Mexican wine country
Rugged terrain north of the Tecate border crossing.
The new US/Mexican border wall with frontage road and border patrol truck (left).
Vendors work between the lanes at the San
Clever wooden children's desks.
Snacks clothes-pinned to a makeshift
Selling snacks and freshly made fruit drinks.
Model ship, anyone?
Real booths set up along the border.
Vending to cars stuck in line is big business at San
For last minute drug purchases.
Any souvenir item you could want.
When business is slow, play cards.
Boys washed windows -- not very well.
A flame thrower entertained us.
Spot checks as we near Ensenada on the
A happy girl in a boat.
Mark goes up the mast.
...just don't think about it.
Mark hosts the VHF cruiser's net.
A scenic walk to Punta Morro Resort.
Pretty walk near the marina.
Punta Morro Resort.
A glance up the shoreline.
Fresh in from a South Pacific cruise.
Pacific High sails to a new engine.
A dove catches a ride from Mexico to San Diego
aboard Pacific High.
Borders & Marina Stories
February/March, 2010 - As Carnaval weekend drew to a close, we realized it was time for us to wrap up the long trail of loose
ends that had begun to form in our wake. Projects, errands and obligations took us to southern California twice and Phoenix
once, adding up to 1500 miles of driving in just a few exhausting weeks.
With all this driving, we inadvertently became quite familiar
with three of southern California's US/Mexico border
crossings. No longer an easy drive-by affair where you
blithely wave your driver's license as you pass, the borders
are now formidable, intimidating, and very time consuming.
California's I-5 interstate goes right through San Diego to
the biggest border crossing at San Ysidro, delivering you
into Tijuana, Mexico and onto the beautiful, scenic toll road
that runs along the Mexican coast to Ensenada. A few
miles east of that crossing is a newer crossing at Otay
Mesa. Some 20 or so miles east of that one is another
crossing at Tecate.
Each crossing has its own peculiarities. Tecate is the most remote and least busy, and we crossed there twice. The drive
from Ensenada to Tecate runs along a beautiful, winding road through the mountains. The valleys are filled with vineyards
and pretty winery estates, and the hillsides are strewn with huge boulders that were scattered across the land long ago. The
recent El Nino storms had delivered torrents of rain, and the grass everywhere was bright green and lush. Just as we drove
under the "Thank you for visiting Wine Country" sign and said to each other, "That was really nice," we were stopped by a
group of camoflage-clad soldiers sitting amid sandbags, machine guns at the ready. A young soldier approached us and
rattled something in Spanish that we didn't quite catch. While driving, we had been practicing a Spanish vocabulary worksheet
for a Spanish class Mark was taking, and we showed the young men our word list. "Pencil," "pen," "desk," "door," "window."
He handed the silly word list to his friends and they all got a chuckle as they passed it around.
A few miles further was the actual border crossing. The
advantage in Tecate is a shorter wait going into the US. It was
just 45 minutes. We snaked along the newly erected wall that
separates the US and Mexico. The wall was brightly painted on
the Mexican side with ads for services of all kinds that could be
found on both sides of the border. Whether you wanted pizza,
tire repair, or legal advice, you could find it among the ads on
the wall, usually with a hand-drawn map to the exact spot.
On one of our Tecate crossings we got pulled over after we had
cleared into the US. We were asked to step out of the car. Our
truck and two other lucky cars had been chosen for an x-ray
scan. We all stood to one side while a large windowless truck
drove slowly alongside our vehicles. On the top of the truck a
light flashed "x-ray scanning" as it passed by. I wondered if 20
years from now a high incidence of cancer would be linked to
those unfortunate souls who got picked out of US border crossing lines and told to stand off to one side while their vehicles
Once we were free we looked back at the "Entering Mexico" sign. Not a single car in line. We drove east towards Phoenix,
watching the new border wall take its own path across the mountains and valleys in the distance. Not as lush as the Mexican
side, this area is rugged and remote. As the wall disappeared and reappeared in the distance I couldn't help but remember
my walk along the eastern side of Berlin wall in 1982. A visit to the Berlin Zoo and a drift down the Rhine past the many
medieval walled castles had gotten me thinking a lot about walls back then. There is a fine line between a wall built to keep
folks out and one that ultimately pens people in. Most walls don't last, even one as frightening as Berlin's. But in 1982, with its
machine gun turrets, tanks and a double wall enclosing a minefield, who knew
anything would change?
