“A YUPPIE PUSHES 50”
~ A mid-life crisis by Carlos Fiesta
Carlos Fiesta on departure day in Los Angeles Harbor On Wednesday October 24th, 2001 Chuck Chambers (aka Carlos Fiesta) departed Los Angeles Harbor for a 2,000+ mile solo adventure to circumnavigate the entire Baja Peninsula. His only companion was a 15 pound Halloween pumpkin with a wig and a painted face affectionately called Elvira, donated by his wife upon departure. The final destination was the mouth of the Colorado River Delta, where it meets the Sea of Cortez. Carlos completed the adventure and arrived back at his home in Los Angeles on Monday November 19th.
The boat used for this trip was a 19′ panga that had been used as a fishing boat in Fiji. In addition to being used for fishing, the boat was used to access the outer reefs of Fiji for the local surfers. It was powered by a 40 horsepower 1993 Yamaha outboard motor and a 12 gallon gasoline tank. It was shipped to southern California by freighter in a crate and used as a fishing boat in southern California until he purchased it on September 11, 2001. Because of the distance between marinas with fuel in Baja the boat had been provisioned with 5 auxiliary gas cans. The name of the boat is “Vaka Viti” which means “The Fijian Way”.
There was no set itinerary for the adventure, but Carlos wanted to experience an intimate look at the hundreds of beaches and many islands on both the Pacific Ocean side and the Sea of Cortez side of the Baja Peninsula. In addition to land adventures Carlos encountered a variety of sea life along both sides of the Peninsula, including dolphins, seals, turtles, fish, manta rays, whales and a many different types of birds.
Both the Pacific Coast and the Sea of Cortez were extensively documented with photographs and notes, some of which have been placed on this web page.
Most of the boating was within 500 feet of shore during the entire trip, and Carlos stopped and went on shore “wherever the coast looked inviting”. To avoid getting lost Carlos kept the Baja coastline on the “left side” of the boat most of the time.
This page of Baja Expo has been created for others to “follow along” on this one month excursion and to catch a glimpse of the daily events he experienced. Since his return Carlos continues to add information to these pages until the entire trip has been documented. Enjoy!
To give you an idea of the 2,000 mile route you can review this space photo of the BAJA PENINSULA.
The pages below are the first steps towards a book that Carlos is writing about his adventure. If you have any questions about the trip or any comments about his story he would enjoy hearing from you at email@example.com!
To review a new circumnavigation adventure to follow in John Steinbeck’s wake visit the SEA OF CORTEZ EXPEDITION AND EDUCATION PROJECT web site.
~ Forward ~
Bang! If there was anyone around at the beginning of the Universe approximately 15 billion years ago, that is the sound they might have heard as it all exploded from nothing to everything in a nano-second. That is of course if you believe in the “Big Bang” theory of creation. Those in the other camp are confident that it all started when God took 7 days off, a shot of tequila, and created the whole shebang on a whim while Mrs. God was out of town. Both of these theories are equally difficult to comprehend, and the jury is still out as to how the Universe actually got out of the gate. The debate as to how it all started has been around for a long time and it may be a while before we actually figure out exactly how everything came to be. But how it all started is beginning to take a back seat to an even bigger question. Is ours the o-n-l-y Universe in existence?
Anyone who has had a chance to eavesdrop at a cocktail party of rocket scientists, cosmologists and astrophysicists has heard the new question pop up. Is it possible that our Universe of planets, stars and galaxies is only one in a collection of many other Universes located far beyond the edges of our known Universe? Do we really live in an ‘Omniverse’ with our Universe just one of 100 billion Universes somewhere in an unknown dimension? The more we explore and discover the limits of space the more we begin to realize that the concept of an Omniverse is a very real possibility. The incomprehensible idea of String Theory is just one of several theories that try to explain how it all came about, and how big it all really might be.
And why stop with the concept of an Omniverse? Taking this same incomprehensible concept to the next level, is it indeed possible that there are a whole host of Omniverses out there in a yet unnamed collection of groupings? We can call the whole collection of Omniverses the Googolverse. It all gets pretty difficult to comprehend, and besides you thought this book was going to be about some nut taking a small boat around the Baja Peninsula…so where am I headed with all this space stuff?
The point is that, on the grander scale of things, the day to day drama of our individual lives here on this tiny blue dot spinning through space is really a pretty small piece of the overall big picture. One could even say that most of what is going on here on Earth is somewhat insignificant when put into this larger perspective. Not that some of what we do here isn’t of value and possibly even important. But for the most part we simply piss away a lot of time on mindless projects that don’t offer a lot of value to anyone or anything. Waking up, eating, working, and then going home and watching television…and then doing the drill again the next day.
This daily drama that hundreds of millions of us perform on a daily basis is normal and socially acceptable. It’s just that if you get a crazy idea that stirs your soul it makes it kind of hard to talk yourself out of a once-in-a-lifetime adventure…if you keep the bigger picture in mind. Buy a boat, take a month off work, and then go follow over 2,000 miles of some of the most desolate and starkly beautiful coastline on the planet? What else would I do if I didn’t follow this dream, stay home and watch Seinfeld re-runs? Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Over the last 25 years I had explored Mexico’s Baja Peninsula extensively. This desolate finger of land provided the perfect venue for a man with a strong desire to explore untamed terrain, experience raw nature and to continually seek out what is around the next bend in the coast. And after 25 years of exploring this spectacular piece of real estate by land, I thought it might be fun to circumnavigate the entire Peninsula by boat to really wrap up the whole enchilada. So with the tepid support of my wife, my daughter, and my friends I left my home on September 11, 2001, drove into the bowels of the Los Angeles basin and purchased a used 19 foot boat with a 40 horsepower outboard motor. What in the hell was I thinking!
As it turned out the trip was one of the most significant events of my life. Never having owned a boat, knowing nothing about ocean navigation, and making the decision to travel solo all combined to give me an adventure that, if it didn’t kill me, would be a life event that would stay with me until the day I died. Although I flirted with death on several occasions during my boating adventure I did accomplish my goal alive and in good health. I departed Los Angeles Harbor, sailed around the Cape, and then motored my little boat up into the murky waters of the mouth of the Colorado River over 2,000 miles from my start. The trip took four weeks, 4 cases of Snapple, and a whole bunch of gasoline. To the best of my knowledge I am the first person to have taken such a small boat from LA around Baja and into the Colorado River solo. This is my story.
~ Introduction ~
“Sometimes you think about this beach, sometimes you don’t. But whether or not you think about it, it is here, every day, waiting. You may be in traffic, going somewhere in a hurry, rushing. This beach is still here. You may be distracted by the many dramas passing through your life, not even thinking about it. But it is here, always here, waiting. Where is this beach? That is for you to find out. Forget life’s destinations long enough to enjoy the day to day journey of hidden beaches, time with friends, and the simple joys of just being alive.”
~ Chuck Chambers
I wrote the above quip after one of my first trips to the Cape region of the Baja Peninsula in the early 1980’s. I was struck by the truly spectacular beaches…beaches that had been there for thousands of years but that I had never seen before. I wrote that note on a piece of paper and put it on the wall of my home office as a reminder that I always had options in life. It took me another 20 years to finally put all of the elements together to go in search of that special beach. And it took my impending 50th birthday to motivate me to the point of actually planning the trip.
For several reasons turning 50 years old is considered a milestone in one’s life. People just seem to love round numbers and 50 is a nice round number. Also it is half of 100, which is a veryround number. However most people realize they will never hit the coveted triple digits so the 50th birthday is a biggee.
Being 50 years old isn’t usually a problem. Once a person ‘hits’ 50 they pretty much take it all in stride, right along with ear hair and deteriorating eyesight. But the anticipation of “turning” 50…yikes! That process seems to stir the emotions, and more importantly, make people think about their mortality. As I write this page I am only 49 years old. But I can see the writing on the wall, and there is no getting around the fact that I will shortly be turning 50. Looks like it’s time for a mid-life crisis.
Barry Schiff, pilot extraordinaire and contributing editor to AOPA Pilot magazine said it well. “The worst thing about celebrating birthdays is that it compels us to confront and concede to our mortality”. Put another way, birthdays are a ‘head’s up’ that we have burned up one more year on the planet and the remaining years are indeed numbered (pun intended).
Most men heading for an impending collision with 50 find themselves leaning towards a few tried and true scenarios. But the most common options just didn’t seem to fit my personality. Buying a Harley Fat Boy and cruising up the west coast? Something about sticking my head in a helmet for hours at a time, combined with bugs hitting my teeth at 60 mph, just didn’t ring my bell. How about having a fling with a pretty young thing to make me feel better about getting older? It sound good in theory, but then as a married man you’ve got two women in your life that you don’t understand. Talk about masochism.
So what is a guy to do to prove to the world (or himself) that he is not getting old? Something outdoors, something fun, something a little bit crazy. How about taking a 19 foot fishing panga over 2,000 miles solo around the Baja Peninsula coastline.
I have always enjoyed traveling into Baja, it is truly a magnificent place that has stirred the soul of many people. Having explored Baja extensively for over 25 years I had developed a special affection for this scraggly finger of land dangling below California. After years of exploring the Baja Peninsula I actually built a travel guide on the Internet to help share the joys of Baja with others who felt the same draw. The Baja Expo web site was then, as it is today, a special passion which gave me more reasons to explore and write about Baja.
But my offshore experiences in Baja’s waters were very limited. I had swam in her coves, surfed her waves, kayaked her estuaries and snorkeled her reefs, but I had only been on her oceans in a boat a few times. Nothing close to justifying the buying of a boat and exploring her entire coastline.
So I had mixed feelings about undertaking such a significant adventure. However my emotions seemed to outweigh the common sense of planning a more reasonable quest, so it was time to actually move forward with this dream.
Probably the last thing a wife of 20 years wants to hear from her soon-to-be 50-years-old husband is that he wants to buy a boat and head into the unknown waters of one of the most desolate stretches of coastline on the planet. I knew from the git-go that it was going to take some special planning to get her stamp of approval on this crazy project. I first mentioned the idea to her at dinner. “Don’t you think it would be fun if I bought an inflatable boat and circumnavigated the Baja Peninsula?” Silence. The same kind of silence I heard from her when I asked her to marry me at the St. Helena Inn in California’s wine country 20 years earlier. And she gave me the same look that she gave me when I told her it would be “fun” to get married. “Interesting, yes. Fun, I don’t know”. But the wine got the best of her then and she said yes to getting hitched, so I knew I had an outside chance she would agree to my grand Baja scheme, if I could just get enough alcohol in her.
After fielding silly questions like “is that really safe” and “what about your job?” she finally agreed to the adventure, with the understanding that I made sure my life insurance policy was current and that I left her with plenty of shopping money before I departed. Having received her full endorsement, I knew it was time to find a boat.
Initially I thought an inflatable boat would work best for this kind of adventure. Unlike most cruising boats that ply the Baja coast and spend most of their time well offshore, I had planned on beaching my craft often during my journey. So having a boat light enough for me to maneuver back and forth to shore seemed to be a logical priority. But I had set a budget of $10,000 for this entire adventure, and I had planned on spending at least $2,000 for other necessaries such as fuel, port fees and food. Since the nicer inflatable boats that I had my eyes on cost $12,000 to $15,000 I started to get discouraged. For weeks I scoured boating publications looking at inflatables and any other type of boat that might fit the bill.
Finally I ran across a 19 foot panga for sale with a 40 horsepower outboard motor. All of a sudden it hit me. A panga was the type of boat that all of the local Mexican fishermen used on both the Pacific and Sea of Cortez sides of Baja. It was the perfect design to ply the waters and also make those occasional trips through the surf. To make things even better the panga I found for sale was only $7,800 which left me $200 under budget and one happy clam.
I had talked to the owner of the boat on the phone and he invited me to come on out the next day and take a look. He had somebody else interested in buying the boat but promised not to sell it until I had a chance to see it the next day. I was very excited about the possibility of finally finding a boat for my trip and I had a hard time sleeping that night.
The next morning my daughter woke me up and told me that two airliners had just flown into the two New York World Trade Center buildings. It was September 11th, 2001. She turned on the television and I watched in horror as, one after another, the twin towers burned and fell to the ground. It was about as surreal as reality can get. Although I knew that this horrible event would greatly affect our lives, there was no way anyone could fully comprehend how drastically and permanently this act would change the world we live in forever. For hours I tried to understand the drama that was unfolding before me on the television. I eventually got my self together and drove an hour out to Riverside, California to look at the boat.
The panga was everything I had hoped it would be. It was extremely well maintained, seemed to be the perfect length, and the motor started right up as if it were saying “C’mon…let’s go to Baja!” The owner and I negotiated a slight discount off of the asking price, I gave him a deposit, and I headed home knowing that the biggest problem for planning my trip had been solved.
During the next 5 weeks I kept busy provisioning the boat with items that would help me with my trip. I bought 5 extra gas containers, a mat and sleeping bag, a life raft, flares, a cooler, and a tool kit. Since I promised my wife that I would keep her informed of my progress on a regular basis, something almost impossible to do in the most remote stretches of Baja, I purchased a satellite phone. Although it was more money than I wanted to spend, I justified the purchase by telling myself that I would be able to use it often on future trips.
Navigation was not a very important need for me as I had planned on being within sight of land during the entire trip. However, as a point of perspective, I did bring along the Auto Club map of Baja, which seemed to show in good detail all of the landmarks along the Baja shore. And just for back up, at the last minute, I bought a GPS. As it tuned out the GPS was helpful for charting my distances between stops, but the Auto Club map was my main daily source of navigation for four weeks.
The Baja Peninsula is a unique piece of the geographic puzzle that covers the surface of the Earth. Ever since this landform broke away from what is now mainland Mexico, the Baja Peninsula has been a very special place. The sliding of the Pacific Plate continues today, moving northwest as the Pacific Ocean rolls in to fill the riff. Baja has become something very close to an island, both geographically and spiritually. Baja’s isolation has, for centuries, kept all but the most adventurous beings away.
Historians think the first settlers in Baja were Indians who crossed the Asian land bridge at the Bering Straight and gradually migrated into North America approximately 10,000 years ago. These native Americans eventually inhabited much of North and Central America, and some say even made it all the way down into South America.
The Indians who dared to explore and inhabit the isolated Baja Peninsula were some of the most primitive of the early explorers. The little that is known about these original inhabitants of Baja suggests that they were some of the most basic of all of the Indians who inhabited North America. They wore essentially no clothing, had no written language, and sustained themselves on a diet of light agriculture, fishing and simple hunting. Most of these people had died out by the middle of the second millennium, although a few did survive into the latter part of the 18th century. The native population of Baja in the 21st century is a mixture of these original inhabitants, mixed with the European lines that began exploring the Baja Peninsula in the late 15th century.
For most of it’s history Baja’s population was relatively static, consisting of only a few thousand Indians. Those that did settle in this rugged environment usually found a suitable location and stayed put for several generations.
Even though various groups of European explorers visited the Baja Peninsula from 1500 A.D. to 1800 A.D., Baja usually functioned as a stopping point on the way to somewhere else, not a destination unto itself.
During the second half of the 20th century Baja gradually started to become a destination of it’s own. People looking for adventure in a natural setting were drawn to Baja and gradually the Peninsula became a great escape for those who wanted to really get away. Those years from the late 1940’s through the early 1970’s were called Baja’s “Golden Years” by Baja author Gene Kira.
As Baja’s popularity increased in the late 1900’s the reasons for going to Baja gradually evolved. Whereas the early Baja travelers were going to Baja to “get away” from it all, an increasing number of visitors started going to Baja to “go somewhere”. Larger towns and tourist attractions were established and offered the conveniences and services necessary to attract a larger number of visitors. The newly completed Transpeninsular Highway and commercial air traffic made travel into Baja an easy endeavor for the common man.
Today the vast majority of people who visit Baja are people who visit this special place to “go somewhere”. Several tourists destinations have evolved and have developed the infrastructure that has allowed Baja to be something as simple as a 3-day getaway, or as elaborate as a second home destination. Most of the people that visit Baja today experience very little of what this magnificent peninsula has to offer.
Even though there is a smaller percentage of visitors who travel to Baja today for true adventure, those who do go to Baja to “get away” are still able to find the empty Peninsula of yesteryear. Spectacular pristine beaches
, empty palm valleys and hundreds of miles of desolate terrain still await those who want to experience some of the best that nature has to offer. This book is about one more person who headed to Baja to “get away” and enjoyed every second of it.
~ Chapter One ~
Los Angeles to San Diego
“Our true age can be determined by the ways in which we allow ourselves to play.”~ Louis Walsh
The day had finally come. After dreaming about this trip for over a year and planning the details for over 4 months, I found myself driving my daughter Tracy to Miraleste Intermediate School on the way to Los Angeles Harbor. After a big hug goodbye and a growing knot in my stomach, I drove down the hill with my wife Leslie to Cabrillo Beach launch ramp at Los Angeles Harbor. Laurie Morrison from The Log newspaper was at the launch ramp waiting to interview me and take photos. John Fields and Dave Berry, close friends and supporters of my adventures, were also waiting to bid me farewell. After hugs and goodbys Leslie was heading off to a meeting, John and Dave had real world appointments, and after an interview and photos Laurie was on her way also. I found myself alone on the dock, loading up the Vaka Viti with supplies and preparing to depart. Alone on the dock it finally hit me. What in the heck did I think I was doing? I was nervous and excited at the same time. After loading the boat and getting ready to untie the dock lines I discovered a problem…the boat would not start. It didn’t even sound close to wanting to start. Talk about all dressed up and no place to go!
Being a first time boat owner it took me a while to figure out that I had flooded the motor. I had been advised by the previous owner of the boat that I had to “pump” the rubber fuel ball before pulling on the starter rope. But I had apparently pumped it too much and the carburetor had more gasoline in it than it could handle. After giving the motor 30 minutes to let the excess gas evaporate, I pulled the rope again and she finally started. After this delay in getting started I could hardly wait get out on the water.
The ocean was calm from the launch ramp to the entrance to Los Angeles Harbor at Angel’s Gate. But from that point on the ocean swells became noticeable, fortunately they were from the north. This was the beginning of the “following seas” that I would experience for the next 1,000 miles all the way south to Cabo San Lucas.
I motored within a few hunder feet of shore to get a feel for the boat. The southern California coastline was sprinkled with million dollar homes separated by open stretches of spectacular beaches. Although I had traveled along this coast many times in my life on Pacific Coast Highway, this new perspective was exciting and beautiful. The sun was coming out from behind the morning viel of fog, the ocean surface was glassy, and seagulls flew overhead. Maybe this wasn’t such a crazy idea after all. This trip might actually be fun!
As I approached the waters off of Camp Pendelton Marine Base I noticed an unusual amount of military activity. President George W. Bush had put the GI wheels in motion to retaliate against the terrorist’s attack of September 11th, and I was headed right through the middle of Operation Enduring Freedom’s war games. Helicopters fluttered in the sky, Humvees and Jeeps cruised along the shore, and military boats and frog men (and probably frog women) dotted the waters like black dots next to their amphibious boats. I wondered if the area I was traversing was off limits. It didn’t seem right for some Yahoo in a panga to be able to zip right through all of this serious warfare. I held my breath, maintained my southbound course about a half mile from shore and just kept on trucking. Within 15 minutes all of the action was behind me and I was closing in on San Diego.
After dodging more kelp beds and lobster traps than I could count I finally entered San Diego Harbor and headed for my first stop on the adventure…the fuel dock at Shelter Island in San Diego. Explaining my destination to the the kid working the fuel dock, he gave me an extra 5 gallon gas can “just to be sure” I had enough fuel to make it between stops down the Baja coast. This was the first of many times that I would be graciously helped by people all along my 2,000 mile excursion. Full of fuel, I tied up the Vaka Viti in a guest
slip in the marine, and walked a mile to the main street to grab a light meal and find a place to sleep. If I wanted to make it to Ensenada tomorrow in time to process my Port of Entry papers before the offices closed I knew I had to get an early start in the morning. By 8:00 p.m. I was sound asleep.
~ Chapter Two ~
San Diego to Ensenada
“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new landscapes but in having new eyes.”~ Marcel Proust
As I approached the guest dock the next morning to boat across the border it was very obvious to me that something was drastically wrong. The Vaka Viti was gone! My heart stopped as I noticed a large U.S. Customs boat where my panga was parked the night before. A quick scan of the docks and I soon discovered my boat, snuggled onto an end slip 25 feet away. Although I was careful the night before not to park in any marked spaces, I must have tied up the ol’ Vaka V. in a slip designated for the Customs folks. Oops.
Motored up and leaving the harbor I noticed two very large Navy ships heading my way, returning from their war games. I thought this would be a good photo opp…my little boat with Elvira (the wigged-out pumpkin) in the foreground with a couple of huge Navy Destroyers at twelve o’clock. The men on board the ships didn’t think my getting close to their ship was such a good idea. As soon as I got within 200 yards of the first ship I looked up on deck and saw the large men in green uniforms pointing their machine guns directly at me! Although this was not the only time on the trip that I would be face to face with Tommy Guns, it was something you never quite get used to. I immediately gave both ships a wide berth and made my southerly direction clear to the men with the machine guns. The aim of their guns followed me until I was headed due south.
I tingled with excitement as I approached the U.S. / Mexican border. A determined metal fence straddled the border down to the ocean where it continued wading well past the low tide line. Border Patrol agents in green trucks on the north side of the fence carefully watched me with their binoculars as I pulled up to the fence for a picture. They made it obvious that I was being watched, and that they were armed. I snapped a couple of shots of the border fence and then backed away from the beach and headed south. It seemed amazing to me that within less than 2 hours I had personal experiences with the U.S. Customs, the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Border Patrol. Not to mention my romp with the U.S. Marines the day before! I couldn’t wait to get to Mexico where it was safe!
