John's Travel Journal

From Seattle to Costa Rica - The Long Way!

Part I. Driving the West Coast from Seattle to Cabo San Lucas

The Trip Begins

In September of 2004 I decided to take a break from the high tech life in Seattle, and go to Costa Rica for the winter to build a house with a friend. After considerable thought, I decided to take a somewhat circuitous, but extremely interesting route. I would drive to Tampa, Florida, and then put my truck on a container ship to Costa Rica.

The route I would take? Down the entire Pacific coast from the Northwest tip of the United States at Cape Flattery to the tip of Cabo San Lucas, Mexico; then back up the Sea of Cortez to the US. Then due east, passing through California, Arizona, New Mexico, and emerging at Padre Island, Texas and circumnavigating the Gulf via New Orleans and Apachicola to Tampa, Florida.

Why not drive directly to Costa Rica? It turns out that the paperwork for the six borders you have to cross just aren't worth the hassle. Better to ship the truck and boat to Costa Rica from Tampa and then do regional forays from there.

Accompanying me would be my dog Buster, an experienced traveler and all around dog-about-town. Objectives of the trip included fishing, nature photography, writing, playing music and finding inner peace.

Oh, and maybe a little coding, image processing and HTML (old habits die hard...)

Dungeness Spit - October 5th

The first stop was only a few miles from Seattle; Dungeness Spit. One of the longest natural sand hooks in the world (7 miles). The area is a National Wildlife Reserve and has several trails and a campground. No dogs allowed on the Spit itself, so Buster would have to keep a low profile.

Dungeness Spit National Wildlife Refuge

As we walked along the coast trail, the water was a clear aquamarine. The waves lapped gently on the beach. Suddenly a whale surfaced and spouted gently just 75 feet from us - so close to the beach that it was actually inside the kelp beds. We moved together up the beach for 45 minutes, man, whale and dog... as the sun set over the sound.

Nightly Accommodations: Dungeness county boat ramp. I parked by the Indian fish house. Cost: $0.

Hoh Rainforest / La Push - October 6th-7th

One of my favorite places in the world when I want to get away from the hustle and bustle of civilization is the Hoh rainforest. There's a little campground set beside the Hoh River that only has 3 campsites. Like few things in this world today, it's also free. I hope it stays that way.

Beautiful fall colors in the Olympics

I stopped and asked "Old Bob" at Olympic Sporting Goods in Forks where the fish were hanging out. He told me that the salmon were hitting at the mouth of the Quilliyute River system, which includes some of the great salmon and steelhead rivers of the world - the Bogachiel, the Calawah, and the Sol Duc. As we were talking, a guy walked in and asked Bob if he'd like to go troll at the mouth of the river at La Push - and when Bob declined, he turned to me and said "How about you"? Turned out he was a fishing guide who just couldn't stop fishing - and he took me out for a day's free guided fishing at La Push. Sunset over the sea stacks was great - as was the fresh King Salmon Teriyaki with Shitake Mushroom Sauce I had that night by the campfire. Buster seemed to think that his kibble tasted pretty good with Shitake sauce as well....

Sunset at La Push from the fishing boat

As we settled in by the campfire, a feeling of incredible well being came over me. The glowing coals, the incredible dinner...all was well with the world, and the trip seemed to have really begun. As we began to snooze by the fire, we suddenly heard the sounds of a large animal crossing the river in the pitch darkness a few hundred feet upstream from us. Really large - big enough to be dislodging small boulders the size of softballs in the riverbed, and sending them rolling downstream in the current. Buster was astounded - suddenly sitting up on full alert. Only three things were big enough to make that kind of sound - a bear, a cougar, or an elk. All of them worth considerable respect on a dark night by the river.

As the moments passed, another animal crossed, then another. It was a huge Olympic Elk bull and his harem of 10 or 20 females, passing through en route to bedding down for the night.

Accommodations: Willoughby Creek Campground, Hoh Rainforest. Cost: $0.

Cape Flattery - Most NW Point

To really claim that we drove the entire west coast, it seemed that we had to touch base at Cape Flattery - the northwestmost point in the continental United States. It was here that the Indians first spotted Captain Cook headed into Puget Sound.

It was a wet hike down the trail to the point. The view from the little observation deck was truly northwestern - wet, windy and barren - but with a wild beauty. Buster posed for a photo - and both of us were looking forward to taking the matching photo at the tip of Cabo San Lucas!

