Our next stop was north of the city of La Paz, written up as the best boondocking spot in all of Baja California! Back to the Sea of Cortez, which is now one of our favorite bodies of water. It was time for chilling at Playa El Tecolote. Check out my review of the beach here.
This was another wide beautiful beach but with several beachfront restaurants in the middle. There were quite a few RVs parked on the east end of the beach but there was lots of open space. We parked about 100 yards away from the next RV in a nice private spot.
We took a walk on the beach and decided to have an early dinner. As we returned, the RV looked so close to the water that Hector kept checking to make sure that high tide wouldn’t reach us.
That evening we were treated to a spectacular sunset. And the next morning we awoke to a commanding view of the south end of the island of Espíritu Santo amidst beautiful turquoise water.
We hadn’t had much downtime and had covered many many miles so we decided to take it easy and relax and read for a couple of days.
The next afternoon a couple that we’d met at the RV park in Bahia de los Angeles drove in to spend the night.
We hung out with Chuck and Teri and their cute dog, Kokanee. They brought a little firepit and lit a nice fire that evening and we enjoyed another fabulous sunset.
Later that night Hector and I came back out to watch the stars which were beautiful.
The next day we walked over to one end of the beach where there’s a little trail up a hill and hiked up to a road that took us around the bend. And what was over the bend? Another beautiful little beach cove of course. That was the extent of our activity for the day.Some may have noticed that we’ve been wearing hoodies and coats. It’s been unusually cold in Baja but seeing the weather in the States we haven’t dared to complain. Here we finally found the warm weather! On a nice, calm and warm day we went for a paddle.
There were fish jumping out of the water and of course pelicans and gulls. There were also a lot of frigate birds flying above us which are so interesting with their forked tails.
The water was a beautiful turquoise and swimming pool clear. Just like the pictures we’ve seen that made us want to come to Baja in the first place.
It was a relaxing paddle and a great way to end our restful stay at this lovely beach but the time had come to hit the big city and their Carnaval celebration.
Our base for exploring the whale watching sites in the Bahía Magdalena was Ciudad Constitución. A burgeoning farm town of 45,000 and a great supply outpost for the area as well as RVers that are passing through. The town was also a convenient base for exploring the nearby Pueblos Históricos.
We stayed at Misiones Trailer Park, a nice little campground. Check out our review of the campground here.
While there, Island Girl arrived! Well, we thought it was Island Girl as we’d never seen an identical 2004 National Tropical before. But this was her identical twin. We had to look really closely to make sure it was not her. It brought back so many great memories.
Ciudad Constitución, though not considered a tourist town, had quite a few restaurants and stores. We had some good meals there including one of Hector’s favorites, which he refers to as “road chicken”. A whole chicken is spatchcocked then grilled, then cut up and served or packaged to go with some macaroni salad, rice, tortillas and hot sauce. Yummy and also almost free!
The entire area is known as El Valle Comondú, named after the valley villages of San Miguel de Comondú and San José de Comondú, known collectively as Comondú. Both villages are designated as Pueblos Históricos.
We read a description of a visit to Comondú as stepping back in time and were intrigued. There are two roads to the towns, one rough four-wheel drive track from near Misión San Javier, the other a nice recently mostly paved road from Cuidad Insurgentes which happens to be adjacent to Cuidad Constitución.
The two villages, located in a fertile ravine in the Sierra de La Giganta, were agricultural centers fueled by spring fed orchards and fields and a smart cultivation project devised by the missionaries.
Since missions had to be self-sustaining, in the early 1700s Padre Juan de Ugarte filled in the Aranjuez Canyon with an astounding 160,000 mule loads of earth so they could plant sugarcane and vineyards. The vineyards were one of the earliest in all the Californias.
The villages faltered in the mid-1800s until a group of Mestizo Indians from the mainland resettled it and began planting again. The Pueblos Históricos designation has revitalized the villages and opened them up to tourism. The townspeople now sell products made with local dates, oranges, sugarcane and figs as well as Mission wine from the local vineyards.
The road to Comondú started out as flat desert with lots of raptors. Hector read that there were crested cara caras in this desert area and we saw many more than we expected! Beautiful with bright beaks, we’d previously only seen them in Africa when we visited years ago.
