The Mexican Caper (1976) - Part 2: Baja Bus
Updated: Jan 15
“Mexico is different, like the tourists always said” Ry Cooder
Crossing the Tijuana Border into Mexico was like being in an old movie, our first encounter with the notorious Federales. Sporting backpacks and longish hair, we looked like the type of gringo Mexico didn’t need. They figured (rightly) we were coming to hang out on the beach for as cheap as possible, drink tequila and cerveza, and smoke the famous mota.
Our clothes and hair fit the hippy M.O., like this Cheech and Chong sketch.
To get through the border, we were forced to bribe the Federales with Yankee greenbacks. I don’t believe it was very expensive, as we really wanted to cross into Mexico. In other words, we were easy targets for a little payola, and we chalked it up as the cost of doing business.
Tijuana was quite unlike the sleazy town of my imagination. We enjoyed our brief stay while waiting for our bus it was unlike anywhere we'd ever been. America is not much different culturally than Canada, and truthfully, the best part of Hollywood was the weather.
But down in Tijuana, there was no question we'd literally and figuratively entered into a different world. Taco and fruit stands as far as the eye could see once we were free to join the fray, people were everywhere, and livestock, including cattle, pigs and chickens, were in great evidence along the road into town. But everywhere, there were signs of poverty. Garbage in the streets, shit in the streams, and yet, for some reason, it felt comfortable to me! No culture shock for this kid.
As we strolled down the street to the bus depot to acquire tickets aboard the famed Baja Bus, we were accosted by street hawkers with leaflets offering “free margueritas." We weren't inclined to pass freebies, thus we entered a club for our libation gratis. Of course, we discovered the free drink was a come-on for hookers to ply their trade.
We were quickly surrounded by scantily clad ladies, but we agreed to offer them a drink at inflated prices. So much for the free drink. Fearing the dreaded venereal diseases (catholics!), we swore not to go too close to any hookers in Mexico (we didn’t want to take any unwanted “souvenirs” back from south of the border).
While we were sitting at the bar chatting up the girls, the ladies of the night became enamoured with Roland; two of them offered to take him upstairs for a freebie! We had a good laugh over this, but Roland took a pass on the generous offer. In other words, we weren’t that drunk yet. The grim looking bouncers also didn’t think this offer was such a red hot idea; we got the notion it was time to vamoose, stage left. Thank goodness it was still daytime in Tijuana.
To escape their clutches, we told the Tijuana hookers and bouncers that we had to go catch our bus south. Instead we walked the streets of Tijuana for a couple more hours, exploring shops filled with Mexican trinkets. We purchased a few things, not clueing in that everything sold in Tijuana would be later available throughout the country, much cheaper where it was actually made.
We decided to head down the length of the Baja Peninsula to La Paz, and then cross to mainland Mexico by ferry.The other option was to catch the train south at nearby Mexicali, though the Baja leg would be more adventurous. To tell you the truth, we didn’t have much of a clue; we were just letting the road take us – no guidebooks or maps.
The Baja Bus to La Paz was a brutal 24-hour ordeal; at least we'd had enough sense to travel aboard a first-class express, not the slow chicken buses also plying the route. However, we ended up with very sore asses from sitting for long stretches in between all too infrequent stops for food and facilities (our first experience with the dreaded “caballeros” of Mexico). We drank in the spectacular scenery of the Baja; wide cliffs along two coasts, the Pacific and the Gulf of California, and in all directions, the desert. Occasionally, the desert scenery was interrupted by vast green irrigated fields, but generally, it was just desert and more desert.
Eventually, we arrived at La Paz, a pretty coastal town not far from the tip of the Baja, some 1,000 kms from Tijuana due south. We' d made a beeline south in rapid order!
The bus let us off on a bay outside La Paz. The first thing we did was find a cafe and sit down to a fine meal of burritos and enchiladas Mexican-style (not the cheap imitation we’d munched on at Taco Bell in Amarillo, Texas!). With a couple of cold beers, the whole meal cost less than 5 bucks for the three of us! It was gonna be a cheap time in Mexico.