The growth of Tijuana starts immediately south of the border fence, in stark contrast to the empty land just north of the border in the United States. Houses, apartments, condos and businesses clog the dusty hills all the way down to the coastline to make “T.J.” the Baja Peninsula’s most populated city. The city’s population has grown significantly since the eighteenth century when Spanish Padres stopped here to eat and sleep at the border in a small inn run by a woman known as “Aunt Jane” (Tia Juana). Now a city of well over a million people, Tijuana serves as a beacon of hope for people in search of a better life from Chiapas to Panama, and everywhere in between. For some of these people Tijuana is the end destination. For others it is a starting place to obtain connections and prepare for the illegal crossing into the United States. Illegal immigrants, tourists, workers and international trade all combine to make this U.S. / Mexico border crossing the busiest in the world. Tijuana, known for the creation of the original Ceasar’s Salad, the notorious Long Bar beer hall, Caliente dog races and infamous donkey shows continues to grow in it’s own unique way.
To my west, just a few miles offshore, were the Coronado Islands. Just barely in Mexican waters, these islands were once a hiding place for pirates and worse. A hotel and casino had been built on South Coronado Island in the early 1900’s, but Mexico made gaming illegal just before it was completed. Since then the Coronados have been the destination of gringo fishermen and Scuba divers who want to strike it rich in the nutrient-filled waters. For me they were helpful in blocking the direct westerly ocean swells, making my passage between them and the shore calm and enjoyable.
Along the coast I spotted several of Baja’s famous landmarks
sitting on the coast. The Rosarito Beach Hotel has hosted millions of guests since it’s opening in 1926 and is still going strong today. I had enjoyed many fun weekends at this hotel over the years and found it quite interesting to see it from this westerly perspective. The Spanish words in the arch over the front door provide a hint of the type of clientele that has flocked to this Baja landmark over the decades. “Through These Doors Pass the Most Beautiful Women in the World”. The movie stars that frequented the hotel in it’s early years have been replaced by yuppies and tourists of all types, but the crowd is always lively and interesting. The hotel is currently run by Hugo Torres Chabert who is the nephew of the hotel’s original owner Manuel Barbachano. Barbachano was a true Baja pioneer and was instrumental in the original growth of this coastal area, including getting electricity and telephone service to the Rosarito Beach area.
Soon after passing the Rosarito Beach Hotel I motored past Fox Studios Baja where James Cameron’s ‘Titanic’ was filmed. I flashed back to the day a few years back when I was driving down the Baja coastal road and was shocked at the sight of an almost full-scale ‘Titanic’ sitting in the 17 million gallon water tank between the highway and the ocean. It was quite a sight! Senior Cameron surprised everyone by putting over 200 million clams into the film, the most money ever spent on a movie. Then he proceeded to break another record by having the film gross over one billion dollars worldwide. You do the math…the movie was a smashing success. The studio is still in use today and tours of the facilities are now available to the public. From the water I could see the various studios and the back lot, now tourist attractions in their own right.
Just south of Fox Studios Baja I hit Calafia, the blufftop location of one of my favorite places to eat nachos, enjoy Mariachi music and drink in the spectacular views of the Baja coast. The restaurant and hotel rise dramatically above the ocean with it’s collection of seaside decks and dining areas. At the bottom of the restaurant sits the model pirate ship ‘Corona Aurora Galleon’ standing guard in the rocks at Punta Descanso. If you are looking for a place to dance on a Saturday night with waves crashing just a few feet away this place can’t be beat. I also hold a special place in my heart for Calafia as the final place to have lunch after the completion of my annual toy drive. For 12 years running we get have gotten 5 vehicles stuffed full of new and used toys, loaded up the kids, and headed into the hills of Tijuana a day or two before Christmas to spread some cheer. It’s been a great way for our kids to experience a different culture, and the local kids always appreciate all of the goodies we deliver. I pulled up close to the coast while watching the rolling waves slap the side of boat, slipped the Vaka V. into neutral and snapped a photo of the seaside restaurant and hillside terraces. Then I motored around the kelp and continued south.
The quaint coastal village of Puerto Nuevo was just a few miles further south. Once a weekend escape for hungry surfers who stopped at Juan and Petra Ortega’s home for a bite to eat, Puerto Nuevo now hosts over 30 restaurants in a small four block village. Just like the old days the specialty of the house is lobster, served up on a big plate with rice, beans, tortillas and salsa. Throw in a cold beer and it’s easy to see why this secret hideaway has become one of northern Baja’s most visited destinations.
Continuing south I noticed a couple of surfers sitting in the water at at local surf spot called K-55. I motored in, slowed down and said ‘hello’. They seemed surprised that I had pulled up to them and asked me where I was going. I said “San Felipe”. They laughed and paddled for the next wave, obviously thinking I was kidding.
Before long I was entering Ensenada harbor and docking up at Juanito’s in the marina near the Fish Market. After criss crossing the town doing the necessary Port Captain/Immigration/
Customs/Marina dance, it started to get dark. Not that it hadto be dark to order a margarita at world famous Hussong’s Cantina, they just tasted better after dark.
Immigrant Juan Hussong opened this famous watering hole in the late 1800’s and little has changed here over the last 100 years. Hussong’s is run today by Richard Hussong Junior, the grandson of founder Juan. I had the good fortune to meet Walter and Charlotte Hussong at an event in San Clemente, and they were happy to share with me some of the history of the family and the bar. The fact that the bar has become hugely famous worldwide is either a testament to the Hussong’s family or of the gringos and locals who just can’t say no to some of the best margaritas on Earth.
As is usually the case it didn’t take long to make new friends in Hussong’s Cantina. Before long everybody was buying everybody else margaritas and beer, the mariachis were playing to the crowd, and my resolve not to drink dissolved into a cloud of new friends and laughter. Photos were taken, drinks were hoisted and cards were exchanged. The fun was non-stop. All to soon I had to leave the party to get some well deserved sleep. Tomorrow morning I was headed to the coastal city of San Quintin where I had a planned gasoline, dinner and motel stop. As it turned out noneof the above were there to greet me when I arrived!
As always there was a Fiesta at Hussong’s.
Walking out of the front door of Hussong’s Cantina and into the chilly evening air reminded me of a another adventure over 15 years ago where Hussong’s played an pivotal part of a formula for disaster. My friend Mike and I had played hooky from work and snuck down to Baja for a fun day of snorkeling and taco sampling. Against the advice of my wife Mike and I drove down in my spanking new 735 BMW, justifying that it needed to be initiated in the Baja. We had a great day along the coast and decided to round out our adventure at Hussong’s before heading back to the border. After having more fun than we should have had in the famous Cantina (and being over-served by the friendly waiters) we finally walked out of the notorious green doors at about midnight. We were parked across the street from Hussong’s and made the mistake of making a U-turn right in the middle of the street. Within seconds we were pulled over and negotiating with the Mexican police. The officer’s words were almost as numbing as the tequila…”you are going to jail”. It was hard to convince him that these two yuppies driving a shiny new car only had $18 between them, but it was true. Soon we were on our way up the coast, totally broke but happy to be headed home.
As we headed north along the toll road I miscalculated a sweeping right turn in the highway just north of Baja Mar and slammed the left side of the car into the guard rail. I hate it when that happens. The hard impact flattened the two left tires and made a significant change in the sheet metal on the port side of the vehicle. Shaken but not stirred, and not wanting to leave the car parked in the middle of nowhere, we continued driving north hoping to make it to the next off ramp at La Salina, several miles up the coast. Eventually the two left side flat tires worked their way off of the rims and now we were trucking down the highway at 15 miles per hour with the rims in direct contact with the road surface. “Think we should stop?” I asked Mike. “Naw, we can make it” he responded. Never was there a better example of the blind leading the blind. Sparks began to fly as the rims heated up but we still moved forward optimistic that we could make it to La Salina. We were within 100 feet of the off ramp when the sparks from the front left wheel ignited something in the engine compartment. Flames were starting to lick up through the hood and I knew we had to stop and get out…quick.
I pulled the car off to the side of the road and jumped out, hoping to throw some sand on the fire and put it out before things got out of control (thinking back, I guess I had reached thatpoint about a half hour earlier). Mike also got out of the car, on the passenger side, not knowing we had stopped the car right on the La Salina overpass. He stepped out of the car and fell into 20 feet of dead air before smashing into the road down below. I freaked out when I saw him go over the edge of the overpass and immediately ran down the embankment to find him. Expecting the worst, I was relieved to see he was still alive, although the pool of blood he was laying in was a bit disconcerting. As I sat with him I started to hear the succession of noises my car was making as it started to burn up above us. There were more noises that one might expect. In addition to the crackling of the flames, the airbags inflated and popped, the windows exploded, and the horn went off. This orchestra was accompanied by the car alarm going off, the two right tires popping from the extreme heat and the gas tank exploding like a bomb. It was really quite a show.
By the time I had gotten back up to the road the car was fully engulfed in bright flames, shooting up over 40 feet into the late night sky. Half-dressed residents and ranchers started appearing and asking if they could help, and one of them called an ambulance for Mike. After a brief discussion with the police I jumped in the ambulance with Mike and headed south back to the hospital in Ensenada. I could see the car was still
burning strong as I looked out of the back windows of the ambulance.
The short version of the rest of this story is that we ended up at home late the next day, Mike with a busted wrist and me with a piece of melted metal as a souvenir of my brand new car. The long version involves more meetings with the police, sneaking a rental car from San Diego back to Ensenada (and getting caught), and a couple of tough phone calls to my wife and my insurance agent. All’s well that end’s well, but the excitement along the way is something I will never forget. Compared to that unforgetable experience this boat trip should be a piece of cake. Famous last words.
~ Chapter Three ~
Ensenda to San Quintin
“The great thing in this world is not so much where we are, but in what direction we are moving.”~ Oliver Wendell Holmes
The hotel I stayed in was on Ensenada’s main tourist street, Avenida Lopez Mateos, just a block from the marina. As I walked down the ramp at Juanito’s I noticed something very important was missing. The Vaka Viti was gone… again. I hate it when that happens! Sitting on the end slip where I had parked my panga was a large cruiser which had come in sometime during the night. To make room for the larger boat somebody had moved the Vaka to another slip on the other side of the dock. Both nights my boat had been moved despite the fact that I had removed the clip that initiates the motor’s kill switch. So much for security.
I was so caught up with finding the boat that I hadn’t noticed the fog out at sea. Pea soup…the thick version. Hoping it might burn off by the time I hit the harbor entrance I prepared the boat, started the motor and slowly slid south. My goal was to hit the huge natural bay of San Quintin in the early afternoon at high tide, as the harbor there was too shallow to navigate at lower tides. The fog was still thick as I reached the harbor entrance…I couldn’t see 50 feet. There was no way I could safely enter the open ocean. Discouraged but hopeful of a quick burn off, I tucked back in the harbor looking for a place to kill time while the fog dissipated. Looking for something to tie up to in the harbor I found the perfect object…the SS Catalina!
The SS Catalina had led a long and productive life shuttling people from LA Harbor to Catalina Island in California for many decades. With the advent of faster boats she was put out to pasture, and after sleeping in LA harbor for many years, she ended up at anchor in Ensenada Harbor. Years of sitting in the water had taken their toll, and she finally began taking on water. Now her hull rests on the bottom of the harbor, listing to one side. A banner proclaiming restoration is proudly displayed on her bow. But the old girl is in very bad shape, and as much of an optimist as I am I’m quite certain that this beauty will never float again. But she proved to be a great place to tie up wait out the fog. It was an honor to share the water with her!
Carlos Fiesta tied up to the SS Catalina waiting for the fog to burn off.
After an hour the fog thinned out enough for me to leave the harbor and follow the coast. The visibility continued to improve until I hit Punta Banda, a rocky point southwest of town. Visibility again dropped to near zero, but it looked patchy ahead as I approached the famous blow hole “La Bufadora”. La Buf was performing well this morning and I stopped to take a photo of her large sea spray when the ocean swells filled the narrow crevace in the rocks. Indeed, after negotiating the worst of the rocks and reefs in thick fog the sky opened up and the moist air disappeared. I was now leaving the more populated Baja and heading into the wild. Time to take out my main navigation chart…a tattered 1996 version of the Auto Club Map. Don’t laugh, it got me all the way around the Peninsula and up into the Colorado River!
The main agenda today was lobster traps, dolphins, kelp beds and fish camps. It was a beautiful run and I made it to the entrance of San Quintin in time to catch a beautiful sunset.
The tide was indeed dropping and twice my prop grazed the sea-grass bottom as I slowly headed up into the 8 mile bay. Within 20 minutes I had reached my destination, the panga pier at the Old Mill Resort. Tying up the boat and untying the gas cans I could not wait to get fueled up for a morning departure. But as I approached the Old Mill I walked into a strange silence. The fishing shop where I had called last month arranged to arrange gas, the restaurant where I had planned to eat, and the bar I had planned to sip a cold beer…all were closed down and vacant. I thought to myself…”welcome to Mexico”!
I walked down the dirt streets looking for a back up plan to get gasoline. Tiberon’s Pangas was located just down the dirt street from the Old Mill, and after offering me a cold Pacifico, the owner agreed to have his friend drive me to the nearest Pemex gas station in town. I put my 5 gallons gas cans in the back of his truck and we headed east down the bumpy dirt road. In broken Spanish I informed my new friend that I was taking my panga down to Cabo San Lucas and then up the Sea of Cortez past San Felipe. He asked me in broken English if I was aware of the dangerous Sacramanto Reef down the coast from San Quintin. I mentioned that I was aware of the reef, and of the many ships from previous centuries that had hit the huge reef and lost their loads of gold.
He seemed silent for a second and then he asked me what I knew about the gold lost in the reefs. I had obviously touched onto a subject that was of special interest to him. As we continued to bounce down the road he realized that I was no threat to whatever interest he had in the hidden gold. He confided with me that he had a friend who was currently searching the reef for lost booty and had been somewhat successful. His friend had found many gold coins a few years ago, but then had lost the exact location and had been searching for it again ever since.
I put 10 liters of gas in his truck to thank him for his efforts, gave him $3 cash to buy himself a beer, and we headed back towards the sea. The conversation changed from gold coins in the water to the easy money some of his friends were making on Unemployment Insurance payments up in Los Angeles. The more he talked the more I was convinced that the unemployment system back home may still need a little tweaking.
Back at the coast I thanked him and headed for the boat to set up my sleeping bag. As I got comfortable in the boat it finally hit me…I hadn’t eaten all day. No worries…I wasn’t really that hungry. I soon fell asleep to the sound of anchovies jumping in the water next to my boat.
One particularly defiant anchovy kept trying to get into the boat. I kept hearing him slap his 6 inch body against the hull of the boat. I could not figure out why he wanted to get inside the boat so badly. It was two days later when I discovered his stiff torso behind the tool box. Apparently he tried his best to get outof the boat all night
before he wound up in fish heaven. As the Skipper always said to Gilligan…”sorry little buddy”.
~ Chapter Four ~
San Quintin to Santa Rosalillita
“Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we oft might win by fearing to attempt.”~ William Shakespeare
Despite the noise made all night by the renegade anchovy, I slept well and was up at dawn to take advantage of the high tide to leave the shallow bay. Fortunately another fishing panga was leaving the other Old Mill pier at the same time, and I was able to follow in his wake to stay in the deepest part of the bay to get to the entrance. I could use all the luck I could muster up today because I already had a lot of work cut out for me. Today was going to be the longest leg of my entire trip…over 150 miles. That may not seem like a long distance but running at 18 miles per hour it becomes an all day trek.
My destination for the day was Santa Rosalillita, a large and beautiful natural harbor where the Mexican government had big ideas. In addition to planning this bay as one of the main supply stops for gringo boaters traveling the planned Nautical Ladder, Santa Rosalillita held the distinction of being the west port of the 86 mile “land bridge” that Mexico had on the drawing boards to truck yachts from the Pacific Ocean to the Sea of Cortez. But to me this small seaside fishing village held only one special distinction…it was the only place for 250 miles where I could get gasoline for the Vaka Viti.
The size of the swells increased as I headed south. They averaged about 4 feet in height, about twice as high as I had experienced since I left Los Angeles. But the wind was down, the sun came out and the ocean surface was smooth so I was loving life. After a serious tag with a lobster trap float and a few tangles with kelp I hit glassy waters and sunny skies. Miles of empty beaches lined the coast until I closed in on Punta Baja. I had visited this rocky fish camp before, delivering clothing and toys to the local people. As much as I wanted to stop and say hello again to these warm people I knew that I had to make good time getting to my next gas stop before dark.
In planning for the trip I continually read about the infamous Sacramento Reef south of Punta Baja. This 2 mile long and 2 mile wide reef had claimed more than its fair share of boats over the last 3 centuries, and I was determined that it would not be nibbling on the bottom of my little panga. Charts showed the safest path as being over 5 miles off shore, or taking a narrow channel between the beach and the reef for those daring souls who wanted to challenge the thick kelp beds. By this time I was a master of dodging kelp so I chose the inside passage. I passed the huge reef with no problem and continued heading south.
Around noon I noticed a huge tanker grounded on the shore. From the looks of the rusted hull it had probably been there for some time. South of the tanker the coastline transitioned from sand to low cliffs. Centuries of waves had cut a variety of caves into these cliffs of many different sizes and shapes, making the view along this long run extremely interesting. During the previous days of cruising I had seen twice as many dolphins as seals. Today the tide had turned (pun intended) and the seals were dominating the water all day long. However the one encounter I did have with dolphins this day was one of the best memories I have of the entire trip.
People love to talk about dolphins and to debate their intelligence. Beyond being just plain cute they do seem to harbor a level of gray matter not usually found in the animal kingdom. And the more I watched these wonderful mammals dance along the sides of my boat the more interested I became. And then they just plain blew me away. With 2 dolphins escorting me on each side of the boat I could see the competition heating up. One dolphin would jump out of the water just a little higher that his buddy and then visa versa. Finally the most ambitious dolphin decided it was time to Go for the Gold. Without fanfare he (or she…I haven’t yet figured out how to tell the difference yet) jumped out of the water from the left side of the boat and flewdirectly over the front of
my boat. He was literally over the interiorof the Vaka Viti about 8 feet in front of my face! Keep in mind that I was traveling at 18 to 20 miles per hour and that his timing had to be impeccableto perform this stunt without error. As he crossed over the boat at eye level he flopped his tail to splash water on my face and then in an instant this mischievous prankster dipped back in the ocean on the otherside of the boat! I laughed spontaneously at this impromptu extravaganza and almost could not believe what I had seen. As if to say the show is over (and we know who won the contest) the four dolphins turned around and swam away. It was an instant in time I will never forget as long as I live.
The two bays just north of Rosalillita were extremely protected and beautiful. The perfect place for a solo kayaker to set up camp and enjoy the Baja sun. I waved as I passed him and he smiled and waved back. I envied his free time and lack of a destination. Still I was excited about my adventure and soon I rounded the last point before Santa Rosalillita.
In the late afternoon I noticed a solo man walking northward along the beach totally naked. It seemed to be an odd place to see someone because there were no roads nearby and no development of any kind. His pace was slow but determined and then he stopped. He appeared to be looking at me. And then he continued walking, and I kept motoring.
As the sun slowly snuck up on the horizon I entered the natural harbor and headed towards the protected north west corner. I threw out my anchor and pulled out my sleeping mat and bag. I was exhausted. And I was very happy to have made it this far with no problems. There were a billion stars in the sky and the trip started to take on a new feeling. The feeling of nature. It was a very fulfilling way to fall asleep.
~ Chapter Five ~
Santa Rosalillita to Bahia Tortugas
“Here the people seem to possess the secret of tranquility…perhaps it is only by going up the old back roads leading to the lost little hamlets of the mountains or the seagirt islands and peninsulas of the world that you can still find it. Perhaps even in such places it has not long to last.”~ Luise Dickinson Rich
Sometime early in the morning before the sun had come up I awoke to the sound of the boat bouncing off of the sandy bottom. Although I had allowed for a dropping tide when I set the anchors the night before, I had not allowed for such an extreme drop. I crawled out of my sleeping bag, waded over to the anchors to pull them free from the sand, then started the motor to head for deeper water. Again I anchored the boat and tightened the lines, this time in 10 feet of water, and then slipped back into my still-warm sleeping bag.
Even though yesterday’s run from San Quintin to Santa Rosalillita was my longest, I anticipated today’s run as the scariest. Today I had to navigate the entire western “hook” of Baja, known for extreme fog, huge shoals and unpredictable wind and waves. And because of the low lying geography I would have few landmarks to check my progress. The good news was that, once I rounded Punta Eugenia at the tip, it would be all downhill to Cabo! Calmer seas, warmer water, less fog and hot days all waited for me around the point. These perks were enough to give me the incentive I needed to get up at 7:00 a.m. and walk to the village in search of gasoline.
Walking towards the main beach where about two dozen pangas were at rest I asked a lone fisherman where I might purchase some gas. He pointed to a yellow house about 100 yards back from the beach with a woman sweeping the front porch. Grabbing my 5 gas containers I walked up to her and asked if she had any gas for sale. She pointed to a large 55 gallon drum and said “Si…mucho”. Before long I found myself sticking one end of a plastic hose in the large drum and the other end in my mouth. Sucking hard to get the flow going, I knew that there was no way to avoid getting a mouth full of gas before putting the flowing tube into my gas cans. It didn’t taste nearly as bad as I thought it would. Unleaded gasoline for breakfast, what a way to start the day! Within 20 minutes I was full of gas (and so were the gas cans!) and ready to rock and roll.
