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Baja Breakdowns, Band-Aids and Buddies

 

If you are one of my fellow travelers down the Baja Peninsula on the Mex 1 highway, sooner or later there is bound to be a Baja breakdown in your future.

Shortly after Mex 1 became a reality in the early 1970s, drivers discovered that much of the 1,000-plus miles of two-lane road were sparsely populated. Books were written describing the journey kilometer by kilometer, listing pages of spare parts that might be needed and probably couldn’t be found if you were to break down. Some of the lists seemed to have enough items to build a vehicle from the pavement up. Advice was ominous: “always carry five gallons of water, fill up the gas tank at every opportunity,” etc. I see dog-eared copies of these out-of-print books on the dash of cars traveling south, or in the seat next to a driver.

Over the years, the road has improved and there are more houses and villages. Gas stations have sprung up in even the most remote locations along with automotive parts stores, eliminating the need to carry a huge inventory of spare parts. But there is still plenty of quiet road on Mex 1.

Recently, on a return trip, I left mid-afternoon from Los Cabos and arrived at Palapa 206 RV Park in Constitución at dusk. The small park is convenient and has Wi-Fi. Around 1:15 p.m. the next day I crested a small hill on the north side of Punta Prieta, and I was congratulating myself on the headway I had made.

However, as I cruised down the other side of that hill, a Baja breakdown materialized within an instant.

I heard a loud “bang” and my van veered abruptly to the left. Slowing down, I instinctively reacted to what I assumed was a blowout and wrestled the van back toward the center of the road, while frantically looking for a safe spot to pull off. It was nearly a quarter of a mile before I had the van stopped and safely off the road in one of the most remote stretches of Mex 1 — an area with no cell service.

As I flung open the door and walked around to inspect the right front wheel, I felt helpless. To my surprise the tire was fine but the wheel was canted over. My problem was greater than a blow out, and I needed a tow truck.

That’s when I turned to technology for my first Band-Aid. I have carried SPOT, a Satellite Personal Tracker, for the past three years.This small, handheld unit allows me to send my GPS location via email to my wife when I travel.

The company’s recently improved unit, SPOT Connect, interfaces with a Bluetooth transceiver, enabling it to “sync” with a smartphone’s operating systems and allows a short text message (41 characters) to be sent via satellite. This was my first trip using the new device.

My wife, Yvonne received the following message:
GPS location: Latitude 29.3179 / Longitude 114.28183
Date/Time: 10/25/2011 13:22:43 PDT
Message: Right front axle 30 miles south Catavina

When she received the message she understood that I had broken down and immediately called the office manager at Vagabundos del Mar, where we purchased our Mexican insurance policy. Within a few minutes, she was speaking with E.B. Adair, President, Ada Vis Global Enterprises Inc., who then contacted his representative in Catavina via radio and a tow truck was dispatched to my location.

Since I could only send text and not receive, I didn’t know the progress Yvonne had made, so I flagged cars traveling north and south and asked them to notify a tow truck to come help me. Within the hour, a tow truck arrived and we were on our way to San Quintin, 184 miles to the north.

Second Band-Aid to Yvonne: GPS Location:

Latitude 29.72971 / Longitude 114.71986
Date/Time: 10/25/2011 15:46:48 PDT
Message: Cat now ETA SQ 7:30

Several hours later, we came into cellular range and I was able to reach Yvonne. While I was being towed, she contacted our buddy Ali Hussainy, owner of BD Outdoors, who had provided her contact info for several friends in San Quintin who could help her locate a garage for the front end work the van required.

Then, Capt. Kelly Catain, yet another buddy, came to the rescue. When Yvonne reached him, he immediately contacted Beto, of Beto’s Garage in San Quintin, who generously held his shop open until we could get there. Kelly called my cell and gave me directions to the shop. When we arrived the five-bay garage was dark and all the doors were closed. The tow truck driver nervously asked me to call Kelly again to have someone meet us. Just as I reached for the phone, one of the big bay doors began to open and Beto and his sons greeted us. Too tired to leave for a hotel, I asked Beto if I could use his electricity for the van and spend the night. He agreed as long as I didn’t mind being locked in until they returned the next morning — one of the advantages of carrying your home with you.

The next morning when Beto and his crew arrived, he went into his parts room and returned with what he needed to repair the van. By 11 a.m. I was on my way home.

While Baja breakdowns can’t be avoided, what used to be a several-day-long ordeal can be reduced dramatically.

Here are some helpful hints if you plan on driving down Mex 1 or trailering a boat.

1) Join a good travel club. Use them for road information, advice and a travel buddy if you feel insecure. And they offer the best deals on insurance policies. We’ve been with Vagabundos del Mar for well over 35 years.

2) Get a GOOD Mexican insurance policy. We always use the best insurance company and carry the best policy. You never know when you will need that extra tow.

3) Never leave home without a SPOT Connect. Just being able to communicate my exact location to Yvonne, even without cell service, shaved hours and perhaps a day off my rescue. And having Yvonne in the U.S., able to pick up the phone and call for help, and tell them exactly where I was gave me a major advantage.

So your breakdown might not be in a remote area, but applying a few Band-Aids along with a few buddies and of course a smidge of technology can turn any breakdown into another Baja adventure.

Baja Breakdowns

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Gary Graham, the BD Outdoors Baja Editor, has more than five decades fishing experience off of Southern California and the Baja Peninsula. From light tackle and fly up to offshore marlin fishing, Gary has experienced all facets of this fishery. He's set several fly-fishing world records and in his first year as a member of the Tuna Club of Avalon, he received more angling awards than any other first-year member in the club's 109-year history. He's been involved with many California angling clubs and is the Baja California Representative for the International Game Fish Association. 
Gary's a conservationist as well as a writer and photographer. In addition to two books on saltwater fly-fishing, hundreds of his articles and photographs have appeared in publications around the world. Graham has devoted his life to finding new fisheries and developing new techniques — all of which he shares through his guiding, speaking, photography and writing.