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Southbound on a Baja Surf Trip

We recently took a short jaunt to Baja to catch some surf. Since I didn’t have Internet anywhere (no Internet + no cell service = a good thing), these are posted after our return. Enjoy!

NOTE: Although I am still posting travel writing to A Year In Trim, I’m slowly moving over to my main website, http://www.katybryce.com (an attempt to be more “professional”, as if). You can also subscribe to travel blog posts there.

I hadn’t had my passport stamped for over a year and I was getting uncomfortably itchy. Kind of like wearing a wool sweater with nothing underneath. Stifling itchy. Same house. Same food. Same desk. Time to leave. A Baja surf trip was in order.

It is a frigid 13 degrees when we packed up to leave. Chris climbs up on the top of the camper dressed in thick layers of Carhartts (full on Oregon and shit), strapping the surfboards to the rack in the brutal cold. Everything is frozen and our hands become bright red as we lift water jugs, buckets and our extra propane tank into the rig. We feel that we can’t get out of here quick enough.

Loading camper for Baja Surf Trip

As we head south, the sun is out, but the air is still cold, hovering around 30 degrees by the time we reach Klamath Falls. We are slow out of the gate, so we push hard to make it a decent distance tonight so we can enjoy a half-day in San Diego before crossing the border.

We drive down Highway 395 in the dark, a shame since it is one of the more scenically sublime roads in California, hugging the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada range. Our goal is to at least reach Bishop, then camp for the night under the shadow of Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48 states. The next morning, we wake up to this:

Camping Eastern Sierras on Way to Baja Surf Trip

The remainder of Highway 395 skirts the Mojave Desert, passing the largest thermal solar array in California and miles and miles of desert, until we reach the high desert city of Adelanto, which means “progress or advance” in Spanish. Adelanto’s tagline, which is evident on the sign that sits a mile or two before any visible civilization, is “The City with Unlimited Possibilities”. Poor Adelanto never morphed into the thriving suburbia as hoped, but instead is a crossroads of fast food joints, California beige (and a few pink) tract homes, monster trucks and dust devils.

Adelanto Sign

We reach San Diego mid-day, with blue, blue skies and a flat, flat Pacific Ocean. At a fortuitous meeting the week before, I ran into some friends that were heading to San Diego to camp that week, so we were able to jump in on their camp spot and enjoy a quick dip in the ocean before eating our first “Baja” style fish tacos complete with tasty Margs at a nearby Mexican restaurant.

We are anxious to leave the endless strip malls and classic California traffic for a little Mexico therapy. Andele!

Journey’s End…Or Not

Where to begin? Or end? Jet lag still haunts us. Chris had “minor” surgery on his hand two days ago. We are temporarily homeless and jobless. Our tanned skin is rapidly fading. But after 12 months of travel, we are home. Sure, we are frustrated with some things (like all the rules we have here), we miss surfing every day and we have complete sticker shock when purchasing anything (like a $12 salad). But, overall, we are feeling pretty good about our return. Caveats: We are still in the celebrity stage where our friends and family really want to hang out with us AND the weather is ridiculously pleasant right now. These two things are helping. We haven't had much time to reflect and think about our experiences, but we have figured out what we spent and put together a “best of” list.

What did it take for us to have a year off work and twelve months of surfing? $26,089

This figure includes: our daily expenses both in Mexico and in Asia, our travel health insurance, truck insurance for Mexico, the remainder of our mortgage that we had to cover that our renters were not paying, our flights within Asia, Dozer's expenses in Mexico (mostly kibble), things we bought on the road in Asia (new surfboard, new camera, clothes, etc), and medical expenses while traveling. Basically any money that left our hands from the day we left Oregon to the day we returned is included.

This figure DOES NOT include: our flights to and from Asia (we used Alaska Air miles to get us there and back), truck camper costs, new surfboards, other gear and clothing purchases, medical costs before the trip (vaccinations, prescriptions, etc.), and basically any costs that we incurred to prepare for the trip.

We found we could spend very little money in Mexico and the bulk of our expenses were diesel and food. Because we cooked most of our meals in the camper, daily food expenses were very cheap. Obviously since we were camping, accomodation cost very little, typically between $0 and $12 a night. Our daily expenses were roughly $36 day in Mexico, for a total of $6606 for six months. Wow! That is cheap, even for us dirtbags!

Planning for the Asia leg of the trip was harder and we didn't really know what we would spend. Daily costs such as meals and accomodation are very, very cheap in Asia, but add on extra purchases and tours and sightseeing, and the cost comes up a bit. We also purchased all of our flights within Asia, eight total, as we went, so those costs are included in the numbers. Our daily expenses in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Thailand and Cambodia for five months cost us $85 day, for a total of $12,750 for five months. That includes everything!

