Photos & Story by Ali Straightsound
The beat escalates and I can hear Nina Simone belt out “POWERRRRR” as the song Sinnerman blasts from my Kenwood system… I push the speedometer to and past 65mph watching the rooster tail of silt and rocks fly out from behind me as Kate crashes through the Baja trails like a juggernaut brushing aside all that lies in her path. In a combination of relaxed tension I can feel every turn or shift in weight acutely knowing one wrong move, one slight misstep would send me and my year long relationship with her over the edge of the road and into a bordering tree or rut. It’s not for an abundance of stupidity I fly, but to chase after that passion for racing and truly pushing the limits of my over encumbered rig. To simplify it, because it’s fucking fun and I can. Eventually I let off as I catch up to the caravan having fallen behind to capture some key photos to show the scope of the landscape and the massive group of 15 rigs ahead of me on the horizon. The back is where I love to be, for one I can take my time to capture some moments without holding up the rest of the group and on the other hand I get to really haul ass without the blackout conditions trailing too closely brings on those silty backroads of Mexico.
I reflect on the days leading up to my departure for this trip. Thieves, liars, killers, crooks. These are words assigned to those who live south of the border by many when you state the following, “I’m going to Mexico”.
When I booked my trip through Camp4Lo (a well reputed group who take people on offroad trips through Mexico) it was on the back of a friend of mine (and Rigged For Dirt podcast co-host), Frank, having just gone and having had an amazing time. So when the next trip came around I was all in. Only my excitement would soon fade as I shared the news of my upcoming trip to those around me. “Oh bro, you gotta take extra money, they’ll roll you for nothing and force you to pay”, or “be careful man, shit is hella shady out there, especially with your rig”, and my favorite,”always check what you’re being charged because they’ll rip you off first chance they get”.
At one point I remember calling Frank and asking what the hell we were doing even going out there as it didn’t sound like the most inviting of places. My experience prior having been some quick weekend jaunts to Rosarito and Ensenada, and then just quick in and out trips.
We met up in San Ysidro to join the Camp4Lo caravan, the organization we booked through, Frank and I being amongst the first few to arrive. We quickly went to exchange dollars for pesos and gassed up our rigs. After an hour or so we got on our way. Entry was fairly quick, and as expected I got pulled aside for a little more thorough inspection by the Mexican custom agents. I feel they just wanted a closer look as the agent’s face hardly masked his enthusiasm and interest and after a cursory glance inside gave me the nod to continue on.
The journey had us hugging the coast on the Mex-1 which is the equivalent to our PCH-1 highway in the states.
Tijuana, the first city you drive through at the border, puts a strong spotlight on the poverty level in which many live on the border towns. As you pull away further from TJ you enter into Rosarito and Ensenada, both with strong tourist economies and fishing communities. Based off of the socio-economics alone you start to feel more at ease realizing fucking with the tourists is likely bad for business and you can see how extorting and robbing them would hurt these communities more than help them. It also didn’t hurt that we were rolling 16 deep including Kate the Jeep.
A ways through Ensenada we stopped for some amazing tacos at RICA BIRRIA which is a taco chain owned by EL TRAILERO. The first thing that stands out is all of the fresh ingredients at each station. And the way it was set up is that if you wanted fish you’d go to the seafood guy, Al Pastor would be the Pastor guy and so on. You’d get your tacos and sit down and eat them only to pay for them after you were done and ready to head out. Not what you’d expect from the negative picture that many would paint of this culture.
Getting our fill we head out again, this time we shortly veer off onto a dirt road where we would air down and proceed to take a substantial amount of miles into and through the coastal hills of Baja. This is where I get to spend some one on one time with Kate as we flex and stretch through the poorly maintained roads.
Finally after stopping for a few vistas and avoiding the occasional bull or cow we make our way back onto the highway, find a gas station and finish the rest of the journey to Cuatro Casas which would be our campsite for the duration of the weekend.
Cuatro though not entirely unique as establishments go, there are other hostels and B&Bs around the area, but the unique aspect was that it was like a slice of Orange County (no pun intended) in the middle of Baja as the first thing you hear was Sublime followed up by No Doubt and other hits from my late 90’s high school years in the OC. I got in a little behind the group as one member of the party had gotten lost and I went to find them and bring them back and Frank was nice enough to save me a spot. Driving in you first notice the large 2 bedroom building and the 30 foot cliff it sits atop of. There’s a cool hut overlooking the bluff constructed out of straw and surfboards and the hostel itself has a swimming pool that hasn’t seen water in years and is dubbed the “Showbowl” which is used for skating and for which they have many boards on hand to rent out. Besides the pool, in the front lot lies the skeleton of a massive gray whale, the skull, ribcage and vertebrae laid out in proper anatomical order. Cuatro also touts Gray Whale watching between the months of December and January as these large beasts migrate south and then north in February and March.
