Back on the Sea of Cortez

Heading back to the Sea of Cortez, we are awestruck every time we get a glimpse of its beautiful turquoise waters during our drive.

The sea’s glittering waters hide behind mountains for a bit and then captivate us again and again.

We drove to the lovely Playa Santispac, one of the first coves you come to as you head south in Bahia Concepción. Check out our review of the campground here.

Our campsite was by one of the palapas right on the beach. Hammocks set up, kayaks sitting at the shore, a dream scene.

Our plan had been to stay a few nights and hopscotch to a couple of other beaches that also allow camping, but we scouted them and decided we liked this one best and wound up staying.

The empanada lady and her dutiful husband

Vendors came by selling homemade empanadas, tamales, shrimp cocktail, ceviche, fresh fish for cooking, fresh produce and more. They even bring water to fill tanks. What could be better!

Well, there were also two little beach shack restaurants, one with rural wifi that actually worked at times and the other with live music some nights.

But the best part is the beautiful bay. Although also susceptible to high winds in winter, we were fortunate once again to have calm winds and seas on multiple days.

A big difference between Bahia Concepción and Bahia de los Angeles is that there are multiple islands much closer to shore, only one or two miles away.

And there are others further out as well. Many more accessible places to explore and we did.

Playa Santispac also has an estuary behind the south side of the beach that can be accessed easily during high tide, or by portaging across a sandbar during low tide. One day we paddled over to the estuary.

There was tons of birdlife back there, including blue heron, yellow-crowned night heron, white ibis, reddish egrets as well as lots of duckies (we’re terrible at identifying ducks). The mangroves always make me think of the Everglades, a national park that I love.


On another day of paddling, we crossed over to a little island just across from our beach where there were lots and lots of osprey, pelicans and gulls.


While Hector was taking photographs, I turned the corner heading across to the opposite edge of our beach and heard water splashing next to me – a dolphin! Then another and another.

I tried to paddle to them but they were moving pretty fast. They were jumping out of the water, sometimes even showing their tails as they submerged. So I just stopped and watched for awhile. Dolphins make me happy. Not many photos as Hector was not close enough, but the memory will remain.

Every morning we were greeted with a different light show as the colors changed and the light returned.  The still water reflecting the light.

On other paddling days we visited some more nearby islands. The marine  and bird life were wonderful.

One day Hector spotted a huge sea lion, obviously a male, who raised his head out of the water briefly and swam away. But we were able to see his body arching down into the water and he was like a little whale.

Another nearby feature was a reef that when not submerged was teeming with pelicans, cormorants and other birds. We paddled softly pretty close to them but they didn’t seem bothered at all. Very cool.


Back on another island, we saw lots of little fish in the water and small sting rays.  I love seeing them with their undulating “wings”, they look like they’re flying instead of swimming. The waters around that island also had many pretty sea stars scattered about.

The day of our last paddle was glorious! It was Valentine’s Day and the sea was calm and soft. Hector drew a Valentine’s card in the sand.

So we paddled lazily further out and for a much longer time, taking in all of the beauty of the sea and the life within it. Usually the breeze kicks up mid day but not today.  The water was like glass until well after noon.

We wound up visiting all four islands that day, while Hector attempted to get to a fifth but it was further than it looked. Distances on the water can be really hard to judge. So he bailed out and met me by a pretty little beach on one of the islets.

Hector hoped that by heading out further into the bay that we would see more wildlife. As we were heading back we looked over and saw a pod of dolphins with a motor boat nearby watching them along with some paddle boarders.

The dolphins were swimming in my direction and I followed them when they swam past me. They swam around me for a bit, then Hector joined me and they swam off.

Hector paddled after them this time and I tried to photograph but they got too far too fast. He was able to get up close to them and they swam all around his kayak.

After our spectacular paddle, we had a wonderful lunch of shrimp ceviche and shrimp cocktail. Then it was hammock time in our palapa!

That evening Hector prepared a marvelous dinner of steak, lobster and hash browns. He set up a table on the beach in front of our palapa with some borrowed candles from our neighbors who were spending Valentine’s at a nearby hotel. It was a lovely and romantic dinner.

A wonderful ending to our time at Bahia Concepción!

 

 

 

Heroica Mulegé

Our next drive took us back to the Sea of Cortez through beautiful desert landscape surrounded by mountains to the town of Mulegé (pronounced Moo-leh-HEH) whose official name is actually Heroica Mulegé (Heroic Mulegé).

This is because during the Mexican American war (written as the War of North American Interference on one of the Spanish descriptions I read), the people of Mulegé and surrounding defended the region from being occupied. The U.S. was able to keep New Mexico and California, but not Baja California.