We candidly share this information because we aren't independently wealthy and we had to work really hard to do this. We did our best to plan and budget. We spent money as thoughtfully as we could while still having a trip of a lifetime. We are still amazed that we pulled it off; we now know that we can do anything if we put our minds to it.

Hottest We've Ever Been In Our Entire Lives:

  1. Bemo ride in Krui, Sumatra. 18 people in one tiny minivan. Slowest driver ever.
  2. First day hiking the Temples of Angkor. Perhaps the hottest place on earth, at least we thought so.
  3. Our last day in Kuala Lumpur when we went to Batu Caves. The locals were sweating.
  4. Pushing our tuk tuk up a dirt road in Sri lanka after the clutch went out. I had to push and run along side the tuk tuk while Chris steered.
  5. Sitting on the train in the station in Colombo, Sri Lanka. The power went out, the fans turned off, I had at least seven people touching me. Curry odors were emanating out of every pore.

Scariest Transport:

  1. The “taxi driver road rage” night in Sumatra. After our driver took us to his “friends” restaurant where we proceeded to get totally taken, he decided to really scare us by driving like an insane person while we begged and pleaded for him to slow down.
  2. Ojek (motorbike taxi) ride in Bangkok. It was three of us on the tiny motorbike trying to pull our knees in tight enough so they wouldn't hit cars as we wove through Bangkok traffic at high speed.
  3. Driving Highway 1 in Baja, near El Rosario. This section of highway is so, so narrow with big trucks, cows, and giant potholes.
  4. The flight from Jakarta, Indonesia to Colombo, Sri Lanka when the four traditionally dressed Arab men stormed the front of the plane before we hit the runway to land, and the flight attendant screamed at them to sit down. Apparently they just wanted to be the first in line to get off the plane.
  5. The descent through the Ella Gap in Sri Lanka on a packed bus. The driver was hopped up on betel leaves and was careening down the road, one hand on the wheel, the other on the horn.

Top Five Medical Emergencies:

  1. Getting stitches in my face in Guerrero Negro, Baja. The only English the doctor knew was The Eagles and Rolling Stones songs. He did a fabulous job sewing me up and was a pretty good singer, too!
  2. Chris going to a government hospital in Akkaraipattu, Sri Lanka with a fractured hand. This one is hard to describe, but to give you an idea, Chris had to argue for a while to get the radiologist to put the lead apron on him while he was getting an X-ray. The tech tried to explain that it's the same amount of radiation that we get from the sun. The argument ensued, with Chris replying “yeah, but I'm not standing on the sun!”. He eventually gave him the apron.
  3. Stingray wound infection in Baja. A few weeks after it happened, Chris foot swelled up like a balloon, so off we went to a clinic, to try to explain everything in Spanish.
  4. Finally going to a hospital in Bangkok after eight days of stomach woes and fever. After two days of shopping at Chatuchak Market and (literally) holding it together while walking by the giant dried fish vendor, it was time to see a doctor.
  5. With only five days left, I came down with a sever sore throat and fever in Arugam Bay, Sri Lanka. AT THE SAME TIME, the chickens at our guesthouse were dying. I was convinced I had Avian Flu until I went to a clinic in Pottuvil and got antibiotics for a throat infection. Ah, the perils of travel.

Best Wildlife Encounters


  1. Elephants, elephants, elephants. Sri Lanka was amazing for elephant sightings! Elephant Nature Park in Thailand was an incredible place to learn more about the complex life of a pachyderm.
  2. Ocean and desert wildlife in Baja, Mexico. The intersection of rugged desert with the Pacific Ocean created a surprisingly vibrant ecosystem. We saw coyotes, snakes, osprey, herons, tons of migratory birds, whales (almost every day), dolphins, sharks, seals, fish, and more.
  3. Leopard sighting in Yala National Park in Sri Lanka. We were pretty excited to see this big cat in the wild. Kudos to Sri Lanka for their National Parks.
  4. Monkeys. We know, we know, lots of people don't care for monkeys. They are kind of like the squirrels of the tropics. But we have to admit they are pretty cool when you see them jumping from tree to tree.
  5. Cobra? While we didn't really WANT to see a cobra, it was kind of cool to see a cobra. Sri Lanka has the highest “death by snakebite” in the world. Yikes!

