Mexico, Part 14: La Paz, Carnaval, Whale Sharks and a failing Clutch Master Cylinder

Making it to La Paz

Our last post ended with us driving some sand track just north of Todos Santos with a failing clutch master cylinder. The signs and symptoms were as follows: the clutch pedal would depress and hold the clutch for about 1.5 seconds, and then the clutch would drop and violently reengage the flywheel, leaving the clutch pedal depressed, but with no feedback. We had rebuilt the clutch master cylinder in August in Montana just after purchasing Little Foot, and at the time I had noticed some pitting in the cylinder's wall. I knew that the pitting was bad, but because I was most of the way through the rebuild, I figured I would complete the job and see if the new rubber seals would hold. The seals held and continued to hold for 12,000kms, until the pitting caused enough damage to allow the brake fluid to bypass the rubber bits.

So there we were, on a sand track, trying desperately not to stop because starting from a standstill was violent, as I didn't have enough time to engage 1st (a locked, non-synchronized gear) and instead had to drop the clutch onto 2nd gear, which wasn't a pleasant affair. NEVER had I been happier about Little Foot's shift-on-the-fly low range gearbox, and his engage-on-the-fly locking differentials and 6 wheel drive. With four levers slamming back and forth we made it out of the sand that desperately wanted to drag us down.

We limped Little Foot to La Paz, stopping only a handful of times and taking every stop sign and traffic light at a rolling pace. We made it to La Paz, found an RV park that offered dry camping, and parked with a great deal of relief. We were in a paid parking spot, with water, wifi, and bathrooms, and that freed us up to diagnose. I was fairly certain our problem was the clutch master cylinder, but I called two experts in California just to get their input as well, and they agreed. My parts supplier (check them out, they are AWESOME for UniMog, Pinz, and GWagen sales, supplies, and support: expeditionimports.com) had a new master cylinder in stock, which was excellent, but it was all the way in California, and between me and it lay a national border. Shipping, even just to Baja, was going to be a pain (because of customs), so we spent many hours calling in many favors, especially from our friend Mauricio and his business partner Scotty. I recognize that the write up of all this seems pretty straight forward, but trust me, it was a maelstrom of international calls and multi-lingual texts.

All the while, we had begun to develop neighbors in our secluded dry-camping area. The rest of the RV park was fairly well packed with cookie-cutter big-rigs, but soon the dry camping area filled out with the coolest rigs around. Strange birds of a feather follow the same rules as the rest of the flock! First, a newer Land Cruiser pulled up with a mostly stock body, save for its pop-top roof. Its inhabitants turned out to be German and Austrian, with one of them being from the Pinzgauer region of Austria! What luck! I asked her if she had any spare Pinzgauer parts, but alas, she did not. Next, Christa and Johan, whom we had met in Todos Santos, arrived in their older Land Cruiser outfitted with an AlphaCab camper box. They are Swiss, which means Johan is a veteran of mandatory military service and trained in Pinzgauers back in the day. Lastly, another Swiss gentleman showed up in his Hyundai 4WD van, who also trained in Pinzgauers! We were surrounded by people who knew that choosing to travel, or even drive, in a Pinzgauer was a crazy and borderline bad idea. (As evidence, when we first met Johan and Christa on the streets of Todos Santos we introduced ourselves as the drivers of the Pinzgauer they had seen rolling around, to which Johan replied, "AH! So you're the masochists!")

Surrounded by Europeans who knew better than to buy a Pinz!

Surrounded by Europeans who knew better than to buy a Pinz!

Down time at the rv park meant it was a good time to catch up on our blog posts.

Down time at the rv park meant it was a good time to catch up on our blog posts.

Our plea!

Our plea!

I took the time to check the valves while parked - i like to do it at every oil change - and while I was at it I taught some other travelers how to use a feeler gauge.

I took the time to check the valves while parked - i like to do it at every oil change - and while I was at it I taught some other travelers how to use a feeler gauge.

Chelsea went swimming with whale sharks as I rotated tires! Division of labor!

Chelsea went swimming with whale sharks as I rotated tires! Division of labor!

