Beginning: Driving Down, Arrival in Ensenada
After many days of a packing process which took over the living room floor of our Seattle home, we were off on our winter road trip into Mexico. Camping in the snow near Bend, Oregon, we more than ready to finally get to Mexico.
Crossing over the Mexican border is a surprising experience. We were so
familiar with having to wait in hour-long traffic lines at our nearby Canadian
border, as everyone waits their turn to talk to the customs agents. But the
Mexican border uses a traffic light system. Some random function determines
whether you get a red or a green light. If you get the green (and most people
do), there's no passport check, no visa inspection, no human beings keeping you
from passing through. So, driving off the end of US Interstate 5, we cruised on
in, and, wham! we were suddenly we were in Mexico!
Unfortunately for us, we weren't prepared for the flurry of signs in Spanish, choices, and cars going every which way. Somehow we were dropped into the little streets of downtown Tijuana. Oops!
Pulling out guidebooks and maps, and checking our GPS, Laura the navigator scurried to figure out where we were and how in the hell we were going to get back onto the main road, Mexico Highway 1. Highway 1 is squeezed in at the north edge of Tijuana, running along the US border, heading west to the shore. There aren't regular entrances and exits: there's a wall between the lanes of speeding traffic, and you get on and off where you can. We always found ourselves heading in the direction opposite of where we wanted, and had no way of knowing how to go the other way. So we were driving around the bumpy dusty streets of Tijuana, avoiding pedestrians and stray dogs, trying to find street signs, and thankful we weren't driving at night. With the GPS we knew exactly where we were, but we couldn't figure out where we needed to go. After a few dead-ends and quick turn-arounds at the highway itself (with cars coming, of course, towards us) we finally managed to figure ourselves out and headed on our merry way towards Ensenada. In the future, we would recommend following these instructions.
After a gorgeous drive along the shore, and stop to touch the waves, we pulled into Ensenada. We had already decided that we were going to stay there for the night. We would have a relaxing day in Ensenada, deal with our tourist permits, and then catch up on our sleep. Geoff found the motel he had stayed in on his last trip, which had a secured parking lot. For a cheap US$27 a night on the main strip, we were happy to have a home, a safe place to leave our van, and it was time for cervezas and campechana!
For months, Geoff had been dreaming of campechana, a mixed seafood cocktail, pickled in lime juice and combined with tomato salsa and avocado. There's a fisherman's terminal in Ensenada, with a collection of little restaurants that serve fish tacos, seafood cocktails and beer. After walking the circuit three times, having all the restaurant owners call out to us, trying to convince us to eat at their place, we finally chose one of them and gorged ourselves on seafood and beer. Yum. And the fact that it was sunny and 75 degrees didn't hurt either!
The next task on our list was to get our tourist permits. If you're traveling in Baja California Mexico any further south than Ensenada, you need tourist permits. These are good for 180 days, and are obtained from the Immigration Office. We took a look at the map in our guidebook, knew generally where we needed to go, and took off. The road that we thought we should head down was blocked by a fence and there were some military-looking people hanging around, so we assumed the road we wanted must be one that paralleled it. But we soon found ourselves wandering up a highway and quickly decided we were in the wrong place. We looked again at our map, and checked in at the local tourist information desk. We were informed that, yes, we were correct the first time: the blocked road was the one we wanted.
This road had sections of waist-high barriers blocking all traffic, with people standing around on both sides. It looked somewhat like a military crossing. After searching for a way to get past all this, or to make sure this was really the way to go, we found an opening to one side. There was a man ahead of us with a video camera and a microphone who showed his ID to get through. We followed his lead, showed our passports and said we were going to the Immigration Office. Surprisingly, they let us through. Heading down the street, we found that the there was a huge crowd in front of the Immigration Office, with lots of reporters and cameras, another temporary security crossing, and stern guys standing next to Chevy Suburbans.
Had 9/11 craziness changed Mexico too? We were instructed to take out all of our change and metal objects, and pass through an airport-style metal detector into the parking lot of the Immigration Office building. We tried to ask the security guards what was going on but they were only interested in moving us through. We tried to get into to the building, but we found the place to be packed with reporters, cameras, video cameras and many other miscellaneous excited people. We couldn't squeeze in. Heading back to the courtyard, we decided to wait around and see what was up. The media in the parking lot were chatting on their phones, talking into cameras, reading pamphlets and nervously moving around. The two of us in our grubby tourist clothes were the only gringos in the "media area" in which we found ourselves. Everyone was so giddy. It became obvious that there was someone important inside the building. But who could it be? How long would we have to wait? And, most importantly, how were we supposed to get our tourist permits?
We didn't have to wait long. Within minutes, reporters came pouring out of the side entrance and flooded to the fences. As a group of men came out the front door, cameras started flashing. So which one of them was this important person? The guy in beige shirt, it seemed. Alright, so who is he? Laura guessed it could be the President of Mexico, but wouldn't the security be heavier? I mean, why were we in with the media only feet from this special person? The man was confident and handsome as he came up through the crowd. He smiled and answered a few questions before hopping into one of the large vehicles. A woman who managed to shake his hand was almost swooning. Everyone was so excited. Who was that man?
And then suddenly it was all over. The gawkers left, the media dispersed, and the fences were torn down. So we went inside the Immigration Office to get our tourist permits. There we (shamefully) had to ask. And, yes, it really was President Vincente Fox of Mexico! He was there for the opening ceremony of the new Immigration Office in Ensenada. The place was very modern and efficient. And, we may even have been its very first customers.
Getting a tourist permit in Ensenada is now much easier than before. You fill out your paperwork at the permit window and then, across the hall, you pay for your permit at the Banjercito window. Finally, turning back around to the permit window with your receipt, you get it stamped to make it official. And you're done! In the past, tourists had to travel all the way into downtown Ensenada to find a bank to pay the lousy US$20 for this permit, and then head back out to the Immigration Office to complete the process.
Permits in hand, we decided to go out for dinner. We wandered the streets looking for a place to eat. Amazingly, Ensenada was pretty dead. Very few people were around. (It was a Monday night in early February). We found a restaurant recommended in the Moon Handbooks Baja, Mariscos Bahía Ensenada. Wow, great food! The ceviche was wonderful, Laura's filet of fish with Veracruz sauce was yummy, and Geoff loved his mixed seafood with ranchero sauce. Mmmm. After a long day, and being well fed, we passed out early in our bed.