Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Ho Ho Ho - Santa comes to Baja’s back-country

Fishing village of El Delgadito
I’ve just returned to Mulege after a week of traveling around some of the more remote parts of Baja with a group of people who do an annual trip to bring gifts of toys, clothes, sunglasses and food to some of the isolated fishing camps and pueblos on the Pacific side of Baja around San Juanico (join the dots at The variation in landscape is remarkable and is reflected in the different villages scattered through this tough landscape - little windswept fishing camps constantly exposed to the Pacific where the people seem moulded by the tough conditions, but were very welcoming and appreciative of the gifts that they received; and tucked into mountain gorges were unexpectedly lush oases with permanent spring water, date palms, oranges, pomegranates and flashes of color from bouganvillias and other bright flowering shrubs.

Christmas hats
While most of the group are there for the gift giving, one guy, Steve, is involved in assessing the additional needs the communities and then working through his networks to have these addressed - a wheelchair for a disabled person here, a generator there, some medicines, seeds for growing vegetables, and visits by volunteer doctors from the US. All very impressive and inspiring! A big thanks to all they crew who let me tag along on their inspirational venture!

Santa's sleds

Snoring with the goats

Party time in La Parisima

After parting company with the rest of the group Steve and I went into the village of La Parisima where a visit to a local winery turned into an invitation to join the whole family for a barbecue before returning to the town square for their annual traditional town festival for singing and dancing, the crowning of the new town queen and political speeches that went on way too long (don’t they all?). 

Sunday, December 9, 2012

From coast to coast and places in between

My challenge for today was to watch the sun rise over the ocean in the Sea  of Cortez and set this evening over the Pacific - one easily met as it is little more than a hundred kms across the  Peninsular. The Pacific coast is pretty harsh around central Baja so my forays down a couple of side roads to the ocean didn’t encourage stopping. As a consequence, the Pacific sunset was over the salt flats of Guerrero Negro which, at first glimpse, suggested some good birding, but that would be for tomorrow morning, the priority now being margaritas at the bar next to the campsite! 

The salt flats, marshes, grasslands, samphire flats, mudflats, dunes and lagoons of Guerrero Negro are truly remarkable; the richness of habitats in a seemingly flat uniform landscape is surprising and of course the bird diversity, and numbers, mirror this. Quite a few feathered friends from Alaska had obviously got down here faster than I did, and a few that I had hoped to meet up north but didn’t were also here in huge numbers. It’s a bit bizarre seeing geese floating around in the warm waters of mexico when last you saw them they were among the icebergs of the Arctic Ocean!

Oasis at San Ignacio
The next zag in the Baja zig-zag took me back to the center of the peninsular where I camped by a beautiful palm fringed lagoon in the oasis of San Ignacio with some Americans - two Randys, their wives Wendy and Marilyn and a menagerie of dogs, most of which were Mexican dogs that they had rescued on previous trips. This little pueblo and the previously mentioned  Rosalita are really the only towns that I have passed through so far that one would describe as attractive, most of the others being dusty strings of buildings scattered on either side of the highway. But both of these town are striking and welcome exceptions and hopefully indicative of what is to come further down the peninsular.  

Misión San Ignacio Kadakaamán
Inside Misión San Ignacio
Awoke to the sounds of date palms rustling overhead in the light morning breeze and coots and herons squabbling on the water that lapped at my doorstep. Lingered for a lazy breakfast and explore around the lake shores before cycling into the nearby town of San Ignacio for what the campsite owner told us was going to be “ big event”. The village is delightful, and very clean, centered on a plaza shaded by huge fig trees - itself a shady oasis from the heat and glare of the surrounding landscape - with a beautiful old mission at one end of the square.  The few touristy shops scattered around town failed to detract from the otherwise traditional feel. It turns out the “big event” was the awarding of prizes for a local desert car racing rally. The Mexican’s in Baja take their off-road racing pretty seriously and it seems that this event was the local’s response to the multi-million dollar Baja 1000 dominated by westerners and their sponsors - a local event for the rigs they build with the few pesos they can pull together, and lots of local ingenuity and enthusiasm. Discovered Chilles Rellanos (stuffed peppers) at one of the stalls - yum!
Niños in San Ignacio waiting for the prize giving. 

