We spent the last night of our Baja vacation camping in a vineyard.
I knew it was going to be a terrible day on the water. It’d been windy, and when I took Brandi out for a run through the streets of Guerrero Negro that morning, there was already a stiff breeze that I knew would continue building. But we’d paid for this whale watching trip way back at the first meeting of the Baja Winters Caravan after listening to many glowing reports about it. We were going no matter what.
We’d arrived at the salt mining town of Guerrero Negro (Black Warrior) the afternoon before and were staying in the Malarrimo RV Park which was basically the parking lot of the Malarrimo Restaurant. Guerrero Negro is a flat, windswept, desolate-looking piece of real estate on the Pacific Coast just south of the Baja Sur state line. Although people started massacring whales in this area in the mid-1800s, the town itself was founded in 1957 by the salt mining company. There are two distinct sections of Guerrero Negro. The western part is where the middle and upper management employees of the plant live. It is a slice of American suburbia – paved, tree-lined streets, identical houses with driveways, garages, and yards, and company cars and trash cans parked by the curbs. The eastern side of town is where the manual laborers live and it was the typical Baja village with dirt, pot-holed streets and houses in various stages of construction with rebar sticking out in odd angles in odd places.
Almost everyone in the caravan was going on the whale-watching trip so we divided ourselves into groups of ten, piled into the vans, and listened to our guide’s informative and entertaining description of the community and the whales on the twenty minute drive out to the Laguna Ojo de Liebre, also known as Scammon’s Lagoon, where we boarded our skiffs. They were open boats with four benches spanning the width. The captain steered the 115 hp Suzuki from the stern. Soon we had pushed off the dock and were skimming along the tiny swath of smooth water in the lee of a huge coastal dune, only inches from the shore – our captain obviously knew what he was doing!
It was beautifully desolate – wind-shaped dunes for miles, sand blowing off their peaks like snow off a mountaintop. Soon though, we could see the white caps in the mouth of the bay. I knew that was going to be our destination. The swells grew and we slowed, finally barely idling as the bow rose and fell and salt-water sprayed over us. I’d dressed in layers culminating with a rain coat and rain pants, so temperature-wise, I was very comfortable. The water hitting us felt warm. But I wasn’t exactly sure how long my stomach would survive.
We drifted and bobbed along, seeing plumes of spray from whales off in the distance. It was beautiful, but the two full hours we were going to be on this boat started to look more like a prison sentence. Then our guide spotted a mother and a calf, not too far away. He motored closer and stopped. Our boat was directly in their path. The whales didn’t alter their course; they kept coming towards us. So very close now, maybe ten feet. Our skiff seemed so small; they seemed so huge. They dove under the boat. We all rushed to the side and looked down into the clear water to watch their bumpy, gray bodies gracefully glide past. They surfaced not too far away and our captain rearranged the boat to be in their path again.
This time they slowed as they got nearer. We looked into the water and could see them headed right for us. I was more than a little scared – these enormous dark masses slowly coming up at us from the depths. Did they know how huge they were? Did they have a memory somewhere in their brains of what atrocities our species had committed against them? About a foot from the boat they surfaced, calmly, stayed there for a few moments, then went under the boat again, coming up only inches from our port. These huge animals seemed to be studying us as we studied them. We all rushed to the side of the boat again. I truly thought we would flip. But we all wanted to see, to get as close as possible. We stuck our hands in the water, trying to make contact.
I am from Nebraska. In the chunk of the United States between the Mississippi River and the front range of the Rockies, the further west you go, the less emotional people are. It’s not that we don’t have emotions, we just prefer not to make a big deal about them. We might have life-changing experiences, but if it doesn’t involve a football, we are not going to talk about it.
I’m not saying that seeing that mother and baby was a life-changing experience for me. But, for some reason, as I watched them, so close to each other and so close to us, I cried. I guess I’ve been on the East Coast too long.
We screamed, we clapped, we cheered, we oohed-and-ahhed but eventually the pair moved on. However, that was not the end of the whales. One after another came up to the boat. One whale opened its mouth to show us its strange, curtain-like baleen. A couple others sprayed us with blow-hole water. One kept nudging the boat from underneath. I finally was able to touch one – it was smooth, but bumpy, and felt taut yet spongy. I know – not a very precise description. One of the participants described it as a firm neoprene feel.
By the end we were all tired, crusty with salt water, sun-burned, and, even though Becky had shared her ginger tablets with us, sea-sick…yet thoroughly amazed. To me it felt like two worlds – one old and wise, the other naive and learning – had had a moment. What the whales learned from us silly, goofy humans I can’t imagine. And I think I’m too dense to truly understand their wordless lesson. But I’m pretty sure it had something to do with trust, and forgiveness, and an idea that no matter how much separates us, when both worlds are willing to reach out, there is an opportunity for something extraordinary.
