The road stretched on, a shimmering, dusty ribbon undulating through sand, stone and spiked cactus, rolling up hills that only reluctantly revealed azure seas on the distant horizon.
We were driving towards the Pacific, but moving at little more than walking speed. Which meant another hour of shuddering and shaking on a tortuous stretch of washboard gravel.
Good thing I wasn’t wearing a watch. You learn to take things in stride after a few weeks on the road.
“Isn’t this what RVing’s all about?” I joked as jolts and bangs sent Mary scrambling out of her seat to save dishes and re-close yet another cupboard door.
My wife’s sister Fran and her husband, also named Rob, annually trek south, away from winter and their British Columbia home, following the coastline in their Sprinter van, towards the warmer climes of a different B.C. – Baja California in Mexico.
“Come join us,” they said.
Tempting, but a long haul for an Ontario couple. So, we checked out RV rentals – none in Mexico and only a few U.S. companies would rent for cross-border travel, with one caveat – road assistance ends at the border.
“Drag it across the border and we’ll come get it,” they said. “But anything that happens in Mexico, stays in Mexico.”
Add a dash of cartel killings, a few scathing customer critiques, the Mexican police propensity to throw anyone involved in accidents in jail, and there seemed to be no shortage of naysayers about our planned adventure.
We settled on El Monte RV Rental because they provided the mandated Mexican insurance along with late model, low mileage assurances and a lot of friendly, helpful tips.
In San Diego, we picked up a 2019 25-foot C Class motorhome with less than 30,000 miles, the Leprechaun bodywork built on the foundation of a 2018 Ford E 350 dual rear wheel chassis. Ford’s Econoline vans may have been replaced by the Transit, but the E series chassis cab lineup carries on alongside Transit alternatives.
Under the hood, a Windsor-built 6.8-litre V10 (305 hp, 420 lb/ft) pulled nobly, if a little thirstily. It was mated to a six-speed TorqShift automatic with a tow-haul mode that added a comforting engine-braking option through some of the steeper, butt-clenching mountain sections.
Considering that the drivetrain was basically moving an apartment (kitchen, dining room, bedrooms and bathroom), I wasn’t at all surprised that it handled like, well, driving an apartment.
There was a touch of steering play, a ponderous lack of agility, top-heavy body-sway and the wheels tugged at every irregularity. Add in Mexican roads – skinny-laned with no shoulders, your outside wheels inches from drop-offs and utter ruin – and you do tend to concentrate on your driving, occasionally white-knuckling past washouts while praying that the approaching truck jockey is not texting his girlfriend.
Baja is a study of contrasts – brand new commercial edifices juxtaposed between ramshackle carnita stands and llanteras (tire repair shops), third-world barrios straddling the hillsides. The roads and landscapes change constantly – long farm valleys, twisting mountain roads and ruler-straight desert highways.
And the trip experience includes different styles of RVing – cheek-to-jowl RV parks for the services and comforts of hot showers and laundry facilities or, following Rob and Fran’s lead, wild camping in free locations along distant beach fronts.
A few of our overnight spots stand out. El Pabellon where we were the only RV in the park, abandoned beaches spawning long dune walks. San Quintin where we spent an uneasy night behind our curtains, listening to police sirens and unseen vehicles crunching into our gravel parking lot. El Conejo where aging surfers who still say “gnarly” live sparsely separated in faded trailers, where the night sighs of wind and waves are broken only by the yipping, howling coyote packs. La Pastura, where the surf pounds steep beaches so hard you feel the tremors in your bed. And Adolfo Mateus Lopez, leaning back in a camp chair to star-gaze while whales spouted in the dark lagoon offshore.
Hard crunching the numbers of our nearly month-long trip (26 nights, 4,000 km), our costs translated to $3,755 (CDN) for the rental and $1,300 (CDN) for fuel. We burned nearly 1,000 litres of gas for a 25L/100km (comb) fuel economy average, about what I expected after modest highway speeds and occasional idling for heat (our furnace crapped out as we returned north, our only glitch).
But facts and figures can’t encompass our experiences.
And, too soon, we were lined up back at the border. Every one-legged vendor in Tecate seemed to be limping along the lineup, selling churros or crucifixes while American soldiers on the other side were unrolling fresh coils of concertina wire atop graffiti-sprayed metal walls. And, while waiting in that lineup, I was wondering how a month could seem so long and yet so short at the same time. I was also wondering about a question I’d been asked.
Would we do it again?
Oh yeah, in a heartbeat.
Life Lessons From an RV Newbie