I was pleased that there was no fog on the horizon and that the winds were calm. The glassy seas enticed me to stray a bit from shore in an effort to take a little short-cut across the bay and towards the entrance of Scammon’s Lagoon. Although the lagoon would be full of hundreds of California Gray Whales within two months I knew I wouldn’t be seeing any of the big fellas today. My goal was to get past the 2 main entrances of the huge lagoon without getting stuck on the large sandbars that extend almost 2 miles out to sea from the mouths of the lagoon. These shoals of sand were wide and the ocean surface over them was very choppy…and shallow. I did my best to stay outside of the green water which warned me that sand was just a few feet below my prop. Getting stuck here would be a disaster.
After carefully maneuvering past both shoals I angled back closer to the beach to catch a glimpse of the coastline and the never-ending sand dunes. This was the beginning of Malarrimo Beach where all of the jetsam and flotsam riding the Pacific Ocean currents ends up on shore. Items from all over the world land here after bobbing down the Pacific coast and it was a scavenger hunter’s ultimate dream. I motored close to shore to see if was possible to hop out for a look at the goods, but the waves were too big and the risk of getting stuck was just not worth it. I made a mental note to come back in the future with a 4 wheel drive vehicle to look for treasures. Within a few miles my fears of getting stuck were confirmed…a huge freighter was grounded sideways ahead, half in the water and half permanently stuck in the sand.
The coast gradually transitioned from sand dunes to low lying cliffs. After 3 hours of
not seeing another living thing I finally began seeing fish camps again. The air was still very clear and way off in the distance I could see Isla Natividad, an island just off the tip of Punta Eugenia. It would take me over two hours to get to that point, but when I did get there a feeling of euphoria came over me like I had never experienced before. I guess deep down inside I knew that getting past this point was a major landmark in my big adventure, and rounding the point put me in a fantastic upbeat mood. As I passed the point the ocean surface became lake-like and the following seas pushed me for the next 8 miles to the entrance to Bahia Tortugas. I felt like the luckiest guy in the world and became re-energized for the balance of the trip to Cabo!
After a brief rearranging of pangas with a fisherman at the base of the pier, I tied up the Vaka V. and tried to figure out how to get up the death-trap ladder to reach the top of the pier. The rungs on the metal ladder were old and rusted and once on top there was a huge wooden beam preventing a smooth transition from the ladder to the dock itself. Fortunately a bevy of local kids accompanied by the local town drunk came out to greet me, and one by one they caught my empty plastic gas cans as I threw them from the boat to the top deck of the pier. And then they noticed the tennis balls that I had brought along for gifts on the front deck of the boat. You’d think these kids had never seen a tennis ball before! I had passed up one for each boy but kids know no limits. “Mas…mas!” they shouted with big smiles. Who could resist! I think each kid ended up with 3 or 4 tennis balls and a few of the fly swatters I had brought along as well.
I hiked to the Pemex station to fill my cans with gas and I was not surprised that it was out of gasoline and closed. A young man in a beat-to-death truck offered me a ride to another place just outside town that sold gas, just a soon as he put air in his right rear tire. The tire bead had come off of the rim so we wiggled and waggled the tire until the bead set, filled it with air, and off we went. By the time we got to the gas stop the tire was flat again.
I put 10 liters of gas in his truck to thank him for his help, he filled his tire with air again, and off we went back to the pier. I wondered how many times each day this kid had to put air in his tire! I gave him a couple of dollars for a cold beer, thanked him and off I went. Soon I had my full gas cans in place on the bow of the boat, and I was ready for my first meal of the day.
I noticed a hamburger cart next to a small grocery store on a dusty side street. After buying a pack of cookies to snack on for the trip, I ordered up what was probably the best hamburger this side of Todos Santos. The monster burger patty was dressed in fresh guacamole, catsup and mustard, mayonnaise, onions, jalapenos and who knows what else. Partnered with an ice cold Coke…I seemed at one with the Universe. Only one thing could make this night any better…a hot shower. Was I asking too much?
The small but clean Hotel Morraco offered 5 upstairs rooms at $120 pesos each. At $14 U.S. it was a no-brainer…I would have paid that much just for a shower! It felt great to lay on a bed again, and I barely planned the next leg of my voyage to Punta Abreojos before falling asleep.
~ Chapter Six ~
Bahia Tortugas to Punta Abreojos
“The sun, the hero of everyday, the impersonal old man that beams as brightly on death as on birth, came up every morning.”~ Zora Neale Hurston
I left all of the drapes open in the room to let the early morning light wake me up at the break of dawn. If I would have known about all of the roosters in town I could have left the drapes closed. I took a heavenly shower, put on my cleanest dirty clothes, and strapped on my backpack. I slowly headed downhill to the pier where the Vaka Viti was quietly sleeping next to another panga. I carefully climbed down the rusty ladder and pulled in the boat with the damp tie down line. After securing the deck I started the motor and slowly headed out to sea. I was looking forward to visiting a Baja location that I have eyed on the map for many years…Punta Abreojos. Abreojos was known in Baja circles as a fun destination for surfers and windsurfers, and for those who just wanted to get away from it all. And it had a small fleet of fishing pangas, which meant it was a designated gas stop for my thirsty panga!
The Gods had provided another great day for cruising. The sun was out, the seas were only about two feet, and there was only a slight wind. I was beginning to realize what great weather I had experienced on this trip so far, and how fortunate I was not to have to fight big waves, strong winds and foggy seas. I would have done the trip in whatever type of weather I was dealt with, but having nice weather made the voyage much more enjoyable.
South of Tortugas the mountains were high and dramatic, leaving no room for beaches as they reached down to rub elbows with the ocean. About an hour south of Tortugas I spotted an extremely picturesque fishing village snug in a steep valley at the base of a hill. Unlike most fish camps this remote pueblo called Puerto Nuevo seemed to offer a sense of community, and I could see a small church behind the small houses. I thought how simple life must be in a little village so far removed from civilization! They probably had a generator for lights and television, but the desolate location put them very much in touch with life’s basics, nature and the sea. Another great destination for a future road trip!
Empty beaches on the Pacific Coast of Baja
The coastline south continued to be inaccessible, although occasionally beaches appeared between the low lying bluffs. I knew that behind these bluffs there were hundreds of square miles of Baja’s most stark desert, the Vizciano. This was the type of desert terrain that epitomizes many of the deserts in southwestern North America…never-ending miles of sand and barren desert. The main town connecting this desolate area to the rest of the world was the small town of Vizciano, slung haphazardly along Highway One like an afterthought. And one of my most memorable Peninsula moments just happened to take shape on the outskirts of town of town about 7 years earlier.
I was making my way to San Juanico Bay via Baja Highway One in a smokey 3/4 ton stake-bed truck. My buddy John Rellos had just finished building a house in San Juanico and I had volunteered to take a load full of furniture to the new residence, affectionately know as Casa Volando. John provided me with the truck, gas and cervesa money and his trusted employee Estaban to share the driving. Just south of Vizciano we noticed what appeared to be a mirage standing next to the blazing hot asphalt. But it was no mirage…it was Sylvia. There she stood proud as a peacock in red high heals, a low cut red blouse, bright red lips and a full head of hair blowing in the dry desert wind. And her thumb was out. I knew there was an adventure here and I just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to pick her up.
I had picked up hitch-hikers many times before in Baja and always enjoyed giving a lift to an amigo or amiga in need. That was the Baja way. I had even picked up working ladies before with amusing consequences. But Sylvia was no regular working lady. Indeed, as Estaban jumped in the back seat and Sylvia crawled into the front seat, it took about two seconds for me to figure out that Sylvia was a man. And a fairly good-sized man at that. She gently shook my hand with her island-sized paw and smiled flirtingly at Estaban in the back seat. Estaban didn’t know what to think and quite frankly neither did I. She was already in the truck and we were committed. So off we went down Highway One looking a lot like the three stooges.
Sylvia was a chatter box and made it clear from the git-go that she was working. She said she worked the Highway, mainly truckers, and was headed south to San Ignacio for a job she had lined up. She said she would be happy to make some money while she was going down (no pun intended). Even though we weren’t looking to buy I always enjoyed window shopping so I asked Sylvia how much she charged for her services. She quoted a price in pesos that calculated out to be about $8.00 U.S. Estaban and I looked at each other and nodded in agreement that Sylvia seemed to have her services competitively priced. But I wanted her to understand that we were just giving her a ride and that her favors would have to wait for her client in San Ignacio. She seemed to take the news in stride…I’m sure it wasn’t the first time her services had been declined, it just goes with the job. After another hour of talking we dropped her off at the gas station in San Ignacio and she was on her way. I can no longer drive through Visciano without thinking about the road-side mirage that turned out to be Sylvia.
As I motored the Vaka Viti south the beaches soon became more prevalent. I knew I was closing in on Abreojos. I rounded the final point and the bay and the small village of Abreojos came into view. It was easy to spot my best chance for gasoline…a row of pangas lined the beach mid-town with fishermen behind the boats getting their lines ready for the next morning. Not wanting to get in their way I slowly motored a bit northwest of the boats, heading towards a calm beach which was protected by a small reef. Once past the reef I decided to drop anchor about 20 feet from shore and then walk with my gas containers in waist high water to shore. But before I reached the area where I wanted to stop I heard a high pitched whistle from
a fisherman on shore. He was trying to warn me of a second reef that was submerged behind the first reef. Too late. As I spotted the second reef I immediately tried to throw the motor in reverse, but the forward momentum of the boat pushed it directly into the reef and the sound of my prop hitting it made me cringe. After negotiating 600 miles of open coastline with dozens of jagged reefs I finally hit my prop on a rock 20 feet from shore while trying to park!
The boat finally started it’s reverse motion and I quickly whipped the steering to the left to avoid hitting the reef a second time as I backed out. Luck was with me as I slipped into deeper water to catch my breath. Maybe pulling up on the main panga beach wasn’t such a bad idea after all. I could always motor the Vaka further from shore afterI filled up with gas. A quick inspection of the prop revealed only minor damage and even though I had brought along a spare prop I felt very relieved that I would not have to use it…yet.
Gasoline was easy to find just a block up the beach and a block back from the shore. The old man who sold the gas kept large drums in a shed next to his house, and he seemed particularly happy to fill up my 4 empty containers. Maybe it was his birthday. Soon I had my gas cans back on the boat and then I headed back to shore to find a place to eat. I was getting quite used to this one-meal-a-day routine.
As my wet feet hit the main dirt street I saw a newer white Ford pick-up slowly headed my way. I had been to Mexico enough times to know that this was no Mexican vehicle, and that the Gringo driver could probably steer me towards a good place to tie on a tasty feed bag. I had no reservations about walking up and talking to the driver as it is common practice in Baja to stop and chat with fellow travelers. He seemed happy to help out a fellow norte-Americano and directed me to a small restaurant up the street that he highly recommended. As his pretty blonde girlfriend looked on he mentioned that he was building a house just south of town and that he had been coming to Abreojos for several years to surf and enjoy the quiet life. If he wanted to ‘drop out’ of society he certainly found the right place to do it. I thanked him for his time and headed up the street towards the restaurant he recommended.
No surprise…the restaurant was closed. As were the other two restaurants in town that were recommended by the local people. Although I was enjoying the view trotting around town looking for a bite to eat it was starting to get dark and I wanted to get back on the boat before it got too late. I finally found another restaurant with two tables and 5 chairs on a side street and they were open and ready to serve. After a home-made Mexican meal I felt great and trucked on back to the boat. The tide had come in during my quest for food and I had to swim the last 20 feet to the boat with my backpack balanced on my head. But the air was still warm and the air was still so I didn’t worry about getting wet before going to sleep. I made my bed, put on a pair of dry Levi’s and a sweatshirt and went to sleep knowing that tomorrow I would be seeing old friends in the beautiful bay of San Juanico 90 miles to the south.
~ Chapter Seven ~
Punta Abreojos to San Juanico
“Happiness is not a matter of events, it depends upon the tides of the mind.”~ Alice Meynell
I initially discovered the village of San Juanico in much the same way I first discovered Cabo San Lucas. In the 1970’s I became drawn to Cabo on a map of Baja, the point of land at very tip of the dramatic Baja Peninsula. It looked like it had many of the qualities a Baja aficionado and waterman might enjoy, and Cabo turned out to be everything I thought it would be…and more. The Cape soon became a frequent destination for me, although it has grown immensely since I first swam in her waters.
In 1995, after 20 years of exploring Baja I again spotted a place on the map that seemed unique and well suited for the likes of me. I talked a few friends into making the road trip south, and we arrived at Punta Pequena at about midnight after a 2 day trek. Not knowing where exactly we were when we hit town, we just set up our sleeping bags on the bluffs at the base of the navigation light and fell asleep listening to classical music under the stars. We woke up the next morning to discover one of the most beautiful natural bays in Baja, and a new love affair started that has continued to this day.
So I was very excited when I woke up in Punta Abreojos and prepared to head south to San Juanico. Nobody sleeps in very late in a Baja fishing village, and as soon as the sun came up the Abreojos pangeros were prepping their boats, nets and traps for a new day on the ocean. Because I was anchored just offshore the activity woke me up just as efficiently as the roosters in Bahia Tortugas. I went through my morning routine of checking my map, putting on my life vest and wrapping the leash line that was attached to the motor’s kill switch around my ankle. If I ever did fall overboard I didn’t want the boat to go too far without me.
Just a few miles south of the village the northern mouth of Laguna Ignacio came into view. This was another huge shallow lagoon where the California Gray Whales visits each year to mate, give birth and watch the tourists watch them. My experience with the last two lagoon entrances at Scammon’s taught me that I needed to keep an eye out for the light green and choppy waters that marked the sandy shoals of the lagoons entrances. Soon enough I spotted the white water dead ahead, and made a gradual turn to the west to motor around the shoal.
Most of the whale sightseeing activity in this lagoon takes place on the calm east side of the lagoon, a good 10 miles inland from the ocean. It has been repeatedly confirmed that the whales in this lagoon are friendlier than those of Scammon’s Lagoon and Magdalena Bay, and that whale “petting” is common here. Seems that whales are showing a level of smarts not unlike that of dolphins. Maybe this higher level of intelligence is a trademark of mammals in general (aside from a few humans).
Passing the lagoon I took inventory of today’s weather…sunny, warm and calm seas. The water temperature had increased to 73 degrees and would continue to rise to 86 degrees when I got to Cabo. I safely negotiated the second entrance shoal for Laguna Ignacio at the south end and began a long coastal run that consisted of dozens of miles of completely empty beaches. I had flown over this stretch of coast in a private airplane years ago and even from the air at 120 miles per hour the beaches seemed to stretch on forever.
Today was another day of dolphins and seals, but many more than I had been used to seeing. In a short 10 mile run I passed over 100 dolphins and at least 20 seals. Where the dolphins usually seemed to enjoy a little play time when the Vaka V. skidded past, the seals would inevitably freak out and frantically take a dive as soon as they realized I was upon them.
The beaches finally gave way to low lying bluffs and then eventually to the huge dark cliffs of Punta Santo Domingo. Even though I was 200 yards from shore and the water was at least 30 feet deep I could see the bottom as clear as if I were in 3 feet of water. This was probably the clearest water I had seen on the
Pacific coast so far and I got excited about the snorkeling options that were ahead of me.
Soon I rounded the first of the seven main points that make up Punta Pequena, the headlands of San Juanico, also known as Scorpion Bay. I had surfed most of these seven points over the years but the more I rounded the point the more it became obvious that I wouldn’t be surfing this trip. The water was like a lake…a surfer’s worst nightmare but a panga man’s best dream. I was bummed that I wouldn’t be surfing during my stay in San Juanico but very happy to have the calm seas that have made the trip so enjoyable so far.
I pulled up to Juan y Juan beach, a small beach with low lying bluffs and a trail to the top. Above this beach was an oceanfront lot owned by my friend John Fields, which he was planning to put a house on someday soon. This seemed to be the best place for me to walk my gas cans two blocks up to Camacho’s place to get gas. I had bought gas from Camacho many times in the past for cars and trucks while in town during surfing adventures, but Camacho was sure to wonder what the heck I was doing walking up to his gasoline depot with 4 empty plastic containers and a 10 day old beard! I told him my story, he told me I was crazy, and he filled up my tanks. He even gave me a ride back down to the beach so I could unload the cans right in front of the boat.
The Juan y Juan weather station in San Juanico.
Loaded with gas and set up for a departure in the morning I was free to hang out in San Juanico and play. The sun was hot and a slight breeze made it a perfect day to just piddle around town. Another buddy John Rellos had given me the combination to the lock on his house three blocks back from the beach and I thought a shower might be a good idea before I started looking for some of the friends I knew who lived in this sleepy village. I brought some of my dirty tee-shirts and shorts from the boat for a mini-laundry detail as well. After a refreshing shower I rinsed out the clothes with fresh water and hung them on the wall to dry. Soap? We don’t need no stinking soap!
About mid-laundry my buddy Jamie Adkins pulled up in his truck and greeted me with a big wave. “I heard you were headed this way in a panga, but I never thought you would make it this far” he said with a huge smile. “You owe me a shot of tequila!” I responded. We agreed to meet later on at his house on the point after he finished working. I was now on a quest for food and I knew right where to go.
Eight years ago Jaime had built the Scorpion Bay Cantina. It was a slice of civilization in an otherwise uncivilized place. Sitting on a slight hill overlooking the ocean the Cantina offered hot food, cold drinks, and a cast of characters right out of the Star Wars bar scene. People who dropped out of society for a week or a year and landed in San Juanico usually ended up in the Scorpion Bay Cantina. Luxuries such as flush toilets and taped music were always appreciated by guests, but the hot tip for hungry hombres was their delicious cheeseburgers and fries. This place offered the Cheeseburger in Paradise that Jimmy Buffet sings about. Washed down with a cold Pacifico cervesa it was not unlike dying and going straight to heaven!
Laurie and Dave who run the Cantina had also heard about my boating stunt and were surprised I was running the boat solo. I couldn’t imagine doing it any other way. As I sat waiting for my burger I thought about all of the crazy times I had experienced in the Cantina over the last few years.
How could I ever forget the night a Big Mac-sized tarantula walked across the floor of the Cantina heading for my foot while I enjoyed a seafood dinner. One of the Cantina employees decided to rid the restaurant of this furry pest and lit him on fire with a match. In addition to this being a horribly cruel way to eliminate an unwanted visitor there is nothing quite like the smell of a burning tarantula to ruin your appetite.
Another night while enjoying a cold margarita a huge scorpion pranced in from the dirt parking lot and proceeded to entertain the guests. He was a monster and put up a good fight but was eventually ejected from the Cantina back into the wild outdoor evening. There had been many other visitors to the Cantina over the years including bats, centipedes and huge spiders. So it was always interesting pulling up a plate at the Cantina. I enjoyed today’s meal with no interruptions and after paying the bill decided to take a walk back into town.
I decided to grab some oil for the boat and cookies for me from Patty’s Market. I headed back to pick up my laundry, which was now dry and ready, if not just a bit hard. Fully loaded I took my backpack, a bucket of laundry, 4 cans of oil and a package of Vanilla Wafers back to the Vaca V. And then it was back to town to track down Jaime for that shot of tequila. One shot turned into two and then three, while Jamie consumed an inappropriate share of Rum and Coke. We told each other lies until about 10:00 p.m. and then I staggered on the pitch black coastal path back to the boat to sleep on the sandy beach. Picking a spot just above the high tide line I fell asleep immediately.
~ Chapter Eight ~
San Juanico to Bahia Magdalena
“Adventure is something you seek for pleasure…but experience is what really happens to you in the long run, the truth that finally overtakes you.”~ Katherine Anne Porter
Awake at the break of dawn I noticed that the tide had risen quite a bit from where it was when I went to sleep the night before. The water lapped about 15 feet from my feet and provided the incentive I needed to get up off the beach and to take on the day. I had accidentally left my fifth gasoline can at Camacho’s the day before and knew I had to make one more walk into town before I could shove off.
Camacho asked me if I had seen my buddy Greg this morning…a friend I often surf with in Scorpion Bay. I said I didn’t even know he was in town! Camacho said that he ran into Greg earlier that morning as he was getting gas for his rental car, before heading back to Loreto airport 180 miles away. He had informed Greg that I was in town and that I had arrived by panga. Not knowing that I had this adventure planned, Greg probably thought Camacho was talking about some other Carlos, and left San Juanico before I had a chance to track him down. This was definitely my loss because Greg Stanton is, without question, the funniest human being on the planet Earth. I realized that if I had called Greg before I left Los Angeles we could have planned a rendezvous.
I swam out to the boat, got things organized, and started motoring along the empty sand beaches south of San Juanico. Today’s destination and gas stop was tentatively planned for the seaside town of Puerto Lopez Mateos, tucked inside the northern end of Magdalena Bay. I was pretty sure I could get gas at the fish camp on the south end of town, if I could get in the bay entrance past the shoals.
As I motored past the first of two entrances to Mag Bay prior to reaching Lopes Mateos I noticed that the shoals at the mouth of this first entry point were to choppy and shallow and would not accommodate any boat traffic in or out. I only hoped the next two entrances would be deeper and more accommodating. They were not.
The second entrance to Mag Bay looked just an ominous as the first. Shallow choppy water the entire width of the shoal with no deep channel to enter the bay. I began to realize the likelihood that the next entrance to the bay, which was my planned fuel stop, would also be inaccessible. But I needed gas and I did not know if I had enough fuel to make it to San Carlos, another 100 miles south.
