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~ Chapter Two ~
San Diego to Ensenada
As I approached the guest dock the next morning to boat across the border it was very obvious to me that something was drastically wrong. The Vaka Viti was gone! My heart stopped as I noticed a large U.S. Customs boat in the slip where my panga was parked the night before. A quick scan of the docks and I soon discovered my boat, snuggled onto an end slip 25 feet away. Although I was careful the night before not to park in any marked spaces, I must have tied up the ol' Vaka V. in a slip designated for the Customs folks. Oops.
Motored up and leaving the harbor I noticed two very large Navy ships heading my way, returning from their war games. I thought this would be a good photo opp...my little boat with Elvira (the wigged-out pumpkin) in the foreground with a couple of huge Navy Destroyers at twelve o'clock. The men on board the ships didn't think my getting close to their ship was such a good idea. Maybe a small boat loaded with gasoline cans heading towards them didn't quite look right. As soon as I got within 200 yards of the first ship I looked up on deck and saw the large men in green uniforms pointing their machine guns directly at me! Although this was not the only time on the trip that I would be face to face with Tommy Guns, it was something you never quite get used to. I immediately gave both ships a wide berth and made my southerly direction clear to the men with the machine guns. The aim of their guns followed me until I was headed due south.
I tingled with excitement as I approached the U.S. / Mexican border. A determined metal fence straddled the border down to the ocean where it continued wading well past the low tide line. Border Patrol agents in green and white trucks on the north side of the fence carefully watched me with their binoculars as I pulled up to the fence for a photo op. They made it obvious that I was being watched, and that they were armed. I snapped a couple of shots of the border fence with the U.S. on one side and Mexico on the other and then backed away from the beach and headed south. It seemed amazing to me that within less than 2 hours I had personal experiences with the U.S. Customs, the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Border Patrol. Not to mention my romp with the U.S. Marines the day before! I couldn't wait to get to Mexico where it was safe!
The growth of Tijuana starts immediately south of the border fence, in stark contrast to the empty land just north of the border in the United States. Houses, apartments, condos and businesses clog the dusty hills all the way down to the coastline to make "T.J." the Baja Peninsula's most populated city. The city's population has grown significantly since the eighteenth century when Spanish Padres stopped here to eat and sleep at the border in a small inn run by a woman known as "Aunt Jane" (Tia Juana). Now a city of well over a million people, Tijuana serves as a beacon of hope for people in search of a better life from Chiapas to Panama, and everywhere in between. For some of these people Tijuana is the end destination. For others it is a starting place to obtain connections and prepare for the illegal crossing into the United States. Illegal immigrants, tourists, workers and international trade all combine to make this U.S. / Mexico border crossing the busiest on the planet. Tijuana, known for the creation of the original Caesar's Salad, the notorious Long Bar beer hall, Caliente dog races and infamous donkey shows continues t this day to grow in it's own unique way.
To my west, just a few miles offshore, were the Coronado Islands. Just barely in Mexican waters, these islands were once a hiding place for pirates and worse. A hotel and casino had been built on South Coronado Island in the early 1900's, but Mexico made gaming illegal just before it was completed. Since then the Coronados have been the destination of gringo fishermen and Scuba divers who want to experience tight lines and clear waters in the nutrient-filled waters just off shore. For me they were helpful in blocking the direct westerly ocean swells, making my passage between the islands and the shore calm and enjoyable.
Along the coast I spotted several of Baja's famous landmarks sitting on the coast. The Rosarito Beach Hotel was easy to spot with its white walls and red Spanish roof tiles. She has hosted millions of guests since it's opening in 1926 and is still going strong today. I had enjoyed many fun weekends at this hotel over the years and found it quite interesting to see it from this westerly perspective. The Spanish words in the arch over the front door provide a hint of the type of clientele that has flocked to this Baja landmark over the decades. "Through These Doors Pass the Most Beautiful Women in the World". The movie stars that frequented the hotel in it's early years have been replaced by yuppies and tourists of all types today, but the crowd is always lively and interesting. The hotel is currently run by Hugo Torres Chabert who is the nephew of the hotel's original owner Manuel Barbachano. Barbachano was a true Baja pioneer and was instrumental in the original growth of this coastal area, including getting electricity and telephone service to the Rosarito Beach area.
