North to San Ignacio

North To San Ignacio
We left Loreto in the gray of dawn. Bahia de Concepcion called to us as it had on the way south, and we pulled over time after time to be by its so-blue waters.
One stop was on an isolated beach that had promised camping. When we had driven the sand roads to get there, we found what may once have been a few camping spots and an almost falling down shack. But it was a lovely place to walk awhile. 
I wandered past the shack, and as I did so, I could swear I heard some chickens. Turned around, and sure enough, chickens. Happy plump ones.
The door to the shack was on this side, away from the “road” we’d come in on. The door was open. Furniture inside. Outside, near the chickens, some fresh hay. Not an abandoned shack!
No one seemed to be around, so we explored a little more and left a gift of a fruit bar near the door.
On the way north, stopping to search for petroglyphs (didn’t find them) and and also look for the hot springs our guidebook said would be there (didn’t find it). But the views we incredible at every stop.
Next stop, Mulege. This time we took time to explore. We headed out to the sea, driving through town, onto a dirt road, onto pavement resembling a super highway, then back to dirt. We finally got to the water. I pulled on my bathing suit, set out my beach chair, and took in the sun. Cinda spent her time, as usual, combing the beach in search of prize shells. We saw egrets, herons and gulls in search of a late breakfast.
We snacked on tortillas, fresh queso, and avocado. When a group arrived, we left. On the way back to town, as we crossed the little stretch of pavement that seemed like a super highway, we saw men at work. Sweeping. There were at least six men out sweeping that little, less than quarter mile stretch of pavement. A small stretch, but clean, clean, clean. 
In the same area as the super clean stretch of highway we saw a most unusual sight. Palm trees stood, dead, their fronds gone. This likely happened in one of the last major storms in the past decade. It was so strange – dozens and dozens of trees with their heads ripped off. 
Back in town we found a little cafe with the absolute best cake de tres leches I have ever had. Delicious. Melt-in-the-mouth. Sinful. I could have eaten four or five.
Then, up to see the church, an old mission with rock walls three feet thick, built in the late 1700s. The original, on the river, was built much earlier, but was safely rebuilt high over town after a major flood. Cinda longed for the museum, but it was closed
We reached Santa Rosalia and checked on the ferry to Guaymas, but it wasn’t running for two more days and the cost would have been over $400, so on we went to San Ignacio.
The road north out of Santa Rosalia is steep and narrow, and of course we landed behind a monster truck for several miles until I could pass. We groaned along at a whopping four miles per hour until I could get around.
We arrived in San Ignacio and I tried to call the woman we were supposed to connect with, but the number didn’t exist. This is a woman we didn’t know, a friend of a friend. She had said she lived behind a hotel out of town a bit, so we drove there, hoping to spot a place that “looked like” hers. Didn’t work.
Back to town to the only little place with internet so I could hook up and check my email, be sure I had the right number. I asked the man if he happened to know our contact, and hooray for small towns. He was her landlord! He also gave me her correct phone number and directions to her place. We were off.
We pulled up and began to walk to her house, and a woman was walking toward us. Yep, the woman we’d been looking for.
Hugs all around, then she ushered us into her house and we settled in. We took her out that night (super margaritas!!), then back to her house for chat.
It was with some regret on all sides when we left in the morning. The woman we stayed with was interesting, someone I’d like to get to know better. Also, she’s in such a small town that visitors were a welcome diversion. Plans are already underway for my return visit!

