La Mordida – the Bribe

Well, sooner or later, it had to happen. We have driven throughout Mexico three different times, for a total of nine months and for more than 25,000 km. We have been pulled over for speeding and waved off with a warning. We have had a police officer in Michoacan (a cartel state) shake our hands and thank us for visiting Mexico – this during a time when tourism had dropped drastically due to cartel violence. We have had police officers help us when we were hopelessly lost. And in spite of our positive encounters with the law, we were both very conscious of widespread police corruption and of the infamous mordida – the “bite” put on tourists for bogus traffic violations. We didn’t think the police were our friends, but we somehow felt immune to them. Still, when every Mexican blew through stop signs and red lights, we dutifully came to complete stops.

Before I tell you our sad story, let me assure you we were well aware of the crooked practice and thought we were prepared for being pulled over. We had read the forums and knew the drill. Don’t hand over your licence, just deny the charge, stay calm and polite and insist on going to the station to pay the “fine” directly. Since the cop has no intention of going to the station, invariably he gets fed up and waves you on. But…other circumstances prevailed.

We were using Google maps on our phone to lead us out of Tecate and to the U.S. border. Unfortunately that map had not been updated since the road changed to “pedestrian only” three years ago and we found ourselves in a narrow area with virtually no space to turn around. Thankfully a kind man stopped to direct Stephen how to back up with almost no wiggle room. He proudly banged on his chest, “truck driver” and within minutes we were on our way again. We had to drive several blocks before we could make a U-turn and then head back for another try for the border. We took the turn and then the road split into three, with absolutely no signage directing us. We took a chance and made the wrong turn. By now we were both in a state.  I spotted a cop car coming in our direction, flagged him down and sure enough, he wheeled around, put his siren on and pulled in behind us. By some mystery of magical thinking, I believed this man was wanting to help us, so I hopped out of the car and walked back toward him.

That was my mistake. He became very agitated and aggressive and ordered me back to the car. He then proceeded to tell us that we had driven through a stop sign, past an emergency building and I had also broken the law by getting out of the car. All of those infractions carried a heavy price – 2400 pesos (about CA $170.00). We had two choices – we could go to the judge and plead our case and that might take a couple of days, or he could pay the  fine in the office on our behalf.  He also informed me he wanted to speak to the driver only (Stephen) as I was flapping indignantly in front of him. Stephen told him he wanted to do the most efficient thing, as we just wanted to get out of the country.

We both had plenty of money in various hiding places, but I had US$100 freshly cashed in from our remaining pesos and stashed in my pocket. Stephen helpfully pointed out that we had that sum at our disposal and that was his mistake.

These guys usually score about $10 or $20, if they score anything at all. This cop lit up like a Christmas tree and thought that sum might just help us out of our difficulties.  We followed him down around the corner and pulled in behind him. He produced a “violation book” and pointed out where our transgressions were listed. Since it was written in Spanish and we had already established our knowledge of the language was slight, it could have been a washing machine repair manual for all we knew. He instructed me to put the “fine” in the book,  he closed it up and stuck it in his jacket – as if it had never happened. He made his way back to his car, then instructed us to follow him to the border.

Then came the “If only’s.” If only we had gone straight instead of left.  If only I hadn’t flagged the cop down. If only Stephen hadn’t mentioned a sum of money. If only we had remembered to stay cool. If only we had remembered we were in the right and the cop was in the wrong.  We were caught out when we were vulnerable and frustrated and lost and we paid for it. It took us a while to get over our fury (at the cop and at ourselves) and embarrassment and self-flagellation, but as the late, great Nora Ephron would say, “everything is copy.

If it can become a story, it can become a lesson, and suffice to say, lesson learned.

This has not turned us off Mexico one little bit, but it is a good reminder – as much as we feel comfortable and familiar in Mexico, it is a foreign country and they play by a different rulebook.

Thankfully, our previous day and night in Baja was so delightful that those sweet memories far outweigh the sour taste left from the crooked cop.

Our friends Cindy and Bob are members of Harvest Hosts – https://harvesthosts.com – an organization that allows people to camp on farms and in wineries at no charge, usually for one night. The hope is that you will buy wine or produce from the hosts – an agreeable arrangement for all.

They were staying at L.A. Cetto, Mexico’s largest winery for their last night in Baja and suggested we do the same. We arrived and pulled in to this dreamy spot.

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We set up and went into the winery for a tasting of their reserve wines – three white and three red. This young man Adrian, gave an excellent tasting and was knowledgable and passionate. He is 27 years old and working toward his dream of having his own vineyard one day. He discovered wine while earning his culinary papers and has switched fields. He and his girlfriend (a biologist) want to travel to the Okanagan in Canada and to New Zealand to learn as much as they can about wine production in other parts of the world. We bought two bottles of wine, a Nebbiolo and a Terra ( made from four grape varietals in the area).

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We then went for a walk around the vineyard – it was about 3:30 in the afternoon and the light was pure magic.

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Our very last night in Baja was idyllic. We have managed to have a few laughs over our border mishap, or as Stephen chooses to call it, “our special escort out of Mexico.”

We are now in Arizona, in the small town of Ajo and enroute to our first National Park (trying to fit as many in as we can while they are still open) – Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.  We’re having fun, but after our contact with all the young’uns in Baja with their old camper vans and surfboards and rescue dogs, this is a serious change of pace.

We are in Snowbird Country, or as we like to say, “No Country for Young Men.” Lots to report – see you again in a few days.

