Los Barriles: Water, water everywhere

We’ve been travelling down the Baja peninsula for six weeks and it has taken us this long to figure out one of the main draws to this part of Mexico – water sports. Now we have reached Los Barriles, a small town almost at the southern tip, which appears to be the epicentre for every imaginable water activity – swimming, diving, snorkelling, sport fishing, kayaking and standup paddle boarding.

But the HUGE draw are the wind and water sports. Thanks to the el Norte winds in this region, Los Barriles is a mecca for windsurfing and kitesurfing. Seeing these surfers in action is a thing of beauty and my pithy observations about requiring “good core” does not begin to cover the athleticism, balance and fearlessness required.

Watch this young woman make it look easy:

The kites are inflated on one end with air and attached to cords and a bar which the surfer uses to control direction. The surfer is supported by a harness and the board is similar to a snowboard. This is the size of the kite:

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On an average windy day in Los Barriles, there could be a couple of dozen  kitesurfers; miraculously no-one crosses lines. It is pure water ballet.

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The kitesurfers often catch air – flying along 10, 20 feet above the water, then gliding back down without a hitch.

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We saw only a couple of windsurfers, but obviously this is a sport for all ages:

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At the other end of the age spectrum, we watched this confident young man go out for his inaugural lesson. His instructor was holding on to him, safety cord trailing behind, as the boy learned how to maneuver the kite and figure out the winds. He was just glowing as they landed back on shore and admitted to being “a little scared”, but raring to go out the next time with a board. He is just 11 years old.

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With learning how to kite surf falling firmly into the “non-starter” category, we stuck to snorkelling. We had snorkelled once before on the Mayan reef in the Yucatan, and it was one of the most memorable experiences of my life. We saw giant sea turtles, schools of hundreds of fish, manta rays, barracudas, and multi-coloured coral beds.

So we were really looking forward to snorkelling around the Cabo Pulmo area, reputed to be one of the best in Baja for snorkelling and diving.

Cabo Pulmo and the snorkelling area, Los Arbolitos, is about an hour’s drive south of here and is home to the national marine park that has the only coral reef in the Sea of Cortez. The waters in these protected coves are brimming with coral and marine life and  much of it can be accessed just by wading in from shore.

The drive in is not without its challenges in spots – about 10 km. of narrow washboard dirt roads; some rockier than others. Many would argue this is all part of Baja and that is what helps to maintain its unique character. When we’re just bumping along in our truck and not pulling our trailer, I have to agree.

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If cattle are in your way, you just slow down and enjoy the scenery.

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This is some of the most rugged and stunning coastline we’ve yet encountered and this may soon be threatened by the construction of a number of high-end resorts in the area, including a  Four Seasons property. You can bet these roads will be paved over to accommodate tourists with different expectations. The locals and long-time Baja lovers are not happy about it.

A truly unique boondocking site. Right across the road, about a dozen or so rigs are facing out to sea.
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The swimming area at Los Arbolitos.

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The picturesque tower (although there were no lifeguards manning it).

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To access the snorkelling area, we walked along this path for about 10 or 15 minutes.

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We climbed down into the small cove and joined others who were snorkelling. This is when the fun began. We put on our (cheap) rental gear – flippers, lifejacket and mask and snorkel. After a couple of minutes Stephen was face-down and flippering about.

For the life of me, I could not get it together. My lifejacket rose up to my armpits, my hair flopped in front of my ill-fitting mask, which was filling with water and I was choking on the snorkel. Several times, I shot out of the water like a drowning wildebeest; frustrated and close to tears and more than a little panicky. Eventually, I took off the lifejacket and just swam with mask and flippers, so I did see some beautiful fish and a bit of coral.  Disappointingly, the magic of snorkelling – that silent otherworldly glide through the water – was lost to me.  There’ll be other opportunities – I’ll try again as we head north.

We enjoyed a  tamer water adventure with our new friends Jim and Linda (from Prince Edward County, Ontario). We drove to Santiago, a pretty small town about 25 km. south of here (and just 3 km. from the Tropic of Cancer). The main attraction for us was the waterfall and the hot springs – accessible by a 40-min. drive from Santiago on a decent dirt road. However, we arrived at a fork in the road to discover that the hot springs are closed on Wednesdays. It had never occurred to us that hot springs might want a day off, so that was a bit of a surprise, but we carried on to the waterfall and series of pools.

The walk in was lovely.

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Our first view of the waterfall.

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Stephen was the first one in. The water was decidedly brisk, but so clear and clean.

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And yes, that is me, standing in cold water…and I even went for a brief swim.
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We were joined by a local dog who had followed us down the path.

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This pool fed into a number of other pools that led down the mountain into the palm-ringed valley. Santiago is surrounded by an oasis.

