It was all rather strange for a day of international travel. As San Diego and Tijuana form a single urban area, it was simply a case of hopping on the trolley system to the border and walking across the busiest border crossing in the world from there.
At least that was the plan! When we arrived at the border, the card machine wasn’t working, which left us unable to pay for the FMM (Forma Migratoria Multiple) which we needed for our length of stay in Mexico. As such, we were guided out a back entrance of the border control building and left (without much explanation) in a queue to enter the country that we had just left! We then had to queue for about 45 minutes to get through passport control and back into the US. The only upside was to be able to answer the question;
“What is the purpose of your visit?”
“To visit an ATM!”
Well, that and the ghostbusters costume going through passport control!
We had read a lot of negative press about safety in Mexico, but first impressions were that we felt at least as safe as we had in the States. Clearly we would need to reassess as we went, but for now we had no major concerns. That’s not to say I felt calm though, my heart was racing with the pressure I was putting on myself to only speak Spanish once we crossed the border. Initially, Kim and I had talked about even speaking Spanish between ourselves, but at least for the first couple of weeks we would allow ourselves to speak English amongst ourselves. Any conversation with a local would be in Spanish.
Other than rebuffing taxi drivers, as expected, my first Spanish conversation once over the border was checking into the hotel. I had made sure that I knew a couple of key phrases and questions that I might get asked. It was all going swimmingly until the receptionist said something really fast that I didn’t understand and pointed outside. I told him that I didn’t understand and he immediately reverted to English. It wasn’t really the plan, but at least I had stuck to Spanish. It transpired that their card machine was broken and I would need to pay in their sister hotel over the street. I hadn’t learnt that phrase yet! So far in Mexico, we weren’t having much luck with card machines.
After all the nonsense at the border, it was quite a lot later than we had planned by the time we got to Tijuana and we were ravenous. We picked a taco cart near our hotel, just off the infamous Avenida Revolución, for a late lunch. Carne Asada seemed to be what everyone was eating, so I opted for a couple of those “con todo” (with everything). Kim had gorditas with chorizo and cheese. The tacos themselves were actually just ok, but I thought the experience of standing around a cart on the roadside eating tacos was exactly what I had hoped for from our time in Mexico.
After a quick wander soaking up what Tijuana had to offer, we stopped for a coffee in a covered walkway that wouldn’t have looked out of place in East London. Clearly Tijuana has hipsters too. As we sat there over coffee, the flow of costumes past us suggested it was about time we got back on the main drag and checked out the Día de Los Muertos vibe.
It was still only about 5.30pm, but Avenida Revolución was starting to buzz with people, nearly all of whom were in some form of costume. The bars were also heaving as game 6 of the World Series was on, with the LA Dodgers needing a win over the Houston Astros to keep the series alive. Having watched most of the games already, we were quite emotionally invested in it. We found ourselves a spot where we could watch the baseball but also keep an eye on the costumes that went past on the street. I was slightly concerned when we were patted down to enter the bar, but was happy enough to set those concerns to one side for a moment when I saw that a beer was 15 pesos (60p!). The Dodgers would go on to win the game 3-1 and set up a decisive 7th game the next day.
The baseball over, we joined the now throngs of people along Avenida Revolución. Having now had a few beers, the place seemed to make more sense, even if we were surrounded by people an array of bizarre costumes, including one family who were dragging a full sized wooden coffin down the street (hopefully empty!).
It wasn’t immediately obvious where anyone was heading, but we joined the flow of people to nowhere in particular and breathed it all in. Along the way we stopped for some more tacos at a couple of different stands and people watched the night away. It had been a bizarre evening, but then Tijuana on the first day of Dia de Los Muertos was hardly going to be anything else.
The next morning, walking through the now deserted town, I felt a little overwhelmed by everything. The night before, after a few beers, it had been easy to throw myself into the madness. In the cold light of day, the gargantuan task in front of us, travelling to South America without flying, speaking only Spanish along the way seemed ridiculous. The fact that we had planned almost nothing only added to the size of the task.
I think in truth, my main concern was the language. Surviving would be no issue, we already spoke enough Spanish to survive and everyone so far seemed to speak English. However, arriving in Mexico had only served to highlight how far we had to go on our language learning journey. I didn’t want to survive in a second language, I wanted to thrive.
