Added 5 May 2007
Saturday, 10 March 2007, Journey from Tucson, Arizona, USA to Topolobampo, Mexico
The plan: drive from Tucson to Topolobampo on the mainland of Mexico, then take the overnight ferry across to La Paz. Once in Baja, we would drive south to Cabo Pulmo to spend a couple of days resting, snorkeling, and kayaking before zig-zagging all the way up the Baja peninsula for two weeks.
The journey started yesterday at 8:00 a.m. when the three of us left Tucson and started heading south. We were cruising down the interstate when I decided to conduct a test of how my truck would handle with all of the weight and the kayaks on the roof rack. It was an eye-opening experience. I jerked the wheel back and forth perhaps four times, then waited for 10 seconds or more as my truck continued to sway back and forth. It was an unnerving experience. Chuck was following me at the time and the radio conversation between Chuck and I went something like this:
Me: Did that look as scary as it felt?
Chuck: It didn't look all that bad.
Me: I only jerked the wheel a few times, the truck did the rest.
Chuck. [pause] Oh.
In a few miles, I realized what the problem was (besides the aforementioned weight and kayaks). When I used to use my truck mostly for four-wheeling on difficult roads, I removed the track bar which is designed to reduce body roll but which also reduces suspension flex (which is why I removed it). Although I don't go four-wheeling any more, since I never carry much weight in my truck, I never missed having the track bar on and thus never put it back on. I needed that track bar for this trip.
I contemplated going back to get it, but decided against it, as it would have eaten well more than an hour out of our time buffer for boarding the ferry. It didn't seem like it would pose a problem unless I had to make some evasive driving maneuver, so just decided to remain more vigilant than normal.
We made good time to Nogales where we filled up before heading across the border into Mexico. The crossing itself was uneventful except for getting muscled around and having to muscle other people around on the narrow, crowded streets. Marisa and I watched two buses duke it out over a single lane for a couple of blocks with neither giving way. The bus on the outside of the road missed the row of parked cars by inches. I kept waiting to see a shattered side mirror, but never did.
About 21 kilometers into Mexico, we stopped to get our tourist cards and temporary vehicle importation permits, both required for going deep into Mexico past the "border zone". The steps needed aren't very clear, so it took us over an hour to complete that task. First we got our tourist cards, and were actually given them before we paid for them. We then had to go get our vehicle permits and pay for our tourist cards. The line was short, but hardly moved at all. I'd hate to imagine how long it might take if there were a lot of people there. What we didn't realize was that the cashier needed official photocopies of our passports, tourist cards, and vehicle registrations for the tourist card and vehicle temporary importation permits. So after waiting in line for a while, we had to go back and get photocopies of those documents at a little booth, even though we both already had color photocopies of our passports and vehicle registration. Fortunately, we didn't have to wait in line again, as the woman who helped us the first time pulled us back to the front of the line once she was done with the next customer. Once that was done, it was time to hit the Mexican road in earnest.
It wasn't long before I realized that the truck stability problem wasn't going to be isolated to evasive maneuvers. While my truck did fine on the U.S. Interstate, the Mexican highway was uneven enough to start the truck swaying back and forth from time to time. The problem was that while the center of the road was fairly even along the path of the road, the edge of the road had quite a bit of waviness to it. Most of the time it wasn't bad, but it could get a little concerning. I started to regret not going back to get the track bar, but in retrospect, it wouldn't have mattered if I had gone back. After returning home, I discovered that in what must have been a moment of depleted intelligence, I decided I would never need the track bar and I got rid of it. Now I'm going to have to find one from a junk yard or something.
Our journey south proved to be rather uneventful except for a few construction zones and a missed turn, which we blamed on Marisa as she was the only one not driving, thus making her the navigator by default. Still, as the day wore on, we realized that even though we seemed to be making pretty good time, we weren't going to have as much buffer for the ferry as we had thought. As we went further, we determined we probably wouldn't have any buffer, and might not even make it on time. At some point in the afternoon, Marisa opted to ride with Chuck, likely in part for the change but also because my swaying truck was making her a little car sick. For the last half of the trip or so, Marisa navigated from Chuck's truck. For the remainder of our time in Baja, Marisa went back and forth between the trucks depending on where we were driving, and probably also based on the level of pity she took on Chuck and I.