Best Food:

  1. Every fish that Chris caught in Mexico. Halibut, corvina, white sea bass, sierra. We cooked or made ceviche every way possible. Good eats!
  2. Thai cart food. Pad thai, satay, Penang curry, it's all delicious. I think Thais could cook tree bark and it would be delicious.
  3. Rotis with dhal and coconut sambol at blue ocean in Arugam bay. I ate this virtually every day. It is a very simple, but very satisfying and delicious meal. We had heard varying reports of Sri Lankan food, but found it to be fabulous!
  4. Baja fish tacos with a cold Mexican macrobrew. Tony's in Guerrero Negro and El Viejo in Los Barriles are at the top of the list.
  5. Banana, chocolate and coconut rotis at Okanda. There's just something about gorging on these after a four hour surf session that feels oh so good.

Best “Locals Only” Activities:

  1. Seeing Kelly Slater win the 2011 Hurley Pro at Trestles in California. Hanging out with the best surfers in the world was a great way to start a year long surf trip.
  2. Watching Indonesians clear big jumps at the 2012 Indonesian Motocross Championships on modified scooters. It was hysterical being the only “Bules” in a sea of thousands of Indonesians.
  3. Hiking in the jungle for an hour with Mexican teenagers to a surf break. Diego, Bernardo and Daniel were exceptional people, great surfers and just a joy to spend a day with. They also kinda made us feel old.
  4. Swerving around elephants while driving our tuk tuk in the pre-dawn hours. Driving our own tuk tuk in Sri Lanka was a complete blast and gave us the freedom to explore the east coast of the country.
  5. Going to a Mexian rodeo, complete with amateur bull riders taking shots of tequila before attempting to stay on a bull. Viva Mexico!

 

Life In The Big City

After months of camping at remote surf spots, we have plopped ourselves in the middle of Zihuatanejo – land of large gringos, loud roosters, and Katy’s parents, who own a great little apartment in town. Zih is a great town – part Mexican fishing town, part tourist town – with great food, nice beaches and plenty of amenities.

View of Playa La Ropa and Zih and a very large yacht.

For the past week, we’ve been camping behind a beach restaurant in a makeshift campground/parking lot at Playa La Ropa. We’ve decided that Dozer is quite possibly the best dog ever, as he is surrounded by chickens, roosters, squirrels, a puppy, a toddler and a cat and hasn’t eaten a single one of them. It’s like a doggie wildlife safari.

Camping in Zih. It was interesting.

For a few mornings, we went surfing at Playa Linda, which is a mediocre beach break north of Ixtapa. Getting there requires a 30-minute walk to town, where we hop on a crowded rickety bus with our surfboards for a 30-minute bus ride. After the bus lets us off, we walk another 20 minutes to the beach. This is all fine and dandy in the morning when there is a cool offshore breeze, but the afternoons are sweltering and we sweat our way back to civilization. Chris is convinced he loses five pounds of fluid weight each day. Katy sees it as training for SE Asia.

Chris making nachos on the George Foreman grill.

We’ve been getting the royal treatment from Katy’s parents – many good meals, free doggie babysitting, fishing trips and lots of lounging in their apartment. Yesterday we were treated to La Escollera, a hillside restaurant, bar, and pool overlooking the beach with killer Margaritas and excellent Caesar salads. We felt fancy.

The pool at La Escollera.

Katy's somewhat insane family. We had a great time with them!

We have been feeling a big melancholy about our last few weeks in Mexico, but we are soon heading to one of our favorite places in Mainland where we will spend the remainder of our time surfing (more), lounging (more), and hanging with friends that we have met over the last few years. We are also looking forward to meeting up with some Bend friends, Newman and Chelsea. You know what they say – “Mexico. Come on vacation, leave on probation.” Look out Newman!

Lo Bueno, Lo Malo, Y Lo Feo

So, we’ve been on the road for two months now.  How are we doing?  Oddly enough, I think it has taken us this long to get into a groove so we are now feeling more and more at home in Baja.  Maybe we’ve just been jobless and roaming around for long enough now that it feels normal.

We spent another week at Conejo, which we really enjoyed, but we needed to move on, mostly because we were out of ice (see last post for details).  After sitting through the second rain storm in two weeks (mind you, it literally hasn’t rained here in the last two years), we decided to head south and explore some dirt roads to find more surf.  We ended up at another point south of Conejo, only to the be one of two campers there, with almost the entire beach to ourselves.  We stocked up on basic food supplies at the Mini-Super in the tiny little town nearby, and luckily found some ice.  Mexico is so awesome for this stuff.  Mini-Supers are like little convenience stores, usually attached to someone’s house and if you dig around in a dark corner or ask for something, you can often find what you need.  When we asked if they had ice, the woman went into her house and brought back two plastic bags filled with ice, like they had filled the bags with water and set them in the freezer for a few days.  Perfecta!  We set up for three nights to see if the surf would shape up for us, only to have three days of blistering offshore winds and close-out sets.