We also spotted osprey, red tailed hawks and a road runner. Of course, Hector was out there with his gear chasing them around.
As the road continued, it became mountainous with spectacular views. Another beautiful drive in Baja California. As we got closer to the villages, an oasis with lush fields and palms appeared.
We arrived first at San Miguel de Comondú, a charming town with cobblestone streets and freshly painted colonial buildings. The church was originally a visita, something like a secondary outpost, of the Misión de San Javier.
There is a nice hotel in the plaza whose entrance consists of two rooms with many interesting antiques including a sweet little dollhouse.
It was a Sunday and much of the village was quite sleepy but one of the vintners, Don Alegario, was open for business. He sells his wine inside his home and gave us a sample, it tasted like a sweet dessert wine. He was proud that this Mission wine is grown from vines descended from the earliest vines in California brought in by the missionaries.
After walking around the sleepy village a bit, we continued our drive to San José de Comondú. The three-kilometer road between the towns is a very narrow dirt road bordered on one side by homes and another by lush fields.
The fifth mission built in California was the Misión San José de Comondú founded by the Jesuit Padre Julian de Mayorga in 1716. All that remains of the mission is the side chapel. The materials from original mission were used to build a school in neighboring San Miguel de Comondú which still stands today. San José is much smaller than its neighboring village but has a lovely little plaza adjacent to the chapel.
When you reach the end of San José is the rough road that links the Misión de San Javier on the other side of the mountains to these two villages. This road was built to link both missions and San Javier’s visita in San José de Comondú.
Both of these lovely villages exceeded our expectations. But all too soon the time came to head back down the mountain and forward in time.
There are three lagoons in Baja where gray whales converge to mate and deliver their babies. The southernmost lagoon, Bahía Magdalena, has two well-known ports that tourists can access. But we learned about a third port from someone we met along the way. Puerto Chale, where we would later find the frolicking whales of Bahia Magdalena.
But first we had to once again cross the peninsula to the Pacific side. We left beautiful Loreto on a moody day and stopped at a waterfront shack for yet another great meal (clams!) with a killer view. Then we climbed the very steep and winding Sierra La Giganta.
Next we devoted one day to an exploratory outing to each of the three ports to check them all out. That also allowed us to enjoy the scenery on the way to each port, since we were in no hurry to get there at a particular time.
The northernmost port is Puerto Lopez Mateos. It’s a well-oiled machine with a well built dock, viewing platform and other infrastructure to support tourism. The four tour companies each have an office on the dock (all next to each other) and many large pangas. There is also space for RVers in their huge parking area. Nice.
The middle port, Puerto San Carlos, is a large town that has a cannery and facilities to export farm products of the Magdalena plain. Some hotels in town book whale tours as do a couple of other companies around town. But it is clearly not their main focus. We did enjoy a very beautiful sunset there though.
Puerto Chale is the southernmost port and the least known. Although they’ve been taking people out informally on the lagoon for years they had never had marketing support from the government until now.
This is their “official” first season as a whale-watching tour base. The beautiful new road leading to the town may well be part of this support.
As we reached the town, the paved road ended. The entire town is on dirt roads. It’s a humble looking town that has subsisted mostly on fishing. Now the community is focused on whale-watching tours in the winter. There is no infrastructure whatsoever just a big dirt lot with a little shack and many pangas.
There was a group of people lined up for the pangas on the Sunday we went there, and it seemed the entire local police force (three officers) was out there watching and enjoying the activity. Their rates are currently cheaper than all of the others, but we don’t know how long that will last.
Puerto Chale won our hearts. Along with the fact that it was a much quieter place, we liked the idea of supporting this small community. We headed out there on Monday morning only to find that we were the only tourists there. We could charter a private boat for a tiny bit more than we’d pay at the other places to share with four others.
But we waited a while just in case someone else showed up. And in a little while three Canadian tourists arrived.
Off we went with our party of five and our captain in his little panga. In about ten minutes we started to see whales.
