What a difference 72 miles can make! We spent a frigid night at Potrero County Park in California, just 10 minutes from the border crossing at Tecate. Though the weather was rough for roof top tent life (low of 33), the staging site couldn’t have been more convenient.
We procrastinated with getting our pesos, which we normally do through our bank. So instead, we brought cash and exchanged it just before crossing the border. Though we lost about $70 USD, at least the process was painless and we shouldn’t have to worry about ATMs or any other exchanges for the rest of our trip.
We left the exchange, turned a corner, and there was the border…
Border Crossing Newbies
The Columbia Bridge crossing outside Laredo, where we crossed into and out of interior Mexico last year, isn’t usually busy. But it’s very official. You park in a small lot just before crossing, go through three paperwork steps clearly marked with signs, get back into your vehicle to pass through the border gate, and then pull over for inspection (or, in our case, no inspection).
We didn’t know what to expect at the Tecate border crossing, other than vague descriptions of it being small and chill.
“Here we go,” Eric said as we pulled into the Tecate border crossing area around 10 a.m. The lanes were separated by barriers, and a camera snapped a photo of each vehicle as it approached. A light flashed green in front of us. The gate opened. We pulled forward.
….”I think we’re in Mexico,” I said.
“What?! That’s it?” Eric replied.
I started laughing because of how easy it was in this age of border wars. But we did seriously need our FMM Mexican tourist cards, and I was sure that should’ve happened right at the border.
So we did a loop around the block. And a few more loops. The street parking was completely full, and we weren’t even sure where to go without pulling into a no-entry area. Suddenly in front of us, a man seemed to magically know what we needed (the whole town was probably talking about the crazy gringos driving in circles). He moved a parking cone and–voila–a Banjercito parking spot for us.
Tecate Migración and Banjercito
Our parking friend beckoned us to follow through a pedestrian gate, parallel to what we had just driven across the border. We went into the migración office where another couple was finishing up. We filled out our FMM applications and showed our passports.
Then we went outside to the Banjercito window, where we payed 575 pesos per person (about $30 USD each) for our six-month FMM tourist visas. We paid with a credit card, but you can also pay with cash.
We went back inside to the migración office, where the official stamped our passports and made us official.
We did verify we hadn’t done anything wrong, other than being ignorant of the parking area. FYI, you take an immediate right after crossing the border, and there are a small handful of parking spots to your right.
Also, the light at the border could’ve been red, in which case we would’ve been directed to pull over for inspection. Apparently our Jeep is very innocent-looking.
First Views of Baja California and Camping Woes
Our adventures were just beginning! We started heading towards Bajo Rancho La Bellota, which is located on the way to Ensenada and beloved by overlanders.
This ranch was specifically recommended by our friends @ourjourneyoverland who are in Baja now, but you can also look at iOverlander to see how much people love Raul and Caroline.
Rancho La Bellota is a little more than 40 miles from Tecate, much of that off-road and some of it challenging for a low-clearance vehicle. We lost cell signal, and started second-guessing whether we were going the right way. We actually got all the way to the gate, but still weren’t sure.
We ended up returning to the pavement, so we could get online in Ensenada and get our bearings. It didn’t take long to figure out we had been in exactly the right place. But unfortunately since it’s the work week, we wouldn’t have been able to stay without connectivity the next morning.
Live and learn. I can’t wait to visit Rancho La Bellota in the future and meet Raul and Caroline. They’re overlanders themselves, and open their ranch to support the overland community and inform travelers about Baja. Bravo!
Hangry in Ensenada
With the morning’s hiccups, it was time to regroup. It was a relatively short drive to Ensenada, where we pulled up a table at La Comadre in Zona Centro. No-frills spot with delicious tacos. We highly recommend the bistek and mole!
By this time, it was after 2 p.m. and we didn’t know where we were going to spend the night. We really needed to take the road of least resistance to where we could get some rest.
I consulted the Church & Church camping book (affiliate link) I referenced in my first Baja article, and a particular campground was calling to me: Centro Recretivo Mi Refugio. It goes by Mi Refugio RV Park on Google Maps.
It was a good call. The upper area is for RVs, while the lower area is for tent camping. We paid 120 pesos ($6.42 USD) to stay until 10 a.m. tomorrow, or a bit more if we stay after 10 a.m.
The best part is the hot shower, which is rare even at the more expensive RV parks in the area. It isn’t pretty, but it’s perfectly functional and I’m extremely grateful.
Oh, and we did use the campground Wi-Fi to download all our offline Google Maps. Which we always do, but somehow forgot this time.
What Does Tomorrow Hold?
Though we’ve done very little route planning, we’re slightly off-track. We’re supposed to hit San Felipe, which is on the opposite side of the peninsula, so we can explore the east coast over the weekend. So tomorrow or whenever we decide to leave, we’ll take Mex 3 and make it happen.
Though nothing catastrophic happened today, it does take a certain level of perseverance to willfully lean into two months of what could be the same uncertainty, Plan Bs, and spontaneity.
Remember, this isn’t a vacation for us. We’ve worked Monday through Friday (at least) for the past six years in order to keep the wheels turning. And we’re continuing to work here in Baja with a lot of uncertainty and unreliability when it comes to connectivity.
And then there’s the three-year-old. 😉 He’s an amazing traveler and an unbelievably wonderful human being. But having him in our travel party does increase the complexity of our adventures.
It’s all good, and I really mean that. We’re in this. But, I guess what I’m trying to say is, what you see on Instagram is only one side. In my opinion, overlanding is intentional self-deprivation for a purpose. It’s embracing the belief that adventure is worth it. That starving wanderlust is a crime that can’t be tolerated.
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