Soon after passing the Rosarito Beach Hotel I motored past Fox Studios Baja where James Cameron's 'Titanic' was filmed. I flashed back to the day a few years back when I was driving down the Baja coastal road and was shocked at the sight of an almost full-scale 'Titanic' sitting in the 17 million gallon water tank between the highway and the ocean. It was quite a sight! Senior Cameron surprised everyone by putting over 200 million clams into the film, the most money ever spent on a movie. Then he proceeded to break another record by having the film gross over one billion dollars worldwide. You do the math...the movie was a smashing success. The studio is still in use today and tours of the facilities are now available to the public. From the water I could see the various studios and the back lot, now tourist attractions in their own right.
Just south of Fox Studios Baja I hit Calafia, the bluff top location of one of my favorite places to eat nachos, enjoy Mariachi music and drink in the spectacular views of the Baja coast. The restaurant and hotel rise dramatically above the ocean with it's collection of seaside decks and dining areas. At the bottom of the restaurant sits the model pirate ship 'Corona Aurora Galleon' standing guard in the rocks at Punta Descanso. If you are looking for a place to dance on a Saturday night with waves crashing just a few feet away this place can't be beat. I also hold a special place in my heart for Calafia as the final place to have lunch after the completion of my annual toy drive. For 12 years running we get have gotten 5 vehicles stuffed full of new and used toys, loaded up the kids, and headed into the hills of Tijuana a day or two before Christmas to spread some cheer. It's been a great way for our kids to experience a different culture, and the local kids always appreciate all of the goodies we deliver. I pulled up close to the Calafia coast while watching the rolling waves slap the side of boat, slipped the Vaka V. into neutral and snapped a photo of the seaside restaurant and hillside terraces. Then I motored around the kelp and continued south.
The quaint coastal village of Puerto Nuevo was just a few miles further south. Once a weekend escape for hungry surfers who stopped at Juan and Petra Ortega's home for a bite to eat, Puerto Nuevo now hosts over 30 restaurants in a small four block village. Just like the old days the specialty of the house is lobster, served up on a big plate with rice, beans, tortillas and salsa. Throw in a cold beer and it's easy to see why this secret hideaway has become one of northern Baja's most visited destinations.
Continuing downhill I noticed a couple of surfers sitting in the water at local surf spot called K-55. I motored in, slowed down and said 'hello'. They seemed surprised that I had pulled up to them and asked me where I was going. I said "San Felipe". They laughed and paddled for the next wave, obviously thinking I was kidding.
Before long I was entering Ensenada harbor and docking up at Juanito's in the marina near the Fish Market. After cris-crossing the town doing the necessary Port Captain/Immigration/Customs/Marina dance, it started to get dark. Not that it had to be dark to order a margarita at world famous Hussong's Cantina, they just tasted better after dark.
Immigrant Juan Hussong opened this famous watering hole in the late 1800's and little has changed here over the last 100 years. Hussong's is run today by Richard Hussong Junior, the grandson of founder Juan. I had the good fortune to meet Walter and Charlotte Hussong at an event in San Clemente, and they were happy to share with me some of the history of the family and the bar. The fact that the bar has become hugely famous worldwide is either a testament to the Hussong's family or of the gringos and locals who just can't say no to some of the best margaritas on Earth.
As is usually the case it didn't take long to make new friends in Hussong's Cantina. Before long everybody was buying everybody else margaritas and beer, the mariachis were playing to the crowd, and my resolve not to drink dissolved into a cloud of new friends and laughter. Photos were taken, drinks were hoisted and cards were exchanged. The fun was non-stop! All too soon I had to leave the party to get some well needed sleep. Tomorrow morning I was headed to the coastal city of San Quintin where I had a planned gasoline, dinner and motel stop. As it turned out none of the above were there to greet me when I arrived!
