Discovering the Baja
Following in the footsteps of rogues and pirates
By Peter Chrzanowski
Baja California has always intrigued me; it has always held that irresistible draw to explore it further. Part of the draw is the pure, natural isolation and part of it is the area’s history as a hideout for pirates and rogues.
Once down below Tijuana and Ensenada, there are really no major populated centres until you reach the lower tip of the peninsula, 1,600 km south of California. Flanked by the Sea of Cortez on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other, its simple proportions of land to human nature, make it a special place. It carries a vibe I had experienced only in areas, such as the Queen Charlotte Islands, a Colombian rainforest and the Mount Waddington region in B.C. There is something about a mix of isolation along with an abundance of nature and wildlife which one really appreciates in the Baja.
Last December, with the madness of Christmas consumerism and the hocus-pocus of the approaching Y2K dilemma, the Baja seemed especially appealing. An unlikely, colourful mix of characters were prepared to counter the forces of responsibility and committed themselves to doing the trip. The finalists were Ryszard Szafirski, a 62-year-old mountain climbing legend from Poland; Doris Spika, a boisterous interior designer from Vancouver; and me, often referred to as an adventure filmmaker.
I met Ryszard years ago in Whistler and had re-kindled our friendship at the Banff Mountain Film Festival held early in November.
December 15 we left Vancouver in Ryszard’s 1978 Dodge one-ton van, straight-lining it to Baja’s southern tip, to a newly established national park at Cabo Pulmo. The plan was to take our time visiting places off the beaten trail on the way back north.
A couple of days after convincing U.S. Customs officers we were no threat to national security we were buying our car insurance at the Tijuana crossing into Mexico. Another 120 km of toll highways and we were south of Ensenada and into a more desolate land, more reminiscent of the true Baja.
Here the roads turned narrow, to a bare two-lanes with no shoulder. Tell tale wooden crosses marked the hairpin turns, reminders of mortality. On we went, through Rosarito, Guerrero Negro, Santa Rosalia, Loreto, Muleje and La Paz. In four and a half days we arrived in San Jose Del Cabo and rendezvoused with friends.
There is a different breed of traveller in the southern Baja, many of whom reject conventional lifestyles in favour of spending large portions of their time in the sun, away from the "comforts" of home. To explore more of this "maniana" attitude we headed for Cabo Pulmo, a national park and home of Mexico’s best snorkelling reef.
A straight paved road leaves the highway halfway between San Jose Del Cabo and La Paz, heading west to Riviera, some 40 km distant. From there, a fork runs northward until the pavement turns into good old Baja washboard for another 10 km, until you reach Cabo Pulmo.
Cabo Pulmo has an incredibly beautiful shoreline which really grows on you as you spend time there. In 1995 the area was declared a national park, for its fine skin diving reef. Seemingly in the middle of nowhere, the park has a few houses and even a couple of bars/restaurants.
There were a few people from B.C. that we heard were regular tenants of the beach. One such character was Bernie from Sechelt. Every year, Bernie and his family would come down to their trailer, which they would leave parked with Mexican friends. They imported fruit from the Okanagan from April through October, then migrated south for five months. They had made Cabo Pulmo their choice retreat as far as getaways go.
Driving a little further, the road climbs a high bank overlooking the ocean where there is a designated campsite with a "voluntary" $2 a night camping fee. Here was the perfect place to contemplate the approaching Christmas and the new millennium. We spent a pleasant Christmas Eve at a restaurant called Wendy’s, run by a retired 70-year-old woman. Her daughter had joined her, setting up a dive shop for visiting enthusiasts.
Pirates once sailed these waters; the Sea of Cortez had supposedly been a favourite spot for pirates praying on shipping traffic up and down the West Coast. In modern times, too, it seemed that rogues and renegades had taken to this barren landscape that still held the passion from those pirate days. Around the campfire we would listen to fellow Canadians’ rants on reform and advice to revolt against the system. These were a curious breed of fellow travellers who had chosen to devote considerable time in the south Baja, perhaps redefining their own mission upon returning home. People like Al, who took his whole family for "pictures" in front of Senator Johnson’s house in La Paz. Senator Johnson is the infamous Canadian senator who has been living on a $70,000 a year salary in Mexico for the last 10 years while ducking Senate meetings. Al and his whole family took the pictures for their local paper back in B.C.
We liked Cabo Pulmo and decided to make it a base for a while. It was nice to reconnect with others with a similar outlook on the meaning of life, the importance of true leisure time to human beings and other decisive topics that come with fireside chats.
