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Baja California Photography RV Travel Uncategorized

Why We Bought a Truck Camper

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!!!

la-pastora-panorama-background

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.

sunset la pastora
Sunset our first night at La Pastora

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!

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Looking south from La Pastora

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.

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Another bad road…

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.

hotel california
From inside Hotel California. That’s a chandelier, not a mirror, on the ceiling. And I had a margarita, not pink champagne.

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.

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Hacienda Cerritos over-looking the surfing beach.

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

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Baja California RV Travel Uncategorized

Going out for Pizza

The word around town was that we had to try the pizza in El Triunfo. We’d passed through El Truinfo on the way from La Paz to Los Barrilles and it looked like many of the other towns along the highway – a cute church, many hollowed-out buildings, a couple of topes (speed bumps). But Becky, our ever up-beat wagonmaster, had assured us that it warranted a return trip.

We prefer to calorically justify our eating excursions so I started to look for blog posts or web guides for an activity to do in El Triunfo other than the heavy lifting required to get pizza slice to mouth. We’d seen a tiny square sign when passing through Triunfo with a bicycle and a directional arrow. Did I dare dream of a biking trail in this tiny town in Baja??

We didn’t find any trails listed on Trailforks (this great app that a mountain bike guide in Los Barriles had told us about). And many of the listings on the on-line search were for mountain bike tours covering all of Baja. But I did find a couple of posts, in Spanish, about a mountain bike race in El Triunfo – Ciclismo Baja Sur. It sounded promising enough and, although the maps I’d found were vague, we figured someone in Triunfo would be able to point us in the right direction.

El Triunfo was once a mining boom town. At its height in the 1890s it had about 4,000 – 10,000 residents. But when the gold and silver ran out, so did the mining companies. Now it looks like there might be a couple hundred people living in the ruins. But they are really cool ruins and a few businesses are moving in to restore the old brick buildings and breath life back into the town. One of two remaining chimneys used in the calcination process (whatever that is) was designed by Gustov Eiffel of the Eiffel Tower and they are trying to complete some much needed restoration work on it.

When we got to El Triunfo (it is about 45 minutes north of Los Barriles) we turned at the arrow/bike sign on the main highway looking for the trailhead. No luck. It is a very small town though so it didn’t take us too long to drive all the way through it, on both sides of the highway, searching for any other possible clues to this bike trail. Still no luck. We parked and I asked a bartender in a cute little restaurant if he knew anything about it. He said that he thought it was behind the chimney. We walked to the chimney but the area was closed due to the restoration work. As we were walking back to the car wondering what to do next, I noticed what looked like a goat trail at the end of a street leading down into a wash. On a piece of paper smaller than a business card stapled to a fencepost (not the closest fencepost to the street), was a black arrow pointing towards the wash. I followed it and found another arrow pointing north. We’d found the trail!

brandi runHave I mentioned that we’d only brought one bike? So I ran the trail with Brandi (that’s actually not a punishment – I really love trail running!) and Mitch took the bike. It was marked well at first, although the paper arrows would be destroyed after one major rain. But then, as we got further, the arrows were turned the other way. So we’d missed something, somewhere, but we continued on, going against the arrows. After a little over three miles, going through an arroyo, over some hills, and behind the chimney, we ended up back in town. I decided that I’d call it a day but Mitch wanted to go back through.

About an hour later, Mitch rode into town, relieved that he’d found his way back but with a big grin on his face. “You missed the really cool part,” he said. There’d been a turn that we’d wondered about when we’d passed it. He took it the second time and it ended up being some really fun single-track with great views. Too late though – my brain had moved on to pizza.

The pizza was in a restaurant called Cafe El Triunfo, in an old brick building that the owner has beautifully restored. It was a unique space with one relic-filled room leading to the next, patios, awnings, balconies, and an open air bar and brick oven overlooking the Eiffel chimney. We sat at the bar and watched the staff make our pizza and slide it in the oven while the resident Great Dane buried chunks of bread in the dirt around the patios to dig up later (the server told us that he always remembers every hiding spot).

