Jan 202014
 

Tijuana, Ensenada, Rosarito, Puerto Nuevo, Guadalupe Valley. Just a few of the Baja, Mexico destinations which used to be easy and popular day trips from San Diego. In the space of a few years major changes completely changed tourism near the border.  The first was increased security at the border by the Department of Homeland Security.  The pool of available tourists was dramatically lowered by requiring passports to cross into the USA from Mexico as roughly 1/3rd of Americans hold a passport (though growing).  This increased security also lead to an increase in border wait times.  Instead of spending an hour or perhaps two at the worst waiting at the border, there began to be an increase in three and four hour waits.  The second major impact to cross border tourism was an outburst of drug war related violence.  Though mostly targeted towards narcos and those working with them, this bloody war spilled over in several cases and fed fear and general distrust of Tijuana and other border cities.

Though the narco violence subsided in this area years ago, memories take much longer to dissipate.  Given time things are starting to turn around. Without the corruption of short term (and usually debauched) cash along Revolución, Tijuana and others have looked inward to reinvent themselves.  This change over the last few years has lead to them becoming a bit of a destination for foodies and culture lovers – attracting the like of Bourdain and others to explore the new Baja.

We used to visit the coast of Baja (Rosarito, Puerto Nuevo, and occasionally Guadalupe or even further south like Bahia de los Angeles) on a regular basis, going down for lunch and shopping before returning for the day.  With the border waits we had fallen out of the habit some time ago and had yet to pick it back up again – We finally got around to visiting one of our old standards with family on Sunday, lunch in Puerto Nuevo. The toll road was washed out so we spent time on the free road driving down. I was pleasantly surprised to see that much of the route was four lanes wide and in excellent shape. The shops along the road were in mixed shape – some still seeming to be going strong, others didn’t seem to have made it through the drought.  We spoke with a few shopkeepers who said business had been slowly picking up and they were hopeful for the future.  I think we will be picking our habit back up – Baja offers some excellent opportunities for day trips.

Link to the full gallery of photos
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Aug 112010
 


diving cabo diving cabo diving cabo diving cabo
Photos of Scuba diving Los Cabos (Cabo San Lucas)

During our visit to the tip of Baja we enjoyed two days worth of diving. The first day of diving we stuck to relatively easy local sites. The first dive was at Pelican Rock, site of the famous (or not so famous?) sand falls. The sand falls were a mild curiosity for me, much more exciting were the huge schools of fish circling the rock walls. There were several large groupers hanging around, but none would let us get very close. Near the end of the dive we were able to get up close to some of the tangs, box, and butterfly fish that hung out around the rock’s walls. The walls are covered with some impressive fans and anemones and the site looks quite healthy. One thing to note – stay on the bottom until you are ready to join your dive boat as there is massive amount of boat traffic in the area. When we started the dive early in the morning we were the only boat around. When we finished and came up there were about 10 other boats anchored within a stones throw away.

The second dive was on a wall just south of Pelican Rock. The wall was interesting, but again the shallow critters were a bigger draw. Large schools of fish, including large trumpet-fish were milling about in the 10-30 foot range around the rocks, snacking on salp chains that drifted into the area. The sand flats around the rocks were full of life as well – quite a few rays and guitarfish had buried themselves in the sand channels.

The second day of diving was much more ambitious. We did some more advanced diving on an open water sea mount known as Gordo Banks (or Gorda Banks). The depth of the mount is about 115′, so we used 28% Nitrox for both dives. This site is known for the chance to see large open water critters like sharks, mantas, and tuna. Unfortunately for us, the visibility was quite poor for both dives. The water was green and less than 15 feet of visibility from 20-100 feet. Under 100 feet it cleared right up, it was a bit like stepping out of a fog. We saw some very large jacks (people sized) on both dives, in addition to some large schools of fish. We caught a glimpse of a small school of hammerhead sharks on the first dive, but they were in the pea soup green above us, and we couldn’t catch up to them. It would be a great dive site with better visibility.

We saw a marlin on the surface during one of our intervals, and I hopped in to try to snorkel with it. I missed my mark or it didn’t like me – it was long gone. The trip back to harbor was against the wind and it took us several hours to get back to the harbor. Make sure you bring sea sickness meds if you think you might need them – several people fed the fishes, including our captain.

I think our mixed diving results have a lot to do with the strange weather patterns in the pacific this year. The water was much colder than they are used to (water temp at depth was 63-64F) and it seemed like summer wasn’t quite there yet. It definitely warrants another attempt when we make it back down again, you never know what you will see in the open water.

