Our trip to Baja exceeded all expectations. We enjoyed nine days of beach camping, kayaking, fishing, and the highlight of the trip – close encounters with gray whales. We should also mention lots of driving – 1599 miles of it! The trip was organized by our friends Anne and Mark in Oceanside, CA, and included a total of 10 Vanagons and 19 people. Although we knew a few of the participants, most were new to us and we thoroughly enjoyed their company. They came from Oregon, Washington, California, Arizona, Virginia, and of course, Oklahoma.
We all met on Saturday morning, March 2nd, and crossed the border at Tijuana. We got to Ensenada around lunch time and stopped for a tour of the fish market and ate at a small cafe there.
To the fish market
Then we stopped at the Ensenada Wal Mart Supercenter (we had hoped to escape this after leaving the U.S.).
Ensenada Wally World
We then proceeded on into the mountains and the drive was beautiful if not nail-biting since there are no shoulders on many of the narrow mountain roads. We stopped for a break just before reaching our campsite for the night.
Buses by the beach
Stretching our legs
Our first overnight stop was at a beach camp on the Pacific coast of Baja – a place called El Pabellon, just south of San Quintin. After a long day of driving, it was nice to get out and walk a bit and enjoy the sea air. Two-year-old Meret was especially glad to escape her car seat!
Joel & Meret
We all carried walkie talkies to facilitate communication and keep us together.
The gas stop shown in the photo below is nothing like the majority of our gas stops.
Generally it was 10 Buses jockeying for 3 or 4 pumps with the attendants (who have to operate the pumps) being a bit overwhelmed .. more like a Chinese fire drill.
Note: Public restrooms in Mexico seldom provide toilet paper. Be prepared!
Gas ’em up
Towns and gas stations can be few and far between, but some enterprising individuals have solved that problem.
The next morning we left for Bahia de Los Angeles (aka L.A. Bay), a lovely bay on the Sea of Cortez side of Baja. This was another mountainous drive with lots of changes in both desert vegetation and geology. There are cacti here that we had not seen during any of our previous desert travels. One unusual cactus in this area is the Cirios – a tall and graceful but hardy plant that can grow to more than 20 feet tall.
Bahia de Los Angeles was a great spot. After a few miles of washboard, we camped right on the beach at Punta la Gringa. The kayaks came down and the fishing rods came out and while some people kayaked and/or fished, others engaged in beach-combing and hiking.
Bahia de Los Angeles
Elephant trees on road to Camp 2
Daryl & Rennie make a new friend
Shells at low tide
Dana and Mark caught some bass and barracuda that were grilled and eaten. Dolphins cavorted in the bay and shore birds foraged in the shallows.
Mark & Joel
We made one mistake here at LA Bay, and those of you who have been reading our blog will recognize it as soon as I say “we put the awning out”. The wind began to pick up in the evening but we decided to leave the awning out in the hope it would die down. The wind picked up – it howled and rocked the van all night until we finally got out at 4 a.m. and put the darn thing back down again.
The next day was lovely and involved more of the same activities with the addition of a campfire in the evening and shared brownies and cookies. Off to bed early for we had to get up and head far south the next day to the whale watching area.
Mark & Maggie
Joel & Meret
Wednesday began with a beautiful sunrise and calm winds to get us on the road.
Did I mention the facilities at Punta la Gringa? Or the lack thereof? Here ya go:
We were all anxious to get to the whales and this involved a long day on the road south to Guerrero Negro (the border between Baja Alta and Baja Sur) and beyond to San Ignacio. We stopped for gas in a spot in the road called Jesus Maria where there is a great little tamale stand. Picked up some fresh hot tamales and we were back on the road again. We noticed several elevated platforms that had been built along the road for Osprey nesting, and many were occupied.
We passed through several military checkpoints and finally the border checkpoint. Military checkpoints – and there are several – were somewhat entertaining in that most of us don’t speak Spanish, and most of them don’t speak any English. At one stop, a soldier was particularly interested in Dan’s flashlight, resulting in Dan’s relinquishing it to him. When we passed through that same checkpoint later on our return trip, one of the soldiers was using a flashlight and Dan got on the walkie talkie to lament “That’s my flashlight!”. When one of the soldiers wanted to inspect our van, he asked Larry to open the upholstered box on the floor of the bus. When Larry obligingly popped open the top of the porta-potty, the guy jumped back quickly and motioned us on. Note – if you need to move through a checkpoint quickly you might want to utilize a porta-potty in a similar manner.
We continued on to San Ignacio. Coming into the town, there is a sudden transition from desert to oasis. The little village, nestled in a wide valley, is filled with palm trees and has lots of surface water.
Coming into San Ignacio
Coming into San Ignacio
We parked at the town square which was shady and cool and picturesque. The old mission at the town center was built by Spanish friars and was begun in 1760.
San Ignacio Mission
We were all itching to get to the whale-watching camp, so after a short stroll around the plaza, we headed on out to Kuyima. After about 10 miles of pavement, the road turned to washboard for another 16 miles or so, resulting in a flat tire for Daryl and Rennie.
Road to Kuyima
Causeway across salt flats
After a long day of driving, and battling the dirt road, we finally made it to Kuyima on Laguna San Ignacio. The recovery required a couple of margaritas each, followed by a shower of sorts (bucket and cup with hot solar sea water). This was followed by a nice dinner in the restaurant and then to bed without delay.