The crossing at San Ysidro is a totally different experience. Driving up the
scenic oceanside toll road from Ensenada, traffic slowed to a stop as we
neared the border. Suddenly all the cars approaching the border were
surrounded by street vendors, and a party atmosphere filled the air. I
couldn't count all the lanes
of traffic on either side of
us, but not one car was
moving. The vendors
moved nimbly between us,
watching hopefully for signs
someone might be a buyer.
A vendor approached us
statues. No, gracias.
Another had wooden
children's desks, cleverly
made with opening tops and
fold-out seats and Barbie
painted on the top. Very
cool, but no, gracias.
Lots of vendors had
refreshments. Bags of
snack foods were
clothes-pinned to ropes and mounted on makeshift scaffolds with
wheels. One guy was selling soft drinks from a cooler. We eased on
through the traffic, windows down, trading quips with the vendors. No
one was forceful or aggressive and we had some good laughs as Mark
tried laying his newfound Spanish on them. "Three years and you'll be
able to speak Spanish," one fellow said encouragingly.
We turned a corner and instantly the scene intensified. Booths of
all kinds were set up along the edge of the road. Any souvenir item
you forgot to get down at Gringo Gulch in Ensenada was available
here, haggling and all. A few daring souls set up taco stands
between the lanes and the smell of frying meat made our tummies
rumble. Suddenly ahead of us we saw a guy rushing between the
cars with two huge umbrella drinks in his hands. He stopped at a
car window and passed them in, grinning as he got a fistful of
pesos in return.
And if food or
thing, there was
last minute pills
Two young kids
were running from
car to car washing
weren't doing a
very good job but
they didn't seem to
care. They weren't
asking for money
and no one offered
them any either.
We laughed long and hard as we drove through this crazy spectacle. In what seemed like no time at all the border booths
came into sight. Checking the clock, we had actually been sitting in this wacky traffic jam for an hour and a quarter. One final
tap on the window got Mark's attention. "Are you American? You look American!" A young blond (and obviously non-
Mexican) kid asked, staring in the truck window. Mark batted his baby blues at him. "Hey, my wallet was stolen here last
night. Can you give me some money?" Mark rolled his eyes, closed the window and pulled forward. That kid was missing the
whole enterprising spirit of the game. He needed to go make something cool and sell it between the lanes like everyone else.
Coming back towards this main crossing at San Ysidro a few days later, the line going into Mexico looked almost as long as
the one for the US. We drove down some side streets to where we could get a better view of the actual border booths, and
sure enough, the Mexican officials were as busy pulling people over to check them out as the Americans officials were on the
other side. So we thought we'd give the third crossing point, Otay Mesa, a try. Once we wound our way around to get to that
border crossing point we found the line was just 45 minutes long. Finally emerging on the Mexican side, we found ourselves in
a regular Tijuana rush hour
traffic jam, with no map to find
our way across the city to the
scenic toll road to Ensenada.
To our surprise, a stunt man
was entertaining everyone at
an intersection by swishing a
mouthful of gasoline and then
blowing on a match. He
produced some amazing
flame balls, but what a lousy
aftertaste that must have
We were really glad when
all the driving trips were
finished and we could get
back to our simple life at
the marina, learning about
our boat and getting ready
for new aqua-adventures.
I tested out the dinghy and
felt like a kid again, rowing
around in a little boat.
Mark went up the mast to install a spinnaker halyard. Our
new friends Bob and Dan manned the winches and slowly
hoisted him to the top. Once there the view was spectacular
-- if scary. Looking at the photos later, I was relieved Mark
hadn't taken me up on my offer to go to the top of the mast
instead. He said he just tried not
to think about it all too much once
he got up there, some 60 feet
straight up in the air.