For a sidetrip we decided to head north to Pedritos and Cerritos, two surfing spots on the road from Cabo to Todos Santos, for a few days. We thought it was time to discover, or at least watch, the unfolding surf culture of the Baja. Each morning at day-break, keeners would be out waiting for that right wave off the point.
My ankles were just healing from last summer’s paragliding crash so surfing was out for me. I relished the swimming instead, and we all took long walks down the marvelous 7 km beach we were on. At the far end of the beach and over the hill was another surf area, known as Pedritos. Here was a good fish taco stand, another smaller bay and a bit more of the Southern California surfin’ scene.
New Year’s Eve was coming, as was the big Y2K question mark. The pleasant desolation of Cabo Pulmo was calling our name. The surf scene had been fun and all, but this was not the pirate Baja we were seeking. On our way back south, we stopped for a pensive day on one of the last wild Pacific enclaves. Here we enjoyed a totally uninhabited beach. We had the full splendour here of a worthy Pacific break, yet it was manageable enough to do some swimming beyond the waves.
In keeping with the rogues and pirates theme, we spent a day and a night of bar carousing in Cabo San Lucas. We figured we had to do the whole screaming tequila thing for an evening of Mexican debauchery. I had brought a few of my videos and managed to distribute a few ski flicks around a few bars in Cabo.
It was here that I met an old friend, Tad Campbell, formerly from Idle Eyes (remember their Juno award hit Tokyo Rose?). Tad had done music for a few of my films including his very popular Standing At The Edge tune. The owners of one bar were friends of Tads from Vail, and we talked of doing a re-make of The Search For The Ultimate Run again in Mexico. Next year, perhaps.
Back on the narrow Baja roads, Ryszard demonstrated his driving skills while relating rogue tales from earlier times. There was the time when Ryszard drove an entire Polish climbing expedition overland, from Poland to Nepal, through Russia, without a transit visa or permit. Then came the story of loading two Russian Jeeps on a freighter to Peru for six months of climbing treks there. This was meant to be paid for by literature bought in Hamburg and resold there. Things went sour when the "literature" was opened in front of the Polish Ambassador’s presence in Lima. There was also the story of Ryszard sitting on the tarmac in Pakistan waiting nervously for his ride — with $40,000 in Pakistani currency in his dufflebag, brought from Afghanistan, where the rate was twice as good for the money on the black market. Then there was the setting up of the Polish base in Antarctica …
On our way back to Cabo Pulmo we made a late night visit to a natural hot springs location, a real treat in the cool desert night. There were a few hippies around, of course. Hot springs and travelling hippies seem to be synonymous. There were hippies from BC and California and a couple from San Francisco must have practised yoga for at least three hours, strutting their stuff on the sand by the river.
We returned to the serenity of Cabo Pulmo for New Year’s Eve, far from any microchips. I must admit that I gazed northwards that midnight, wondering if the chain of sierras between us and San Diego would suffice as a barrier in case of a nuclear attack on America. Would we then see a kaleidoscope of fireworks, a final display of big brother’s oomph?
After another week or so at Cabo Pulmo the wind picked up considerably. The best way, we found, to travel the Baja was by listening to first hand reports of other travellers. There are fine guidebooks, but the immediate information on camping, crowds and weather patterns comes from other people. And so, as the wind was strong from the Sea of Cortez side of things, we were told of another, more secluded surf beach on the now wind-free Pacific side of the peninsula: Punto Conejo. We stopped on our way north in La Paz, picked up more fresh water and provisions and before nightfall were on the road to Punto Conejo.
It was an awesome drive in off the main highway, through a forest of cacti, to this almost eerie place. As we pulled in we heard the ocean, right over the bank. We spent a few days on yet another beautiful beach. It was a truly charming place where we met other friendly Baja nomads, this time from Colorado and San Diego.
As it turned out Punto Conejo was another gem of a surfer’s destination. "The water is getting cooler now and will continue to do so until April or so," one of the visiting surfers told us. "That’s how the Pacific currents work around here, every day the water is getting a little cooler." We watched some impressive surfing over the next few days, swam, did a little fishing and soon decided it was time to again head north.
Our next stop would be Aqua Verde. Various travellers had recommended this location to us. The road in off the main highway, was supposed to be rather scary as it crossed a range of coastal mountains before dropping down to the Sea of Cortez. It was not a long drive and by late afternoon we were chattering our teeth and eating lots of dust on the washboard-ridden dirt road.