Buster at Cape Flattery - Most NW Point

Newhalem River / Newhalem Falls - October 8th

There are a few places that you pass through on a trip like this that you think you might be able to live in. Newhalem, Oregon is one of them. The town winds along an absolutely beautiful river, filled with jumping salmon and trout.

The Newhalem River

We camped at the Newhalem Falls Campground. Beautiful old growth trees, and lovely trails meandering through the forest.

Amazing Mushrooms

Accommodations: Newhalem Falls Campground. Cost: $10.

Alsea River / Cross Creek - October 9th

We made our way down the coast after fishing all morning in the Zodiac at the mouth of the Newhalem River. No fish caught, but a beautiful little area with fishing right in front of the marina and coffee shop.

Lots of beautiful beaches along this stretch of coast - still very rural and peaceful.

Florence / Gold Bar / Honeybear Campground - October 10th

A small creek empties into the Pacific Ocean

Down the coast of Oregon to Florence. Stopped for lunch in Florence in Old Town by the docks. Some beautiful old fishing boats at the dock, still used to catch fresh salmon for the restaurants.

Traditional salmon troller

Finally, we came to rest for the night at the Honeybear Campground in Gold Bar, Oregon. An excellent deal at $13 for a campsite and the use of bathrooms, showers, and free firewood. A frightening look into the future, however, as the campground was full of RV's and the owners had constructed a giant Bavarian Lodge in the center of the campground. As I checked in, the owner jumped onto the stage and started to sing Bavarian Polkas. As the octogenarian RV crowd began to stagger onto the dance floor, Buster and I made our escape and set up camp in a peaceful spot down by the lake.

Southern Oregon/Northern California - Crossing the Border

The difference in climate between Gold Bar, Oregon and Jedediah Smith Redwoods State park a few miles away is amazing. In less than 100 miles, the climate changes completely. One wonders if that's one of the reasons the border was established where it is - that the climate is so clearly different. The temperature was at least 10 degrees warmer, and we had clear skies as we entered the redwoods.

Do we like beaches?

The southern coast of Oregon has lots of small beaches with very scenic seastacks and driftwood littering the beaches. We have clearly also entered the zone of the great kelp forests, as the beaches are piled with kelp stalks. Good stuff for sniffing if you're a dog...

Jedediah Smith State Park

Jedediah Smith is one of the classic state parks in California. One of the first redwood groves over the border from Oregon, it sits on the Smith River, one of the longest free flowing rivers in the Northwest. The Smith hosts both salmon and steelhead runs.

Jedediah Smith is popular, but driving in with no reservations was no problem at this time of year. We got a prime campsite right by the river. It's an amazingly quiet park - I don't know if it's the redwoods themselves or people's reverence for them - but after dark there was nary a peep from anyone, and the silence was lovely.

At the foot of a giant redwood

We took a hike down the river, which was still quite low from a drought. The effects of global warming were clearly in effect all up and down the coast. From Alaska to Mexico, the climate is definitely changing.

Elk cooling off in the Smith River

We saw a herd of elk cooling off in the river. When we got back to the campground, I tried to get a shot of what it felt like looking up into the trees.

In the House of the Giants....

Accommodations: Jedediah Smith Campground. Cost: $12.

Detour inland to Sacramento...and back out to San Francisco

As this point I turned inland to visit my two sons, Chris and Justin, who go to school in Chico and Sacramento in California's Central Valley for a few days. Here's a picture of Chris by a waterfall in Costa Rica last July.

Chris in Costa Rica

After leaving Sacramento and stopping off at a friend's house in Santa Rosa, I overnighted at Samuel Jackson State Park in Marin County. It's quite an unexpected site - just off Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, past Skywalker Ranch and some of the most expensive real estate in the country, you suddenly come on a big comfortable campground with redwoods and a creek running through it. Beats $200 a night at the nearest botique hotel.... with lots of money for a nice bottle of Chardonnay left over.

Accommodations: Samuel Jackson State Park . Cost: $15.

Big Sur and Morro Bay

As I headed south out of the Bay Area, the coast turned rugged and the wide beaches of Half Moon Bay slowly started to transition into the cliffs and kelp beds of the Big Sur coast. The fall colors of the lichens and succulents against the clear green water made a gorgeous contrast.

Hidden Beach at Big Sur

When I stopped in Big Sur for lunch, I knew that I had started to enter Southern California. First, every service worker was I saw was now Latino, and I heard Spanish spoken in the background at every stop. Second, I saw a woman wearing a silver jacket that looked like the upper half of a space suit. Surely Los Angeles was not too far away.