 

 

En route to La Frontera

We had originally planned to be out of Mexico by the end of January and beginning our southwestern U.S. travels, but Mother Nature had other ideas. That most besieged of states, California, has been pummelled with three storms bringing heavy rain, mudslides, flooding and road closures in the south and heavy snow at higher elevations. The tail end of those storms has dumped buckets of rain in the northern end of Baja, so we made the decision to hunker down for a bit and enjoy the sun and warmth while we could.

We spent four days at Bahia de los Angeles, a community that is 66 km. from the highway to the Sea of Cortez.  While it is mainly a fishing and boating destination, we enjoyed it simply for its quiet beauty. This was the view from our campground.

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We went for a few desert walks and came upon this quintessential desert sight – a flock of turkey vultures, just waiting…

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Back on the beach, we met up with this little fellow that we believe to be a curlew. He was the only one we saw on any of the beaches in Baja.

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We arrived back to the campground to a rather frenetic scene. A couple of fellow campers had come back to shore and were cleaning their fish and tossing scraps to the birds. For a while the pelicans were batting 1000, but the gulls moved in and snatched the fish right out of their beaks. Amid the indignant screeching and flapping wings, it was looking like an avian smackdown.

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Our first morning there, we awoke to a beautiful 6:00 am sunrise. I got up to take some photos and sit on the beach to enjoy the changing sky.  Two of our neighbours were already there, readying their kayaks for a sunrise paddle.

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They returned a couple of hours later, with a few grouper for dinner.

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And that is the joy of Bahia de los Angeles – the water, the fishing, the quiet. Alas, the quiet was not to be, as a caravan of seven big rigs were camped out and ready to par-tay. A caravan is like being on a tour with a leader and other campers; travellers pay a good buck for that privilege. The caravan leader is the one who organizes border crossings, campgrounds, tours, restaurants, etc. and the rest follow behind. This was our first encounter with a caravan and if possible, it will be our last.  Probably they are all decent people and the leader bears a lot of responsibility for (not) setting the tone, but both nights 14 people began drinking around 4:00 pm and didn’t stop until 9:00 or 10:00 pm.  Dimwitted cacophony ensued. The rest of the campground had to listen to hours of shrieking laughter and loud inane conversation, punctuated by pointless war cries of “woo-hoo!”  I thought I might lose it, but was prevented by going over to them by Stephen, who quite rightly pointed out the fact that I would be trying to reason with 14 drunks; many of them belligerent.

Writing it off as being another chapter of “life on the road”, we took great comfort in meeting up again with Bob and Cindy from Christina Lake, British Columbia.  We had been hopscotching down and back up the Baja – meeting them a few times in different campgrounds. They were staying at a different campground, so we popped by for a visit and catch-up.

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The town of Bahia de los Angeles has campgrounds on one side and the marina and boat ramp on the other.  It has a bit of an end-of-the-road feel to it. There are boarded-up businesses and run-down buildings and sights like this one – a one-time grand home on the water that was abandoned and left to the elements. There was simply no-one to buy it and fix it up.

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I marvelled at the boat launch. Apparently as boat ramps go, this one is pretty fine, but if you look closely, you will see how far into the water the tow vehicles go. They must gauge where the ramp ends and the water begins and not get those two confused. As people still new to the efficient backing up of trailers, we were suitably impressed.

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We left Bahia de los Angeles and headed north with mixed feelings; our time in Baja was drawing to a close. We expected to have a couple of  nondescript overnight stops, then heave ourselves back into the reality show of the U.S.

As we headed north, we drove through a number of landscapes, including fields of giant boulders.

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I’ve probably mentioned the roads in Baja before. They are almost entirely narrow, with no shoulder and are in parts a pothole obstacle course. They require steely nerves and a steady eye; at times it all becomes a bit much. Again – all part of the Baja journey.

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We arrived at Don Eddy’s, near Lazaro Cardenas, about 200 km. south of the border, with the intention of getting up this morning and heading out, but it is so beautiful here we  decided to give ourselves another full day. Don Eddy’s is an RV park situated on a bay just in from the Pacific. The surrounding area is pastoral and calm – such a change from the desert landscape and it reminded us a bit of SE Asia.

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Our friends had told us about this site and also about a nearby restaurant called Eucalipto. This sweet little place is proof that if you provide fabulous food in a culinary desert and you are not afraid to charge a reasonable sum for it, then the unlikely location  (5 km. off the highway) won’t matter one bit.

Chef Javier, (who bears more than a passing resemblance to Gordon Ramsey) is from Mexico City, has cooked in a number of places around the world and three years ago, opened his small restaurant to great acclaim. Prices are in U.S. dollars, which is a good indication of the clientele.

We split a blue cheese salad, which arrived as a spiral of romaine tucked into a tomato cup, nestled in piles of pungent creamy cheese. We’d both been craving fresh salad so this was a ripping good start.   I ordered yellowtail tuna which was cooked exactly right (I didn’t need a knife) and Stephen had the pesto pasta with shrimp – every single ingredient fresh and popping with flavour.  We barely spoke – it was one of those primal food experiences.

On top of the memorable meal, we had fun watching the sous-chef’s 11-year-old son, (with that most Mexican name, Ryan), working the room. He calmly and confidently bussed tables, stopped to chat and stoked the fire. A true family business and a lovely way to end our trip.

Eucalipto’s crew:

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We popped into town to buy some groceries.  We saw huge puddles of water in the fields and on the side of the road that were the result of yesterday’s rain – that very rain storm we had wanted to avoid. Our timing was perfect.

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This is an important agricultural area, with tomatoes, strawberries and citrus being the primary crops. There are many roadside stands just like this one.

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I’ll leave you with an image that has burned into my brain. Mexico is not lacking for vehicles with questionable road-worthiness. We have seen cars without front hoods, driver’s doors, and windshields. We have seen vehicles that were 50% rust, with fenders hanging on with twine. But this one is the best yet – I wish we had taken a video of it in motion. The entire back end sways, with each side taking turns in a fascinating centrifugal motion. No doubt the driver will keep this baby on the road for a while yet.

