Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Baja Redux

I was asked to write a story for our community newspaper on my recent trip to Baja. Before this I wasn't planning on writing anything at all; rather, just relying on the unspoken narratives of the photos. But since I've already put the photos together and shared those here, and since given a brown bag lunch Baja slideshow at work, writing a trip report, as I call it, is I suppose the next logical step:

Trip Report: Baja California, Fish Tacos, and the World’s Tallest Boojum

But oh, beamish nephew, beware of the day,
If your Snark be a Boojum! For then
You will softly and suddenly vanish away,
And never be met with again!

— Lewis Carroll, from “The Hunting of the Snark”


It is dangerous, we are told, to ignore the real world for a fantasy life that affords us internal pleasures but does little for the salvation of humanity and the earth itself. To that I say: boojum!

And with that nonsensical word, this spring I headed off with two other pioneering Civanoites—Scott Calhoun and Dan Weber—to Baja California, Mexico, in search of un-iteneraried adventure, fresh fish tacos, and the world’s tallest boojum, Fouquieria columnaris. What we found—in the sweet silence afforded by not having cell phones or laptops—was a land far less commercial and far more authentic than much of the desert Southwest north of the border. Indeed, Baja was full of pleasant surprises at every turn.

We entered Mexico forty miles east of San Diego, through the town of Tecate, with its namesake brewery, tree-lined central square, colorful vendors, and famous bakeries. Right away we could tell that Tecate is not the clichéd Mexico border town. Secluded from nearby U.S. interstate traffic, Tecate rests in a valley of the lower Sierra Juarez: a mountain town with clean streets, bright buildings, and—we learned as we stopped for lunch—excellent chile rellenos.

From Tecate we drove the thin, shoulderless Mexico Highway 1 south through the Ruta del Vino, a surprisingly agricultural area with wineries, olive orchards, flower gardens, and other farming, all with advanced irrigation systems. Nearing the Pacific coast, we crossed the fog-laden coastal range, moving from the rocky (though not dry) northcentral Baja mountains to the surprisingly lush coast north of Ensenada.

We made just a quick stop in traffic-snarled Ensenada to stock up on essentials before heading south toward San Quintin and a coastal campground. Our goal this first night was to camp on the beach, finding the freshest fish possible. Scott’s Baja guidebook provided plenty of campground options, so we detoured from the well-paved highway to the small village of Erendira and, at the Cocina Familia Erendira, our first and—dare I say—most delicious tacos de pescada of the trip. Certainly the battered, deep-fried dorado filets on a bed of fresh cabbage and corn tortillas with a delightfully spicy salsa set the benchmark.

The evening came to a close as we rolled through dirt roads and strawberry fields to a small RV park on a sloping bluff overlooking the Pacific. We set up camp in the dark to find a sky brilliant with the wash of the Milky Way; more stars in the moonless sky, we agreed, than we’d ever seen before.

The next morning we woke in a light fog, with the waves rolling in to the west and a crimson sky to the east. Scott was the first to swim in the mighty Pacific, challenging Dan and I to do the same—and making a pact to swim in the waters off both Baja coasts. There’s nothing quite like body surfing in icy waters and shockingly strong currents, and I have the scars to prove it.

That morning we made plenty of stops on our drive south, filling our digital cameras to the virtual brim with new discoveries: near-translucent agaves, fields of harvested cactus, ground-swelling yucca, blazing Mexican fire barrel cactus, and finally: boojum. Our first sighting was exciting not only because it meant we were closer to our goal, but also because these boojum—or cirio, meaning candle in Spanish—were draped in a moss fed by Pacific fog.

We stopped for more fish tacos at El Rosario, our last point along the western coast before heading inland. Once again we were not disappointed, though I did make a bit of a scene by unplugging the singing bass mounted on the wall above the cash register. In my defense, I came to Mexico to get away from annoying Wal-Mart rubbish like that.

By afternoon we reached Cataviña in central Baja, where we set up camp and then headed out to the surrounding boulder fields. Here we found a diverse array of boojum, cordon cactus, elephant trees, ocotillos, barrel cactus, cholla, and a wide variety—in the broad, sandy wash adjacent to our campground—of flowering lupines, salvias, and more. One of the biggest delights was coming into the oasis of Mexican fan and blue palms, their prismed fronds silver-blue in the waning afternoon light.

That evening we dined at the local cantina, settling for beef tacos as that’s all there was. Disappointing, but a relaxing meal in a beautiful area nonetheless.

Another spectacular sunrise greeted us the next morning. Scott headed for the low-bouldered scarps east of the campsite while I headed to the palm-lined arroyo north, both with cameras in hand. Dan, likely wiser than both of us, stayed at camp to enjoy fresh-brewed coffee and the morning’s waking birds, such as a vermilion flycatcher shining like a jewel in the camp’s large mesquite.

After we broke camp, we drove south again on Highway 1 until we reached the intersection with Highway 3, east toward Bahia de Los Angeles and the Sea of Cortez. While the climate was drier the farther east we drove, the cordon and boojum, south of Highway 3 specifically, appeared taller and more dense. Later that afternoon, when we returned to scout out the world’s tallest boojum, that proved to be true.

By lunchtime we reached Bahia de Los Angeles and looked out into the azure waters of the Sea of Cortez, with its brown, mountainous islands and diving pelicans. We found a beach campground with handcrafted cabanas and set up the tents. Fulfilling our pact, we swam in the much warmer, much calmer sea, snorkeling or just enjoying the view of the beach. Our next stop was a small store, though we were looking for Bahia’s best fish tacos. Fortunately, the local basurero bus driver had us follow him to La Hamaca, where we enjoyed tacos de pescado of a different nature: batter-fried fish on fresh flour tortillas, with mouth-watering pico de gallo, mayonnaise, and limes. Better than the first night’s? Hard to say, but definitely close!