When I arrived at Big Sur campground, the Park Ranger was just pulling off his wetsuit. "Dude!", he said, "Your Zodiac is sick! We could conquer the coast in that thing!". When he found out that I was going to Costa Rica for the winter, he was in shock. "Listen, man" he said conspiratorially, "primo campsites are usually $30 - but I'll give you one for $20".

Campsite by Big Sur Creek

Accommodations: Big Sur State Park . Cost: $20.

Unfortunately, after driving south from Big Sur and securing a great beach campsite in Morro Bay, one of the top small boat fishing sites in California, a massive storm blew in the next morning. Our dreams of fishing for the next few days were dashed. As the campground flooded and ducks began to nest in our campsite, Buster and I fled south to the shelter of a friend's flat in Santa Monica, one of the nicest neighborhoods in the sprawling metropolis of Los Angeles.

After a few days in Santa Monica, we proceeded down the coast to San Diego for last minute outfitting and a little fishing in the La Jolla kelp beds before we crossed the border.

As I headed out from the Mission Bay boat ramp the next morning, birds chased bait fish through the water. It was a quick cruise under two bridges and then out past the jetty into the open sea. There was a brisk breeze, and the waves were a bit rough as the Zodiac plowed through the surf. After a rough run north for a few miles, we entered the La Jolla kelp beds. La Jolla is a unique marine environment, with lush kelp beds bounded by a huge marine canyon. Fishing used to be exceptional here, and is still worth a look. As I drifted through the kelp jigging a lure off the bottom, I heard a whooshing sound behind me. A gray whale had surfaced a few feet away from the boat, and swam slowly through the kelp. it appeared that the first of the whales had appeared on their southern migrations to their spawning lagoons in Baja California. Perhaps I would meet up with them again farther south.

San Quintin, Baja California

Today was a long drive from San Diego, California to San Quintin, Baja California in Mexico. The strategy was to skip all the border areas like Tijuana and Ensenada, and penetrate to the first place that really represents Baja California. San Quintin is an agricultural area surrounding a large bay. The bay is bounded by five large extinct volcanic cones.

We decided to spend the night at Cielito Lindo RV Park ("Pretty Little Heaven"). While that may be stretching it, the Bay is spectacular, and the Mexican staff at the trailer park and restaurant were very friendly. We knew we were in Mexico when Buster was welcomed into the bar and restaurant.

Buster enjoying his breakfast at Cielito Lindo

You can drive right onto the beach at San Quintin. Lots of sand dollars, and excellent surf casting for surf perch right off the beach.

Buster contemplates the seemingly endless beach

There was quite an expatriate community living at San Quintin RV park. I was to see this pattern repeated throughout Baja California. People who either preferred the relaxed Mexican lifestyle (and like to take their dogs to breakfast), or couldn't afford to retire in the US are moving there and living either part of the year or year round.

The F250 out on the sand at San Quintin

Accommodations: Cielito Lindo Campground. Cost: $5

Vizcaino Desert

The next day we headed south for the long drive to San Carlos Bay, almost 500 miles south. To get there, we had to drive through the infamous Vizcaino desert. While much of the desert is rather desolate, there are remarkably beautiful areas.

Rock formation in the desert

Scattered though the desert were occasional oasis with beautiful date palms and surprisingly lush vegetation.

An oasis in the desert

San Carlos Bay

Late in the day we pulled into San Carlos RV Park on San Carlos Bay, on the Sea of Cortez. San Carlos is known for it's excellent fishing, and is a marvelously protected little bay. I was to discover that this area was one of the last little pieces of Baja still surviving from 20 years ago. There is no hotel, just a campground run by the local "ejido", or village council. While the spaces at the campground are fairly close together, the setting and the people there made it the first real high point of the journey south.

Campsite with palapa at San Lucas

San Lucas is a great place to fish, with a totally protected bay where you can keep your boat right in front of your campsite. Fish include bass, grouper, yellowtail, snapper, mahi-mahi, sierra, and tuna.

You never know what you're going to catch at San Lucas

There are 6 or 7 people who have made this bay their home for most of the year. They have marvelous palapas (palm huts) or trailers with tents attached to the front, some of them quite developed - including whale bone arches as entryways, posh tents with overstuffed cushions, and our favorite, affectionately known as the "Voodoo Lounge".

Hanging out in the "Voodoo Lounge"

This was actually Alan's house, a long term resident whose living room was comfortably appointed and completely open to the beautiful sunsets and bright stars of the bay. Buster appointed himself bouncer, and made sure that all stray dogs and uncool tourists were kept at bay.