Aug 082010
 

beach beach beach beach

Photos of Punta Perfecta and Cabo Pulmo, Baja California Sur

This was our first trip to Baja south of Bahia de los Angeles. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from the Cabo area. It attracts a spring break crowd, so I was expecting a good part of the city to be similar to Tijuana’s Revolucion. Thankfully, my fears seem to be mostly unfounded. Booming with hotels and condos, but the vibe one got was was less party and more relaxed. Then again, perhaps that is more because we didn’t spend much time in Los Cabos – just time in the harbor to dive or stock up on goods. Outside of diving trips from Los Cabos, the first few days were spent north along the coast at low key hotel on the beach. We did some snorkeling at Playa Chileno (quite nice) and beach bummed around the area.

We finished out the bulk of our trip much further away from civilization. Punta Perfacta is a surfing break about an hour’s drive on (mostly) dirt roads from the Cabo airport. There are small small enclaves of condos and vacation homes, but the area still feels very isolated. There are no utilities or phones – water is trucked in, power is provided by solar panels. My days mostly consisted of reading in a hammock with the occasional sprinkling of beach and surf. Not a bad thing.

In between my marathon hammock sessions we took a 30 minute drive north to Playa Los Arbolitos, which is on the southern end of the Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park. The beach boasts some old coral reefs within a stones throw of the sand. Though there were a lot of fish on the reef, the visibility left much to be desired. I suspect this has a lot to do with the strange weather and currents we are having this year. We were lucky enough to visit the beach on a Sunday when a lot of Mexican families were enjoying the beach as well. We practiced our Spanish with Jorge (a young ranch worker we gave a ride to) and enjoyed guitar music and traditional songs from our neighbors. I now have yet another classification for a great day – a slice of watermelon, live music, a palapa, and a beautiful beach.

Oct 012008
 

Mani, Adam and I headed out to the Coronados last Sunday to dive at the lobster shack. It has been a while since I was out there, so I was hoping the sea lions were there in force. Unfortunately there were just a couple young ones and they weren’t quite ready to come play in the water. I’m expecting November will be a lot of fun.

Aug 252008
 

KPBS has posted a nice audio slide show of the UVeta project in Baja Sur. Water in Baja Sur’s remote areas is frequently from open wells, where the chance of contamination is high. Florence Cassassuce with Engineers without Borders came up with a way to use existing technology to make the water much safer – Ultraviolet light and a bucket.

UV destroys DNA of microbes so they can’t reproduce. This concept has been used for municipal treatment for a while, and over the last few years in higher cost travel items like the SteriPEN. But unlike most portable UV systems the UVeta can clean a lot of water at at a time and is very cheap – They worked with Tijuana producers to reduce the cost of the UVeta to $30.

More information:
The UVeta Project’s home site
UVeta story from La Prensa San Diego
CNN Heroes video

Nov 202007
 

– The string of events the past few weeks in Baja seems to have attracted a lot of country wide attention.

– News bits like this don’t seem to help the situation: Kidnapped Spanish tourist found blindfolded beside Tijuana road

– You just can’t make up news this bizarre:

A mysterious helicopter crash during Baja California’s storied Baja 1000 off-road race set off a strange chain of events that left four people dead and two missing after a nighttime raid on a local morgue, officials said Thursday.

…Among the last-minute entries were two men who registered a black pick-up truck called Azteca Warrior, according to media reports and Ensenada city spokesman Daniel Vargas. One of the men, registered as Pablo Gonzalez, was tracking the race team’s progress in a helicopter (60 miles west of the city of Ensenada ) when it crashed into high-tension wires, killing Gonzalez and another passenger and injuring two pilots.

Two people who said they were relatives of Gonzalez showed up at the morgue Wednesday and tried to claim the body, but were not allowed to take it, authorities said. A few minutes later, the gunmen struck. …The convoy of 14 vehicles pulled up in front of the city morgue on Calle Guadalupe. The attackers stormed the building, snatched a corpse, loaded it into a vehicle and sped off through the hills toward Tecate, where two police officers had set up a roadblock. “They tried to stop them. The gunmen answered with bullets,” said Edgar Lopez, a spokesman for the Baja California state police. …Federal authorities are investigating whether the body is that of drug cartel figure Francisco Merardo Leon Hinojosa, nicknamed El Abulon — The Abalone.

– LA Times has an interesting article about the housing boom by norteamericanos in Baja Sur: Taking Baja South

They arrive by land, air and sea, with visions of the good life dancing in their heads. At first, their numbers are so small as to be barely noticeable. But within a few years they may end up taking over your street, your colonia, practically your entire town. They bring their curious native customs with them—skinny Frappuccinos, “personal watercraft,” wireless Internet access—and replant them in foreign soil. Relentlessly, they remake the landscape in their own image, transforming derelict colonial-era manses into stunning million-dollar homes, and majestic swaths of lonely seaside acreage into $300-per-round golf courses. And though many of them make a diligent effort to learn the local tongue, befriend the natives and blend into their adopted country, others stubbornly resist assimilation: hanging out in their gated compounds with other English-speaking exiles, eschewing the local coffee shops and taco shacks in favor of Starbucks and Burger King, plowing their SUVs like woozy battleships through the narrow streets of picturesque 17th century towns.

