Printable size (Undo)
Route Map
Anti Scriptum
Rocinante's upgrades
Techno Solutions
01 New York
02 New England
03 Maine to Midland
04 Midland to Sturgis
05 Indians'n Cowboys
06 British Columbia
07 San Francisco
08 SF to San Diego
09 Baja to Canyons
10 Baja California
11 Northern Mexico
12 Mex. to Guatemala
13 Gua. to Costa Rica
14 CR to S. America
15 Ecuador
16 Peru and Bolivia
17 Chile
18 Patagonia
19 Argentina/Brasil
20 The road home
Photo Gallery

Norwegian version

E-mail: mail at dagjen.no
Go to Pan American Home

Chapter 09 Backpacking in Mexico and Canyon lands

Start: August 22nd, San Diego, CA , Stop: September 17th, San Diego, CA
Well, car distance doesn't count, Total Distance: 19024 km [Map]

Rocinante was left to her doctors in San Diego. We were backpacking again, something we hadn't done for a while. Mexico was first, where we enjoyed speaking Spanish again, then we threw the economic aspect out of the window and rented a car to see the Grand Canyon.

Mexico, a backpacking sample

We crossed the border at Tijuana the day our visas expired. A confirmation had been faxed us from our bank back home, saying that we had sufficient funds to survive three new months in the States. This would hopefully make up for the lack of an onward ticket when we came back to the States.

Backpacking again

Here we go. No problem, just wait patiently for the train to take you to the border, wait patiently again for the next bus, then walk half the town to find a place to sleep. Hmmm, that's backpacking again.

We were backpacking again, but without backpacks. A small day pack and the two inner bags for the panniers would do. The rest of our luggage was left in the hallway of Rocket Motorcycles. After a short trolley ride to the border we got off and walked across. The border guards didn't even glance at our passports, since parts of Northern Baja is a free zone for American tourists. Our new guidebook said a ticket to Ensenada, one and a half hour south, was a dollar or so. When we asked at the bus station at the border, we were given a much higher price.

We figured there had to be a second bus station where the second class buses left from and decided to find it. It was a stupid mistake. A local bus brought to the town center of Tijuana, and the bus driver told us where to get off. We were in the middle of town, and since we spoke Spanish, we felt sure we would find the right bus. Several people answered our questions of were to go, and they all pointed their fingers in different directions, giving us detailed explanations.

After a while we got frustrated and sat down to have a few tacos. A ten year old kid came over and told us to follow him if we wanted to go south. I looked suspiciously at him, sensing I had seen him before. But we followed and were led to a local bus, which according to the kid would take us to the station. We got onboard and after a few blocks I suddenly remembered were I had seen him. He had been one of the many kids in the bus station at the border whose job was to get passengers to board the buses. We were on our way back. He was doing a pretty good job.

We got to Ensenada on the first class bus, paying the price we had initially been given and laughing about the wasted trip into Tijuana. The huge difference between USA and Mexico struck us within minutes of leaving the bus station. There were litter everywhere. On both sides of the highway plastic dominated the view. Old bottles, shopping bags and every other imaginable plastic product lay scattered around. From a distance some of the small bushes looked like Christmas trees. It was depressingly different from the litter controlled American highway system.

The road was good and curved its way south along the coast. One and a half hour after leaving the border we got off in the center of Ensenada. Awkward carrying our make shift backpacks, we searched the closest streets for a hotel and ended up in the Plaza, a run down once-had-been hotel with lousy rooms. With the worn and dirty grand hallways and staircase it was a depressing place. After two nights we just had to get out of there and again we were trying to find a cheap bus going south. And again it proved a failure. Eighteen dollars later we were on our way to San Quintin, 180 kilometers south of Ensenada on the Pacific coast.

The little town gave us the first experience of how wrong our guidebook was. It claimed the place was a bustling and lively little market town, while all that met us was a scattering of houses on both sides of the main southbound highway, far away from the beach. We found a little motel for the night, and at last paid a lot less than we had been used to in the States. Our plan had been to live close to the beach and relax, read and play beach tennis to get somewhat in better shape. The problem was that to get to the beach we had to take a taxi and rid our self of fifteen dollars each way. It just wouldn't work. We stayed two nights though, because of an retired American we met in a bar who told us about the Feria they were having in San Quintin these days. The next day a dirt bike race would be held just up the road, and being in off-road heaven - Baja California is mostly desert and has no rules against where to ride your bike, hence making it a major target for American dirt bikers - we just had to go see it.