I continued traveling south, hoping that the shoal directly west of Lopez Mateos would be navigable. My heart sank as I approached this final entrance to northern Mag Bay. If anything this entrance to the Bay was even worse than the last two with very choppy waters lapping over a very shallow sand reef. There was no way I could get my boat through the pass to get in for gas. Time for Plan B. The problem with Plan B is that I didn’t have one. I would have to create it…and fast.
Heading south along the shore I realized that Santa Maria Bay was my next logical port. It was a large protected bay and well known as a good place to drop the hook on the way up or down the Baja coast. There was a couple of options for gasoline there, a destination surf resort at Punta Hughes and a fish camp tucked into an estuary at the northeast end of Santa Maria Bay. Worst case I could always head into San Carlos, another 20 miles further.
There were dozens of miles of completely empty beaches between the Lopez Mateos area and Santa Maria Bay. The weather was typical Baja…warm and clear. The swells had dropped off and the water was as glassy as a lake. The ocean temperature was now approaching 80 degrees. Twice I saw large turtles floating near the surface and twice they dove under as I approached. Even though these guys are protected by law they seem to know that some fishermen still can’t resist taking home a fresh tortuga.
Rounding the point north of Santa Maria Bay the scope of this beautiful cove hit me…it was huge! It seemed like it took me forever to head into the most protected corner of the bay in search
of gasoline. I slowed down and then motored close to the surf camp at Punta Hughes for a quick look. I had run into Kevin, the guy who runs the camp, several times in Baja as well as on the Internet. He has been running surf and kayak trips into Punta Hughes for quite a few years now and people who make the trek always seems to leave happy. But the camp was empty today so I continued to head into the bay to try my luck for gasoline at the fish camp.
As I approached the corner of the bay I realized the fish camp was insidethe estuary and that it was not accessible at this time because of the low tide. I noted four yachts at anchor in this protected corner of the bay, including a small sailboat whose crew I would run into again in La Paz a week or so later. I could have easily dropped anchor here and made new friends, but the thought of my gas tank being on fumes nagged at me and I decided to head around the corner and into Mag Bay to find some fuel before it got dark.
The water in the bay was extremely calm and the small fishing village of Puerto Magdalena had pangas on the beach. After a few inquiries I nailed down a supply of 100 liters (25 gallons) of gas…at a cost of $5.00 per gallon. Considering their cost was about $2.70 per gallon and they were located some distance from the nearest Pemex station, I felt the price was a bit high but fair. Besides, I really didn’t have much of a choice if I wanted to fill up before dark. After getting gas I tracked down a very amiable Port Captain who was happy to complete my papers, take my $32, and stamp my port documents for an official entrance and departure. Looking at his log book I realized that he hadn’t had another boat check in with him since February! He put the money in his wallet and wished me “buenas suerte” on my trip.
The sun had already set and I hopped back in the boat to find a quiet cove before it got completely dark. I found a protected beach about a mile south of the village, dropped anchor, and set up my bed. While looking for a fresh T-shirt to sleep in I found a cassette tape from my daughter Tracy and a card from my wife. It was appropriate that the card was a Halloween card and tonight was October 31st. The moon was full, the water was like a mirror and I settled into my sleeping bag while I listened to the cassette my daughter had put together. I listened as she quoted a long list of “fun things to do in an elevator”. She had me laughing hysterically for over half an hour! If anybody down the beach heard me they would have surely thought I was bonkers. Before long I turned off the tape, stared at the bright moon inspecting the craters, and then drifted off to sleep.
~ Chapter Nine ~
Bahia Magdalena to Fish Camp
“Victory is not won in miles, but in inches. Win a little now, hold your ground, and later win a little more.”~ Louis L’Amour
I woke up at dawn to the sound of pangas (real Mexican pangas…not Fijianpangas!) heading south towards the main entrance to the bay. For these fishermen it was just another day on the water. The wake from these boats caused the Vaka V. to rock and roll, a hint that it was time for me to get up and enjoy yet another exciting day of cruising the Mexican coastline. Today was different than most mornings in the respect that I did not have a predetermined destination. The 150 mile leg to Cabo San Lucas had no set gasoline stops, although I had a few options up my sleeve. Both Punta Conejo and Todos Santos would have gas, but landing in both locations would involve going to shore through heavy surf. Having had the luxury of tucking into calm ports all the way down the coast, the idea of running through surf to get gas was something I was not excited about. As a worst case scenario I thought I might be able to make it all the way to Cabo, if I didn’t run out of gasoline or daylight along the way.
Motoring south I left the calm waters of Mag Bay and gradually entered the open ocean. I expected some type of ocean swell, but was surprised at having two different swell directions to contend with. In addition to the prevailing north west swell, a southern bump was in the cards this morning as well. This combo swell made for less than smooth cruising but was in no way a hardship. Indeed as I looked back on my days at sea it would have been nothing short of greedy to have asked for better swell and weather conditions. Ironically I had experienced the best seas on this trip on the Pacific side of Baja, and some of the roughest seas I have ever encountered later on as I trudged my way up the Sea of Cortez side in the weeks to come.
I headed south at my typical 18 miles per hour pace, hitting 20 m.p.h. when a large following swell gave me the push. The coastline evolved from low-lying bluffs to spectacular sand dunes, reaching all the way down to the breaking waves. On the south end of the island that separates Mag Bay from the Pacific Ocean I noted another large “blow hole” that spouted white foam high into the air with every incoming swell. Nature seemed to be very much alive and putting on regular shows, with or without an audience. I was glad I was there to appreciate it.
Continuing south within 500 feet of the coast I looked on the Auto Club map and noticed that the next 40 miles to Punta Conejo had no coastal dirt roads, leaving me in a bad way if I should have any problems. All along the coast I had made mental notes as to the locations of the various fish camps in case I needed to go to shore for any type of help. Most of these fish camps were close to dirt roads which usually led to the blacktop of Baja Highway One. Although most of the main highway was desolate, it was at least a potential connection to civilization if I really needed it.
Two more hours passed and then I once again looked at the map and determined that I was about 50 miles from Todos Santos and about 100 miles from Cabo San Lucas. I still had sufficient gasoline to reach Cabo and the sun was still high enough that I might be able to get there before dark. I was getting very excited about the possibility of making landfall in Cabo when without warning my motor stopped running. My heart raced as I realized I still had plenty of gas in the fuel tanks and there was no kelp or lobster traps nearby that might have caused the motor to stop. This was the last place I wanted to experience a motor problem.
I tried repeatedly to start the motor to no avail. Giving the starter rope one final mad pull I yanked it so hard that my elbow crashed through the windshield on the center console sending pieces of plastic, flesh and blood in all directions. Immensely frustrated, I tried to calm down while picking up the pieces of the windshield scattered throughout the interior of the boat. I spent the next 2 hours trying to trouble
shoot the motor, removing and checking each of the fuel lines, taking apart and rebuilding the motor’s kill switch, even changing the spark plugs. Nothing seemed to make a difference…the motor seemed dead.
It was a hard decision to make but I was up against a wall. I needed help. Looking on the map again it looked like there might be a fish camp next to a river wash about 5 or 6 miles further south. If I was going to go for help that looked like a good place to anchor the boat. I had brought along a small electric motor to help me in just such an emergency, and I firmly attached it to the transom. As I rotated the throttle with my wrist I pushed for full power. It was then that I realized that this motor was way too small for the weight of this fully loaded boat. It was going to be a long day as the boat slid through the water at 2 to 3 miles per hour! I watched the coastline pass by at a rate I was sure I could beat if I was walking, but at least I was making some progress to the south. After almost 2 hours I noticed a point along the coast about 3 miles ahead that looked like it might be a fish camp. But my battery was draining hour by hour and I did not think it would last much longer. I throttled the motor back to half speed to conserve battery power, now crawling along at less than 2 miles per hour. I thought it was quite interesting that at my turtle-rate speed the coastline moved by me at a pace faster than the coastline view from the Space Shuttle, which cruises at 17,500 miles per hour. In the 3 hours that I covered approximately 6 miles the Space Shuttle could have circumnavigated the planet Earth twice, watching the sun rise and set on 2 different occasions.
Just before the point, next to a dry river wash, was the mirage I was hoping for. A fish camp sat just above the low bluffs with several pangas laying haphazardly above the high tide line. It wasn’t much of a place to land in other circumstances but I felt extremely fortunate to have found it today. As the late afternoon winds picked up I dropped and set the anchor, hoping it would hold after I abandoned the boat and went to shore. Now it was time to set up the life raft, which I had affectionately named “Plan B”.
I had kept the yellow raft inflated and strapped to the bimini top, hoping I would never need to use it. I unhooked the bungee cords, and brought Plan B on deck to make sure all of the air chambers were completely full. I hooked on the oars and placed her in the water next to the boat. Not knowing for sure if the Vaca V. would be here when I got back, I tried to decide what was important to bring along and what I could live without if the Vaka’s anchor let loose and the hull was shattered on the reef just 200 feet away. I decided to bring my backpack, my jacket, my sleeping bag and a cooler of tee-shirts and shorts. I had a lot of other things on board that I would miss, but that I knew I could do without. Elvira, you are on your own. Just like in life, we usually carry along much more baggage than we actually need. At the last minute I grabbed the cards and cassette tape that my wife and daughter had given me. And then I carefully placed everything in the raft, deciding to wear the big jacket to save space, and leaving an area in the back of the raft for me to sit. Taking one last look around the panga I noticed that the sun had slid below the horizon and that it would be completely dark within the hour. I had to get going…now.
Lifting my legs over the side of the Vaka V. I tried to drop myself gently into the rear of the life raft. The rear of the raft immediately sank with my weight, allowing water to drain in. It was obvious that the raft was not going to accommodate all of my belongings and me as well, so I resolved to slide my body into the ocean behind the raft and to push it to shore through the waves. It was then that I realized how much a down jacket weighs when it becomes saturated with salt water. I immediately began to sink as the jacket became heavier with each second it absorbed water. It was now too heavy to take off
and still hang on to the life raft, so I let go of the raft and dipped my head under water in an frenzied effort to pull my arms out of the jacket to take it off. I struggled under water for what seemed like forever and was finally able to get both arms out and get my head back above the surface. I tried to throw the jacket into the raft but it was so heavy I could only push it over the plastic rail. I felt like crying but I was too scared and had too much on my plate to splash around in self-pity. I began wading to shore, trying to time myself between the large waves that raced towards shore. I was doing a pretty good job of keeping the raft afloat as the waves hit me until one particularly large wave swamped me and the raft, sending all of my belongings into the water. I hate it when that happens.
I could now touch the sandy bottom and tried to collect the floating debris while still being pounded by the waves. Out of nowhere I spotted a Mexican man wading towards my still-floating sleeping bag, grabbing it along with my cooler full of clothes. I knew this was a grand effort on his part as Mexican pangeros don’t usually like to go swimming, especially when it is getting dark. I grabbed my jacket and backpack and threw them both back into the life raft. We both made it to shore tired and sopping wet. I took a breath and said “muchas gracias” and he just smiled and started hauling my wet belongings up towards the fish camp. It was completely dark as I hiked up the small hill to a shabby wood shack that was his home. I introduced myself as Carlos and he said his name was Jesus. It seemed rather appropriate that I would be saved by a man named Jesus, even if he was Mexican. Lord knows his namesake had no success saving me when I was north of the border!
Jesus built a fire to warm us both up, gave me a dry pair of pants and shirt, and then handed me a dry pair of shoes that I could tell were too small. I thanked him for everything as he pulled up a makeshift wooden stool for me to sit on by the fire. Neither one of us spoke the other’s language very well, but somehow we talked for over an hour. He was proud to show me a gun he had made out of an old Winchester barrel wired to a couple of pieces of wood. He was also happy to show me his stash of locally grown pot, which he carefully rolled up in the thin white backing paper of a chewing gum wrapper. So here I was, having abandoned my boat at anchor it the chop, sitting in a fish camp in the middle of nowhere by a fire with a Mexican holding a rifle in one hand and smoking a joint. Wouldn’t my wife be proud.
As the fire slowely burned itself out I could tell my new friend was getting very tired (or stoned) and that he was ready to go to bed in the corner of his litle shack. He walked me to another clapboard hut about a hundred yards away which was partially roofed and offered something inside that almost resembled a bed. It was a piece of flymsy plywood held a foot off the ground by a gas can at one corner and a lobster crate at the other. I couldn’t see what held it up at the other two corners but I knew that I had to be careful laying down to avoid having the plywood come off of it’s shakey foundation. He motioned that I could sleep here tonight and that he would track down a ‘mechanico’ to help me fix my boat in the morning. I thanked him again, dusted off an old blanket hanging on the wall to shake off any scorpions, and puffed up my backpack for a makeshift pillow. I layed motionless staring at the stars that snuck through the cratered roof of the hut, thinking about the day’s events. It was a bit more of an adventure than I had wanted, and I wondered what would happen with the boat. I reminded myslef that the sun always rises, no matter how dark the night. I would somehow get through this and get back on the ocean.
~ Chapter Ten ~
Fish Camp to Cabo San Lucas
“The first step in solving a problem is to tell someone about it.”~ John Peter Flynn
Early the next morning I heard a group of men walking towards my shack. It was a warm and clear morning…not a cloud in the sky. I glanced to the west and was extremely relieved to see tha Vaka Viti still floating offshore. Jesus introduced me to Arnaldo the neighborhood “mecanico”. Arnaldo motioned me to follow him down to a fishing panga were his 4 buddies were getting ready to head out to sea. I offered to help them push their boat into the oncoming waves but he was smart enough to know that I would probably be more of a liability than an asset. He asked me to jump in the boat and hang on. With the first incoming wave they pushed the panga off the sand and into deeper water and then jumped in. The swells had gotten bigger overnight and it looked like it would take a miracle for these humble hombres to negotiate this small boat past the huge waves. They motored slowly forward trying to time the final push when the biggest waves were past. When it looked like a break in the waves Arnaldo hit the throttle and we darted westward, only to find that there was one more huge wave coming our way. The face of the wave was at least 10 feet tall and it became obvious that we were not going to get past it before it started to break. Arnaldo held the throttle firmly and blasted head on into the monster breaking wave. We shot up the face of the wave like a rocket and the boat pitched almost straight up into the air! The nose of the boat then dropped down as the bottom of the boat slammed hard on the flat ocean surface. We had made it. “Ole!” I yelled and the men in the boat smiled and seemed very proud of the successful “launching” and the value added excitement.
Arnaldo’s helpers dropped us off at the Vaka V. and then headed out to sea to tend to their nets. He brought along an empty plastic one gallon water container with colorless tools that seemed well beyond their useful life. But within 20 minutes he had the carburetor and fuel lines apart, removed the fiber obstructions that were blocking the flow of gasoline, and had the whole kit and caboodle put back together. In typical Mexican fashion he refused to quote me an amount of money for his services. He finally accepted $43 as his buddies returned to pick him up. As they pulled away and waved goodbye I realized that my sleeping bag, jacket and cooler full of clothes were still on shore with Jesus. What the heck, I was now in the tropics and probably wouldn’t need the sleeping bag and jacket much anymore, and I could always buy more shirts and shorts. Besides Jesus could probably use them more than I could, he certainly deserved them. I pulled up the anchor, buckled on my life vest and ankle leash and headed south. It was a great day to be alive!
Heading south I passed the rocky beaches of Punta Conejo. This remote outpost wasn’t much more than a quiet fish camp until surfers discovered the place in the ’70’s. It’s still a pretty quiet place, but on any given day there are more surfers in the area than pangeros, additional evidence of the Gringo evolution in Baja. The landmark steel lighthouse could be seen just inland from the crashing waves, and then miles of open beaches lined the coast. I was looking forward to seeing Todos Santos, a sleepy town that has taken on a kind of artsy “Carmel” flavor over the last few years. The possibility of a shower was also in the back of m mind.
As I progressed along the coast the motor began acting up again. It would run at half throttle but would stall at full speed. Eventually I realized it was the same type of fuel-related problem that I had experienced the day before. After inspecting the fuel system I finally I discovered a clogged fuel connection where the main fuel tank hooks up to the rubber fuel line. Taking the brass fitting apart I was surprised the boat could run at all. Thin fibers clogged the flow of gasoline to the point where only a fraction of gas could pass into the fuel line. I cleaned the fibers out of the fitting with my
toothbrush and then blew hard to eliminate any residual obstructions. After reinstalling the line and pumping the fuel ball the motor started immediately with the first pull of the rope. At least if the motor stalled again I had a pretty good idea of what to do to get it running again. Seems like that $5 per gallon gasoline I had purchased in Puerto Magdalena had more ingredients in it than I wanted!
As I neared Todos Santos I began to notice evidence of this quaint town’s future. Ocean front homes began to dot the coast, most of them new and quiet nice. These were not Mexican homes, these were Gringo owned and inhabited. The closer I got to Todos Santos the more homes I saw along the coast. Most of the homes were not gigantic in size like the newer homes now being built in Cabo. They were moderate in size, and designed to blend in with the natural surroundings. Yet it was obvious that they were all quite nicely furnished and landscaped. I was now only 50 miles from Cabo San Lucas and I could almost taste my Welcome Margarita.
Past Todos Santos the pristine coastline became more desolate again, with only an occasional home interrupting some of Baja’s most beautiful beaches. Cars traveling just inland along Baja’s Highway 19 reminded me that I was leaving the solitude that I had grown very used to and that I was re-entering civilization. The last 10 miles of coastline north of Cabo featured some of the most expansive and incredible sand dunes on the Baja Peninsula. Off in the distance I noticed the old lighthouse just up from the beach, with Cabo’s newer lighthouse capping a large hill higher and to the east. It was mid afternoon and sportfishing boats that had been out at sea were returning to Cabo, flying blue and yellow flags showing the type of fish they had caught. I wondered what they thought of the small panga with a yellow life raft strapped to the top. They probably thought it was just one more boat out for an afternoon of chasing Dorado.
As I rounded the Cape I slowed to take a picture of Los Arcos, the famous arch that marks Land’s End. I have always thought that it was quiet remarkable, and deservingly appropriate, that the incredible Baja Peninsula would come to an end with such a spectacular natural land formation such as the huge granite arch. I took my photo and rounded the point. There is was in all it’s glory…Cabo San Lucas. I almost could not believe it. I made it halfway to my destination!
Despite my anxiousness to get on land, I did not want to break my tradition of filling up the Vaka Viti with gas before I put her to bed. The fuel docks at Cabo Marina were very busy this time of the afternoon with everyone harboring the same idea of filling up for the next run out in the morning. I waited my turn to get space at the fuel dock while drinking in the sounds, smells and activities of this busy port. This was so far removed from where I was last night that it seemed like a different world. Soon it was my turn to tie up and I was particularly proud to get off the boat and stand on the dock. It would have been foolish to tell everybody on the dock where I had come from, but that is exactly what I felt like doing. Although I kept my announcement to myself for the most part, I did tell a short version of my story to the Pemex worker who handed me the gas pump hose. He was indeed impressed with my feat, and I swam delightfully in the recognition he gave me as I answered his questions about my trip. I filled all of my gas cans and was happy to hear that they accepted credit cards for payment. I had spent over six hundred dollars in cash for gasoline on the way down, and was trying to conserve whatever cash I had left for the run up the Sea of Cortez. The guard on the adjacent dock pointed me towards the guest docks in the southeast corner of the marina. It couldn’t have been more appropriate that I was instructed to dock my boat in front of the restaurant / bar “Margaritaville”. It was even more remarkable that the song playing at the restaurant as I tied up was Jimmy Buffet’s “Son of a Sailor”.
Coincidence? I think not!
The marina guards informed me that I had landed on an official Mexican holiday weekend, the Day of the Dead, and that I would not be able to perform my boating paperwork until Monday. I had been dreading the thought of all this running around and became giddy with the knowledge that I could legally postpone it all until Monday, the day I was leaving! I knew my wife and daughter would not be flying in to meet me until tomorrow, so I set tracks into town to get a hot fish taco, a cold beer and well deserved hotel room. After checking in to the Mar de Cortez Hotel I decided to get a rental car so I could pick up my family at the airport in the morning for my halfway roundevous. The Volkswagon convertible was definitely the hot tip, and I drove it back to the hotel and parked it. That night I made the rounds to Cabo’s famous night spots, more out of habit than desire. The Giggling Marlin was definitely happening, and El Squid Roe was on fire. But ultimately my desire for a warm bed eclipsed my need for additional cervesas, and I walked 3 blocks back to my room and fell sound asleep.
~ Chapter Eleven ~
Cabo San Lucas
“Rest is not a matter of doing absolutely nothing. Rest is repair.”~ Daniel W. Josselyn
Sleeping in a real bed was like a dream come true and it was hard to justify getting up. But I knew I had a full day ahead of me so I got up and checked out of the hotel by 9:00 a.m. I needed to be at Los Cabos International Airport before noon to pick up my wife Leslie, my daughter Tracy and my friend Todd, so I knew I had a little time to take care of loose ends. I thought it might be a good idea to pick up a little cash while I had the opportunity, so I headed over to the Bancomer to try my luck with the ATM Machine. The $1,500 peso jackpot was charged to my Visa credit card, and I was now about $150 U.S. dollars richer. Even though I had no immediate plans for the money, I knew that various things would come up as the four of us enjoyed Cabo San Lucas over the next three days. Having a little more time to burn, I decided to go through the check-in procedure at our hotel for the next three days, the Melia San Lucas. There were plenty of hotels in Cabo to choose from, but this is the one I thought would work best for our stay in Paradise. After checking in I made a quick stop to buy a clean tee-shirt and shorts, then I was off to the airport.
