Just in case you are interested in where we have been before this blog started, here are a few links to some old blog posts from my website Rieneke.com
“The brakes are not working…”
“The brakes are not working!” said Thijs under his breath, while he steered the truck into the high berm, straight towards a tethered, grazing pig, who rushed to the side. We came to a stop up a steep slope, inches away from a bushy bitter orange tree. The camper was teetering dangerously to one side, making it hard to walk to the back to let Kakao out the side door. Outside, a gathering of people already surrounded us, pulling out their phones to make pictures.
“Do you have your camera to take some photos?” asked Thijs, while he crawled out the truck from the driver’s side.
“No” I replied, “and I am not going back in to get it; it was already too hard to come out!”
Thijs, always the one to record sensation, pulled out his camera phone, and shot the situation from all angles. This may be a story to boast about later on.
It all began in Huehuetenango, where we read about the many indigenous Maya tribes, living in villages in the mountains north of where we were. We learned that some of them still wore stunning traditional clothing – even the men – and that is exceptional. On the maps, we saw a road that led past several of them, connecting eventually to the craterlake Laguna Lachua, and on to the city of Copan. However, not every map connected one end of the road to the other. In the lowlands towards Laguna Lachua, some maps showed a gap. Was it going to be possible, we wondered… We checked on Google Earth, zooming in to see that there was indeed a road, even with a dividing line. We asked some local people about the road condition and were assured that that route was fine and safe. So we thought we’d give it a chance. If it was going to be rough, we’d turn back after visiting Todos Santos, the town where everyone walks around in homespun, only 50 kilometers up and away.
The road was steep for long stretches, but the pavement was fine. We added a stop along the way to let the engine cool and enjoy the view: deep in the distance, Hueheutenago looked like salt sprinkling. The dark green mountains surrounding the town were shrouded in clouds. Not far below us, a soccer match was about to start. People emerged from hillside trails, to come and watch the game. We continued our drive to the top, where the highlands lay golden brown and pastoral. As soon as we took the turn for the road into the valley of Todos Santos, another crowd gathered for a Sunday soccer match. Here, we noticed the men wore red and white striped pants and sometimes short black felt overpants. They wore blue striped white jackets, adorned with brightly embroidered collars and cuffs. Across a shoulder, a large embroidered carrying bag could hold their necessities for the day. Some men topped off their ensemble with a blue band around their straw hat. Women showed off their multicolored woven and embroidered huipiles, conscious of matching the colors with their wrapped skirts and cardigans. Even the houses started showing their inhabitant’s urge to decorate. Multiple colors and designs decorated the eaves and Dutch doors. On top of red tiled roofs, ceramic animals kept watch over their surroundings, pointing to breathtaking views over the narrow valley, where patches of land were cultivated on steep angles, catching moisture from low hanging clouds.
A road blockade at the entry of Todos Santos forced us to drive around to the other side of town, where a steep curve stopped us. A group of local youth – cool looking with their red/white pants in low-on-the-butt fashion, helped us turn around in a tight curve, followed by a request for a “regallo”, a present. They laughed and walked away when I showed them the change of Mexican Pesos I had in my pockets. We asked a guy leaning over a balcony if we could park on an empty lot across the street. We could, no problem. He pointed to the town center: that’s where all the action was.
On Sunday, with most shops closed, there was not much to do, but most who were out there, were identically dressed; with a variation of color and weaving/embroidery technique with the women, and a missing accessory here and there with the men. We were the ones who stood out (making photographing awkward, though Thijs does not feel quite that way). At a cooperative, selling handcrafted bags and waistbands, we saw the only other couple of “Gringos”.
When we returned to our camper, the guy on the balcony started a conversation, asking if we spoke English. With his broken English and our broken Spanish, we learned about their way of life, about how proud they were of their culture, and how small their chances are to make a good living there. As a farmer, Steve told us, his average income is 40 Quetzales a day. That’s about $3 US. They live with the extended family in one house, and are able to feed themselves with what they produce. There‘s not much to spare. When asked about us and our lives, we invited Steve and his family to see the inside of our camper. Grandma, Steve’s wife, his sister-in-law as well as their children rushed downstairs. All of them crammed into our little house, where they admired our bed, the kitchen and the soft cushions. They just didn’t understand the luxury life our dog was living – inside, on the furniture?!
