The sun is setting. “How long are we on this road?” Mitch asks, not hiding the irritation in his voice. We’re inching along, everything down to our fillings rattling as we swerve back and forth, trying to find the path of least wash-boards.
Because of a girl’s weekend in Michigan with my college besties, I only stayed at Cave Creek Regional Park for one day. Therefore, Mitch should write this post. But he prefers photography. So this short interview is all I got:
For years, when we traveled out west, we completely avoided the Phoenix area. Sprawl, traffic, crowds, pollution – not our idea of great camping opportunities. But then we heard from other RVers about a county park near Scottsdale called McDowell Mountain. Nearly impossible to get into but well worth the effort, everyone said. It is now our all-time favorite park. Just outside Phoenix. Who knew??
100 steps from the tasting room to my bed – “Why, yes, I will have another tempranillo. And could I try the cab, also?” It was our last night in Baja and we were spending it at the Santo Tomas Vineyard and Winery about an hour south of Ensenada. The vineyard isn’t in the campground business so there were no hook-ups and not a ton of space – John had us packed in tighter than an unopened package of Lit’l Smokies. But it was well worth it. We had our own private tour of the vineyard, a sensory tasting, and of course the on-site wine store had stayed open late especially for us.
I knew it was going to be a terrible day on the water. It’d been windy, and when I took Brandi out for a run through the streets of Guerrero Negro that morning, there was already a stiff breeze that I knew would continue building. But we’d paid for this whale watching trip way back at the first meeting of the Baja Winters Caravan after listening to many glowing reports about it. We were going no matter what.
We’d arrived at the salt mining town of Guerrero Negro (Black Warrior) the afternoon before and were staying in the Malarrimo RV Park which was basically the parking lot of the Malarrimo Restaurant. Guerrero Negro is a flat, windswept, desolate-looking piece of real estate on the Pacific Coast just south of the Baja Sur state line. Although people started massacring whales in this area in the mid-1800s, the town itself was founded in 1957 by the salt mining company. There are two distinct sections of Guerrero Negro. The western part is where the middle and upper management employees of the plant live. It is a slice of American suburbia – paved, tree-lined streets, identical houses with driveways, garages, and yards, and company cars and trash cans parked by the curbs. The eastern side of town is where the manual laborers live and it was the typical Baja village with dirt, pot-holed streets and houses in various stages of construction with rebar sticking out in odd angles in odd places.
Almost everyone in the caravan was going on the whale-watching trip so we divided ourselves into groups of ten, piled into the vans, and listened to our guide’s informative and entertaining description of the community and the whales on the twenty minute drive out to the Laguna Ojo de Liebre, also known as Scammon’s Lagoon, where we boarded our skiffs. They were open boats with four benches spanning the width. The captain steered the 115 hp Suzuki from the stern. Soon we had pushed off the dock and were skimming along the tiny swath of smooth water in the lee of a huge coastal dune, only inches from the shore – our captain obviously knew what he was doing!
It was beautifully desolate – wind-shaped dunes for miles, sand blowing off their peaks like snow off a mountaintop. Soon though, we could see the white caps in the mouth of the bay. I knew that was going to be our destination. The swells grew and we slowed, finally barely idling as the bow rose and fell and salt-water sprayed over us. I’d dressed in layers culminating with a rain coat and rain pants, so temperature-wise, I was very comfortable. The water hitting us felt warm. But I wasn’t exactly sure how long my stomach would survive.
We drifted and bobbed along, seeing plumes of spray from whales off in the distance. It was beautiful, but the two full hours we were going to be on this boat started to look more like a prison sentence. Then our guide spotted a mother and a calf, not too far away. He motored closer and stopped. Our boat was directly in their path. The whales didn’t alter their course; they kept coming towards us. So very close now, maybe ten feet. Our skiff seemed so small; they seemed so huge. They dove under the boat. We all rushed to the side and looked down into the clear water to watch their bumpy, gray bodies gracefully glide past. They surfaced not too far away and our captain rearranged the boat to be in their path again.
This time they slowed as they got nearer. We looked into the water and could see them headed right for us. I was more than a little scared – these enormous dark masses slowly coming up at us from the depths. Did they know how huge they were? Did they have a memory somewhere in their brains of what atrocities our species had committed against them? About a foot from the boat they surfaced, calmly, stayed there for a few moments, then went under the boat again, coming up only inches from our port. These huge animals seemed to be studying us as we studied them. We all rushed to the side of the boat again. I truly thought we would flip. But we all wanted to see, to get as close as possible. We stuck our hands in the water, trying to make contact.
I am from Nebraska. In the chunk of the United States between the Mississippi River and the front range of the Rockies, the further west you go, the less emotional people are. It’s not that we don’t have emotions, we just prefer not to make a big deal about them. We might have life-changing experiences, but if it doesn’t involve a football, we are not going to talk about it.
I’m not saying that seeing that mother and baby was a life-changing experience for me. But, for some reason, as I watched them, so close to each other and so close to us, I cried. I guess I’ve been on the East Coast too long.
We screamed, we clapped, we cheered, we oohed-and-ahhed but eventually the pair moved on. However, that was not the end of the whales. One after another came up to the boat. One whale opened its mouth to show us its strange, curtain-like baleen. A couple others sprayed us with blow-hole water. One kept nudging the boat from underneath. I finally was able to touch one – it was smooth, but bumpy, and felt taut yet spongy. I know – not a very precise description. One of the participants described it as a firm neoprene feel.
By the end we were all tired, crusty with salt water, sun-burned, and, even though Becky had shared her ginger tablets with us, sea-sick…yet thoroughly amazed. To me it felt like two worlds – one old and wise, the other naive and learning – had had a moment. What the whales learned from us silly, goofy humans I can’t imagine. And I think I’m too dense to truly understand their wordless lesson. But I’m pretty sure it had something to do with trust, and forgiveness, and an idea that no matter how much separates us, when both worlds are willing to reach out, there is an opportunity for something extraordinary.
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!
whale spouting off the beach
This wasn’t Mitch but he looked like he was having a great time!
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!
“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.