The flight was right on time and I felt huge a sense of relief as Leslie and Tracy walked past the baggage claim area and towards me. We all shared emotional hugs and small talk as we headed towards the rental car. It was absolutely great to see my family again! And I could tell they were v-e-r-y happy to see me. Tracy, at 13 years old, thought the Volkswagon convertible was an awesome way to do Cabo! And Todd, who worships the sun as much as any Aztec citizen from the 14th century, was happy to share the back seat with Tracy under a perfectly clear and warm Cabo sky. We decided to make our first stop a bite to eat, and I knew just the place. Leslie and Tracy had been to Cabo before, but this was Todd’s first trip out of the U.S. I knew of a place on the beach just outside of Cabo that would help set the mood for the next few days of fun and relaxation. La Concha Beach Club is a small and beautiful beach with a small restaurant and plunge pool, accented by lounge chairs in the sand and along the waters edge on a protected beach. The scenery was spectacular, the food was great, and the margaritas intoxicating. Soon we were off to the hotel to put on our bathing suites and head poolside.
Knowing that I would deserve a great room if I ever made it to Cabo, and wanting to provide Leslie, Tracy and Todd with a nice place to hang their hats, I had reserved a suite at the Melia. A suite was not my normal style, in my travels I was the kind of person who could just crawl into a sleeping bag on the beach and be a happy camper. But this was different…I deserved something special after surviving the first half of my adventure! For whatever reason the regular suite we were supposed to have was unavailable, so they upgraded us to the Presidential Suite. It was on the top floor closest to the ocean and was without a doubt the largest room I had ever stayed in in my life. The two bedroom, two bath layout was elegantly decorated but not over the edge. The real treat was the 500 square foot wrapping verandah which offered incomparable views of the pool, the beach, Cabo bay and of Land’s End. If it wasn’t for the spectacular pool calling us from down below it would have been difficult to justify ever leaving the room. But the pool area was just as awesome as the room so we headed down to catch some sun.
I knew this pool area well. I had snuck in to enjoy it many times over the years and loved the way it met my vacation priorities. Great ocean views, steps to the beach, various nooks to slip into, a waterfall and small waterslide, plus a swim up bar that became the focal point for the whole shooting match. Throw in a very efficient and friendly waitress ready to meet any culinary request and, well, it just doesn’t get any better. It was almost impossible for me to believe that a little over 24
hours ago I woke up in a desolate fish camp with no clean clothes and a boat that wouldn’t run. Now I was sitting poolside in paradise with family and friends, nursing a Pina Colada and eating nachos. Who’da thunk it!
We ended up spending the whole day in and around the pool. Food, drinks, music, new friends…it was a great day! Leslie was celebrating our reunion in grand style, and really loved the drink of the day at the poolside bar called the “Monkey”. These stealth cocktails, in conjunction with the margaritas we had enjoyed earlier in the day, joined forces to put Leslie to sleep a bit earlier than she had expected. As Leslie caught up with her beauty sleep and Tracy watched Mexican MTV, Todd and I headed out to one of my favorite restaurants in Cabo San Lucas “Mi Casita”. We enjoyed a wonderful meal, accented with live music great service and a lively setting. We decided to catch up on our rest tonight and to let the Cabo nightlife wait until tomorrow night. The suite was calling us!
The next day in Cabo was a lazy day. Sometimes on vacation it’s fun to do nothing but hang out, and that’s exactly what we did on Sunday. Our main goal was to completely relax and celebrate Todd’s birthday all day long. Poolside was the venue of choice again, and we spent the whole day in the pool, on the beach and napping on lounge chairs. Which isn’t to say we didn’t get creative.
Sometimes in life things get invented out of necessity, and today was one of those inventive days. As we cruised the pool drinking our cocktails and nibbling on munchies, it became obvious that we were developing a need for some type of “floating table” in the pool to hold our drinks and snacks as we waded from group to group. Noticing an empty floating foam lounge mat a few feet away, I brought it over to our growing group of friends and placed my Pina Colada on it. Soon others placed their drinks on the mat and then someone brought plates of food. Our floating table became the hot tip as we slithered through the waist high water drinking, eating and keeping cool. It was probably the most unproductive day I can ever remember having. I had forgotten how much fun it was to do nothing!
As the day faded we grudgingly agreed that it was time to leave the pool. It was time to get cleaned up and dressed for an evening on the town!
Our plan tonight was to do it all. A big dinner, drinks and dancing, and then hitting the sack late. We chose the old Trailer Park for our dinner and the food was indeed great. The prices were horribly expensive, especially compared to my dining tabs over the last 2 weeks. But it was a special occasion and I knew the cost of dinner would be forgotten long before the memories of the evening would. After dinner we watched the 7th game of the World Series in the bar area, and then headed out to explore the Giggling Marlin.
The Marlin was on fire, and the floor show was hot! Between the crazy girls in the floor show and the wild girls in the audience there were more breasts on display than in a Foster Farms packing plant. It was quite a bit different than my normal nightly routine of counting stars and going to sleep early. Later we slipped over to El Squid Roe for more dancing, but the nightlife was taking it’s toll. By midnight we had gone back to our rooms to try to catch some sleep for our last day in Cabo. Soon I would be back in the Vaka V. heading north up the Sea of Cortez.
The weekend was over and it was Monday morning. Today was going to be a busy day. I had to go through all of the port paperwork that I did not have the chance to do when I arrived on Friday afternoon. Getting up and out of the hotel before the family got up seemed like the most efficient use of my time.
I arrived at the Port Captain’s office at 9:00 a.m. While in line to get my papers stamped I met a gentleman who was wearing slacks, a belt and a shirt with a collar. Although he was not dressed like most of the yachties I had met, I could think of no other reason why he would be standing in line. I figured I could get the scoop by starting up a conversation while we were both waiting.
It turned out he was one of those people you hear about who sold everything, bought a boat and decided to cruise the world with his family. I had met additional people with similar stories as my trip progressed, and they all had similar themes. Something huge had happened in each of their lives to cause them to re-evaluate their priorities and life goals. In Paul’s case he had 2 close friends die with little warning, both of them in their 40’s. Getting into his 50’s these deaths were a wake up call he heard loud and clear.
Paul was on foot and I offered him a ride in my topless rental car to our next two stops at immigration and the bank. We got stuck in different lines and then I lost him in the crowds. I never saw him again, although I found myself looking for his boat over the next few days on the way up to La Paz. I wanted to talk with him more about his adventure and share with him more about my trip, but it never happened.
Finishing my paperwork I headed back to the hotel where my trio was on the beach shopping for souvenirs. I caught them at the top of the stairs from the beach as they prepared for another day poolside. We had more fun sunning, eating and drinking, but the cloud of our impending departure loomed over us all.
We spent several hours of playing by the pool, and then we decided to pack up and head up the coast for a final meal. I knew the perfect spot to enjoy our last rendezvous, a restaurant on the sand just outside of San Jose del Cabo called Zippers. Good food, great views and lively music set the stage for a wonderful meal. Driving from the restaurant to the airport it hit us that the party was over.
After getting boarding passes Leslie, Tracy and Todd lined up for final hugs. It was an extremely emotional moment, and an impossible time to keep dry cheeks. I felt a horrible pain in my stomach as they walked through the security check, knowing I would not see my wife and daughter again for at least 2 weeks, if all went well. Part 2 ~ Cabo to the Colorado RiverHOMECarlos Fiesta’s
BAJA CIRCUMNAVIGATION ~ PART 2
Beautiful East Cape beaches
~ Chapter Twelve ~
Cabo San Lucas to Puerto Mexia
“Whatever course you decide upon, there is always someone to tell you you are wrong. There are always difficulties arising which tempt you to believe that your critics are right. To map out a course of action and follow it to and end requires courage.”~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
After a good night’s sleep in the Mar de Cortez Hotel I awoke at dawn and headed down to the Vaka Viti. The boat was already full of gas and the weather was brilliant. Although today’s route was to head in the direction of La Paz, it was unlikely I would make it past the East Cape today.
There were many beautiful beaches to explore, and I was looking forward to a more relaxed pace on the Sea of Cortez. I left Cabo San Lucas harbor and cruised along the beautiful coastline towards San Jose del Cabo. Spectacular beaches broken by low lying cliffs were postcard perfect, and another reminder why so many visitors are drawn to Los Cabos today.
I had cruised this coast in a boat once before under quite exceptional circumstances. On a trip to Cabo about 5 years ago I had run into an old high school buddy who had taken on the job of being a licensed boat captain. He had worked his way up through the ranks over the years, and seemed to love the sea. He was now the captain of the fabulous sailing vessel “Torea” owned by Thomas Jones V. Jones, the C.E.O. of the gigantic defense contractor Northrop Corporation. Dane had introduced me to Mr. Jones late that afternoon who in turn invited me to join them on a cruise along the coast in the Torea to Santa Maria Bay the next morning. It was an incredible boat and a day of sailing I would never forget.
As I found myself approaching Santa Maria Bay in the Vaka Viti my memory flashed back to the day we visited this same beautiful cove in the Torea. We had dropped anchor in about 50 feet of water that day, and I could see the anchor going all the way down to the bottom. The visibility in the water that day had to be over 100 feet! Today the water was also very clear, and I pulled into Santa Maria Bay to check out the scenery. Even though it was only mid-morning there were already people relaxing and enjoying the beach and crystal clear waters. I thought about stopping for a snorkel but I knew even better snorkeling awaited me at Cabo Pulmo, a few hours up the coast.
The Vaka Viti soon neared the Pamilla Hotel, one of Cabo’s most exclusive resorts. I looked up and saw the pool area where my wife and I had run into O.J. Simson and Nicole years ago. We had snapped a photo of the happy couple by the pool, never guessing what would happen a year later.
I enjoyed cruising the Los Cabos Corridor, the 25 mile stretch of coast from Cabo San Lucas to San Jose del Cabo. Open beaches, exclusive resorts, condos and luxury homes dotted the coast all the way past San Jose.
About 5 miles past San Jose del Cabo the houses stopped and the coastline ran wild again. About 20 minutes past San Jose I saw a Mexican rancher riding a horse along the beach, a scene I would see only once on my 2,000 trip. As I motored closer to get a picture of the caballeros I noticed an interesting twist of fate. On the small hill behind him I saw a bright yellow Catepillar tractor leveling a pad for a new home. The East Cape’s yesterday and tomorrow…all in one photo.
After passing Los Frailes Bay I finally hit Cabo Pulmo. Among other things Cabo Pulmo is the only place on the west coast of North American where one can find coral reefs. Seven strata reefs run from the shore area to about a mile offshore, offering some of Baja’s best snorkeling and diving. I dropped anchor in sand far enough offshore as to avoid damaging any reefs and jumped in the warm and clear water. I was immediately surrounded by hundreds of fish of all shapes, sizes and colors.
The relaxing swim was a welcome change from the fast pace I was used to when coming down the Pacific coast. I was looking forward to many more snorkel excursions and casual swims as I headed up the Sea of Cortez. This was fun!
After spotting more fish than I could count I decided to head back to the
Vaka Viti. The tide was dropping and the top portions of the reefs were beginning to become exposed at the surface of the water. I hoisted my wet body into the boat, using the motor as a step and a brace to gain leverage. After drying off I sat in the front of the boat just taking in the warm Baja sun.
I eventually gained the strength to pull up the anchor and set course for the north. Heading north was a new direction for me on this trip, but since the land was still off to the left side of the boat it didn’t seem much different that my southern passage. However the lighting was indeed different. I now had the afternoon sun on the left side of the boat which did not take long to get used to.
The coastline along the East Cape is some of Baja’s most beautiful. Not far past Cabo Pulmo I noticed a familiar structure located on a hill, just up from the beach. Baja legend John Bickel had built a brick home with a round cement roof here about 30 years ago, after failing to return from his assignment from Look magazine to document Baja on a photo shoot. Seems the East Cape was just too nice for John to leave, and he never went back to work.
I had visited John several times over the years and always enjoyed his upbeat attitude and warm hospitality. During the 1991 solar eclipse John allowed me, my family and friends to stay on his property to witness the spectacular event, which included a total eclipse of the sun at 11:47 a.m. lasting almost 7 minutes. If you haven’t seen the sky grow pitch black and the stars come out at noon you don’t know what you are missing!
I had also stopped by for a visit with John a few years ago. Although he did not put on his violin and dancing dog routine for me this time, he did take me into his utility room to show me his latest solution for storing electricity. After years of experimenting with various types of batteries he finally stumbled upon a specific type of submarine battery that stayed charged for a very long time, and took very little time to re-charge when they did drain down. I guess you have to live in the boon-docks to fully appreciate his discovery, but it was a true joy just to see his eyes light up when he showed me the collection of cells, wires and transformers.
Things looked quiet at the Bickel residence this afternoon, so I decided to check out the action further at the coast at Buena Vista. This was a possible gasoline stop for me, but when I reached the Buena Vista area I realized I probably had enough gas to get all the way up to La Paz. But did I have enough light to make it that far today? The sun was already slipping behind the tall mountains, so I had resolved to finding a cove somewhere north of Punta Pescadero and south of Punta Arena.
As the sun set behind the mountains I dropped anchor about 300 feet from shore in a remote area of the coast. I could see the lights from a ranch off in the distance reflecting on the perfectly calm water. It had been a while since I slept in the boat, but it felt good to pull out the mat and cover up with my $12 Mexican blanket. Here I was, finally heading north on my adventure. I was both anxious and relaxed at the same time.
The sky was filled with billions and billions of stars and Carl Sagen would have loved sharing the view of the sky with Elvira from the bow of the Vaka Viti. The stars were beautiful to look at, and I briefly wondered if they played a part in the outcome of my journey. As popular as Astrology is in the world, I doubted the alignment of the stars at the time of my birth had anything to do with the type of life I would lead. The fact that Astrology was invented in the second century at a time when the Earth was considered the center of the Universe only added to my suspicions. Still the view of the bright stars against the black velvet sky was nothing short of awesome.
~ Chapter Thirteen ~
Puerto Mexia to Punta Evaritso
“Though the seas threaten, they are merciful, I have cursed them without cause”.~ William Shakespeare
Up at sunrise I was stoked to see that the Sea of Cortez was as calm as a lake, and the sky was blue and cloudless. Glancing at the tattered Auto Club map to plan my route it looked like I was less than 10 miles from the point outside La Paz bay, much further up the coast than I had thought I was. I was low on gas and knew La Paz was my last reliable chance for gas until Loreto, several hundred miles to the north.
Although the natural harbor at La Paz is large, access to the main marinas in town is through a very defined and narrow channel that parallels the beach. I pulled up on the main beach in La Paz and progressed through the normal paperwork dance at Immigration and the Port Captain’s office. The walk along the seaside Malecon was beautiful as I headed back to the boat to fill up with fuel.
I soon discovered that the marinas in town offered diesel fuel, but no gasoline. So I parked the Vaka Viti at the far west end of the marinas, on the beach with a dozen other fishing pangas. The green and white Pemex sign was visible about two blocks from the panga beach, and it took me three trips to fill up my main tank and 6 portable gas containers.
Ordering up a fish and chips snack at the marina restaurant I started a conversation with two sailors at the table next to me. After a brief conversation we realized that our paths had crossed in Magdalena Bay, 200 miles up the west coast from Cabo the previous week. They said they had seen me cruising down the coast from their 23 foot sailboat, and I had remembered seeing them at anchor at the north end of the bay.
We couldn’t figure out who was crazier…2 guys headed to La Paz from San Diego in a 23 foot sailboat or 1 guy headed to the Colorado River from Los Angeles in a 19 foot panga. They gave me the ‘nut case’ award, and soon we parted to provision up our boats. I bought some film, cookies and outboard motor oil and headed back to the Vaka Viti to figure out my next move. It was only 12:30 and I could hear the sea calling me. I had been to La Paz several times in the past and really liked the town and it’s people. But it seemed that the best use of my time was to head north, so I pushed off and headed out of the channel.
Unfortunately the calm breezes that greeted me earlier in the morning had been replaced by much stronger northern winds as the day progressed. The sea was dotted with whitecaps as far as the eye could see and I began to have second thoughts about pounding the Vaka V. into the increasingly larger swells. But I continued out of the harbor and into the open sea with the hopes that the winds would die down as I headed north.
To try to minimize the impact of the wind I kept the boat even closer to shore, looping inside the huge crescent bay north of La Paz. The further north I traveled from La Paz the taller the mountains became, which seemed to help stop the wind. The afternoon improved hour by hour as the mountains grew taller and more spectacular, and the winds continued to diminish. I knew there were no established villages between La Paz and Loreto, but a spot on the Baja map called Punta Evaristo looked like it had the makings of a calm bay for dropping the hook.
As I neared Punta El Mechudo, about an hour south of Evaristo, I noticed a couple on the beach setting up camp next to their kayaks. After traveling all day near shore these were the only humans I had seen. I slowed down and gave them a big wave, but I did not want to intrude on the solitude that they had traveled so far to obtain. They waved back in the spirit of lost souls on a deserted beach, but I could not tell if they were open to a brief conversation with a wacky gringo. I saluted them both as I increased the throttle on the Vaka V., and they waved goodbye in preparation of a quiet night alone.
It was late afternoon when I pulled into the south end of the very protected cove at Punta Evaristo. I dropped bow anchor in about 3 feet of sand and soaked in another fabulous Baja
sunset. Just before dark a large sailboat came into the cove trying to get their anchor lines set up before it got completely dark. I utilized the last few minutes of sunlight to give myself a wet rag bath with the melted ice water from the cooler, and then had an energy bar and a Snapple for dinner.
There were a handful of rugged looking houses spaced along the shore of the cove, and a few Mexican fishing pangas down the beach. As it became dark their generator came on, soon followed by the dim lights in their palapa-roofed huts. I enjoyed a Jimmy Buffet C.D. in the boom box, reflecting once again on how great the words to his songs are. Especially for people sitting in pangas in beautiful coves in Baja! The evening stayed calm and clear all night, and I slept under a blanket of one hundred billion stars.
~ Chapter Fourteen ~
Punta Evaristo to Loreto
“For the happiest life, days should be rigorously planned, nights left open to chance.”~ Mignon Mc Laughlin
In that half-dream state before waking I heard what sounded like dozens of people clapping ferociously about 20 feet from the boat. Why in the world would so many people be applauding so early in the morning? The sun was not even up and dawn was just beginning. Was this some form of alarm clock trying to annoy me out of my sleep? As I gained my senses I realized that the noise was not applause for the sleeping gringo, but hundreds of fish boiling in the water just a short distance from the Vaka V. I couldn’t tell what kind of fish they were, I could only see a frenzy of splashing and silver flashing on the calm surface. Soon the local pelicans got into the act, crashing the party and creating a noise of their own. I resolved to get up and start my day, even though getting up before sunrise was against my religion.
Upping the anchor and moving north before sunrise was a break in tradition on this trip, but the glassy water was inviting and allowed the Vaka Viti her full potential of 22 miles per hour. The remote coastline was stark and beautiful, with no sign of life of any kind. It took me less than 3 hours to reach Agua Verde, a special spot on the coast I had only seen on a map and from an Aero California 737 from 33,000 feet. My desire to visit here had only increased over the last few months as I read in boating publications that the cove here was the perfect place for boaters to hang out, snorkel and meet with other boaters.
Pulling into the cove it became obvious why sailors hold such a special place in their hearts for Agua Verde. It was a very protected cove with several different locations to tuck into and drop anchor. The “yacht club” at the north end was a small abandoned brick building steps from the water where yachties gathered for cocktails in the late afternoons. The beach at the yacht club was probably the nicest place in the bay, complete with an excellent sandy beach and crystal clear “aqua” waters…the perfect place to take a swim! The urge to slip on a mask and snorkel was irresistible, and I was in the beautiful water almost before my anchor could catch it’s breath on the sandy bottom. It felt great to swim in the warm water and watch the fish watch me. After 15 minutes of swimming around I headed back to the rear of the boat, stepped up on the motor to re-enter my kingdom, and dried off the salt water with a beach towel. Shower? We don’t need no stinking shower!
I lazed around on the boat as the sun conquered the half way point in the sky. I put together a meal of Lunchables, complete with the 4 chocolate cookies and another Snapple. Sitting on the bow of the boat I counted 3 other boats napping at anchor in various parts of the cove, but no life on any of them. It made me think about how much time real boaters spend below deck during their long adventures at sea. I guess it is something a person gets used to. And I was living proof that a person can get used to just about anything while at sea, including not even havinga below deck to go to.
All rested up and full of grub and grog I decided to put the show back on the road. Loreto was only 2 hours up the coast, and I could almost taste Mc Lulu’s fish tacos as I pulled up the wet anchor line. I made a swing into a spectacular cove about 5 miles south of Puerto Escondido, discovering a protected beach I did not even know existed. I had explored the coast north and south of Loreto many times by car over the years, but had never taken the dirt road that leads to this little piece of paradise. I continued further north and made a full swing into the large natural harbor at Puerto Escondido. I counted over 2 dozen boats at anchor and knew that the number would double during the next month as additional boaters made their way around the Cape and up into the Sea of Cortez.
As the Vaka Viti slowly headed west inside the harbor I stopped to drink in the flavor of the majestic mountains that float towards the sky just west of
the port. This is where Steinbeck dropped anchor and went ashore to explore a deep ravine of rocks, waterfalls, pools and longhorn sheep just west of the port during his partial circumnavigation of Baja over 50 years ago. Those in the know still call the canyon by it’s nickname, Steinbeck Canyon.
Departing the harbor left me on my last leg to Loreto. I passed the large new hotel under construction in Nopolo, just south of Loreto. Little did I know I would visit the Camino Real Resort for it’s grand opening ceremony a few months later while on a whale watching trip with my family. Soon Loreto came into view and I pulled into the small “darsena” harbor and tied up the Vaka V. to the brand new dock. My fancy panga with the bright yellow life raft strapped to the top drew the attention of the local kids who seemed intrigued at the whole set up. I eventually made my way to the Port Captain’s office and performed the paperwork ritual in short order. A taco stop on the way to the Immigration office seemed to make perfect sense.