I was guilty of trying to do everything at once. I was never going to be fluent the moment we arrived, despite all the work I had put in before we left. This was going to take time. Particularly as at the moment I could understand almost nothing of what was being said. Everyone spoke so quickly!
Anyway, before worrying about all of that, it was breakfast time. I wasn’t going to solve anything on an empty stomach. I had found a torta (sandwich) stall that was a bit of a walk from where we were staying but had rave reviews. The stall was called Tortas del washmobile, after the car wash that it was next to. Well, it was worth the walk! The bread was toasted to perfection on the same grill as the carne asada, dipped in the meat juices, slathered in mayonnaise and topped with carne asada, tomatoes, pickled onions, guacamole and spicy sauce. I polished mine off in no time. I was very tempted to have a second, but having piled up the tacos the day before and a long trip ahead of us promising more of the same, I showed some restraint.
After breakfast, I had another opportunity to put my Spanish to the test, buying a Mexican SIM card. It went surprisingly well. He spoke a little in English to help with some of the more complicated words, but I managed to stick to Spanish. I was feeling pretty chuffed with myself as I finished setting it up over coffee in the place we had been the day before. It hadn’t been textbook Spanish by any means, but I had managed to buy a SIM card in my target language, it was one for the win column!
We sat down to try and plan the next section of our trip. To cut a long story short, we couldn’t find any accommodation in our budget in the beach resorts close to Tijuana, the way the bus timetables worked out it wasn’t going to be all that easy to stop in the middle of the peninsula and driving was a fairly major undertaking given the distances. It wasn’t ideal, but we decided our best option was a 25 hour bus ride to La Paz in Baja California Sur. We had already ear-marked La Paz as a place that we could base ourselves for an extended period of time, but hadn’t anticipated being there quite so early in our trip.
That planned, we went in search of some lunch and found an early contender for favourite food experience of the trip. We stumbled across a taco joint with counter top seating and ordered what we could see – carnitas! They were some really good tacos and we loved the atmosphere, “chatting” (in the loosest sense of the word) with the guys behind the counters and munching on radishes with lime and salt in between tacos, it was right up there with my favourite Asian street food experiences. A busker with a bongo only added to the ambience.
After lunch, we had a touch more organisation to do, then we hit Avenida Revolución to watch the decisive game 7 of the World Series. The Astros took an early 5-0 lead and the Dodgers never recovered. It was a shame, as they had become our adopted team over the past week. To my untrained eye, an Astros win seemed about fair and it clearly meant a lot to a city that has been through so much recently.
The next day, it was time for an epic bus journey across almost the entire length of the longest peninsula on the planet. We did not get off to the best of starts, when we discovered we were at the wrong bus station in Tijuana! We managed to get the situation resolved with the help of a friendly American tourist who spoke better Spanish than us and were put on the next bus to Ensenada where we could meet up with our original bus, for the remaining 23 hours of the journey.
At Ensenada, we were once again helped by the American man we had met in Tijuana and thought we were all set for our bus. However, when I showed my online tickets the bus driver was not at all happy and sent me back to the ticket desk for paper tickets. I tried my best to explain the situation to one of the women on the ticket desk in Spanish, when an American guy bounded out of the office behind the desk
“No he doesn’t need paper tickets! Come with me I’ll tell him for you…”
The matter was settled rather promptly, but I felt like our bus driver had taken a bit of a dislike to us. Not ideal when we would be with him for quite so long!
Around dinner time we stopped for some serious tacos at the roadside and over some food, the driver’s initial frosty reception thawed. You can always count on food to bring people together. We also got chatting to a lovely American lady who lived in Cabo. This was turning into a classic leg of overland travel. The seats were also surprisingly comfortable and I got a relatively good night’s sleep. My only complaint would be that at every toilet stop, the toilet would have no light or running water. Not ideal.
I awoke the next morning at sunrise to some truly stunning views of cacti studded desert, mountains and pristine blue water. This was what I had hoped for from Baja California Sur. I was surprisingly chirpy after a night sleeping on the bus and happily knocked back a plate of chicken and frijoles when we stopped for breakfast.
We completed the final few hours of the journey and arrived in La Paz, somewhere that we would call home for at least the next week or so as we stepped up our Spanish learning with some classes.