For me, the term “El Carnaval” conjures up scenes of a huge street party – hips swaying to latin beats, beads flying, shirts lifting, drinks flowing. But I’ve never been to Rio or to Mardi Gras or any Fat Tuesday celebration. So, although Mitch and I usually avoid crowds like the Plague because Mitch believes if he doesn’t, he will catch the Plague, I was excited to see that our caravan itinerary included a stop in La Paz specifically to attend El Carnaval.
La Maranatha RV Park in La Paz was our meet-up location for the caravan after our 15 days of freedom. It was fun to catch up with the others. A few of them had spent time in Cabo San Lucas, one couple had gone on a 7-day kayak tour out of Loreto, one couple had stayed in La Paz the entire time using it as a base camp for exploring. All reports were fantastic except for Cabo – no one really cared for Cabo.
Our wagonmasters, John and Becky, had reserved taxis for the group for the final night of El Carnaval. Since we arrived on Sunday, we had time to do some exploring. We’d heard the beaches around La Paz were beautiful so we decided to check those out.
I’m adding this as a word of advice to future travelers – if at all possible, don’t go to the beaches of La Paz on Sundays. All of La Paz goes to the beach on Sunday! For the beach that we had heard the most about, Playa Balandra, we couldn’t even get close. Cars overflowed the lot and parked along the access road all the way out to the highway. It was the same for El Tesoro. El Tecolote was huge enough that there was plenty of space for parking. And quite a number of RVers were dry camping there. We watched the scene for a few minutes – loud trucks driven by men holding beer cans in their left hands, the steering wheel in their right using beach volleyball games as weaving cones, unleashed Rottweilers and pit bulls frolicking in the waves – before deciding that maybe we should use the rest of the afternoon to stock up on groceries and do laundry.
On Monday we drove about 45 minutes south to the town of La Ventana (the window) to look for some mountain biking trails listed on our Trailforks app. It is another big kiteboarding area and so it has a lot of restaurants and campgrounds and Americans and Canadians. As usual, the trailhead was not marked but, once we found it, the main trail was easy to follow and was really, really cool! It was flat but it wound back and forth around and through stands of cardones and other crazy desert flora. Someone had even taken the time to label some of the plants. Of course, as fast as I was running, they were all a blur (completely kidding – the problem I have with stopping while running is that there’s a darn good chance that I might not be able to start again!).
Finally, Tuesday and El Carnaval – parrrtayyy! We were dropped off a couple of blocks from the parade route which was along the La Paz Malecòn (boardwalk). It looked like a fair midway with carnival games, food booths, kiddie rides, and stages. But the backdrop was pretty spectacular – a sunset over the beautiful Bahia de La Paz. It wasn’t very crowded at all. Some people from our group had gone the first night of the festival and had said that it was so packed that you could barely move.
We strolled along the malecòn, taking in the sites, until we came to an area of restaurants that had tables set out right beside the parade route. We asked a server how to go about getting a table and he said that as long as we agreed to spend at least 500 pesos ($20 dollars) we could have a spot on the balcony overlooking the parade. Perfecto!
So we sat at our table, the server brought us drinks, we met a fun bunch of people living on yachts in the bay, a nice young, local mother with her two kids, shared nachos and pizza with all of them, and had the perfect view of the “crazy” parade.
The thing is, it wasn’t a crazy, drunken, free-for-all at all. It was very much like a Midwestern county fair with great Latin music and dancing. The floats had young beauty queens in formal costume gowns smiling and waving (wrist-wrist-elbow-elbow), or bands with irresistible horn sections (the semi driver pulling one band joined in by letting off his air brakes in rhythm with their music), or school-aged dance teams. Being Mexico, there were some revealing costumes and one float had women doing pole dancing routines (to which the guy from the yacht said, “You’re not gonna see that in the Macy’s Day Parade!”) The risque-est of them all was a float with costumed adult “women” dancing – and only because we were informed by the young mother, in a whispered giggle, that they were really “hombres” (men).