Bellies full, we drove back on Highway 3 to the Mission de San Borja turnoff, a tight and rocky dirt road where Dan let me get my 4x4 kicks by driving. After careful searching and re-searching, we found the world’s tallest boojum in a thick forest of cordon, boojum, and Mexican ocotillo trees, nestled between the red cliff walls of Montevideo Canyon. I am not at liberty to provide more location details than that, though Dan did take GPS coordinates.

The warm afternoon light provided plenty of photography opportunities, and after the work of estimating the boojum’s height, we drove to a series of cliff paintings beside a primitive campground. We explored the petroglyphs until sunset, then drove back to Bahia de Los Angeles and yet another outstanding serving of fish tacos as the laughter and calls of a co-ed volleyball game drifted over our patio from a nearby park.

Returning to camp, we found an old washer drum that proved to be the perfect fire pit. Dan lit a fallen branch of elephant tree, and its incense-quality aroma filled the air. We nearly drifted off on the calm waters of the Sea of Cortez before turning in for the night. Unfortunately, that night the wind ravaged our campsite, and none of us slept very well. Scott nearly lost his tent—with him in it.

By morning the wind was gone and the tide was way out, providing an opportunity for tidepool exploring.

Despite the wind—or perhaps because of it—Scott came up with a plan to more accurately measure the boojum, and after a breakfast of cereal we headed back to the spired plant. Using our tripods, a compass, and a 50-foot string for measurement, Scott and Dan were able to measure the height using the calculation of similar triangles: 81 to 90 feet tall!

Time for more photos before taking the wonderfully lonely road south to the San Borja Mission, located among both hot and cold springs in the mountains of central Baja. Built in 1762 by Jesuit missionaries, the stone compound receives few visitors, so the lone guide was quite happy to see us. Though unschooled, he spoke both Spanish and English and gave us a thorough tour.

Opting to skip out on a dip in the hot springs, however, we decided to cut west to reach the Pacific coast again. We were not disappointed to find tacos de pescado for lunch along the way, of course. On the Pacific we were seeking a sheltered bay, and that’s precisely what we found at Santa Rosalallita. A wide, well-paved road has recently been added off Highway 1, and a harbor is under construction. Our goal was to get away from this modernism, though, so we scooted north on the high bluff above a wide, sandy beach until we found a road that—for 50 pesos per vehicle—allowed us to drop into a perfect stretch of beach and low sand dunes.

We pitched our tents, fell into rhythm with the breezes off the bay, and then walked along the beach. The sand was fine and light, revealing clams and starfish here and there. It was sheltered by a rocky point south that divided the bay from the rougher waters of the full Pacific. Offshore, a shrimping boat bobbed, and to the north, in the distance, the mountains of the coastal range washed into dusk.

Night came slowly, so we explored the vast, vegetated dunes after setting up our tents. Deciding to dine in, we had a potluck of dried fruit, summer sausage, beef jerky, cheese, and granola bars. As with all our stops, cerveza—Tecata, Negra Modelo, Modelo Especial, Tijuana TJ—quenched our thirst. Because we were on the eastern side of the bay, the sun set not over the water but behind us, behind the dunes, to the west. Though disorienting, the result was a spectacular sunrise over the water, to the east, with the shadow of the shrimping boat small and idyllic among the breaking waves.

The next morning Scott and I set out to find the source of the calling we heard the previous night. Finally we made our way to the volcanic point, where we found deep, rich tide pools and, loping through the waves that broke off the point, a lone sea lion undoubtedly catching up to the colony of the night before.

Our goal this final full day in Mexico was simple: to get to Ensenada and enjoy fish tacos at the very source of the culinary art. Passing through El Rosario again, we made a stop at a random outdoor eatery, again delighted by the fresh fish and many colorful salsas and sauces. Add in a Mexican Coca-Cola, and we were all set for the drive.

As we drove north, a slight but steady rain settled on the region. Far from depressing, however, the rain brought out the brilliant reds of the fire barrel cactus and radiant yellows of San Diego sunflowers. By the time we reached San Quintin—and stopped for roasted garbanzo beans—the clouds had broken and there was a coolness in the air.

A bit precariously, we parked in Ensenada and made our way to the main Mercado area, which was too touristy for our tastes. Unfortunately, by the time we were ready to eat, the tacarios along the wharf were closed, so we moved back to the Mercado and found a restaurant recommended by an American ex-pat who operated a foreign curio shop. Though not as side-of-the-road as we had grown accustomed to, the sit-down dinner of tacos de pescada was nonetheless tasty, and washed down well with cerveza and vino. Before heading off into the sunset and out of town, we bought the requisite gifts for our families.

It was dark by the time we left Ensenada, and driving on Mexico Highway 1 in northern Baja at night is a white-knuckle experience at best. Still, we found the roadside RV park about twenty miles north and—among the cool, moist evening and occasional hooting owl—made camp by lantern glow and settled in for the night.

The next morning Dan was drenched, as he didn’t bring his tent fly along. Still, he was a good sport and, by the time we all enjoyed a delicious breakfast of huevos rancheros and cactus omelets in Tecate, was mostly dry. We wandered the streets of that lovely city after breakfast, then headed back into the U.S., back into the whirring, buzzing, wide-laned American life, where I had six messages waiting on my cell phone. I soon realized that my heart, however, stayed behind in Santa Rosalallita.

I hope to reclaim again it before too long.

1 comment:

jd said...

Well written account. I very much enjoyed it. I ready for some fish tacos now.