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.

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.