Because, obviously, being kidnapped is the only feasible explanation for why I haven’t written anything since the 10th. But, with some clever maneuvering, we foiled the kidnappers. So, if it was you that received the ransom note, disregard it, we’re okay. But we do appreciate the fact that you were willing to fork over the $63.00 the kidnappers were demanding for our safety, but it turns out it won’t be needed.
We had a really good trip back up to the US from La Paz. We flew Aereo Calafia from La Paz to Tijuana on Sunday, the 14th. It cost us 1500 pesos each which was a little under $120 each at the exchange rate at the time we got the tickets. That’s almost as much as we paid for a 22 hour bus ride from Loreto to San Diego a couple years ago. And the plane was only going to take about 2 hours. So, looked at that way, I guess the bus was a better deal since it only cost about $9/hr. vs. the plane at $60/hr. each. Hmmm. Maybe I should rethink this.
We left La Paz around 8 AM Mountain time and landed in Tijuana a little after 10 AM Pacific time. We caught a bus to San Ysidro just (and I do mean just) across the Mex/US border. Being Sunday mid-day, the lines at the border were really long. We sat on the bus for around an hour and a half before we finally got off at US Customs. If we’d been on foot, we’d have been in line for 3-4 hours. So, even though our mini-bus wasn’t air-conditioned, at least we weren’t sitting in the hot sun, schlepping our bags. Our welcome back into the U.S. at Customs was uneventful if somewhat less than friendly.
As I’ve written before, the San Diego mass transit system (SDMTS) is da bomb! The train comes all the way to the border where there’s a large loading platform with ticket vending machines. For $2.50 each we could go anywhere the “Blue Line” went. We got off in Chula Vista since it’s much cheaper to stay there than in downtown San Diego near the train station. The Motel 6 in Chula Vista is an easy walk from the SDMTS stop (let’s just call it the “trolley” to differentiate it from the Amtrak train) and is reasonably inexpensive. I think we paid $59 + tax using my senior discount. Other than that, it’s just your basic Motel 6.
We had to get up at the crack of dawn on Monday the 15th because our Amtrak train was scheduled to leave San Diego at 6:20 AM. So we rose at 4:30 and caught the first trolley into town at 5:01 AM. There are a LOT of commuters using the train. It was packed even at that ridiculously early hour. We had to stand for half the ride before a couple of seats were freed up. While we were waiting for the trolley I had a chance to buy a ukulele, probably for cheap, although I didn’t realize it at the time. There was this dude sitting on the bench when we walked up. He had a Kala spruce-top concert size ukulele in a gig bag on the bench next to him. He said something when we walked up but I didn’t understand what it was he said. I started talking ukes with him a little but it became clear almost immediately that he didn’t know anything about ukes nor did he seem to care to talk about them. He said something about getting kicked out of the house and about how he had just enough time to grab the uke and a GPS on the way out. After awhile he drifted off. I was thinking that I should have asked him if he wanted to sell the uke. I only had $40 cash on me but I suspect he might have taken it since he was apparently broke. Later, Lulu told me that when we first walked up, what he had said was “Wanna buy a guitar?” So apparently it was for sale although I didn’t realize it. Just as well, though. I would have felt bad buying a stolen uke.
We got to downtown San Diego’s American Plaza, and crossed the tracks and street to the Santa Fe Station where we’d board the Amtrak Pacific Surfliner.
We went inside the station, bought a couple of coffees and got in on the end of a guy addressing a group telling them that the Surfliner scheduled for 6:20 was running late due to some construction materials left on the tracks from work the day before. He assured us that all connections would be made. Said they’d delay the departure of the northbound Coast Starliner if necessary. About 40 minutes late, we got going. I was surprised to see the number of people who apparently commute on this train. It got pretty crowded for awhile. As it turned out, we arrived in LA in time to catch the Coast Starliner, which was fortunately parked right across the boarding platform from where the Surfliner stopped.
Neither of us have ridden the train for many, many years. We were very impressed with the seating, the leg room, the comfort of the seats, electrical outlet at each pair of seats, etc. Much nicer than even the nice buses. We were on the starboard side of the train so we missed seeing the never-ending line of surfers along the southern California coast. Instead we got to see parts of cities we normally wouldn’t see and also got to look into a lot of backyards. Some of these yards were pretty nice except for the train passing right by who knows how many time a day.
The train has a few amenities that make the ride less painful. Early on I ventured 3 cars forward to the “cafe” located below the observation deck (now called the viewing lounge) to get some coffee and donut holes. We had eaten a muffin apiece in San Diego so we figured this would tide us over until lunch. However, lunch wasn’t exactly at noon. They take reservations for lunch and dinner. Since the folks who bought tickets for the sleeper cars have their meals included, they apparently got all the prime time slots. When the steward came through our car taking lunch reservations, our choices were 1:30, 1:45, or 2:00. Realizing we’d be starving by then, we opted for the earliest, 1:30.