 

Just south of Mulegé is the mouth of stunning Bahía Concepción, one of the largest bays on the Sea of Cortez with multiple coves and beaches. There are many camping options for RVers right on the beaches, we chose Playa Santispac. More on that later. Check out our review of the beach campground here.

Mulegé is another oasis with lots of palm trees and surrounded by mountains. The setting is lovely. The center of town is very hilly and has really narrow streets so it’s not a good place to drive RVs.

There are a few small markets and restaurants and a wonderful bakery, Mago’s.  They have very good “almost free” wifi too!

 

The town cemetery

Best of all in my opinion is the lovely Río de Santa Rosalía de Mulegé that runs through town. It creates a lush landscape with many palms and there is a lighthouse marking the river’s mouth to the sea.

If you follow the river inland a short distance, you will reach the Misión Santa Rosalía de Mulegé, a stunning stone structure built in 1771. This is my favorite mission so far because of the rounded and different colored stone. The interior is apparently not original and seems austere for Catholic standards, I love the interior stone walls.

Another interesting historical structure is the building that used to house the “prison without doors” and now houses the Museo Histórico. It’s at the top of a steep hill at the end of a dirt road.

The prison allowed certain male prisoners to work in the town during the day. At 6pm, the sound of a conch shell called them back. This was prior to the Transpeninsular highway being built, and so it was nearly impossible to escape from this remote area. One prisoner did escape once and another was sent to capture him. The second prisoner succeeded in capturing and returning the escapee.

Museum is kind of a loose term for this place as it has a random collection of artifacts most of which are not related to the prison. It does not have too many informative signs, and most are in Spanish.

One weird thing was some space junk, determined to be an engine part from the upper stage of a Delta II rocket that dropped from the sky into a ranch nearby!

Two very informative ladies from INAH, the Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia, were there when we visited. We speak Spanish when we’re in Mexico, but we assume they spoke English as well. The prison building is impressive and worth a visit.

On Saturday night we enjoyed the weekly pig roast dinner at the Hotel Serenidad just south of town. They’ve roasted a pig there every Saturday since the 1970s!

It’s quite an elegant hotel with beautiful grounds and an interesting history. It once catered to fishermen who could afford to fly to the adjacent airstrip, since the highway didn’t exist at the time. The airstrip is still there and quite active, in fact, there was a group of pilots staying at the hotel when we visited.

Our stay ended with another dinner with newfound friends at the Buenaventura Restaurant down the road. It claims to have the best burgers in Baja, and they were quite good.

And then there were our adventures on the beautiful Bahia Concepción…stay tuned!

 

 

French Colonial Santa Rosalia

En route from San Ignacio to Mulege´ we passed through French Colonial Santa Rosalia. A cute bustling little town. We made a brief stop to walk around a see a couple of historical places of interest.

But before getting there we needed to survive yet another section of terrifying road, “La Cuesta del Infierno” – The Grade from Hell!  Yikes!  This particular portion of the road has a steep and curvy descent for 2.5 miles, the steepest grade on the entire Mexico 1 Transpeninsular Highway.

We’d taken note of the steep climb for our return drive north but hadn’t thought much about the downhill headed south. But it was a very windy day and we figured the road would be narrow so we decided to not tow the car.  Hector drove Island Time and I drove the car. All was well but we will approach this section of road with great caution when we head north.Once down the big hill we were again greeted by a sweeping view the beautiful Sea of Cortez.  And soon thereafter we entered the little town with its large mining and port operation (and TERRIBLE road).

Santa Rosalia is home to the El Boleo copper mine.  Founded by the French Campagnie du Boleo in 1885 it operated continuously until the 1950’s when it shut down.

Unique to this area, there are many beautiful French Colonial structures that remain to this day. The mine resumed operations recently and the town just buzzes with activity.  Of particular note is the town’s very unusual church, La Iglesia Santa Barbara.  It was designed by the famed architect Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel of Eiffel Tower fame and built in 1887. It was displayed at the 1889 Exposition Universelle of Paris where the famous tower also made its debut. A prefab structure built entirely of stamped steel sheet squares and supported by a massive steel structure, it was intended originally for Africa but it somehow wound up in Belgium instead where it was acquired by the wealthy owners of the El Boleo mine and shipped here in 1897.

You find the weirdest things in the strangest places!Another legacy of the French influence is a simply fantastic bakery, the Panaderia El Boleo.  An local institution in business since 1901 and still serving up French inspired baked yummies.

To our surprise once we paid for a bag full of croissants and other goodies (almost free) they encouraged us to have a look at the large ovens and kitchen area in the back.  There we found many ancient wooden cooling racks that had clearly seen countless trays of baked goods over the years.  Battered but sturdy they rolled by with fresh treats all in a row.