Racing through the Baja deserts

Did this make me jealous? Oh no, why should it? The 250 cc machines were flying low on this dirt bike race in San Quintin, Baja California.

We walked the five kilometers up to the start point the next morning and waited for the gun to go off. No more than eight bikes were starting, and only one of the riders was professional. More and more people arrived as the day grew older, some to see the motorcycles, but most of them to see the cars that would race later in the day. The bikes started with intervals and consisted mostly of 250 cc engines. Two riders would share one bike, each doing one 15 kilometer loop before swapping. In all they did eight loops.

We watched and enjoyed the race, and were amazed at how many people would stand in the track when a bike came flying over the humps in 70-80 kilometers per hour, leaving very little room of error for the rider. We never got a feeling of who were the best, but was told the professional had won, as he did every time he participated in the local races.

A reporter from the local TV-station gave me a little insight in the race, and upon hearing about our trip he decided to do an interview with us. The reporter and I were standing on the opposite side of the crowd, and without any warning he turned the camera and pointed it at me, asking me to answer his questions like I had done a few minutes earlier. I was totally unprepared and felt silly. It was my first and hopefully last time in front of a TV camera. I answered the questions in Spanish, probably saying everything wrong and incomprehensible, while I felt everyone around was looking at me. The whole session lasted about ten seconds, and I felt pretty sure it would never be shown on any station. Bente came over at the end of my session and was immediately questioned in the same manner. Her performance was pretty much like mine. We would never be TV-stars, thank heaven for that.

We left San Quintin and headed back to Ensenada, not knowing where we wanted to spend the next few weeks. When we arrived at the bus station, a Norwegian we had previously met in San Diego, popped out of the bus next to ours and said hello. We chatted for a little while and was given the address to a little hostel in El Sauzal, just north of Ensenada, where the price was good and the breakfast excellent. We thanked him and caught a local bus.

Relaxing around the campfire

Bente, Maria the owner, Felipe and Patricia - friend of Maria, enjoy one of the relaxing evenings at Hostel Sauzal.

The hostel El Sauzal was located in the hills north of Ensenada, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The owner, Maria, had, together with a few friends, built the hostel by hand over a three year period starting in 1995. The result was one of the most pleasant places we had stayed in so far on the trip. Four spacious dorms faced the verandah and overlooked the ocean a few blocks to the west.

The rooms were nicely furnished with the typical Mexican woodwork which recently had become popular in Norway, rough, solid wood with even rougher and more solid metal hinges and brackets. The showers were outside, and the kitchen area was as cosy as any home kitchen could be. Maria was a energetic woman who put a lot of effort in keeping the place spotless and cosy at the same time, and the result was a warm and relaxed atmosphere. This made up for the fact that she was denied to allow her customers to consume alcohol on her premises, and that the place was a long way from everything. During our one week stay we ate different breakfasts every day, a meal included in the price and deliciously prepared.


Gonzalo shows off the appetite an 11 year old has. We were at the local taco stand in El Sauzal.

Maria's Mexico

Maria was a small woman of unknown age from the outskirts of Guadalajara - of Huichol-indian and Spanish decent, who had moved to the States and lived there for twenty years. When she decided to go back to Mexico, she had realized that there was no way she could return to the farm district she came from. Being a woman doing a mans work, like building a hostel, and with modern attitudes, there just wasn't any way she would be accepted in the rural and traditional culture of her Guadalajara. So she had settled in Ensenada, just south of the US border. Here she built her little paradise with just enough rooms to make a living, but not so many that the hostel became overcrowded. She told us about her past in Guadalajara, where her sister had been shot in the leg by the police for playing a child's game in the wrong place, and about how her attitudes and modern mentality had created a uncrossable barrier between her and the rest of her family.

