Muchos Ballenas

One of the biggest draws to Baja for us was the chance to see migrating grey whales. Every year around 12,000 grey whales migrate from the Arctic to give birth to their calves in three protected lagoon areas on Baja’s Pacific coast. These lagoons are the only places in the world where grey whales give birth; two lagoons, Ojo de Liebro and Laguna de San Ignacio are at the more northerly end of Baja Sur and since the whales arrive here first, our chances of seeing them were better than further south.   They begin arriving in December and the majority of the calves are born between February and April.

We are currently in Guerrero Negro, but our search for whales began at San Ignacio, a date palm oasis about two hours south of here. That town is a sweet slice of old Baja, with a sleepy centre plaza and colourful old buildings.

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The day we arrived the town was buzzing with activity. There was a pile of jeeps and drivers connected to the  Baja XL endurance rally out of the U.S.  This seemed to us to be both gruelling and exciting – 4000 km. in 10 days. We spoke to the couple who owned this vehicle; they were along for the ride as spectators and friends and didn’t have the stress of competing.

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The very next day, you might have seen tumbleweed blowing through town – scarcely a soul around. It may be languid, but the shopowners haven’t gone to sleep. We paid over $5 each for an ice-cream cone; probably making up for a slow start to the tourist season.

Right in front of the plaza is the San Ignacio Mision, which was originally built by the Jesuits, but rebuilt again in 1786 after they were expelled from Mexico.

The missions throughout Baja are so beautiful, but they all come with the same heavy price; indigenous populations wiped out by European disease introduced by the missionaries.

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So many small pueblos in Baja are dusty and somewhat unappealing, but the oasis towns are exactly the opposite; lush and colourful with water sources and groves of citrus and date palms. The entrance to San Ignacio is enchanting. First there is the drive past the lagoon which is part of Rio San Ignacio.

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Just past the lagoon, the road is lined with date palms.

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There are a number of appealing RV parks by the oasis, just before town, but unfortunately we were not able to stay there, as the larger spots were already taken and our trailer would not navigate some of the tight turns.  We ended up staying at an RV park, Rice and Beans,  just off the highway, which was fine for a couple of nights but not nearly as atmospheric.

Our main event was a trip out to Laguna de San Ignacio in search of whales, and we headed out with great anticipation.  We had been advised to arrive at the lagoon before 9:00 or 9:30 and hop on any of the waiting boats for a tour. The road out was over 50 km. from town to lagoon and at first, it was a marvel of fresh pavement and beautiful scenery.  We had the road to ourselves and we were on our way to see baby grey whales!

Then, the road turned to dirt (still okay) and then to washboard (horrible). We bumped and jolted along for about 15 km., listening to our truck make unusual noises and bangs and cursing mightily all the way.

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We stopped to take photos of the salt flats and brackish water; a rather eerie moonscape, made more eerie by the fact there was not another soul on the road.

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A little further along we began to see osprey nests, first one, then a couple, then a whole slew of them. Ospreys are very prevalent in this area and in Guerrero Negro.

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A few signs of life began to materialize. Life is not luxurious out here – this building is typical of the few homes scattered by the lagoon.

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After more than an hour of driving, we arrived in the little town to discover that there were no lineups of boats clamouring for our business.  No-one was willing to take us out to see the whales. We had arrived a couple of weeks too early to guarantee sightings and understandably, it was not worth their time and gas to take out just two people.

So we began the long drive back and stopped to take this photo. One lone vehicle on a really bad road in the middle of nowhere. A certain desolate beauty.

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Okay, now we were pinning all our  hopes on Guerrero Negro, about two hours north, as our last chance to see grey whales before we left Baja.

We pulled into the Malarrimo Hotel with space at the back for RVs. Not exactly parkland, but clean and well-kept and secure. The people here are lovely and they offer whale-watching tours, so we signed up for an 8:00 am departure this morning.

We woke up to fog and cold, which is pretty much the climate here at Guerrero Negro, but dressed in layers and within an hour the fog had lifted. In fact, it made for better conditions, as the water was calm and the light was soft.

We drove to the lagoon with a party of seven; two Germans, two French, one Californian and us. After about 10 minutes on the water, the captain pulled up beside a large structure, filled with sea lions sunning themselves. They are pretty darn cute – I’ve never seen them so close up.

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The trip started slowly, as whale-watching trips tend to do. The first sighting brought us all to our feet, with cameras aimed:

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The captain steered quietly and slowly toward the whale and then cut the motor. The operators here are extremely respectful of the whales. Boats are small and keep a discreet distance from the whales. They are never chased but the operators allow them to approach the boat, if they choose. We  were out for two hours and only saw two other boats, in part because the season has only just started.

More whales began to appear; at times we were surrounded on all sides by dozens of whales. Our captain thought there were about 100 whales in the lagoon right now – there are up to 1000 in peak season. Guerrero Negro has the largest collection of cetaceans in the world during the grey whale birthing and migratory period.