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Back in Santiago, we visited the mission church.

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There is just one place to eat in Santiago – El Palomar Hotel and Restaurant. Luckily, it served very good food in a pretty garden setting. El Palomar has photos of a number of celebrities who have visited – including Bing Crosby and Susan Sarandon.  They make their own liqueur from the local damiana plant – an herb that tastes a bit like medicinal maple syrup. Linda bought a souvenir bottle.

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Meeting new friends is a big part of RV travelling. It is very easy to strike up a conversation in a campground and it is also common to keep running into the same people as we all follow the tourist route through Baja.

We first met Walter at Tecolote, just outside La Paz. We had driven over to that beach to see if it would be accessible with our trailer (it is), but did not end up returning there straight away because the winds had kicked up. We stopped to talk to this gentleman, who was camped there and who has been coming to Baja for 30 years. Walter, his wife and their five children spent many adventurous winters camping here; just picking a dirt road and driving down to the beach. He has since lost his wife and one son, and at 80 years of age carries on with spirit and love of life.

We were happy to meet up with him again at our campground here at Los Barriles and he kindly took us around for a tour of all the backroads we would never have known about. He knows this area like the back of his hand and drives like a Mexican, which is not a bad thing, I guess.

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This is one of the beaches Walter showed us – apparently great for shell-collecting, wonderful swimming and hardly a soul around.

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Except these two souls – Park from Oregon, and Wayne from Alberta.

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We met these men at our campground in Loreto (they were in for showers and laundry); they are poster boys for off-road travelling in Baja. They’ve been travelling buddies for years and meet up regularly in Baja with their respective dogs, 4×4 vehicles and chutzpah. They travel well back into the mountains on roads that don’t even qualify as roads and have had more than a few hair-raising experiences. It was great fun to run into them again, introduce them to Walter and listen to them swap stories.

Sometimes new friends are made on the road because of ties to home. Our friend Claire introduced us to Sharon, who is from Gabriola and has had a winter home in Los Barriles for 20 years. We popped by to meet Sharon and her partner Tony. Their home is very Mexican – all tiles and bright colours and a property filled with palm trees, agave, and fruit trees. We got to dreaming about having a Mexican home with a hammock and ocean view and a bowl full of lemons on the tiled counter…

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The town of Los Barriles is small and walkable and the main street is filled with restaurants, bike rentals and shops. Stephen tried on a wide-brimmed hat, proving beyond a doubt that bigger is not always better.

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In recent years, Los Barriles has grown into a sizeable expat community. I could not help but notice the irony of “The Wall.”  There are beautiful oceanfront homes, almost all of them owned by Americans or Canadians.  Almost all of them are protected by high walls for security or privacy or both. The argument about whether or not it is necessary is another story – the optics feel cruel. It just seems that everywhere there are walls being built to keep Mexicans out – even in their own country.

The Mexican homes, by contrast, are wide open – life lived outdoors and in full view of their neighbours.

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We have enjoyed our time in Los Barriles immensely. This is an area rich in beauty and endless outdoor activities.

We’re bypassing the Cabos entirely and slowly making our way back north. Our next stop is Tecolote, south of La Paz, for a few days of beach boondocking.

Todos Santos – all saints, all sugar

Todos Santos had its start in sugar – it was the Baja sugarcane capital during the 19th century when eight mills ran full-time. After the natural spring dried up in 1950 and the last mill closed in 1965, Todos Santos ran into decline.   There are still remnants of  old sugar mills to be found around town.

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Luckily, the spring returned in the early 80’s and agriculture began to flourish again. Then the new 4-lane highway was paved through, which helped to encourage tourism. Today Todos Santos has completely transformed, with numerous art galleries and restaurants. It has been declared a Pueblo Magico, and a stroll around the streets is a feast for the senses.

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While most of the buildings have been immaculately restored, there are still a few that are a work in progress – this one appears to be waiting for a shipment of windows.

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Roped off  and waiting for the restoration to begin.

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Purity of colour and form.

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Bicycles everywhere.

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And flowers everywhere. If there is anything more unabashedly lush and overgrown than a Mexican garden, I don’t know what it is.

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The artistic appeal of the gallery exteriors is almost as great as the paintings and sculptures that are displayed within.

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I love the use of brilliant colour contrasting with the sharpness of geometric lines and stone. img_0023
Mexicans are masters of making stone, brick and concrete inviting – of course you want to go into this gallery.

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There are a number of bespoke galleries, including Ezra Katz.

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And then there is this silliness – poking fun perhaps at the tourist kitsch that floods Mexican markets. Irony must be dead, as it looked to be long-shuttered.

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When you’ve decided your collection of one-size overly-patterned bias-cut rayon beach dresses aren’t doing it anymore. Enter: the insouciance of a simple frock or white linen pants.