Loreto, Baja California Sur

Loreto
We arrived in Loreto Friday afternoon after breakfasting in La Paz at Hotel Perla on the malecón. I once stayed in this hotel, nearly thirty years ago, when it cost about ten dollars. Today’s rate is closer to eighty.
We arrived in Loreto earlier than our hostess had expected, but she was ready. We had hoped to stay just two nights, but that has slid into three.
I can’t quite explain why I like this town so much. Partly, of course, because it’s on the water. Also, it’s old, established in the late 1600s. Parts have been fixed up for tourists, but much is a typical Mexican town, so the combination is nice. I am in Mexico but can get an espresso.
There are monstrous houses in the “gringo gulch” area, but my friend here lives in a typical neighborhood and has a comfy house at a very affordable price. She has bought the Mexican health insurance. There is a very good hospital should she need it.
There are upscale hotels and restaurants and little affordable motels and  taquerías (see last posting about Loreto to read about McLulu’s). 
The streets and beaches are clean. Unlike many towns in Mexico, there aren’t “street dogs” everywhere. 
The confused rooster down the street continues to crow two to three times a minute. Music comes from the other direction.
This morning we all wandered down to the weekly market held in a dry wash. You can buy almost anything there, almost enough to set up a household. After that we had breakfast at a beachfront restaurant and then it was time to walk some more before settling down out of the sun to read or nap. We’ll emerge later to do some more walking and then have a beer or margarita, watching the Sea if Cortez and its islands change colors as the sun goes down.
Tomorrow we leave but won’t go far. Just up the road a few hours to an isolated beach for the night. We’ll stock up here first with some tortillas, cheese, and avocado. A few beers and a Mexican Coca Cola (stills made with sugar rather than corn syrup, and the taste is noticeable different). Then we’ll be ready for an afternoon and night on the beach!

Best Toilet Story

We were at a tiny seaside restaurant. Tables and chairs on the beach, kitchen in the palapa. The restroom was outside, off to the side.
No toilet paper, of course, but I was prepared. 
After using the toilet, I went to flush, but there was no handle available. I looked for a button to push or chain to pull, but there was none.
“Okay,” I thought, “I’ll take the top of the tank off and lift the flapper.”
I lifted off the top and began to reach inside. Came to an abrupt stop.
The tank was filled with plastic fishies and starfish!
Then I remembered that just outside the door there was a large plastic tub full of water. Sure eoungh, a bucket sat right beside it.
Flush, flush.

To Todos Santos

To Todos Santos
Up before dawn and to the roof to look at stars. They are so brilliant in all this darkness! In the distance, the hum of a boat’s motor, a fisherman getting ready for a day of work.
Then down to our room to watch the dawn. By 6:00 there was just enough light that we could distinguish sea from sky.
A little later, the four of us (Cinda, me, and our two hosts) drove north a mile or so along the beach to a thermal spot. Two of us dug into the sand just a few feet from water’s edge, and about two feet down we hit hot water. 
Then the other two women went swimming, husband host occupied himself sitting the beach and sketching some house ideas, and I sat happily with my feet in hot sandy water. I stayed fully occupied digging out each time a sand wall collapsed or when the sea breached the moat I’d put around my hot spot.
The water was so hot I couldn’t go deeper. I tried go deeper but but nearly scorched my hands. With a good shovel I could have gone deep but would have needed a bit of the surf to cool the water off.
After beaching, back to the house for breakfast, a fast dash about town to say goodbyes, and then we were off, once again heading inland, through the village of San Antonio, north, then southwest to Todos Santos.
I simultaneously loved and loathed the place. Funky and trendy. Laid back, but in such an upscale way I almost felt out of place. It’s the first place we’ve been that people didn’t smile and greet one another on the street. 
There are more coffeehouses than in Bisbee. More overly-tanned women dripping turquoise. And more loud drunks. 
We were next to a few rowdies in Gurrero Negro, but they were nothing compared to the crowd of partiers in our poor hotel in Todos Santos. We prayed it wouldn’t last all night, and thankfully it didn’t.
We took a drive to the beach, and immediately saw whales blowing. They were likely headed north on the long migration. We saw just a few then headed back to town. The partiers were in full obnoxious mode but soon went out to eat, and likely continue drinking. They came back early and it quickly got quiet. We got good sleep.

El Sargento

El Sargento. How delicious! A lazy, lazy day. 
Good thing, too, because I’ve come down with the first cold I’ve had in about two years. At home, people have been sick off and on for months. Not I. No, I have to wait until I’m a four or five day drive from home to get sick. But in a gorgeous setting. 
The folks we’re staying with have been so kind, giving me Airborne and a big box of tissues. 
The others are now doing a beach walk, but I’m just not up to it so am sitting in the sun, writing, dozing, reading. For now, this is perfect for me. With the car as a barrier, I am out of most of the wind, sitting with sun on my poor winter-white skin, and watching the tide roll in. A lovely spot to be sick!
Back to the house, and soon tuna is on the grill.
I know I’ve said it before, but I could live here.
There is a little store in this town that is amazing. It’s run by Armita and Oscar. Need tires? Armita will get them. Need soy milk or brown rice? On the shelf. Half and half? Just look next to the milk.
Usually, none of these things exists in Mexico. Cinda’s friends said they could drive around La Paz all day and maybe not find half and half, but it’s always in El Sargento. The couple that runs the little mini mart in town aim to please, and they do.
Vegetables are hand chosen. The shelves are beautifully stocked with even things fussy eaters might want. When Oscar comes back from La Paz with a full truck, people who see the truck dash for the store and unload the shelves almost as fast as he can stock them.
As I said, I could live here.

