After 3 months with Mathieu in France and Iceland (see previous post), I returned to California at the end of August to spend time with my family and friends. I was overjoyed to see my loved-ones who I’d missed so much during the year and a half I’d been gone. I spent about 2 months visiting people and relaxing at my parent’s house in Pacifica (near San Francisco) before Mathieu arrived from Paris. Yeah! For about a month, I toured him around parts of northern and southern California to visit my peeps, then it was time for the next adventure. We loaded our clothes and camping gear (for both warm and cold weather), a frisbee (thanks Samantha!), a kite, my mountain bike, his GoPro, drone, kite board and mountain bike (all the way from Paris) in my 1998 Toyota 4Runner and crossed the border from San Diego, California, into Baja, Mexico. Road trip!!
I’ve always referred to the entire peninsula south of California as “Baja” but “Baja” consists of two states, Baja California (Estado Libre y Soberano de Baja California) and Baja California Sur (Estado Libre y Soberano de Baja California Sur). Per Wikipedia, Baja California has an estimated population of 3,432,900 while the state of Baja California Sur, the second-smallest of the 32 Mexican states/Federal Entities, has a population of 741,000. So, it’s a large area without a lot of people. Perfect!
So how did we spend our 25-day road trip through Baja California and Baja California Sur? Exploring small towns, historic missions, and a few large cities, eating delicious food, camping and hiking in the deserts and mountains, camping and taking walks on long stretches of wild beaches, and whale watching of course!
After an easy stop at the Tijuana (TJ) border to get our tourist cards, we drove south on Ruta 1 to spend our first night at Punta Cabras. Being at this beautiful beach brought back wonderful memories. This was the beach where, during a weekend camping trip in 2006 with my friend Anaika, she and I met Ron and his friends (also from San Diego). Anaika and Ron later married and brought my two amazing “nieces” into the world. It was a wonderful first night of wild camping (aka in the wild, no facilities) on the beach, and best of all, we had it to ourselves.
From there, we continued south on Ruta 1, leaving the coast to visit the mountains of Parque Nacional Sierra de San Pedro Mártir. Per Wikipedia, the 180,162-ac (72,909-ha) park, established in 1947, is known for its pine forests and granite rock formations. Among many other species, the park is home to the California condor, an endangered species that has been successfully reintroduced into the area through the efforts of several international agencies. This was my second visit to this beautiful park. While we didn’t see condors, as I’d seen on my first trip, we did see coyotes, deer, and a bobcat (my first). While in the park, we visited the national observatory, the second most important in Latin America, getting a special tour from Alejandro, a caretaker there. We also hiked and mountain biked through the pine forest and got some good drone video of the amazing views of and around Picacho del Diablo, the park’s highest peak at 10,157 ft (3,096 m). We shared the trails with a few other hikers but had the campground to ourselves, likely because it was super cold. To keep warm in the near freezing nighttime temperatures, we sipped tequila and listened to music next to Mathieu’s roaring fire. It was here that I discovered that Mathieu is a bit of a pyro. Despite this, we left the forest unscathed. Ha!
After three days in the park, we drove back down the mountain to Rancho Coyote, a private ranch at the base of the park. Being at a lower elevation, it was much warmer, and with it’s grassy camping area (which we shared only with the owner’s cute dogs), hot showers, and wifi, it was a great place to wait for Mathieu’s cousin, Fabien, who was joining us from Paris by way of TJ. After a long drive from TJ, he arrived in his rental car in the early evening. We had a great evening hanging out by the fire, enjoying the stars, and for Fabien and I, getting to know each other.
The next day, the three of us drove down the mountain and back to Ruta 1, stopping a few times to enjoy the views of the Pacific coast and the valley below. We then drove east via a decent dirt road and wild camped in the Valle Santa Clara, a huge valley on the east side of San Pedro Martir. Waking up to the light of the rising sun on the tall ocotillo plants and other desert trees and shrubs and on the mountains, especially Picacho Diablo, was amazing. From there we joined Ruta 5 and crossed to the Gulfo de California (crossing #1). This was the first time any of us had seen the gulf and it was stunning.
We stopped in the small coastal town of San Felipe (population 16,702) filled mostly with domestic tourists, to have a beer and use the wifi. Sitting at the bar on the malecon (boardwalk), we watched as pickup trucks trailering off-road race cars passed. We’d encountered a dozen or so off-road vehicles (very popular throughout Baja) since entering Baja but here there was a large concentration of these cars, their owners and support crew, all covered with the sponsor’s logos. The last of the four Baja 1000 races (a 800-mile race starting and ending in Ensenada) for the year was in November but the off-road fun continued. We also watched a small parade of immaculately restored classic American cars (i.e., Mustang, Camaro, El Camino, etc…) cruise by, all with Baja license plates. It was a great place to people watch and check out some awesome vehicles.