We read and dozed and watched the scenery go by. Once in awhile, they’d stop for a little longer at a station to allow passengers to disembark to stretch their legs or grab a smoke. Such was the case in Santa Barbara.
When 1:30 finally rolled around and we were called to lunch, we made our way forward, through the Viewing Lounge to the Dining Car. The Lounge was full and a lot of folks looked like they were pretty well planning on camping out there for their whole trip. There are tables that seat 4 and quite a few comfortable lounging chairs. Some folks were hogging a table all to themselves by spreading their computers and accoutrements around so anyone else would be uncomfortable sitting down. We even saw one guy who draped himself across two lounge chairs and was sleeping. SLEEPING! In the Viewing Car! Not much viewing going on there. This behavior would be addressed later in the trip.
The Dining Car has a lot of 4-person booths and seating is assigned. Lulu and I sat across from a woman from Costa Rica who spoke no English but was on her way to San Jose, California to visit her daughter and her new granddaughter. We managed to have a rudimentary conversation using our meager Spanish language skills.
The lunch menu does not have a lot of items on it as is to be expected since they have limited room for storage and cooking as well as a lot of people to feed in a fairly small venue. Lulu and I both opted for the Angus Steak Burger and we were glad we did. This was a particularly good burger cooked to order (medium for us). The only sour note was that, since they didn’t have a deep fryer, the burger was accompanied by potato chips instead of fries. But, hey, we’re roughing it, right?
At San Luis Obispo we left the coast and started winding our way up through the hills on our way to Paso Robles. During this stretch we got to go through places where there wasn’t a highway right next to us.
I think the layout of the train was the engine, followed by some other auxiliary power unit of some kind, then what looks like a cargo-type car but might have been the crews’ car, then 4 sleeper cars followed by a viewing car (for the sleepers only) called the Parlor. Following that was the Dining Car, then the Viewing Lounge for the coach riff-raff (that’d be us) and then, I think, four coach cars. No caboose as far as I could see.
After a lazy afternoon and evening, we opted for the last dinner seating (8:00) since our lunch had been so late. For dinner (again, pretty limited menu), Lulu had some kind of chicken breast plate that was pretty lame and pretty skimpy. She was definitely disappointed. I, on the other hand, opted for short ribs in a chipotle-something sauce with garlic mashed potatoes and vegetables on the side. Mine was very good. The meat was fork tender and the sauce was just right – not overwhelming.
Our tablemates for dinner were a couple from Salinas, California. Roger and Linda were riding the train to Klamath Falls where they were going on a tour that included Crater Lake. They’d opted for a sleeper car because it helped Roger check an item off on his bucket list: Ride the Orient Express. He admitted that this was definitely not the Orient Express but it was going to have to do and served to give him a taste of what lang-range train travel might be like. They were great dinner companions.
Sleeping in a reclining train seat is easier than sleeping on a bus but it’s still not a bed. We were both surprised at how well we actually did sleep, though. Granted, we never slept for more than an hour or two at a time before waking for one reason or another but we at least we were able to sleep. On a longer trip it would be really nice to have a sleeping car but our trip cost $294 (total) whereas if we’d gone the sleeper route, it would have added $461 per person to our ticket for a total of $1216. Granted, meals are included as is morning coffee, a newspaper, etc. , but the $130 or so we paid for meals, coffee, and snacks doesn’t even begin to offset the $1216 price tag.
We opted for a late breakfast the next morning as we figured that would tide us over until we arrived in Salem around 2:00 PM when we’d go to lunch with Scott and Cody. I think we ate around 10 AM. We both opted for the quiche which was fairly disappointing. However, our tablemates for breakfast were Kathy and her charming granddaughter, Haley, from Washington. They had a great time looking through Lulu’s friendship bracelet collection and choosing which one would be theirs.
After breakfast, as we walked through the Lounge on our way back to our seats, we were surprised to see the Lounge completely empty. Turns out the crew got fed up with the seat hogs and the refusal of so many people to pick up after them selves and booted everyone out so they could give it a proper cleaning. Then, when the announcement came that the Lounge was open again, it included a warning to keep it clean and don’t use more than one seat per person or it might get closed down again. Good for Amtrak. Of course, a conductor walking through and straightening people out might have helped too.
By 2:30 we were in Salem and disembarking, only 20 minutes late which is not too shabby from what I’ve heard about Amtrak. Cody met us at the station. She asked where we wanted to go for lunch and we both chose Muchas Gracias, the absolute best Mexican fast food that we’ve ever had outside Mexico. She thought it was pretty funny that, after 10 months in Mexico, our first choice of food once back in the US was Mexican food. What can I say? We know what we like.
So, was this trip better than bus/flying? For us it was. We would definitely opt for this method of making our way from Mexico to Oregon again.