South to El Sargento

It was with some regret that we left Loreto, but we knew we’d be back in a few days.
Baja California has only one main highway which runs south, zigzagging a bit across the peninsula. From Tijuana to San Quentin, we went pretty much south, often right on the coast of the Pacific and moving inland up to maybe ten miles. 
From there to Guerrero Negro, we were inland most of the time, coming back almost the coast when we go to the town.
From Guerrero Negro, however, we headed south and east crossing the mountains that run like a spine the length of the Baja peninsula. When we 
  reached El Rosario, we stayed on the Sea of Cortez in Loreto, then headed back west and south into the mountains, where we drove the high plains before cutting southeast into La Paz.
At La Paz we had to head a bit inland again for the short drive to El Sargento.  The drive from Loreto took about seven hours, and since we’re early risers, we we in El Sargento by two.
Cinda’s friends have a lovely two bedroom house on a bluff facing east across the Sea of Cortez. The house runs north-south with each room offering a stunning view of the sea. A patio, too, runs the east side, and there’s a rooftop patio that has 360 degree views. We settled quite happily into our room, then hit the beach for a short walk.
Mexico travelers, get this: their septic can handle toilet paper!!
There is a wonderful plant here called the elephant tree. In some ways it’s a little like a boojum. Both are broad at the base and taper to the top. Unlike the boojum that stands quite tall and straight with very tiny arms branching off it, the elephant tree is somewhat squat and has several thick arms that in turn hold tinier branches.
What makes the elephant tree most interesting is its brownish bark peels off. The  outer bark turns a beautiful coopery-gold color and peels off in small sheets much thinner than paper. They ruffle up loose all over the tree until they blow off, and before the blow off, they dance in the wind causing the tree to glimmer. It is a stunning little tree.
In addition to a number of elephant trees, the people we’re staying with have a sort of wild plum, a wild-looking cactus called pitaya agrla with arms that reach out every possible direction, and a number of desert shrubs totally unrecognizable to me. They’re birders, too, and the food and water they put out attract a beautiful variety. 
In one of those wonderful twists of fate, the friends we are staying with are good friends with neighbors just down the road, and the woman in that couple was Cinda’s childhood friend that she hadn’t seen for forty-seven years. What a reunion! 
Of course there was a gathering, a dinner, and lots of stories swapped.
The childhood friend works with a coil potter, Ramona, who lives in the mountains. This friend buys the woman’s pots and sells them in town, heading back to the mountains to give the woman any profits made and picking up more pots.
Or course I came away with one of the pots. It is larger than what I would like, but it is what was available. What’s interesting about this pot is it can be used on a stove top as well as in the oven. It’s perfect for making a large batch of frijoles or caldo, or for simmering mole with chicken. Again, it’s a bit large, but Cinda says I just need to have a party.
We returned home after our dinner. There are no streetlights here, and almost no one has an outdoor light on, so the stars are stunning. I lay in bed gazing out at stars and constellations that, though brilliant, were somehow misplaced in this southern sky.

