Although there’s not much to Bluff—a few dusty streets fit between incongruously orange bluffs and a snaking river, a handful of old Victorian homes, and a cemetery with a beautiful view—we’d like to go back. We had an appointment in Flagstaff so we had to pass through without thoroughly exploring the area. (I think you’d need a lifetime to really explore this corner of the earth!) Through the years, Bluff yo-yoed between multiple booms and busts (agrarian, livestock, coal, gold, oil, uranium) so it has an expectant feel to it as if biding time for the next big thing.
I don’t know if you noticed, but this year July lasted an entire decade. Or at least that’s how it felt. Finally, mid-September, we had our first day off. Time to get outside and have some fun instead of watching other people play!
The pasty, red-haired border agent hefted himself into our truck camper while a German shepherd sniffed our tires. The agent paused in our doorway to ask if we had any produce and if we’d collected any shells, then ambled back to our almost-bare refrigerator. After about 30 seconds he was out again, and, with sweat sliding down his jawline, gave us the “thumbs up”. Just like that we were back in the US, retracing the route we’d taken over a month earlier to get to Baja.
Last year we had a 25 foot, triple-slide, Sunseeker Class-C motorhome – roomy, plenty of storage, an actual door to the bedroom so that Mitch didn’t wake up on my early schedule and I could go to sleep while he was doing whatever he does after 9:30 pm. We sold it and bought a 19 foot truck camper with no slides, no privacy, and virtually no storage. And we love it!!!
Why do we love it? Because of places like the campsite that we stayed at for three nights after we left Los Barriles. It actually wasn’t a ‘campsite’ and that was the beauty of it. It was a beach, with no facilities and no crowds – just a couple of other campers, a few tenters, and a handful of day-use surfers.
When you start shopping for your first RV, you are drawn into the photos on the brochures – the happy family camping in a beautiful, lakefront site steps from the water, forest-covered mountains in the background, sparks from the campfire drifting lazily up into a starry sky, not another soul around. The reality is that, once you get that 30 foot travel trailer, the only place you can take it is a campground where you pay an arm and a leg for that waterfront site and you are packed in so tightly with your fellow campers that you know what they are watching on TV, what they are cooking for dinner, and the exact moment they light their cigarette. And that’s if you’re lucky enough to get a site. The state and county parks in popular locations are booked a year in advance.
With the truck camper, since we have it on a 4WD truck with high clearance, we can get to some pretty cool places. Baja was our first trip with it. But up until this point, we’d still been in regular campgrounds. This beach was our first taste of what we’ll be able to do. We’re pretty excited about the possibilities!
The beach is known as “La Pastora” and it is a few miles north of the town of Todos Santos (on a terrible road, of course!). I’d read a lot about Todos Santos and had been pretty excited to check it out. It was supposed to be an funky, little artist’s/surfer town. The town itself is set slightly off the coast. But the beaches to the north and south are known for great surf.
We didn’t spend a lot of time in the town so this review is probably not completely fair. But I was a little, no – a lot, disappointed, in Todos Santos. It has become a day trip destination from Cabo San Lucas. So that means trinket shops filled with traditional Mexican crafts adorned with NFL team names, harried servers who’ve seen it all before, and prices that rival US beach towns.
Todos Santos is also home to the Hotel California. Urban legend has it that it is THE Hotel California of Eagles fame. The Canadian couple who bought it in 2001 and restored it list the many coincidences between their hotel and the song, but admit that it is impossible to know for sure because the Eagles ain’t talkin’. However the owners smartly took full advantage of the myth and included a large, bustling souvenir shop in their restoration.
The “coincidence” on their website that sold me on the myth was that the Mexican slang term for marijuana joints is ‘colitas’. I had always thought the verse said, “warm smell of cleat dust rising up from the air.” My entire life I’d wondered, what the heck is cleat dust??