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When we talk again it will be from somewhere in Arizona. We’ve never been to that state and have a year’s worth of potential places to visit. See you soon!

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.

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.

Sorting out Loreto

Our time in Loreto is almost over – we leave tomorrow morning to begin our trek south to the more populated and touristy areas of Baja, and we’re curious to see it all – the “real Mexico” of La Paz, the charming, artsy Todos Santos, the wild winds of Los Barrilles and the pricey, over-hyped glitz of Cabo. All of these are pithy summaries of each place and our expectations may fall far short, or exceed the reality.

That has been the case with Loreto. It is a sweet little town with a few good restaurants and a beautiful malecon and beach, but it did not come close to what we had imagined, based on what we had read and on our experiences in beach towns in mainland Mexico. We pictured ourselves walking the malecon at night, surrounded by Mexican families and tourists, serenaded by mariachi bands and chased down by vendors. We imagined the town to be busier and somehow more. We thought there would be packed restaurants, many more shops and sidewalk vendors and more tourists. More Mexicans on the beach, with their families and coolers and music. Even at Christmas, Loreto felt half-empty, and we wondered why.

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From what we have seen so far, I think the best experiences in Baja fall into two camps – those with kayaks and surfboards and bikes; and the snowbirds with big rigs who camp in one spot for months. For the former, Baja is an unparalleled playground – crystal clear waters to paddle, fantastic snorkelling and windy beaches that attract surfers, windsurfers and kiteboarders from all over.

For the snowbirds, campgrounds become their second home; many have been coming here for years and this is simply a warmer version of their northern homes. They meet up with the same people from one year to the next and circle their wagons each day at 3:00 pm for happy hour.

We don’t fall into either group and found ourselves becoming a wee bit bored. Now, having said all that – we still enjoyed ourselves here very much. Loretta is worth a stop, maybe not for 10 days.

As in the rest of Mexico, there are many animals on the street and it’s not always clear if they have owners or have banded together for company and survival. These little characters draped themselves on top of what appears to be an ad for a cat-themed event.

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Returning from the beach one day, we noticed three young Mexican peering over the fence of a home near our campground.  We stopped to see what they were so interested in.  We have no idea how this tortoise got here and if this is its home, but the lot was fully fenced, and after a while, a dog began barking at us rather protectively.

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Mexico would not be complete without  people riding horses along the beach.

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The Centro Historico of Loreto is small but picturesque and anchored at one end by the Mision.

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There are a number of cute storefronts and as is always the case in Mexico – so much colour.

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Loreto has a number of old wooden structures that have a bit of a Caribbean feel to them – weathered wood, multi-paned windows and thatched roofs.

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There are also a good number of really extravagant beachfront homes – largely owned by Americans.

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Our campground is one block from the beach and between us and the beach is the Desert Inn Hotel, which appeared to be entirely empty for most of our stay. It was perplexing to us, as we saw people working on the grounds and cleaning the pool.  We cut through the grounds to get to the beach each day without being stopped, so we figured it was under renovation.  Then we met a couple from British Columbia who were staying there and  confirmed that indeed they had been the only guests for a while and were slowly being joined by other people.

The beachfront was beautiful, but very windy most days. We brought down chairs and books and it will come as no surprise to those of you who know our swimming habits – Stephen went in every day and I did not. I’m saving myself.

Beachwalks were always interesting – many, many dogs to greet and people to talk to. One day we watched fishermen cast nets, another day we came upon this curiosity – we think it was a pufferfish.

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One day we drove south down the coast a bit to check out the Loreto Bay Golf Course and Spa. This is a vast complex begun in the late 90s that includes an 18-hole golf course, spa, wine cellar, restaurants, shops and a really pretty, colourful village of homes and immaculate gardens – owned by Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim.

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Wide, winding streets curve around the complex; we parked and walked into the village which is pedestrian traffic only. Three-storey homes hug narrow pathways; each home individual and really beautiful.

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The landscaping is fantastic; no chance this gardening has been left to random black thumbs – it is uniformly well cared for and lush.

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We walked through to the beach, which ran along a sheltered cove.

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It is an idyllic setting, but a couple of things happened that gave us pause. As we were parking our truck, two young men rode by on their bikes and we overheard one say to the other, “I really like being in a gringo village.” A shocking statement coming from a young man in his 30s who should be more curious, more willing to learn.   And therein lies the reality for a number of tourists coming to Mexico – that need to experience the luxuries and comforts and safety of home, while staying separate from Mexicans. They would have flown in, been driven to this resort and experienced a lovely vacation in the sun – really nice accommodations, beautiful beach, golf, snorkelling, paddle-boarding, perhaps a couple of planned excursions. Sheesh – I don’t begrudge anyone a nice holiday, but that sentiment of wanting to be in a foreign country without experiencing it is disturbing.

And then, we had a brief conversation with a man who was just walking out his front door. We commented to him about the beauty of the homes and landscaping and he agreed with us. Then he turned to Stephen, smiled and said, “by the way, thank you for your service”.

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What?!?  I explained we were Canadians and had bought the shirt while visiting Vietnam two years ago. This gentleman was referencing a war that ended over 45 years ago. What were the odds that someone who had actually served in that war would then be wearing a souvenir T-shirt? What a bizarre interaction.

Anyway, after we paid $15 for two small coffees and a danish, we left and headed to the marina at Puerto Escondido.   The scenery unfolded – so beautiful.

