell anything, he also said that since it was his house that he could sell stuff “mas barato, no es caro” than the other boutiques that had to fork over a stiff rent every month.

If you could manage to make your eyes focus on a single object the entire collected works was truly inspiring. We made a few purchases in hopes that his wife would notice the new openings and congratulate him on battling his hoarding obsession, one gringo sale at a time.

We are home… back in the USA. But that doesn’t mean the blog is finished. Quite the contrary. I have lots of posts to go up from the last two weeks in Mexico. We drove so much and had wifi so little that the blog had to wait, but some of the best stuff is yet to come. I wrote it mostly as it happened so its still present or recent past tense. Hopefully you are still with us. If not no worries. There will be a few post mortem posts too, but back to the story. I think this is one of the better, albeit way too long, and colorful, posts. I tried to tone down the swearing a bit but it just didn’t sound right. It sort of betrayed the emotion of the moments, so if you are offended, sorry, sort of.

Popocatepetl Volcano from the Puebla side

Today was the worst day of the trip… No the van didn’t break down and we didn’t run out of gas on the side of the road. Natalie didn’t run off with some swooning Mexican suitor tsssst, tsssting at her from the steps of a passing doorway. We didn’t hit anything with the van or break off anymore parts. We got lost. We got lost at least twice depending on your definition of lost, maybe 5 times. We haven’t really been lost yet. We’ve made a few wrong turns and gone out searching for something that wasn’t there but for the most part we’ve had an idea where we were going and how to get there. Usually we know where we are and where we need to get to, but getting on the highway or cuota is the tricky part, that happened today too.

We left Puebla and headed for Taxco early in the afternoon with plenty of time to make the three and a half hour drive by nightfall. A seemingly simple day that starts on one side of the volcano and ends in the mountains on the other side. It all started when I missed the turn for Cuautla and ended up heading south on a toll road. We exited and found ourselves on rural roads paralleling the highway but not finding any on ramps. After more than an hour of never-ending 10-tope villages (albeit with some pretty churches) we found an illegal dirt road entrance, prayed for no federales and four-wheeled it onto the toll road – high fives, back on track. Right as we merged off of the shoulder and on to the highway a Green Angel came passing by, we held our breath that he wouldn’t care about our foray. He passed, unimpressed with our exploits. Three minutes later a swoon of state police came firing down the highway behind us, sirens blaring and lights blazing. Damn, that Green Angel called the real cops on us – we are going to jail. Mexican jail. Not white collar, 3 squares, movie watching, get ripped while working out seven hours a day American jail; but rather the don’t drop the soap, hope you live from the multiple stabbings, come out a serious drug-smuggling criminal cartel member – Mexican jail. Either that or this was going to be a really expensive bribe, the kind of mordida with a really expensive phone call home for a loan that will take the rest of my life, should I survive, to work off.

Random billboard of a steer

And then they drove right by us, apparently they have better things to do than ruin the lives of two gringo tourists that have a bad habit of making their own ramps and exits from the toll roads. High fives all around.

The new toll road towards Cuautla is one of the best roads we were on the whole trip. Smooth, fast, empty. High fives for new roads. For an hour. It seems that the closer you get to the Distro Federal the worse the signage gets. El D.F. itself is part of the problem, it is a source of endless confusion for gringo tourists. We know it as Mexico City and if you ask a Mexican denizen of the capital in English where they are from, they will tell you Mexico City. Straight forward so far, right? Except none of the signs in the country are for Mexico City, nor are they for Distro Federal or el D.F. as it is most commonly referred to by Mexicans in Spanish, the signs are simply for Mexico. To make matters worse there is a State of Mexico in the Country of Mexico, in which Mexico City, which is signed as only as Mexico does not reside in said state. If you understood that sentence the first time than maybe you are smarter than me and could figure it out, but for us the simple word Mexico on a road sign potentially has many, many meanings that may or may not help you actually drive in the right direction.

