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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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1 comment:

  1. Very well written and informative article, thank you :-)
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