Just as our trusty van reached the top of the pass where the road started its descent towards the sea, we had one of the most spectacular vistas of our trip. Below us, still bathing in golden-hour light, was Aqua Verde, a whole coastline of islands and inlets surrounded by a truly impressive green coloured sea.
The sun was setting as we reached the pebble strewn beaches of this area and we set up camp for the night. W had our evening fire and were soon lulled to sleep by the gentle Cortez waves washing up on the shoreline.
Next morning we woke to the usual brilliant Baja sunshine, then proceeded to explore this distinctive section of the peninsula. We drove to the end of the road and the little fishing village called Aqua Verde. That afternoon we swam in an incredible little bay where I was invited aboard an anchored fishing boat.
We picked out a spot to settle for five days or so. It was a beach at least 10 km long. There was a campsite or motor home of some sort at one end, a couple of vans visible on a meadow more inland, but otherwise the beach totally empty. The campsite turned out to belong to a friendly American couple, Fred and Rainey who had been living there for the last 12 years. He was a retired military man, a Viet Nam veteran, and his wife a former figure skater.
That night they invited us, as well as a group of other Canadian campers, for a fireside dinner party. They amused us with tales of diving for lobsters at night and rattlesnakes invading their tropical abode. They also told us that at least a thousand Mexicans from La Paz converge on the beach every Easter.
Our stay here was truly exceptional. The fishing was great — Ryszard and I caught a few yellowtails. We swam, snorkelled and did the beach thing.
But after five days or so we were itchy to travel and responsibilities back home beckoned us to start our return.
Before leaving the region, we stopped in the nearby hot springs. These are incredible natural pools available only when the tide is out. Joining us here was an entire tour of kayakers from the visiting Green Tortoise bus. (Green Tortoise is a service which operates from Vancouver, Seattle and San Francisco all the way down the Baja. It is a big green bus outfitted for camping travel as it makes its way down the entire Baja Peninsula.) The pools are just dug out areas with stones placed around them. As the tide recedes the water bubbling up gets hotter. It was especially exotic having the kayaks pass right behind us while we lounged in the hot water.
The next destination was the Bay of Concepcion, north of Muleje. Here a road out to a peninsula at the far end of the bay wound around old fishing lean-tos and temporary fish camps. There were piles and piles of clam shells everywhere and we later heard that the entire bay had been so overfished that fishing was now severely restricted.
We drove along the smooth dried out seabed shore, through towering forests of cactus for about 20 km northward until we found a campsite to our liking. It was different here. Again we were in true isolation. On the other side of the bay was the highway and the lights of many campfires on more accessible beaches. Here we were really alone.
The beach was one of pebbles and the water quite cool for swimming. Nevertheless the days were still blistering hot and the place had a special tranquil quality to it, different from all others we had experienced.
Within a day, our Edmonton friends who had told us about the place arrived with two couples and their dogs. The next few days were really special as we got to know each other well, often telling stories late into the night by the fire.
It turned out that our friends bore the traditional rogue approach to the meaning of life, a distinctive view on our consumer driven culture and strongly opposed the taxation system back home. Again we concluded that it took a different breed of traveller to experience what we had been relishing for the last five weeks or so. The Baja was home for the more adventurous of souls and the conversations proved it.
One day we rode some mountain bikes to an incredible canyon and a fresh water spring. It was the only water source around. I trekked up the winding canyon for an hour or so, hoping to crest a hill at one point and gaze out into the Sea of Cortez.
The canyon walls seemed to turn a different colour around every bend. I followed the dried out creek bed for at least an hour, until the sun was low on the horizon, before I decided to go back. This place somehow had an air of mystery and reminded me of old westerns as well as shamanistic rituals.
It was in Concepcion that we really got to feel the tranquillity and wonderful isolation which the Baja can offer. We took walks in the eerie cactus forest, picked shells, wood and souvenirs of nature’s giving. The fishing was good and we even had a school of dolphins swim past, just a few metres from shore. We also saw a whale here, a sign, perhaps, that our trip was concluding.
From Concepcion northward the trip was fairly uneventful as we let Ryszard guide us home, stopping only briefly now and then.
As we reached northern Baja we noticed how much more crowded it was. There were more towns and the place had lost the charm of desolation, which the southern peninsula has. And as we approached the U.S. boarder the tolerance for rogues and pirates disappeared.