How’s Baja?  Well, Baja is incredible, and it’s right up our alley.  It’s wild, rugged, desolate, rough, delicate, and beautiful all at the same time.  We’ve seen a fair amount of wildlife, mostly coyotes who tend to come into camp to torture Dozer.  I was reading in bed a few nights ago to hear a coyote lapping away at Dozer’s water bowl.  After sticking my head out the door with the flashlight, the coyote took off for the bushes, only to come back later that night to yip and howl near our camp.  Last night, we awoke to a cacophony of coyotes yipping, barking and howling right in front of the truck.  Dozer barely lifted a head and lazily gave a “woof” from his cozy bed in the camper.  The two very large rainstorms have produced a shock of green in the desert, and with any luck, we should see a nice early bloom in a few days.  If the desert seems alive at times, then the ocean is writhing with life.  Every wave that passes is full of fish swimming through it.  Every day, whales create plumes of spray by breaching and slapping their tales.  The intertidal zone crawls with creatures like urchins, crabs, anemones and other strange invertebrates.  We are constantly surrounded by osprey, blue herons, cormorants, gulls (of course) and so many other birds.

Have I mentioned the wind?  Good God, Baja is windy.  The wind is a constant topic of conversation.  When will it start?  How hard will it blow?  What direction will it come from?  How should we park the truck to minimize the wind in camp?  Most areas on the Pacific have a prevailing wind – typically from the northwest.  But every so often, it throws a curve ball, so we are always on our toes.  The easterly offshores bring hot, dry wind from the east and along with it, some good surf potential, dragonflies, bees and flies.  The westerly onshores bring chop and slop to the surf, but are cooler and more damp.  The southerly winds – no bueno – they are good for nothing.  Let’s just say, we try to embrace the wind, ’cause it’s not going away anytime soon.

How’s our Spanish?  Ha!  We have a Spanish book with us.  Something like one of those “Be Fluent in Spanish in 30 Days” deal.  At the beginning of the trip, we said we would go through a chapter a day.  Of course, we have totally shirked this plan, so our Spanish, let’s just say it gets us through.  Because we spend so much time off the grid, we don’t really speak much Spanish other than to some fisherman, or someone who collects money for camping or firewood.  So, when we come to “town”, it takes a while to ramp it up again. However, every so often, when the cosmos are aligned and the skies part for the heavens, I do have those moments of clarity when it all comes together and I actually put together real sentences with correct verb conjugations.  It does happen.

How’s the surfing?  We caught some good surf at Conejo, both at the point and at the beach break.  The beach break was good and challenging, providing steeper drops and faster waves, and we were able to use our short boards more here.  But, this surfing stuff is hard!  It is true that it takes years upon years to learn, refine, advance in surfing, and while we know we are progressing, sometimes it doesn’t feel so.  We also thought we would be surfing more, but good surf depends on good conditions.  These conditions can change dramatically and again, each spot has so many variables – tide, wind, swell size, swell direction and so on.  It’s the surfers curse.  Like I’ve said before, it’s like heroin.  We need it.

How’s the camping?  Two months in the camper, and all is peaceful.  It is a constant struggle to keep things clean and sand-free, but we’ve got a system down.

How’s Mexico?  Fabulous as ever.

Hasta Proximo!

Northern Baja Excursions

After a night of prepping and organizing, we wake up at 6am at Dan’s house to make our run for the border. After getting our propane filled, we hit the border at about 8am, and had a smooth crossing.

Micah (“our shaper” – see last post) convinced us to stop at Baja Malibu, a beach break just outside of Rosarito. He was planning on surfing there that morning, so we checked it out for a bit, left a note on his truck and headed south on the toll road. We had no intention of surfing that day and it was a good thing as the waves there were beyond our level for sure. We busied ourselves in Ensenada by getting money and purchasing a TelCel USB modem so we have a prayer of getting online at certain points during the trip. We’ll see how that goes.

Now, about the driving in Mexico. We have rented cars many times here and have been able to zip around small towns and countryside. However, driving the giant truck with the camper is challenging, dodging busses, speedy taxis, pedestrians, motorcycles, dogs, cows, construction crews, and whatever else happens to be in the road. Although Chris does the actual driving, it’s really a two-person job, with the Katy as the passenger calling out signs, obstacles, merging and a fair amount of “Look out! Merging! Cows! What the hell was that?”

