Mexico is different! (What an amazing change of scenery since up on Mt. Whitney just a few days ago!) No problem there, but interesting. Here are three little episodes:
The Immigration Run-Around
Yesterday afternoon I crossed the border by bicycle from San Diego to Tijuana. I followed the signs for bikes and pedestrians; then you get to a rotating barrier designed only to let pedestrians pass. Like another rider I finally squeezed through the barrier by separating the trailer, tilting the bike up and moving it through with me (like I have moved with a bike into an elevator) and asking another pedestrian to do the same with the trailer! Then you just walk across a little plaza and get to another barrier. No officials, no border patrol, nobody asking for passport or ID… After the second barrier you’re in Mexico, just like that! I looked for the tourist office, but it was behind the barrier now, so I couldn’t go back in for the tourist card (which you need when you want to stay in Mexico for more than 7 days).
So I asked around and learned that there is a tourist info in the center of Tijuana. So there I went with the bike. Crazy traffic, no shoulders, one needs to assert oneself so the cars don’t squeeze by too close. Once I got there I learned that I would either have to go back and re-enter at the border or I could go to the Immigration office in Ensenada (one day ride to the South). I chose the latter. However, once I get there the next day, I was told: “The Ensenada immigration office is only for people who arrive by ship. Those who arrive by car need to immigrate in Tijuana. But – for a daily fine of 55 pesos ($4) you can immigrate here as well.” Of course I’d rather pay $4 than having to ride back & forth some 160km roundtrip! However, I need to pay the 55 pesos at a bank and come back with a receipt. So I’m off to the town center; the first bank is already closed as it’s past 3pm; the next bank allows me to make the payment. I head back to the immigration office now via a maze of one-way streets. Back with the receipt I get some forms to fill out. Then I need to go to another teller across the hall, where I can pay the 262 pesos visa fee (good for 6 months). Why I couldn’t pay the fine here as well is not clear to me… Then back to the first teller and more forms to fill out. Finally I have my tourist card and stamp in the passport – I’m officially allowed in the country now!
The bike and the toll road
Another experience with the rules in Mexico came when I was directed to the scenic route to Rosarito. I looped around a few km in Tijuana to end up more or less in the same spot, but on the right side of some freeway. There the scenic route starts with a 120m hill up next to the border fence. You see two different worlds on both sides of the fence.
Then the road drops steeply and I quickly discover that I can’t just let it roll down at 60-70 km/h on Mexican highways, as there are potholes and steps on the road which are dangerous at high speeds… Then I get to a toll booth (the cuota is a toll road). I had heard that sometimes cyclists are let in, sometimes not; I am not so lucky: They don’t let me pass (as I don’t have insurance?), even after some arguing (which helps sometimes). First they want me to ride back to the last onramp (against the traffic); I convince them that that is too dangerous. Then they have a police officer escort me a little bit through the toll booth and he directs me to exit through a narrow hole in the fence to the village streets. I have to unhook the trailer and then he helps me haul the bike over the fence as it wouldn’t fit through!
So there I am on the other side of the fence in the little streets of an unnamed small village. What’s worse, there is no other road on the coast than the cuota, so I would have to ride back almost all the way to Tijuana incl. the hills! I roll into the village center to get a coke and think. Then I see a bike shop across the street. Very friendly people everywhere – and naturally curious about the bike and my journey. I ask them how they ride to Rosarito. Well, the cuota of course! And yes, it’s ok to ride there, they assure me. Just don’t go by the toll booth. Here, follow me and I’ll show you where to get back on at the end of the village, offers one of them and off we go through the village streets. When I get back on the cuota, there are other riders and some even ride on the wrong side of the street against traffic flow. A police car drives by and they don’t care. Yup, that’s Mexico for you!
The low-budget biker / camper
In Rosarito (only about 30km past Tijuana) I found a tourist info center and they directed me to a hostel with a tiny backyard for camping. The guy wants $10 for the night. I said “Oh, that’s a lot of money” – just like I was taught to negotiate – and there it was only $7. Includes hot showers and a safe place away from the street behind a locked fence and gate.
Next morning the ride to Ensenada starts out in fog, but quickly becomes a sunny and pretty hot day, including a 260m hill. As before, lots of sweat, but also nice views from up there and sweet descents down to the water again.
In Ensenada I also ask at the visitor center for campgrounds. I ride past the city and to a beach resort area. When I pass through the initial security gates I sense that this is a high-end hotel/resort/RV park (Estero Beach), so probably expensive. $25 / night for tent camping. My trained response: “Oh, that is a lot of money!” Well, that’s the rate, says the young receptionist. I tell him that I haven’t paid this much since I started in Alaska… to no avail. Just as I’m about to leave, his more senior boss comes out and says OK and reduces my rate down to $10 – nice! So I get to stay at a high-end resort place with pool, showers, hot tub, board-walk, restaurants, free wireless Internet everywhere, security guards at the gate etc. Not a bad deal! Typing this Blog over a glass of Sangria and reflecting back on the first 36h in Mexico…