After the parade the streets became a little more crowded but not bad. Kids zig-zagged around us, fathers carried toddlers on shoulders while mothers held tightly to small hands which gripped stuffed animals, glowing sticks, and lollipops. One of the most entertaining events of the whole evening was watching the kiddie Ferris wheel. It was only about twenty feet tall but it looked like it predated the Mexican Revolution. The operator manually advanced the wheel while loading. It appeared that the rule was “Under three years old had to be tied into the seat with a sisal rope knotted under the kid’s armpits. Over three – kid’s choice.” It took awhile to get all the seats filled – some kids started crying, some stared forlornly out at the crowd, others smiled and waved at their parents the entire time. Finally, it was loaded. The guy gave it a few good whirls as if he were spinning the wheel at the Price is Right until finally the motor caught and took over. I watched with my eyes partially covered, waiting for one of the none-tied in kids to get launched or slide out the bottom. But, other than the few that had been crying from the start, when the ride ended, all customers seemed pleased and alive.
It really was a perfect evening – good food, great entertainment, fun happy people, and we were back in at our camper by 9:30 pm.
Every beautiful spot in Baja is at the end of a terrible road.
The word around town was that we had to try the pizza in El Triunfo. We’d passed through El Truinfo on the way from La Paz to Los Barrilles and it looked like many of the other towns along the highway – a cute church, many hollowed-out buildings, a couple of topes (speed bumps). But Becky, our ever up-beat wagonmaster, had assured us that it warranted a return trip.
We prefer to calorically justify our eating excursions so I started to look for blog posts or web guides for an activity to do in El Triunfo other than the heavy lifting required to get pizza slice to mouth. We’d seen a tiny square sign when passing through Triunfo with a bicycle and a directional arrow. Did I dare dream of a biking trail in this tiny town in Baja??
We didn’t find any trails listed on Trailforks (this great app that a mountain bike guide in Los Barriles had told us about). And many of the listings on the on-line search were for mountain bike tours covering all of Baja. But I did find a couple of posts, in Spanish, about a mountain bike race in El Triunfo – Ciclismo Baja Sur. It sounded promising enough and, although the maps I’d found were vague, we figured someone in Triunfo would be able to point us in the right direction.
El Triunfo was once a mining boom town. At its height in the 1890s it had about 4,000 – 10,000 residents. But when the gold and silver ran out, so did the mining companies. Now it looks like there might be a couple hundred people living in the ruins. But they are really cool ruins and a few businesses are moving in to restore the old brick buildings and breath life back into the town. One of two remaining chimneys used in the calcination process (whatever that is) was designed by Gustov Eiffel of the Eiffel Tower and they are trying to complete some much needed restoration work on it.
When we got to El Triunfo (it is about 45 minutes north of Los Barriles) we turned at the arrow/bike sign on the main highway looking for the trailhead. No luck. It is a very small town though so it didn’t take us too long to drive all the way through it, on both sides of the highway, searching for any other possible clues to this bike trail. Still no luck. We parked and I asked a bartender in a cute little restaurant if he knew anything about it. He said that he thought it was behind the chimney. We walked to the chimney but the area was closed due to the restoration work. As we were walking back to the car wondering what to do next, I noticed what looked like a goat trail at the end of a street leading down into a wash. On a piece of paper smaller than a business card stapled to a fencepost (not the closest fencepost to the street), was a black arrow pointing towards the wash. I followed it and found another arrow pointing north. We’d found the trail!
Have I mentioned that we’d only brought one bike? So I ran the trail with Brandi (that’s actually not a punishment – I really love trail running!) and Mitch took the bike. It was marked well at first, although the paper arrows would be destroyed after one major rain. But then, as we got further, the arrows were turned the other way. So we’d missed something, somewhere, but we continued on, going against the arrows. After a little over three miles, going through an arroyo, over some hills, and behind the chimney, we ended up back in town. I decided that I’d call it a day but Mitch wanted to go back through.
About an hour later, Mitch rode into town, relieved that he’d found his way back but with a big grin on his face. “You missed the really cool part,” he said. There’d been a turn that we’d wondered about when we’d passed it. He took it the second time and it ended up being some really fun single-track with great views. Too late though – my brain had moved on to pizza.
The pizza was in a restaurant called Cafe El Triunfo, in an old brick building that the owner has beautifully restored. It was a unique space with one relic-filled room leading to the next, patios, awnings, balconies, and an open air bar and brick oven overlooking the Eiffel chimney. We sat at the bar and watched the staff make our pizza and slide it in the oven while the resident Great Dane buried chunks of bread in the dirt around the patios to dig up later (the server told us that he always remembers every hiding spot).
I am not a pizza connoisseur – almost any dough with cheese makes me happy. But this was goooood!! Nice thin, crispy crust, fresh, fragrant basil, lots of mozzarella. Before we knew it, our large had disappeared.
Calorically speaking – I know I didn’t come close to breaking even. But Becky was right – El Triunfo was worth the return trip.
Exploring the arroyos, beaches, and restaurants of Los Barriles.