Road trip: A surfer and his dog in Baja California, Part 1

Looking south from Coyote Cal's provides this beautiful view of the sun setting on Eréndira. Photo: Courtesy of Cyrus Saatsaz
The sun setting on Eréndira. Photo: Cyrus Saatsaz

When all’s said and done, I’ve probably spent over a year of my life exploring Mexico. I absolutely love the country. And Mexico’s crown jewel is its nearly 1,000 mile-long western peninsula known as Baja California and Baja California Sur.

It’s a region that’s relatively safe from banditos and drug cartels, especially when compared to the mainland.  While driving at night remains highly unadvisable due mostly to unrestrained herds of roaming cattle, and various bad seeds that tend to wander the Mexican roads when the sun sets, Baja remains relatively free of cartels and the drug trade that has brought rampant corruption and violence to the mainland region of Mexico.

The last time I had visited Mexico was for a road trip from San Francisco to Los Cabos, located on the southern tip of Baja California Sur. Once you cross the border, it’s a three day journey of over a 1,000 miles each way, in a world that is quite possibly the last vestige of the Wild West. It was certainly an adventure filled with many wild happenings. That road trip took up a rather large portion of my book Dogwild & Board: Stories, Interviews and Musings from a Surf Journalist and is featured in my personal travel blog.

I was excited to return to Baja. It’s one of the appealing factors of living in the San Diego area, being so close to the adventure, excitement, affordability, debauchery and waves of Mexico. I didn't have the time to drive all the way to the southern tip though.  I wanted to go somewhere reasonably close, with some good surf and a cheap place to stay.

And unlike my previous adventure, this time I had my best friend Indiana (Indy for short) with me, a half-English Bulldog, half-Boxer bundle of fun and joy.

The drive from Tijuana to Ensenada is amazingly beautiful, with nearly the entire drive set right alongside the Pacific Ocean on a freeway that’s in great condition, thanks in large part to the tolls that are affordable and highly recommendable.  When you go beyond Ensenada, that’s when the last remnants of the Wild West truly begin. Out here, and for the next 800 miles or so, with the exception of various small towns, it’s desolate and barren.

Anyone who surfs knows the legends lore regarding the surf in Baja. And after searching various websites and surf travel books covering the region, I found a place that seemed natural to venture to: A small Mexican beach town named Eréndira.

Eréndira

My research revealed a plethora of great surf spots near Eréndira, and the town had a hostel and campsite called Coyote Cal’s that (from their website) seemed fun. While most of the rooms there are designed for large groups of people, they had single rooms available for those wanting privacy. Individual rooms for very affordable prices was a huge appeal to me.

Having plenty of experience from my previous Baja California road trip, I made all the necessary preparations. Mexican auto insurance (which quite possibly saved me a lot of money and a trip to a Mexican jail); a temporary change to my cellular plan so I had international coverage; paperwork showing proof of rabies vaccination within the past 12 months for Indy; my passport; a vehicle clean of any illegal substances and materials; and directions.

I was set to return to Mexico.

Driving into Mexico. Photo: Courtesy of Cyrus Saatsaz
Driving into Mexico. Photo: Cyrus Saatsaz

Driving through Tijuana is very easy, as the road leads directly from the border to the coast. Along the way there’s a view of the Tijuana Slough National Wildlife Refuge and beyond that the San Diego city skyline, before the road veers south towards Rosarito. From there, it’s approximately two hours of blissful driving with an incredible coastal view before reaching Ensenada.

Driving through Ensenada takes close to an hour. It’s endless sprawl that starts with the downtown area and turns into miles and miles of businesses, shacks and horrible air pollution thanks in large part to a lack of vehicle emission regulation that's custom with most developing nations.

It's really crazy to breathe the air in Ensenada. It makes Los Angeles seem like an eco-friendly paradise.

I eventually passed through Ensenada and hit the open road again.  The directions provided by Coyote Cal's website claimed that the turn to Eréndira was at the 78 KM sign, with a newly paved road for easy driving. For whatever reason, I missed the turnoff, even though there were obvious signs everywhere. I must have been daydreaming while driving through the desert. Baja California, with the exception of its large cities, is exceptionally beautiful country.

You truly begin to enter the wild west when you pass Ensenada. Photo: Courtesy of Cyrus Saatsaz
You truly begin to enter the wild west when you pass Ensenada. Photo: Cyrus Saatsaz

I drove 30 miles past the Eréndira exit and approached the town of San Vicente. It’s here where I filled up my Toyota 4Runner (an exceptional vehicle that with 4WD could take you pretty much anywhere) with Pemex gasoline, which is considerably cheaper than gas in the United States thanks in large part to the country nationalizing its oil reserves.

I turned around and found the turn off for Eréndira. I don’t know how I missed it to begin with given the huge signs announcing where the road is.  From the exit, it’s another 16 miles before reaching the small and quiet coastal town.

In the directions I printed out from Coyote Cal’s website, there were two warnings listed: To drive very slowly over the topes, or speed bumps, which are incredibly large and could potentially cause significant damage to a vehicle if driven over quickly. There are nine of them total in the town. The second warning was to make sure to come to a complete stop at the town’s two stop signs, particularly the one in front of the police station.