Lots and lots of whales.And many of them were spy-hopping, one of several surfacing behaviors. The whales rise and hold a vertical position often exposing their entire heads, thus “spying” on what’s happening above water.
They often do this to look for boats which they then can approach but can also do it to look for prey. They are able to hold this position for minutes, and many of them were. Sometimes we could see various whales spy hopping at the same time.
There were lots and lots of spouts both near and far. This area of the lagoon was full of whales. Although we were surrounded by whales, they did not come right up us yet. Instead they “teased” us by swimming over then going under the boat. Still super fun.
You can spot the babies because unlike the adults often covered with barnacles and other skin blemishes their skin is black and smooth. As the babies get older the moms will actually push them to the boats to be petted as well. We haven’t been so fortunate as that yet but hope springs eternal!
We cruised along several parts of the lagoon and saw so many whales spy-hopping and a few actually jumping out of the water. We didn’t know which way to look. It was like a whale party!
Then our captain informed us that only ten minutes were left on our 2 hour tour. We weren’t ready to go, so I asked the others if they’d consider extending one more hour. We made an offer to our captain and he happily accepted.
That last hour was fabulous. We had close encounters with a several whales. One of them turned over so we could scratch its belly! It was truly special to interact with these beautiful creatures.
We found out from our captain that certain whales are more “amistosas” (friendly) and the captains recognize them by their markings. Wow!
We all “petted” whales. Even the captain got in on the petting action. It was overwhelming.
The five of us happy whale petters cruised back to the dock and the others headed back to La Paz while Hector and I decided to stay and have lunch.
There are two restaurants one of which our captain said was all seafood. It is run from the front porch of a family’s house. As we approached a young woman and two of her daughters were sitting at one of the tables making jewelry.
We asked if it was open and she stood up and pointed to a handwritten sign with the four dishes they offered, three preparations of fish and one cocktail.
We ordered a cocktail and one of the fish dishes that we had not heard of before, sarandeado (all were one kilo or 2.2 pounds). After a little while the woman served our cocktail (awesome) and came out of the house with a large knife. We watched her walk out to the dock across the way and Hector decided to follow.
She had picked out a fish from a live well and by the time Hector arrived she’d “butterflied” it into three sections. Hector, who is the cook, was fascinated.
She folded it back together, took it back to the kitchen and laid it out flat again to grill. After topping it with some sauce and vegetables, she brought it to us. A little while later one of her daughters asked if we wanted rice. We said yes and she brought some out. Simple yummy lunch.
The ladies went back to their jewelry making. They were threading and hooking lots of little shells. I asked the woman for the price of a pair of earrings and she turned to the older daughter. The daughter thought a bit and gave me a price.
When we finished the woman again asked her daughter to tally up our lunch costs for the cocktail, one beer and the fish. These were teaching moments for the daughter.
Puerto Chale was such a great experience that we decided we will return on our way north in several weeks. Perhaps a whale baby experience we hope.
The captain and a couple of the guys told us we could park the RV in their parking lot overnight, so stay tuned!
The drive to Misión San Javier is steep, curvy and spectacular. As we slowly made our way to the mission we wondered how in the world people managed to build something beyond this steep mountainous road before the road existed. Those missionaries were a determined bunch.
As we got closer, we found a pretty little stone chapel by the road and wondered – could this be the mission. Of course, it wasn’t and we later found out that it was the first location considered for the mission’s location. And there was a friendly resident caretaker. An adorable little cat.
As we continued, we came upon an oasis – water! After crossing a couple of washes in the car (two of which were under a little water) we finally reached the town of San Javier and the absolutely spectacular mission.
One important factor in determining the location of a mission was that conditions in the area needed to support self-sufficiency for its founders. Thus the importance of a location by the water.
Yet its remote location with no road meant that many materials had to be brought in by ship to the Sea of Cortez and then by mules over the mountains. Today the modern road makes it accessible even for busloads of people.
The interior of this church has many ornate features. It also has the first glass windows of all of the Californias. It was a wonder at the time.
Gilded altars (real gold) with fine paintings and beautiful statuary occupied each corner.
There is a little museum alongside the church with some interesting artifacts but very minimal signage.