The ovens looked pretty big but we didn’t realize just how big until a lady grabbed what looked to be a giant oar from a viking ship and opened one of the oven doors.  The oven had to be 30 feet deep!  Wow!We did not plan to overnight here but thoroughly enjoyed our short tour of the town.

Onward to Mulege´ we go were we plan to spend the next week or so.

Thanks for following along!

 

 

 

The Oasis of San Ignacio


Our plan was to drive to the town of San Ignacio and continue to the nearby Laguna San Ignacio for a whale watching tour there. But the weather forecast was awful so we decided to bag the lagoon and head back there to try again on our return trip north.

But we still planned a brief stop in San Ignacio to see the town which is just a short hop from Guerrero Negro, about two hours of easy driving.

 

San Ignacio is a colonial town in a valley nestled in a date palm oasis. It’s kind of a sleepy town, simple but still quite charming. A small dam built by settlers in the 1700’s formed a lagoon that sustains the town’s agricultural economy.

The first date palms were planted in 1765 and now are ubiquitous.  It makes a striking difference from the desert scenery that had dominated the landscape for quite a while.

We stayed right by the lagoon at Los Petates, a lovely setting with lots of trees, birds and ducks. Check out our review of the campground here.

 

 

We visited the lovely colonial plaza and the mission church of San Ignacio, Misión San Ignacio Kadakaamaán, built of lava rock with walls that are four feet thick. It dominates one side of the plaza and has lovely gardens on both sides.

 

The plaza has several businesses, some that sell yummy date bread, cookies and pie (spelled “pay” in these parts). There are a couple of restaurants and an ice cream shop “Neverias Danya” that serves as internet café. It cost us $3.67 U.S. dollars for internet access on two laptops for two hours.

The pretty central plaza is the center of town life, such as it is.  It felt like a step back in time.

That evening we dined at Victor’s Restaurant which had been recommended by a guide book and independently by our campground host. It’s the most basic looking restaurant in the town (there are only a couple more restaurants) but clearly very popular.

 

When we arrived, it was packed. Turned out there was a Mexican motorcycle club in town. There was one waiter and he handled the craziness surprisingly well. We had a couple of wonderful dinners.

That evening was lovely and dark and Hector took the opportunity to take some photographs of the stars above the lovely palm trees. Beautiful!

A short stay in a charming little town.

The Whales of Laguna Ojo de Liebre

At one of my first jobs in a travel agency in Miami I saw a photo of someone in a kayak next to a whale. I love wildlife and whales are one of my favorites and I thought then how sweet it would be to get that close to a whale.

Eschtrichtius Robustus – robust indeed!

Hector and I have been on whale watching tours about 20 times in three U.S. States and three Canadian provinces. In kayaks, small fishing boats, zodiac boats and big boats. We’ve been fortunate enough to see about nine different types of whales, some pretty close up.

But not long ago, I read about the gray whales who migrate to Baja California from the Bering Sea in the winter. While they’re up north, they spend their time feeding and gorging, preparing their bodies for the long migration south.  It is one of the longest migrations of any animal on earth.

Once they reach Baja California, they congregate in three lagoons on the Pacific side of the peninsula. Whales that mated the previous year will give birth to their calves (their gestation period is about 13 months ) and others will mate. In these lagoons the calves are protected from their two predators: sharks and killer whales.

We set off in the morning on our tour to see the whales. I tried to set realistic expectations and told myself that seeing the whales would be enough but had my hopes up for more.

There were eight of us in the boat, from France, Belgium, Australia and us.  A second boat from our tour company had a group of Mexicans. Excitement was high.

The boat headed out to the middle of the lagoon and stopped. We immediately saw our first whale, then another and another. The boat inched a bit closer. They have rules that restrict them from getting too close to the whales, approaching them from behind or too directly.

The whales did not approach the boat and we moved on. There were lots of whales around and we could see spouts in the distance. Everyone was enjoying seeing so many whales. There are about 800 in the lagoon at this point, but in other years there have been as many as 2500. Apparently, El Niño changes their migration patterns.

Each cow has one calf and trains them for about five months prior to their migration north. One of the things the cows do to build the calves’ strength for the journey north is to have them swim against the strong tidal current at the entrance to the lagoon.

Momma with her calf

For some unknown reason, even though humans slaughtered them to near extinction, the whales now seem to enjoy human contact while in these lagoons. They will swim up to the small boats that go out into the lagoons to get “petted”.

When the calves are a bit grown they will also bring their babies and lift them up at the side of tour boats, presumably to get petted also. The lagoons of Baja are the only place in the world where they do this.