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Careful renovations have been done to maintain and enhance the integrity and beauty of the old brick trapiches or mills that are now re-purposed into shops, offices and restaurants.

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And then, there is…the Hotel California with its many rumours about being the inspiration for the Eagles iconic song of the same name.

The Eagles have vehemently denied that this hotel (or any hotel) was the inspiration for their song and launched a successful lawsuit.

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While the current owners continue to dispel that myth, the rock-and-roll whiff still clings.  Originally built in 1947, the hotel sat empty for a number of years until the late 90’s, when Canadians John and Debbie Stewart (from Galiano Island), bought the crumbling property in 2001.  They took four years to meticulously restore it. Today it has 11 guest rooms, a gorgeous garden and swimming pool, restaurant, bar and gift shop and hundreds of visitors stream through daily.  I had a chance to speak with Debbie and she filled us in on the history of the hotel, as well as her personal attachment to both the hotel and Todos Santos.

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We did not stay at the Hotel California. After trying and failing to find a suitable campground in the area, we took the advice of a neighbour from La Paz and decided to try beach camping.

Here are the facts to consider about camping in south Baja – the more expensive and built-up the destination, the less your chances will be of finding a reasonable RV park. The tourist shift down here is notable – high-end restaurants and hotels proliferate, to serve the planeloads of tourists who fly into Cabo and La Paz. There is way more money to be made in hotel rooms than in campgrounds. Todos Santos is just an hour away and has developed its own polished aesthetic. “Expect higher prices“, was one apt description of travelling through this area, which is code for: “Expect American prices.”

The best camping experiences in Baja are also the ones where you can boondock right on the beach. It really is as romantic as it sounds – falling asleep to the sound of waves, having a fire on the beach, watching the stars at night. And it’s free! But… many of the dirt roads that lead to the beaches are not suitable for many RVs – they are rutted and gnarly with deep dips and drop-offs – and that’s before you arrive at the beach. Once there, you have to watch for tide lines and deep pockets of soft sand or mud.

We took the chance and slowly rocked and bumped along until we found a spot on the beach and parked beside a dune. Right next to us was deep sand, but there was a bit of a path we could navigate. We were in. That van behind us? People from Gabriola – chocolate-makers Ron and Nancy.  We sat together over a fire one evening, along with a couple from North Carolina and another couple from Germany.

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If you camp on the beach, you have no electricity, no water, no place to dump your waste water and if you aren’t bringing a toilet with you – no toilet.  You need to be inventive – we still don’t have the hang of boondocking, but we’re getting there. At this point, we know how to dry camp for three days before we need to get hookups. We both went four days without showers, which is never my first choice –  something not even the best wet wipes can remediate.

But…this is the sunrise that greeted us every morning at 6:30 a.m.

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We’d make coffee, stroll down to the beach and watch as the surfers would roll up. If the waves are behaving, this is a pretty sweet surfing area. Most days there were no more than half a dozen surfers in the water.

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These beaches are not considered safe for swimming, unless there is no wind and the water is calm. Despite the warning signs and the fact that there was not a single other swimmer in the ocean, Stephen went in swimming twice, although he did admit that the second foray was “intense.”

This is a stretch of the Pacific Ocean that is not to be messed with:

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That magical moment when the sun is beginning to drop and everything is touched with silver:

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Besides watching surfers, scanning the horizon for whales and flying manta rays, we were treated to the tireless joy of kids and dogs, playing at the beach.

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Although we cooked at our campsite every night, during the day while we were sightseeing we ate in town.  You don’t need to drop a bundle (although you certainly can) to eat well in Todos Santos.  You just have to adjust your expectations a little. Want an authentic taco stand that has been in business since 1995 and serves fabulous fish tacos? Look no further than Tacos Barajas.

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Their fish tacos are served with a platter of condiments and as long as you realize this same dish has previously graced another table and been handled by other diners,  you’re all set. This is common in most taco joints – one cannot be queasy about the open-air condiment dishes that are shared by all. It adds to the ambience.

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There are many really scenic beaches around Todos Santos and plenty to do in town. We could happily have stayed another couple of days. We check out La Poza, a laguna on the south end of Todos Santos, but in true Miller-Burr fashion, managed to miss the “easy” road to the coast and ended up driving up another goat path that took us above the town and back down over a hill where we met up with a dead end at a hotel. We parked there and clambered to the laguna over rocks. Well worth the adventure.

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Just past the laguna, we saw a pod of whales breaching quite close to shore. No photos of those, but I’ll end with a shot of the beach.

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Now we are heading for the other coast – the Sea of Cortez, to Los Barriles to explore that area and use it as a base for interesting day trips.