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There are challenges with trying to photograph whales on a rocky boat without a tripod.  There is that split second between the money shot and this:

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Who knows what I missed while I was taking dozens of fascinating shots of the sky:

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We did not get any dramatic breaches, but a number of straight up head shots.

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And a number of whale tails:

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And then our whales began to get closer and closer. Our captain was so excited – this was the first day he was out this season where there were so many whales – lucky us.

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Incredibly, a big grey went right under our boat and emerging on the other side.

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She was so close to the side of the boat, I almost touched her fin. A little later in the season, once the mamas are more comfortable, they will bring their babies right up to the boat to be touched and petted. We are so sorry to have missed out on that incredible privilege to have such an intimate encounter with these whales, but feel fortunate to have spent this much time with them.

On our way back to shore, we were treated to one last little marine treat. A dolphin played around our boat for a while and then our captain said, “Adios, ballenas” and it was time to go.

I will never forget this incredible experience – a highlight of our time in Baja.

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Tomorrow the highway veers back over to Sea of Cortez and Bahia de los Angeles, or Bay of LA, as it is known among the tourists. More beach camping and with any luck, more swimming for a few days before we make our way to the border.

Musings from the road

Just before Christmas, we stopped at Santispac Beach for a few days, just south of Mulege. We thoroughly enjoyed our time there, although the water was cold and the wind relentless, so we decided to return on the way back to enjoy some real swimming and beach time.

View of Santispac Beach from the highway.

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We’re parked here for a few days and enjoying the ebb and flow of life on an “almost-boondocking” beach. While there are no hookups, there is water delivery and a sani-dump at one end of the beach. There is a restaurant when we don’t feel like cooking and a daily delivery of fresh shrimp, fish and vegetables when we do.

We discovered this path above the beach – an old road that is no longer passable by vehicles, but ideal for long walks and chatting about the meaning of life.

I thought this might be a good time to share some of our thoughts about this life of ours, now that we are two and-a-half-years into being “unhoused.”

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When we were shopping for a trailer, we had a great chat with a very funny salesman who warned us that this life would mean, “you’ll be having breakfast with the same person every morning.” More to the point, we would also be together for lunch, dinner and all the time in between. 

That is not a concept one can fully understand until it is put into practice – we don’t have jobs, friends, family or hobbies to separate us so with a few exceptions, we go through our days and nights in tandem. Our trailer is 7’ x 17’, so even our bathroom moments are not that private. But so far, it has not been a problem – we enjoy similar things and have similar warped humour. Most of our days are spent outside. We walk, swim, sightsee, read, socialize with other people and it all seems to work.

All that togetherness means we have had a few snappish moments along the way. We are both bossy first-borns who don’t like to be told and those less-than-endearing traits are magnified on the road. We’ve sorted out what needs “work.” I’m trying not to jump in with my version of the story when Stephen takes his time talking, and Stephen is trying not to correct what he refers to as my “inaccuracies” in front of others.

Here we are, getting along well, even though I appear to be clutching at Stephen’s shirt.

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We cannot say enough good things about the Escape. It operates smoothly and follows behind us, no matter how twisty and bumpy the road.  It is comfortable and cosy and all we need.  However, we occasionally wonder if rather than “leaving ourselves behind”, we are “dragging ourselves behind.”  

When we unhitch and drive around with just our truck, our mood lightens – we’re free!  We can go anywhere!

It is too soon in our journey to come to any conclusions. We finish this trip in May and then after our summer trip to  Alaska and the Yukon, we’ll be in a better position to know how we want to proceed. Sometimes we wonder if a 4×4 truck camper or a rig like this one would suit us better.

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One of the biggest attractions to this life is having freedom to do what we want and when we want to do it. Once the outline of our trip is planned and we have done the groundwork (research, necessary shots and/or visas) our life unfolds as it should, with room left for changes or detours.

While we are not without any responsibilities, our main concerns from day to day are planning what to eat for dinner, where we’ll be a week from now, and finding ways to stay in touch when wifi and cell service are spotty or non-existent.

Being on the road means we run across a huge swath of people and hear their stories; we would have no way of meeting them otherwise.

We love t
he mystery of the open road – trying to anticipate what is next. We are far more engaged in order to deal with the constant change. It slows time down when the tyranny of the week and its routines is gone. When we talk about buying a house again and changing the way we travel, we both react the same way – “Not yet!”

We never know where the bend in the road will take us and that is highly addictive.

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Of course there are downsides to our way of life.  We go through periods where we miss our family and friends so much it feels like a sharp ache. Our friends will still be our friends when we see them again, but we’re no longer part of their lives. I’m more or less off Facebook, but when I dip in from time to time, I discover the changes, big and small, that have happened.

