Can I start out by saying that I really loved our trip? It was lovely and peaceful and the people were friendly. And I’m not one of those travelers who expects other countries to conform to my American/Californian/San Diegan sensibilities. Please remember these caveats as you read and also take my tips with a native southern Californian-sized grain of salt. Okay, lets go…
I live in North Park, a section of San Diego famed for 30th Street, the best craft beer on the planet, people not afraid to have permanent supportive housing for the homeless built in our community and funky, historic homes. It’s about 20 minutes north of the International Border–if you go through the San Ysidro Border Crossing. The reasons to avoid the San Ysidro crossing are legion – in fact, here is a whole thread about it. For Wife and I, our biggest reason was that it is typically crowded. Plus, from central San Diego where I live it’s about 2 hours to the Valle whether I go through San Ysidro or instead take the scenic route out SR-94 to the 188 and cross through Tecate. So, Tecate it was. WARNING: I do not advise making this drive at night. While the road itself is NOT dangerous, the drunken idiots, careless drivers and mother nature can be, which make the rural portion of the 94 a less than fun place at night. Leave work early, drive while the sun is up, and save the hassle.
As for the border at Tecate, let’s just say Mexico has a much better grasp of efficiently getting people who are itching to spend money actually into their country than we do in the reverse. We hit the border and there wasn’t even a person to practice my bad Spanish on. Just a Big Brother-esque camera, a short stop and a mess of cars hurrying southward. Zero waiting. Whatever fossil fuel and time you burn up heading out to Tecate will be less than you probably spend crossing at San Ysidro, or at least not as frustrating. (Caveat: I don’t have a SENTRI pass, which I hear will rock your world on border crossing time and enjoyment, FYI)
Fast forward down the 3 (the fairly well maintained highway to and through wine country) about 60 minutes to just before our hotel. WARNING: A word about turn-offs. Here’s the deal. In California we have Caltrans, and for all the complaints I hear, they do a pretty good job. When it’s time to turn, you know it. There are signs and reflectors and changes to the roadway to help let you know where to turn, when to slow down and to tell the local drivers barreling towards you from behind that all this is about to happen. Baja? Not.so.much. Lesson #1 of the Valle: the “side lane” – I have no idea if this is the law or just what people do, but there is a lane outside the regular lane (similar to the shoulder in the U.S.) that you can kind of drive in to find your turn when you get close. Using this lane can help relieve some anxiety while figuring out precisely where to turn. A few words, with generous use of “air quotes”, to maximize your use of the side lane:
- Be sure to ask what the Kilometer marker is where your destination will be and then look for those markers on the side of the road. This is the only way to really know where you are. Don’t be afraid to roll into the side lane.
- There aren’t really “street signs” as such. In fact, you can’t “turn” where you think you should be able to. Just slow down, use the side lane I described above, and pray a little.
- Watch for people on foot and bike in the side lane. Seriously, the only thing more nerve wracking than the ubiquitous white truck speeding directly at you as it passes the other tourist who also can’t see where he or she is going is the realization that there may be people in the side lane! During the day, just keep an eye out and only use the side lane if safe to do so, at night, I say just slow it down in the main lane and don’t take the chance.
- Bring a truck or SUV. Finally having splurged for an SUV or a truck to haul stuff around will pay off! Thumb your noses at those kale-eating, solar-loving hippies who gave you the side-eye for pushing an SUV to soccer practice. A vehicle designed for off-road is not essential down here, but highly desirable.
Our first dance with the lack of true turn-offs came when attempting to pull onto the road this sign suggests would lead to our hotel. Imagine, for a moment, starting to turn your car into the lane of oncoming traffic because you expect there to be an, I dunno, driveway, only to realize that it’s just a curb and your 4-door sedan will NOT clear that curb. Yep, that was me. Fortunately, there were no locals speeding to pass me nor any white trucks closing in on me, so I was able to straighten out my car, drive 15 feet, and then navigate the speed bump-like ramp onto the dirt road that led to our hotel. We came into the Valle from Tecate, so my hotel was on our left at KM 81.5 and we had to cross oncoming traffic. WARNING: The turn-offs are not uniformly across from the signs as we might find them in southern California, so don’t assume that just because you’ve found a sign with an arrow that it neatly aligns with the place to actually turn. Think of it more as an approximation. The good news is that, like touching a pot of boiling water, you only have to learn this tip the first time. Once we did safely navigate the turn and make our way down the quarter mile of bumpy dirt road that I’m sure would not have been easy during rainy season, we were greeted with this.
Ahhhhh, well worth whatever mild frustrations we might have with the regional department of transportation and its loose connection to proper signage. I never thought I’d be so thrilled to know what the California MUTCD is and why we need it! Still, the photo above made it all melt away and it was time to get on with enjoyment.
Using the Kilometer Markers
Consider this my free gift to anyone who has either never driven in northern Mexico or just wants a little refresher. If you’ve driven on State Routes in California, you’ve undoubtedly noticed little green or white paddles sticking up on the side of the road that have mile markers on them. These are helpful when reporting emergencies and for knowing where you are in relation to something else. They are SUPER HELPFUL in the Valle, where the turn-offs are less than clear and the signage is a little, umm, hard to read. I highly recommend finding out where you are going and where you plan to go based on what KM marker it is (conversion of kilometers to miles). A kilometer is roughly the length of 10 football fields, minus the endzones, or just over .6 miles, by the way.
To use the KM marker, just ask the person at your hotel (or consult the Google) to find out the KM marker closest to your destination. These are located along the road outside the passenger side window. I know this sounds elementary, but wouldn’t you rather know? If you fail to use these – or to ask someone at which KM marker your destination is – you might end up driving past Laja four times and almost missing your reservation even though the hotel staff assured you there was a big sign indicating where to turn that actually is not at all visible once the sun sets. At least, I’ve heard that can happen.
I just realized that I carried on a bit too much to make travel tips one post. Check back for part 2 of travel tips, “Directions” and Night Driving, coming soon. Return to the index.