The stop signs in Mexico are different than the ones in the United States in that they’re considerably lower, usually around five feet tall, and very easy to miss. The white lines on the road that accompany stop signs in Mexico are almost always faded, and it didn’t help that the sun was directly in my face as I entered the town late in the afternoon.

So what did I do? I ran a stop sign directly in front of Eréndira’s police station.

Within seconds, the roaring siren and flashing lights of a local federale vehicle was behind me. I didn’t know why I was being pulled over initially and was startled. And anyone who knows anything about Mexico knows the Golden Rule: Avoid Mexican prisons at all costs.

They asked me to turn around and drive to the police station. There, they proceeded to do a search of my car while Indy and I waited. They asked me questions such as why I was there, what my profession was and whether I was smuggling drugs. I emphatically told them I would never disrespect their country by bringing drugs in and risk getting into that kind of trouble.

During the search one of the officers, the one who asked most of the questions, found a packet of rolling papers in my glove compartment. Not the orange packet mind you; the white one. I don’t know how many years this thing had been stuck between all the paperwork I had saved in my glove compartment, yet there it was.

While I was dumbfounded and tried explaining the papers were purchased a very long time ago, it immediately drove the officer’s ambition of finding something in my car into another gear.

They eventually tried to get me to pay $100 U.S., which I objected to as being too much money, and eventually they asked for $30 U.S. which all things considered I didn't think was such a bad deal to avoid going to a Mexican prison. I would later discover the penalty for running a stop sign in Mexico is 300 pesos, which converts close to $30 U.S. They gave me a receipt for the transaction, and I was on my way.

Eréndira's police station. Photo: Courtesy of Cyrus Saatsaz
Eréndira’s police station. Photo: Cyrus Saatsaz

I drove through the town of Eréndira. It’s quaint and has various markets and small restaurants, in addition to a school. Everything looked abandoned, as most small towns in Mexico seem to look.

The paved road came to an end, at which point I drove a couple of miles on a dirt road along a cliff edge adjacent to the Pacific Ocean.

The dirt road that leads to Coyote Cal's. Photo: Courtesy of Cyrus Saatsaz
The dirt road that leads to Coyote Cal’s. Photo: Cyrus Saatsaz

After approximately two miles of driving on a rough dirt road, there in the distance was Coyote Cal’s.

Inside, a woman was playing video games. She was sitting in a spacious room, with various couches and chairs lined in front of an old TV. The far end of the room had a large kitchen. There were huge windows that faced the ocean, presenting an incredible view. I took this as the lobby and community area of Coyote Cal’s.

The woman’s name was Lulu and she was strict about letting Indy inside the lobby area. I’ve never understood those kind of rules banning pets. Kids make much bigger messes and cause way more damage than a dog ever would, and especially a well-trained dog like Indy. I abided though.

Lulu gave me a form that required basic information such as name, address and contact information. She told me the one room at Coyote Cal’s that allows dogs wasn’t cleaned yet, so I had to wait an hour before my room was ready.

Indy wasn't in the mood for a hike and opted instead to relax on Coyote Cal's premises. Photo: Courtesy of Cyrus Saatsaz
Indy wasn’t in the mood for a hike and opted instead to relax on Coyote Cal’s premises. Photo: Courtesy of Cyrus Saatsaz

Most of the rooms at Coyote Cal’s, which advertises itself as a hostel and campground, are for more than one person. Fortunately they also have single rooms and while it’s as basic as it gets, it had been a long drive and was nice to lie down and relax for a bit.

Coyote Cal’s is also the home of the only bar in Eréndira. After settling in, Indy and I went to the bar, which was located outside my room in a courtyard.

Lulu was bartending. I sat down and asked for some local añejo tequila. It was delicious. I ordered a beer and it was around this time when a middle-aged man and three younger gentlemen came out of the lobby to the courtyard where the bar was.

They were a family, a father and his three sons. Great company. The father was an expat who moved to Tecate when he was a kid. He had a hearing impediment which I believe was part of the reason, or the main reason, why he started a school for the deaf in the area many years ago that he continued to run with his three sons. We chatted and drank for hours and they all loved Indy.

The lighting isn't great but you could make out Lulu the bartender, the family, and Indy. Photo: Courtesy of Cyrus Saatsaz
The lighting isn’t great but you could make out Lulu bartending, the family, and Indy. Photo: Cyrus Saatsaz

We eventually called it a night and headed to our rooms, although I didn’t get to sleep until many hours later. Three large intimidating men had arrived shortly before myself and the family went to our rooms.

They were drinking, playing darts and having a raucous time just outside my door. They spoke English, which was unusual to me, and they seemed to know Lulu, which is probably why they were allowed to make noise and stay so late.

I realized when I was in bed that I didn’t have any dinner that evening. Coyote Cal’s has a bar, yet no food of any kind except for the free breakfast they advertised serving from 7:30 to 9 a.m. I had brought some granola bars, and that was my dinner before going into a drunken slumber.

Click here for Part 2.

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