After a while we bid our goodbye, and drove back to the main road, where we turned left, further into the mountains.
The road looked perfect, and we soaked up the beauty of the country.
Then potholes appeared. First two or three, but soon the whole road was Swiss cheese.
As we crawled our way up, meandering from left to right to avoid the worst holes, we entered the cloud zone. The fog became so dense, it became hard to see. This was no fun, and since it was getting late, we stopped for the night at a gas station in San Juan Ixcoy.
The weather and road looked better the next morning. We drove through pine forests and small pretty villages, where everyone, after an initial stare, cracked open a broad smile and waved. But this idyll couldn’t last…the road as we knew it now turned into a bumpy, rocky trail. The camper rocked back and forth, side to side. The cups, bowls and plates rattled and rolled in the cupboards. Everything in the fridge turned sideways. This can’t last long, we thought…
The town of San Mateo was a total surprise. Not only was it a busy little town, it had an exceptional, primitive looking church, where women in wide, heavily embroidered shirts and wide, round collars came to offer large bunches of candles by laying them flat on hot ashes in- and beside an outside fireplace. The smell of smoke and candle wax penetrated the air. Inside the church, a collective humm came from women praying. Inside, there was no great display of gold. Walls, maybe 5ft thick, and a wood barrel ceiling insulated the inside from the outside world. Hushed by the magic in the air, we sat down for a while and paid our respect.
The road did not get better. Actually, it got worse. Potholes and depressions filled with murky water. Gullies across the road exposed protruding rocks in the wrong places. The climb was steep, up and down. At this point though, we were past the halfway point. It made no sense to turn back now. Past Barillas, the road would go down into the lowlands, where, according to truck drivers coming that way, the road was perfectly paved; maybe half an hour more to go.
Indeed, within half an hour, there was pavement! Necessary pavement, considering the incredible steepness and hairpin turns up and down the mountains. Smoothly and jubilantly we rolled down, taking care not to go too fast. Until we were back on the old rocky trail… again, just where the road split in two, and where google maps said right, while the main road showed left…
Crucero de San Ramon, the hamlet around this intersection, consisted of three stores, selling mostly soft drinks and snack bags, and two restaurants that served chicken, tortillas and beans. About fifty vehicles come through here, making it a transfer station for local passengers.
An hour later, we started down the road again. Fortunately, Thijs noticed right away that something was wrong.
“The brakes are not working” he said, as he steered the truck towards the high berm.
I woke up to the sound of a rooster’s crowing competition. It was 4:30AM and still dark. With a rattle of boards, the store beside us opened for business. As on cue, the first bus thundered down the road, announcing its arrival with a few taps on the claxon. With regular intervals, more busses and trucks stopped and left. Before the crack of dawn, the community was alive. All three stores and both restaurants were open. Passengers arrived, waited, ate and socialized, and left- by truck or by foot. When I got up and watched the sun rise above the jungle, the morning rush was over. I looked around. It felt so peaceful here. People have time- time to hang around and enjoy each other’s company. Animals are free to scavenge, graze and socialize. A rooster leads the pack of two gently whistling turkey hens. A piglet joins a dog looking for scraps. Both get hushed out the kitchen. At the store, a boy and a girl, both maybe twelve, picked up a 50kg bag of corn, divided it in two 25kg bags, and carried them away on their backs, held in place by a string and a headband. A motorcyclist stopped to get a jug-load of gasoline in his tank. A couple of women with babies in a sling, came strolling up to the store to buy some sweets for the baby and a drink for themselves. Their embroidered shirts made me stare at them. I greeted them, and they smiled. We have been so lucky our breakdown happened here.
I won’t call it an accident, because Thijs backed the truck out of the berm without a scratch. It was a breakdown, because the brakes were down. First, they were hot, so we decided to just stay for the night, and leave the next morning with cool brakes. Andres, one of the shopkeepers who’d worked in Los Angeles for a year (“good pay, but too much pressure”) showed us where we could park so, relieved, we settled in for the night.
Night time in a jungle village. The stores closed around 8PM, the restaurants earlier. The lights went down to a single bulb. Dogs kept on barking until 10. A baby cried incessantly, while a woman seemed to be telling a long story. A few stray trucks rattled by without stopping. Then all went quiet. Until the roosters started crowing and the shops opened for business.
