OUTLANDISH OVERLANDER IS A BLOG HOSTED BY OVERLAND EXPO SOCIAL MEDIA MANAGER, ZACH ELSEMAN.
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We had been traveling full-time for almost a year when we got the idea to try our luck south of the United States border in Baja California. My wife Rachael and I knew that our school bus conversion, as capable and comfortable as it was for traveling US Forest Service roads, was no match for the off-road driving that lay ahead of us in Baja. We found a clapped-out old Toyota 4Runner, invested just enough money and work into it to make it presentable, and hit the road for Mexico.
The plan was to housesit at a ranch in Baja Norte near iconic Baja 1,000 stopover, Mike’s Sky Ranch for about four months and use our time off at the house to explore the peninsula. We later found out that round-the-world overland traveler Graeme Belle and his family house sat in the very same house while crossing North America — good company to be in. The homeowners warned us of the deteriorated “driveway” that would take nearly an hour to traverse in 4-HI. The more they told us about the 1,200-acre ranch, the more excited we were to get there and explore.
After saying our goodbyes to family and friends who were insistent that Mexico was sketchy and dangerous, we pointed our 4Runner west. We burned up the state highways and backroads across the Southwest from our town in Oklahoma at a feverish 63 miles per hour and crossed the border at Tecate, a quaint little town known best for its namesake, Tecate beer.
As we approached the border gate we were shuffled over to secondary inspection, which was expected. Our 1986 Toyota 4Runner was loaded to the gills with a roof tent, a big refrigerator, enough camera gear to shoot a feature film, and all of the things we thought we would need for the next four months. Rachael and I are capable of packing as little as possible for multi-week backpacking trips but we are the same people that have an oven and a diesel heater in a converted school bus. Building and packing the Toyota was a challenge as we sought to balance the items and gear that we would need to be self-sufficient without overwhelming our poor little 116-horsepower engine.
Our truck was well-loved and got a new suspension setup and a paint job before we embarked for Mexico. In hindsight, the sweet-smelling exhaust and dry-rotting tires should have been addressed before traveling some five-thousand miles overland. Money was low and wanderlust was high. So, we opted to risk it and carry an extra coolant jug and a solid spare tire, just in case. While in Baja, we used both.
The agents at the port of entry did a simple search and let us through to submit our paperwork and passports for our stay. The agent responsible for letting us into the country offered to sell us some of his homegrown honey before proceeding to ask for our documents. We handed over our passports and Forma Migratoria Multiple (FMM), basically a visitor permit available to residents of the U.S. and Canada.
The border official looked at us, looked at our paperwork and immediately handed it back and said a blur of words in Spanish so fast that the only word I caught was “Recibo,” Spanish for receipt. Through weak Spanish skills on our end and broken english on his, with Rachael throwing in the occasional German word by mistake, we figured out that we had left our FMM on the printer in a library in Tucson, AZ and all we had to show for it was the receipt.
What had we done?
The sole piece of paper that would give us legal access to Mexico beyond a seven-day stay was left in a rush to get out of town. Crisis was averted when the border official allowed us entry into Mexico and gave us directions to the nearest internet cafe to print our proper paperwork and get on our way.
After submitting the proper paperwork and getting our vehicle legally into Mexico and of course, buying a jar of honey from the helpful border agent, we pointed our truck toward the Pacific Ocean. We passed through the trash-laden streets of Tecate, leaving town on the “La Ruta del Vino” that winds around the wine country of Northern Baja.
Gently rolling hills reveal vineyard after vineyard, most with open parking lots available for weary travelers to camp at with the purchase of a couple of bottles of good wine. We had our eyes set on a more beach-y location. Our next stop was spending the night in Ensenada to load up on several weeks of supplies and food before meeting the homeowners of the ranch and making the six-hour drive to our house-sitting assignment in the mountains.
We settled into a camp a few miles outside of Ensenada and spent the evening digging holes on the beach in hopes of locating the infamous hot springs at La Jolla Beach Camp. Our neighbors were Swiss nationals traveling in a massive expedition vehicle on a Pan American trip to Alaska, so we knew that we had at least picked the right place to camp on the first night.
We woke to the sound of waves and seagulls and quickly packed up camp and made our way to town to gather enough food for two weeks at the completely off-grid house. Apparently the locals in Ensenada buy their eggs in bulk because amongst our groceries was a flat of thirty-six eggs, the smallest quantity available at the market. We met the owners of the house, a Canadian couple, at a taco shack near our campsite and got all of the information about the house that we might need.
Solar powered, check!
Water comes from the creek, check!
If you get in trouble, call the Mexican Army … Wait, what was that last part?
We thanked them for the opportunity and hit the road to try and make the house by dark. We were unsuccessful and spent the night on a cliff overlooking the Pacific, one of the best campsites we have ever had to this day. The next morning we were woken up by the sound of work crews walking down to the beach to collect rocks that would later be sold at Lowes or Home Depot in the states. We packed up and made our first Easterly turn in over a week to leave the relative security of the peninsular highway and began driving over sixty kilometers from sea level to the ranch at an elevation around 6,000 feet (1828m).
The first 58 kilometers were potholed and sometimes a little steep for our struggling four-cylinder, but it was nothing compared to the condition of the cow-trail that took us off of the pavement to the house. This first attempt to travel the “driveway” took us approximately 90-minutes to complete once we had left pavement and we spent nearly the entire time in four-wheel drive. Over time it got easier to navigate once we got used to the area and as we built confidence in our vehicle and driving abilities.
After an hour and a half of some of the most fun we had ever had in our truck, Rachael and I in our little beat up truck with all 36 eggs that we had purchased in Ensenada onboard made it to the house that we would call home for the next four months.
We met the groundskeeper, Betto, who instructed us, in the few english words that he knew, how to operate the water pump that would push water uphill to a holding tank for our later consumption. He showed us the solar system and gave us a tour of the beautiful adobe home. And, just like that, he left for his allotted 10-days off each month and left us to marvel at the absolute beauty of the Sierra de san Pedro de Mártir mountain range that seemed to explode out of the ground all around us.
As Betto climbed into his similarly cared-for Toyota 4Runner and bombed down the driveway, we heard, for the first time, the overwhelming silence and calm that we had been searching for. We had reached a milestone for us — we were in a foreign country, in an unproven vehicle, with no real plan but to recharge and explore. This house in the mountains of Baja California proved to be the perfect place to start a new adventure.
In the coming months I will continue to tell our stories of traveling down the Baja Peninsula for the first time. I hope to impart some wisdom (things not to do) and inspire you to travel once it is safe to do so.
Header image credit: Zach Elseman