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Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Vagabonding Deserted Villas

Views from the East Cape Road

The drive down the coast was stunning. On the left, the Sierra de Laguna Mountains stretched skyward; on the right we passed sand dunes, wide open stretches of the Pacific and massive resorts. Out in the water we spotted whale after whale. Grey and humpback whales blew CO2 into the sky after long dives. Occasionally the whales showed us their flukes before a deep dive. The first time it happened I almost did not believe it. 

 Brian exclaimed, “IT JUMPED. IT JUMPED!!”

He had seen a humpback fly out of the water and land. A few minutes later, I did not believe my eyes, watched as a massive creature hurtled out of the azure Pacific and came plummeting down. The splash, at least a mile distant, looked as if a bus or yaht had just crashed into the water with white froth spraying wide.
Arriving in Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo felt like having an ice bucket of water dumped down my neck. Row after row of ridiculously sized houses, hotels, and condos lined every buildable inch. Walmarts, Home Depots, and Office Maxs showed up. Mega, Soriano, and Telcel superstores, the Mexican analogs to Big Box X, Y, and Z in the US stole the remaining spaces.

In the sprawl of Cabo we neglected to make the right turn and eventually realized we were eight kilometers north of our desired exit. We turned around and began our slow search for the East Cape Road that Suzy had recommended. The dearth of signage made navigating the roads tough and we ended up on a gravel road heading the wrong direction. Luckily we spotted some construction and as per our usual routine, I jumped out to ask for directions. After a brief conference they pointed us in the right direction and we promptly followed a road to some sort of private resort area; the guard adamantly insisted that four filthy young men could not go on this road. With one more set of instructions we finally found our bumpy, rocky, and holey road. 

While Suzy said the East Cape Road was in good shape, we forgot that the recent intense hurricane had a big impact on Southern Baja. Thus much of the road was washed out and destroyed, making driving intense. It is safe to say we each lost a couple layers of enamel from our teeth. Despite the road’s rough condition, the scenery was the opposite; granite sand beaches with rocky basalt outcroppings filled the coastline.
A few kilometers down the road The Beast died! The choke light came on and Brian started the car up but I heard a strange buzzing noise

First real breakdown

Finished product
“Wait, wait, let’s look under the hood” I implored. As we stepped out and opened the hood, what we saw shocked us. Our air intake unit had entirely bounced off. Luckily the unit fell away from our main fan where it would have been obliterated. Wowza, we dodged a bullet. Pulling out the duct tape and some zip ties we cinched the air intake hose to the housing and attached the filter unit on tightly to its platform. 

 A few kilometers after Villa Zapatos we jangled past a deserted villa. We had to check it out. Sure enough, the two story, round walled, bleach white villa with blue tiled swimming pools and hot tubs was completely deserted. The windows and sliding glass doors had all been blown out, we assumed in the last hurricane. Someone stripped all of the copper wiring from the place, but on the whole the building was in good shape. Easy choice we agreed, we are staying here. Folks in fancy cars periodically stopped to gawk at our car as we set up camp.

Our deserted villa
Thus our true Cabo experience began. We drank margaritas in the [empty] pool on the second story overlooking the vast Pacific. We played danced to loud music and ate fresh, fancy seafood dishes. We had it all. Poorman’s Cabo that is; margaritas fashioned with cheap Country Time Lemonade mix, music flowing from our Altec portable speaker, acoustics of the building a lucky accident of architecture, dancing performed by four ragtag smelly dudes, and fresh, fancy seafood dish provided by ourselves, Josh and Brian, braving rough waves to snag a rockfish that James and I made into a tomato based seafood stew with noodles. We had no complaints after the beautiful night.
Our cooking, dancing, and sleeping quarters

The fancy bar

Dinner over the hot-tub
Sad to leave our villa

Todos Santos!

It was hart to leave this
We packed up and headed back on the bumpy road back to Highway 1 and drove towards La Paz. We managed to get turned around and lost in La Paz but eventually found the road to Todos Santos. We picked up a hitchhiker, Ricardo, who was originally from Oaxaca but had come north for work. He said there was no work in Oaxaca. He helped his wife set up a restaurant in Ensanada while he headed south for farmwork, first to San Quintin and then to La Paz, working mainly with tomatoes and sometimes strawberries. His car was in the shop which was why he needed a ride to the farm he worked at, about thirty minutes towards Todos Santos.