Mc Lulu’s Tacos on main street is a popular gathering place for an afternoon bite, much like Cafe Ole is for breakfast just up the street. Lulu has been running the place for years and doubles as the unofficial mayor of Loreto. It is impossible to eat at Mc Lulu’s without cars going by on the main drag honking and waving hello to Lulu. Whether in town for a few days on a fishing trip or just stopping in town to get beer and ice before heading to the Pacific side to go surfing, Lulu’s was always our first stop in town. After giving Lulu a big hug and sampling a few tacos de pescado and a cold Coke, I continued west towards the Immigration office. As I walked down the sidewalk on main street I spotted a very familiar green truck that I had not seen since a frenzied night of margaritas and dancing in Ensenada several years earlier. The truck belonged to Pam Boles, the owner of Baja Big Fish, one of Loreto’s best fishing companies.
I knew Pam had moved her shop from it’s previous location near the water to a larger facility in town, but I didn’t know where it was located until now. I stepped in the shop and was greeted with smiles and hugs from Pam and her significant other, Francisco. She had heard I was going to try to circumnavigate Baja in a raft, and she seemed quite surprised that I had actually made it this far. I guess that made two of us! After exchanging chit-chat Pam volunteered the keys to the green truck for me to get to the Immigration office and then to refill my gas cans.
Immigration was a snap, and driving the gas cans from the boat to the Pemex station (instead of walking!) was a luxury I was not used to. I set up the boat for a morning departure, and found myself with an empty schedule under a warm Baja afternoon. I took the time to call a friend in Los Angeles who had a place in Loreto, in an effort to set up a free place to stay that night. Joe Oliveri, a long time friend and Baja aficionado who wasn’t sure my circumnavigation plan was such a great idea, was happy to hear I was still alive and volunteered his place for my evening stay. I thanked him and headed over to his house which was located between the town square and the seaside Malecon. Evidence of the hurricane that had hit Baja in September was all but gone throughout the streets of Loreto, but Joe had not been down since the storm and his usually meticulous property was under several inches of mud, palm frawns and miscellaneous debris. Exterior aesthetics aside, it was great to have a clean bed and warm pillow set up for the evening.
I took a cold outdoor shower and put on a semi-fresh shirt and shorts. I even brushed my teeth. Feeling fresh and frisky I headed out to walk the town in search of an evening meal. Rosalia’s Tacos just north of the Pemex station was well known for it’s incredibly tasty carne asada tacos at yesterday’s prices. For under $4.00 I left the open palapa-covered restaurant feeling stuffed and very satisfied. It was the perfect time for a cold cervesa!
Mike’s Bar is located in the heart of Loreto
and usually offers an excellent guitar player and a cast of characters both local and foreign. A street side table gave me the chance to watch the town go by, listen to music, hoist a cold Pacifico and plot my course for the next day. Bahia Concepcion was located a half day’s skid up the coast from Loreto, and offered some of Baja’s best seaside scenery. As if that wasn’t enough, I had heard about a cove an hour or two north of Loreto that was supposed to be one of the most beautiful in Baja. It was worth going to sleep early for.
I finished my cervesa and slowly started walking the cobblestone streets next to the town square in the still warm evening. I was savoring the walk and I had completely forgotten about an amazing incident that had happened to me a few years back that made me a ‘wanted man’ in Loreto.
During a drive-down trip to Loreto in 1997 I had made the mistake of not stopping at the border to obtain and pay for a Tourist Card before heading into Baja. I was driving down in my 1983 Chevrolet Suburban (affectionately known by those who love her as the ‘Blue Burro’) to drop off in Loreto as a transportation vehicle and had planned on flying the northbound route out of Loreto on a DC-9 a few days later. At the time the enforcement of Tourists Cards on Baja Highway One southbound was rather loose, and since I was flying home it did not occur to me that I would need the card to get checked in at the airport for the flight home. Well it just so happened that the night before I was to fly home from Loreto some drug-running pilot crash landed his marijuana-filled Cessna 182 on the beach just north of town and he could not be found. Under normal circumstances that event would not have affected me.
But that morning, while trying to get my boarding pass and get on the plane home, the girl behind the Aero California counter realized I had no Tourist card…I was an undocumented visitor. I had to go into a side room where I explained that I had driven down and forgotten to obtain a Tourist Card in the process. At that point the folks at the airport were just starting to get the information about the plane crash and the missing pilot, and they did not fully realize that the Gringo trying to get on the plane without a Tourist Card just mightbe the pilot of the doomed plane trying to make a last ditch effort to get the Hell out of Dodge. While completing the paperwork for my Tourist Card the Immigration officer casually asked me if I was a pilot. I did not know about the drug-running plane at the time so I answered truthfully that I was indeed a private pilot and showed him my license. He had some notes on a yellow pad of paper, charged me $35 for the Tourist Card and I was off. I figure we were at about 32,000 feet above the Sea of Cortez before they put dos y dos together.
I wasn’t home more than a day before the first fax arrived from Santa Rosalia, the government seat for Loreto. The letter stated that they wanted to “discuss” an incident regarding a plane that had landed illegally on the beach the night before I left Loreto. The letter was very official, had a government stamp on it and had a very fancy signature at the bottom. Mexicans love fancy signatures. Anyway, I thought it was a joke from one of my buddies who knew about the incident until I called the number on the letter. It was indeed the government office in Santa Rosalia and they did indeed want to meet with me as soon as possible. Could I fly down tomorrow?
Looking for advice from friends in the U.S. it was unanimous…if I did fly down to Santa Rosalia I would probably not be getting back home any time soon. The U.S. government was applying pressure on the Mexican government to get serious about the drug problem and, if nothing else, the Mexicans would probably make an example out of me whether I was guilty or not. So I did not call back and the incident apparently went away with the passing of the newly elected officials a year later. Still I always find myself a bit on guard when I am landing or taking off at Loreto airport!
~ Chapter Fifteen ~
Loreto to Bahia Concepcion
“Grief can take care of itself, but to get the full value of joy you must have somebody to divide it with.”~ Mark Twain
Sleeping in a real bed was a dream come true, and it was hard to justify getting up too early. But I was very excited about the coastal scenery I would be seeing today, so I slid my lazy carriage out of bed and headed for the small marina two blocks away. There she sat sleeping in her slip, my girl, Vaka Viti. She seemed to be enjoying her morning seaside snooze, and I hated to wake her up and put her to work. But I had places to go and people to meet, and I couldn’t do it without her. So I climbed on board and duct-taped the Auto Club map to the center console. It was time to go north!
I pulled out of the harbor at about 9:00 a.m. and followed the coast. It wasn’t long before I passed by one of Loreto’s most famous landmarks, The Pent House. This seaside brothel had dished out plenty of servings of short-term companionship over the decades, and was still in business with a new pink paint job. Rumor has it that the best girls now head to La Paz on the weekends where their services garner a better price in the big city. Things looked a little slow at the shop this morning, so I continued north to take a closer look at Isla Coronado, a small island just northeast of Loreto.
The brilliant white sand around the west end of the island combined with the crystal clear water made it difficult to judge the depth of the water. The sea was so clear that, at one point, I actually stopped the boat to see if my prop was near the bottom. Not to worry, I was still in over 10 feet of water! I pulled into the spectacular horseshoe cove at the southwest end of the island. Fish and stingrays swam near the bottom, which started to get pretty shallow as I headed further into the cove towards the inner beach. The water was scene was so beautiful I just had to take a picture. Clear water foreground, bright white sandy beach, green ocean, pristine coastline and the tall La Gigante mountains in the background…what a view!
Within an hour I pulled into Bahia San Juanico, the same name as the cove I had stayed in on the west coast of Baja at Scorpion Bay. After reading about this Sea of Cortez jewel in a boating publication I had big expectations. It was touted as being a completely protected cove with various secondary mini-coves, several small islands, wild geological spires, pinnacles and walls, plus clear waters filled with beautiful reefs and friendly fish. It was a lot to live up to but it was definitely all here. Being a snorkeling fanatic I thought I had died and gone to heaven. I gave the cove a slow tour in the boat and then dropped anchor near the north end. I was in the water blowing snorkel bubbles before you could say ‘puffer fish’.
The warm water flowed across my body like a wet blanket. The underwater view from my mask was filled with both sandy and rocky bottom, various reefs, plus schools of fish large and small. I saw a large shell on the bottom and used it as an excuse to hold my breath and test my lungs. The water was so clear it was difficult to tell how far down the bottom was. The depth became more evident on the way back up as I exhaled and slowly watched the surface become closer and closer. I finally broke the surface out of breath and happy, shell in hand. After examining my treasure for a short time I dropped it back into the water and watched it slowly sink back to the bottom. I snorkeled several additional islands in the bay and then headed back to the boat to dry off and relax. After a while I started to get hungry and decided it was time to explore the beautiful waters of Bahia Concepcion, a couple of hours further up the coast.
It was hard to leave Bahia San Juanico, but I resolved to return and stay for a few days next time. As I pulled out of the bay I looked back and felt proud that I had the opportunity to indulge in the joys of one of Baja’s best coves. In less than two hours I rounded Punta Concepcion and then entered the large bay itself. A half dozen dolphins greeted me as
I closed in on Playa Santispac, a large protected cove where I knew I could find food and drink. Before pulling up on the beach I stopped the boat about a quarter mile from shore, turned off the motor, and just sat and watched. People were playing in the water, laying on the beach, sailboats were at anchor, and fishing boats were floating just off the beach. If there was a main focal point for the huge Bahia Concepcion area, this cove was it.
Anybody who has driven down the Baja Highway south of Mulege has been mesmerized by the beautiful scene of Playa Santispac and it’s offshore islands. After all there are few places in the world where you can pull up off the highway in your vehicle and park within inches of the water’s edge and just set up camp. Throw in two restaurants, a bakery and some bathrooms and it is a vacation experience hard to match.
I pulled up the Vaka V. on the beach and walked 100 feet to Anna’s Bakery. A fresh roll of sweetbread and a cold Coke were all I needed to slip even further into Baja time. The sun was warm and it was another glorious day. I had nothing to do and all afternoon to do it.
I eventually headed back to the beach where I caught a couple of people checking out my boat. Because there is usually very little going on at Playa Santispac, something as insignificant as a new boat landing on the beach can create a moderate stir. Soon there were 5 people standing around me chatting and trying to figure out if my story was true, or if I was just suffering from sunstroke. In the end it seemed like most of them believed that I had indeed circled the Cape from Los Angeles. But of even greater interest to most of these folks was the rumor that tonight was Cheeseburger Night at Bertha’s Restaurant, a couple of coves down the coast. We all vowed to rendezvous there in a few hours and continue the stories.
The large bay was still as calm as a lake and I decided to take a cruise south and explore the beauty of the area. I thought it would also be a good idea to track down Bertha’s Restaurant while I still had plenty of light to work with. I motored past a few incredibly beautiful bays and decided to pull up on one particularly nice beach and walk around. I landed on the beach in front of a palapa with a Volkswagen camper next to it, and started chatting with the couple sitting in beach chairs at water’s edge. Carla and Jim were fun to chat with, and shared a bit about their lives with me. Carla was yet another one of those people I had met on my trip who had recently experienced a life threatening health issue and decided it was time to drop the traditional fast-paced values of society and start enjoying life more often. Jim, who was big into bicycling and had biked across both the United States and Australia, was currently working on a crab boat off Alaska. They both enjoyed the wide open spaces of Baja, and were looking forward to a nice dinner at Bertha’s Restaurant, located just back from the beach. Looks like I picked the right beach to take a walk!
The calm cove seemed like a great place for me to scrape off the moss that had accumulated on the sides and bottom of the boat over the last three weeks. It was also a good time to set up the boom-box on the beach and play a little tropical music. Reggae seemed to fit in with the beach scene, and soon the air was filled with the sounds of Bob Marley and other ganja-puffing artists. Several visitors had come by and commented on how my masthead pumpkin Elvira was looking a little beat up from her exposure in the Baja sun. I had seen her melt a little further into the raised fiberglass area at the bow of the boat each day, but found it hard to think about putting her to sleep. But as I cleaned the boat it became obvious that her days were numbered. I resolved to keep her alive as long as possible, as long as I could keep her out of pain.
The hot day gradually melted into a warm evening, and eating seemed to be the logical next move. People were already trailing into Bertha’s Restaurant and I sat at a table with a dozen people, some who I had met
throughout the day and some I had not. And contrary to the rumor around the bay, it was not Cheesburger Night at Bertha’s tonight, it was Seafood Night. Perfect!
We ate super-fresh seafood, drank super-big margaritas, and our conversations solved none of the problems of the world, but we joked and laughed all throughout dinner. It was more fun than watching girls jump on trampolines! But all good things must come to an end, and table by table we spilled into the night and bid farewells before heading back to our temporary homes. My trek was not far as the Vaka V. was sitting in 3 feet of water right in front of the restaurant.
~ Chapter Sixteen ~
Bahia Concepcion to Mulege
“Finish every day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can”.~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
I woke up to another warm and clear morning. It seemed I had experienced perfect weather every day on my trip, and I wondered if my luck would hold out for the rest of the adventure. It didn’t, but that’s a different part of the story.
Carla and Jim were up and out, and were also amused with my pumpkin masthead Elvira, who was slowly nearing the end of her life in the hot Baja sun.
It was a hard decision to make, but collectively we decided it was time to put her down. Seems I had a few choices for her burial.
As common as life is in Bahia Concepcion, so is death. Stories of people sneaking their recently dead spouses across the border in sleeping bags on top of their cars is not uncommon, as the paperwork to do it legally is just too much. Gringos who have decided to live in Bahia Concepcion also find themselves with pets that die while they are south of the border. Getting them back in the U.S. is not always important, but a proper burial often is. Thus it was inevitable that there would be a place to put these cats and dogs to rest in Bahia Concepcion, affectionately called Dead Dog Island. Located about 10 minutes offshore this was the perfect final resting place for Elvira. Rest in Peace, my pumpkin companion.
After the burial ceremony for Elvira, an aged and leather faced Mexican man slowly walked up to me on the beach and asked if I was interested in purchasing the cow skull he had discovered out in the desert, complete with long horns spiraling east and west. Was it mearly coincidence that I just put my last traveling companion to sleep and was in need of a new figurehead for the balance of my adventure home? I think “fate” would be a better word. He started with an asking price of $35. I did not want to beat this poor guy up on price, but the fact was I was getting low on gas money and I had to be careful with my non-essential expenditures. We settled on $18 and some change and I was now the proud owner of a perfectly maintained cow skull. Wouldn’t my wife be proud. I placed it on the bow of the boat on a towel, right where Elvira had rested just an hour earlier. Jim had suggested I call him “Tex” and the name stuck like peanut butter on sandpaper. I took Tex all the way to the Colorado River (even though one of his horns fell off in a wind storm south of Bahia de los Angeles). He wasn’t Wilson, but he wasn’t bad.
I decided to take Tex for a spin, show him around the bay. I headed south even further into Bahia Concepcion to another beautiful bay called Playa Buenaventura. I had met the owner of the resort there several times before, Olivia, and she always kept a clean beach and restaurant. Dropping anchor right in front of the restaurant proved once again that my choice of using a panga for this trip was the right decision. I walked into the spotless restaurant the same time Olivia did, and she gave me a smile and a big hug. Someone had been in the restaurant a few days earlier and informed her of my adventure, so she was not completely surprised at my arrival. I ordered a cold cervesa and a hamburger, complete with fresh avocados, onions and mucho mas. Jimmy Buffet would have been proud…this was truly a Cheeseburger in Paradise.
Soon Olivia’s smile turned into a very anxious look. She had just gotten word that the cancelled caravan of 21 motorhomes that was suppose to spend 3 days at her resort were now going to show up after all…in about 30 minutes. And she was almost out of beer! I volunteered to make the run to the nearby village of Mulege to fill up the trunk of her car with Dos Equis, Sol and Tecate cervesa. It was usually a half hour drive from her resort to Mulege up the coast, but the road had gotten washed out from the hurricane in October and the asphalt was missing in several locations. I still made the round trip in a bit over an hour, just as the RV crowd was entering Olivia’s bar for Happy Hour. Olivia was
extremely grateful for my help and I was happy to have made the beer run. But I realized it was getting close to dark, and I needed to get up the coast to Mulege to get gas for the boat before it got completely dark. We hugged goodbye and I waded out to the Vaka V. to head north.
It took Tex and I about an hour to reach the mouth of the river at Mulege, officially named the Santa Rosalia River. My plan was to head two miles up the river to downtown Mulege and park the boat along the banks of the river about 3 blocks from the Pemex station in town. After filling up with gas I would head for the Serenidad Hotel for the traditional Saturday Night Pig Roast.
I knew the river was shallow and I had planned my late afternoon trek up the river at high tide to increase the likelihood of a successful gas run. I got about 300 yards up the river when the regular whine of the motor stopped and all hell broke loose. The motor bucked like a mad bull for a time that seemed like forever, and the prop made banging noises against the bottom that made me cringe. I jumped to shut down the motor, but it was too late. As I hinged up the motor to examine the prop it was almost unrecognizable. My heart sank as I realized this might be a significant problem. Although I had brought along an extra prop for just such an emergency, the prop arrived the day before my departure and I did not have the opportunity to try it on before I left Los Angeles.
The Mulege River left it’s mark on the prop of the Vaka Viti!
Once again I placed the electric motor (that I had hoped I would never need to use) to the transom and slowly made my way over to the dock just west of the Serenidad Hotel. I could hear the music and chatter coming from the outdoor barbecue area and decided that the prop problem could wait until manana. It was time to party!
Walking into the busy outdoor patio area of the Serenidad with my backpack on and my ragamuffin hair left me feeling a bit out of place in the well groomed crowd. Finding a way to be less conspicuous was my first goal. I placed my backpack in a corner by the bar, and slipped into the pool for a quick body rinse and head dip. The evening was still warm and there was really no reason to leave the pool with it’s convenient swim-up bar. I ordered a Grande Margarita and was taken back by how large it really was. I sipped my drink and watched the crowd of young and old Baja aficionados mingle the night away.
Many of those in attendance had arrived in small planes, as has been a tradition at the Serenidad for many decades. Don Johnson, the owner of the resort, had always gone out of his way to provide a good runway and a clean hotel for those who dared take their birds south of the border. His daughter Diana was playing an increasingly important role in managing the hotel as a pilot-friendly destination. Some of the pilots attending were part of a group called the Flying Samaritans, who head into Baja from the U.S. on a regular basis to provide free health care to needy villagers throughout Baja. Don’s Pig Roast was a traditional stop before they headed back to the States on Sunday morning.
I eventually left the confines of the pool and secured a seat on the dry side of the bar. Before long I was exchanging stories with others around the bar, and the word soon got out that I was the knucklehead trying to circle the Peninsula in a panga. During the middle of a conversation a robust man with an award winning smile walked up to me and said “You aren’t Carlos Fiesta are you?”. I stood up and sheepishly pleaded guilty as charged. He threw his island-sized paws around me and said “It’s me, Captain Mike!”. Mike, someone I had never met before but had heard about my adventure on the Internet message boards, had contacted me by e-mail just before I left Los Angeles and asked if he could fly down and meet me somewhere on my journey, and maybe buy me a beer. He flies to Baja often, and thought it would be cool to catch up with me somewhere along the line. But we never set a place and a time to meet, so it was mere coincidence that I ran into him at the Pig Roast. It was great to finally meet him and he did indeed buy me a beer. We chatted throughout the evening and agreed to get together again back in the U.S.
Soon others were buying me drinks to celebrate my journey, and then it was time for dinner. I sat at a table of new friends, each who had questions about my trek around Baja. I was more than happy to oblige them, until the music started. Then I became the target of several ladies who had the urge to dance but nobody to dance with. I did my best to keep them all happy, but finally reached a point where I was all tuckered out and in need of some well deserved sleep. Thoughts of my broken prop filled my sleep and nudged me out of bed early the next morning.
~ Chapter Seventeen ~
Tomorrow doesn’t matter for I have lived today.”~ Horace
I started tinkering with the prop at daybreak, but soon realized that the fittings to hold the prop onto the shaft did not fit. Major adjustments were necessary, and I did not have the knowledge or tools to get it all to work. As the margaritas and beer from the night before wore off, I realized that sometime the previous evening Captain Mike had introduced me to the bartender at the Serenidad, Alejandro. Mike had mentioned that, in addition to being the best darn bartender this side of Guaymas, Alejandro was also a very good outboard motor mechanic. It seemed logical that I should try to contact him about my prop problem.
I headed over to the front desk of the Serenidad Hotel and asked the gentleman at the front desk if he happened to have Alejandro’s home phone number. He seemed willing to give me the number, but wanted to run it past the boss just to be sure. He called Diana, Don’s daughter, who said it would be no problem giving me the number. Calling him early on Sunday morning seemed to be a risky move, but if I asked with extreme care he might understand my situation. Indeed he was home, and said he’d be happy to drop by the hotel to meet me in a little bit. I had traveled to Mexico enough to know that ‘in a little bit’ could mean almost anything, and within 2 hours he showed up and shook my hand. We walked the 100 yards from the hotel to the river’s edge and he got to work on the Yamaha 40 outboard in a jiffy. Soon he figured out how to make it all work, and said he’d meet me back at the Serinidad bar at 4:00 p.m. when he started work that afternoon, with the finished project.