For the most part Mexico is easy to navigate, pretty uniformly designed, constructed and predictable. Cuautla does not fit into those categories. As you roll into town there about twenty signs for exits to roads that according to said signs all go to the same place, but as soon as you exit you realize that none of these really go where you want and none of them match the map. The map itself is part of the problem. It shows two major highways towards Cuernavaca. One, more direct to the south and another toll road that goes considerably out of the way, both are symbolized as divided federal or state highways. We chose the southern direct (free [libre]) route that did not appear to wind and curve its way into the mountains and back down again. Usually when you have a libre and a cuota the choice and the navigation is rather direct, do you want to go to this town by paying a toll or not? There is no sign for the libre to Cuernavaca in Cuautla. After no less than two hours and seven retornos (such a better word for u-turn) we found ourselves in Cuautla centro in a hour long traffic jam around an overturned car in the main glorieta. Luckily the traffic was creeping slow enough that we spied the smallest road sign ever, tucked neatly behind an overgrown bougainvillea, obviously discarded as unnecessary after having obviously been the victim of some drivers’ foray onto the sidewalk – it pointed to, wait for it, Cuernavaca. Holy shit! Back on track again, I was starting to think we were going to spend the night in a Walmart or Pemex parking lot. Slightly less exuberant high fives all around.

Save your high fives for someone who gives a fuck. This is the worst road ever. Copious unmarked topes (speed bumps) lead to never ending stop lights through winding, curving, streets that share a distinct resemblance to a major divided highway only in the respect that it is divided. Trusty Mexico road atlas has let us down in a big way. In fact, the word street is a stretch, much less “highway”. Street would imply that there is some sort of drivable surface. And by drivable I’m not being picky or specific: dirt track, cobblestones, graded gravel, concrete, pavement, whatevs. This thing looked liked a war zone. Some sort of IED is the only explanation for potholes the size of fish-bearing ponds surrounded by fragments of asphalt, concrete, rebar and whatever other debris that litters path in front of you with such reckless abandon that I seriously considered getting out, locking the hubs and going 4X4 – urban assault style. I would have but the whole almost getting arrested once today kept me on the proverbial, but by no means literal, straight and narrow.  There is a brief instant where the road opens up a bit, traffic dies down and I hit 55 mph, savoring the open road and relaxing the tension from my white knuckle death grip. This is a trap. I should have known. As I snake around the blind corner blissfully enjoying my new found freedom I smack into a tope at full speed, no last minute brake slams, no dodging half my tires to one side to lessen the impact. Nope, full speed ahead, direct hit. And this isn’t one of those longer, friendlier topes that more launches us out of control in to a terrifying 9000 lb flight but one of the smaller, sharper, less round mounds of asphalt that shakes the core of La Bestia when we hit it at a more manageable, brake skidding 15 mph. The collision is tremendous, I think I would have rather hit a brick wall, testing the push bar and deer mower on the front. At least the bricks would have sustained some collateral damage too and I could point and sneer like some redneck, over-compensating my shortcomings with the size and power of my truck. But no, the tope was just fine. Amazingly the van survives as well, at least mechanically and structurally. The contents of the van are now strewn about every possible nick and cranny, and of course we are immediately stopped and searched at a military checkpoint, our casita viajera looking like we are some slovenly, nomadic, vagabond, hoarders. Incredibly no neck braces necessary either. This 60 kilometer nightmare lasts roughly two hours but eventually leads to Cuernavaca, where it is now rush hour – awesome. But also where an unmissable, giant, green and white sign gleams for the Acapulco-Taxco Cuota. We’re back, again. Half hearted high fives.

Popocatepetl from the Cuernavaca side

Rush hour turns out to not be so bad, and we are coasting towards Taxco in no time. Wide open toll road finally twisting and winding away from the volcano, our ever present reminder of just how far we have not gone in all this time. By now we are exhausted, cranky, and slightly less enchanted with Mexico than we were just the day before. But the smooth, silky cruise has us soaking in the audio book adventures of Nick Twist and trying to calm down. Calming successful. So successful that I completely airmail the turn off from the Acapulco-Taxco cuota to the Taxco-only cuota. In my defense, there was very little warning and the last minute maneuver to make the ramp would have tested the outer limits of the van’s top-heavy aerodynamics. And there is, of course, no exits or retornos for 12 kilometers. 24 kilometers and another 26 minutes later and the crisis is adverted, Taxco or bust, with bust a likely, but rapidly diminishing scenario. With the realization that we may need to conserve every last drop of remaining energy to survive, we abandon the actual extension our fingers for a high five and resort to the weakest, most un-celebratory fist bump of all time.

I’m pretty sure the cuota into Taxco is a tourist trap. It essentially parallels the libre for 80% of its 60 kilometers with very few villages and thus little to no topes along the way. It is almost like the libre is teasing you along the way, entirely visible with traffic moving along at the same clip, and numerous chances to exit the cuota, seriously, you should exit dummy, no, ok we’ll take a little more money at the next booth and then give you another chance. Any other day we would have gotten off and saved the cash, I have no clue how much it was but it didn’t matter, the home stretch.