That morning after breakfast, Thijs started up the truck and tested the brakes. The camper protested loudly every time he pushed the brakes. There was no resistance –the brakes still did not work. Andres, who owned a truck himself, came to help, but they found nothing wrong. It was time to call for a mechanic. Andres called the closest one, but he was busy. The one in Barillas, the closest town at an hour and a half away, did not pick up, even after several tries, so Thijs and Andres went for a drive. Hours later they came back; the mechanic and his assistant just ahead of them. With everything in the brake system looking fine, the head cylinder had to have a leak somewhere, and it had to be replaced and ordered from Guatemala City. Fidel, the mechanic (who’d also worked in the US for some years) could get the part by the end of next day. We agreed that was no problem: we had time, a comfortable bed and ample supplies. We could wait a day (what choice did we have?)
We spent the next day sorting photo files, and took Kakao for a walk down the road. Here we saw coffee plants covered in delicate white blossoms, and discovered that cardamom seeds grew from the base of ginger-like plants! We repaired odds and ends in the car. We watched the traffic: a pickup with cow squeezed on the back stopped for lunch at the eatery across the street; a little piglet rode on the roof of a minibus, in a crate held shut with a bungee cord. We greeted loads of colorful people loading, offloading, coming to buy a snack, or passing through. At the end of the day we heard that the part had arrived in Barillas, but though the serial number was right, it did not look like a match. But maybe Fidel could make it fit. We would hear more from him next morning.
After breakfast, Thijs decided he wanted to go to Barillas and see for himself what could be done. We walked up the hill, where a pickup truck was about to leave. For 15Quetzales; a little more than a US dollar, he could jump in the back and be off. I stayed behind to keep Kakao company, finish a really good book, and work on this blog entry. With no phone or internet connection, life goes a lot slower. By late afternoon, with my book finished and the writing done, I was getting restless. Thijs should be back by now…When I saw Andres, who’d been out working on his farm all day, I asked if he had heard from Thijs, or Fidel, the mechanic. He tried Fidel’s number, but no answer. Finally, around 6PM, Andres received a call from Thijs, who was waiting for a “Collectivo” (= small overstuffed passenger bus) to take him back, but nothing was due for the next hour or so.
Relieved that I at least knew where he was, I settled back in with a new book.
Just an hour later, Thijs surprised me at the door, with Fidel, Fidel’s father and his assistant, who had decided, instead of coming over the next day, they’d give Thijs a lift and fix the brakes that same night. Within an hour, in the dark, our brakes were fixed. It turned out that Thijs found, searching the internet in Barilla, that the break cylinder can lose pressure caused by severe rattling on bad roads, and a simple set of actions was all that was needed to get the pressure back. If that would not have worked, then we would have had to wait another week in Crusero San Ramon for the right part to arrive from the USA. And that would not have been so terrible either, because we learned to love that little 6 house town up there in the tropical Guatemala mountains!
This morning, we said goodbye to our new friends and, with one hand on the handbreak and an eye out for a safe roadside, we went on our way; another 1000ft down until flat land, and 25 minutes (for us an hour) until the paved road, which proved to be as smooth as a baby’s bottom, but still regularly interrupted by bumpy, potholed, coarse rubble road. Now we are in a real town, camping on a hotel parking lot with internet. What a memorable experience!
Coming down Highway 5, Baja Norte looks dry and forgotten. Only a handful of (mostly Canadian) snowbirds make this land their second home. The occasional coastal town almost seemed surprised to see a tourist stop and visit. They were not prepared. The houses were shacks; thrown together with some plywood, corrugated iron, and maybe some concrete to make the barest of shelter. Tiny stores and restaurants sold just local necessities like cooking oil, tortillas, or beer. Litter, like plastic bags and bottles, car tires and scrap metal decorated the roads and streets, the fences, shrubbery, and also the beaches.
Litter was difficult for me to overlook. Knowing that a lot of that junk ends up in the seas, killing its marine life, I had a hard time enjoying the beauty that was still there. I felt sorry for the turtles, and whales that can drown entangled in discarded fishnets, or starve while eating plastic they take for food. I also felt sorry for the people who depend on fishery to survive. We heard the temperature of the water in the Bay of Cortez stayed warmer than usual these last few winters, and fish had not been as abundant as it used to be. Desperate fishermen took their boats out to return with a meager catch; oftentimes with fish too small for consumption….but they have to eat. A downward cycle continues: immature fish gets caught and consumed before it had time to procreate, leaving even less fish for the future. These people face a difficult future.