Whale Sharks

(Chelsea here…I'm writing this section since Christian wasn't there!)

While Christian stayed back at the truck trying to get the ball rolling on getting our part and rotating the tires, I got to tag along with the Swiss/German bunch to go swim with whale sharks. It was the one big thing I'd had my heart set on doing while we were down in Baja, and when our clutch started going between Todos Santos and La Paz, Christian broke the news to me that it likely wouldn't happen. Lucky us, the amazing folks parked around us had arranged a group trip together and I was able to tag along to fulfill my dream.

The boat they'd booked was small and intimate, perfect for our group of six. As we motored out to the bay, breaking down only once, we changed into our wet suits and got our snorkel gear and GoPros ready. It's a very laid-back process, with several boats communicating by radio to let the captains know where the whale sharks are located. The boats then circle around, trawling slowly to keep up with the ever-moving creatures. Each load of people takes a turn, jumping into the water with fanfare when the captain says "go." The water fills with splashing and fumbling snorkelers, all vying for an up close and personal glimpse of the massive creature, all the while, the whale shark continues swimming, unfazed by the clamor around it. When the crowd tires and the whale shark disappears into the murky turquoise, the swimmers return to their boat and the next boat gets in place to drop its eager visitors into the water.

Being with such a small group was a huge bonus, as it meant we weren't fighting each other to get close to the whale shark. The water was just murky enough to make it difficult to discern which direction to go once in the water. I had a very difficult time managing the waves that were splashing into my snorkel and choking me with saltwater. After a few minutes of this, I became a bit jumbled and turned around, so I had to stop, reach up and empty my snorkel to continue. With the situation under control, I dunked back under the water, only to reel back in surprise that I was directly above the whale shark we'd been pursuing. In my struggle, I hadn't noticed the giant creature heading my way right before I'd gone above water. They'd warned us not to touch the whale sharks, which I respected, as I'm of the opinion that we're messing with their environment enough just swimming around them. I was so close, I actually had to make a concerted effort to not disturb the beast or graze its flesh. I floated there, holding my breath, as the form moved swiftly and gracefully below me, very barely missing me with its giant tail fin as it continued into the depths.

The GoPro I was haphazardly swinging around in my right hand caught the shadow of the head before it swung with me above water, then, after capturing my choking escapade, it picked up the moment I dunked back in. Full disclosure…I'm not very good with a GoPro. I'm a photographer by career, but I tend to get shaky, blurry and poorly framed content whenever I use a GoPro. Luckily, I was videoing, so at least I got something, but the quality is lacking. Apologies ahead of time for the crooked photos!

I tired out fairly quickly, as kicking and swimming were pure torture on my back. We had jumped into the water a total of four times and in addition to being above the whale shark once, a second time had enabled me to swim right beside it for quite a while, getting a wonderful glimpse of the giant creature. As the rest of the group continued their pursuit, I climbed back into the boat, satisfied with my experience.

Underwater selfie!

Underwater selfie!

The image my GoPro saw that I didn't, right before I pulled it up to adjust my snorkel.

The image my GoPro saw that I didn't, right before I pulled it up to adjust my snorkel.

The moment I put my head and GoPro back underwater, I was greeted with a close encounter!

The moment I put my head and GoPro back underwater, I was greeted with a close encounter!

As you can see, I was inches from the whale shark. I this shot, you can see the scarred fin, likely caused from rubbing on the bottom of a boat.

As you can see, I was inches from the whale shark. I this shot, you can see the scarred fin, likely caused from rubbing on the bottom of a boat.

A good shot for size reference.

A good shot for size reference.

This time I swam beside the whale shark, not above.

This time I swam beside the whale shark, not above.

Climbing back in with fins and a bum back was difficult!

Climbing back in with fins and a bum back was difficult!

Getting towed back to the dock!

Getting towed back to the dock!