Descending into Taxco is amazing, the hillside city, all black and white with red tile roofs, has this cohesiveness that we haven’t seen anywhere else in Mexico. It seems that there was actually some urban planning and some zoning laws. Planning a long, long, time ago. Planning at a time much before the descendants of Henry Ford imagined a behemoth e350 and well before someone lifted that e350 into the beast that it is; and certainly before I added a two-bicycle rack that extends the total length past 18 ft. There are no campgrounds in Taxco, but there are a bunch of hotels and frankly at this point the thought of setting up even the smallest of camps is wretched. Natalie has marked a selection of hotels that sound decent, have parking, and are in our shrinking price range. We decide on one near the central zocalo. The instant we saw the turn up the mountain we knew it was the wrong choice, but the days’ events have exhausted our ability to make any sort of intelligent utterance much less a decision. Taxco is a maze of impossibly narrow, incredibly steep, switch back cobblestone paths that are overrun with Volkswagen Beetle taxis and scooters swerving around seemingly unmake-able corners at speeds only legal on the Autobahn. About half way up the street a bug comes barreling down at us, realizing its not going to win this game of chicken it reverses its way up the hill to the intersection to let us pass. We stop, waiting for the path to clear. Meanwhile a scooter has come from below and is about 10″ from the vans’s bumper, I come off the brake to the accelerator to follow the retreating bug up the hill and she stalls, sending us drifting backwards into the scooter. I’m pretty sure he honked in an effort to salvage the life flashing before his un-helmeted eyes but what could I do? I managed to stop our momentum with the e-brake and he continued honking wanting us to get the hell out of the way. Not wanting to kill him and him being unwilling to back down the hill even a few meters I signal for him to pass. This takes a solid 5 minutes as he has to lift the scooter over the concrete steps that flank the van’s tires because it isn’t wide enough for both to fit, actually its not wide enough for us to fully open our doors to yell at the guy. Finally he gets by, La Bestia roars back to life and we are climbing, climbing to an intersection with a transit cop directing traffic down the one-way street we had intended to turn on, directing traffic in the opposite direction than the direction the street actually goes in. We ask him how to get to our chosen destination, he says go left down the hill back to the main street, circle back two more streets and start your ascent again.

Abort. Abort. You have derailed. No way in hell is that happening. So we turn back down the hill, full white-flag surrender to a hotel with a gaping archway and plenty of flat, open parking. We check in, its a decent hotel with hot showers and a small living room with a balcony and a fantastic view. We test the bed and decide that once again we will be sleeping in the van. We watch the end of the college football national championship game , an experience that is rather surreal considering we know nothing about either Auburn or Oregon and the play by play in Spanish is a bit beyond us. We shower and hike up the hill to town in search of some street tacos and adult beverages. High fives are definitely in order over some delicious al pastor and Victorias: three and half hours turned into nine.

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I’ve written before about how incredible gorgeous the state of Oaxaca is. Chiapas and Oaxaca are two of the most beautiful and amazing places to see. We’ve driven the coast, the mountains from Tuxtepec to Oaxaca and now from Oaxaca to Puebla. All of it breath-taking. I’m not sure the pictures and video below do it justice but we tried.

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Nestled a couple hundred feet above Oaxaca Centro is the rural suburb of San Felipe. Seemingly teeming with expatriate gringos from all over the globe, the rather affluent neighborhood is incredibly serene despite its 10-minute proximity to the heart of the city. Here, thanks to the Mexican Camping book, we found the oasis of Doug French, an American from New York by way of Menlo Park. Doug moved to Oaxaca 20-some years ago and started a textile business, which, he claims, was bankrupted by NAFTA. Instead of high-tailing it back to the states Doug switched his occupation to the now high-class distillation of Mezcal. Oaxaca is famous for Mezcal, it has surpassed even the most boutique Tequilas as the cocktail of choice for Mexico’s elite and the booming mixologist scene.

Doug has turned his 5-acre ranch into an agave experimentation resort of sorts. Five different varietals of blue agaves line RV style campsites, apartments and small haciendas. The campground is “self maintained” by the occupants but the extra work is well worth the view of the city and the view into the one of the regions more important artisan economies. Doug’s mezcal (mescal) is amongst the best we tasted further witnessed by his almost 100% export to Australia, the US and Europe instead of the lower profit Mexican market. We were lucky enough to buy a couple of liters right from the barrels in his garage. We may have inadvertently made enXco a little business, as Doug is potentially interested in off-taking some wind energy from the state’s projects in La Ventosa.

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