She had warmed up now, and I asked her why there was so many Mexicans sneaking over the border to the US, apart from the obvious - to get a better living. Why didn't they go on holiday up north and just stayed there?
"Because they have no passport," Maria answered. "A Mexican cannot get a passport if he or she hasn't got a certain amount of money in the bank.."
"But why do you have to have money to get the passport in the first place?", asked Bente.
"Cause if you don't, they'll say; 'Why do you need a passport if you don't have the money to travel?'"
Before we drew the connection ourselves, Maria continued:
"It's like the old Soviet Union, really. The state don't want you to leave the country, cause they're afraid you are a resource that escapes. But they should also know that if you stay, you have less means to develop your resources. Most likely you will be a poor peasant for the rest of your life. The system is very oppressive."
I was curious to how she regarded the newly elected president. From what I had read in the international press, it was a sensational win over the ruling PRI, the revolutionary party that had been in power for 70 years.
"It's just a lie," Maria said and continued, "the people are the same, the name is different. Because most Mexicans despise the PRI for all their opressiveness and corruption, they needed to clear their name. So, they moved a few of the main economic sources over to the new party, changed the name but kept many of the background people, and went to election with a new ideology. It sold well among the people and here we are. A new name but no difference. No, I don't have any high hopes for this government."

Julio and friends

Julio the biker, Patricia, Bente and Maria outside the kitchen at hostel Sauzal.

The conversation shifted to the indigenous people, and I asked about the Indian women and children we had seen along Calle Lopez Mateo in Ensenada, the main tourist street in a town of more than a quarter million people. Maria explained:
"They were brought here over generations from the mainland. Many are from the Mizteco culture and all are very poor. They were lured here by hopes of making a living and a survival, improving their life. But in reality they were exploited and have ever since been selling small handicraft products in the street, paying taxes to the government for it. It is all just another lie. Just like in Copper Canyon." We had been discussing Copper Canyon earlier in the day.

" When you go there, you will see Indians working in their caves, carving woodwork or making necklaces to sell to the tourists. The guide will tell you this is how they live and work, that the costumes they wear are their own. Another lie. When I was there, I listened carefully to what the guides said and then walked over to the women after the tour had moved on. I asked them myself, looking at the buckets which where full of US dollars, thinking to myself that they seemed to make a good living. One of the women replied, when asked if this was where they slept;
'Oh no, we go back to our own house when the night comes. As for the money, the local authorities and the owners of the caves takes most of it, taxing us heavily for sitting in front of the caves they built for us, and for doing this kind of work..'"
The system seemed simple and exploitative. Keeping the Indians poor and uneducated put their destiny in the hands of the government, who supposedly helped them out economically. Maria continued:
"When you go to the canyon as a tourist, you are warned against giving money directly to the Indians. They say they will buy alcohol for the money and drink themselves into despair. So it's better to buy from the shops and thereby support them indirectly. Another lie. The shops are not run by Indians at all and their income does not benefit the Indians. Again, they are oppressed into poverty."

It was depressing to hear this testimony from Maria, but also very interesting, knowing we would go to the canyon in a month or so, which would give us an opportunity to see and judge for ourselves.

During the week we stayed at Maria's hostel people came and went, most of whom had heard of the place in San Diego. The mix of nationalities in such a place is amazing. We met people from Mexico, the States, Canada, Netherlands, Switzerland, Australia, New Zealand and England. Julio, a Mexican athletic trainer from the central part of the country, was on a bicycle vacation, covering huge distances each day on his mountain bike. He stayed in the same room as us, and one night he was bitten by a small but poisonous spider. His hand got very swollen but it wasn't serious. The next morning he was on his bicycle again. Before he left, he gave us his address and we promised to look him up when we passed through the area.

We also got to know Gonzalo, an eleven year old neighbor of Maria. Maria helped him studying English, and during the time we were there he hang out with us, trying to learn to juggle with three balls, play beach tennis, and also educating us on all the tricks you can do on a skateboard. He was surprisingly polite to be only eleven and not at all interested in all the food and drinks he was offered at the hostel, not because we felt this healthy looking kid needed food but because it's the kind of thing you offer kids when you run out of other ideas. We enjoyed his visits as much as he enjoyed visiting, and it wasn't hard to tell he looked up at us, talking a lot about how he wanted to travel and do it on a motorcycle as we did. We promised with hands on hearts that we would return on the bike before long, and when we left he had written a good-bye letter to us. It touched both of us.

Back in the US

We crossed the border again, armed with the statement from our bank. We had been warned up front that it might or might not be good enough, it all depended on the custom officer dealing with us. Well, he must have been the good guy, or he must have been in a good mood that day. When I put the statement on the desk in front of him, without being asked for it, he asked what it was. I said it was a statement saying we had enough funds to stay for the three month period and to get out of the US. He shrugged and said, "Sounds cool", but didn't even glance at it. Instead he made humorous remarks to Bente's tired voice when asked if we were married. "Doesn't sound like your too happy, young woman!". We smiled and entered the States again.