Brian driving in Todos Santos
In Todos Santos we encountered our first scorching hot tropical type heat. Sweat poured from every pore on my body. We were determined to get internet to try and post an update on the blog so we ended up at Cafelix where lo and behold we sat down next to Morgan, a man who lives in Bend. While the internet was terrible, Morgan had some background in the area and gave us nuggets of useful information on where to stay for cheap and where to surf.

From downtown we went north to a free beach where we promptly met two more Oregonians! Angela and Michael are from Baker City most recently and Angela was part of OSU’s first graduating class of Environmental Science majors. She knew Pat Muir and we connected over our common colleagues and interests. Michael, the self described standoffish, quiet, and mysterious one, was actually hilarious and brought Josh’s back to Alaska. Michael reminded him of his boss up North and it turned out that Mike worked as a salmon buyer in Alaska every summer.  Mike and Angela had been raging at the Todos Santos Music Festival for the previous few days and were in recovery mode at the beach.

Mike and Angela!! Fellow Oregonians.
Initially Josh and I were stoked to get out in the water continue learning how to surf but the waves broad, bulky beasts, crashing over big rocks into a nasty steep beach. An old timer walked up to us warning that someone had broken a femur the preceding day, that these waves were serious. Josh and I declined to head out realizing that we valued our lives while Brian and James took up the reins. Alas James came back from surfing puking up some serious sea water that he took on after enduring a pummeling.

The next morning we left to Playa de Las Palmas, a beach we heard had a large palm grove and had less people than the beach we were currently at. After flipping a few U-ies on the highway and driving past the entrance we finally made it to the road we were looking for. Unfortunately, the road had been changed since the books we had were written and the road ended a good distance before the actual beach. We looked for a road around and ended up driving up an enormous hill that overlooked the grove. 

Ultimately we received a ridiculous view over the pacific; two volcanic headlands jutted into the crashing waves of the Pacific, basalt cliffs guarding a white sandy beach with a massive palm grove at the rear. The plants on the hill were doubly weird, fat elephant trees mixed with at least ten different species of cactus in a 15 square foot area. We had lunch before deciding to step back into Marshawn Beast and head further south towards Cabo Fraile.
Leaving Todos Santos and heading south

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Straight Shooting

Oasis in San Ignacio
We drove onwards across the desert passing mountains, cactus and barren arroyos. The road dropped out of the mountains and straightened out into an impressively consistent road. In Guererro Negro we passed into Southern Baja and our car was sprayed down with pesticides. Over the next few hours we passed little except military checkpoints until we made it to the San Ignacio. We saw the town from above and were impressed by the swath of vibrant green vegetation due to a large oasis that feeds water to the area. On Hannah’s recommendation, we checked out one of the oldest monasteries in Baja aka I hung out in the garden taking photos of the various identified plants. I neglected to bring a Baja botany book, a big mistake.

The sun was getting rather low so as we left town we were immediately on the lookout for camping spots and chanced into one after crossing a massive bridge over an arroyo system. We followed a telephone line road to a perfect glade where we stopped for the night. Pink lupines bloomed across the sandy bottom of the arroyo and strange euphorbia, purple blooms and red ocotillo trumpets filled the desert nearby. 

James at the mission
We enjoyed a tasty dinner and a few beers, passing out early. When the sun goes to bed, so do we. In the morning we headed to Santa Rosalia passing some wonderful and painful sights. The Volcan Tres Virgines erupted out of the desert with charcoal black basalt lava flows oozing out of the base. Then we passed a massive open pit landfill that was up in flames, burning the trash away. Then we passed massive copper mining and smelting operation. All of the industry shocked us after driving through pristine desert. We picked up a cell phone for James and re-upped our grocery supply at a supermarket in Santa Rosalia. Most importantly we grabbed a bag of oranges from a lady on the side of the road! Oranges are cheap and a daily necessity. Further south we entered Mulege where we came back to the ocean. From there the road wound around Bahia Concepcion, filled with turquoise blue waters and white sandy beaches; the multitude of just off shore islands blew our minds. At the bottom of the bay we pulled off onto a rocky road which we thought was going to bring us to our dream campsite. Alas after 45 minutes of bumping along with few good looking places, we decided to turn around and found a comfortable wash to camp in.