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We arrived at the marina to find a massive infrastructure and very few boats (where is everybody?).  But it’s always fun to check out the luxury yachts.

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As is always the case when we travel, the best part is the people we meet. We set off three years ago, thinking ourselves to be quite unique. We had sold our home! Most of our stuff! We were unhoused!  Well, that was hardly an original thought – we are meeting many people who have taken to the road and don’t know when they’re heading “home” again. We meet people our age, but we have also met many younger people – people in their 30s and 40s who have given up well-paid careers to regroup and figure out their priorities. There was a family from New Zealand, travelling with their two young daughters, who just packed it in, sold their home, bought a motorhome and are travelling North America for an extended period. We will likely meet up with them again as we travel south.

Then there was this trio – Pascale (originally from South Africa), with her Canadian partner Johnny (they live in Winnipeg when they’re not cycling), and their friend Flo, (from France – he has been cycling for 8 months). They stayed for three nights in Loreto for the basics ( showers, laundry, groceries) and in Johnny’s case, the hopes of having his tire repaired. The universe unfolded as it does in Mexico, and Pepe showed up – bike mechanic extraordinaire. High energy, perfect English and a deft hand with bikes and voila:

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These are the people, the stories and the experiences that keep us so addicted to this lifestyle.  See you again in a few days.

Feliz Navidad from Loreto

This will be the third time we have spent Christmas in Mexico – once with Alex, Alanna and Danny, once with Danny and this time just the two of us. Christmas in any warm tourist destination feels strangely disorienting – the Santa trappings seem so out of place. In Loreto’s pretty plaza, a sleigh with reindeer is patiently parked and ready for the big day.

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I have no idea why, but Christmas has always been a difficult time for me. I’ve never figured out a temperate, calm approach to the season – taking the best and ignoring the rest.  Each year, the conflicted emotions build up and by the end of a month-long onslaught of canned carols, too much alcohol and false cheer, I’m spent.  I don’t feel fortunate for what I have, I feel deep sadness for those who have so little, or who have recently lost a loved one. There are tears.

Christmas in another country is a way to avoid all that. Mind you, the local supermarket offers just enough Christmassy choices to make me laugh. Ferrero-Rocher chocolates, frozen turkeys left out on the grocery counter to partially thaw and 3-for-the-price-of-2 wine have been brought in for the gringos. We watched our neighbours hauling in bags full of Pacifico beer (“last year they ran out” ), and we’ve already hit up the ATM twice for the same reason.

We’re in Loreto for two weeks over the holidays and it feels exceptionally good to stay put for a while. We had reserved in a different campground on the outskirts of town, but when we arrived there, we felt quite crestfallen to discover a bald parking lot looking out over a rocky beach. After a quick online search, we found Rivera del Mar; right in town and charmingly quirky. We love the Personal Attention.

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Although the camping spots are right beside one another, it does not feel as crowded as it looks. Each vehicle is configured the same way to access water and electricity hookups, so in effect we have our backs to one another. This campground is lushly landscaped with a common area to meet other campers, which gives everyone a good balance of privacy and sociability.

Here we are, all settled in beside a huge truck camper. The gentleman who owns this was travelling with another friend with an equally big truck.  They have both been coming to Baja since 1969 and currently travel off-road and into mountain villages as much as they can. We have met many people like them – Baja attracts the adventurers.

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The town of Loreto is picturesque and relaxing – just built for evening strolls around the plaza, or windblown walks on the waterfront.

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The historical centre revolves around a plaza, which is ringed with outdoor restaurants, shops and the main municipal buildings.

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This area is considered to have had the oldest indigenous settlement on the Baja peninsula. In 1697 the Mision Nuestra Señora de Loretta was established here by the Jesuit missionaries and the centre built up around that. Just down the road from the Mision is Posada de las Flores, one of the many attractive small hotels in the town.

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Shops range from stands selling T-shirts and trinkets to a few higher-end stores. Interestingly, since shopping is not a big feature of Loreto, the merchants are low-key and allow you to browse in peace.

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What would a Mexican plaza be without the snack carts?

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When it is time to eat something more substantial that a bag of Cheezies, there are several good restaurants to choose from. Most restaurants are open-air, with patios and of course birds have free rein to fly in and out.
Strangely, this one cafe was absolutely swarmed with sparrows. They were not so bold as to land on a table while people were still sitting there, but the minute they left the clean-up crew moved in. We’ve never seen anything like it. Germaphobes would not last in Mexico.

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The Polizia Turistico are a presence downtown. I stopped to ask Officer Gloria about her job, and she told me her role is to “give touristic advice, solve problems, and offer security.” The force must be doing a good job – Loreto is about as mellow as it gets. She and her colleague offered to pose for a photo.

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Fig trees have been pruned and shaped to create an arbour over a couple of the streets. Although they are lined with benches, one thing is noticeably missing. On all of our trips to Mexico in the past, we were quite amused by the legions of amorous teenagers who would sit entwined, kissing, gazing into each others eyes. With no private place at home, the streets became their little love nests. We called them “the bunnies.” There has been no evidence of any of that in Baja so far. Maybe they are all out kayaking.

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Speaking of kayaking, if we have one piece of advice for anyone coming to Baja, it would be to BYOT (Bring Your Own Toys). So much of the Sea of Cortez is water sports paradise, and the Parque Nacional Bahia de Loreto offers world-class diving, snorkelling and paddling.  We will go out on a boat next week to snorkel and tour around the islands, but not having our own gear is limiting and becomes expensive to have to rent often inferior gear.  At least half the people we met have surfboards, paddleboards, kayaks, inflatables and bicycles with them – that really is the whole point of Baja. Now we know for the next time.