The Santo Tomas valley, famous for its’ vineyards, is our last bit of civilization for a week, and a good opportunity to get last minute supplies and to check the air in the tires before heading off on the dirt road. Here is Chris’ take on the whole situation:

Our first day leaving the pavement and setting off on 25 miles of dirt roads of unknown quality, I decide to play with the air pressure in the tires. At our turn off there is a small tienda (store) where we stop for a Coke and to air down the tires. Airing down the tires reduces the beating on the truck, the camper and us, and provides better flotation for any sandy patches that we may encounter. For some reason I just knew I wanted to do this close to civilization and we had just passed a PEMEX station. Our friends Justin and Misty provided us with an ARB Tire Deflator just prior to our departure and I tried it once in the driveway in Bend without issue. So needless to say, 1st time in Mexico, I had an issue. We’re in front of this tiny store on the side of the road in a dirt parking lot. Somehow I screw up the simple process of deflating the tire, and the little, I mean tiny, valve core shoots out of the valve stem somewhere into the dirt and the tire is spewing all its air with no way to stop it. So here we are, I’m cussing up a storm, our tire is going flat (which is my fault), and Katy is yelling because the air is very noisily gushing out of the valve stem. I suddenly stick my finger on the valve stem and hold back the 80 psi (well 40 psi at this point) and with my other hand, grope around to find this impossibly tiny thing that flew out of the valve stem and while in my best calm voice, say a few times over “Where is the thingy? Look for the thingy!” In a moment of lucidity, I quickly remove my finger and put the metal valve cap back on, and somehow it holds the air. Whew, sometimes your gut reaction is the right thing to do. We look around in the dirt and Katy finds the tiny valve core. We limp over to the gas station where there is a ready air compressor, I’m able to reinstall the valve core in the stem and lower all the tires to 40 psi. Had that happened out in the middle of nowhere we do have a compressor, but I was glad to get that out of the way. Hopefully that is the last issue we have airing down.

After over an hour of grueling dirt roads through desolate hills, arroyos, and ranchlands, we arrive at Punta San Jose, our first surf spot in Baja. The terrain is so vast and beautiful, a flat plateau rising about 50 feet from the ocean as far as the eye can see. To the west (this is a completely south facing coastline) stands a rudimentary lighthouse on a point, surrounded by a ramshackle fish camp complete with feral cats living off the daily catch scraps. Otherwise, there is nothing for miles and miles except the Pacific Ocean and a lone tent and pickup truck perched on the plateau above the cliff.

We are greeted by the wind that is so prevalent in Baja and set up camp. A guy jumps out of the tent to greet us – Bobby from Huntington Beach – and he is thrilled to hang out and surf with us. Stars cover the sky as we sit by Bobby’s campfire and try to relax from our day of driving into the country. It so happens that Bobby surfs with Joey in Huntington Beach. As big as this place is, it’s always a small world.

Day two, in a howling windstorm, we start meeting more interesting characters. A Ford Ranger pulls up with two surfboards in the back and two flat tires. A skinny blonde kid with a mustache jumps out and he’s wearing high water polyester pants, white Vans, an orange T-shirt and giant grin on his face. His name is Chris and he looks like something out of a 60’s Bruce Brown surf film. His girlfriend Sammy looks like she’s from Portland, wearing a pixie haircut, a long skirt and cowboy boots. She tells me that since she and Chris lived in a van in Australia for three months, they decided to try to live together in a small cottage in Dana Point. (Are there small cottages in Dana Point any more?) They set up a tent for the night and we help them fix their tires the next morning. He’s clearly done this before and although he lives in Dana Point, he talks as though he grew up in Baja.

Another truck pulls up and it’s three guys from San Diego on a weekend adventure – Nathaniel, Chris, and Skip. Skip is a dead ringer for our friend Jerry. These guys are cool, and we surf, hang out in camp, and play cards with them for a few days. It’s refreshing to meet folks who are stoked to go on a surf adventure and hangout by a little driftwood campfire under the stars.

The surfing here is fun and different from what we are used to, as are our new boards which are SMALL. Each day we progress a little more and get the hang of the small boards.  The water isn’t too cold yet, but may get colder as we head south.  Sounds strange, but severe off-shore winds and ocean upwelling create colder water south of here.  Nonetheless, sitting in the ocean in this amazing and remote spot watching the fisherman bring in halibut and lobster is just what we have been waiting for the last few years.

Chris is starting to fish at Punta Cabras each day and is learning small tips from the locals. Jorge shows him how to hook bait properly (usually mussels that we find in the rocks) so they don’t come off easily. Each day, two or three trucks with lanchas drive down to the beach and set out to fish for urchins and they catch so many, that the trucks have to make a few loads of bagged urchins back to town before the end of the day.

We are heading south to chase the swell as we have heard reports of a big south swell coming in.  Necesitamos olas!

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