North Pacific Coast

Our journey begins:
Pacific headlands near Rosarito.

Our drive begins
as we enter Mexico via the international border crossing at San Ysidro, on U. S. Interstate 5, south of San Diego. From there, signs lead us past the shantytowns tumbling down the hills on the fringes of Tijuana, along the ugly and infamous border fence that blocks our view northward, past the Bullring by the Sea and onto Scenic Road 1-D, better known as the Ensenada Toll Road. The four-lane highway is carved into the Pacific headlands along the northern coastline of Baja California, from the resort city of Rosarito to the port of Ensenada, both popular destinations for weekend tourists from San Diego and Los Angeles, and for retirees from the U. S. and Canada.

Southbound border traffic moves right along. On the other hand, heading north at San Ysidro can be an ordeal. The last time I tried it, traffic was backed up for hours, the lanes clogged by commuters, shoppers and tourists from both sides of the border.

The traffic jam became a bazaar, as scores of peddlers hustled car to car, hawking everything from trinkets and blankets to tacos, ice cream and gaudy life-size renditions of the Crucifixion and the Virgin of Guadalupe, while from all sides an army of little kids attacked with dirty rags and squeegees, trying to smear my clean windshield for tips.

Headed south on
the Ensenada Toll Road.

The Otay Mesa border crossing, a few miles to the east, can be less crowded, but requires a confusing journey through the snarled traffic of downtown Tijuana. It's not for those who panic easily. Tecate, home of the famous brewery and half an hour farther east, is the simplest and fastest border crossing in either direction. You can get there from Tijuana by following the signs, if you can find the signs. You can also drive Highway 3 between Tecate and Ensenada, and bypass Tijuana and the toll road entirely, if you are willing to trade vistas of towering cliffs plunging into the Pacific for views of the Tecate city dump.

No papers are required to enter Mexico from the U. S., if you are carrying only reasonable quantities of personal effects and supplies for your trip. Carry contraband at your peril. Guns or ammunition in your car can be a one-way ticket to a Mexican jail, not renowned for hospitality or sanitation.

A validated tourist card is required, if you will be in the country for more than 48 hours or are traveling south of Ensenada. The cards (slips of paper stamped by an immigration official) are usually available at the immigration office at the border or in Ensenada. To obtain a card, you must present a passport or birth certificate.

Panga fisherman challenges
the Pacific surf.

Tourist cards can be validated for up to 180 days, but it's not always easy. They were still "free" the first time we arrived in Ensenada. We waited an hour or so in the inevitable line, after spending another hour finding the Migración office among the fish canneries and warehouses near the Ensenada waterfront. We presented our passports to the man with the stamp, a polite immigration officer who spoke good English, and told him we would like 180 days, please.

The ensuing conversation went something like this:

"I am sorry, señor, but we don't usually give more than 30 days, unless you have a permission form from the Office of Government Inconvenience and Impossible Delays. To get that you must first make an appointment with the Minister of Bureaucratic Indifference and obtain a Certificate of Absolute Necessity."

"And where do we make the appointment?"

"At the Department of Snowballs in Hell, señor, on the far side of Ensenada. You can find the office right behind Eduardo's taco cart, if Eduardo is working, and if he hasn't moved his cart. But, the office is closed in the morning on weekdays, and they are not open at all in the afternoon, or on Saturdays or Sundays."

"Might it be possible to pay some sort of...fee...or speed things up a bit?"

"Si, señor."

"And how much would that fee be?"

"That is up to you, señor."

Ensenada, and the end of
the four-lane highway.

So, I laid two one-hundred-peso notes on the counter. That was worth about twenty-five U. S. dollars at the time. I was later told, by someone no more familiar with this routine than I was, that I paid too much.

At any rate, the polite official deftly pulled a cardboard box, brimming with colorful large peso notes and ten and twenty-dollar U. S. greenbacks, from under the counter and swept our contribution onto the heap. Thirty seconds later we had our tourist cards stamped for 180 days, and that was the last time we got our papers in Ensenada.

Today, it's not so simple. Now you must pay a fee (about $16) to get your tourist card validated. For some reason, the government doesn't seem to trust immigration officials to collect the fee. It must be paid at a bank, so now you need two stamps instead of one.