The captain said that a whale was coming towards us from the right side (my side). He had an uncanny way of knowing when they were approaching even though they were underwater. Once they were pretty close, we could all see them underwater.

The whale came to the boat and then went under. Several times whales came to our boat and swam under it from one side to the other.

A little while later another whale swam over, this time coming right up to my side of the boat and surfacing. I barely reached it and gave it a light stroke but it kept swimming and went underwater.

It was a surreal moment, never did I think I would actually touch a whale.

Several other whales swam up to the boat on both sides, and several of the people on the boat got to touch them.

It was really moving.

One gentleman screamed so loudly when he touched this one whale that it immediately went underwater, I think he must have scared it. But everyone on the boat got a close up look and all were happy.

Hector and I just bought a GoPro and used it for the first time. We captured some of the whale encounters, as well as some shots of whales underwater, but our internet connectivity in this area is not good enough to post. However, the video allowed us to capture a few still photos. Hopefully we can post videos later.

On our way back to shore the boat cruised by a vast expanse of sand dunes that border the north of the lagoon. Spectacular!

And as a last treat we had a few more glimpses of marine life: some dolphins, sea lions and lots of marine birds.

We arrived back on land with big smiles on all of our faces from this magical experience.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Black Warrior

To get to the town of Guerrero Negro (Black Warrior), you have to cross the state line from Baja California to Baja California Sur. The state line is the 28th parallel (latitude).

The government does not allow produce across to Baja California Sur so we gave our remaining produce away before we left Bahia de los Angeles. Some people said that “they never check” but we like to do all we can to have nice easy border crossings. They did ask us if we had produce and Hector said “of course not, we heard you couldn’t bring any across”. The officer was pleased with that answer.

The other unique thing about this border crossing is that when you cross there is an automatic spray from the road to the underside of your vehicles and your tires. Presumably some sort of pesticide agent to kill off something or other (hopefully not us).

Our original plan had been to continue directly to the Ojo de Liebre lagoon, where we planned to go whale watching, and bypass the town of Guerrero Negro. But we needed to run several errands and our provisions were getting low so we decided to stay at Guerrero Negro and take a whale watching tour from there.

Guerrero Negro gets a bad rap, so I had very low expectations. I was, however, pleasantly surprised. The town may not be a charming colonial gem but it has a very interesting history and is neatly kept.

The whaling Captain John Melville Scammon discovered the entrance to the lagoon and whale nursery and to his delight found it full of whales.  Of course he promptly killed as many as he could and had a great windfall.  The secret soon got out and other whalers joined in the slaughter in “Scammon’s Lagoon” and soon the majestic California Gray Whale was hunted to near extinction.  It is estimated that the total population dropped to a few hundred individuals.

Perhaps because there were no more profits to be had, Captain Scammon became one of the earliest conservationists seeking to protect the animals.  Happily, the grey whales have recovered and there are now over 20,000 around the world.

During the whaling times, a wooden ship named the Black Warrior ran aground on the shallow sand bar separating the northern and southern parts of the lagoon. The wreck served as a warning to ships of the shoal water for decades.  All that remains of the wooden ship is the wheel, displayed at the bar of the Malarrimo RV Park and Hotel.

We stayed at the Mallarimo RV Park right in the center of town. They also sell the whale watching tours at this location so we could board the bus to the lagoon right outside our RV. And they have a hotel and a restaurant on site. Check out our review of the campground here.

We set off to handle our errands and found an ATM, a place to fill our water jugs with drinking water, a decent grocery store, a very nice fruteria (fruit and vegetable store), a panaderia (bread store), a liquor store, fresh oranges and a laundry all within 10 minutes of the RV park. People were extremely helpful.

But best of all, we found the best fish tacos at the Tacos del Muelle taco truck. Others that have been to Baja say they’re the best tacos in all of the peninsula. A fellow RVer commented on Facebook that “by extension, that makes them the best in the world”.  I don’t doubt it.

That afternoon we drove out to the camping area at the lagoon just to check it out. It’s about 35 minutes from town on a pretty good gravel road. It’s a lovely and remote area to camp and we may just camp there on our way back north.

In the 1950’s the present day town was built as a company town to support what would ultimately become the world’s largest salt mine.  Huge shallow ponds with hard rock bottoms are flooded with sea water and allowed to evaporate leaving behind sea salt.

The salt mine exports millions of tons of salt annually and covers an area larger than the city of Los Angeles!  The government originally named the town after some Mexican historical figure, but no one called it that. They used the Spanish name for the wrecked Black Warrior, Guerrero Negro.  The name stuck and it was officially changed to the name it has to this day.

The site of the wreck of the Black Warrior was eventually replaced by a proper lighthouse whose ruins can still be seen. The drive out was between wetlands and was actually mo