Camping in the arroyo

Not too shabby a place
After an Italian Dinner replete with zucchini, bolete (porcini), and sun dried tomato spaghetti sauce served over pasta, I was finally able to get the group to sit down have a discussion about group norms. As a social change organizer and camp counselor, I was adamant that we have the conversation. We created a massive list of everything, from how we want to treat each other, to our individual money situations, our pet peeves, how we plan to deal with robberies or tense situations. Afterwards I was happy to hear James and Josh exclaim that the conversation was actually way more useful than they believed it would be.

In the morning we headed south to tranquil Loreto. The town was heavily policed with many gringos walking the streets. Trees lined the streets and the central square was filled with well maintained gardens. We picked up groceries, gas and tequila as well as a fishing license and an extra snorkel. From Loreto, the road hugs the gorgeous coastline. We had to pull over and drink in the vista because the scene was so gripping. Isla Coronado, Isla Monserrat and the massive Isla del Carmen stretched along the coastline. We moved down the coast finding a secluded campsite at Puerto Escondito where Isla Danzate framed our view out over the Gulf. 

View from our campsite in Puerto Escondito
After setting up camp, Josh, Brian and I jumped out in the water. We had noted this area as one for snorkeling and spear fishing. Unfortunately the wind was blowing as a fairly decent clip stirring up some larger waves and sand from the bottom but we had our hearts set on snorkeling and catching fish. This was my first time snorkeling. Wind, chilly water, and my slight fear of turbid water made the experience a bit tough. I eventually calmed my breathing down enough to actually look under the surface and enjoy the marine life there. Being a total nerd, I was instantly excited when I started seeing even the occasional bit of marine life. Tiny puffer fish and occasional starfish left me ready for more snorkeling. Brian found a couple fish to shoot at but came up empty. Finally after drinking my fair share of salt water I headed back towards land. When we came back to shore we met our neighbors Penny and Suzy who became our wonderful surrogate mothers. The two hail from the Lost Coast of California and have been coming down to Loreto and camping for a few months at a time during the winter. Suzy and her husband have been coming down to Baja for years and have traveled the peninsula extensively; Suzy and her sister even drove Highway 1 the first year it was completed!

Of course Suzy had a son who is a graduate student at Oregon State University and the world being tiny, Brian had gone to a lecture that Suzy’s son presented. Suzy gave us the low down on the area and shared her wealth of knowledge of Baja, letting us in on her favorite snorkeling spot in Baja and which canyons to hike in the area. 

The next morning we headed to the canyon right across the road from our campsite. Two miles later and we were at the mouth of the canyon and we started upwards. Massive swarms of butterflies flew from the upper boughs of a strange tree that engulfed a cliff face. The white bark of the tree contrasted with the lush, large green leaves. The trunk was many smaller branches that eventually coalesced into a larger trunk, looking similar to a mangrove but far larger than most mangroves. The walls of the canyon narrowed as we hiked onwards and we ogled at the high cliffs above.

Entering the Canyon

What a good looking guy
Crazy butterfly tree


Red, tan, black, green, white and purple rocks lined the canyon. The predominant rock was a beautiful conglomerate while occasional and volcanic rock with quartz veins crossed our path. Soon after entering the canyon we heard water flowing. Rounding a corner we were treated to pristine pools; water in the desert. Palm trees appeared and we hiked higher. The water carved the canyon and would periodically disappear to only reappear a few hundred meters farther along. Clambering over massive boulders we made our way higher and higher. Every couple hundred feet of gained elevation brought new and different plants. The diversity was like nothing I have ever seen; these mountains were so close to the coast and receive more rain than the surrounding desert leading to the diversity. The year previous was exceptionally rainy, bringing massive floods through the canyon and Susy had warned us that the going might be tough. Occasionally house sized choke stones blocked the narrow canyon and we had to use ropes to climb higher. This just made for more climbing and more fun! 
Palm Grove at the top

