Monthly Archives: February 2010

More unusual drug trafficking tricks

I don’t know who thinks up of these things, but it’s amazing the level of human ingenuity when it comes to transporting drugs across the border and through the United States.

Aside from the usual human “mules” who strap drugs to their body parts, I’ve read about  drugs being transported in frozen sharks,  stuffed into Elmo dolls, and even inside (live) puppies.   I once talked to someone connected to the drug trade, when I was a reporter at The San Diego Union-Tribune, who had heard of a scheme to fill fruit juice cartons with drugs.

The Los Angeles Times recently reported on another interesting mode of transporting drugs: Stuffing marijuana inside bike wheels. According to this February blog post, an 18-year-old man (a U.S. citizen)  was crossing the pedestrian checkpoint in San Ysidro  – with his bike – when a customer decided to squeeze the bike wheels. It became clear that there wasn’t just air inside.

But that’s really kind of old school when you consider the engineering efforts involved in bringing larger quantities of drugs across land and sea. Four years ago, a submarine stuffed with cocaine was found off the coast of Costa Rica. And before I forget, an under-construction drug tunnel was discovered in February along the Otay Mesa (San Diego) border crossing area. You can read more about that in this SDUT article.

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Sonora/Baja Road Trip. Day Ten: The drive back to Tijuana


This is the final of a series of blog posts about a ten-day trip I recently took south of the border through the Mexican state of Sonora and then back up north (after a ferry trip across the Gulf of California) through the Baja Peninsula.

Actual travel date: Jan 3, 2010. Baja California North.

The border road trip was winding to a close. Over the past nine days we had seen and done a lot: Exploring the state of Sonora, crossing the Gulf of California in a ferry – and visiting islands and cave art sites along the Baja peninsula. It was Sunday, and time to head back to the Tijuana border. This would be an all-day drive along the Transpeninsular highway, but fortunately the Baja peninsula landscape is never boring.

We left Guerrero Negro at 8 a.m., which was actually 7 a.m. Tijuana time (the time zone switches once you cross into or out of Guerrero Negro). It was foggy, but eventually the shroud parted to reveal a flat stretch of desert with cactus bent in odd angles. Our second road-kill episode during the trip (after the previous night’s coyote hit) took place when a small bird impaled itself on the car antenna.

By 9:30, we had reached Catavina. We had foolishly forgotten to fill up on gasoline at Guerrero Negro or other places nearby, so this was our only hope for fuel. There isn’t a PEMEX gas station here, but there are other options like this guy on the side of the road who probably earns a pretty decent living from travelers like us.

Catavina is a good place to stretch your legs. It’s a speck along the road with a smattering of hotels and food place. It would be nicer if there weren’t so much graffiti on the rocks, but if you pull off the main road you can immerse yourself in a more authentic desert experience.

We left Catavinia around 10 a.m. and then pushed on to El Rosario, which is about an hour away. We reached the agricultural community of  San Quintin at noon and kept driving along the main road cuts through town, lost in indecision over where to go for lunch. After eating some unmemorable fish tacos, we continued north.
I lost track of the number of military checkpoints we went through during this one day. I think it must have been around eight.


Three hours later, we arrived in  Ensenada from San Quintin. For some reason, I was seized by a sudden urge for donuts. By the time we left Ensenada the sky was starting to darken.

It had been a long day on the road but we made good time. We reached Tijuana at 5 p.m. –  about nine hours after we left Guerrero Negro – and I was back in the LA area a few hours after that. When I look at this map below, I’m somewhat amazed at the ground that we managed to cover in just ten days. Sure, it would have been great to have just gone to one place or region and get to know it really well. A road trip can be somewhat superficial and cursory, especially when you have a limited time frame. But on the other hand, it is also a chance to get the bigger picture of things and to realize how much more there is to get to know.

Dotted lines on map represent north-bound part of trip.

Jennifer Aniston goes to Baja; helping a Tijuana orphanage

Jennifer Aniston was recently in Cabo San Lucas where she spent her birthday and did an interview with Access Hollywood. She apparently helps out a group called Friends of El Faro that does charity work south of the border. One of their projects is with a Tijuana orphanage and school called Casa Hogar Sion.