You can get into the country without paying the fee, but you might not get back out until you find a bank, and somebody inside with the right stamp. This fee is already so unpopular that, at last report, the Mexican consul in San Diego was soliciting letters from American tourists, to try to get his own government to repeal it.

The Santo Tomas Valley.

The Ensenada Toll Road is not part of the original Baja Highway. The old two lane Highway 1 is still there, running more or less parallel to the toll road, and it's free, which is about six dollars less than the toll road. But, this is our last chance to drive on anything resembling a gringo freeway for the next thousand miles.

Winding as it does along the cliffs above the Pacific Ocean, Scenic Road 1-D is, indeed, more scenic than the old Highway. The toll road is also faster, avoiding traffic congestion and potholes. And we can't overlook the fact that we would probably never find our way out of Tijuana if we tried to do it on the old highway.

That's not to say there aren't enough potential hazards on the toll road to keep you from falling asleep. There can be rough spots in the pavement. People seem to drive faster than the curves and conditions would allow.

On one trip the fog was so thick and sticky with salt spray, I had to stop the car on the narrow shoulder to assist the windshield wipers with a rag, while traffic sped by just inches away. On another occasion, a rainstorm had turned cliffs to landslides that blocked the road with rocks and mud, and carried big chunks of the highway down to the ocean a hundred feet below.

Ice cream parlor in Santo Tomas.

When the weather is good, and the highway in repair, it's a beautiful drive, following the contours of the mountains above the curved white beaches and the pounding surf. Unspoiled it's not, as developers have exploited nearly every spot that will hold, or nearly hold, a beachfront house or hotel or cinder block condominium project. Rosarito is an excellent example of what uncontrolled development can do to a picturesque coastline. But, even Rosarito is more scenic than the Tecate city dump.

Highway 1-D evaporates into the unruly congestion of downtown Ensenada. With concentrated effort, it is possible to follow the signs for Highway 1, watch the stoplights and avoid colliding with cars, bicycles, pedestrians, RV's, and dilapidated trucks wandering across the lanes, while making your way through this urban sprawl of a quarter million people.

Even if you don't get lost, the noisy traffic can tie you up for an hour or two, until you finally emerge on the south side of Maneadero and turn inland toward the mountains and Santo Tomás.

The coastal mountains
south of Santo Tomas.

The road to Santo Tomás and south to San Quintín is some of the newest and nicest pavement on the entire Baja Highway, recently replacing a long stretch of rutted and potholed blacktop washboard that could shake the fillings from your teeth, and do worse to your car's suspension. But, now it's two smooth, wide lanes of asphalt, most of it well striped and marked, winding through hills and valleys reminiscent of the California north of the border.

The vineyards of the Santo Tomás Valley have been among Baja's most important for over 200 years. Santo Tomás was the last mission established, in 1791, but its Dominican padres supplied wine for the entire California mission system. The valley's crops also include olives, corn, wheat, peppers, citrus and cactus fruit.

Coastal summit north of San Vicente.

A claim to fame Santo Tomás might do without is its two magnificent topes (TOE-pays), or speed bumps, laid like logs across the highway at each end of town to keep speeders from exploiting the new pavement. I've never heard of traffic radar in Baja, and most towns can't afford police cars.

Topes are cheap. Besides, they work better than speed traps. If you make your topes high enough, nobody will speed through your town, because they can't. These two legendary topes have since been mashed and scraped down to more normal size by the wheels of heavy trucks and the undersides of unfortunate passenger cars, but at the time they were reputed to be the biggest ever seen on the Baja Highway.

Taco stand in San Vicente.

We slowed to a crawl as we rolled into town and the first tope appeared. Unlike many, this one was well marked. I had installed the largest tires our little Honda CRX could take, to maximize our road clearance. We had considered unloading the car to give us more clearance, but decided it would be easier to hire some help to lift us off the hump, if it came to that.

There was no easy way around it, so I angled across and held my breath. We made it. The second tope, on the way out of town, looked even bigger. This time, there was a loud clunk as the asphalt log dented our muffler, but we were soon safely headed down the highway, climbing the coastal mountains toward San Vicente.


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