Carnaval

We arrived in La Paz on a Friday afternoon, after my specialty parts shop in US was already closed, so we had to wait the entire weekend before even confirming that they had the part in stock. Saturday was spent diagnosing, Sunday doing our Bible study and twiddling our thumbs, Monday calling frantically... the days extended longer than I wanted, but it gave us yet another chance to slow down. We've been perfecting the art of slow travel since 2014, and God keeps giving us chances to slow down even more. Carnaval extended all weekend, and we visited the malacon to see the parade on Monday, the night it was closing down. The food was out of this world, with many stalls offering many unhealthy foods. Available were churros, tacos, hot cakes, hot dogs, breads and candies of every sort - think state fair food, but dirt cheap and way better.

The parade was great. Many, many floats, some amateur and some professional blared traditional Mexican, pop, and Mexican pop. Many floats were produced and staffed by local dance schools, meaning that the every float had every kind of person, and every kind of body dancing away to the music. None of the standard beauty-pageant-only attitude - everyone was welcome. One float, our favorite, was created by a local school for disabled children, which made us love the inclusion and think of our amazing nephew Paxton. 

Speaking of the little dude Paxton, Wednesday of that week was World Rare Disease Day! So, in honor of my inspirational nephew Paxton, I shaved an inspirational mustache into my face. The next day we left La Paz, under our own power but not happy about it. The clutch master cylinder was working well enough to drive, but it wasn't a sustainable action. We set our eyes on Loreto (a favorite Baja city of ours…and the location of the one person who'd been able to give Chels pain relief for her back), and at the encouragement of Johan and Christa, and at the discouragement of Little Foot, we drove on, north into Baja, intent on making it to Loreto to await our part.

The scene at the  malacon  for the parade.

The scene at the malacon for the parade.

Considering hot dogs. Hot dogs considered.

Considering hot dogs. Hot dogs considered.

The parade route was also the party route. But the party was really, really family friendly.

The parade route was also the party route. But the party was really, really family friendly.

Oh yes. Yes please.

Oh yes. Yes please.

Fried bananas.

Fried bananas.

Fried  bananas . (Techincally, they're plantains…but they're awesome and very similar to bananas. - Chels)

Fried bananas. (Techincally, they're plantains…but they're awesome and very similar to bananas. - Chels)

Sun setting on a parade.

Sun setting on a parade.

The float of kiddos with disabilites!

The float of kiddos with disabilites!

Street art in La Paz.

Street art in La Paz.

World Rare Disease Day mustache!

World Rare Disease Day mustache!

Johan and Christa cheering us on.

Johan and Christa cheering us on.

On the road and shifting as little as possible, and  definitely  not stopping.

On the road and shifting as little as possible, and definitely not stopping.

Mexico, Part 9: Nearly Deserted Road and Nearly Deserted Beaches

Nearly Deserted Roads

After leaving Agua Verde all four sets of couples (Jan and Diana, the Spaniards in the Windstar, Pablo and Anna, and ourselves) went separate ways at separate speeds. At Agua Verde, Mexico 1 cuts across the Baja Peninsula headed west, and very nearly hits the coast before turning southeast and heading back to the Sea of Cortez. Between the coasts we spent a few nights at an RV park to catch up on blog posts and enjoy some hot showers before hitting the road again. Leaving civilization, we had our eyes on a dirt road adventure along the Pacific Coast, but were turned back when the locals told us the road on our map didn’t actually exist.

We poked around unsuccessfully, looking for more adventurous side roads, but as the afternoon shadows grew longer we eventually settled on driving to a Pacific surf spot that was listed as a good area for free camping. 10km into a 20km drive down a sandy track, we gave up and stopped for the night. We weren’t going to surf at the beach, the road was deserted, the view was great, and there was no reason not to stop.

The next morning we enjoyed coffee while gazing out over the forest of cactus that laid like carpet over the rolling hills that lead down to the beach, nature’s hand only interrupted by the continuation of the sandy track that had led us to our impromptu, roadside camp spot. Everything was silent; we were alone, stillness laying ahead of us for miles to the sea, except for one tiny puff of dust that soon became a small cloud, and then a trail of flying dirt and diesel fumes furiously kicked up by nothing other than a green and silver Mitsubishi Delica! Pablo and Anna and their van La Cucaracha (of Viajeros4x4x4 fame) had found us again!