Another challenge being in Baja in December and January are the northerly winds – it keeps the water choppy and the winds are cool. If you come in February and March, you will see blue whales and grey whales, and be able to paddle and swim in more tranquil, warmer waters.

This is how the water looks most of the time in Loreto, in December.

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We shivered as we walked along the deserted beach, every palapa empty and blowing in the wind.

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We strolled out onto the wharf to watch dozens of pelicans diving headfirst into the water to catch fish. They all came up empty, but didn’t give up.

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We had a wonderful day travelling to the Mision San Fransisco Javier, which was about 45 minutes into the mountains on a stunningly well-paved road. That stone wall was meticulously built by hand – we passed one area where a group of men were carefully constructing another wall.

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There are a number of arroyos along the way (low areas where water passes over in the rainy season). We did drive through just one arroyo, with about three or four inches of water.

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This small settlement was founded in 1697 by the Jesuits, and although they planted fruit and olive trees, and set up a series of canals, the area was too harsh to sustain agriculture. Their mission was set up to convert the Cochimi Indians, who were nomadic hunter-gatherers to become farmers, but unfortunately, they succumbed to the European diseases of smallpox and measles and that population became extinct.

The mission has been abandoned since the 1800s, but is now maintained by Mexico’s Institute of Anthropology and History and is still in use.

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The 300-year-old olive tree, just behind the mission.

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The small village, with just over 100 residents.

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We stopped for lunch at this restaurant, and had a hugely entertaining chat with a group of eight Mexican/Americans who live in Riverside, CA. One of the gregarious women in the group told us she married into a family of four brothers who “go everywhere together”. When I asked how that worked with the wives,  she gave a sly wink – “we’re all family”.

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She knew a lot about this village and its history and pointed out a photo on the wall. “That is Mama Lola. She was 118 years old in that photo – she lived to 125.”  Never having seen a person that old before, I guess she looks as well as can be expected, but we wondered if there was something in the pure mountain air to keep her going for so long.

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Not to be outdone, one of the brothers pointed to another photo of Pancho Villa, and told us two of the village’s residents had joined his revolution.

Back to present-day, we finished our trip with a chat with Tom from Quebec City who was making his way through the Baja Divide – a 1700 off-pavement bike trip that runs from Tijuana to La Paz. He described the gruelling journey in colourful language, but undeterred, once back in Tecate, will ship this bike home, and drive back into Baja with his mountain bike, “I hear there are great mountain biking trails here.”

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I tried to keep this short, but see I am at the same word count – I must be programmed to talk for a certain length of time.

We wish you all a very Merry Christmas – hope you enjoy good food, great music and the company of family and friends.

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Photo by Acharaporn Kamornboonyarush on Pexels.com

Finding Mexico in Baja

Baja was causing us some consternation. It had the landscape of southern California, with roads like a war-torn country, upon which we rattled along, encountering scarcely another soul.   We were disoriented – where were the grand plazas, the early morning roosters, the music blaring from car windows? Where was the colour, the life, the history? We saw beautiful scenery, but few signs of life.

Then, on the road to Mulegé, we began to see reassuring signs of the country we know and love.  The volcano, the fields of cacti, the bent guardrails – oh, yes, now you’re talking. We were quite pleased to be driving on fresh pothole-free pavement, but take a closer look at these roads. The lanes are narrow and there are no shoulders. Trucks blaze through here at all hours of the day and night and don’t give an inch. Luckily, there is not much traffic and it is possible to navigate without mishap.

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Although clearly not everyone  gets through unscathed. The remains of this truck cab have been lying there for a long time. Without having a clue of the trucking industry standards in Mexico, I’m guessing the drivers may well drive longer hours than might be advisable. We heard trucks on the road above our campground south of Mulegé, driving late into the dark night on those mountainous roads.

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Among the nighttime driving challenges are the animals that wander onto the road. We passed a few burros and many an untethered cow and drove by with caution, but at night they present a true hazard.

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Our first glimpse of the Sea of Cortez, about 20 minutes from our campground:

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Our campground was on Playa Santispac, about 20 minutes south of Mulegé and on the mouth of the protected Bahia de Concepcion.  It is situated on a gorgeous wide sand beach, a first-come, first-served campground. Pick a spot, set up camp and wait for the fun to begin. The campground is rustic and does not have any services (including cell service), but it does have a dump station. Everyone else comes to you.

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First comes Chico, who offers to wash our truck and camper for US$50. While we are quite sure he would do a stellar job, we decide to wait until we hit Loreto.

Then, the water guy arrives and fills up our tank. We have propane, we have solar, we have water and we have wine – we’re all set to stay a while. There are two restaurants and a small store on the beach – the former which provides great food and entertainment every second night, and the latter which has a small store and turns out home baking when they feel like it.  We ate at Armando’s a few times, in equal parts for their food, their warm hospitality and their free wifi.

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The vendors come by every day, including one entertaining soul who drove by in an old truck so laden down it barely cleared the ground. He had blankets, jergas, door mats, hammocks and even a mini hammock,” you can hang bananas in your trailer.” Our “no, gracias” went unheeded – he also had chicken tamales and banana bread and at the last minute remembered silver jewellery. He left without a sale, but with all of us laughing.

We watched this man paddle out to a sailboat, with a couple of plastic bags that he handed over, contents unknown. Clean clothes? Takeout food? Beer? Home delivery, even on a sailboat.

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We did buy shrimp from a vendor one day – so fresh and sweet, it was more like eating lobster. We made a messy meal of shrimp in butter, sopped up with freshly baked bread and a chopped salad of tomatoes, cucumber and avocado.

