Note from Alex: We've been navigating the Baja Peninsula with the help of a camping guidebook lent to us by Jennifer and Kurt (thanks you guys!). The “Tips” section that accompanies each campground description often gives climate-related advice, and without fail, every listing in Baja Sur contains the following little phrase: Winter is the time to visit, as summers can be very hot. Although the book is more than a decade old and some things have changed, this particular advice holds true. If while reading this post you notice our newfound obsession with pools and air conditioning, it's because we are, in fact, very very hot.
Santa Rosalía, the first town we encountered at the Sea of Cortez, turned out to be a lovely place indeed – and quite a different from what we had encountered elsewhere in Baja. Instead of a dusty main road through town and blocky concrete houses, we were surprised to encounter an actual city with different neighborhoods and wooden buildings constructed in a rustic, French colonial style. What a great change of pace. Lucky for us, we had arrived just in time to watch the Mexico-Brazil game. The locals directed us to a nearby restaurant, which mercifully offered beers and shade – all we needed to celebrate the amazing tie! Although the heat forced us to spend most of the rest of the day in the shade of the city park right beside the Mahatma Gandhi Library (which, oddly enough, didn't have many books to speak of), we still had a great time taking in the surroundings and people of Santa Rosalía. Ice cream helped, too.
After spending two days in Santa Rosalía, we decided to push on to one of the many beaches south of town. Only a short ride away was Playa San Lucas, a blink-and-you'll-miss-it beach right off the highway. When we rode up, we were a bit discouraged to find that the seaside was already crowded with RVs and trailers, so we reluctantly set up camp twenty feet away from the beach (yes, life is hard). We dropped our bikes, set up the tent, and made a beeline for the water, which was warm and welcoming. That was exactly the point when the trip went from sweaty endeavor to luxurious vacation. But we hadn't been in the water for five minutes before we heard a man on the beach yelling to watch out for stingrays. We didn't want to pull a Steve Irwin, so heading back to shore seemed like a good idea.
The yeller turned out to be Myron, an intoxicated but jolly American living in his trailer at the beach. Despite the three rum shots he'd just taken, he managed to tell us a great deal about the beach, its eccentric residents, and the general awesomeness of living the good life in Mexico. He also let us know that basically all of the RVs on the beach were deserted for the summer, so we were welcome to walk our tent right up to the water and take advantage of the view…which we promptly did. Then he sped off in his oversized jeep to let off a bunch of fireworks at his trailer. The man has priorities!
The stars were out en masse, and we decided to leave the tent fly off in favor of stargazing. The local fishermen were out all night fishing for squid, and by sunrise the beach was overrun with pelicans and seagulls eager to snap up any leftovers from the catch. When the sun came up, we felt relaxed and energized to push on down the coast.
Despite our high spirits when we pushed off in the morning, massive headwinds and a merciless uphill grade soon had us wishing we'd stayed at the beach. It seemed that the mountain range separating San Ignacio from Santa Rosalia has turned our blissful tailwinds into evil headwinds. Every pedal stroke was painful, and by 9:00AM the heat was oppressive to boot. Alex stopped speaking pretty early on, a sure sign that all of her energy and frustration were going into keeping the pedals moving. After a long, frustrating morning, we finally crested our 30 kilometer climb and were rewarded with a long, scenic downhill roll into the coastal town of Mulegé. Just like San Ignacío, Mulegé turned out to be full of palm trees, an oasis nestled between a river and the sea amidst the desolate desert surroundings.
We quickly found a shady bench and sat down, exhausted, with a big bottle of Fresca to replenish our energies. Nothing better than bubbly sugar water, we couldn't have asked for more. After catching up on the World Cup and waiting out the afternoon heat, we went a little further along the highway to find a place to camp. Hotel Cuesta Real offered us a nice spot to pitch our tent, right next to the pool. We'll take it!
When simply stepping into the sunlight means insta-sweat mixed with bike grime and several layers of sunscreen, nothing is more satisfying than hopping in a pool. And I know I've been complaining about people giving us the obvious advice that going south means that it's getting hotter, but the more important insight would have been that the east side of Baja is way, way more humid than the west side. Seriously, it's not the heat that's getting to us, it's the moisture in the air. Between noon and five it feels as if we are breathing through straws. Hence, our pool-inspired joy.
Hotel Cuesta Real was our haven for two nights, and there's not much to say about it other than that we didn't even think about straying far from the pool, much less putting the fly on our tent. It's actually pretty crazy when you lie on your sleeping pad past midnight, almost completely stripped down, and it's still warm enough that you're lightly layered with a film of sticky perspiration. That's when you learn to appreciate air conditioning. But no air conditioned room in the world could offer us the immense richness of the star-filled sky that we gazed at during those nights, streaked with shooting stars by the dozens.