Across the Peninsula

Up early and out just after dawn. We were ready long before dawn, but I’m hesitant to drive the twisty narrow roads here when it is still dark. 
We left under gray skies, waving goodbye to the whales. It cleared as we crossed the desert. 
First the land was sandy and nearly barren. Soon, though, it was lush with an amazing variety of desert plants. Then it flipped back to barren, then lush again. 
Within an hour, we came to one of the many military checkpoints throughout the Baja. A very, very young man asked in confusing English to search our car. We got out carrying our purses and let him search. Meanwhile, I carried on a lively conversation with another soldier about las ballenas. He seemed quite pleased that we had come so far to enjoy ourselves in his country. Not for the first time, we wondered if these men who lived right here would ever take the time (and money) to go see the whales. 
About two hours from Guerrero Negro, we got to San Ignacio, the date capital of California Baja Sur. Driving into the town, we took a road lined with date fields. It felt so intensely tropical and lush, right in the middle of severe desert.
Sweet, sweet little town, with a small plaza and a gorgeous old church built in the late 1600s. We had a light brunch at a little stand on the plaza. We then wandered a bit, listening to birds sing the town awake, and spent some time in the garden beside the church.
An hour later we were pulling into Santa Rosalia. Never, never have I seen such an ugly entrance to a city. Not even Gary, Indiana, can top this. 
From stark desert, we descended, watching the Sea of Cortez in the distance. A beautiful start. But then . . . trash blowing wildly, and the town dump on fire and sending the gagging smell of burning plastic everywhere. Remains of burned out buildings and decaying industrial remains. 
We pulled over to take a little walk to the water, but the burning plastic stench was overwhelming. 
Thankfully, when we went into the town, it was much more charming. Sta. Rosalia was founded by the French, so it doesn’t look like most towns in Mexico. No adobe or block and stucco. These were frame buildings, many
with  second story balconies overhanging the sidewalks, and many, as in New  Orleans, had wrought iron railings. And the church was not the typical Spanish style, but tall with an almost curved roof. It was designed by the famous Eiffel (of the tower). I’ve never seen anything quite like it. 
Out of town, past more trash and mess and into the desert. Next stop: Mulege (picture an accent on the second ‘e’ so it’s pronounced moo la HAY).
I’d been looking forward so much to Mulege. The photos I’d seen, the stories I’d heard. Tropical, almost, and serene. 
We arrived to find the campgrounds we were interested in had been hit by three hurricanes. Riverside camping was no more. Damaged buildings abounded. Overall, nothing was very inviting. Though the town seemed sweet and was asking for exploration, we decided to move on.
We stopped at a few absolutely stunning places on Bahia de Concepcion, but ultimately decided to continue to Loreto for the night and have a shorter day’s drive the next day, to south of La Paz.
Loreto. WOW! We loved it. Beautiful church from 1697. A beautiful malecon, views across deep blue sea to the island mountains. We found a place to stay for a good price and headed to McLulu’s for dinner.
Lulu was fabulous. I liked her immediately. She started her fish taco restaurant in 1984 after her husband died. She had five children, one just over a year old. She said she got her tubes tied, just in case, because she felt it was better to make tacos than make babies.
Lulu’s tacos are legendary – and only $50P for three. But I just had to ask her why it was called McLulu’s, and here’s the story.
Some gringos loved her tacos, and each time they came for dinner she would excitedly tell them how many she’d sold – 100, 175, then one day 300. They told her that McDonald’s always posted how many they had sold and jokingly called her McLulu. The name stuck, and twenty-eight years later, McLulu’s is an institution.