A nice snapper for dinner

All in all, a pretty idyllic place. Fresh water, hot showers, excellent fishing, and butter clams in front of your palapa. All for $7 a night - or $150 a month - or drop out of society entirely like these folks are doing for rent of a mere $1,000 a year!

South to Mulege and Bahia Concepcion

We headed south to Mulege, a town located on a rare desert river flowing out of the mountains to the Sea of Cortez. Mulege has been a long-time destination of American expatriates, but seems to be slowly falling out of favor. The setting is quite exotic, however. If you pass through, don't miss the shrimp tacos at Danny's, or the famous pig roast every Saturday night at the Hotel Serenidad.

The exotic oasis valley of Mulege

South of Mulege is some of the most beautiful country in all of Baja - the famous Bahia Concepcion. This bay is a paradise for boating, kayaking, and snorkeling. There are 10 or 12 beautiful campsites on beautiful white sand beaches.

A beautiful campground on a sandbar in Bahia Concepcion

Perhaps the most beautiful is Refugio, a sand spit that runs from the mainland to an island offshore. There are two beautiful protected bays on either side of the spit, perfect for kids or playing in the water. All of $5 a night.

South of Mulege there is free camping at Juncillo, at the foot of the dramatic Gigante mountain range.

The Sierra Gigante

Buster and I hiked up over the low hills south of our campsite at Juncillo, and got this incredible view of the protected harbor of Puerto Escondido. This harbor is a favorite of sailboats and liveaboard trawlers from the US, and has great fishing.


The beautifully protected natural harbor at Puerto Escondido

South to the Cape!

The time had come to make our run down to the end of the Baja Peninsula. We drove down to Las Barriles, and spent the night at the most well known campground in the area, Martin Verdugo's.

Martin Verdugo's in the East Cape

A good place to spend the night, do laundry, and clean up. But it's proximity to Cabo meant lots of drunken Americans and a bit more noise than we prefer - so we headed for a more remote campground nearby.

Buster gets a Girlfriend

This turned out to be a high point for Buster - he met a lovely local girl named Princessa. Que mamacita!

Buster and Princessa

After a few days on the Cape, the time came to head north. After bidding goodbye to Princessa, we headed north. But we had one more adventure planned - a detour to the Estero Coyote (Coyote Estuary) on the Pacific Coast with our friend Alan from San Lucas.

Headed North - A Trip to the Pacific Side

Campo Rene near Punta Abreojos

The approach to Estero Coyote is across an incredibly sterile desert - there aren't even any cactus here. Suddenly an estuary appears in the middle of the desert, and the Pacific Ocean comes into view. One of the amazing things about Baja is the relative sterility of the landscape and the incredible fertility of the estuaries and oceans.

This beautiful estuary was slated to become a salt production facility for Mitsubishi. A worldwide protest by environmental organizations resulted in the abandonment of these plans. I recalled signing a petition to save the estuary five years ago - what a treat to actually visit the site that had been saved by these efforts.

Dolphins right next to the Zodiac

We went fishing every morning in the estuary. Dolphins were our constant companions - they enter the estuary every day on the incoming tide to chase fish and feed on other marine organisms. The estuary is packed with Pismo clams and other delicious seafood.

Sunset over the Estero Coyote

What a beautiful place - highly recommended. We were the only campers there, and rented a little cabin for $15 a night for two people. There is a little restaurant and a wonderful boat ramp for easy launching of boats and kayaks. I felt privileged to experience a part of Baja that has seemingly changed little over the last 1,000 years. With the new paved road coming in however - you might want to visit soon.

A note on crime

Having spent a lot of time travelling around the world, I am very aware of security, especially when travelling with a car, boat, bike, etc. So I had a custom shell manufactured for the truck with various security features (more on our specialized gear later).

Everyone assumes that Mexico is a high crime area. It's worth noting that on this trip I had no incidents whatsoever in Mexico. The one attempted theft so far the United States! In Los Angeles, someone tried to steal my mountain bike off the top of the car. They were foiled by the high tech cable lock.

Crime Score so far: US 1, Latin America 0.

North to San Diego

A wonderful trip to Baja, and a great opportunity to test out all of my equipment. But Costa Rica was calling, and I was getting itchy to head to Central America. So we headed north to San Diego.

So our trip to Baja came to an end - after logging 2,150 miles south of the border!

News reports about new border procedures and delays seemed overblown - we got back through San Isidro into the US in about 45 minutes.