Brian and Josh decided to relax next to one of the larger pools while James and I explored higher up. The views back down the canyon and over the islands and the gulf made for pleasant sights. Ultimately we made it to our destination, a massive palm grove high in the mountains. Trekking down, we made it out of the canyon just as the sun started to set, throwing orange light over the craggy peaks behind us. Night fell as James and I walked back the final two miles to camp where we found our exasperated friends. We had all forgotten that the keys were in my pocket when we parted ways so they were stuck outside of the car without access to food and warm clothes while James and I hiked. Alas we developed a better protocol for avoiding the situation in the future

The next morning we headed south again on straight roads towards Ciudad Insurgentes eventually making it to Punta Conejo. The waves were rolling in in massive curling sets. Brian was beside himself. He had never seen waves like these. Absolutely perfect. While Brian jumped in the water with the surfboard, Josh and I headed out to search for tasty shellfish. As we looked under and around the tidal rocks, the sun slowly set on the horizon lighting up the stratus clouds above us with a light mauve and the massive cumulonimbus thunderheads out over the Pacific with brilliant yellows and oranges. Both Josh and I stood dumfounded, our gathering mission forgotten. I motioned Josh over and we sat on the rocks taking in the spectacle. In the east, the legs of a double rainbow shone brightly while the sun continued to set in the west. Flocks of seagulls passed overhead along with groups of feeding brown pelicans, each silhouetted by the sunset. We made scrumptious chile rellenos stuffed with chorizo and onion for dinner. We are true hobbits; we eat well.
In the morning we prepared some delicious burritos while Brian and James hit the surf with our new friend, Will of Bellingham, Washington (most recently, as he has been living out of a well set up Sprinter van for the past three years). Will is en route to Envision, a music festival in Costa Rica with two brothers, Cole and Sam. Seeing the two brothers made me realize how much I wish my awesome brother, Ian was with us! Once again we were reminded that while the horizons of Baja seem vast and the world a huge place, the reality is that we are a small, interconnected community. Will had been climbing with Meghan’s (James’ ladyfriend) brother in law and was also good friends with Morgan Foster, a dude that I grew up playing soccer with. 

Punta Conejo was filled with surfers, all of whom were incredibly friendly folks. No sooner would one conversation end than another would begin and we would connect over being from Oregon or a love for camping in the middle of nowhere. John, our resident seagull, otherwise known as the owner of Kite the Bay in San Francisco tried to buy a cup of coffee and oranges from us. We laughed at the audacity. Come have three of each and eat some breakfast with us. 

“Seriously?” He asked. Of course! We had another friend.

Sunset at Punta Conejo


Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Paradise? Baja Norte

Looking at maps and planning
We hoped to find pulpo or juvenile octopus in the morning after a family who was fishing near us the previous night told us they were easy to collect under rocks. Unfortunately the tide was in so we had to settle for a quick dip in the ocean before packing up camp and heading south.

Brian satisfies a craving and dives into the Pacific
Massive agriculture started in Camalu and continued through San Quintin. San Quintin produces the most tomatoes in Mexico and nearly all are exported to the US. Massive hot houses stretched to the horizon. We passed acres of prickly pear plantations and fields of strawberries. Good old Driscoll’s down in Mexico. The scale of production was mindboggling, reminiscent of the Central Valley in California.

We picked up more food in San Quintin, accidentally paying 10 pesos to enter a clothing market that we thought was a food market. After some confused driving and a few stops to ask for directions we finally made it to the market we were originally looking for.

In El Rosario we stopped in at Mama Espinozas to ask what time they opened in the morning because Hannah told us they had the best lobster burritos in Baja. Hannah also informed us that Mama Espinoza served as a pioneering figure in the area, helping bring the first health clinics and offering a sort of refuge for travelers heading down the peninsula. After El Rosario, Highway 1 winds through a huge swath of rugged desert, travelers would check in with Mama Espinoza before heading south and check back in when they made it back. Additionally Mama Espinoza was a proponent of growing the Baja 5000 race, helping the race become the spectacle it is today.