The more we settled into this new
home, the more we liked it. The
surrounding area is very pretty, but
it is the community of liveaboards
that has really made us feel at
All the boats are equipped
with a VHF radio for safety
purposes. These are radios where one person talks and the whole world nearby
can listen. This is very helpful in emergency situations where a boater in distress
can call out for help, but cruisers use it for social purposes as well. Every morning
at 8:00 on channel 21a the cruisers at the various marinas and anchorages in
Ensenada all get together on the radio. One person moderates the conversation,
inviting each boat to identify itself at the beginning (the "Cruiser Check-In"), and
then guiding the conversation through various topics: people looking for help on
boat projects, people driving into town who can offer car-less boaters a lift, people
crossing the border who can take mail and/or passengers to San Diego, etc. This
is then followed by an in-depth weather report from a retired airline pilot who lives
locally ("firmly bolted to the hill") and has a passion for weather.
The whole process takes just 15 minutes or so, but it gets the day off to a
nice start and bonds everyone regardless of boat size or type, level of
experience, or even which marina they are currently calling home. This
radio net gave us a sense of community from our very first day in the
marina, and instantly transformed us from being mere new boat owners to
being "cruisers." Within a few days of our arrival we got volunteered to be
hosts of the cruisers' net on Wednesdays. The very first Wednesday
happened also to be my 50th birthday, and Mark decided to announce it on
the radio. We were both in stitches as one boat after another checked in
and then wished me a happy birthday. Few people knew who I was, but
those two little words, "happy birthday," repeated over and over by as-yet
faceless radio voices, made me feel very much at home.
One morning this
cruisers' net came to a boater's aid as well. The net always starts with a
an open query regarding emergencies where folks need immediate help.
Our host (and comedian) that day, Dan, had just made a smart remark
about how there were no emergencies, "as usual," when a new voice
piped up that a crew member on his boat had just collapsed and needed
help. You could hear the collective gasp across the net. The voice then
identified his boat as being on D-dock at our marina. That is our dock.
We popped our heads
out of our boat just as
ten other heads popped
out of theirs. Suddenly
the whole marina was
swarming with cruisers
looking for a boater in
need. After massive confusion, we discovered the boat was actually on F-
dock, and quickly a (very sleepy) retired paramedic cruiser was on his way
to help. The boat had just arrived early that morning. What good fortune
for the crew member that the radio net existed and a skilled paramedic was
part of the community, as it was nearly an hour before the ambulance
In our search for a boat I
followed the blogs of several cruisers who were traveling on a boat similar to
the one we wanted. One I had read periodically was by Allan and Rina
aboard Follow You Follow Me, a 2003 Hunter 466 that had crossed the
Pacific from Puerto Vallarta to the Marquesas islands in 2008. What a
surprise when I heard our marina manager on the phone making
arrangements for them to berth here for a few days. It turned out that they
had chosen to ship their boat back to the west coast via the transport
company Dockwise, as they were under a time constraint to return to work
after their two year sabbatical at sea. It was quite a thrill to meet
them, hear about their travels, see their boat, and discover the real people
behind the blog.
The Dockwise ship
came from New Zealand to Ensenada and was headed on to Florida
via the Panama Canal. Several boats came into our marina from the
Dockwise ship, and we enjoyed many interesting tales of life in the
South Pacific. Most Ensenada cruisers we had met so far were on the
beginning leg of their adventures, having sailed down from points north
and stopped here on their way south. But these folks coming in from
New Zealand had all just spent a year or more traversing the exotic
tropical Pacific isles. A mega power yacht at the end of our dock was
headed to Florida via the same Dockwise ship, and they boarded once
the arriving boats had been floated off. Chatting with a crew member,
we learned that the bill for the owner to ship his 94' yacht from
Ensenada to Florida was going to be $84,000.
The same day that the boats arrived on the Dockwise ship, Gracie & Jerry aboard Pacific High left our marina for San Diego
on a different kind of adventure. Their engine had died completely and they needed to go to San Diego to install a new
engine. Friends on two inflatable dinghies pushed the boat out of its slip and into deep water outside the marina where they
could put their sails up. We decided to go for a sail ourselves a little later that morning, and because the wind had been
almost nonexistent, they were still nearby when we got underway. We sailed with them for a while up the coast.
They emailed us a few days later to
say that they had arrived in San Diego
safely and gotten a tow in. During
their trip they had passed the towing
favor on: a little dove landed on the aft
rail of their boat when they were about
30 miles into their trip, and she stayed
with them until they reached the
mouth of San Diego harbor. She
didn't appear to have a passport
under her wing, so she must have
bypassed the authorities. Or perhaps
her plans were to return to Ensenada
Find Ensenada on Mexico Maps.