Although we did not deploy the awning, we listened to the winds batter the bus and the waves crash against the shore all night long. As dawn arrived, we awoke to continued high winds and choppy seas. We thought sure the boat trip would be cancelled, but it was postponed for only an hour until the crew decided to drive us over to a spot closer to the whales to launch the boats, where the winds shouldn’t be as severe. We set out with some trepidation but were anxious to get close and possibly touch a whale!
Kuyima whale boats
Boarding the boats
Laguna San Ignacio is a protected area and the location of several eco-tourism facilities. Kuyima is one of these and is involved in tourism that is designed to preserve the habitat of the gray whales and other residents of the Lagoon’s ecosystem. Whales are protected by law and fishing is not allowed.
We used three boats, with five or six of us to a boat. Seventeen of us went out and Amy stayed behind with 2-year-old Meret. She would go the next trip. It was a great day and we spent about two hours out in the boat. We saw many whales and came within about 15 feet of some, but not close enough to touch. The other two boats had better luck and all got to “pet” a whale. There were several pairs of mothers with calves.
Thar she blows!
A whale of a tail
they were here a minute ago
We took the long rough boat trip back to camp and the tide had gone out in our absence, leaving us to walk about 100 yards or so from the boat to land through calf-deep water and onto sand flats. We were quite worn out from the trip and after lunch took showers and naps.
Returning at low tide
Up early the next morning and the winds continued to blow. Anne, Faye, and Harold wanted to go out again to see the whales while most everyone else was taking a short trip to Mulege further south. Maggie decided to stay and go out to the whales again in the hope of getting closer contact. Larry went with Mark and the rest of the crew who never quite made it to Mulege due to Jason and Jen’s van having a flat tire on the washboard road and Mark and Dana’s having engine issues.
So the four of us who were left got a boat all to ourselves and took a rough ride out to the whale area. No sooner did our guide cut the engines, than a mother and calf came up to the boat and stuck their noses up out of the water for us to touch them. They repeated this several times, with the mother coming up out of the water and looking at us. What an odd experience with these great creatures. The mother pushed the baby towards the boat and we got to touch both of the whales. At one point the mother, who was much larger than our boat, went under us and bumped the boat, causing it to tip about 30 degrees sideways. Exciting! After this encounter they followed us for awhile and later came up to us again. This truly made the experience complete and unforgettable.
Faye & Anne
Spy-hopping baby whale
After a quick shower, Anne and I headed back into San Ignacio via the awful dirt road. Hal and Faye followed us and we met up with Daryl and Rennie in the San Ignacio square. We were soon joined by the rest of the bunch and headed north again. Larry reported that due to the issues with two buses, they had only driven as far as Santa Rosalia for lunch but had experienced some mountain roads that were even more “exciting” than the ones we had already traversed.
Santa Rosalia panaderia
Santa Rosalia Thing
Santa Rosalia harbor
It was getting late so we drove north past the border again and had to stop for inspections at the military checkpoint. After we passed the checkpoint, Mark noticed that the road we had planned to take to camp on the beach was blocked by the military there and we had to make other plans. We drove on – now in the dark – and eventually stopped at a large dirt pullout where a house and restaurant were located along the highway. We all backed into the large parking area after checking with the landowner and camped there for the night. The burros and trucks finally quieted down and we did get some sleep.
The next morning, two buses in the group decided to go on toward the border while the rest of us decided to go back to LA Bay for one night, then one night in El Pabellon before coming home. It poured rain on us a good part of the way to LA Bay and then, as we approached the coast, the sun came out and it turned out to be a beautiful day.
Buses over the rainbow
Instead of taking the washboard road back out to La Gringa, we opted for a campground off the paved road closer to town, “Daggett’s Beach Camp”. We each had a spot with palapa overlooking the beach. Dana and I took a kayak and some fishing rods out into the windy bay and discovered it was quite rocky and kept snagging our lines. Dana did catch one fish only to find out it was a puffer fish which had to go back in. When we returned to shore Larry informed us that a pod of dolphins had been cavorting right behind us, but we were oblivious due to fishing and fighting the strong winds.
Daggett’s Beach Camp
Dana & Maggie unaware of companions
As the sun went down, we built a fire and Anne made a pot of soup big enough to serve the whole group. We sat around the fire and visited, inviting another couple who were camping near us to join in. The couple, Jack and Samar, were Merchant Marines who work four months on and four months off. Earlier in the day they had been flying a large kite that appeared to be able to lift Sam right off her feet. They asked if anyone wanted to try it out and Larry volunteered but found it to be much harder than it looked. Dan had a similar experience but Joel got the hang of it fairly quickly.
Samar & Jack
The next morning was a bit more leisurely since we only had a 5 hour drive to get to El Pabellon that day. We again passed through some beautiful terrain.
Baja Agave in bloom
Road to El Pabellon
We noticed on the drive back that the Pacific side had experienced a lot of rain. It was cool and windy on the beach at El Pabellon and we again built a campfire and everyone contributed resources to make a big pasta dinner. It was our last night out together and we were reluctant to head off to bed but another early start awaited.
El Pabellon camp
Sunday morning we packed up the bus – and everything outside was wet, sandy, and salty. We spent all day driving back through Ensenada and up to the border at Tecate. The drive to Tecate was nice as it went through wine country and more of the bouldery terrain. The border itself, however, was a less-than-pleasant 2 and 3/4 hour wait. We made it back to Oceanside at 7 p.m., tired but happy to have been included in this unforgettable experience.
Wine country on road to Tecate
Road to Tecate
In line at Tecate border crossing
Many, many thanks to Anne and Mark for making this incredible trip possible!
For many more photos of this part of the trip and the people involved, click the link below;
Photo Gallery Link: Click Here