Walking out of the front door of Hussong's Cantina and into the chilly evening air of Ensenada reminded me of a another adventure over 15 years ago where Hussong's played an pivotal part in a formula for disaster. My friend Mike and I had played hooky from work and snuck down to Baja for a fun day of snorkeling and taco sampling. Against the advice of my wife Mike and I drove down in my spanking new 735 BMW, justifying that it needed to be initiated in the Baja. We had a great day along the coast and decided to round out our adventure at Hussong's before heading back to the border. After having more fun than we should have had in the famous Cantina (and being over-served by the friendly waiters) we finally walked out of the notorious green doors at about midnight. We were parked across the street from Hussong's and made the mistake of making a U-turn right in the middle of the street. Within seconds we were pulled over and negotiating with the Mexican police. The officer's words were almost as numbing as the tequila..."you are going to jail". It was hard to convince him that these two yuppies driving a shiny new car only had $18 between them, but it was true. Soon we were on our way up the coast, totally broke but happy to be headed home.
As we headed north along the toll road I miscalculated a sweeping right turn in the highway just north of Baja Mar and slammed the left side of the car into the guard rail. I hate it when that happens. The hard impact flattened the two left tires and made a significant change in the sheet metal on the port side of the vehicle. Shaken but not stirred, and not wanting to leave the car parked in the middle of nowhere, we continued driving north hoping to make it to the next off ramp at La Salina, several miles up the coast. Eventually the two left side flat tires worked their way off of the rims and now we were trucking down the highway at 15 miles per hour with the rims in direct contact with the road surface. "Think we should stop?" I asked Mike. "Naw, we can make it" he responded. Never was there a better example of the blind leading the blind. Sparks began to fly as the rims heated up but we still moved forward optimistic that we could make it to La Salina. We were within 100 feet of the off ramp when the sparks from the front left wheel ignited something in the engine compartment. Flames were starting to lick up through the hood and I knew we had to stop and get out...quick.
I pulled the car off to the side of the road and jumped out, hoping to throw some sand on the fire and put it out before things got out of control (thinking back, I guess I had reached that point about a half hour earlier). Mike also got out of the car, on the passenger side, not knowing we had stopped the car right on the La Salina overpass. He stepped out of the car and fell into 20 feet of dead air before smashing into the road down below. I freaked out when I saw him go over the edge of the overpass and immediately ran down the embankment to find him. Expecting the worst, I was relieved to see he was still alive, although the pool of blood he was laying in was a bit disconcerting. As I sat with him I started to hear the succession of noises my car was making as it started to burn up above us. There were more noises that one might expect. In addition to the crackling of the flames, the airbags inflated and popped, the glass in the windows exploded, and the horn went off. This orchestra was accompanied by the car alarm going off, the two right tires popping from the extreme heat and the gas tank exploding like a bomb. It was really quite a show.
By the time I had gotten back up to the road after checking on Mike the car was fully engulfed in bright flames, shooting up over 40 feet into the late night sky. Half-dressed residents and ranchers started appearing and asking if they could help, and one of them called an ambulance for Mike. After a brief discussion with the police I jumped in the ambulance with Mike and headed south back to the hospital in Ensenada. I could see the car was still burning strong as I looked out of the back windows of the ambulance.
The short version of the rest of this story is that we ended up at home late the next day, Mike with a busted wrist and me with a piece of melted metal as a souvenir of my brand new car. The long version involves more meetings with the police, sneaking a rental car from San Diego back to Ensenada (and getting caught), and a couple of tough phone calls to my wife and my insurance agent. All's well that end's well, but the excitement along the way is something I will never forget. Compared to that unforgettable experience this boat trip should be a piece of cake. Famous last words.