Back in San Diego I visited Rocket MC to see for myself how Rocinante's engine looked when completely taken apart. A telephone to Rocket while in Ensenada had revealed that they wanted to replace a cylinder liner, all the valves and the piston rings before assembling the engine again. The parts were worn, and in the case of the liner, corroded from the months the bike had been stored in the moist air in the garage back home, located about ten meters from the salty sea. The main reason for replacing them was the thousands of kilometers we had ahead of us. The valves could have created a compression problem in ten to fifteen thousand kilometers. The engine was in a million pieces on Mark's work bench. I inspected the worn parts and shot a lot of photos. Mark told me there would be another delay because when the valves are replaced, the valve seats in the engine head has to be machined to fit the new valves, a job done in a workshop across town. I wished them best of luck and was glad to hear that Mark spent weekends and evenings to get the job done as soon as possible.

Las Vegas Boulevard

The most famous neon lit boulevard in the world. I believe the owners of the casinos could very well afford the electricity needed to light up theirs castles and pyramids.

We had by now decided we wanted to see the Grand Canyon after all. I picked up a rental car in town and on Thursday September the 7th, we left on Interstate 15, heading north. I had not been informed of the extra insurance we needed to pay for a rental car in California, so I had been offered a better car as a consolidation. That's why we were driving a 170 horsepower Oldsmobile Alero, with cruise control, automatic transmission and, of course, air conditioning. In some ways it was just as well to drive a car into the desert.

The weather was hot and the roads straight. It was a nice change. After a short day's ride we arrived in Las Vegas and headed for one of the hostels, where we got a double room for the night. We took the car and cruised along the famous strip after dark, to get a good view of the craziest town in the world. This is where the word neon was invented, I thought, and where the word "excess" got a meaning. We saw the Great Pyramid of Giza, a miniature Venice and the Eiffel Tower. The buildings were basically neon signs, and the sky looked like it was lit up from below. About a zillion people wandered in and out of the uncountable casinos. There must be a million slot machines in this town, and thousands upon thousands of Roulette tables, Black Jack tables, Poker tables and so on. We ate a lousy dinner at one of the casinos - we had been tipped that the dinners were cheap and good to draw people to that particular casino, and then strolled around for a while.

At the Flamingo, which is the original casino built by the Mafioso Bugsy Segal (who got killed because his bosses and creditors believed he had failed when building a casino in the middle of the desert), money were pouring out of a few of the thousand or so slot machines, while the Black Jack tables were tempting until we saw the minimum stake, 10 dollars. We agreed to gamble this night, and we set the upper limit to how much we were allowed to loose to 2 dollars. It ruled out the Black Jack and the Roulette, even the Dice game and the standard Poker game. We looked around for a place where our 2 dollar would do any good, and ended up in the bar. Even the bar desk had built-in slot machines. In front of us was a Poker machine. We counted eight quarters from our pockets and Bente started the game.

People around us didn't pay much attention to us, even though we could loose all we had wanted to spend within minutes. I was excited and started to dream about dollars when Bente got a full House on her second game, giving us a win of three dollars. If the stakes had been higher than the quarter we would have gone through the roof. I raised the stakes for the next round and lost half of the money. Bente looked at me with dismay and declared no more high stakes gambling. I left the game to her and watched how our money grew to almost three dollars again. She stopped, cashed the money and said, "If we walk now we can say we won in Las Vegas".
No way, it was my turn at the wheel of fortune. Half an hour later we hadn't only lost what we had gained, but also the two dollars limit. We left the Flamingo and drove home.

When we passed through the outskirts of the Strip, signs different from the neon signs appeared. In this area it said, "Pawn Shop - cash in a minute" and "Cash loans on the spot, no credit check performed. We take your car as collateral". It was scary and fascinating. The number of people gambling in this town were so huge, we figured that as we spoke, someone probably got ruined and saw his life fall apart. The next step for the poor looser would be to visit the cash loan sharks, give away his car - maybe the last valuable thing he owned - and go back to the casino for one last desperate try to recover his losses and get the jackpot. Las Vegas was said to produce millionaires every day of the year, but I'm sure there are more people going bankrupt and ruining their life in this city.

Zion Canyon

A dead tree in Zion Canyon. I've always had this thing for dead trees.