Heading East from San Diego to Tampa, Florida

As time was passing, and the rainy season was now over in Costa Rica, I needed to get going to Florida. So I drove from San Diego across Arizona, New Mexico, and finally - Texas! I found that Texas was bigger than it had any right to be. After two days, I was still driving across Texas.

Finally, I reached New Orleans and decided to stop for a break. I discovered that I still had some Hyatt Gold Club points from my travels as a high tech exec. I pulled in to the Hyatt New Orleans for two free nights in a $250 room - exhausted, smelly, and glad to be pulling off the road for a bit.

Unfortunately, despite previous assurances from the valet desk, they would not accomodate my truck and trailer in the parking garage at the Hyatt. Exhausted, I drove around the block several times looking for an alternative. I finally noticed a parking lot that was open 24 hours. I pulled in, and bought a ticket. As I walked back to the Hyatt, I worried about security (New Orleans can be a tough town) and about leaving Buster in the truck. When I checked into my room in the huge hotel building after walking down a series of seemingly endless halls, I pulled the shades - and to my surprise and eternal gratitude - there was the truck, directly below my window. Just one of the seeming "coincidences" that have graced this trip whenever things seemed at something of an impasse.

After some good food and music in New Orleans, I proceeded to Florida and stopped by my old friend Lex Salisbury's house in Tampa. Lex is the Director of the Tampa Zoo. Lex takes his work home with him - he has a 50 acre ranch with quite an assortment of wildlife.

Lex driving the wagon

In the morning, Lex harnessed up a horse cart and we prepared to take a tour of the property. His wife, Elena is a talented multimedia artist who works in etched glass.

Elena with animal sculptures in her workshop

As I sipped my coffee and slowly woke up, I was greeted by a friendly warthog. Nothing like having a warthog with those deadly tusks sniffing your crotch in the morning.

Morning greeting from an African warthog

Lex and I went out to feed some of the hoofstock. He has antelope, bongos, zebras, oryx - an amazing assortment.

Lex hand feeds an antelope

Grazing Bongo

Friendly zebra

But my favorite part of the ranch - having coffee on the back patio of the house and watching the pygmy hippos.

Pygmy Hippopotamus

Off to Costa Rica

After spending a few days in Tampa, I went to my friend Don Brown's house in Key West to prepare the truck and boat for shipment. After two grueling days of packing, I dropped off the boat and truck at AC International, a freight forwarder that specializes in shipments to Costa Rica. After examining all the alternatives, I decided to ship the truck and boat in a 40 foot container. This allowed me to literally drive the rig into a shipping container and forget about it. Much simpler than disassembling the Zodiac and selling the trailer according to my original plan. And a bit more expensive. The cheapest price for shipping the truck was $600 - but no additional cargo, and I would have to air freight the boat and sell the trailer. For $2,500, I got to ship the entire rig in my own secure container, keep the trailer (which I really needed) and pack the truck with all my fishing gear and possessions. In addition, they are shipping it to Limon (the Caribbean port in Costa Rica) and then putting the container on a truck and driving it to San Jose, which will save me a trip to Limon. It will be an adventure getting it out of customs, but at least it will all be in one place.

So - I just gave the keys to my $25,000 rig to a nice Costa Rican guy in a funky industrial suburb in Miami, for a hand written receipt and a handshake. I hope it shows up on the other end!

I was wondering how I could possibly get the dog, the kennel, my bicycle and all my luggage from the warehouse to the airport hotel, as I now had no vehicle. As is typical with the Ticos (Costa Ricans), the owner of the shipping company actually locked up his office, and drove Buster and I and all our luggage in his Toyota pickup to the hotel. Once again, a solution mysteriously appeared when the logistics seemed impossible.

By the way, speaking of airport hotels, the Homestead Suites allow pets, have kitchens, and have high speed wireless Internet in every room. Recommended.

Accommodations: Homestead Suites Blue Lagoon. Cost: $52 + $25 pet fee (includes cleaning).

Notes on Shipping Pets to Costa Rica

Shipping Buster was a typical exercise in contradictory (and incorrect) international shipping information. All of the books said I needed:

What a pain - especially the import/export certificate. Turns out it's nonsense - all you need is the health certificate. No need to go to the consulate. Here's the link to prove it:

Do make sure that you have an approved shipping kennel, and that it is an acceptable size. Shipping Buster in a kennel to Costa Rica with me on the plane (American Airlines) is $100. Carry-on pets are $80. Bringing your bicycle is $45.

Fares to Costa Rica have been incredibly cheap for the last two years - who knows why? My round trip ticket this time was $270 including all fees and taxes. Prices are as low as $195 round trip from Miami.

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