We don’t see our parents or our extended families as much as we would if we were in one place.  We don’t see our kids more than a couple of times a year and now we have big news – along with two other excited sets of grandparents, we are expecting our first grandchild the end of May. In fact, we recently learned we are expecting our first grandson. Aside from a couple of photos of our pregnant daughter-in-law, we feel so removed.

Another downside of nonstop travel is the challenge of maintaining continuity in physical exercise and in pursuing hobbies. Even cooking becomes rudimentary in a small trailer. 

Every way of life has its trade-offs.

After meeting so many young people on the road, we were struck by opportunities we may have missed when we were their age and raising our own family.

This is what our 60-something selves would say to our 30-something selves.

Don’t wait until you are retired – do this now. If you can find a way to put your lives on pause and just go – do it! There are many young people and young families who are on the road for a year, two years and indefinitely. Their backgrounds are varied. Some have left advanced degrees, well-paying jobs and homes to pursue lives that are giving them greater satisfaction. Others have cobbled remote work – writing, farm work, seasonal work, teaching, etc. – to bankroll ongoing travel. We met a couple who travel every winter then return to BC in March to begin their garden for their farm-to-table restaurant. Another young couple from Oregon travel in the winter and return to their seasonal businesses back home – she is a gardener and he has a tile and stone business. A young family from Marin County have rented out their home for a year and hit the road with their seven-year-old son. They home-school him, but he is also learning Spanish and spending his days kayaking. At this point they are not sure if they will go back to their old lives – this may be the beginning of something different.

We had insightful philosophical discussions with these young people about how they are choosing to live their lives. They all share similar traits – they are happy and unstressed and fully engaged. They know that following the well-trod path does not guarantee that your marriage will stay intact, or you will remain healthy, or you will keep your job. With that in mind, it feels far less risky to step off the cliff and see what else might be out there.

We would say – step off that cliff!  If we had it to do over, we would have taken our young sons and lived in another country for a year. We have our children with us for such a short time – maybe we would have done that a couple of times.

We leave you with a question:

What would your 60-something self say to your 30-something self?”

From the dunes to the dentist

The last time we were in La Paz we checked out nearby Tecolote Beach to make sure it was accessible for our trailer (it was) and vowed to return. So it was with great anticipation we bumped along the beach and set up camp with a view.

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Tecolote  Beach is a treasure. It is just 20 minutes to La Paz, but feels remote. There are a couple of restaurants but otherwise no amenities. The water is emerald and crystal clear and the swimming is pure heaven. There are maybe a couple of dozen campers spread out over a wide area, with peace and privacy for all. Some choose the waterfront; other prefer to cozy in beside the dunes.

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We could have happily stayed here forever but we’re still figuring out the art of long-term boondocking. Our propane tanks could last a month and our solar panel keeps our battery fully charged but we’re still stymied about our water and waste. With careful water conservation and judicious toilet flushing (if it’s yellow, let it mellow), we can stretch boondocking for three days before we need to empty our tanks and refill water. Advice from long-timers can be cagey (“I just drive back there, dig a hole and empty”) or non-applicable – the big rigs have massive holding tanks and can go for a week or more.

So, we just resolved to enjoy every minute and figure out how to go for days without a shower.

It is amazing to me how one can amuse oneself doing very little and suddenly realize,”My gosh, it’s 3:00 pm already. Where has the day gone?”

Swimming, of course, figured largely in every day. So did hiking about and exploring the many trails in the area. There are sand dunes right behind the beach that go for miles. Our first trek out we were rewarded with a quick glimpse of a jackrabbit, and we sensed there must be a lot of other life hiding in this scrub.

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Different times of day produced entirely different landscapes.

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Even this broad red clay path entices you to explore.

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Not every day was sunny and warm – we had one day of torrential rain. It was so cosy to be snug in our trailer and watch the clouds threaten and then pour. Afterwards, we walked out to this moody scene.

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The next morning the clouds were clearing.

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Sunday on Tecolote Beach belongs to the Mexicans. During the week the beach is quiet and largely populated by gringos, but Sunday brings in Mexican families by the carloads and the fun begins. The music blares, the cabanas are set up, giant blankets staked out and picnic coolers roll up. Interestingly, not a lot of Mexicans actually swim but they hang out on the beach and relax. That is one thing we both love about La Paz and the surrounding area – it is very Mexican.

Apparently there is a delivery service for that essential of Mexican beach life – cerveza. Also, please note how spotless this car is, in spite of the dirt roads. Mexicans are extremely fussy when it comes to keeping their vehicles immaculately clean.

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One day, we were lazing about on the beach, reading and chatting.  I watched as this young man expertly went through his yoga poses, including a few solid headstands. I did wonder if I should dust off my yoga mat and join him, but thought better of it.