Another interesting tidbit about the hotel is that it was originally built by a Chinese immigrant in 1950. Wanting the locals to believe he was Mexican, he changed his name to Don Antonio Tabasco (what a great choice!) But, sadly, the locals still only called him El Chino.
Most of the beaches to the south of Todos Santos have big resorts and gated communities. Playa Los Cerritos is one of the more famous surf breaks and, luckily, it still has a couple of public access areas. But, from what we’ve heard, you used to be able to camp right on the beach there. Now it has a beautiful, swanky hotel perched on a cliff overlooking it, beach clubs, and condos, condos, condos. No more beach camping.
OK – enough of the depressing, “you-should-have-seen-this-place-10-years-ago” stuff. We came to the west coast of Baja because Mitch wanted to surf. At Los Cerritos he got a great ride that almost killed him. And at La Pastora, he finally got out the last day we were there. I know he didn’t get as much surfing in as he’d hoped. But the waves were a little too big and powerful for what he’d wanted on his paddleboard. We’ll just have to skip work and return in the summer when the swells are friendlier. Bummer!
#truckcamper #todossantos #surfingcerritos #haciendacerritos
“Every beautiful spot in Baja is at the end of a terrible road.” I’d read this in a blog post that now I can’t find to give credit. However, from our many experiments while there, we found this statement to be absolutely true.
Our goal for the day was to see El Cañon de los Zorros (Fox Canyon) and the aguas calientes (hot springs). They were more or less in the same area according to other blog posts, near the town of Santiago which was about twenty minutes south of Los Barriles. For once I had good directions, or so I thought, so we weren’t too worried about the fact that we’d gotten off to our normal late start.
We soon found out that the directions made absolutely no sense. We went down a dirt, washboard road for a few miles and then turned around thinking it couldn’t be right. After we’d turned around, we passed a minivan. They slowed and asked if we’d come from the Canyon. We explained that we were looking for it, too.
“We’ve been driving around for two hours,” said the driver. “We’ve tried every other road in town. This has to be the one.”
We weren’t convinced so we took the one good piece of advice from the directions. “If you can’t find it, ask someone in town.” Yep, it was back out that terrible road.
To be completely honest, I didn’t think the road was that bad. It was solid washboards, long, dusty, and narrow (almost impossible for two cars to pass). But, other than the narrowness, it wasn’t too different from the gravel roads in Nebraska. We only had to use the 4WD once and that was because we’d missed a turn. It seemed never-ending, though, probably because we were never sure we were heading in the right direction.
This is my piece of advice for anyone going to Cañon de los Zorros: It is in El Rancho Ecologico Sol de Mayo. There were plenty of signs for El Rancho Ecologico Sol de Mayo. But we assumed two things: #1 – surely the directions would have mentioned the fact that the canyon/waterfall was inside of El Rancho; and #2, surely the signs for El Rancho would mention something about the canyon/waterfall if they owned it. Well, you know what they say about assuming (and don’t call me Shirley).
Finally, we arrived. We got there right behind the minivan we’d seen earlier. We put Brandi on her leash and went to the little hut to pay our entrance fee where the man told us, “Sorry, no dogs.” Ugh. It was too hot to leave her in the car so we took turns hiking to the waterfall.
It was only about a 10 minute hike. And the second I saw it I knew immediately that the long, dusty drive, the no dogs rule, the entrance fee (I can’t remember what it was but I think it was higher than I thought it would be), was all totally worth it. A 30 foot waterfall, sheer rock walls, a palm-tree lined pool – in the middle of the desert. Indescribable. I hope Mitch’s video conveys what words can’t.
I traded with Mitch. One of the Ranch’s dogs followed him all the way to the waterfall. I guess it didn’t understand the no dogs rule. Hmmm…
By the time we left it was too late to make it to the hot springs. We’d get an earlier start the next day.