Brian celebrating
As I poked my head in the door, I saw that it was the fourth quarter in the Seahawks-Packers NFC Championship game. I ran out to get Brian, a huge Seahawk fan and we ended up watching the exciting end of the game with chip, salsa, and cold Pacificos

Brian was stoked while I lay dejected after the Seahawk victory. Gathering the group, we headed out to Punta Baja a small fishing village we had seen on the map.
Group shot on the way to Punta Baja
We made it to the village and asked some folks who were milling about if it was OK for us to camp on what looked like a couple of deserted lots. They said of course and we had our spot, on top of rocky conglomerate cliffs overlooking a beautiful point break. We jumped out on the beach picking up a handful of interesting looking snails and brought them back to camp. I walked over to one of the central three houses on the point and approached a large group of folks to ask if they were good to eat.

View from our spot, notice the perfect point break
They shushed me and told me to put them down and eat with them. (I would learn later that the white shelled snails were in fact quite tasty, caracoles). They insisted that I feast on fresh cheviche, an almejas (clam) salad, and a tomato based seafood stew with fresh octopus, crab, and fish. I was humbled by the kindness of these wonderful people. Alfondero, a boisterous, powerfully built man, insisted I have an ice cold Tecate with them. Alfondero and his good friend Macoy, had a great time ribbing me about everything they could, they laughed at my shorts and started my initiation in Mexican slang. I understood a good portion of their jabs but some were totally new words. Machine, verga, and the words went on and on. I tried to keep up and threw back some of my own jabs, which they loved

Marlin, Alfondero’s better half, kindly explained many of the words, and welcomed me into their family. Macoy and Alfondero were friends for many years and Punta Baja was Alfondero’s home village. Punta Baja has only three permanent families who currently live there. Two families run small kitchens that cater to 50 or more fishermen who come from El Rosario and the surrounding areas to fish daily. They cook lunch and sell a variety of tobacco products, sweets, and snacks for the fishermen. The third family consists of a retiree and the expert tortilla maker who makes tortillas for both the kitchens

New friends
So much kindness
Alfondero had spent many years fishing in the area and seven years diving for abalone and living on a remote island off the point. Marlin’s mother and step father Ali, who live in Los Angeles area were there along with along with Alfondero’s parents. Ali was an Iranian immigrant to the US who ended up stuck in the US after the Revolution in Iran. An older, mellow soul, he spoke excellent English and understood Spanish. He was a calming complement to the wild and loud Alfondero and Macoy.

After twenty minutes I was feeling bad that the boys were at camp thinking about what to make so I explained that I needed to get them and make food with them. The ladies brushed off that suggestion insisting that they all come over and share their food. They were having a party that night and they wanted us to come. We pitched in a little money for beer and I brought the rest of the lads over to feast.

We couldn’t believe our luck, piles of fresh seafood and incredible company. There was a crew of young ones, aka Josh’s specialty; in no time, six kids were tearing after an exhausted Josh, attacking him with a plastic shark. They were merciless, running him ragged. We thought the first three dishes were dinner but no, they proceeded to pull out a massive pan heating up a mixture of butter and oil. Into the cauldron of hot oils, they started placing fresh caught lobsters. Lobster after lobster was cut and tossed in the oil, the meat side seasoned with salt and pepper and finally garnished with a hefty squeeze of lime. Each was served with a hot fresh tortilla

After eating two and a half lobsters, I was stuffed, we couldn’t believe it, they kept encouraging us to eat more and more, and the lobsters kept coming. Ridiculous. Later they asked if we wanted to see the butchering of the borrrego (lamb or sheep), that would be the centerpiece of the feast for tomorrow. I felt like I was back on our little farm as we watched the cook tie up the legs and start bleeding out the sheep. It doesn’t come much fresher than that. After a night full of beer, lobster, and wonderful company we finally retired to our beds

Unreal arches
Unbelievable vistas
We decided that we ought to stay on another day for the lamb feast. Brian, James, and Josh got out on the perfect point break, while I took a hike with the young ones, Marlyn, and her sister Laura. Then we proceeded to fish in the secluded cove that Punta Baja sits above. They fed me freshly cooked caracoles with lime, hot sauce, and salt and I headed out on a trek all the way around the point, exploring rocky caves, arches, and the best tide pools I have ever seen. Looping back over the headland I finished the hike trekking down a small canyon with a multitude of interesting plants and lichen; at least four different species hung from rocks, cacti, and bushes.