We left early next morning for Hurricane, a small Mormon city in Utah. After getting settled in the local hostel we drove up to Zion Canyon National Park and hiked for a few hours. The park was nice with the steep canyon walls and hiking paths along the sides, but it wasn't' spectacular. The next day we drove a little further to Bryce Canyon and was totally taken aback of the beauty displayed there. We were now on the Colorado Plateau, a huge area covering parts of four states that was created by geological upshifts in the earth. Zion, Bryce and Grand Canyon are all within the plateau, and the creations done by mother earth are incredible. Bryce Canyon looks like a cave turned upside down, with stalactites growing our of the ground. The pillars are up to one hundred meters tall, or maybe more, and glow in a red light caused by reflections from the surrounding pillars. Million of years with erosion have dug them out of the canyon sides. We had never seen anything like it before.

The next three days we spent in Grand Canyon, first one day and a sunset at the north rim, then two days and one sunset at the south rim. In between we moved hostel to Flagstaff - a town proud of it's connection to the old Route 66. The Grand Canyon defeats any attempt in describing it, both in words and in photo. It is unbelievably huge and beautiful. I shot hundreds of photos of the place, but couldn't look at them for days. The reason was that when I did I was only reminded of how much more it was in real life, and how my attempts to catch the magic of the place with a digital camera had failed. It was a consolidation to talk to a professional photographer on the north rim who said that she could never catch it even with her medium format camera.

Three whole days we spent at the rim. I wanted to go down into the canyon, but Bente's new hiking shoes gave her blisters, and a hike down in the canyon and up - not even more than half way down - was a full day trip. The canyon was created between five and six million years ago, when the earth tore apart to reveal it's history in the layers it opened up. It's about 1700 meters deep and 15 kilometers wide at the widest. The layers that opened up for the world to see spans over two billion years of earth's history. The difference in temperature between the rim and the Colorado River in the bottom can be thirty degrees Celsius, with cold or temperate climate on the rim, and extremely hot weather along the river in the summertime.

Bryce Canyon

Bryce Canyon, a wonder of natural creation.

Even with the enormous number of visitors each year in the park, the shear size of the canyon made us feel we were alone. Especially when we went hiking along the rim outside the main tourist spots, the numbers decreased and we could easily find places to eat our lunch in peace and solitude. The place felt almost sacred, almost unreal and surrealistic because of the vast distances and deep ravines. The slightly polluted air reduced visibility somewhat and so created a light curtain in front of the most distant parts of the canyon, adding to the feeling of looking at a painting.

We were back in San Diego a week after we left, and for the third time we checked in at the Ocean Beach Hostel. I really hoped it was the last time. On our way in we stopped at Rocket MC to see how the work had progressed. And it had, Mark hoped the bike would we ready by the coming Saturday. He advised me to break in the engine again, although not do a full break in as if the bike was new, then come back on Tuesday to replace the semi synthetic oil, used to settle the new piston rings, with full synthetic oil, and also to check that everything worked properly. We almost hesitated, by now we were desperate to enter Mexico on two wheels, but realized it would be stupid to rush it to gain a day or two. The new alternator had finally arrived from Norway as well, and would replace the old one, which I took with me to send back home.

A few days later, on Saturday September 16th, I returned to the shop to pick up Rocinante. Mark had worked his butt off to get it ready by then, and late in the afternoon I tightened the last bolt on the fairing and took off with a smiling Mark waving good-bye. The bike felt like new. It should, since it basically was a brand new bike, at least engine wise. All we had to do now was break it in again, then return to the shop on the coming Tuesday for a oil change and a last check, and then, finally, we could leave San Diego and the States.

Mexico wasn't too distant anymore....

Utah at sunset
On our way back from the Zion Canyon, Utah showed us it's best side.

Shopping fruit
Shopping fruit in Mexico. One wrong step and you squash an apple or a potato.

Grand Canyon
Trying to catch the Grand Canyon in a photography is impossible, at least far, far out of my league. Imagine the Empire State Building down there, so small you wouldn't see it, then maybe you can grasp the proportions of this wonder.

Bryce Canyon
Bryce Canyon. Simply incredible.

>> Next Chapter


E-mail: mail at dagjen.no
Top of page



© All photos and text on this site is the property of Bente Bråthen and Dag Jenssen. Contact us if interested in publishing or reusing material from us.
URL Main page: http://www.RocinantesTravels.com. Comments, suggestions or problems with the site, contact
mail at dagjen.no