I really wanted to check out the Parque Nacional Cabo Pulmo on the East Cape area. It is an underwater park known for incredible snorkeling and diving. Also, I had read some blog posts that talked about the great, free camping opportunities on the beach there. We were leaving Los Barriles in two days but didn’t have another campground lined up. And there were supposed to be a couple of surf breaks that Mitch wanted to check out.
We turned off the main highway and drove through the town of La Ribera all on great roads. We continued going south. The road was newly paved, very smooth, easy driving. But we knew it was going to change. And about 5 miles beyond La Ribera, it changed with a vengeance. Dirt, washboards, sharp rocks, dips, potholes (can you call them potholes if there wasn’t any pavement to begin with?). I think it was less than 20 miles on this road but it took us over an hour to get to Cabo Pulmo.
Maybe it was because the sky clouded over, maybe it was because it was very windy, maybe it was because, every 50 yards or so, menacing, red lettered “Private Property” signs hung on barbed-wire fences – but, I have to admit, it wasn’t our favorite area in Baja. Don’t get me wrong, the water views were still amazingly beautiful. But we just didn’t get the fun welcoming vibe that we’d gotten everywhere else.
We came across the first camping area that we’d read about. I don’t know the official name of it but we christened it “Basura Beach” (basura means trash). We drove through the entrance gate thinking we’d find someone in the campground to ask about the policies since there were so many private property signs. But it was eerily quiet. We drove past abandoned 5th wheels and truck campers, past a camper that had made its home in the ruins of house, past a camper that was part bread truck part lean-to cardboard shanty. Any open site had piles of trash in it. And the beach was completely covered in rocks. We weren’t feeling the love.
This campground was only about a mile from the tourist town of Cabo Pulmo. There must be a time of year when this place is wall-to-wall people because it had as many snorkel shops as Key West. It was way too windy for any hope of snorkeling, though, so we kept going.
There was supposed to be another campground, called Playa Arbolitos, about 5 km beyond Cabo Pulmo. At about that distance we saw a sign on the turn off to a side road advertising a beach for kayaking, paddleboarding, and snorkeling with the hours of operation. But just beyond the sign was a gate with the name of a development and the private property signs again. The gate was open but we figured it was, as the sign said, private. So we kept going.
We drove for about another 5 km and found another camping area. It matched the description of the southernmost camping area we’d read about – in a wash, fishing shanties on one side of it, a well. It, too, was surrounded by barbed wire with the private property signs. But, unlike the stangely quiet Basura Beach, there was plenty of activity here. We pulled in and, thinking there might be someone you were supposed to register with since there were fifty million private property signs, asked a guy outside his Winnebago how you went about camping here.
He looked at us like we were aliens and then, with much effort, said, “Find a spot. Camp” and with that he turned and walked away.
It was a really beautiful spot. A headland, a cove, sapphire-blue water. Had we driven our camper, we would have camped there. But it wasn’t spectacular enough to make us want to haul our camper over 25 miles of that god-forsaken road.
On our way back, we decided to take a chance and pull into the beach at the private property gate. The road curved around and down, past a small farm, and ended in at a trailer surrounded by stacks of kayaks and paddleboards. In the wash, just a little further, we saw a VW camper backed up against the hillside. The attendant confirmed that camping was allowed and let us check it out without paying. Our truck camper would have fit, but just barely. The beach was pretty and, had it been calm, it would have probably been a great snorkeling/kayaking/paddleboarding spot. But the camping area was claustrophobic and again, we’d have to return on that road. So we headed back north without finding camping or surfing.
Because of that god-forsaken road, it’d taken us much longer than we’d planned. But we decided we’d try to get to the hot springs too, if only for a couple of minutes. We drove through Santiago and headed south, as we’d been told. “Once you get out of town, just follow the power lines,” were the directions. By now, you know how the story goes.