Day of the Whales

Día de las Ballenas.
Up early and out across the salt flats before the sun was up.
Books and former visitors to Ojo de Liebre had said we could just camp on the beach. They’d also said we could negotiate with the panga operators to take us out to see the whales.
All that has changed. There are palapas set back from the lagoon, all numbered, and campers choose one and stay there. Tents are acceptable, but the only campers we saw had truck campers or mini motorhomes. The wind was more than I would have wanted to deal with in a tent, so we stayed in town at a motel that was more than the guidebook said it would be.
No more meeting the panga operators and arranging a tour, either. There is now a welcome center and ticket office. Tours cost $500P or US $40. There is also a small restaurant, a gift shop, and one more room that I couldn’t quite figure out. We had looked at it the day before, on our short visit.
Loud music came from the room. A man who appeared to be the manager said it was the band. He opened the door for us and flipped on a light. There was terribly loud music and a big screen TV on which the words to the song appeared, sort of a sing along, I suppose. We were invited to enter the band room, but it was viscously loud and we declined.
We arrived this morning at the lagoon before eight, having been told tours left at eight, or nine, or maybe eight-thirty. Mind you, it was the man who appeared to manage the  little welcome center who told us the three different times. We opted to arrive early rather than miss the boat, literally.
We had driven out under gray skies that threatened rain. The salt flats took on a more lunar landscape in the dim light. We arrived just in time to chat with a few other tourists (a gringo from Mexico and a Mexican who lived in the US). Then it was time to buy our tickets and make a last minute trip to the best outdoor toilet I’ve ever been in – it was on the second floor and had a tall window across the whole front that looked out at the lagoon. We then donned our life vests and boarded. 
Our little boat had only six passengers. Leopoldo started the motor, and we were off. In just a few minutes we were in deep lagoon and could see whales in the distance. Closer, closer. Gray whales were all around us!
At first I tried to take photos but realized I was looking at this majesty through a viewfinder rather than watching them live. I put the camera away.
Leopoldo moved us close in to a whale a number of times, but each time the whale moved away. Although for over sixteen years it’s been a dream of mine to touch a whale, I realized that to be this close was perfect. If I didn’t  touch one, I was still content.
Then we drifted closer to a mama and baby. Mama cut between us and baby, nudging him away from us. But she stuck around. 
At first she glided through the water, showing us only her back and the “knuckles” on it. Gray whales have nine to thirteen knuckles on their backs rather than a dorsal fin.
This gray circled the boat and she dove under it. Three or four times she went under the boat and bumped us. Let us know who was really in charge. At 60,000 or more pounds, she likely viewed us as a toy. She drifted aside us and blew water on us all. Then she approached the side.
Cinda and I were on the other end of the boat, the bow, but when the whale moved in Cinda almost ran to the stern. There she was, hanging over the side, petting this thirty-ton mammal that had the power to flip our boat if she so chose.
Then I went to the stern. Mama stayed and let me stroke her back. Slowly, slowly. Up and down her back. Around the barnacles that clung to her and past one of her knuckles.
I was dumbfounded. Her back felt like silk, smooth and soft. I had expected a hide,  hard and leathery, firm. Not at all. It almost felt as though I could poke my finger right through her skin.
She let me stroke her repeatedly, then slowly sank below the water’s surface.
She returned to the boat several times, giving everyone aboard a chance to feel whale silk. Even Leopoldo, who grinned as much as the rest of us, pet her.
Leopoldo kept us out overtime. He looked apologetic when his CB came to life and he was called back. He wanted us to stay and fall in love with these whales as deeply as he loved them. But we returned, each of us with huge smiles. 
Hours later, I am smiling still.

South from San Quintín

We left Eddy’s just after seven, taking the washboard road past all the panga rentals. Pangas are small boats, and the area around this small bay was full of men waiting to take fishermen out for a day of frustration. 
We gassed up in El Rosario forty miles later (after actually gassing up in San Quintín). We only got ripped off for maybe $100P. El Rosario is notorious for its cost of gas.
Then away from the coast and into the mountains. Soon we were in a magical land of boojum and cardon, a tall cactus that seems to be related to the saguaro. We stopped and walked among these and many others: barrel cactus, hedgehog, and several varieties of nopal and cholla. 
A  little further down the road we found ourselves in a rock-covered moonscape. Rocks on top of rocks on top of rocks with boojum sprinkled among them. There was one hillside covered in rock, and it was so steep I wondered how the rocks clung to its side. I expected an avalanche at any moment.
Hills, valleys, and more moonscape. Her Majesty was good. She consistently told us we were on Callatera 1 in Baja California. Then, just twenty miles or so north of Guerrero Negro, she went on strike. She couldn’t find a signal. Good thing we weren’t lost.
We came to the military checkpoint between Baja and Baja Sur, and as advised, we begged off from the “required” spraydown against bugs. We claimed asthma as the Moon Handbook to Baja suggested. The man smirked a bit and called over to the others, “Asthma!” I’m guessing a lot of people develop asthma when at this checkpoint.
Once in Guerrero Negro, we searched in vain for one of the two cheap motels Moon had suggested. We couldn’t even find the turnoff. We had thought to camp at the lagoon but several advised against it since we were two females who would be in a tent. We ended up in the San Ignacio Motel, two nights for $700P and there was wireless internet available in the office.
Off to the lagoon! Five miles south on the highway, then onto a dirt/sand road for another eighteen or so miles. We made good time because the road was in quite good shape. We’d been warned that it could be very washboarded and slow, but it was packed hard and fairly smooth.
Through sparse desert and then suddenly we were in salt fields! Salted roads, lagoons full of salt, and salty foam blowing across the road. It was astounding. One pond was pinkish in color, and though I took a few pictures, the photos couldn’t capture that color.
Sadly, when we got to Ojo de Liebre, there were no whales close in. I saw a few quite far out – saw the water shoot up and a dark back break the surface. As Cinda pointed out, should the rapture happen this night (and should we be taken, which is unlikely) at least I have seen a whale.
We got back to our room, and tired of spending money, decided to eat some instant macaroni and cheese (just add water!). Well, in small print, it said, “and microwave for two minutes.” We settled for some instant soup (just add water!). Thankfully, it truly needed no microwaving. I just set up the little propane cooker and soon water was boiling and we had dinner. Of sorts. A bottle of wine can turn even instant soup into dinner.

