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SPORTS WEEKEND | OUTDOORS / PETE THOMAS

Site Tracks Ins and Outs of Baja

June 13, 1997|PETE THOMAS

If you've been traveling the Baja California peninsula recently, you might have encountered some unpleasant surprises.

You might have been among those stopped on Mexico 1 in the El Rosario area, turned back by an on-again, off-again citizen blockade, which has been trying to force the Mexican government to pay overdue wages to road workers and to put at least some of the town's hard-earned tax dollars back into the community.

Or maybe you were among the unfortunate souls whose boats were seized recently in San Quintin or La Paz by fisheries officials who have suddenly decided to crack down on those without proper paperwork.

These same officials might have slapped you with a $250 fine for fishing without a Mexican license, even though--once at your destination--you couldn't find a place that sells them.

Perhaps you've had none of these problems, finding yourself instead with another, stuck on a desolate stretch of highway under a brutally hot sun, because the gas station you had planned on filling up at had no gas left.

If any of these things have happened to you, they might have been avoided, had you logged onto the Amigos de Baja web site at http://www.geocities.com/thetropics/4888.

This column is rarely used to promote or review addresses on the Internet. But given the interest Southlanders have in that vast, desert frontier south of the border, and the unpredictable nature of the peninsula, we're making an exception because, unlike most web sites, Amigos de Baja is not self-serving. Instead, it's a source of valuable information Baja travelers might not be able to find elsewhere.

"If we have anything going for us, it's that we only print the absolute truth with none of that market hype, and no promotional stuff," says Earle Robitaille, who apparently created a monster when he first went on-line last spring. "It's gotten so big, it's getting in the way of my fishing and I tell you, it's [upsetting] me to no end."

Robitaille, 66, is only joking, of course. The retired chief of the Huntington Beach Police Department fell in love with Baja more than 40 years ago, and he enjoys keeping fellow Baja-lovers informed nearly as much as he does traveling down there himself.

Well, maybe not, but he has no choice. The Amigos de Baja web site--which is maintained and updated every Wednesday by Robitaille, his son, Eric, and Eric's girlfriend, Trish Ramsey--receives more than 60,000 hits a month. Robitaille himself spends 25-30 hours a week keeping the site up to date.

Most visitors are interested in the comprehensive fishing reports from around Baja, which are obtained from a network of fleet owners, Baja residents and frequent Baja travelers.

Robitaille is so concerned about the accuracy of his reports that he won't even accept advertisements on his site from fleet owners because he says it will sacrifice his credibility.

In fact, his site has no ads, yet, and is funded solely by Robitaille, who says he may not be able to afford the constant upgrades in software for long.

One of the most popular features is the newly created On-Line Discussion Center, which allows visitors to post questions, converse with one another and generally compare notes about trips to various Baja locales.

It also allows Robitaille to post breaking news--such as the recent road closure, which has since been at least temporarily resolved--without waiting for the regular Wednesday update.

"It's going hog-wild," he says of the new feature. "It's just going crazy. We've had system crashes every weekend for the last four or five weekends because our server just can't handle it. Now we have to find a new server that can handle it."

All this has been a little overwhelming for Robitaille, who acknowledges he had no idea what he was getting into when he had Ramsey design a web page a year ago.

Amigos de Baja started out as a group of 15-20 Baja buffs who would share their experiences via fax.

"I became keeper of the fax," Robitaille says. "After a trip, they would call me and I would let everyone else know with a fax. Then people started moving and I started looking at my phone bill, and I thought, 'This is ridiculous.'

"They all had or were getting computers, so we started doing it by e-mail. We picked up the name 'Amigos' and everything was addressed 'Amigos.'

"Then we started up a web page and within a week we were off and running. People eventually started e-mailing us asking all sorts of questions: about the weather, road conditions, Mexican regulations and a lot of general stuff like that."

Since then, Robitaille has compiled a contact list of 70 people south of the border. Through them he has become even more connected to Baja.

Through his site, he has warned travelers of the dangers of traveling alone, sharing a recent story of a Northern California man and wife who were ambushed and robbed by machete-wielding bandits who broke into their trailer while they slept along a desolate section of road south of El Rosario.

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