We got there, finally. Terrible roads, multiple power lines, pausing at turns – “Which way do you think?”, stopping for directions. We only had about 15 minutes before we needed to start heading back. We parked over looking the hot springs area. We saw that a small stream had been dammed with a low cement wall which formed a pool above and below. We quickly changed into our suits and headed down the trail where we saw a woman shaving her legs in the lowest pool. Mitch, the germophobe, paused, said he needed to repark the Jeep, and turned back.
I continued on around the dam to the pool above. It was cool, no, cold. But there were about four people resting against the rocky cliff on the far side of the stream where someone had stacked up rocks forming a separate pool. It turned out that the hot water (and it was really, really hot) came right out of two little holes in the cliff face. They made room for me and as soon as I sat down, hundreds of tiny little fish surrounded me and started nibbling my skin. Weeiird. I’m told a lot of people absolutely love the feel of it. I guess I’m just not crazy about being eaten alive though. Mitch did finally make it back and sat with his swim trunks legs held tightly around his thighs, trying very hard to relax.
This, sadly, was our last adventure in Los Barriles. It was time to move on, with or without exactly knowing our next destination. There are some places on this earth that might not be instant, all-encompassing love at first site, but where, in a short time, you feel so comfortable that you know that you’ll be back.
I’d read about this arroyo in a couple of blog posts and 4-wheeler websites. It’d been recommended to us as a nice day trip by a few people. I knew what was supposed to be at the end of it. But, looking at the bone-dry, wide-open mouth of Buenos Aires Arroyo just north of the town of Los Barilles where big dump trucks drive in and out with loads of gravel, I just couldn’t believe there would be a waterfall somewhere back there.
The word arroyo in Spanish means creek. But in Baja, where the roads cross the arroyos, they are remembrances of creeks. You can tell that at some point water flowed through it, but it is impossible to imagine. And in almost every arroyo anywhere near Los Barriles, well-worn 4-wheeler trails stretch off into the distance.
“Just pick a trail and follow it,” were the instructions we were given to find the waterfall that I was sure was going to be dried-up. A 4-wheeler is the perfect vehicle for exploring all of Baja and every gringo in Los Barriles uses them for everything from beach cruising to grocery shopping but since we’d towed our Jeep nearly 3000 miles from Delaware, we couldn’t justify the expense of renting one.
No one seemed to know the distance to the “waterfall”. ‘Take plenty of water’ was the only advice. We’d been driving through soft, deep gravel/sand for about 20 minutes and hadn’t seen another soul. As close as this was to town, I’d figured there would be a steady stream of explorers, but the only people we’d seen were two horseback riders way back at the mouth.
The rock walls on either side of the arroyo were getting taller and steeper. The canyon was narrowing. We started to see some green vegetation along the edges. Then the sand looked wet. We kept going, very slowly, worried that we might get stuck in one of those jello-y wet sand situations. And then we crossed a little stream of water that snaked back and forth from wall to wall. Where in the world did this come from? The stream got bigger, we had to drive around and over big rocks now. Finally we stopped, deciding it’d be better to explore by foot.
It was so quiet. The wind back at the beach was whipping the kite boarders into a frenzy but here, not even a blade of grass moved. A little further there was a deep, saffire-blue pool filled with cattails. We splashed on. There were no tracks here to follow, no footprints. The landscape was beautiful but eerily empty. The canyon made a sharp turn. We rounded the corner and there it was – a beautiful little stream tumbling down a wall of boulders from a palm tree-lined pool above surrounded by a handful of people in beach chairs gripping beers. “Welcome to Canada,” they said with a wave and a smile.
The pool at the base wasn’t big enough for swimming as some reports had said. And the cascade was much smaller than in the reports as well. But it was incredibly amazing to me. That this little paradise could exist where just a couple of miles down the wash looked like the Sahara, was shocking. The Canadians, who’d been coming to Los Barriles for years, said that the arroyos change all of the time and that the waterfall used to be much higher. “See that hole,” they said pointing to a ground level divot in the canyon wall. “Last year that was about 12 feet up.” Hikers scrambling down the side of the waterfall told me that you can follow the stream for a long distance back to a slot canyon with a bigger waterfall. That is on my list for the next trip to Los Barriles.