By the time we approached Los Mochis, near the end of our first days trek, we were all pretty tired. I had grown pretty quiet, but when Chuck radioed back to see how I was doing, it started me off on an extended series of off-the-wall comments and jokes. I was a little slap-happy. As I got more and more weary, I found that I had a hard time saying what my brain was thinking, so my jokes and barbs came out a little jumbled.
After Los Mochis, our directions ran out and we had to find our own way to the ferry. I had been able to determine the coordinates of the ferry terminal from aerial photos before hand, so we could at least know when we were heading in the right direction or not. Finding Topolobampo and the ferry turned out to be easier than I thought it might be, which was a good thing. We were supposed to arrive at the terminal at nine o'clock. After driving for nearly 13 hours straight, we arrived a mere 10 minutes early.
Then, of course, we still had to figure out what we needed to do to get our trucks onto the ferry. We had a voucher to get on the ferry that we purchased through a company called Native Trails based out of Texas, but no actual tickets. We went in to the ticket office where I communicated our situation in broken Spanish. The very nice ticket agent eventually got me to understand that we needed a slip of paper for each vehicle that needed to be completed by a particular ferry employee. I couldn't quite figure out where to find this person except for "afuera," outside.
So we went outside to look for the vehicle paper man. I wandered around looking for some sort of check in or weigh station, but couldn't find anything. Marisa said she had seen a guy in a blue jacket measuring vehicle lengths, and we figured that must be the guy we needed. We soon found him, but just as I approached him, a tractor-trailer came in and the guy hopped on and left. That left us with no one official looking except for the security guard.
We waited and wandered a bit more. After a fair amount of time had passed, I could see Chuck's anxiety level rise, so I set off in search of the Baja ferry guy. I found him quickly and ushered him over to our trucks. My limited Spanish came in very handy. We then went back to the ticket office and got our tickets. Again, my Spanish, poor as it is, proved to be very important.
Then we had to figure out exactly where to go to line up for the ferry. Chuck saw a couple in what looked like the line who looked like gringos, so talked to them. It turned out that they were Americans living in Cabo Pulmo, our first destination, so while confirming the right place to go to get in line for the ferry, he also got some advice on where to camp and advice on the ferry itself. For example, we didn't realize that the ferry ride came with a free meal. We bumped into Leo and Karen a few times aboard the ferry, and they gave us some important advice each time.
Boarding the ferry was uneventful, though I think novel for Chuck and Marisa. Once aboard, we tried going outside to the front of the ship, but we could only get outside at the back of the ship. I have no idea why. After that unsuccessful endeavor, Marisa went back to the cabin to go to bed while Chuck and I went to the dining room for the free meal Leo and Karen told us about. The meal wasn't served until eleven, so we had to wait a little bit. It wasn't exactly a meal worth waiting for except for the fact that it was food and we were both starving.
We made it back to the cabin just as Marisa was about to go to sleep, so we quickly got ready for bed ourselves. The cabins, as expected, were tiny, with four single beds, but the room did have a private bath and a tiny shower.
The ship didn't get under way until around 11:45 or so, which I knew because I found it harder to get to sleep than Chuck and Marisa. I was restless for a while, and just when I had resigned myself to a night of little or no sleep, I went down for the count, waking only a few times in the night. It must have been pretty smooth sailing, for I never felt any rocking when I woke during the night. The cabin turned out to be well worth the money we spent on it. We saw people trying to sleep under the stairs, and others trying to sleep in the salon area, which was like airplane seating. Neither looked very appealing. Given the amount of driving we had just completed, and what still lay ahead on the other side of the sea, we needed some decent sleep.
I should add, I suppose, that although I am putting days and dates in this trip report, they had little or no meaning throughout our travels. We often found ourselves wondering what day it was, and were often wrong when we tried to guess. That's Baja.