Soup with the young 'uns
Upon returning, we all stopped in for a delicious bowl of lamb soup with the families before they headed back to Ensenada and their current homes. Bellies full and hearts full, we rolled out our sleeping bags and made camp. We brought a flour sifter down with us with the intention of using it for water purification. During the first week of packing and unpacking the suburban we had started a bin for extraneous items. We felt like it might be good to see if the main cooks who had been doing a ton of work behind the scenes, if they wanted the sifter. I went over to ask and when I arrived, Julia insisted that I come in for a cup of coffee. I sat down with Julia and her husband Carlos along with one other couple from the village.

The tortilla maker had suffered a series of incredibly horrendous accidents and had lost use of one arm and was still the best tortilla maker in the area, she and her husband were interesting folks. Each had experienced some serious hardship, with her husband suffering a stroke early in life leaving him with only one arm to use. He spent his life moving and collecting rocks all day, toting bags over 50 kilos with one hand!

After an hour or so of catching up and listening to stories, I was exhausted. I begged leave of them so that I could head back to camp and pass out. The tortilla making couple asked me to wait a moment because they wanted to give us a ling cod that they had caught that day. Flabbergasted I waited while they brought back an eight pound fish

Late night filleting
Julia kept thanking us for the sifter, which she was excited to use to make empanadas. I was just overwhelmed by the kindness that each of the families showed. If you ever need to find faith in humans or the human condition, simply start traveling and talking with people, they truly are amazing

In the morning we parted ways with Punta Baja with our filets of ling cod. It was Brian’s 24th birthday so we picked up some tequila and unbeknownst to Brian, some nice tequila and postres or desserts from the market in El Rosario. From El Rosario the road snakes upward climbing into the mountains. We had plans on staying in the Catavina area, in the center of Parque National del Desierto Centro de Baja California. As we gained elevation tan granite boulders started appearing and as we neared Catavina, they filled the valley. Pulling off on a random road we found an exquisite camping spot and started making lunch. We made exquisite mango-ling cod tacos. Josh, James, and I headed on a short bouldering hike and returned to get Brian to come out and join the desert fun.

Birthday boy
The granite boulder piles in Catavina are similar to the rosy granite that you see in Joshua Tree National Park and in the San Bernadino mountains. We crossed the desert towards some of the largest piles squatting down to peer at tiny desert flowers and desiccated cactus, admiring their holey appearance. Stately elephant trees with squat trunks and peeling bark filled many crevices in the boulders. Even stranger, cirios or Boojum trees stood erect with twiggy branches covered in leaves, however, each branch was no more than twelve inches long and some of the trees stood over 40 feet tall. Some cirios toppled over, hanging in Seussical fashion. 
That is one good looking dude

With the tan granite boulders catching the light and massive cardon cacti (closely related to our Saguaros) framing the landscape the entire scene was darn near unbeatable. James described the vista as Dr. Seuss on a crazy acid trip. We climbed to the top of the biggest boulder pile, making our way through caves and across tiny spines of rock. At the top we munched on a bag of almonds, dried pears, and oranges all washed down with our favorite dill pickle water, bullshitting away. As a collective croup we are pretty darn good at that.

The strange cirios or boojum tree
Climbing rocks
Crazy boulders, plants, and light. A product of Dr. Seuss' imagination?
At camp we made cumin beans to go with chili powder, garlic, pepper, salt and flour dusted ling cod, all garnished with lime. Muy sabroso, as in delicious! Drinking tequila next to a small fire put a perfect accent on an excellent day.

The following morning we packed up and headed into Catavina after a narrow escape from our campsite. The desert sand was trying to keep us in place but with some pushing and deft driving we made it out. In Catavina we stopped for a loaf of bread and noticed water flowing across the road. Exploring up a rocky canyon, we found fan palms and lush greenery, an oasis standing in stark contrast to the rugged desert. Eventually we found the source, water popping out of a spring and we filled our water buckets.

Josh made me cry in laughter during our drive south. When Josh was nine, his parents planned a trip to Hawaii and completely surprised him, fooling him all the way into the airport. What did Josh do when he found out the family was going to Hawaii? He promptly puked.


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