My Quest for the Santa Maria Mission

This is a story about a quest to reach the Santa María Mission in the Cataviña area in Baja, from Day 1, I knew the standard way to get there, but hey! Why not try alternate ways, right?

I started studying google earth in detail, and with the help of David K, I soon found out the old Camino Real crossed the mountains between Gonzaga Bay and the Mission area; I measured, roughly 11 km, not bad, reviewed pictures from David K trip thru El Camino Real in, didn’t seem that difficult; well, I started to set a team and schedule.

It’s funny that when I started to promote the trip among my friends at work, almost everybody says yes, at one point I had a group of maybe 15 people; 3 days before the trip, it was down to 5 people; not bad, considering the group had to have certain physical condition to endure the distance; the plan was simple (at least it seemed that way); Drive down to Gonzaga on Friday, sleep at Camp Beluga, wake up early Saturday morning, walk half day, reach the mission, rest, and then head back to our cars that we planned to leave on the arroyo bed, easy!

So off we go; we had a nice Toyota crew, a ’07 FJ Cruiser, a ’11 4Runner and my ’94 Land Cruiser; 6 people total; left Mexicali at 8pm Friday, this was the same Friday before the Score 250 race at San Felipe; very windy from San Felipe to Gonzaga, in some parts on the mountains, the wind was so strong it could change my 3 ton Cruiser from lane to lane in a heartbeat, reached Gonzaga at midnight, arrived to Beluga, and Rafael greeted us coming in, we explained our idea and he recommended us to take someone to watch the cars for us while we walked, didn’t sounded bad idea, so arranged a local fisherman to help us with that. We camped and slept near 1 am, total peace! I slept inside of my car, the wind was so strong I just didn’t wanted to deal with putting a tent on.

Next day, 6 am, slight sunlight coming out of the horizon, everybody woke up, grabbed a small snack and hit the road; we were told the road thru Las Palmitas was washed out bad, so we took the arroyo bed; VERY heavy sand, 4Lo was needed almost immediately, some areas had heavy brush and vegetation, small scratches to the cars, nothing severe, the morning was cloudy, light breeze, but the clouds looked menacing.

We reached the parking spot around 6:45 am, left our watchman there and started walking in a attempt to find the starting point from David K’s waypoints, found the trail, and started our journey out of the arroyo bed, as soon as we left the arroyo bed we watched an off looking plain, filled with short yellow grass, very odd, but beautiful; with my iPhone and Motion-X app in hand, 2 gallons of water on camelbacks in my backpack and food, we pushed forward.

Soon, the terrain changed, from plain and leveled dirt into loose rocky, uneven and steep terrain, nobody in the group complained but, we all felt the difference.

We continued on a series of small passages, up the hills, not even near the arroyo bed; some sections of the trail are clearly visible thru the rock formations and in some cases the rocks are worn from old traffic, it was also obvious in some sections of the trail, the rocks had been pushed away from the main path.

About an hour or two into the trail, we reached a small summit, were we regained vision of the canyon; from that point on we had continuous sight of the canyon; the trail continued around hills, in some parts the path is very slippery and dangerous, it’s important to mention that the wind that day was aggressive, blowing against us on our way there; it blew one of the members of balance while jumping from one rock to another, small cuts and bruises were treated immediately.

After the incident, wind started to blow hard, but we kept pushing, by noon, we had a total of 2.5 km to go, from which 1 km was to come out of the hills down to the arroyo bed; and another kilometer to reach the mission thru the arroyo bed; so, decision time; we still had to eat and rest, reach the mission, and come back before dawn to our cars.

In short, we decided to stop and come back, one of the biggest fears I had was not time nor getting tired, it was the fact that if someone got injured, like a knee or ankle, it was going to be a very ugly scenario, the terrain is just very rough, carrying someone its almost impossible, and communication was not possible; so I guess it was a good call, we all promised to come back next year or even during fall prepared to sleep in the mission, and then walk back the next day, no rush.

Yes, it was frustrating for me, I had my hopes up about reaching the mission, like in the old times, thru El Camino Real, but man, I cannot get my head around how the people got around those paths in the past, 5 guys, with above average condition, hiking boots and all the other gadgets could make it, I can blame the wind, but I won’t.

On our way back (down), our ankles started to remind us they could complain, no injuries, but we came back tired, about one hour before reaching the cars, the clouds cleared, and the sun came out, then, we understood the clouds did serve us in favor; upon reaching the cars, we rested for a couple of minutes, and head into Camp Beluga again, defeated and hungry, wind picked up again, and we ended up lighting the BBQ on the back gate of my car due to the annoying wind.

Slept like a champ, with a mixture of exhaustion and defeat; next day, we had breakfast at Alfonsina’s, and head back to Mexicali, but with the feeling that I needed to reach that mission, and I couldn’t wait for fall, to calm this urge.