We saw dolphins a few times playing quite close to shore and were hoping to go out for a boat ride into the bay to perhaps see them a little closer up.  The weather was not particularly cooperative – a bit of rain, very windy and quite cool, so we had to take a pass.  We lazed about and Stephen went in swimming twice. Mainly we relaxed, read a lot, enjoyed meeting our neighbours (a young Brazilian couple who have lived in Vancouver for a number of years and are taking a year off to travel), and went for beach walks. We were ideally situated to enjoy both the sunrise and the sunsets and by the time we left five days later, we were completely unwound.

Our 6:00 am wakeup call:

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The view an hour before sunset:

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We drove into Mulegé a couple of times, to buy groceries and do a bit of sightseeing. Mulegé is a cute little town set in a date palm oasis on the river. The winding, extremely narrow streets make it impossible to enter with any vehicle larger than a truck and even at that, it was a tight squeeze.

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We found Mago’s bakery and restaurant – a local hangout for both Mexicans and gringos with good food, a personable crowd and fantastic wifi. We used this opportunity to charge up our devices, catch up on emails; and I read about the latest Trump malfeasance and the ongoing fake news war between the Duchesses.

Mago, on the right.

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We walked over the dam through the mangrove to get to the Mision, which holds a command post on the other side of the river. This river is great for bird-watching and would make for a tranquil paddle  on a kayak.

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The Mision Santa Rosalia was founded in 1705  by the Jesuits and Dominicans and finished in 1766. Unfortunately, rather than saving the souls of the native population, they introduced European diseases that managed to wipe out large numbers of the intended congregation. The Mision was abandoned 50 years later – one of a number of missions in Baja that were founded with the same intent and the same tragic outcomes. Today, the Misions sit as well-kept and photogenic reminders of their misguided past.

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We’re starting to feel like we are in Mexico now, but perhaps “Mexico Lite.” Less people, less noise, less colour. More rocky and monochromatic, but still very beautiful.

We left Playa Santispac on a warm, sunny day (perfect for swimming or boat rides). We’ll quite possibly stop there again on the way back. We drove along this twisty road that snaked along the water and climbed up into the hills.

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The view from the passenger side – on the way to Loreto.

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Now we’re in Loreto for two weeks, parked in an amiable RV campground, with a large  British Columbia contingent! See you again in a few days.

 

 

Off-roading on the hurricane coast of Mexico

There are two main roads that head south on Baja – the Mex. 1 highway that winds down the Pacific and crosses over to the southern tip and the much shorter Mex. 5 that runs from the U.S. border town of Mexicali south of San Felipe along the northern end of the Sea of Cortez. We decided to take that route because we had heard big chunks of Mex. 1 south of Ensenada were at a standstill due to construction (not true, according to fellow travellers). There is always road construction in Baja, but none of the forums warned us about the severity of Mex. 5 (described as being “rough in sections”) and had we known conditions were this bad, we would have avoided that area entirely.

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We were off to a great start with our drive to San Felipe, a small fishing village easily reached by a very good road which ominously, had no-one on it. The first signs of life we encountered were just north of town –  a collection of homes and stores that cater to the expat population.

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When we were there, there was a fiesta celebrating some ATV racers event; swarming with racers, plenty of beer from the San Felipe Brewing Company and a band with the requisite 60-something rockers struggling through Margaritaville.  Several big racing events are held in Baja each year, notably the Baja 1000. This countryside is just begging for speed – there are miles and miles of sandy paths winding through the desert.

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We arrived at our campground in San Felipe and stayed for five nights – long enough to get off the road, do laundry, wash our truck and trailer, meet some lovely people next door to us, and just…relax and enjoy this view.

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In Mexico, you will be hard-pressed to find a way to wash your own clothes or clean your own car. And that’s a good thing, because when you hand your car over to a Mexican, it will sparkle.  There are many car washes, but there are also the guys on the street with buckets of water and rags. We grabbed this man to wash our car – he asked for 50 pesos (about $3.50). We paid him double and it was a deal at twice the price.

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Laundry is another Mexican delight. You take in a bag of scrunched-up dirty clothes and later that same day, you pick them up – T-shirts with sleeves tucked in and undies folded in thirds. We dropped off clothing, sheets, towels, tea-towels, washcloths and two hours and $11 later – we were all set. This is the lavanderia in San Felipe – typical in most of Mexico and a beacon for travellers.

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We were not in San Felipe in high season – apparently this is more of a Mexican destination and really takes off in the summer. We were among the very few gringo tourists wandering the waterfront and we disappointed the good-natured vendors who could not convince us to buy knock-off sunglasses or “almost-free” straw hats.

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San Felipe has an international airport, a glorious waterfront and easy access to the U.S. border, and yet it has missed that magic tourist bullet. The influx of foreign investment, snazzy shops and great little restaurants hasn’t happened. The south end of San Felipe is lined with a string of condo and resort investments that people have walked away from – the business just never materialized.

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And yet…we met Gabriella and Christian, a young couple (Mexican and French-Canadian) who met in Canada and who have committed to building a business in San Felipe. Their shop, C and G Cava, where they sell home-baked goods, coffee and cheese is open Monday to Friday, and they lead tours to the countryside on the weekend. Their energy was infectious.

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One of the nearby attractions is the Valle de los Gigantes, a region of the Giant Cardon, or Saguaro cactus. Much of the area is only accessible to 4×4 vehicles, but we were able to park a couple of kilometres from the gate and hike in from there.

The Saguaro reach heights of 50 or 60 feet, and some of the more majestic ones are over 2000 years old. Here I am, feeling positively petite and youthful beside a typical cactus.

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We were told that in the desert, flowers can spring up within hours after a rain. There had been rain the area the night before, and the valley was filled with these luscious purple flowers. We also loved the “bearded” cactus.