We flagged them down and exchanged pleasantries, and both agreed that the nature of Baja, for the traveler at least, is very much that of a town with a single street. We were separately headed for La Paz, the big port city in Southern Baja, and planned to meet up at a Tecolate beach, a popular free camping spot for long distance travelers, to celebrate Chelsea's birthday. The one-street-town nature of Baja had us accidentally bump into each other two more times before the beach. The Peninsula is small when it wants to be.

A beautiful sandy track surrounded by cactus.

A beautiful sandy track surrounded by cactus.

Our lazy, halfway camping spot on the side of a road.

Our lazy, halfway camping spot on the side of a road.

The forest of cactus that laid like carpet over the hills.

The forest of cactus that laid like carpet over the hills.

Testing the six wheel drive - front axle engaged (green lever), rear lockers engaged (middle yellow lever), and front locker engaged (far right yellow lever). Only test on soft straight roads!

Testing the six wheel drive - front axle engaged (green lever), rear lockers engaged (middle yellow lever), and front locker engaged (far right yellow lever). Only test on soft straight roads!

Tecolate Beach

We didn’t really enjoy Tecolate beach, but we did enjoy the company we found. While we were there a strong norte, the northerly winds that ran Rod out of Agua Verde a day early, kicked up, throwing light silt into every crevasse of our rig, and rendering the shoreline unusable for swimming or relaxing. As we sought shelter from the wind we ran into our friends Dani and Kevin, the nice folks we met in Mulege, traveling in their Iveco Trakker with their dog Mali. Finding them made the windy beach more bearable. Eventually we met up with Pablo and Anna as well, and goofed around for Chelsea’s birthday, taking some funny photos in the operating but nearly deserted beachside restaurants.

Sunset at Tecolate with Mali, Dani and Kevin.

Sunset at Tecolate with Mali, Dani and Kevin.

Tecolate restaurant deck. Half the restaurant was deck, the other half was a beached ship cememented into the ground. No joke.

Tecolate restaurant deck. Half the restaurant was deck, the other half was a beached ship cememented into the ground. No joke.

Tecolate beach restaurants and Chels looking a little discouraged and windblown by the thwarted birthday beach day.

Tecolate beach restaurants and Chels looking a little discouraged and windblown by the thwarted birthday beach day.

Pablo nailed it.

Pablo nailed it.

Nearly Deserted Beaches

The next day we shook off the night’s festivities and headed to a possibly deserted beach. We followed a windy road of immaculate asphalt out to some beaches just south of La Paz. La Cucaracha and Little Foot dove off the pavement and onto the dirt at the first possibility, a decision motivated by the hand of God more than the mind of man. We navigated a washed-out decent that caused some Japanese steel to meet some Mexican rock (the Austrian steel was unscathed) only to find a lonely little Volkswagen sedan and a helpless young man at the bottom of the hill, with the car backed up into a berm, and two wheels off the ground. God had sent us down the hill to perform a rescue!

The gentleman had been driving home from the beach the night before and took a wrong turn. As he nosed up to the hill we had just descended, he realized he had made a mistake. While attempting to make a three point turn, he reversed with too much enthusiasm and got stuck on the berm. He had been there all night! We broke out the shovels and muscles and dug him out, and after a short chat we realized that he knew our friend Mauricio (of @Ensenada fame), and the world of Baja got even smaller.

We spent two nights on the beach with Pablo and Anna. It was our first sighting of mobula rays breaching and splashing in the water, as if they were clapping with their entire body. Dolphins splashed in the distance, and a single lonely sea lion sat on a rock and sang to us for hours. Other highlights included baking bread over the campfire, and trying some of Pablo and Anna’s fantastic salted cod spread. There is a recipe he published in Overland Journal out there somewhere, and I’ll try to find it for you. We also collected and steamed crabs, continuing the theme of Pablo and I killing animals and eating them.

A rescue! I was hoping we would need to pull him out but four extra people pushing while Chels revved the gas was enough.

A rescue! I was hoping we would need to pull him out but four extra people pushing while Chels revved the gas was enough.

La Cucuracha chasing me down!

La Cucuracha chasing me down!