We asked locals where we might pitch our tents on a beach for a couple of days. As there wasn’t an “official” campground in La Paz, they said it would be fine if we walked about a quarter of a mile down on the road to Cabo San Lucas, where there was an isolated and deserted beach. This sounded too good to be true, but we threw our on overstuffed backpacks and trucked down the road.
It wasn’t long before we spied the beach, as described, set back off the road away from prying eyes. The beach was beautiful sand, but it wasn’t exactly deserted. There was a bar, a small cafe, and a few palapas, umbrella-shaped dried palm leaf shelters designed to escape the sun’s deadly rays.
It was a perfect spot to recover from the brutal Baja bus journey, and best of all, it was free. We set our bags down, pitched our tents, and watched the sun set over the mountains behind. The hillside became a breathtaking riot of burnt orange, and we marveled at the massive 30 foot segura cactus that ran up the side of the hill like an army waiting for a signal.
It was pretty idyllic.
The Volcano Erupts
A group of fisherman hung out at a nearby shack, and came over to our little camp with a few beers in order to meet the gringos. We sat around trying to communicate with each other (not one of the three of us knew Spanish), enjoying the approaching night as we sat by a fire next to a small shack on the Bay of California, and eating delicious freshly caught fish rolled into homemade tortillas.
We bunked down some time later to the rhythm of the sea, a peaceful setting; we felt very secure here deep in the heart of the Baja.
But then, later that night, a "volcano" erupted. The dreaded “Montezuma’s Revenge” had smacked me with a vengeance. My guts felt like they were about to explode. I’ll spare the gory details, but it was coming out of both ends (as it were), and included hot spells that drove me from my sleeping bag, and then as quickly, cold chills that had me scurrying back.
Even after all these years, I still recall that long night on the beach at La Paz. I didn’t sleep much, and couldn’t believe it was humanly possible to have that much liquid pass out of one’s body. At sunrise, I headed for the shade of the palapas to keep from burning up in the tropical heat.
I was incapacitated. The worst part of the turistas is that it was impossible to walk without having an uncontrollable desire to rush to the bathroom (which were a horror show in their own right). So, I laid in the sand, weakened with little sympathy from my two travelling partners. Many people think when they get Montezuma's Revenge, (aka Turistas) that they have dysentery, but what is usually the case is that their bodies are adjusting to local antibodies.
Fortunately, I was able to purchase some bottled water to keep from dehydrating, which is the biggest concern for sufferers of Turistas. And then I tried to understand what might have caused it. Was it the Mexican combo platter when we first came into town, or the fish from the local fishermen? I suspected the fish, because there was one fish only I had eaten. Of course, there was no way to really know.
Day 2 of the Turistas, I decided to try to venture into town to exchange some money at the bank, and to find a doctor. One of the most embarrassing things that ever happened to me occurred as we walked into town. As we were going up a main street toward the commercial district (La Paz was a fairly small town), sure enough, the volcano was about to erupt – again.
This was going to make a really bad mess unless immediate action was taken. I only had time to dart down an alleyway before the force exploded. Luckily, I was able to quickly squat, but the damage to the immediate environment was done. Since there wasn’t much I could do to clean it up, I decided to vamose out of there a.s.a.p., and was able thereafter to make my bank exchange.
Real class act.
I was unable to locate a doctor in town, then felt so weak that I simply returned to the beach and my trusted Palapa to recuperate.
Meanwhile, my travel mates, who for some reason hadn't been knocked down with Turistas even though they'd eaten exactly what I'd eaten, enjoyed baking out in the sun (who worried about the effects of the sun back then?), and spent the day swimming and generally having a real good time.
I was envious, but who could blame them? (Ok, I could blame them, especially as they were basically leaving me on my own to suffer.)