Baja and the Broken Shell: A First Impression of RVing in Mexico
Baja and the Broken Shell: A First Impression of RVing in Mexico
The Holcombes go across the Mexican border in their Revel for the first time.
By: Kathy & Peter Holcombe
I awoke at dawn with my Winnebago Revel parked alongside the Sea of Cortez in Baja, Mexico. I watched the sun stretch its pastel pink tendrils across a rippling sea as the world came to life around me. Pelicans cruising along the surface would tuck and bomb into the water in search of their morning catch. An osprey stood watch from the top of a dead palm tree just up the beach.
I stepped out of the Revel barefooted and wandered down to the water. The water was inviting but cool enough that I didn’t venture in beyond my toes. I meandered along the boundary, where the sea meets the land. At first, I just walked, breathing in the salt air and taking in the landscape. Then a white trail leading off into the distance caught my attention. I left the water’s edge and headed up to the hard packed sand, where I found the most perfect big, pearly white shells I have ever seen … millions of them, lining the high tide mark for miles.
My first instinct was to scoop up all of the perfect shells, the biggest and most beautiful ones that were completely undamaged. But almost ALL of the shells I could see were large, unbroken, and beautiful. My pockets became heavy within the first few steps. After a minute or so, I lost interest in collecting these beautifully perfect shells, because each one was almost indistinguishable from the next.
I walked on, searching and scanning, along the trail of perfect shells, looking for anything unusual, anything remarkable. By the time I reached my halfway point of my walk, the sparkle of the perfect shells was gone. I emptied my pockets of all of my treasures. After miles of beautiful perfection, they just didn’t feel worth keeping.
As I wandered back to the Revel, it occurred to me how much of my life once mirrored that trail of shells. Living in a big, beige house amongst hundreds in suburban Colorado. How all the children rode the same scooter to the bus stop and wore clothes from the same big box store. How dinners with friends revolved around conversations about jobs we hated as we whiled away the hours toward the weekend and retirement.
But Peter and I never full-heartedly joined in on those conversations, because we were entrepreneurs and owned our own business. So, we couldn’t really complain about our jobs, because we held complete control of our professional life. If we didn’t like something we changed it. If we needed more income, we offered a new product line or put in more hours; and if we wanted more time off, we took it. After a decade or so of building a very successful photography business, we realized that what we really wanted was to travel full time and show our daughter more of this beautiful world … and so we did.
We sold our house, transitioned our business to a remote model, bought a Winnebago, and set out on the adventure of a lifetime. And now, as we begin our tenth year of living full time on the road, it feels like we have lived a hundred lifetimes of adventure.
Our First RV Journey Across the Mexican Border
In fact, just recently, we drove our Winnebago Revel into its 20th country … Mexico. We had planned and researched and talked to many people who had recently driven through Mexico. Each person told us how incredible it was and how much we would love it. But there were also many stories of crime and corruption (mostly from people who haven’t ever been to Mexico), and those weighed heavy on our minds.
Were we being reckless and irresponsible visiting our southern neighbor? If I’m being honest, we were pretty nervous about what awaited us south of the border.
Would they search our Revel? Would they confiscate the tidbits of fruits, veg, and meat that lingered in our fridge? Would they pilfer through our belongings and pocket the valuables? Would we be stopped by the police and extorted for money? What would it actually be like in this notorious neighboring country of ours?
Everyone advised us that the border was the most dangerous part of Mexico, and once you made it to San Felipe, that everything else would be smooth sailing.
I have to admit the border crossing was less than smooth, or should I say WE were less than smooth. There was a border agent armed with a rifle who approached our Winnebago and asked us to open the back doors of the van. It was intimidating and I waited anxiously inside the Revel as Peter opened up the back doors.
The soldier pointed to the bag of dog food and the container of Diesel Exhaust Fluid just inside the doors, and satisfied with Peter’s explanation, waved us on across the border. Easy peasy!