From there, we continued south along the paved secondary road to Bahia San Luis Gonzaga. The views of the gulf coast along the drive were gorgeous. We’d planned to camp that night further south. However, after a stop just past the puesta de militar (military checkpoint) to adjust the items on the truck’s roof-rack, Fabian’s rental car wouldn’t start. We’d had issues with it a few times already but had been able to get it started with a jump from my truck’s battery. It didn’t work this time. Mathieu and Fabien banged around the hood for a bit then determined that it was likely a dead starter. Crap. We spent the rest of that afternoon and evening on the phone arranging for delivery of a new car with the rental car company. Between the two French and one American, who combined spoke decent Spanish, we managed to arrange, via a crappy phone connection, with the rental company agent who spoke limited English for the delivery of a different car. Since the car was due to be delivered sometime between 11pm that night and 6am the next morning, we ended up camping by the broken down car at the puesta de militar. The federales were very nice, putting cones around the vehicle and making sure our roadside camp was in a safe area.
After a night of listening to big trucks pass through the puesta de militar, the new car was delivered at 6am and we continued south along the secondary road (most of which was under construction), to Ruta 1 then took Ruta 12 to Bahia de Los Angeles. Wow. This turned out to be our (Mathieu’s and my) favorite beach in “Baja”. We camped at the north end of the long, pebble beach, enjoying views of the bay, the peninsula opposite us, the small nearby island, and the mountains that ended at the water’s edge. We shared the beach with 7 to 8 camper vans and small RVs but had plenty of space. I was in awe that we could camp for free on such a beautiful beach. We swam in the clear water, walked along the coast, watched fish jump, saw dolphins, watched the seabirds fish, and that night, enjoyed the full moon. As Mathieu says, it was a paradise.
From Bahia de Los Angeles we returned on Ruta 12 and back to Ruta 1, crossing back to the Pacific coast (crossing #2). After a night wild camping near Punta Santo Domingo, we crossed into Baja California Sur, just north of Guerrero Negro, then drove to the village of San Francisco in the Sierra San Francisco mountains within the El Vizcaíno Biosphere Reserve. The road was paved for about 90% then turned rocky. It was a long, slow drive with the road winding along deep canyons as it continued up. The views were beautiful, a vast flat-topped desert landscape with deep canyons. The village of San Francisco appeared to consist of a few large ranchos where they raised goats and horses surrounding a small church, a cemetery, a small school, and several other small buildings. On the road, we met Angel, a local who ended up guiding us on a 2-hour hike to Galeria de Santa Teresa, a mirador overlooking a deep canyon. The views of the canyon and beyond were lovely. On a clear day, Angel told us you could see the Pacific from there. After talking to the local landowner, we wild camped at a spot overlooking the canyons and valleys below. It was another good day in the mountains.
After enjoying a beautiful sunrise in the mountains and chatting with the landowner who’d stopped by after taking his daughter to school, we returned to Ruta 1 and went to San Ignacio (population 667) to visit the mission founded in 1798. The small town is located in a beautiful palm oasis fed by natural springs so was green with lush vegetation, a dramatic change from the ecosystems we’d been in so far. The town was largely unchanged since I’d last visited with friends in 2005 and 2006 to go to Laguna San Ignacio, a protected lagoon where hundreds of gray whales gather each year to give birth. We were there too early for the large gathering of whales but spending a few hours in the palm oasis was very nice.
After having a tiny hole patched in my tire (amazingly, the only one of the trip), we continued east back to the Gulfo de California (crossing #3) to Bahia Concepcion. While driving past a small bay, Mathieu saw something in the water. We assumed at first that it as a dolphin but quickly realized it was a whale shark, the largest fish on earth! Per Wikipedia, the largest confirmed individual had a length of 41.5 ft (12.65 m) and a weight of about 21.5 tons (47,000 lb). Luckily there was a pull-out nearby so we could get off the very narrow, 2-lane road for a better look. After pictures and a drone flight over the giant fish, we grabbed our masks, scaled down the steep embankment, and swam out to it. It was amazing to swim with such a beautiful creature. We got close enough to see its white spots and touch its tail. It tolerated us hovering near it for nearly 10 minutes then turned, swam through Fabian’s legs and away. What a wonderful surprise, especially since most of the whale sharks had left the gulf by the end of November. It was also a special experience because that day was Fabien’s 40th birthday. To continue the celebration, we had a rib dinner and drinks at the nearby restaurant along with a few dozen snowbirds (per Wikipedia: a person who moves from the higher latitudes/colder climates of the northern United States and Canada and migrates south in winter to warmer locales, including Mexico). Together, we jammed to the sounds of DJ David who played hits from the 70s and 80s mixed with some musica Mexicana. We had a great night of celebration.