We’d also been told about a beautiful beach a ways north of town (again, very vague distances) that was great for snorkeling. Some had called it Snorkel Beach and some had called it Punta Pescadora. The road out to it was a dirt, rock-strewn track along cliffs with incredible but scary views better suited to 4-wheelers but passable with the Jeep.
It is hard to know when you arrive at a ‘beautiful’ beach in Baja because they are all beautiful. You come around a headland and see a scallop of sand with the desert mountain back drop and you say, “That is amazing.” Another headland, another stretch of sand. “That is incredible,” you say. On and on it goes. But we knew when we arrived at Snorkel Beach.
For me the water was too cold for snorkeling and besides, we hadn’t brought any gear. But we paddleboarded around the rocks and could look down into the clear water and watch all the fish – so it was like dry snorkeling. A gleaming white hotel/restaurant peeked down on us from the cliffs above the beach and once we’d gotten sufficiently baked we decided we needed to test their fish tacos. Sitting on the patio of the aptly named Punta Pescadero Paradise Hotel in the warm Baja sun with a 180 degree view of beaches and mountains and the Sea of Cortez, a cold beer in one hand and a taco in the other, was definitely one of my versions of paradise.
The town of Los Barriles is a comfortable, friendly, gringo-ized spot that would make the most nervous traveler relax. It has a German restaurant, an Irish restaurant, a pizza place, a bowling alley, pickle ball leagues, convenience stores, a decent grocery store, and plenty of happy hours and burgers and fries. The town even hosts a huge dog show at the end of February to benefit the local humane society. And the nice thing is that it doesn’t feel like a resort town – yet.
We stayed at a campground called Playa Norte. It was about a mile north of town directly on the beach and was one of the cleanest campgrounds we’ve ever experienced on either side of the border. The owner, William, and his staff were constantly working on projects. One of the employees, Emilio, walked the beach and campground every morning starting around 7:30 picking up trash and greeting the guests. Having a such a comfortable, beautiful home base made it very easy to explore the waterfalls, hot springs, mining towns, surf spots, and beaches of Baja Sur – when we were able to tear ourselves away!
The word is actually Santispac. It seems too harsh to be a Spanish word but it is the name of a beach/campground/gorgeous slice of the Bahia de Concepcion about 12 miles south of the town of Mulege (pronounced moo-ley-hey – which I love to say. Mooleyhey, mooleyhey, mooleyhey) where we dry camped for three days. It can be terribly windy but when it is calm, the kayaking and paddleboarding can’t be beat. The water is so clear that you can watch sting rays and fish carry on below as you paddle between the rocky, cactus-covered islands. Stings rays and some little fish – that’s all that I saw when I went kayaking for a couple of hours one morning. Mitch went out after me (stupidly, we only brought one kayak, one paddleboard, and one bike so we can’t do anything together. Hmmm….) and he saw sting rays, fish, AND sea lions, AND a pod of about 100 dolphins feeding and jumping and going crazy! Not fair!
Because we have a truck camper we were able to get to the best spot on the beach. We were tucked into a cove right next to a little mangrove estuary where you could hear the fish jumping all night long. Mitch walked 10 feet from our camper, made one cast, and caught a decent-sized bass! Snowy egrets, oyster catchers, reddish egrets, tri-colored herons, and one bird we couldn’t identify feasted at the mouth of the tide run at low tide. And we had friendly neighbors (two from Canada and one from California) who stay in this same spot every winter and filled us in on the area telling us that this past November there were 28 whalesharks right here, off Santispac. The Californian, Eric, even took Mitch for a boat ride and showed him a few of the different beaches spread down the bay.