Finished the afore-mentioned zag by driving to Mulege, back on the western coast - yet another delightful little town - unsurprisingly, it seems that being off the highway may be a key ingredient to the quality of a town! Joined the Americans again at a beach just south of  Mulege, the group getting bigger as we re-meet various others who’s paths had overlapped previously.

Might have to be another tough day on the water..
I can feel my shoulders this evening after a day of solid kayaking around the islands and along the coastline of Bahia Concepcion, interrupted by regular landings for swimming and exploring the numerous isolated  sandy beaches.  Bought a hammock from one of the numerous vendadores who come by the camp selling water, vegetables, fish, firewood and local crafts and so had little choice but to put it to the test, doing my spanish lessons while swinging in the cooling breeze under the palapa that I was camped beside.  

School's in - clases de español en la playa
Chatted to an American who is working with local communities to identify and address local needs, such as helping special needs kids. He invited me to join them on a trip visiting some of the more remote pueblos and fishing camps on the Pacific side of the peninsular. They don’t set off ‘till sunday, but I don’t think I’m going to have a problem keeping myself amused until then. 

Campsite south of Mulege
A very brief drive the next morning took me down the coast to a more isolated beach down a very rough track with only two other campers and stunning views out over the bay and its islands. Shared a campfire with the neighbors as the just-past-full moon rose over the water.

It seems that the Mexican’s have trained their clouds well. Every morning and evening there is a smattering of clouds, sometimes wispy filaments stretching across the sky, at others rolling waves, but almost always something to add color and atmosphere to the sunrises and sunsets. And this morning was no exception. 

Island cactus garden
Had the canoe packed and ready to go before the sun peaked over the ranges to the east so after a sunrise coffee I was paddling across the fiery water to the isles of Bahia Concepcion with blue-footed boobies, magnificent frigate birds, ospreys and the obligatory pelicans and gulls for company. My route took in four different islands, each about an hour apart. Two of them had nice little beaches which meant stopping and swimming whilst the other two were relatively sheer sided, much liked by the numerous seabirds that chose to roost on them. After a fairly strenuous paddle, I got back just as the wind sprung up again, providing  some welcome cooling air, but not too cool to rule out the occasional swim over the course of the afternoon. A walk over the surrounding hills and through some mangroves filled the remainder of the day and contributed lots of sandfly bites - trying not to scratch!

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Peregrinating once again: Mexico!

Mexican camp Numero Uno!!
The evening sun is just sinking into the Pacific, finding nooks and crannies in the clouds over the ocean through which to peak. As it eases into the water it casts a flickering silver path over the grey, rippled ocean as brief squalls scud in towards the coast. I’m sitting cosily in the van with Mexican cervesa (beer) numero uno, perched on jagged cliffs alongside a flowering yukka tree with a peregrine falcon circling above - good omens I take it, particularly given the blog title!

After a couple of weeks chilling out in Santa Barbara with my niece Rowena and her boyfriend Adrian (thanks guys, really loved the time spent with you) I’ve managed to get everything organised for the onward journey, as well as having the chance to adjust to the idea of traveling alone from here on. 

Having left Santa Barbara, I camped once again at Sycamore Canyon, just north of LA, a campsite that signaled the beginning of the first half of our trip northward 9 months ago. It felt fitting that it should also be jumping-off point for my southward journey. On this occasion it was a school of dolphins, rather than a flock of pelicans that posed in front of the setting sun.

True to form, I found it hard to make too much distance so I stopped again for a couple of nights just north of San Diego with Kristin and Chris, a really fun couple who have put together a great web site for people driving the America’s ( and also put together some really delicious fish tacos. Muchas gracias amigos for the extraordinary hospitality!!

The border crossing into Mexico was ridiculously easy - no wait at all,  a cursory inspection of the vehicle and suddenly I was in the midst of Tijuanna traffic. With the help of Efrain, a parking attendant from the Costco parking lot who abandoned his job to be my guide,  I found my very convoluted way to the Banjecito to sort out tourist permits and vehicle import papers. He then put me on to the the coastal highway and left me to cruise along the very scenic coast to La Bufodoria, a rocky headland with what is meant to be the world’s second largest blowhole (not sure how they measure that?) just south of Ensinada where I now find myself. 