My mood had quickly turned from apprehensive to optimistic, and even though I had not planned on spending a whole day in Mulege, I thought it would be a good time to become reacquainted with one of the most unique towns in all of Baja. But first it was time to fill up the boat with gas.
Looking at my fuel needs for my next leg of my trip to Punta Sanfrancisquito, I knew I had to fill up all of my tanks. I poured the remaining gas from my auxiliary 5 gallon cans into the main tank, and then proceeded to make my first of 2 runs to the Pemex station. Diana Johnson had suggested I head for the newer station south of town which was actually a closer walk from the Serenidad Hotel than the one in town. Although the walk to the station with empty cans was a snap, I dreaded the walk back when they were full. I didn’t need to worry. A Gringo in a white open-topped Volkswagen Thing saw my plight, pulled over and offered me a ride. He took me and my loaded cans all the way to the Vaka Viti. I had even better luck with the next gas run. As I was just beginning my walk to the gas station a local Mexican pulled up and offered me a ride. The car was barely running and many parts were missing inside and out. It looked like it had been hit by a meteor. But somehow he kept it running, and took me to and from the gas station in record time.
I put 10 liters of gas in his car at the gas station to thank him, and he was very happy to accept. Full of gas and ready for a morning departure it was time to explore the town.
I walked 2 miles along the shady dirt road on the south side of the calm river, all the way to the quaint town square. I sat on a park bench and watched 3 kids playing on a very noisy swing set. My attention was soon drawn to a young couple attempting to use a Mexican telephone. It’s not really a difficult thing to do, but some basic knowledge of the system is necessary. As the drama continued I felt an obligation to help them out.
Walking over to introduce myself I volunteered to help them make their call. Jerimy and Laura were appreciative and soon they had completed the call to the young woman’s parents to let them know she was okay. After the call they came by to thank me and talk. They were from Crested Butte, Colorado, and had come to Mulege on a last minute whim. I was only mildly surprised when they informed me that they were staying in their car, as I had slept in my
car several times in the past when visiting Baja. And besides, who was I to talk? I was sleeping on the exposed deck of a small boat.
What really got my attention was when they informed me that they also lived in their car back home in Crested Butte, Colorado. Housing had gotten expensive in Crested Butte, they said, and living in the car allowed them the opportunity to get by with very little need for money. There were times when it got pretty cold, and that’s when they planned their road trips. They occasionally worked when they needed money for food and gas, but the jobs were always short, lasting just long enough to put away enough money to get them by for a few more weeks. Soon they thanked me again and left, and I sat there thinking about all of the different choices we human beings make as we trudge our way through our time on this spinning planet. It’s a crazy world, and there are plenty of ways to fill in the time between life and death.
Soon I ran into a local gentleman who I had seen once before in Mulege. He could often be seen walking slowly through town, using his rugged walking stick to help him along. This guy’s pace made a sloth look fast, but it was obvious from his stooped posture that he was very old. In the past I had never asked him how old he actually was. This trip I had the time and the nerve to approach him, and to say “hola”. He spoke no English, but he seemed to understand when I asked him how old he was. “Cien anos y poquito mas” he replied, indicating that he was a tad past 100 years old. Over a century old and still cruising the main drag looking for chicks. You gotta admire a guy like that.
It was time to head back to the Serenidad to meet Alejandro for a progress report. While I was waiting for him at the hotel I ran into a couple I had met in Bahia Concepcion a few days earlier. Jeff and Jenny were from Hermosa Beach, California, about 10 minutes from my home in Torrance. They were on Margarita Patrol poolside and I decided to give them a little professional help. The discussion centered around the large turtle they lost a few days ago in Bahia Concepcion, and they couldn’t figure out how it got out of their car. It was indeed hard to picture a 14 inch turtle crawling out of the window of a Toyota Camery, but there was no other solution. As the sun slipped behind the mountains we gradually wrapped up the party, and soon Alejandro checked in for work.
He rolled into the hotel bar area and we walked over to put on the prop. It fit like a glove and I was totally stoked. Now I was really all set for a morning departure! In typical Mexican fashion Alejandro refused to quote me a price for his efforts. I told him I would catch up with him at the bar later on and figure it out.
I had a wonderful dinner at the hotel restaurant, and eventually wandered over to the bar to square up with my favorite mechanic. And I had a plan that would save my limited cash flow situation and still treat Alejandro right. I had brought several cameras along on this trip, including a nice Pentax with a zoom lens. I asked Alejandro if he would prefer cash or the camera, and he fell in love with the camera immediately. Seems the payment made us both happy, and soon I was walking down the runway headed for the river and a good night’s sleep in the Vaka Viti.
~ Chapter Eighteen ~
Mulege to San Francisquito
“The first sight of the lighthouse set boldly on it’s outer rock…made me feel solid and definite again, instead of a poor, incoherent being…it was a return to happiness.”~ Sarah Orne Jewett
Sleeping in late is impossible on a panga beach, or even a panga river as was the case in Mulege. Pangeros can be a pretty early bunch of hombres, heading out to sea early with the idea of catching as many fish as possible while they are still biting. The weekend was over, it was now Monday morning and time to get busy. Even though I wasn’t going to work I did have a lofty goal of reaching a spectacular destination…Punta San Francisquito. This coastal hideaway is one of the most remote beaches on the Baja Peninsula and I could not wait to get there. But I just couldn’t get the boat to start!
It was frustrating to have the prop issue resolved and now have a motor that wouldn’t start. I played with everything from fuel filters to plug wires and must have done something right because after half an hour of fiddling she finally came to life.
Leaving the protected waters of the river and heading out into the open sea I noticed much more wind chop than I would have expected this early in the morning. But soon the wind died down, the water turned to glass, and I got back to my favorite Sea of Cortez past time of chasing sitting ducks.
It’s not that I have anything against ducks, it’s just that it’s so much fun to watch them make decisions once they realize you are coming at them at warp panga speed. Basically they have two choices if they want to avoid becoming duck soup. They can either choose to start flapping their wings while running on water in an attempt to fly away from the incoming idiot, or they can choose to do what comes naturally for ducks…they can duck. Which is probably why somebody decided to call them ducks. Anyway, the fun begins when they become confused, not knowing whether to try to fly away or duck. One particularly dingy duck started his escape by dipping under water, then changed his mind and surfaced to try to fly away. Loosing ground he then gave up and hit the deck a second time when he realized he was almost history. It was tail feathers and bubbles all the way down and it left me laughing hysterically, which shows you how little it takes to entertain someone who has been out at sea for 3 weeks.
I decided to make a gas stop at Santa Rosalia, to top off my cans before I headed even further into the remote Baja waters. Just like in Mulege, I decided to abandon the proper procedure of making landfall by first checking in with the Port Captain, Immigration and then pay the port fees at the bank. This was the law when traveling in Mexican waters. But it was too time consuming and too expensive, and as long as I didn’t get caught I could stay out of jail. The problem in Santa Rosalia was that the Port Captain’s office was directly across from the Pemex station. I would literally have to drop anchor in front of the Port Captain’s windows, slip over to the Pemex station with 2 bright red gas cans, and then slip back into the boat and depart without being seen. Now this is my kind of fun! I pulled it off without a hitch, and soon found myself headed north towards empty Baja waters.
The sea was smooth as I closed in on Punta San Francisquito in the early afternoon. I pulled up on the waveless beach and decided to get the gasoline routine out of the way. I walked up the the palapa restaurant and found Charry the owner working in the kitchen. I had known her for many years from my annual road trips to her rustic resort and she gave me a hug and a big smile. After small talk about my trip she confirmed that she had gas for me and asked me to bring my gas cans up to her pickup truck. Soon I was full of gas and ready to go snorkeling.
The main beach at ‘Francisquito was framed by two extended rock promontories at either end, with the resort located somewhere near the middle of the one mile long sandy beach. The north end was a bit more protected from the wind today, so I walked down to the end to explore
King Neptune’s domain. The snorkeling was great and I spotted an octopus, several stingrays and even a lobster. The bottom was covered with white sand and huge granite boulders, along with a variety of shells and lots of fish. It was a refreshing dip after a hot day at sea. The day was growing long and I was getting hungry, so I decided to get out of the water and head back to the main palapa for a pre-dinner cocktail. But before heading back I took a short nap on the still-warm sand, just above the shore. It was a spectacular place to ponder the joy of just being alive.
Most of the visitors to Punta San Francisquito arrive the old fashion way…they fly in. Although arriving by vehicle is not impossible, the 12 hour drive from the border on a two lane road followed by a three hour dive on a one lane dirt road tends to thin out the traffic. The resort gets busy on weekends from fly-ins and drive-ins because that is when most Baja aficionados can slip south of the border, away from the responsibilities of their jobs. However today was Monday and there was still a few birds on the ramp and a few stragglers at the resort. We watched the sky grow dark from the outdoor patio and then settled into the open air palapa restaurant for hot yellowtail, cold beer, and lukewarm conversation. Bedtime hits the resort early and the generator is usually shut down by 9:00 p.m. I set up my bed on the boat and fell asleep counting shooting stars.
I don’t know what it was that caused me to wake up at about 2:00 in the morning, but I’m sure glad I woke up when I did. It was pitch black and the wind had picked up, so I thought I would check on the front and rear anchor lines. I grabbed the flashlight and pointed at each of the anchor lines. They both went straight down, not at an angle as I had placed them when I set them for the evening. It was impossible for the tide to have risen so far that the lines could head straight down so I checked to see how far I was from shore. There was no shore to be found anywhere.
It began to sink in that not only was I not anchored to the bottom, I was nowhere near the coast. I had no idea how far offshore I was, the dark night left no clues of land in any direction. And the wind started to blow even harder. This was getting scary. I again searched the horizon for some sign of land and finally spotted a dim blinking light a long distance away. I had no idea where the light was located, but unless it was attached to a boat it was probably located on land. And that is exactly where I wanted to go as soon as possible.
I started the boat motor and very gently pushed the throttle forward. I could not see anything in front of me, so I moved forward at a snail’s pace just in case I hit something. I continued in the direction of the light for a period of time that seemed like an eternity. After 2 hours of anxiety I neared the light and pulled back on the throttle. I was exhausted and I still wasn’t sure where I was. But the glow of the light on the surface of the water led me to believe that going any further could prove to be disastrous. I shut down the motor, set the hooks front and back, and then collapsed into a sound sleep on the mat in the front of the boat.
~ Chapter Nineteen ~
San Francisquito to Las Animas
“When you get into a tight place and everything goes against you till it seems as though you could not hold on a minute longer, never give up then, for that is just the place and time that the tide will turn.”~ Harriet Beecher Stowe
I woke up well after sunrise and poked my head up over the gunned to see where I had ended up after my early morning adventure. I found myself sitting 50 feet off the beach next to the rocks at the north end of San Francisquito Beach, right where I had been snorkeling the previous afternoon! The light I had been following was a navigational aid located at the outer end of the rocks. Of all of the places I could have ended up after the madness that took place the night before, I could not have hoped for a better place to end up. I motored down the beach to the resort and pulled the Vaka Viti up on the beach to clear my tab with Charry. The bill for the gasoline, cocktails and beer totaled $73. I gave her $85 and thanked her once again for her wonderful hospitality.
My goal today was to reach Bahia de los Angeles, a funky fishing village in a spectacular natural setting only 85 miles up the coast. As it turned out I never even got close. The first of several obstacles throughout the day was a dangerous rip current which we had named the ‘standing wall of death’. This current was almost always active at the far tip of the north point at ‘Francisquito and the boiling white water and criss-crossing waves could usually be seen from the cabanas and the dining area at the resort. I had seen it from shore many times before but I did not know what to expect going through it in a boat. It would have been possible to go out and around this bubbling caldron if I wanted to head a bit south and then around, but I preferred to take the most direct route north which went right through the middle of the madness. The boat flipped and flopped as I moved slowly forward through the whitewater, but soon I was passed the rumble and tumble and headed north on calm seas.
The wind and water did not stay calm for long. Within 2 hours I was fighting a direct 20 knot head wind accompanied by 2 to 4 foot seas. The wind only continued to get worse and the sea was now a canvas of whitewater in all directions. I held my breath each time the hull of the Vaka V raised up and then slammed down into the trough of the next wave, only to heave up and slam down again and again and again. I reached a point where I was questioning the integrity of the boat, even though she had fared well under other rough conditions on this trip. Soon I found myself guiding the boat between 6 to 8 foot swells and realized that it was nothing short of stupid to continue on. Forget Bahia de los Angeles, just get me to a cove to ride out this wind storm.
It was very difficult to read the map and drive the boat through the waves but I had to find a place to hole up. The Auto Club map was not detailed enough to show smaller coves, so I pulled out the guide book I had used to walk my way through some of the other coves further south. A small cove dubbed ‘Animas Slot’ seemed to be my nearest refuge, but mile after mile it eluded me. Finally I noticed a cove that had similar characteristics to the one mentioned in the book, and I pulled in hoping for the best. After rounding the corner and slipping past the island in the center of the cove I entered a very protected cove, complete with calm waters and a sandy beach. If I was going to be stuck anywhere, this was an awesome place to be stuck.
The sun was on the second half of it’s journey across the daytime sky and it was even a bit warm when I found a protected pocket away from the wind. The residual swells from the wind wrapped into the cove and prevented me from landing the boat directly on the beach. So I anchored her in 4 feet of water and took the lifeboat to shore. Although it was a beautiful place it was devoid of any life and I had never felt so far from a Krispy Kreme store in my entire life.
All of the clothes that had been laying on the deck had gotten wet with sea-spray and I was
also soaked to the bone. I brought a shirt and shorts to shore and laid them in the sun so I might have some dry clothes to sleep in later on. It seemed unlikely that I would be getting out of this cove anytime soon, although I had hoped the wind would die down as sunset neared. I walked the 100 yard beach to gain a bigger perspective of my new found home. I found what appeared to be an old campfire in the northwest corner of the cove. It probably belonged to some unfortunate pangero who got stuck here under similar circumstances. I eventually reclaimed my now-dry clothes and rowed the raft back to the boat. I set up the deck of the boat for the evening and then realized that I had not eaten all day. I nibbled on a granola bar and took a swig of water before going to bed just after sunset. The wind continued to howl all night long.
~ Chapter Twenty ~
Las Animas to Bahia de los Angeles
“Call on God, but row away from the rocks.” ~Indian proverb
I got up at sunrise and was disappointed that it was still windy. But the wind did not seem quite as bad as the day before so I thought I would at least take a gander out of the cove to see if I could take the boat further north today. I knew I could always come back to this protected bay if I needed too.
As I left the cove and headed up the coast I began to question the idea of leaving the cove. The waves were smaller but still significant and the going was tough. I looked on the map and set up several ‘bail out’ points where I could tuck in and wait it out if things got worse. These pit stops were each a good 10 miles apart so I put myself at risk for a considerable distance between them. But nature seemed to cooperate and each time I hit a safety point I decided to continue north to the next one.
I soon motored past a picturesque fish camp called Las Animas. I had heard about this remote village along with a story about the ‘Naked Girls of Las Animas’. Seems a high school teacher from southern California takes a caravan of his senior students to this beautiful beach each year to get in touch with nature and learn about flora and fauna. Although it is mostly a controlled learning event, the ‘Naked Girls’ rumor does help him sell Baja calendars to help pay for supplies for the annual trek.
The wind was not getting better but it was not getting worse, so I continued towards my next ‘safety net’ at La Unica. La Unica is a wilderness resort of sorts where adventurers get dropped off on an empty stretch of beach with minimal improvements and supplies in a spectacular outdoor setting. The mile long beach is protected by a beautiful offshore island, and I have had the opportunity to stay there twice before. I always considered La Unica (translation: the one and only) one of my favorite places in Baja, and I hold special memories of the time I spent there with my family.
The last time I stayed at La Unica a group of us went out on a boat for a sunset cruise and found ourselves surrounded by a pod of huge finback whales. They were literally all around us as the sky turned orange and yellow from the setting sun, and it created a memory I have never forgotten. I had also been to La Unica once before when the wind came up, even worse than it was today, and I became (probably) the first person ever to surf the breaking waves in front of the usually waveless open air restaurant.
Tex and I swung in the cove on the inside of the island and slowed the Vaka Viti down. There was a lone kayaker sitting on shore and I could not tell if he was alone at the camp. I gave him a big wave and he waved back, then I completed my loop around the island and continued my northern quest. I was less than an hour south of Bahia de los Angeles and it was beginning to look like I would make my destination after all.
As I rounded Punta Malo just east of Bay of LA the waves and wind diminished and I was able to pick up a little speed. I was cruising so fast that I went right past the entrance to one of northern Baja’s most protected hurricane holes, Puerto Don Juan. In the past I never had the opportunity to check out this beautiful cove, and now was my chance. The natural harbor was roughly a half mile long and a quarter mile wide and the water inside was perfectly calm. I rounded one sailboat at anchor in the middle of the cove and then headed to the south end of the bay were a sandy beach was too much to resist for a pair of kayakers. This was a perfect half day kayak adventure from ‘downtown’ Bahia de los Angeles.
I headed back out of the bay and continued west towards town. My destination was Guillermo’s, a pretty slice of beach at the south end of town with a bar, restaurant and a reasonable walk to the closest gasoline. I pulled the boat up on the beach and started walking towards the main street with my gas cans. I got about 50 feet before 2 young men from Colorado on quad-runners asked me if I needed a lift. They took me to a house just north of town where gasoline was sold
from 55 gallon drums, and off they went.
Jose Luise Ortega was a warm and friendly man and happy to be of service selling me gasoline. As we chatted we realized we shared a common friend in Los Angeles. Sid Syverson is the owner of the huge real estate franchise Re/Max of California and buddy I had shared many Baja stories with over the years. Jose had developed a close relationship with Sid and his wife Diane over the many years they visited their home at the south end of the Bay. Jose asked me to tell Sid and Diane hello when I got home, and I assured him that I would. He topped off my tanks and gave me and my gas a ride back to the boat in the back of his pickup truck.
The sun was still warm as I pulled up a chair under the palapa at Guillermo’s for a cold beer, chips and salsa. I chatted with 3 people at the table next to me and we all enjoyed a relaxing afternoon. I had heard that there was a small hotel about 2 miles south of town called Larry and Raquel’s that offered satellite Internet access, and thought it might be fun to check my e-mail. I had walked about a quarter of the way to the hotel when a Volkswagon camper pulled over and offered me a ride. It was the same three people I had sat next to at Guillermo’s, and they gave me a ride all the way to the hotel.
It takes a lot to make regular dial-up Internet access connection look fast, but the satellite Internet access at Raquel’s did the trick. It took me forever to pull up my Hotmail account and I asked the girl at the front desk if the service was always this slow. She said the service was usually not too slow, but sometimes the satellite access slowed down when the winds picked up. This made absolutely no sense to me, but then again I know very little about satellite technology. Hell, at this stage in my trip I was having a hard time holding a beer and eating chips at the same time, let alone try to figure out how the wind affects the Internet. So I trudged through my mail at a snail’s pace and then decided I had had enough technology for one day.
When I arrived back at the beach I was surprised to see the Vaka V. sitting on solid ground. The tide had gone out…way out, and my girl was sitting there listing to one side, obviously quite embarrassed by having her underside fully exposed for the world to see. Tex just sat there in a trance at the front of the boat, not caring one way or the other. Guys. I new it would be at least 4 hours before the boat would be floating again, and I didn’t want to sleep on her at such an awkward angle. Having another beer at Guillermo’s and a bite to eat seemed like the perfect way to kill time. But as I walked up from the beach a small Mexican woman approached me speaking in Spanish. My Spanglish is not good, but I did understand that she was inviting me, the lost soul from the panga, into her home for dinner. I was honored at the request and entered her little casa just as the sun went down.
Rosa’s husband had died years ago and she lived alone in her modest home on the beach. She had no electricity so she lit candles so we could see our meals. She served me a warm plate of 3 tacos, fish, beans and rice. Not only was the food delicious but I was able to avoid spending a lot of gas money for non-essential fancy food at Guillermo’s. Her home became dark as evening enveloped the small village and I thanked her for a wonderful meal. She waved goodbye as I headed down the beach to Guillermo’s for an after dinner drink.
Things were starting to heat up at the bar at Guillermo’s and I could smell a party brewing!
The 2 guys from Colorado were hoisting a few cold ones, plus a crew of 3 Irish kids (2 gals and a guy) got in on the act as well. Pete, a retired football player, joined the act and the next thing you know I was headed back to the Vaka V. to grab some C.D.’s and my stereo. The Irish party offered me the use of their shower which I gladly accepted. Back to the fiesta, the party evolved from the bar to the restaurant to the beach. We brought the music out on the sand and sang and danced and laughed until late. It was
hard to believe I was stuck in a deserted cove when I woke up this morning!
The 2 guys from Colorado were playing their cards with the 2 Irish girls and I could sense it was time for me to hit the sack. The tide had come up and the Vaka Viti was floating again, just as I had hoped. Dreams of my next destination, Bahia de Gonzaga filled my mind. Would the wind finally be gone?
~ Chapter Twenty One ~
Bahia de los Angeles to Bahia de Gonzaga
“The great victories of life are oftenest won in a quiet way, and not with alarms and trumpets.”~ Benjamin N. Cardozo
Up at the break of dawn I peeked over the rail of the Vaka Viti and noticed Rosa sweeping her front porch in the bright morning sun. Tex was still sleeping. I thought it would be a nice gesture to thank Rosa again for dinner and her hospitality from the night before, so I shuffled across the moist sand to give her a hug say good-bye. I handed her a few dollars for the dinner and a fly swatter for a gift. She graciously accepted both and I waved adios and smiled at her as I headed back to the boat.
