Days 14, 15, 16: San Diego


The Pacific Surfliner, the train from Los Angeles to San Diego which I connected to from Merced, runs deliciously close to the shore and gave me a gorgeous beach sunset, a nice end to a “travel day”. While certainly faster than the long-distance trains, the near-commuter nature of this and the Capitol Corridor line (Sacramento-Oakland) do make the ride feel more like a chore and less like a vacation – constant PA announcements about tickets, terse staff, and passengers in a hurry.

Due to a combination of my procrastination on sending out requests and some technical issues with the Couchsurfing website, I found no hosts in San Diego and was forced to turn to a hostel. While it doubled my daily budget, it was nice to have a change of pace. While my couchsurfing hosts have been great, it’s much like hitchhiking in that you must be “always on”; that is, I feel the need to offer up interesting conversation and other attractive guest qualities in exchange for the hospitality I’m getting. Again, while certainly a favourable transaction, it does get exhausting (much like hitchhiking). So it was nice to spend some time by myself, without the pressure of performing. At the same time, it was nice to be in the hostel environment, talking to fellow travellers; while CS hosts are usually travel enthuisiasts, it’s not quite the same when they are in their day-to-day routine of work, family, etc.

The CS website is back up and running, so hopefully some hosts are forthcoming for Los Angeles and Santa Barbara (I’m definitely back to diligently sending out my requests more than 48 hours in advance). My friend who originally told me about Couchsurfing has a theory that larger cities are harder to find accommodation in, because everyone feels that someone else will put you up, whereas in small towns (say Courtenay, BC or Merced, CA) CS users are more likely to feel they are your only hope.

San Diego has loads to offer to travelers, and if I where in the habit of flying into cities for little more than a weekend, it would be a great pick. I barely scratched the surface on the huge collections of museums in Balboa Park, and there were many possible day trips to nearby Californian and Mexican sites (for example, kayaking or surfing). Balboa, while touted as “the largest urban park in the US”, I think is more aptly described as a “cultural park”; while offering some great sites such as museums, preserved nature was hard to find outside the botanical gardens.

Balboa Parking Lot

It was also way too car-oriented for my tastes – “biggest parking lot in an urban park in the US”, maybe? While my environmental opposition to cars is well-known, I really feel in this case that the roads, parking lots and noisy traffic present as much an aesthetic blight on the park as they do to a political annoyance to a tree-hugger like myself.

Cabrillo lookout

After resisting the urge to rent a bike in both Portland and San Francisco, I gave in upon finding a cheap deal offered by the hostel. Most importantly, this allowed me to ride around the city going through my Google Maps-generated list of opticians in an attempt to get my hostel-stomped glasses repaired – thanks to a repair-specialty place, $35 and 10 minutes later, I had avoided myopic despair. Then I headed up to Cabrillo National Monument, which provided a fantastic panorama of the city and harbour, as well as some more of those Euro-centric hero-worshipping explorer tales. As an added bonus, I got to coast through an active naval base (San Diego is like Halifax in this way, except warmer and more Spanish) and get a taste of what January cycling is like for Californians. It really does seem like a bike tour is the best way to explore this land of the car, and I’m quite jealous of my friend who pedaled from Vancouver to Mexico a few years back.

Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery 3

While I didn’t have any idea of what to do in Tijuana, I couldn’t resist the prospect of a 45-minute trolley ride’s ability to officially designate this a “3 country” trip. I guess I got what I bargained for, spending a few hours walking through tourist-oriented crafts and “Cuban” cigar stalls, being constantly yelled at by taxi drivers and restaurant hosts, and seeing an incredibly high density of pharmacies. The constant signs offering “generic Viagra, 30% off” almost have me suspecting that there are difference in patent law between Mexico and the US; it looks like Canada doesn’t have a monopoly on cross-border drug shopping.

Border trade

On the positive side, it was the most laidback border crossing I’ve seen outside the Schengen Agreement countries; walking across to Mexico is just that, and on the return, the customs agent gave my passport the briefest of glances, albeit after a half-hour wait in line.

While usually I am heavy reader while travelling, I haven’t read much beyond my guidebook at this point – I blame the laptop and iPod. I decided to remedy this by picking up a Kerouac novel (yes, rather stereotypical of me) as well as the new Atlantic; both were consumed within 24 hours, perhaps evidence of some literary hunger unfulfilled by Rough Guides and Wikipedia.

On a Sunday morning, I left town just as some football-related hysteria was taking over, judging by the jerseys.

Oh, and some good news: it looks like a tentative agreement has averted a first-ever Amtrak strike.


7 Responses to “Days 14, 15, 16: San Diego”

  1. I just found this website through a Google search for people writing about the North America Rail Pass. I’m planning to use one this April/May to make a trip across Canada and around the eastern U.S., so I’m delighted to find someone writing about their experiences with the pass. Thanks for sharing your impressions of your trip!

  2. 2 Lily

    Sounds amazing. Being stuck in cold, grumpy Montreal while planning my own upcoming 3-country trip, I’m very jealous about yours. Glad it’s going well for you– looks like you’re seeing lots of amazing sights.

  3. Thel: Glad you are finding my posts informative – and that I can help be part of the long tail on information on the Rail Pass. If you have any questions, feel free to email me.

    Lily: I’ll be back in cold Canada soon enough…

  4. Gee buddy, you did that all wrong…should have asked me. Wrong train (Surfliner vs Coaster), wrong bicycle paths (Oceanside to San Clemente for fabulous cycling to 1600 ft alt. with views and solitude except for the occasional little snake on abandoned roads overlooking the sea), and Cantamar MX (where wife and I live) 46KM south of Tijuana for a fabulous palm grove and dunes etc..etc…Avoding cars and discount farmacias is an art form mastered by natives like us, Also the ‘sprinter’, an elevated train to Escondido hills, and best of all the desert in Borrego, huge and in full bloom at this time of the year, every little cacti and shrub.

  5. Jacques: The Coaster is not an Amtrak train, so my rail pass isn’t valid for it. I would have liked to see more of Mexico and to do more cycling, but given the time and money constraints, it wasn’t going to happen on this trip.

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