An astonishing total of 60 missions were built along all of the then Californias, not sure how many are still standing. They are an enormous part of the history of the area.
And along with the religious significance it’s important to give credit to the labor that natives performed in building these structures. And to remember the sad history of the destruction of native peoples by the colonization of the Spaniards.
The little town of San Javier has a population of about 100 people and a handful of little restaurants and stores. Citrus trees of various kinds planted by the Spaniards still surround the church and grace the streets.
The most prominent restaurant of course is right across from the church. When it was time for lunch we bypassed this restaurant in search of something less touristy.
As we were walking up the street, we greeted two women that were sitting and chatting. They asked where we were from and as we spoke they invited us to sit with them. We told them we’d love to but were quite hungry and ready for lunch.
One of the women said come eat at my restaurant and pointed across the street. There we saw a small patio with a couple of tables and plastic chairs. And that is how we ended up having lunch with Antonieta. Her “menu” consisted of meat burritos with beans along with tea or coffee. The meat, carne desebrada, is roasted, dried then chopped and fried up. Delicious. The tea was also a local herb which was also delicious. Antonieta sat and chatted with us while we ate. She was charming and sweet.
Afterwards, we hiked up from the church to the area where the well is located. In San Javier, the Spaniards built wells, dams and irrigation channels to support their agriculture.
The remants of this infrastructure are still in use today. In fact, this was the place where the first wine of the Americas was produced. Vegetation in this area is quite lush and beautiful. Different types of trees including ancient ones surround the church and the fields are still plowed by hand.
San Javier is a peaceful and lovely place. An easy side trip from Loreto absolutely not to be missed.
After yet another beautiful drive along the shores of Bahia Concepcion and across more beautiful desert scenery, we reached lovely Loreto and the start of the Camino Real. Loreto is one of the Mexican towns that has been designated as a Pueblo Mágico.
Pueblos Mágicos offer visitors a “magical” experience by reason of their natural beauty, cultural richness, traditions, folklore, historical relevance, cuisine, art, crafts and great hospitality.
Set alongside the stunning Sea of Cortez, Loreto has much going for it. A beautiful plaza where the first mission in Baja California was founded. Other lovely colonial structures. Lots of fine restaurants and shops.
There are beautiful lanes with trees manicured into archways. In fact, this town was the capital of the Californias (Baja and Alta) from 1697 to 1777.
Our first visit was to the mission church, Misión Nuestra Senora de Loreto Conchó, founded as a simple structure in 1697. This was the first mission in California.
The stone structure that stands today was built from stone and mortar in 1740. Its bells resonate through the town every hour. It was also the first of what would be an astonishing collection of missions along the second Camino Real (the first went from Mexico City to Santa Fe) that extended beyond San Francisco in present day California.
Next to the church is the Museo de los Misiones, with many beautiful artifacts depicting the history of the mission, the town, and the missionary efforts across the Californias. It was beautifully presented with excellent interpretive panels, the nicest museum that we’ve visited in Baja.
The community’s pride in the town was evident as we drove around and saw people constantly painting and repairing structures and cleaning the streets.
During our visit, there was a small farmers market in the morning where we bought quite a lot of produce for almost nothing.
And there was an arts and crafts fair in the evening with live music and performers.
That night we enjoyed walking along the beautiful malecón, with its many pangas ready to take tourists out on the water.
We enjoyed watching an interesting phenomenon the locals call the picazón both from our campground and along the malecón. When the sardines are running, pelicans are drawn to the area for feeding.
We’ve never seen so many pelicans, and they all are participating in a feeding frenzy. It was crazy.
We also had the finest meals to date in Baja. One was in a lovely restaurant called Mi Loreto, right by the plaza where we had a fabulous mushroom ceviche.
To our surprise we were asked if we had reservations when we arrived. Since we didn’t we were turned away as they were full for the night! And moments later there was a last minute cancellation. Lucky for us!
There is a Uruguayan place in town called Mezzaluna where we were treated to a lovely performance by an Argentinean traveler and musician, Martin Bevacua. A charming fellow with a beautiful voice.
At the other end of the spectrum, we enjoyed some awesome tacos at the famous “El Rey del Taco”. Cheap and fun!