I pulled up the anchors and tried unsuccessfully several times to start the small outboard motor. It sounded tired and I was sympathetic to the cause. The 1993 motor was almost 10 years old. She had served me well during my long trek and had performed admirably under the trying circumstances. But my journey was not yet over and I needed her to come to life a few more times before putting her out to pasture. She finally sputtered then started and we slipped out to sea with the hopes of calm waters and Bahia de Gonzaga as my afternoon destination.
The scary thing about today’s leg was the lack of ports to tuck into in the event of high winds. I remember reading about the feedback the local fishermen gave Graham Mackintosh when he inquired about walking along this desolate 100 mile stretch of coastline a few years back. The local vote was unanimous…don’t do it. The cliffs rise from the sea almost vertically most of the way and there are no beaches or coves to provide shelter. But since Graham was one of the few people who had encouraged me to take on this coastal adventure, I knew that somehow I could complete this leg successfully if luck was running with me. Unfortunately the wind picked up even more before I was even 10 miles north of Bahia de los Angeles.
But the winds were just part of the problem. Another annoying feature was the occasional “wash machine” churnings of the sea in various areas. In the past I had heard that the Sea of Cortez ran deep in this location and that the upwellings of water from lower depths often came up to the surface with turbulent effects. But hearing about these sections of choppy water during a conversation over a cold beer verses the reality of actually plowing through them in a small boat was two different things. Throwing a strong wind in the mix made crossing these cauldrons a tricky test of wit and muscle.
As if it wasn’t enough that I had winds, cross-waves and no place to hole up in an emergency, I developed a new problem. The motor started to run rough and then it finally died right in front of one particularly nasty section of cliff. I had to think fast because the current and the winds were pushing me quickly towards the rocky shore. I had to make a decision to either drop the anchors or keep floating and push hard to trouble shoot the engine. Thinking I had a minute or two before I got too close to the cliffs, I decided to see if I could get the motor running again. It didn’t take long to figure out the problem…I was out of gas!
Fighting the wind, waves and choppy waters that morning had caused me to burn off much more fuel than I normally would have. I quickly grabbed a 5 gallon tank from the front of the boat and poured it into the main 15 gallon tank. I added a container of oil to the gas, and then pulled the starter rope. The Yamaha came to life with the first pull and I moved forward with very little time to spare. After getting far enough away from the cliffs to feel comfortable I stopped and put two additional cans of gasoline in the main tank. I could only hope that the remaining gas on board would be enough to get me to Bahia de Gonzaga. There were no other fuel stops or fish camps along the way to bail me out.
I grew optimistic in the afternoon as I neared the southern end of Gonzaga Bay at Punta Final. I knew once I rounded the point I could always hug the coast of the large protected bay and work my way over the six miles to Gonzaga. To
my delight the winds diminished as I headed west around Punta Final and the water actually became glassy. My worries melted like a cup of yogurt on a hot summer day and I began to put on my fun cap again. I had always wanted to explore the various pristine coves just east of the Punta Final sandspit, and this seemed like the perfect time to do it. This collection of small emerald bays was known to the locals as Snoopy Cove because it resembles a beagle from a skyward vantage point. I slowly motored into the protected bay and discovered cove after cove just begging for snorkeling or a picnic.
After I explored every square yard of the Snoopster I headed across the calm bay to the center of attention in Gonzaga Bay, Alphonsina’s Resort. ‘Resort’ is a term used loosely to describe this outpost, but seems almost appropriate considering the remote location. Alphonsina was spending less time running the show each year, but her son Juaqine was a very conscientious young man with a lovely bride and a new son, and he was doing well filling in his mother’s zapatas.
I knew the tide was going out so I dropped anchor in 6 feet of water and swam to shore with my gas cans. I was offered a ride to get gas at nearby Rancho Grande by a worker named Miguel, so we drove one mile to the main road to fill ‘er up. It was always nice to get the gasoline routine out of the way, knowing I was ready to motor at the drop of a sombrero. Back at Alphonsina’s I started talking with a couple of guys who had just driven in from Dana Point, California. They had heard about the spectacular kayaking in and around Bahia de Gonzaga and immediately started to provision for a late afternoon paddle. I headed to the Margarita Deck above Alphonsina’s and decided to drink in the spectacular view while capturing my thoughts in my journal. With 2 shrimp boats sitting at anchor in the harbor and the water glistening like a mirror, it was one of the best views in Baja.
I noticed Juaqine talking downstairs with several gentlemen from the Mexico Tourism Office. I had seen these same men talking to Guillermo in Bahia de los Angeles the day before about the proposed “Nautical Ladder” along Baja’s coast. The idea was to set up a series of ports on both coasts of Baja for boaters to obtain services, and input from the resort owners along the coast was a very important part of the planning process. Later in the afternoon, after the meeting was over, I told Jaquine that it might help encourage boating tourism if visitors didn’t have to stop in every port and go through the Immigration/Customs/Bank routine. I explained that I started off an honest sailor on my trip, but soon started ducking the system because of the time and money involved in doing the process properly. He was very sympathetic to my feedback and said he would bring the issue up with the authorities at his next meeting.
Soon the sun was setting and the sky turned bright yellow. The kayakers had returned as the last slice of daylight melted from the sky, and we all sat down to a meal of shrimp, rice, beans, tortillas and baked potatoes. Full and tired, I swam back to the boat and played a little music on the C.D. player. I hoped to make it to San Felipe tomorrow, my last stop before heading to the top of the Sea of Cortez and entering the Colorado River.
~ Chapter Twenty Two ~
Bahia de Gonzaga to San Felipe
“The greater part of our happiness or misery depends on our disposition and not our circumstances.”~ Martha Washington
The sea was completely still in the early morning as I awoke and it was already getting hot. The beach was lifeless as I pulled up the anchors and plotted my chart for San Felipe. I steered the Vaka Viti out and around Cactus Point at the east end of Gonzaga Bay and immediately noticed something was missing. The lone cactus that had stood guard at the point for so many years was gone…another victim of the hurricane that hit Baja in October.
As I headed south I glanced west and saw Papa Fernandez Camp, a small collection of homes and a restaurant that had evolved over many years from the labors of Papa himself, who had just died the previous year at 104 year old. I was fortunate to have enjoyed a meal with Papa a few years earlier and was surprised how spunky he had been for his age. But his years finally caught up with him, and his legacy now continues through his family in this small seaside village. The black and white photo of Papa and John Wayne still hangs in the small cafe in town.
I could now see the “Enchanted Islands” as I motored north. This collection of four islands was not far from shore, and I had been warned by someone at dinner the night before that there is a very shallow shoal between one of the islands and the shore. I kept a sharp eye out for light green water and motored slowly in the middle of the channel. Although I did see shallow water I was able to avoid getting too close to the bottom. I became excited as I noticed the small hill at Puertecitos on the horizon. If ever there were a truly funky place in Baja, Puertecitos is the place. But this strange town did have one redeeming quality that captured my heart, the Hot Springs at the south east end of town.
I had been to Puertecitos several times before and even spent time in the Hot Springs here, but this time was different. Whereas before I enjoyed the springs as a Baja novelty just for fun, this time I was in true need of her liquid magic. I had been battered by nature’s wind and waves for several days, and my skin was crusty with dried salt. My muscles were spent and in dire need of a hot water soaking. I pulled up into the cove and anchored at the rocky south end near the springs.
It was a short walk to the pools and I wondered if the tides would be right for the sea to moderate the scalding hot sulfur springs at the tide line. Although the highest of the 3 pools was indeed too hot, and the lowest was now too cool, the middle pool was about 102 degrees and crystal clear…perfect! I laid down in 18 inches of water on the small gravel stones on the bottom of the natural pool with my head resting just above the surface against a smooth bolder. I closed my eyes and drifted into a half dream state, savoring the spectacular feeling of the hot water all around my body. It was heaven. At the time it seemed like the whole trip was worth the luxury of that one endless moment.
I don’t know how long I laid there…time seemed to stand still. But when I finally opened my eyes I was beyond relaxed. I slowly crawled out of the water and let the warm sun dry my body as I walked back to the boat. I enjoyed the swim back to the boat in the refreshingly cool Sea of Cortez. I eventually garnered the energy to start the motor and hoist the anchor. I knew I was only 50 miles from San Felipe and the flat sea surface presented no challenges for the run up the coast. I passed the lighthouse at El Vergil and then the beautiful round bay at Playa Santa Maria. I could see Consag Rock, a 286-foot-high pointed island 22 miles offshore, and knew I was getting close. Soon the bluffs at Punta Estrella came into view with the beaches of San Felipe in the distance. I thought how I could terminate my adventure there and still feel I had accomplished something significant. But I had set a goal to travel from Los Angeles to the Colorado River, and I was too close to call it quits yet.
I grounded the Vaka Viti on the main beach in San Felipe and
unloaded my gas cans onto the sand. I could have walked the three blocks to the Pemex station but the Hot Springs in Puertecitos had drained most of my energy. I flagged down a taxi on the waterfront Malecon gas cans in hand. The taxi driver took a good look at my 4 cans and then looked at me, wondering if it was such a good idea to risk exposing his car to the odors of gasoline. He finally agreed to make the round trip, and before you could say “lleno” (fill ‘er up) I was back at the boat full of fuel. The $5 taxi ride was money well spent.
The next move was a no brainer. I was in the land of the ultimate fish taco and I couldn’t wait to get my molars into a few. I headed towards the south end of town along the waterfront to Plaza Maristaco, the largest collection of taco stands on the Sea of Cortez. Three fish tacos loaded with fresh guacamole, lettuce, salsa, onions and cream washed down with an ice cold Pacifico Cervesa…it just doesn’t get any better than that. Rubio’s Restaurants back in the States had gotten the idea of serving fish tacos north of the border based on Rubio’s travels to San Felipe. As good as they are they can’t come close to the real deal in San Felipe.
My last run up into the Colorado River would be tomorrow, so grabbing a room for the night was my next move. And the El Pescador Motel was just the place to hang my backback. It was right across the street from the beach, the rooms were clean, and at $40 I had a warm bed and a hot shower to prepare myself for the final leg of the adventure.
After checking into the hotel I remembered how badly I must smell and how all of my clothes were pretty grungy. I walked over to a corner vendor and bought a brand spanking pair of shorts, a tee-shirt and a pair of sandals…all for $18. After a quick shower and shampoo I felt like a normal person again. Walking around town I realized that the tide had gone out and left the Vaka V. stranded on the sand. I then realized that if I wanted to take her north in the morning I would have to anchor her in much deeper water when the tide came in at midnight.
The tides in the northern end of the Sea of Cortez have the third highest fluctuations on Earth, behind the Cook Outlet in Alaska and the Bay of Fundy in Canada, just north of Nova Scotia. In San Felipe the shoreline drop between high and low tide can be as much as 22 vertical feet. And at the mouth of the Colorado River that tidal fluctuation can be over 30 feet. This extreme tidal range in conjunction with the northern gulf’s extremely shallow beaches can expose over a half mile of previously covered sea bed. So I made a mental note to anchor the boat as far offshore as possible later that night.
On the west end of town I walked past the famous Clam Man Restaurant. For many who had visited San Felipe in years past this restaurant serves as a sort of landmark for the town. Indeed for decades it was hard not to laugh as you drove by the restaurant with the lettering on the side of the building which bragged “our clams make you horny’. Pasqual “Cruz” Guerrero has moved on to the big clam bake in the sky, but his daughter Theresa still serves up the butter clams just like her dad did years ago.
I eventually ended up in one of my favorite watering holes in Baja…Francisco Arostegui’s ‘Bar Miramar’. Part bar, part sports lounge, part swap meet…for over half a century it has been pretty hard not to have a good time at Bar Miramar. And between the Juke Box, live music and Karaoke there was always some kind of music to dance to. From Mick Jagger to Waylon Jennings something was always pumping. I ended up sharing a big table and small lies with a couple from Colorado. Neil and Adrienne were on Margarita Patrol and I helped them with their quest. After all I was a professional (don’t try this at home). They seemed amused with my circumnavigation story and wished me well in the morning. As midnight approached I knew it was time to take the Vaka Viti into deeper water and prepare for my morning departure.
The water seemed cooler at night than it did in the day, but
refreshing nonetheless. I anchored the boat well offshore thinking that she would still be floating when I got back to her in the morning. I set the hooks far from shore because I knew the tides in San Felipe were extreme and when the tide went out here it went w-a-y out. I swam back to shore and headed for the El Pescador for a good night’s sleep. I could not believe I was almost at the end of my adventure.
~ Chapter Twenty Three ~
San Felipe to the Colorado River
“In soloing – as in other activities – it is far easier to start something than to finish it.”~ Amelia Earhart
Amelia Earhart was on the last leg of her adventure when she disappeared on her around the world circumnavigation. She had made it through bad weather, getting lost and many other trying circumstances along the way. When she made it eastbound to the mid-Pacific she probably thought she was home free. She was never seen again.
I had also been through significant adversity on my circumnavigation but I new it wasn’t over until it was completely over. Several issues made this last leg of my trip very scary.
During this entire trek I had gotten used to using the shore on the left side of the boat as a kind of safety line. If anything went wrong I could always jump out of the boat and swim or raft to shore. An indeed that theory worked for me when the motor died south of Bahia Magdalena on the west coast. But now, because of the extremely shallow shoreline as I approached the Colorado River delta, I had to stay several miles offshore to be sure to avoid running aground on the sand or shoals. And if I did have to bail out, the shoreline was the kind of thick muck that was impossible to walk on. I had heard of a kayaker who had recently gotten stuck in the delta for several days and almost died.
Also because of the flat terrain I could not judge my progress as I motored forward and landmarks were non-existent. For the first time on my trip I could not see my progress along the passing coastline. It was just miles and miles of open water in all directions. My trusty Auto Club Baja map was now useless. This was a whole different kind of navigation and it gave me a lot of respect for real sailors who actually know how to navigate in open seas.
Another scary thing on this last leg was the clarity of the water. During the Pacific and Sea of Cortez runs of my trip, I could always see deep into the clear water. Reefs, sand and other underwater obstructions were usually easy to spot and avoid. This was not the case in the upper delta. The water looked less like sea water and more like the muddy Mississippi River. The water visibility just north of San Felipe dropped to almost zero, and it was very unsettling not knowing how far it was from the bottom of my prop to the bottom of the sea. And I had no extra prop in case I lost this one.
And to top it all off I remember reading that quiet a few people in centuries past had died while heading up towards the mouth of the river in an attempt to prove that Baja was a peninsula not an island. Although several Spanish adventurers such as Francisco de Ulloa and Jesuit Padres Eusebio Kino and Fernando Consag were individually successful in making it some distance up into the river, many other explorers who made the attempt were never seen again. The allure of proving Baja was an island and in finding a possible shortcut to the Northwest Passage was strong for these explorers, but the unforgiving terrain in the upper gulf was even stronger. Uncharted waters, no visible landmarks, extreme tidal fluctuations and an unforgiving mucky bottom joined forces to bring down some of the best of those who ventured this far north. Who was I to think I could make it and live to tell about it?
So it was with significant apprehension that I headed north the 50 miles from San Felipe towards desolate terrain of the Colorado River under a new set of motoring rules. After all of the drama I had been through over the last 4 weeks I was more nervous today than I had been on the entire trip.
The Colorado River Delta from space
One element I had in my favor was that I had waited for a rising tide to depart San Felipe and that the tide would continue to rise until it peaked at about 1:00 p.m., which is when I had hoped to hit the river mouth.
At first there were a few fishing pangas scattered about in the water and this gave me some degree of consolation. But as I headed further north towards the mouth of the Colorado River these boats disappeared from sight and I was definitely on my own. I guessed that the more brackish the water became the less the fish liked living there.
Isla Montague was a flat island of significant size at the mouth of the Colorado River. On several of the maps I had reviewed it looked possible to navigate north past the west side of island and actually head into the Colorado River itself, leaving the Sea of Cortez altogether. I thought it would be fun to head well up into the Colorado as far as I could motor. But the murky water and risk of getting stuck outweighed the thrill of heading too far north. Sometimes it’s hard to know when to stop, and I was getting close to that point.
As I motored north I spotted something unusual. Off to the right side of the boat I began to see hills in the distance. Mainland Mexico! For the first time on my trek I could see a sliver of land off to my left and small dusty hills off to my right. I was getting close to the end of my journey.
As I continued motoring the small land formations of mainland Mexico on my right became more distinct. At the same time the water color had deepened from a light brown to a dark brown. I slowed the Vaka Viti down to about half speed. This was definitely river water and it was impossible to see through it. I had no idea whether I was in 12 inches of water or 12 feet of water and I became very worried that I might get stuck. Common sense got the best of me and I finally slipped the motor into neutral. I didn’t dare shut it off altogether in such a remote location. If I did turn the motor off and it wouldn’t start again I would be in deep Bandini.
I stood on the bow of the boat and surveyed the horizon. I noticed a group of dolphins to the south of me. They were jumping out of the water and I couldn’t tell if they were trying to tell me not to go any further north or if they were just celebrating the completion of my journey. I assumed it was both!
I snapped a couple of pictures of the dolphins and then got back behind the wheel. The air was getting hot and the water was very calm. It was time for me and Tex to go home.
I felt a little bit like the old fisherman in Ernest Hemmingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea”. I had fought the sea, accomplished my goal, but could I get back to civilization to show the world my catch? Unlike the old man heading back to Havana from his mighty adventure at sea, my luck stayed with me and I met no adversity and I guided my small craft back to port.
We rolled back into San Felipe about 2:30 in the afternoon. I pulled up on the main beach in town right in front of Rockodile, a famous watering hole on the Malecon. I jumped out of the boat and walked across the sand to the street. As soon as my feet hit the pavement I saw my wife, daughter and my good friend Dave Denis drive down the street in Dave’s Toyota 4-Runner with the boat trailer in tow. They had just pulled into town! We had planned 4 weeks ago that I would probably complete my adventure on this day sometime in the early afternoon in San Felipe. It was remarkable how accurate that prognosis actually was.
My emotions swelled as I hugged my wife and daughter. I felt very fortunate to have completed this journey safely and be back in their lives again. There’s nothing like a good road trip to put some perspective into your life and I had just completed the biggest adventure of my life.
As if to say welcome home nature had a surprise of her own for me that night. One of the largest displays of meteors ever was on display late in the evening and we headed a few miles south of town to enjoy the show. The Leonid Meteor Shower
started off with a beautiful display of one or two meteors lighting up the sky every minute and it was quite impressive. But soon the number of meteors increased to 10 or more per minute and the sky was literally filled with bright streaks of light. It was nothing short of spectacular under the dark Baja sky and the perfect climax to an incredible adventure.
It has always been hard for me to look up into the night sky and not think about the Big Picture in life. This was especially true after completing my circumnavigation. Although I really had developed no more insight as to what life is all about after I completed my adventure, I did have a greater appreciation for being alive. Our time on this planet is short, and being here is a gift that we don’t always fully appreciate. Deep down we probably know it’s a special thing to be alive, but I think we sometimes forget. One of the goals in life might be to remember more often how fortunate we are to be here on this spinning blue planet.
~ Chapter Twenty Four ~
Colorado River to Los Angeles
It is good to have an end to journey towards, but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”~ Ursula K. LeGuin
The next morning we left San Felipe and headed north to spend the night in Ensenada. We stopped for tacos and tortas at Taco’s Manuel, and then checked into the Rosarito Beach Hotel for one final night in Baja.
Physically I was in Rosarto Beach, there was no denying that. But mentally I was somewhere else, somewhere on the ocean. I was having a difficult time re-adjusting to my new reality of people, traffic and activity in all directions. And I wasn’t even back in Los Angeles yet!
Somebody famous once said “The unexamined life is not worth living”. Although that statement might be taking a good idea to an extreme, there is indeed great value in stepping back a bit and viewing one’s life from a different perspective. And my time on the boat around Baja seemed to be a pretty good step back for me.
Did my priorities in life change after my adventure. Probably. I took this trip because I was pushing 50 years old and I was beginning to understand how short life just might be. After the trip was over I felt an even greater understanding of the brevity of life, and of what is really important. The more I thought about it the more I realized that chasing dollar bills and building a large net worth had definitely dropped a few notches on my ever changing list of important things to do.
Some of us in society, pushed by advertising and good ol’ Yankee competition, have bought into the idea that success can be defined by this collection of material goods that we acquire as we live our lives. Indeed there is nothing wrong with these material things, and they can add great joy to our lives. But they can be a waste of time if they are the thoughtless endto our efforts rather than the actual meansto a good life. If we spend more time pacing the cage than actually enjoying life then why are we here?
The end game in life is a little bit different for each person, but the word “enjoy” seems to come up quite a bit when people try to express their ideas about living life to the fullest. It seems the idea of ‘joy’ is worthy ideal, but we sometimes forget where to draw the line once we have accomplished our initial goals.
Dudly Moore, in his roll as Arthur in the movie by the same name, summed it up pretty well when he was told by his butler that he had had ‘enough’ to drink. His reply was quick and to the point, and not unlike the all-American chant. “I want more than enough” he quipped. Seems like many of us have the same idea. We want more than enough…to the point where we are never quite satisfied with what we already have.
In the words of Aristotle “Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence”. To be happy, to enjoy each day, is a definition of success that seems worthy of our consideration.
Wife Leslie, Carlos (15 pounds lighter!) and daughter Tracy in San Felipe
2003 update…the Vaka Vita has once again been taken south of the border and is now semi-retired in the Mexican fishing village of San Juancio. Carlos visits the boat on a regular basis and helps get her ready for fishing excursions for special guests, but Carlos has not taken the Vaka Viti back into the ocean since completing his adventure.