Nov 162007
 

I have to admit, I was skeptical the first time I read SurferMags story, “I’ll Never Go to Baja Again” aka Carjacked in Baja. Three surfers losing everything in Baja to a group of professional and heavily armed carjacker-thieves sounded like the truth was a bit stretched. Bribes are not unheard of, but this was a whole different ball game.

Unfortunately it seems it was all too real. The UT reports:

“Southern California surfers have reason to be especially wary about venturing to Baja California after a spate of armed robberies by paramilitary-style criminals. About a half-dozen robberies and carjackings that targeted U.S. surfers en route to camping spots along the 780-mile Baja California peninsula have occurred since June… the perpetrators fooled tourists into pulling off the road by using flashing lights similar to those mounted on police cars. These thieves forced their victims to kneel and put firearms to their heads.”

Losing your car or your wallet is one thing, but there was also one report of sexual assault during the robbery. All of the victims did not report the crime in Mexico, as they were fearful of the local police force. The general distrust of Baja cops is certainly not helped by the continuing reports of corruption. Just this week I had a coworker tell me about her brush with the TJ police over the weekend. The extortion left her shaken, and unwilling to go to Baja again (she usually goes several times a month). Baja needs to crack down on this fast, or their tourist industry will die.

The UT gives some info on reporting an assault:

– While in Mexico, flag down a police officer or dial 066 on a local phone.

– People visiting Baja California can receive help by calling the office of the region’s secretary of tourism. The hotline is 078.

– Once back in the United States, people still can report crimes that occurred in Mexico by contacting the U.S. Consulate’s office in Tijuana, which channels complaints to the appropriate Mexican agency and assists U.S. citizens with follow-up investigations. E-mail consulartijuan@state.gov.

– The San Diego Police Department, which takes courtesy reports and forwards them to the consulate’s office. Call (619) 531-2000.

Aug 242007
 

The LA times has a story on the latest attempt to root out corruption in the Baja police force:

They’re installing cameras to catch extortion attempts, publicizing that people can pay tickets with credit cards and transferring corrupt cops. They’ve deployed a squad of female traffic officers to offer courteous help to tourists. They’ve even declared the stretch of road a “no-ticket” highway.

Many police officers turn to extortion, he said, because their supervisors threaten to transfer them to dangerous neighborhoods if they don’t fork over a daily share of cash from bribes. Officers usually don’t demand cash from the drivers they stop, he said. Instead, they start asking a lot of questions and reviewing registration records. Most people are quick to offer a bribe to avoid long dealings with officers who seem to have nothing but time on their hands.

“For Americans, $20 is nothing,” said the former officer. “The American has money. The American doesn’t know the law. The American doesn’t want his vacation delayed.” The best way to avoid paying a bribe, he said, is to insist on being taken to the police station. “If the American wanted to go to the station, I would follow for a while, and then put on my lights and pretend I had an emergency. I didn’t want to get in trouble with my supervisors,” the former patrol officer said.

….After Julio Caesar Garcia, a 33-year-old police supervisor, gave driving directions to a saleswoman for the Trump development, he was given an award by Torres’ real estate association. “She was impressed that I didn’t ask for a bribe, but I was just doing my job,” said Garcia, who was a bit bewildered by the praise. “I never got an award for being shot at.”

The latest anti-corruption measures, say border experts, reflect Baja California’s growing commitment to professional law enforcement. Police salaries in Tijuana were recently doubled — to about $1,500 monthly — making the force the highest paid in Mexico, say officials who hope the increases also will make their officers the least likely to seek bribes. Serious problems remain, including a lack of professional training, minimum educational requirements and an entrenched culture of corruption that in some departments starts at the top.

There’s also the temptation of all the new money in the area. The former Rosarito Beach police officer said many cops viewed the building boom as a bribe-taking bonanza on par with the filming of “Titanic” in Baja in the mid-1990s, when he and other police regularly stopped studio workers and visiting Hollywood executives. “They were easy targets because of the language difference and because they were always in hurry,” the former patrol officer said. “Those were great days.”

Real estate professionals don’t see it that way. Their goal is to re-create the Southern California oceanfront experience in Mexico at a fraction of the price, without the problem of corrupt officers’ outstretched hands.

I found the whole thing worth a read to know what to expect on your next trip south, and get an update on the building boom. I wonder how the Baja condo and walled community boom will do over the next two years, assuming housing continues to dip up north…