For anyone reading this who is planning the same crossing with a view to heading towards Ensenada, it turns out that you don’t need to worry about the paperwork at the border. There is a very conspicuous Immigration Office as you drive into Ensenada where you can get your tourist permit, and, assuming you are planning to ship your car from Baja Sur to the mainland, apparently you can get your vehicle import permit there, next to the ferry booking office. 

Coastline at La Bufadoria
Spent another day at La Bufadoria, hiking and biking round the coastline, then a couple of days in Ensanada sorting out phone plans and getting my new GPS / Emergency rescue beacon to work (you can now keep tabs on where I am at ) and breakfasting with support crews for the Baja 1000 that starts in a couple of days - crazy vehicles all over the place! At least my rig doesn’t look out of place in the context of all the mean off-road machines that are filling the town.

Camped at Rancho Meling
I have to admit that I felt a bit apprehensive as I hit the road south from Ensenada, having heard too many tales of corrupt cops and narco-cartels that kidnap, carjack and worse, so was constantly thinking every cop and every dark-looking pickup coming up behind was going to be a problem but no such thing, and after getting out onto the open road and into the desert I was able to relax and enjoy the scenery. As the shadows lengthened I turned off the Mex 1 and headed towards the hills of Sierra de San Pedro Martir, with the occasional roadrunner and coveys of California Quail scurrying across the road looking like they can’t decide whether they are a bird, a mammal (very reluctant to fly) or an angler fish with their silly little headpiece dangling in front of their eyes. Pulled into Rancho Meling where I was greeted with a friendly welcome from Christian, the owner, as the sun set.

The following morning saw me making my way slowly up the windy road towards NP Sierra San Pedro Martir, stopping along the way to look back down over the granite boulder studded valleys below and, for that matter, granite boulder studded hills still climbing above. Some larger raptors circling above prompted another stop and, sure enough, they were California Condors, previously extinct in the wild, and here were four of them circling overhead! As I climbed higher the shrubland gave way to pine and spruce forest, presumably a result of the higher mountains catching rain that passed over the coastal plains. Registered at the park for camping for a grand total of 54 Pesos ($4.30) and found a nice little campsite among the pine trees. Spent the afternoon wandering around in the forest with the binoculars, building the Mexican bird list. A couple of other campers rolled into the Zona Acampar so felt very comfortable by the campfire with other fires sparkling through the trees.

Broke camp by mid-morning to head further up the mountain to the observatory. There I met Carlos, a warehouse attendant who took me up to the observatory in his old VW and showed me around. From here you could see glimpses of the Gulf of California off to the east. His English was quite good which he attributed to the fact that his father spoke it around the house all the time. It turns out his great grandfather was a soldier with Pancho Villa. When Villa was killed he fled to Long Beach, California as the Government was trying to kill or capture his remaining soldiers. His grandfather then fled back to Mexico when faced with conscription for WWII so their family was quite Americanized and spoke english routinely. 

Government VW at Sierra San Pedro Matir observatory
Carlos in the observatory
Zig-zagging down Baja
Greening Mexico???
Meandered towards the coast stopping for lunch on a pretty, sheltered bay near San Quintin and then continued on through dusty, bedraggled towns lining the tope-studded Mex 1 alternating with fields of agriculture struggling for an existence in the harsh climate (although this is the end of the dry season so it probably looks at it’s harshest). The above-mentioned topes are extremely severe speed bumps, often un-signalled and frequently seemingly randomly placed, designed to ensure that no vehicle makes it through central and south america in one piece! 

Cervesa o'clock
Found another side road that took me to the coast where the campground was a little back from the beach but a cycle at dusk took me through the samphire-like flats to a sand-dune backed beach where I partook of a beer and pistachios as the setting sun illuminated both the dramatic storm clouds coming in from the south and yet another new moon - a constant reminder that a small bit of something can be as precious as the whole. Returned to the camper for a little Spanish guitar in the form of Rodrigo’s Concerto de Aranjuez - not quite Mexican spanish but not entirely out of place either!