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A parting shot – the saguaro bracketed by ocotillo – an octopus-armed cacti which pops bright red flowers on the stems.

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And then…it was time to move on, and although we had been warned by our fellow campers in San Felipe about the “goat path” that lay ahead, nothing could have prepared us for the non-road we were about to travel on.

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This stretch of highway between San Felipe and the intersection with Highway 1 has been plagued with many years of hurricane damage and washouts. Repeated attempts have been made to repair and replace, and each year nature wreaks its havoc.

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For the first 20 kilometres outside of San Felipe, we drove through garden variety potholes and patched roads. Then…the construction began. At the same time that repairs are being made to hurricane damage, there is ongoing construction to build a new road.

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A double whammy – slowdowns through construction sites combined with at least a dozen areas where roads and bridges had been washed out from the latest hurricanes that passed through this fall. These areas were served with bypass roads – goat paths of the first order – clay, sand, sharp rock – that were, to put it mildly, “creatively engineered.” With nowhere to go but forward, we climbed down, up and over these roads, our little truck gamely pushing forward and our trailer following behind. At times we struggled, but always made it.

By the time we saw this sign, all we could do was laugh.

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Kilometre after kilometre we crawled at 20 kph, driving over sharp rocks, praying our tires would not puncture and then, as we were inching down a slippery hill, we met up with a tractor trailer that had jack-knifed and obstructed most of the road.

Imagine this: We are just up the road from the tractor-trailer. Stephen stops our truck and I run down to see if there is a way out.  There is – just barely – to the left of the truck. With about two feet to spare, we decide to go for it. We spoke to the truck driver – he agreed we could make it – and then Stephen began. You can’t see it from this angle, but there is about a 30-foot drop off the side. Stephen inched forward, sliding but keeping control, watching the truck driver who gestured encouragingly, (and not me, who was frantically waving and grimacing), until he made it to safety on the other side.

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We found out later that we made it through just in time.  On another bypass road, a truck dropped a load of scrap metal. An hour or two later, traffic backed up with no way out and was stopped for the night. The only vehicles getting through were motorcycles.

Our destination for the night was Gonzaga Bay – an idyllic swath of beach we had almost to ourselves. First we stopped for water – delivered to us with an inimitable Mexican work-around – a hose inserted into a sawed-off plastic bottle.

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Our respite from the road.

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And next morning – back at ‘er – the last stretch of the Road From Hell – it took us two and a half hours to travel 60 kilometres  from Gonzaga Bay to the shimmering mirage of Highway 1. This was a mild version of the road that included rockfall, confusing signage, multiple roads to choose from and almost no-one on the road.

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Today was a very slightly less terrifying than the day before, but with the added bonus of a most enigmatic diversion – Coco’s Corner.

We don’t know the story of Coco – a Mexican man who speaks English quite well, is a double amputee who lives alone, and sells beer and water to passers-by. We had heard about him, so stopped by for a welcome break from the road.

This is his home and small store – the only sign of life anywhere on this stretch of road.

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We were greeted by a young woman from Ottawa who, with her boyfriend, had stayed the night on his property. They found themselves at Coco’s Corner late in the day, and decided it was too risky to carry on in the dark, and were invited to park for the night. We spoke to them for a bit, bought a couple of beers from Coco, and pondered the room full of autographed undies. There are questions you just don’t ask someone you don’t know, but boy, I would love to know Coco’s story.

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And voila – just like that – it was over. The horrible road, the uncertainty of what lay ahead, the worry about puncturing a tire (or two) – we turned left onto Highway 1 and headed south. Over two days, it had taken us twelve hours to drive 400 kilometres. Our advice if you are wanting to visit this area? Consider yourself warned.

We are in Guerrero Negro for the night – the first town south of the Baja Norte border. This is one of the prime sites of the grey whales as they come to give birth. Since the season is not quite underway, we will stop here again in a month or so on our way north.

Baja’s wine region busts out

With recent headlines about threats of violence against the busloads of migrants approaching Tijuana, along with border shut-down uncertainties, we headed to Mexico with a good measure of unease.  We had made the decision long ago to avoid Tijuana (world’s busiest border crossing), and go through at Tecate, about two hours east. Now we figured this normally placid crossing might become swamped to avoid the mess at Tijuana, so when we arrived to find just one car in front of us, we wondered if we were at the right place. The kind customs official politely asked to inspect our trailer and the back of our truck and after about five minutes, he waved us through. We’ve felt far greater scrutiny (and far less warmth and welcome) crossing into the U.S. We found out later that the Baja/United States border crossings are fluid; many people work and live in either Tijuana or San Diego and cross effortlessly back and forth.

And so…our adventure in Baja begins. We will be here for at least two months and have begun our travels in a most delightful way – touring Mexico’s wine country. The Valle de Guadalupe (or Ruta del Vino) stretches from south of Tecate to the coast at Ensenada, and is now on the tourist radar.  Luckily for us, early December is not peak season and we had our campground to ourselves.

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Our only experience with Mexican wine in the past was nasty – warmish red liquid that burned the throat and rivalled cheap tequila for a hangover. Grapes have been grown in northern Baja since the 16th century, but it is just in the past 15-20 years that the “industry” has exploded; attracting winemakers from all over the world. There are between 100 and 150 small wineries, with Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Nebbiolo, Merlot, Syrah, Zinfandel and Grenache being the predominant red varietals. Interestingly, each small area with its rolling hills and protected acreages has its own microclimate. One winery produces superb Cabernet grapes and has ample access to water. Just two kilometres away at another winery, those same grapes would struggle to produce the same high quality – that ground is better suited to Syrah.

