Was it worth it to do the RV caravan to Baja?
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!
Have 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.
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 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.
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…
(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!)
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.
Wow – I’ve got a lot of catching up to do! Don’t worry. I won’t be detailing our travels over the last seven years since my last blog post (seven years – how is that possible??). But this was the year I was going to blog about our trip again and we’ve been on the road a month now with no posts to show for it!
Why blog this year when I’ve skipped the previous seven? Well, we are finally doing something really, really different – for us anyway. We are driving through Baja California from top to bottom and back to top. Because Mitch doesn’t trust my navigating skills we are with an RV caravan group call Baja Winters. And being smack in the middle of a line of 18 RVs with roads too narrow to U-turn is the only way I knew we’d make it south of the border!
The first day on the road was short – about 65 miles from the border crossing at Tecate (yes – it’s a real town, not just a beer) to the wine country of the Guadalupe Valley where we stayed in a small RV park run by the deaf school.
My favorite thing about our first day was reading, hearing, and trying to speak Spanish again. I’d forgotten how much I loved the language (I majored in Spanish and lived in Costa Rica for a year) but hadn’t used it in cough-ehemm-twenty-cough-cough-two years. Out of the cobwebs of my brain vocabulary words began to pop into my mouth. Verb conjugations, on the other hand, are extremely stubborn. I’m afraid they’ve been eaten by the spider.
The next day we drove through the busy, sprawling city of Ensenada with its thousands
and thousands of stop signs and spent a chilly night on a beautiful, empty beach on the Pacific side. My favorite thing about the second day was my reintroduction to tamales. As a picky teen I’d labeled them “disgusting”. But thankfully, my eyes have been opened!
Day three our truck got a work-out dodging potholes and traveling up and up through the beautiful, desolate mountains of the protected Valle de los Cirios. We camped at the Santa Ynez Ranch in Catavina where they served us a delicious bunkhouse meal. I have no idea what it was but we asked for seconds! A cirio is a tree, but one of the craziest trees you will ever see. It is a bizarre-Dr. Suess-looking creation that only grows in this one little spot in the world.
About half way through day four we crossed into Baja Sur!
Yay! Away went the coats and shoes, out came the shorts and sandals! I guess it could have been a cooler weather system that went through, but really, it was as if going across that line brought the sun out and temp up. We covered a lot of desert again but camped in a true oasis, San Ignacio. It is really amazing to come across a tiny valley stuffed with an uncountable number of palm trees after miles and miles and miles of sand, rock, and cacti. The next morning we explored the beautiful mission church built in the 1700s before heading out on the road again.
And then, day five. After a short drive of about 100 miles we dropped (almost literally!) out of the mountains to the blue-green waters of the Sea of Cortez. We followed the coastline past a huge garbage dump (yes – in a spot with a multi-million dollar view sat a nasty dump) and a copper mine (ditto) up headlands through washes and small towns until we reached the Bahia de Concepcion to Santispac Beach where we dry camped (RV talk for no power, water, or sewer) for three days on an enchanting cove dotted with islands and packed with gringos.
OK – enough catching up for now. Enjoy Mitch’s photos while I pull up my piece of sand and have a little one on one time with the warm Mexican sun!