I am not a pizza connoisseur – almost any dough with cheese makes me happy. But this was goooood!! Nice thin, crispy crust, fresh, fragrant basil, lots of mozzarella. Before we knew it, our large had disappeared.

Calorically speaking – I know I didn’t come close to breaking even. But Becky was right – El Triunfo was worth the return trip.

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I loved that they built the wall around the tree!
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Baja California Photography RV Travel Uncategorized

Exploring Baja Sur – Los Barriles, Buenos Aires Waterfall, Punta Pescadora

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.

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Not quite at Snorkel Beach yet but getting close!

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.

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Traffic jam – Los Barriles style!

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!

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Freedom!

The reason we chose the Baja Winters caravan over all the others was because,¬†once they led us into the very southern portion of southern Baja, they cut us loose giving us 14 days of ‘on your own’ time . This was the perfect compromise for Mitch and me – help us get acclimated to a different system and then let us make our own discoveries and mistakes.

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Mitch sporting his Baja hat which cost us a whopping 70 pesos ($3.50)!

Because the drive from Santispac to Los Barriles (our freedom time jumping off point) would have been too long, we stopped overnight at Ciudad Constitucion. Situated on a flat stretch of the Transpeninsular Highway surrounded by lots of agriculture, the town appeared tidy and organized. The most memorable things from Ciudad Constitucion were it’s main street with its strange traffic pattern (there was a regular two lane road in the middle and then an extra lane on either side. You weren’t supposed to make left turns from the road in the middle. To make a left turn, you went into the right lane and then, at the next four way stop sign, you would turn left across all lanes of traffic – a little scary. I guess it was kind of like New Jersey’s jug handles without the handles.), Mitch finding his Baja hat, and my humbling experience at the big supermercado (super market).

After looking all over the store for fresh guacamole I finally went up to the customer service desk and asked, “Tiene guacamole?” (Do you have guacamole?”) As I’d mentioned in an earlier post, I used to have a decent grasp, both speaking and understanding, of the Spanish language, most of which I’ve forgotten. But I still thought that my pronunciation and accent of the vocabulary I remembered was tolerable. However, after my question, the young guy looked at me like I had two heads. So I tried to explain, thinking that, even though every restaurant we’d been in sold it, maybe guacamole was not a thing grocery stores here carry pre-made. “Con aguacates?” I added. (With avocados?)

“Oh, si, aguacates,” he smiled, led me to the huge bin of avocados in the produce section, and began choosing avocados for me.

“No, gracias,” I said. “Guacamole.” Still no recognition on his face. Maybe they call it something else here in Ciudad Constitucion. So I started listing ingredients and making hand gestures. “Con aguacates picados (chopped avocados) y ajo (garlic) y cebolla (onion).” All the time making the motions of chopping, mixing, and scooping a chip through dip.

Finally his face opened up. “Ahhh,” he said. “Guacamole?”

The next day, due to road construction, we had the worst day of driving yet. When they are repaving the roads here, they don’t shut down one lane and then the other, they close off the entire road and reroute all the traffic (18-wheelers, double tankers, 44 foot RVs) onto horrible, steep, sandy, washboard and boulder riddled unpaved side roads. We had to put our truck into 4WD to get up one hill. The other RVs had to go one at a time, letting the driver in front get up the hill so they could get enough speed to make it all the way up.

But finally, we made it through the construction, through the city of La Paz, over a few more ruggedly beautiful mountains and down across a few washes to the windsurfing, four-wheeling town of Los Barriles on the Sea of Cortez where our 14 days of freedom started. No more group pot lucks, no more 8:00 am line-ups, no more scheduled bathroom breaks – a vacation in our vacation. Much more to follow…

Kiter_haven
In Los Barriles it seems to be either super-windy or flat calm. When it is windy, the view from our camper was all kites!

 

(Spoiler alert – we are no longer in Baja. For awhile there it seemed like either we had internet with no electricity to turn on the computer, or vice versa, or we were too busy exploring to sit down and get a post out! So we’ve got a little catching up to do!)