The desert landscape varied. For long stretches the landscape was dry and brown. Sometimes it was green and relatively lush; intermittently sprinkled with giant cardon cacti and ocotillo sticks, then there was an area with oddly plumed cirios pipes. Sometimes it was devoid of any vegetation. This land cannot sustain agriculture. The occasional cows in the field looked emaciated, and along the road we saw several carcasses. Except for the northern towns near the US border, the peninsula, with two access roads that ultimately merge into one, is too isolated for trade or industry.
Tourism seemed like a good way of income for this land of endless beaches and turquoise waters. Here and there a few efforts were made to accommodate a beach loving crowd. San Felipe, for instance, had one or two halfway-attractive hotels and campgrounds, a comfortable restaurant and a stretch of boulevard with a beach kept free of debris. The rest of the town was a Mexican mess. (Maybe it’s been too long ago since we last visited a developing country? We should get used to this again!) Outside of this town (speaking only for what we saw on the eastern route) the shores in the north are pretty, with clear blue water and rocky or white sandy beaches, but there was so much trash everywhere…we were disappointed.
Then, imagine our surprise when, after a week of driving south, we entered the town of Mulege, the second coastal town in Baja California Sur. Everywhere people were cleaning the streets! We thought we witnessed a national sweep-the-street day. Happily, we gave everyone we passed a big thumbs-up. Mulege looks over a lovely fertile riverbed, green with palm- and orange groves. The river shore still looked ravaged after a recent hurricane. When we passed through, idyllic developments were in shambles, ruined by hurricane Newton. Some people just can’t win…
The beaches in the south also got better. When access roads were long and rough, we were rewarded with warm, clear water, and solitude. Beach junk was manageable; we could clean it up. Sometimes fellow travelers found us there. Around a campfire we exchanged travel stories, admired the night sky, and toasted to the good life.
Around Bahia de Concepcion we found idyllic coves with little restaurants, palapas for shade, and vendors hawking fresh water, fish, shrimp, bread or cooked foods. This gave a degree of comfort, albeit noisy because of their proximity to the road, where trucks loudly rattle their engines, trying to slow down the speed with which they barrel down the mountains. Here we went for a boat ride to see the whale-sharks: those gentle, giant, toothless creatures that only feed on plankton by swimming open-mouthed, seemingly undisturbed by us or anything else around them.
Finally we slowed down a bit. The campground in downtown Loreto had hot showers and clean bathrooms and great laundry facilities. We could enjoy a stroll into town….with our dog Kakao, who at first enjoyed the attention from the many friendly stray dogs roaming the streets and alleys. However, friendly greetings through a fence were answered with vicious growls from the other side. Soon, Kakao became overwhelmed and nervous. Altogether, walking our dog through town was not a relaxing experience. Not for us, and not for the dog.
The farther south we traveled, the more developed the coast became. Golf courses popped up beside well-groomed gated communities. Obviously these foreign part timers don’t want to accept the fact that Baja California is one very long strip of desert surrounded by sea. Fresh water is scarce and often has to be brought in by water trucks. What are these people thinking, wanting to play golf here, on lush green grass that needs tons of water? Why don’t they just leave the desert alone, enjoy the turquoise waters and go play golf in places like Scotland, where green grass comes naturally? (Clearly I don’t play golf!)
Todos Santos is known as a colorful artist’s town with many galleries. Though heavily settled by foreigners, it felt comfortably low-key. We liked it, partly because we met some really cool people – Americans who seemed truly concerned about what is happening to the environment and its people there, and partly because we enjoyed a luxurious lunch at a sidewalk restaurant. Sometimes it feels good to feel like you’re home!
Finally, Cabo San Lucas was too busy, too commercial, too decadent and wasteful. Tourists coming here will leave knowing nothing about the state of Baja California or the country of Mexico. We did not know how fast to leave this town. In La Paz we booked a ticket for the ferry to Topolobampo on the mainland of Mexico, after which we enjoyed a few more windy days on quieter beaches, crowded with only a few likeminded travelers. A last day with quiet, warm blue water on the wide, white sandy Tecolote beach left us with memories of good times in an American Mexican vacation land.