We had been so focused and worried about what would happen at the border, that we hadn’t considered what would happen after the border. We had already exchanged our dollars for pesos and entered our destination in San Felipe into the maps on our phones. But we really hadn’t thought through much of anything else.
As our phones switched from U.S. towers to Mexico, there was a slight hiccup in the continuity of our service. This disruption caused the Google Maps on our phones to go crazy, and each device was pointing us in a different direction. We were driving but had no clear direction as our phones argued back and forth with each other on which direction we should go. And the traffic signs were different enough that we really had to pay attention so that we didn’t blast through a four-way stop or traffic signal unintentionally.
We turned off of the main road, hoping to pause for a minute and regroup. But the road we chose dead ended into an alleyway, barely an inch wider than our van and riddled with calf-deep potholes. We tried to turn around, but realized we were on a one way street.
We had heard horror stories about foreigners in this exact situation getting shaken down by the police. We were trapped with no other option, so we turned into the narrow alley, desperately hoping that we would fit.
One side of the alley was lined with buildings, and the other side was a wall that was roughly the same height of my window. Sitting on that wall were street vendors peddling wares to those tourists crossing the border. I gazed at them, eye to eye, just feet away from each other. They wore ragged clothing and there was a desperation in their eyes. I was frightened and as the alley closed in tighter around us, the street vendors began yelling at us, shoving their wares up against my window.
We slowed to navigate a crater of a pothole in the “street” and a woman shoved a blanket in my face. It felt like everything everyone had ever warned us about in Mexico was closing in all around us. With hearts pumping adrenaline through our veins, we finally made it through the gauntlet of terror and returned to the main road. I eventually figured out where we were on the paper map, and we headed out of town.
As we drove further from the border, we regained our sensibilities and began to take in the beautiful scenery around us. Maybe this wasn’t so bad after all!
And then Peter gasped, “We forgot to get our tourist visas at the border!” Our adrenaline fired right back up again as we weighed our options for our next steps. You can visit Mexico for seven days without the tourist visa, but we were planning to be there for a month. We simply had to go back and get the stamp. But this time, we were going to go in prepared.
We meticulously mapped out our route back to the border, carefully avoiding the alley of terror, and even scouted out a place to park via satellite imagery. And when we returned to Tecate, Mexico, we realized that it wasn’t nearly as dangerous and daunting as it had originally seemed.
In fact, it is a really beautiful city, full of smiling families going about their daily life. We drove straight to our pre-planned parking place, and walked up to the government building. They welcomed us through, and a very kind man (who spoke impeccable English) helped us with our visas and promptly sent us on our way.
And, as luck would have it, our van was parked right in front of a Taco Shop, so we stopped in for a quick bite before, once again, heading south. This time, much more relaxed and ready for whatever awaited us over the horizon.
Reflecting on the Risks & Rewards of Our Travels
A day later, standing safely on a beautiful beach a few hours south of the border without another soul in sight, I couldn’t help but laugh at our first few hours in this wonderful country. We completely over-reacted, and let our misinformed assumptions and fears overtake our common sense.
When I looked up from the trail of perfect shells, I realized that I was almost back to the Revel. I turned away from the trail of perfection and went up toward the dunes to our camp when I stepped on something hard in the sand.
It was a weathered spiral shell - battered by the waves. A good portion of the shell had been eroded away, and yet, it was incredibly striking nonetheless. I picked it up and examined it from every angle. I decided that I love this shell and all of its weathered parts, so I slipped it into my pocket.
It reminded me of a quote from Hunter S. Thompson, “Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well-preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming, 'Wow, what a ride!’”
I want to be that shell: one with character, a bit ragged and worn, but resilient. I think that our life on the road has carved and sculpted us, and I am incredibly grateful for the risks that we have taken and the experiences we have gained through our travels. We certainly have some nicks and scrapes, and certainly more gray hair. But wow, what a ride it has been!
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