Into the Baja

We left San Diego early, after a quick walk through the neighborhood that afforded views into the Pacific. 
Unlike the crossing at Naco, there were no customs agents on the US side checking our credentials and asking absurd questions.
For over a year now, US Customs has had a presence at the Naco crossing. Where are you coming from? Where are you going? Do you have more than $10,000?
Now, if I had more than $10,000, would I tell them? If I were headed to buy drugs, would I admit it? The questioning is frustrating, and if one dares to challenge the absurdity, it’s a quick trip to secondary, where three to five agents look through the car and one or two others point their guns and toss out menacing looks. They claim this is done at all border crossings,
Not true. In recent months I’ve crossed at Nogales and El Paso without any questioning, and now I’ve crossed into Tijuana with nary an agent in sight. so why do we have to subject ourselves to ridiculous questions and secondary inspections in Naco, merely to LEAVE the US? And then, of course, we have to go through it all again when when we re-enter the US.
In any event, we crossed with absolutely no incident into Tijuana. With Cinda carefully reading the instructions, and with Her Majesty in the “off” position, we immediately missed the first turn. 
Actually, we didn’t miss it! I thought I had missed a turn, but the angels were hovering right above us, and the “miss” was the right thing to do. We we on the road south to Ensenada! 
I had read that the drive was scenic, but it was more than that. We both oohed and ahhed all the way down. Glistening green cliffs dropped into the surf. Waves slid onto the shore and smacked into rocky outcroppings. Sadly, not a whale nor dolphin in sight.
We stopped in La Misión to have a light breakfast and wait to meet a friend. 
We arrived earlier than expected and had to wait, but it was worth the wait. Our wait-spot was the restaurant of Hotel La Fonda, with expansive sea views and a small chiminea cranking out the only heat. Each comfy chair held a blanket to wrap up in.
Our friend arrived. we were headed south wile he was headed up to San Diego (he lives in La Misión) to buy a sailboat. We heard about it and dreams for the future.
South, south to Ensenada. Big city! Then we came around a curve and THERE was Ensenada!  Very bigh city!  And, of course, there was a detour and we got rerouted through town. 
South, south. Steep brilliant green mountains to the west folded down into a narrow valley. Steep desert mountains to the east. Cattle and horses grazed in the valley, and fields of hay or grapes came right to the road. There were even rows of olive trees, and little roadside stands had fresh squeezed olive oil for sale. 
We then climbed out of this lush valley into a desert valley. More road work meant we had to drive off the road onto marginal dirt rutted tracks. The little RV in front of us rocked and rolled so much we briefly feared it would tip over. But we all made it.
San Quentin! A wide spot in the road. A bustle of small stores, a big store selling tractors, a few Pemex stations, and a string of fish taco stands. We drove on through to the hotel several folks had recommended, but it was full. We had planned to camp, but the evening sky was full of rain, the wind was up, and it didn’t seem like a good time to wrestle the camp gear out.
We ended up in a cheap motel – on the bay! It’s called Don Eddy’s($400P), and though it had been specifically not recommended, we found it adequate.  We even had a tiny room off the bedroom that gave a bay view. Dinner looking out over the calm waters. 
The whole drive, from slightly north of downtown San Diego to San Quentin, was about eight hours, including more than ninety minutes hanging out in La Misión. 
The night was chilly, and in the morning, dew covered the car.