Baja 1000 racers at El Rosario's famed Mama Espinoza's
After following the Pacific coast for a bit, the road then swings inland at the small but quaint pueblo of El Rosario, climbing through the central ranges of Baja. The landscape variability is quite striking with spectacular outcrops of granite boulders giving way to broad valleys with basalt intrusions, each with its own combination of cacti. One of the more intriguing cacti is one that resembles an inverted green carrot with little tufts of flowers on the top. The road is good, albeit narrow, with sharp drop offs and only just enough room to pass. One lapse of concentration would be enough to put you on your roof in a gully, as happened to one small truck which obviously failed to successfully pass an oncoming semi-trailer. Decorated crosses and wrecked guard rails on the corners suggest that this road takes a high toll. So as the sun started to descend I found a convenient side road into some sort of a biodiversity reserve where I found a spot to camp for the night in a beautiful cactus garden beneath a rocky knoll. Scampered up a nearby ridge with beer and pistachios once again to take in another sunset.

Dr Zeuss in Mexico

Cactus garden camp
After wondering around the silent desert for a few hours the following morning, I broke camp and descended towards Bahia De Los Angeles - an impressive drive passing through rocky, cactus-clad ranges until suddenly the Bahia is there below you, with an archipelago of islands scatted across the blue waters of the bay. The view invited a lingering lunch before descending to the sea. The town itself is somewhat scrappy and uninspiring, but I found a ramshackle campsite a little further to the north of town and settled in to take in the softening light as the encroaching evening (which comes very early) cast its spells across the bay and its flotilla of islets.

Bahia de Los Angeles

Arose to a perfectly still morning with the ripples of the bay sighing up the sand outside my door. Set off to explore the area surrounding the bay, bumping down rocky, rutted roads which unexpectedly took me out onto a RAMSAR wetland (meaningful to us in the wildlife gig) so after morning coffee on a pristine white beach, I wondered around the samphire flats spying on various waders, herons and grebes as they wreaked havoc on whomever it was that lived below the water or mud at depths that matched their various bill lengths. Just to reassure me that I’m not the only eccentric in this remarkable landscape, I came across another guy (Pete) who was out with his binoculars. I took up his invitation to visit them at their nearby house after I had “finished doing whatever I was doing”. As a consequence, an extremely pleasant afternoon was spent chatting with him and partner Libby in their delightful mexican style bungalow which they owned on land that they leased - an interesting notion - owning a house but not owning the land under it??

Coffee with a view
Up early next morning to pack the kayak with camping gear, coffee pot and firewood before heading out across the bay to explore the islands. A few hundred meters from shore I had my first visitation from a turtle that glanced at me quizzically with its beady eye, an encounter repeated several times as I headed out to the islands. By mid morning I found a beautiful sheltered cove with white sandy beach fringing crystal clear waters - what better excuse to come ashore and have a swim. Shortly thereafter a pod of about 15 dolphins also entered the cove coming close to the beach. After watching them lolling about for a while I went in for a swim and they came to within 20 meters to see what this strange beast was in their territory. Later, as I paddled back out to sea they swam alongside, coming up firstly on one side of my kayak and then the other, seemingly escorting me back to the open ocean where we parted company. Their place was taken shortly after by a school of flying fish that skimmed alongside (thinks to self - does a school of fish become a flock when it takes to the air??).

The sea breeze comes in very strongly by mid morning so I found another sheltered beach where I set up camp beneath an osprey nest, to be entertained by their antics as they alternately chased and were chased by, a pair of ravens, seeming almost to be squabbling for the heck of it, without either ever looking to be a threat to the other. The mood changed dramatically however when a peregrine falcon came out of the sun in a fierce dive, sending the crows scattering - this clearly wasn’t a game anymore! Lit the campfire as the sun set and enjoyed the very starry night, lulled to sleep by the lapping waves.

First light saw the morning glow of sunrise reflecting off the coffee pot, perched precariously on three stones set around the burner. Back onto the water for several more hours exploring the various islands before making a beeline back to shore, getting back just as the wind kicked in once more.