Aniston, who stayed at the Palmilla resort , helped launch the $95 Farita doll – presumably named so on behalf of the Faro group – to raise money for the orphanage (though I can’t seem to find a picture of the doll anywhere).

Aniston gave a plug for the orphanage: “They have been given a lot of love and they’re getting educated, which is the most important thing for them,” she told Access Hollywood.

And for Mexican tourism: “Mexico is really hurting right now because of the swine flu and the drug trafficking and all this sort kind of stuff – but it’s not all of Mexico. These people survive on us coming down and spending money and coming here to these beautiful places,” she told Access Hollywood.

Joining Jennifer in Baja, according to the UPI, were Courtney Cox, Jason Bateman, Sheryl Crow, Kathy Najimy and Gerard Butler. And it looks like the Mexican military did their part to keep away the paparazzi boats.

Photo of Cabo San Lucas bay  by Stan Shebs, via Creative Commons License.

Sonora/Baja Road Trip. Day Nine: Hiking through Trinidad Canyon, near Mulege


This is part nine of a series of blog posts about a ten-day trip I recently took south of the border through the Mexican state of Sonora and then back up north (after a ferry trip across the Gulf of California) through the Baja Peninsula.

Actual travel date: Jan 2, 2010, Mulege. Baja California (south).

By Saturday, most of the New Year’s revelers in Mulege had shaken off their hangovers and the village  returned to its normal routine. We left our car at an auto shop (a result of  the previous day’s mountain excursion) and then met up with Salvador Castro, a local guide who would take us to the Trinidad Canyon – a rocky outcrop that is decorated with smatterings of pre-Columbian painted art.

Our travel companions included a German family, and a mother and daughter from Mexico City. We first went to a government office where we obtained permits to hike into the protected area. Then we scrambled into Salvador’s white van. It all was very deja vu. I had done this trip three years go with Salvador as a guide but I don’t think he remembered me.

Along the way, Salvador took us to a citrus orchard where we willingly bought some juicy oranges. Back in the van, the Germans got photo-happy about seeing some vultures spreading their wings on the tips of cactus. Salvador made a stop along the way to talk about the medicinal qualities of certain desert plants.:

After more than an hour we arrived at a house that would be our jumping-off point for the hike. I knew that we would be crossing a pool of water on our way to the caves. I remembered it as being about waist- or chest-high, and that I had used a rope to balance myself as I crossed the slippery rocks.

So I was a little surprised to encounter  – not a manageable pool – but a lake.  We would have to swim. 

After much heming and hawing, we all made it across. It took about 12 seconds to get to the other side, but the water was so cold that I felt like I was hyperventilating when I finally forced myself into the water after much delay. Not far from the water, we encountered the first markings of cave art:

We did more hiking, including wading through some more manageable water patches:

Then we reached another section of cave art:

By then the kids of our group were getting hungry so we scrambled back down to the hiking path. This time, I plunged right into the lake water to hurry things up. Salvador had brought a cooler with food and drinks so we had lunch on a rock slab before heading back to the house where the van was parked at.

Back in Mulege, we picked up our own car and grabbed some dinner around 5 p.m. before heading across the peninsula to Guerrero Negro. The drive took us four hours. It was uneventful except for a couple of stops at military checkpoints and an unfortunate  hit-and-run with a coyote that left a scrape on the car’s front.

TRAVEL TIPS: 

To  make arrangements for the hike, we just went to the Hotel Las Casitas in Mulege and asked how to reach a guide. They dialed up Salvador and put him on the line for us. The trip cost about $180 for the four of us. You leave around 9 a.m. and return by 4 p.m. During the rainy season, ask about the height of the water you will be crossing to visit the caves. It’s a good idea to wear swimming clothes underneath your hiking clothes. Salvador provided a waterproof bag to protect clothes and camera equipment. Salvador’s web site: http://www.mulegetours.com/

Trip from Mulege to Guerrero Negro (see the blue dotted lines on the map below) is roughly four hours.