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About halfway down the beach from the camping area are a couple of restaurants. They are unfussy affairs with fresh seafood and great margaritas. The ambience may be casual, but you would pay triple the price in a restaurant in Toronto and not come close to the taste of shrimp that was caught that morning.

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Balandra Beach is just a couple of kilometres away from Tecolote and has a completely different feel to it. It is set in a sheltered cove, so far less windy and also very shallow – perfect for families with young children. We drove over to have a look and climbed up to the top of the hill overlooking the bay.

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The view from the other side:

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One of the interesting and fun elements of RV travel is you often run into people you’ve met from other campgrounds, and you discover thing you would otherwise have no way of knowing.  When we were out on a long hike one day we came upon a couple who were parked at the very far end of the beach; we had previously talked to them in Mulege. They directed us to walk a little further to the next cove to see the poignant site of two memorials to people who had drowned in that area.

The first was quite haunting – an ornate cross right in the water guarding what appears to be a grave. At high tide, the cross disappears.

Two young men were caught in an undertow and drowned at the site, although it’s not clear if their bodies were lost at sea or are buried elsewhere.

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Equally sad is this memorial to a mother and son. The mother tried unsuccessfully to reach her drowning son and was herself lost to sea.

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We left this beautiful beach reluctantly, but drove the short distance to the campground we had previously stayed at in La Paz, where we knew hot showers, laundry facilities and a great little cafe awaited.
One thing we have remarked upon throughout our trip is how people are able to travel with their dogs in the smallest of vehicles and appear unfazed by it. When we pulled into our campsite, there was a French couple next to us, travelling about in an SUV, rigged with a sleeping platform. In addition to their sleeping platform, their tubs of belongings and themselves, they also had Jacko – by far the cutest puppy I’ve ever seen. He’s just four months old, very mellow and absolutely devoted to his owners. He guarded the door every time one of them went to the washroom.

If we ever get a dog in another life, I want one just like Jacko.

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We’ve now been in La Paz for five days for a very special reason. We have joined the ranks of medical/dental tourists who flock to Mexico for affordable dental work, eyeglasses and even hip and knee replacements.

Stephen, although he is loathe to admit it, is afraid of dentists.  Over the years,  he would break a filling or chip a molar and because there was no pain and they were back teeth, it was out of sight, out of mind. Also, the potential cost of new crowns or bridge work was a bit of a deterrent, and he let it go.

We read about Molar City – the nickname for a small town just south of the California border that has over 350 dentists and is a buzzing hive of  up to 6000 gringos a day who line up for implants and teeth whitening.  This is work that would cost two to three times more back in the U.S. or Canada. Our plan was to set aside a few days on our way out of Mexico and stop for Stephen’s dental work, but then we researched dentists in La Paz and realized a week in this lovely seaside city would be preferable to a week in a dusty border town.

We discovered Dr. Guzman, who creates new crowns from the CEREC method, using CAD/CAM digital models to create teeth milled from porcelain, in the exact fit of the mouth and to an exact colour match to the other teeth.

The good news was Dr. Guzman does the examination and computer model one day and the teeth are ready the very next day – at US$500 per crown – at least half of what that work would cost in Canada. The bad news? Stephen needed nine teeth crowned. We look at it as deferred maintenance, with a very lucky outcome. The teeth are beautiful and we would happily return to Dr. Guzman in the future. Just as a note to anyone needing significant dental work – don’t be afraid of having work done in Mexico – just do your online research as you would at home. The good dentists are as well trained as any in the US or Canada, they are certified, speak English and have modern, clean facilities; in our case state-of-the-art technology.

Dr. Guzman and a slightly groggy Stephen after the final appointment.

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This is entirely off-topic, but during the appointments, I went out for a couple of strolls on the malecon and was lucky to stumble upon a dozen excited and glamorous young women posing for their quinceanera photos. It is a huge event when Mexican girls reach their fifteenth birthday;  a coming-of-age and culturally important stage in their lives. It is marked with parties, celebrations and almost identical princess dresses. Here, two young women wait for their turn to pose for photos.

I want to tell you, I looked nothing like that at fifteen.

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And finally, back at the campground, we met a most interesting couple, Em and David, from Melbourne Australia who have been travelling South America, Central America and now Mexico for two years by motorcycle. They have had many hair-raising adventures, falls off the bike too numerous to count and survived it all, but are now heading home in early February. They’re homesick for their kids and the rest of their family and friends and ready to get off the road.
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We loved their spirit – they are typical of so many people we meet, whether they’re in a big RV or on a bicycle. They are a huge part of what makes our travels so meaningful.

Tomorrow we head north to Ciudad Constitucion for an overnight, then back at Santispac Beach, near Mulege for a few days of sun and beach. We were there on the way south, so I may not post another blog  for at least a week until we hit San Ignacio Lagoon and the mama grey whales and their new calves.

Hasta Pronto!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.