La Paz

We really looked forward to visiting La Paz. Besides Playa el Tecolote for kayaking, the diversity of islands and sea life across from its bay and Carnaval, there was the beautiful Malecón Alvaro Obregón, a pretty plaza with its cathedral, a couple of interesting sounding museums and more good food.

We stayed on the north end of town at Campestre Maranatha RV park. Check out my review of the park here.

La Paz is the capital of Baja California Sur, with the largest population in the state and the fourth largest on the peninsula (about 220,000). Perhaps because of this, it felt less overwhelmed by North Americans than some other towns on the peninsula.

The Pericú Indians squashed several attempts at colonization of the town including four missions. Thus, the Spaniards selected Loreto as their base for expansion and the peaceful Cochimí there as their first converts, and later Loreto was declared the territorial capital.

European diseases ultimately wiped out the Pericú. La Paz was settled mostly by fishermen and farmers and only became the capital after a hurricane destroyed much of Loreto.

Another interesting part of La Paz’s history is its pearl harvesting which began in the 16thcentury. During the Jesuit mission period, the Spaniards began to cultivate pearls and ultimately the pearl beds were depleted. The beds were attacked by disease and the pearl trade ended around the time of World War II.

Lacking the lovely colonial buildings of Loreto, it still has a sweet little plaza with trees, a gazebo and benches for some peaceful moments.

And, of course there is a cathedral, although it’s modern by mission standards. And although the malecón, the three-mile esplanade along the La Paz waterfront, is the most bustling area of the town, the plaza seems to get plenty of foot traffic.

The malecón gives the town an urban vibe, with people bicycling, roller skating, roller blading, skateboarding and strolling along its length. The restaurants and bars across the street are lively as well.

And of course, the Carnaval parades and other activities all took place along the malecón. Generally, this is not a city that has tons of nightlife but there are some very nice restaurants and bars in town.

We visited the lovely Centro Cultural La Paz where some of the Carnaval costumes were displayed. The Center also had one room devoted to historical panels about the area as well as an exhibition of beautiful whales made of wood and/or paper by local artists.

The art exhibit, Ballenas Morfas (Morphed Whales) included strong cautionary environmental messages by some of the artists. The sculptures were gorgeous and intricate.

The Mercado Maduro is open every day with a great variety of fruits, vegetables, meats, seafood and other food items sold by individual vendors. I had a funny experience there. After buying some fruits and vegetables from a lady, I told her I had my own bags. She stopped what she was doing, looked me straight in the eyes and said in earnest “thank you so much for taking care of our environment. I’ve seen many dead turtles and am really worried.” There are also some very nice once a week farmers markets in town, but we got our fill at the Mercado.

After Carnaval, two snorkeling outings and dealing with some mechanical issues, (more on all of that in later posts), our eight days week in town felt short.

Some continuing mechanical issues forced us to return to the city for a couple of days.

The silver lining in the cloud was that we saw Malecón Alvaro Obregón clear of all of the Carnaval booths and stages.

And we bicycled across the malecón with the locals. Its beauty was fully revealed, with white beaches and turquoise waters, pretty copper sculptures and iron benches.

La Paz has much to offer, a small but charming city in a spectacular setting.  A world away from the tourist frenzy of Cabo to the south.

We will return someday.

 

 

The Coronation of the Royal Court

We planned our Baja schedule to include Carnaval in La Paz. When we arrived in town there was a flurry of activity hanging banners and erecting tents, booths and stages all along the Malecón. On the day prior to the three parade days, we had dinner at a restaurant right across from the action and took a walk around to check out the vendors. That’s how we accidentally happened upon the coronation of the royal court.

This year’s theme was “Grandes Navegantes” or Great Navigators.

There were lots of games set up where you could win stuffed animals by hitting a target with various devices, little pop-up restaurants and lots of other food vendors, musical performances and of course, the selling of various items.

Typical carnival food and lots of sweets. Hector called it a riot of color, grease and sugar.


There was live music on multiple stages along the water front.  Of course there were the ever present Tecate ladies in yellow.

The most surprising booth was a housewares store with all items intricately arranged on the ground. Wow! An amazing display. Hector was determined to find something we needed but alas we didn’t find a thing.  He really wanted to buy this giant spoon but I wouldn’t let him. For you RVers, it kind of reminded me of Quartzsite.

As we walked around that evening we were in a big crowd and suddenly there was some hubbub. All these elaborately dressed people accompanied by military guys in their dress whites appeared right next to us.

We weren’t sure at first but it turns out we stumbled into the path of the Royal Court as it made its way to the main stage for the coronation of the Carnaval royal court. Lots of music, pomp and circumstance.

The members of the court waited in the middle of the crowd and as each was announced they marched to the stage. The mayor and his wife presented crowns, certificates etc.

There were many members of the royal court: queen, of course, emperor, several princes that were already on stage when we arrived, youth queen, youth princess, queen of poetry, king and queen “of the third age” (senior), king of happiness (our favorite!) and others.

All of course wore beautiful costumes and capes and did their best to walk their “regal walk” to the stage.

There were solemn descriptions of their duties and much ado about not much at all. But it was a good show.

Each member of the court strutted about the stage waving to the adoring crowd.

Finally the Emperor and the Queen received their crowns and the climax of the celebration.  Followed by fireworks and confetti canons!

A fun surprise for us that made us really look forward to the upcoming parades.

 

 

Pueblos Históricos

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.

Dust devil!

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.

Misión San Javier

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.

 

Loreto and the Start of the Camino Real

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!

Another great meal was in an enterprising restaurant just outside of town that adopted the name La Picazón as it is on the water in full view of the pelicans. We headed out there on a long bumpy road to what we thought was a casual little place only to find a beautiful restaurant, off grid, but with delicious gourmet dishes including octopus in a tequila reduction.

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That same evening as an extra treat we watched the beautiful full super moon come up over the water.

We stayed pretty close to the center of town at Loreto Shores RV park, steps from the Sea of Cortez. An urban park with pretty tight spaces, it did have an amazing view. Check out our review of the park here.

We’d planned to paddle a couple of times, but one day we’d planned to I woke up feeling under the weather (I felt better later) and another day weather did not cooperate. The famous north winds blew most of the time we were there.

On the last day we were determined to get out on the water and there was a brief period of calm so we did take our kayaks out but the wind kicked up shortly thereafter. But we did see some dolphins and as we returned to our campground were treated to the pelicans and their amazing feeding frenzy once more.

Loreto is magical indeed.

 

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.