Dotted lines on this map represent north-bound travels:


Sonora/Baja Road Trip. Day Eight: Mission San Francisco Javier, outside of Loreto

This is part of a series of blog posts about a ten-day trip I recently took south of the border through the Mexican state of Sonora and then back up north (after a ferry trip across the Gulf of California) through the Baja Peninsula.

Actual travel date: Jan. 1, 2010. Mission San Francisco de Javier, to the west of Loreto (Baja California – south).

The last time I visited Mission San Francisco de Javier, which is located to the west of Loreto, the road to the mission was being rebuilt and we spent a lot of time driving around in circles trying to find the alternative road.  It was a frustrating, bumpy ride. This time I am happy to report that a good chunk of the mountainous road to the mission is now smooth asphalt.

From the exit point just south of Loreto (at 9 a.m.), we were sailing along pretty nicely for a good 20 minutes. I was starting to think that we would be getting to the mission in under an hour. But then we started to notice crumbling chunks of the asphalt along the side of the cliffs. Some of these sections were marked with cones, and other were simply demarcated by large stones. This was not encouraging, but at least it gave us advance warning of what we would be facing when we drove back down the mountain road.

After 2o minutes, the road changes abruptly to gravel. But that’s ok because it keeps you going at a slower pace to take in the landscape.

Within an hour you get your first glimpse of the ocean to the east, and the faraway sea flirted with us as we pushed upward. You can also get an idea of the region’s pre-Columbian cave art at this pit stop:

So much of this excursion is about the scenery, so after several stops we got to the mission in about an hour-and-a-half (1o:20 a.m.). The mission was complete in 1758 and its considered to be one of Baja California’s best-preserved mission churches, according to The Lonely Planet guidebook. If you get here December 3, you can observe pilgrims coming here to honor or celebrate the saint.

Some things looked the same: We visited the mission, with its old tombstones.

Other things were new. Across from the mission are a surprisingly large number of public bathroom stalls (with toilet paper) for the number of visitors we saw at the mission this day. 

The last time I came here there was just one restaurant, which we ate at again: Restaurant Palapa San Javier. But now there are two places. Out of habit, we went back to the Palapa (where I had Mexican-style eggs). We explored the area for about an hour-and-a-half, and then started back down the mountain.

After a while, we started to hear a clattering sound. Some part of the car’s underbelly had come loose and was dragging on the ground. We used a cord to hold it in place until we reached Loreto.

Trying to find a mechanic on the day after New Year’s is a huge challenge. Pretty much everything is closed, but some taxi drivers referred us to a place where some temporary adjustments were made. We would still need to get the car repaired at a mechanic that had the necessary parts, but at least this would get us to the next leg of our route: Back north to Mulege. We  arrived there two hours later from Loreto, and checked into the Hotel Vieja Hacienda.

We had already made  reservations to take a hike the following day – Saturday – to the pre-Columbian rock art sites in La Trinidad Canyon. It was too late to search for a mechanic in Mulege. The entire town seemed to be continuing their New Year’s celebration in the streets and a few local bars. We grabbed some pizza for dinner: 

Then we considered our options. Our (hopeful)  plan for the next day – Saturday –  was to get the car to a mechanic in the early morning. If all went well, they would be able to fix the car while we were hiking.  Then we could pick it up later that afternoon and start heading north back to Tijuana. You can stress over these things, or just accept it as part of the adventure: What’s a road trip without a wrench thrown in to keep us all on our toes, right?

TRAVEL TIPS: From Loreto, head south a few minutes until you see a sign to your right leading you to the mission. Give yourself about an-hour-and-a half to get to the mission. The first 20 minutes will be on asphalt, and afterwards the road becomes dirt and gravel. Be careful driving so that you don’t puncture a tire – or damage your car – and take advantage of the trip to make plenty of photo stops and to visit the cave paintings. Best time to leave is in the morning, so that you can have lunch at the mission. This gives you time to explore the village and the mission grounds.

Map of the road trip that started in Tijuana: Dotted lines indicate north bound leg.