On the hostel’s second level they have a kitchen where 2 Mexican ladies prepare the meals for the weekend making fresh tortillas (which I thought were one of the best parts about the meals) and a combination of popular Mexican dishes. Friendly and kind they are willing to accommodate most requests and want you to be stoked.
A few hours into our stay I heard the roar of dirt bikes come into the hostel and a group of about 6 20 something year old kids get off high fiving each other and exchanging stories of the trail. The same kids would don wetsuits shortly after and take advantage of the late afternoon south swell on a point break that Cuatro offers as an attraction just in front of the hostel. For $5 a night to park in their lot and additional for amenities including the before mentioned food all needs are met for the Overlander who may or may not need much of what Cuatro offers beyond the epic view.
After getting set up I make my way to the “pool” deck area where the Camp4Lo staff quickly makes sure my hand is never without a beer and we start talking about our journey up and eventually make our way to the hut where a camp fire is started from dried mini yucca plants. Shortly thereafter fireworks are brought out by one of the organizers, Matt, and a crash course in both the fun and terror of Mexican fireworks unfold. You seriously just don’t know what you’re going to get. Luckily everyone would leave this trip with all fingers attached albeit some very minor burns from the occasional mis-fire or errant bottle rocket.
Finally turning in for the night I’m woken once by the arrival of a group that had been expected earlier, a group of bowl skating chicks from Arizona known as the “Skate ChickAZ” who we’d watch the following day once we were back from a little trail adventure.
Waking up early I quickly repack the rig and get her ready for the bumps to come. I’m asked to be mid-gunner with Frank as we had our comms pretty dialed in and were amongst the more experienced of the group and we embarked on a very long journey to a secret cove that Matt and his partner Andy had found. The views were epic and a few structures lent a bit to the imagination as to what the purpose could have been for some long past fishing village that must have frequented the area.
After that we made our way to a local beach where we drove for what felt like a mile on the sand to end up at a massive cave and cliff wall where we had an obligatory photo op and then went off to play in the dunes that greet you on the way in.
In proper fashion I immediately get myself stuck on the left side slope of a dune digging myself in to almost catastrophe. Luckily I had enough sense to quit and anchor up to my buddy Jim’s Jeep who winched my front end allowing me to dig out with the help of Andy and roll back down the dune with no incident. The rest of the time was spent taking photos and watching the large group of Tacomas who had come with us do their best to wreck their rigs with jumps and drag races.
After the gnarly roads, getting stuck and a lot of bumps I decide to check my undercarriage and realize that a lower bolt had backed out and fallen off on my front right caliper. On the way back in I knew there was a little repair shop and stopping in I was helped by Raul who went out of his way to find the right bolt to get me back on the road. He refused money and instead traded for a 40 of Pacifico I had just purchased, more than fair trade. Again, save for a couple other rigs that had some minor but repairable issues, everyone returned to Cuatro for another afternoon of food, drinks, fireworks and lies told beside the fire.
And in proper Rigged For Dirt fashion, Frank and I even manage to knock out another podcast episode making for 14 total thus far.
The following morning, those of us who weren’t staying an extra day quickly got ready, got fed and boned out. We had quite a few hours to the border and the border itself was a shitshow. We first stopped in Ensenada, got coffee, breakfast and some souvenirs. Reaching the border the fun would start in the form of a 4 and a half hour wait in .25 mph traffic. Luckily I adopted the engine start and stop method extending my limited gas well beyond those of Frank and Todd’s (a new friend in his forerunner who joined us on the way back) rigs. I’m once again faced with the poverty and struggle of families making ends meet by an intense economy of selling to those on their way back across. From (amazingly delicious) churros, drinks, food items, trinkets, art, furniture and even (much to our dismay) puppies it was like a drive-through swap meet. There would be a few standouts who would stay with me, even until now. The silly natured boy who would stand on friends’ backs and juggle to the little boy not much older than my oldest son Jaxon who would hang with me even though he knew I had run out of money to spend. I’d like to think he felt the paternal nature in me and sought out the kindness, who knows but it was one of those western moments where the guilt of your own situation outweighs reason and you want to bring the child back with you to dress him in clean clothes and give him a chance at a proper education that extends from the evident smarts he’d already received on the streets. His sun splotched face and deep dark eyes not unlike my own sons will haunt me for some time to come.
But finally we got through and aside from a little extra questioning by the border agent and a quick stop in San Ysidro to get gas and say goodbye to Frank, his wife Shannon and Todd I made my way home.
My perception of Baja Mexico has definitely changed albeit my experience within TJ definitely has me questioning a lot of policies and systems within our different cultures. The narrative may be true in some unique situations where people have been robbed or mugged, you can see it happening in the wrong part of town as with anywhere stateside or overseas. My key takeaway was to keep your nose clean and just go to where you’re going, the police were friendly enough and I never felt like we were being harassed by neither them nor the locals. I’ll likely go back, but might want to pick a different border to cross back from, 4.5 hours to travel 1 mile isn’t worth any trip.