When we bid farewell to Mulegé we remembered Myron, the beach yeller/fireworks enthusiast from San Lucas. He had recommended that we check out Playa Santispac on our way south from Mulegé. Only 20 kilometers that day, and they were brutal. (Note from Alex: think unrelenting sun from 6:30AM on, sunscreen dripping into your eyes, almost pass out on a minor hill type brutal.) Lucky for us, Playa Santispac turned out to be just as wonderful as Myron made it out to be. Our hearts leapt with joy as we coasted down a long downhill slope from the highway: we could already see the perfect crescent of sandy beach from the road, a long stretch of coast hemmed in by cliffs and dotted with palapas. Off the bikes and into the water, that's the first thing we did!
This was real paradise, simply incredible. Azure blue water, white sandy beaches, the mountains to our back and a bunch of little islands with hundreds of pelicans frolicking in Bahía de Concepción right ahead of us. Nothing could beat that. After lazily floating in the warm water for what felt like hours, we meandered down the beach to a nearby family-run restaurant, just looking for food. But once we had realized that the World Cup was on, we stuck around a little longer…
The next two days were spent in complete bliss at this wonderful beach. The restaurant served us dirt cheap and ultra-delicious huevos rancheros (and yes, we went multiple times, being the gluttons that we are). We also met another American living in his trailer down at the beach. His name was John, but you can pretty much call him Myron 2.0, minus the rum. After chatting with him for a while (mostly about his solar energy setup once he'd found out that Alex used to work in solar) he invited us to use his sea kayaks for free, a chance we gladly jumped at. We had a great time just paddling around the little islands offshore. Highlights included communing with the pelicans and watching whole schools of fish jump out of the water in unison.
Unfortunately, there was one little incident that marred our otherwise perfect stay at Playa Santispac. During our first night at the beach, finally asleep after several hours of humid tossing and turning, we were rudely awoken sometime past midnight by an SUV roaring to a stop right next to our tent. Out jumped a bunch of very drunk, middle-aged Americans intent on a night swim. Now I don't have a problem with that, actually I highly recommend hopping in the water, especially at night, but these guys were just enormous dicks about it. They kept yelling how f***ing awesome the beach is, how f***ing awesome the water is, how F***ING AWESOME the stars are (so awesome that we went from assuming they were just drunk to thinking they might be on some sort of psychedelics). Before too long, we'd had enough of the screaming and asked them to please keep it down a little, a request they promptly ignored. Now this beach is almost a mile long, why the heck do they have to park right where we had pitched our tent? After a good half an hour of their oblivious shouting and our silent stewing, they finally started stumbling back to the car, a flurry of drunken insults flying between the mom and dad and their teenage daughter chiming in every once in awhile (you're such a grandma, you're such an asshole, where the f*** are your shoes, OMG THE STAAARS, etc.) As they backed the car up to leave, we breathed a sigh of relief, but at that very second they whipped the car around and shone their brights right into our tent for what seemed like an etermity. Well, that was just about the last straw for us. We sat straight up in the tent, abandoned the manners that our mothers worked so hard to teach us, and responded with a couple of choice gestures and words that we will not repeat here. Not our finest moment, admittedly, but sleep is a precious commodity for these tired bikers.
The night passed fitfully. Not only was our adrenaline racing, but it was swelteringly hot and right as we were getting back to sleep another car pulled up in just the same spot. This time it was a younger Mexican couple, just as drunk but much, much quieter (until things got steamy later on). Lesson learned, wrong spot to pitch a tent. Anyways, the next morning we woke up to our new Mexican neighbors passed out in the sand, right next to the elusive shoes of one of the dear Americans that had preceded them. A local fisherman came by and asked if those shoes belonged to anybody, to which we innocently shrugged our shoulders and shook our heads. Well, we made his day with a brand new pair of shoes. Even better, the SUV Americans came crashing down the beach not ten minutes after the fisherman went on his merry way. Surprise: they were looking for the shoes, which we of course didn't know anything about. Shoes? What shoes? We haven't seen anything! Then the woman walked towards us, offering up a sarcastic “Yeah, we were the ones who woke you up last night, sorry about that,” before launching into an attack about scarring her precious daughter with our potty mouths. Needless to say, we weren't having it. After pointing out their unrelentingly obnoxious behavior and all of the f-bombs that her daughter heard (for the first time, surely) out of the mouths of her own parents the previous night, she stalked back to the car in her beach heels and the big husband came out…in his socks. He threw a sad verbal punch or two, tiptoed back to the car in his stocking feet, and they drove off. We were left looking at each other dumbfounded, and so very happy that the lucky fisherman came by when he did.