Getting ready to tread some sand.

Getting ready to tread some sand.

Our deserted beach.

Our deserted beach.

Prime crab hunting territory.

Prime crab hunting territory.

Crab hunting with Pablo.

Crab hunting with Pablo.

Crabs!

Crabs!

Tasty crabs.

Tasty crabs.

We were surrounded by 360° of beauty. That forest is huge cacti.

We were surrounded by 360° of beauty. That forest is huge cacti.

Prepping bread. We baked it in coals, not on the burner.

Prepping bread. We baked it in coals, not on the burner.

The beach, with some of the cleanest and clearest water we've seen yet.

The beach, with some of the cleanest and clearest water we've seen yet.

Pablo and Anna brought a kayak from Ensenada and chased down some mobula rays.

Pablo and Anna brought a kayak from Ensenada and chased down some mobula rays.

Consulting maps.

Consulting maps.

A Bad Road and a Rocky Cove

After Leaving La Ventana and the comfort of a few days doing nothing on the beach, we set our eyes on more beach and more nothingness as Pablo and Anna headed inland. Our goal was a specific isolated rocky cove that had earned our friend Mauricio the cover shot of the 2016 Rovers North calendar. Two route options presented themselves: a short drive up and over the mountains that lay between us and our beach, or drive south around the mountains and then turn and drive back north again along the coast and through some small towns to our destination. The second option felt laborious and dull, but more importantly we have three locking differentials and nearly 35” mud terrain tires and we need reasons to use them. We filled our tanks and headed to the hills for what we thought would be a mild dirt road, After all, Google maps said we were only 56 minutes away!

What ensued was a stiff climb up a large hill that featured exposed cliffs, off camber turns, a handful of ledges, and loose granite scree. At times my navigator was crying, and at other times her terror rendered her mute, a silence that was quite unnerving. We parked in places to get out and walk, to scout lines, and to weigh options. We shoveled loose gravel into piles in hopes that some of the ledges would toss us a little less. Two hours of the drive was spent out of the vehicle. At times Loulou was even buckled in.

In the end it was a great drive, if a little jarring at times as Little Foot trundled down washed out slopes. Driving a challenging road with your home on the back of your truck definitely lowers your comfort level, but we made it, and the rocky cove was worth every tear and whimper.

We spent two days at the rocky cove, again doing not much. Highlights were reading books, snorkeling, and baking bread over the fire. Loulou chased hermit crabs on the rocks, which was probably a trip highlight for her. On the second day, Sabrina and Henning (of TrailGypsies fame) and Jan and Diana (of steffens.live fame) found us, driving up to the road we had just come down. They weren’t looking for us or the rocky cove and we hadn’t made plans to meet up, illustrating once again that Baja can be small when it wants to be.

While we were camped at the rocky cove Chelsea and I did a little unpacking of the rig, only to find that some moisture, likely sweat, had been trapped under our fantastic IKEA futon mattress and had started to mildew! Luckily we had the sun on our side, so out came the mattress to bake in the warmth after a thorough bleach-spray session as I fired up the drill and added some breather holes to the plywood that forms the base of our bed.

The problem of mold and mildew makes sense – mattresses need to breathe because we are wet, disgusting animals. While building out Little Foot in Montana we had toyed around with the idea of using a slatted platform to support the bed but had decided on a single sheet of plywood to help with weight, strength, and simplicity. I hadn’t really revisited the problem until now, and I expressed my woes to Henning, who promptly told me that they take their mattress out of their rig at least every few weeks, and drying mattresses is just part of extended car-based travel. I mention this only to show how helpful it can be to talk, at length, with other overlanders, or really anyone in your trade or niche activity. The BS sessions between overlanders aren’t just competitions or mental floss – often both parties gain valuable insights into the shared and unconventional lifestyle.

The start of the drive.

The start of the drive.

Things getting steeper.

Things getting steeper.

Parked in a good spot as we scouted and shoveled.

Parked in a good spot as we scouted and shoveled.

Loulou buckled in, and the rear diffs engaged!

Loulou buckled in, and the rear diffs engaged!