The next day, we continued south on Ruta 1, stopping in the coastal city of Loreto (population 14,724) to explore the city and visit the Misión de Nuestra Señora de Loreto Conchó, a mission founded in 1697. While touristy (with mostly foreigners), the city was charming and tranquil. The next day, Fabien went scuba diving with a local dive shop and we spent the day at Playa Escondida where we’d wild camped the night before, throwing disk (aka frisbee), flying the kite, and relaxing. After the dive, Fabien packed up and drove to La Paz from where he’d fly home to Paris. We’d had a great 10 days of adventures with him.
From Playa Escondida, we returned to Loreto to find a bike shop. We’d forgotten to secure the bike rack in the up and locked position the day before and accidently dragged the bikes behind the truck for about a mile on a dirt road before noticing the strange noise. Crap. Thankfully, after removing the dirt and gravel, replacing the wheel and tire on one bike and a brake pad on the other, and tightening up some loosened parts on both, the bikes were ready for action again.
From Loreto, we drove into the mountains we’d been admiring during the drive along the coast: La Sierra La Giganta. The mountains were rocky with sparse desert vegetation but with patches of lush vegetation the canyons. We stopped at the picturesque Mision San Javier (founded in 1699). All of the missions were constructed in the shape of “the Cross” and thanks to Mathieu’s drone video, I finally got a bird’s eye view of this classic formation. From there, we continued southwest on a decent dirt road. Other than the few vaqueros (cowboys) we passed, we were the only people on the road. Near sunset, we ended up camping at a private ranch we’d stopped at to ask for information. The owner, Humberto, and his wife were very sweet and allowed us to camp for free. They seemed to like having guests as there was a family of five also camping there. Dries, Carolina, and their kids Metra (~10), Casper (~7), and Coby (~4), who were Flemish from Belgium, shipped their Toyota Hilux, totally tricked out for camping, from Belgium to Canada then drove through the U.S. and into Mexico. From here, they would drive through Central America to Panama where they’d ship themselves and the truck back home. Wow, what an amazing experience, especially for the kids! We had a great time swapping travel stories with them.
The next day, we rejoined Ruta 1 and continued south to overnight on the Pacific coast (crossing #4). While trying to access an unknown beach, we ended up driving on an extremely narrow ranch road lined on both sides with tons of super spiny desert bushes. Unable to find a way to the beach, we had to return via the same route. While the truck tires made it unscathed, one tire on each bike had been fully penetrated by two or more thick spines. Crap. We hadn’t even ridden the bikes since the last repair. Ha! After a night at Punta Conejo, a popular surf break crowded with camper vans and small RVs, we continued south on Ruta 1 back to the gulf (crossing #5) and to La Paz.
La Paz (population 215,178), the capital of Baja California Sur, is touristy but charming, especially the malecon and the nearby local markets. We spent two nights wild camping at Playa Tecolote, a lovely, uncrowded beach just north of La Paz and explored the city during the day. While there, we also took a boat tour to Isla Espiritu Santo, a rocky island reserve a short boat trip rom La Paz, where we swam with sea lions, visited a frigate sanctuary and ate some delicious ceviche on the beach.
From La Paz, we drove south on Ruta 288 then on a dirt road through the Sierra La Gata mountains to the coast. Per our road map, the road was classified as “maintained.” However, it appeared it hadn’t been maintained since our 2008 map was published becaused it turned out to be a narrow, single track road with a steep drop off in parts and some very rough 4X4 parts. Of course, Genevieve (or Genny for short) did great and thank goodness because I’m not sure how another vehicle could have helped us on such a narrow road. During the trip, I realized that my old 4Runner should have a name, a name that signified perseverance and tenacity, and immediately thought of my grandmother, Genevieve, a woman who’d had both qualities. Once through the mountains, the view of Bahia de Los Muertos was amazing. I could only imagine that our views from this narrow dirt road that fell off into the sea far below must have been similar to those seen by early travelers on California’s historic Highway 1. And we were the only people on the road. Wow. Near sunset, we found a short road that lead to abandoned house on the beach and set up camp. It was Christmas Eve and we were in a perfect spot with no one around for miles. We celebrated with tequila and a good dinner.