Anyways, that is literally the only bad experience we've had in Mexico. And it was with American tourists. And it barely put a dent in our otherwise idyllic experience at Playa Santispac. It made for a great story later that afternoon in the beach restaurant, as we watched the USA-Portugal game with a friendly Mexican family whose son was definitely a contender for Ronaldo's biggest fan.
What's more, our faith in humanity was officially restored that night, as random little acts of kindness can sometimes do. We had resolved to move our tent down the beach a ways to avoid any further incidents of car-induced insomnia. We probably made quite a spectacle with our several trips up and down the beach dragging a tent, bikes, et cetera, and shared a few embarrassed smiles and buenas tardeses with the young family in the palapa next to us. Well what do you know, as they started to pack up to leave they sent their two adorable little girls over to our new palapa. The girls, who must have been about five and three, were wearing matching dresses and shy smiles and brandishing a Ziploc bag. They handed the bag to Alex and said that their mom wanted us to have it. The bag was full of fresh seafood and limes – Alex looked over to the parents with a questioning look and they grinned and gave a friendly wave. She walked over to thank them, and then, on top of the seafood, they offered us the rest of their water barrel. Maybe we looked really hungry and smelled really bad, or else these people were just a great example of human kindness. Either way, jackpot! Fresh seafood (for me), fresh water for showers and dishes, and a fresh outlook on Santispac all made for a peaceful night's sleep under the stars (THE STAAARS!!!).
After checking out the map for the coming days, we realized that we had another nasty stretch of road ahead of us. The next city was Loreto, more than 100 kilometers down the coast, with not a single town in between. Even worse, the road hugged beautiful Bahía de Concepción for only the next 20 kilometers or so, before veering up and in through more brutal desert. Oh, and headwind. Did we really want to put ourselves through the wringer again, with temperatures in the 100 degree range, barren landscapes, and next to no food or water supply? Probably not. So we waited at the side of the road, stopped a bus, and threw in the proverbial towel. Bags off the bikes, bikes squeezed under the bus, and butts plopped down in the nice air conditioned seats. Desert, you win.
Two hours later, rather than two days, we found ourselves in Loreto, another cozy little coastal town. We met a guy at the bus station who asked whether we needed a place to stay, and offered up his hospedaje (guest house). We thanked him and said that we were going to look around a bit and check out our options, but soon enough the midday heat took its toll and we wound up at his door. Luckily, his door was right at the beach and right next to a coffee shop. After camping through the last several humid nights, we were ready to surrender our pesos for the sweet, sweet embrace of air conditioning.
We settled in and decided to walk around town to try to find a place to watch the Mexico-Croatia game. Being in Mexico, we were pretty set on finding a place to watch it with the locals, a bit difficult in touristy Loreto. The owner of the hospedaje had recommended a local sushi restaurant. We were skeptical at first (soccer, at a Mexican sushi restaurant?), but once we heard the cheering masses from outside we knew we were at the right place. The restaurant was packed, and the crowd was nuts. Fans of all ages erupted in cries of joy every time Mexico scored. A few guys got so excited that they literally broke the bar by pounding on it so hard. Enormous flags were waved, people were falling into each other's arms with tears in their eyes, happy for Mexico to win the game and advance to the next round. We were just glad that we got to witness this festival of emotions in such close proximity, I honestly can't wait to see their next game against the Netherlands. (Man, do we regret that statement now…)
Full of pride for our adopted team (sorry, USA and Germany), we spent the next couple of days wandering around Loreto. We found it to be a delightful place, very laid-back, full of charm. But, it was the first Baja town we had come across that seemed to cater heavily to tourists, and our campers budget doesn't really allow us the indulgences of the average tourist. By the end of our second day, we were ready to move on to our final destination: La Paz.
We left Loreto the same way we came in, by bus. Maybe we've gotten soft, but we just don't have it in us anymore to slog through uninteresting, unpopulated, hot as hell desert landscape. The whole point of this adventure is to have fun, so we pushed the fast forward button to get us to the first extended stop on our journey. La Paz is a metropolis in its own right, situated in a bay on the Sea of Cortez, near the southern tip of the Baja peninsula. This is the city we will call home for the next month, and it will be our base for adventures yet to come. So sit tight, hold on to your butts and wait for our next entry chronicling our exploits around La Paz!