One of a few spots we piled up rocks to limit Little Foots rolling.

One of a few spots we piled up rocks to limit Little Foots rolling.

Just a little light road construction.

Just a little light road construction.

Note from Chelsea: I took this photo after all the scary stuff was over. The technical section was so scary that the idea of taking photos or video just seemed wrong…if something truly bad had happened, I would've been racked with guilt over having been recording instead of helping. Instead, I walked ahead in the line where we had decided the driver's tire would be and used a walkie talkie to communicate any other directions Christian might need. I took this photo as Christian rounded a bend above the scary section to wait for me to run up and jump in. I'm including it to show the angle of Little Foot as it climbs around a slight curve. What scared me the most was being on sections of this road that were so narrow that when Little Foot would pitch like this, it was directly over a steep cliff. So, please take my word for it when I say, it felt much scarier than it looks! 

Note from Chelsea: I took this photo after all the scary stuff was over. The technical section was so scary that the idea of taking photos or video just seemed wrong…if something truly bad had happened, I would've been racked with guilt over having been recording instead of helping. Instead, I walked ahead in the line where we had decided the driver's tire would be and used a walkie talkie to communicate any other directions Christian might need. I took this photo as Christian rounded a bend above the scary section to wait for me to run up and jump in. I'm including it to show the angle of Little Foot as it climbs around a slight curve. What scared me the most was being on sections of this road that were so narrow that when Little Foot would pitch like this, it was directly over a steep cliff. So, please take my word for it when I say, it felt much scarier than it looks! 

The road was as beautiful as it was exciting.

The road was as beautiful as it was exciting.

The rocky cove with dinner on the fire.

The rocky cove with dinner on the fire.

Loulou the hermit crab hunter.

Loulou the hermit crab hunter.

Bread baking.

Bread baking.

The rocky cove at sunrise that earned Mauricio the cover of the Rovers North calendar.

The rocky cove at sunrise that earned Mauricio the cover of the Rovers North calendar.

Little Foot looks good from every angle…at least we think so…but we're a little biased!

Little Foot looks good from every angle…at least we think so…but we're a little biased!

Mold and mildew. More like mild-ewwwwww.

Mold and mildew. More like mild-ewwwwww.

Planning my holes to add at least a little air flow. Don't worry…we thoroughly bleached and scrubbed all of this off.

Planning my holes to add at least a little air flow. Don't worry…we thoroughly bleached and scrubbed all of this off.

Drilling.

Drilling.

Commuter traffic! Even the main paved roads aren't without obstacles!

Commuter traffic! Even the main paved roads aren't without obstacles!

Los Barriles

Los Barriles is a tourist town, end of sentence. Its been taken over by Americans and Canadians and has lost a lot of its Mexican charm. We ran into town only to seek out WiFi, update the blog, and run some errands. Otherwise, we stayed on yet another deserted beach and enjoyed more free camping, more fires, and more nothingness. 

We were so turned off by the rampant Americanization of the town that we chose to avoid viewing the Superbowl. I really wanted to watch the Patriots, they are my team, but I just couldn't put up with the foreigner bars, and therefore I missed what my little brother told me was "The greatest game of football ever." Instead we found solace in our weekly Bible study, because Superbowl Sunday is still a Sunday!

Loulou: "Guys, maybe I can go for a swim?"

Loulou: "Guys, maybe I can go for a swim?"

Snorkel everywhere.

Snorkel everywhere.

Chelsea doing dishes.

Chelsea doing dishes.

Many of our dinner are simply guacamole.

Many of our dinner are simply guacamole.

A beach well above Los Barriles, kitchen of course facing the ocean.

A beach well above Los Barriles, kitchen of course facing the ocean.

Getting a fire going dinner.

Getting a fire going dinner.

Chicken from the fire this evening.

Chicken from the fire this evening.

Our Sundays are always spent with a weekly podcast from Barabbas Road Church (Chels' old church in San Diego) that we follow along with while going verse-by-verse through the Bible.

Our Sundays are always spent with a weekly podcast from Barabbas Road Church (Chels' old church in San Diego) that we follow along with while going verse-by-verse through the Bible.