Christmas Day we were gifted an amazing present. We’d been watching a whale about 150 ft (46 m) offshore. It appeared to remain in the same general area so we put on our masks and swam out to it. Never in a million years did I think we’d find it but we did. We swam right over it. It was a humpback who appeared to be getting a bath. He remained still while tons of small fish hovered around him, eating the algae and small crustaceans off his skin. We watched him for about 15 minutes until, with a strong pump of his tail, he slowly swam away. It was an amazing experience. We watched him surface a few more times as we ate breakfast. Wow, it was a Christmas to remember for sure.
From there, we drove south, rejoining the paved road to Los Barriles. As we approached the town, we could see dozens of kites in the air. We found out later that Los Barriles is a mecca for watersports, including kite boarding. We’d been traveling around with Mathieu’s kite board but he’d wanted to take a refresher course before getting back on it so he took advantage of us being there to take a lesson. What a perfect day: swimming with a whale and kite boarding.
From Los Barriles, we continued south on the secondary road (most of it washboard) stopping along the way at various beautiful beaches, including Cabo Pulmo, and overnighting at Nine Palms, another beautiful beach that we had to ourselves and another great place for me practice throwing disk.
From that secluded beautiful beach, we drove to Cabo San Lucas (population 68,463). Oh, culture shock. We walked along the restaurant/bar-lined malecon, along with hundreds of other tourists (domestic and foreign), and were constantly bombarded with tour offers. While Mathieu took an hour-long boat tour to the Cabo Arch, I had a beer at Cabo Wabo. I figured if I was going to have a beer in Cabo it might as well be at a bar I’d heard of. Cheers Sammy Hagar. Toward sunset, we escaped the masses and hiked to the top a small hill overlooking the marina on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other. While I didn’t care much for Cabo (way too touristy and without charm), the view of the bustling city as the sun set was lovely.
From Cabo, we drove north on Ruta 19 along the Pacific coast to Todos Santos (population 5,148) a touristy but charming city which boasted a growing art scene. It was a nice place to walk around and an excellent place to eat more ceviche. That night, we wild camped at a beach just north of Todos Santos. Being a well-known surf break, we shared the beach with other campers, but there was plenty of space for all along the long, wide beach. We set up camp to minimize the mild wind and enjoyed the evening. Sometime during the night, the wind picked up significantly, blowing the walls of the tent on top of us. With some adjustments to the tent, we fell back to sleep.
Despite a somewhat rough night, the sunrise the next morning was gorgeous. We enjoyed a leisurely breakfast then tried to throw disk but by then the wind had picked up again. So, we tried to fly our kite. You know it`s bad when it’s too windy to fly a kite. Eventually the wind became unbearable so we threw everything in the truck and headed back to La Paz (crossing #6). After a last swim in “Baja”, we boarded Baja Ferries where, after an overnight ferry to Mazatlan, we would continue our road trip through mainland Mexico (stay tuned for upcoming posts).
Adiós Baja y gracias para todo. During our 25-day road trip, we camped every night, five nights on the Pacific coast, twelve nights on the gulf coast, and seven nights in the inland mountains or desert. And of the 24 nights of camping, we paid to camp only five times (the most expensive being 180 pesos or ~$8), wild camping the rest of time in some beautiful, secluded places. Amazing! And during the roughly 2,300-mi (3,700-km) drive, we crossed from the Oceano Pacifico to the Gulfo de California six times, and felt safe the entire way. Along the way, we swam with sea lions, a whale shark, a humpback whale, and enjoyed stunning landscapes, from beaches, deserts, and tall mountains to charming small towns, and met friendly people (locals and travelers). And we ate delicious food. Mexican is my favorite type of food so I was in heaven eating street tacos, charro beans, ceviche, totopos (corn tortilla chips) with spicy salsa, and more. And tequila is my prefered drink so I was in heaven sampling the local brands. Baja is amazing and I look forward to exploring more in the future.
And thank you Mathieu for being a wonderful road trip partner. xoxo
Click the link to see the full photo album (pics & video): https://goo.gl/photos/UiDA1kN6SfHTfE9L8
And click this link to see Mathieu’s drone video mix (humpback, whale shark, Isla Espiritu Santo, San Pedro Martir (the road there & the view from the Observatory), and Bahia de Los Angeles: https://youtu.be/lZOK9sS__0E