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Many of the wineries plant olives and grapes side by side, as is the case with the gigantic L.A. Cetto; one of Mexico’s oldest and largest wineries. We stopped by for a wine tasting, and found the wines to be unexceptional. The smaller wineries do not hold Cetto in high regard; one young man smiled tightly at our mention of Cetto and referred to them as “commercial.”

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Stephen and I are barely wine-literate; just skip through the photos if you are looking for keen insight and/or reliable information. But as the saying goes, we know what we like.

Our three days here were spent in a happy haze of driving through glorious countryside, chatting with passionate and informative people, admiring fabulous architecture and gardens, sipping glasses of very good wine, and eating very good food. Naturally, where there is wine, there is food and this burgeoning scene has also produced some astounding eateries – everything from food trucks to a restaurant run by a Michelin-starred chef.

Our first food experience was at Cocina de Dona Esthela; endorsed by Anthony Bourdain and described by FoodieHub as being “The Tastiest Breakfast in the World.

Dona Esthela’s story is a big part of the visit. She was cleaning houses and doing laundry and cooking for the local workers when her reputation as a great cook began to circulate.  Today, she still serves food from her property, but her takeout window has turned into a large dining room.  Cars begin rolling in at 8:00 am and by 10:00 am there is a non-stop lineup until she closes at 5:00 pm.

What did we do before the Internet? We would have walked by this unassuming little place without a second glance.

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Dona Esthela, still making tortillas and with a big smile for everyone.

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I could not resist the corn pancakes and fresh fruit. That little dish with white cubes is queso fresco – slightly salty cheese made fresh each day – heavenly.

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We also ordered two house specialities. Machaca, which is dehydrated beef mixed with eggs, vegetables, chilies and garlic, and served with a warm basket of tortillas, wrapped in an embroidered doily.

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Stephen ordered the Borrego au jus – we’ll pass on the photo because it is simply a brown bowl filled with brown meat and brown liquid, but, to borrow a teenage expression, OMG. Lamb, seasoned and slowly cooked in an underground pit – the meat is so tender, so full of intoxicating flavours that any lamb you have eaten in the past simply pales by comparison.

All of this is washed down with freshly squeezed orange juice and cafe de olla, dark coffee made with cinnamon. If this was not the very best breakfast we have ever had, it came close. We didn’t even think about food again until dinner.

We visited 11 wineries in three days, and after just one tasting of four wines at Cetto, we opted to choose a glass instead and sit and relax and enjoy the properties and the views. We didn’t sample wine at every winery, but in all cases, there was plenty to appreciate.

The architecture and design in Mexico is exquisite. Mexican craftspeople have such a sophisticated eye for detail and their work is impeccable.

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Even the rustic design is striking – wire structures filled with decorative rock.

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A side wall of one of the wineries – built to resemble a Spanish hacienda.

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At first glance, this winery, Finca la Carrodilla, appeared quite nondescript…

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…until we climbed the stairs to the rooftop tasting room. Stunning plantings of succulents and cactus, far-reaching views and communal seating have transformed this space.

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Las Nubes (Spanish for clouds)  was another favourite. Simple, clean, spare – we sipped on a full-bodied blend called Cumulus and watched three stylish young women trim the room for Christmas.
This young man spoke perfect English. We noticed that a lot – there appears to be a comfortable foot in both worlds for many young Mexicans in this region, both staff and visitors.

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Adobe Guadalupe –  another photogenic winery.

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We had a fabulous lunch here – fresh shrimp stuffed into soft floury buns and served with a little salad. Add a glass of red wine, a sunny table, some canine companions and a beautiful view – there are worse ways to spend an afternoon.

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The owners also run a boutique hotel and raise Azteca horses, the sturdy breed favoured by Mexican horsemen.
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While this region is small and compact, most of the roads leading to the wineries are packed dirt, in varying degrees of repair. You will lead from this lovely paved road:

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…to this. You don’t need a 4×4 to navigate, just patience and a keen eye to avoid potholes and rocks. This is an example of a typical winery road.

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Vena Cava, billed as “the hippest winery in Mexico” is only reached after a bone-rattling, torturous 20-minute drive on a twisting, rutted, washboard road that had us questioning our sanity to even attempt it. Finally, we arrived to this sight:

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The winery design is fashioned from discarded boats, and is unquestionably hip – they even have a DJ. We were the youngest ones there by at least 30 years, and whether we were just annoyed by the drive, or annoyed by the fact that we are not hip, we felt put off and did not stay long enough for a glass of wine.

Still – Vena Cava is doing all the right things to add to the scene and to catch the attention of travel writers. They feature prominently in “Best-ofs” and “Must-see” lists, and  for that reason alone are worth a visit.

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We were fascinated to learn about the Russians who began growing grapes in this area over 100 years ago.  This winery, Bibayoff  has a small museum attached.

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A photo of the original Bibayoffs. This small area still has a number of Russian descendants.

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We spoke to David Bibayoff, the grandson of the founder and a most charming man who speaks English and Spanish fluently, but “very little Russian.” He talked to us about the area and how it has attracted so many interesting people from all over the world to move there, including a Canadian couple who were drawn to the beauty of the valley.

David and his son and grandson.

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What would Mexico be without Frida? Casa Frida’s homage to the artist begins with the bright blue wall at the entrance  to the design of the wine labels:

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To the tasting room:

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To the outdoor kitchen:

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To the seating around the bar and pond. We ordered two glasses of Syrah and sat down to people-watch and enjoy the late afternoon sun. This was the last winery on our tour, and a memorable one.

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Touring wine regions can almost be too much of a good thing. The wineries are only open for a few hours each day, and covering a lot of ground is a slow process.  We may pop by again on our way out of Mexico.

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