If you are looking for your very own secluded, quiet beachfront campsite – this is not it. At least not in the wintertime. Every inch of waterfront had wheels parked on it. A steady stream of uber-tanned retired folks paddled past us in ancient Ocean Kayaks without seat backs from their swanky development the next cove up. There were two restaurants/bars on the beach and on Friday night we went to sleep with “She’s a Brick House” echoing through the cove punctuated with the air brakes of the 18-wheelers slowing for the hairpin curves on Highway One just above us.
After three days of 30-second showers and a dog and a cat frolicking on the beach, we needed to upend our camper to get all the sand out. But even with the close neighbors, engine brakes, and “Brick House”, we had a hard time leaving. Luckily, we’ll be coming back here on our way north for a couple more nights.
If you either live in Nebraska or are a birder, you have heard of the annual spring migration of the Sandhill Cranes. It is an incredible sight to behold – huge flocks lifting from the Platte River with the morning light, forming flight lines criss-crossing the sky, and then settling down into the surrounding fields like blankets of fog. And the noise! They have so much to talk about – comparing wintering stories, their hopes for the summer, new found aches and pains, how the kids are so different nowadays. Their unique voices combine into one loud, confusing, melodious banter.
A lesser known spring spectacle is the mating dance of the Prairie Chicken. Maybe the reason fewer people know about it is because one state can not claim them as its own – the Prairie Chicken range is from northern Kansas and Colorado up through the Dakotas with a little side-step into Minnesota. Also, their story is definitely not as romantic as that of the cranes. The Sandhill Cranes winter in Texas, New Mexico, and Mexico and then all converge on the Platte for about a month to fatten up and hook up (if they have lost their mate over the winter), and then fly north to either Minnesota or the Arctic, depending on the subspecies. They’ve been covering this same route for millions of years, even before the Platte River existed. In contrast, the stubborn Prairie Chickens stay put, somehow surviving the bitter Great Plains winters. And then, of course, there’s the name – Sandhill Crane vs. Prairie Chicken?! How fair is that?
However, this normally indistinct, fat, little ground bird puts on quite a production every March. And I had never seen it before. Like with the Sandhill Cranes, I had to move away from my home state to want to come back to witness it.
The Prairie Chickens have specific criteria for their stage ,which is known as their “booming territory”. They need a hill ridge with short grass that is at least a quarter of a mile from roads or power lines (not a problem in Nebraska). My dad knows which ridges on our farm are good viewing areas. So we put up a small camouflaged tent during the day in preparation for the sunset and then the sunrise performance.
Mitch went that evening but didn’t have much luck. The prairie chickens congregated too far from the tent to get good photos and were spooked away by a hawk early on. The next morning, before morning really, I headed out on my own. Dad had told us that we should be in place and settled at least a half an hour before sunrise or sunset. So by 6:30 am, temperature of 14 degrees, I was making my way through the cold darkness to the tent on the top of the ridge.
I crawled in the tent, situated myself with the blankets and my thermos of coffee, and waited…and waited. Frost formed on the part of the blanket that was covering my legs. My coffee was dwindling. And then I heard a noise – it almost sounded like a kazoo, a flutter of wings, and then another kazoo. Soon the kazoos surrounded the tent. The show was beginning.
It was truly hilarious to watch and to hear. The Prairie Chickens started flying in from all directions. As soon as they landed, they looked around for someone to impress. Their “booming” is a three note song that sounds almost like a bamboo flute but then it is punctuated occasionally with a louder, monkey-sounding call. They inflate bright orange sacks at their throats as they are booming – the sacks are most inflated with the last note. As their necks inflate, these two crazy feathers rise up from behind their heads and look like rabbit ears and their tail feathers stick straight up. Then, when they are fully outfitted, they start to stamp their feet and sometimes take off running. While all of the males are trying to out-do each other, the females are off on the sides of the ridges, completely ignoring them.
Mitch had to go out again that evening to see if they would land as close as they had for me. They did, and he got some great photos!