"A YUPPIE PUSHES 50"
~ A mid-life crisis by Carlos Fiesta
On Wednesday October 24th, 2001 Chuck Chambers (aka Carlos Fiesta) departed Los Angeles Harbor for a 2,000+ mile solo adventure to circumnavigate the entire Baja Peninsula. His only companion was a 15 pound Halloween pumpkin with a wig and a painted face affectionately called Elvira, donated by his wife upon departure. The final destination was the mouth of the Colorado River Delta, where it meets the Sea of Cortez. Carlos completed the adventure and arrived back at his home in Los Angeles on Monday November 19th.
The boat used for this trip was a 19' panga that had been used as a fishing boat in Fiji. In addition to being used for fishing, the boat was used to access the outer reefs of Fiji for the local surfers. It was powered by a 40 horsepower 1993 Yamaha outboard motor and a 12 gallon gasoline tank. It was shipped to southern California by freighter in a crate and used as a fishing boat in southern California until he purchased it on September 11, 2001. Because of the distance between marinas with fuel in Baja the boat had been provisioned with 5 auxiliary gas cans. The name of the boat is "Vaka Viti" which means "The Fijian Way".
There was no set itinerary for the adventure, but Carlos wanted to experience an intimate look at the hundreds of beaches and many islands on both the Pacific Ocean side and the Sea of Cortez side of the Baja Peninsula. In addition to land adventures Carlos encountered a variety of sea life along both sides of the Peninsula, including dolphins, seals, turtles, fish, manta rays, whales and a many different types of birds.
Both the Pacific Coast and the Sea of Cortez were extensively documented with photographs and notes, some of which have been placed on this web page.
Most of the boating was within 500 feet of shore during the entire trip, and Carlos stopped and went on shore "wherever the coast looked inviting". To avoid getting lost Carlos kept the Baja coastline on the "left side" of the boat most of the time.
This page of Baja Expo has been created for others to "follow along" on this one month excursion and to catch a glimpse of the daily events he experienced. Since his return Carlos continues to add information to these pages until the entire trip has been documented. Enjoy!
To give you an idea of the 2,000 mile route you can review this space photo of the BAJA PENINSULA.
The pages below are the first steps towards a book that Carlos is writing about his adventure. If you have any questions about the trip or any comments about his story he would enjoy hearing from you at firstname.lastname@example.org!
To review a new circumnavigation adventure to follow in John Steinbeck's wake visit the SEA OF CORTEZ EXPEDITION AND EDUCATION PROJECT web site.
~ Forward ~
Bang! If there was anyone around at the beginning of the Universe approximately 15 billion years ago, that is the sound they might have heard as it all exploded from nothing to everything in a nano-second. That is of course if you believe in the "Big Bang" theory of creation. Those in the other camp are confident that it all started when God took 7 days off, a shot of tequila, and created the whole shebang on a whim while Mrs. God was out of town. Both of these theories are equally difficult to comprehend, and the jury is still out as to how the Universe actually got out of the gate. The debate as to how it all started has been around for a long time and it may be a while before we actually figure out exactly how everything came to be. But how it all started is beginning to take a back seat to an even bigger question. Is ours the o-n-l-y Universe in existence?
Anyone who has had a chance to eavesdrop at a cocktail party of rocket scientists, cosmologists and astrophysicists has heard the new question pop up. Is it possible that our Universe of planets, stars and galaxies is only one in a collection of many other Universes located far beyond the edges of our known Universe? Do we really live in an 'Omniverse' with our Universe just one of 100 billion Universes somewhere in an unknown dimension? The more we explore and discover the limits of space the more we begin to realize that the concept of an Omniverse is a very real possibility. The incomprehensible idea of String Theory is just one of several theories that try to explain how it all came about, and how big it all really might be.
And why stop with the concept of an Omniverse? Taking this same incomprehensible concept to the next level, is it indeed possible that there are a whole host of Omniverses out there in a yet unnamed collection of groupings? We can call the whole collection of Omniverses the Googolverse. It all gets pretty difficult to comprehend, and besides you thought this book was going to be about some nut taking a small boat around the Baja Peninsula...so where am I headed with all this space stuff?
The point is that, on the grander scale of things, the day to day drama of our individual lives here on this tiny blue dot spinning through space is really a pretty small piece of the overall big picture. One could even say that most of what is going on here on Earth is somewhat insignificant when put into this larger perspective. Not that some of what we do here isn't of value and possibly even important. But for the most part we simply piss away a lot of time on mindless projects that don't offer a lot of value to anyone or anything. Waking up, eating, working, and then going home and watching television...and then doing the drill again the next day.
This daily drama that hundreds of millions of us perform on a daily basis is normal and socially acceptable. It's just that if you get a crazy idea that stirs your soul it makes it kind of hard to talk yourself out of a once-in-a-lifetime adventure...if you keep the bigger picture in mind. Buy a boat, take a month off work, and then go follow over 2,000 miles of some of the most desolate and starkly beautiful coastline on the planet? What else would I do if I didn't follow this dream, stay home and watch Seinfeld re-runs? Not that there's anything wrong with that.
Over the last 25 years I had explored Mexico's Baja Peninsula extensively. This desolate finger of land provided the perfect venue for a man with a strong desire to explore untamed terrain, experience raw nature and to continually seek out what is around the next bend in the coast. And after 25 years of exploring this spectacular piece of real estate by land, I thought it might be fun to circumnavigate the entire Peninsula by boat to really wrap up the whole enchilada. So with the tepid support of my wife, my daughter, and my friends I left my home on September 11, 2001, drove into the bowels of the Los Angeles basin and purchased a used 19 foot boat with a 40 horsepower outboard motor. What in the hell was I thinking!
As it turned out the trip was one of the most significant events of my life. Never having owned a boat, knowing nothing about ocean navigation, and making the decision to travel solo all combined to give me an adventure that, if it didn't kill me, would be a life event that would stay with me until the day I died. Although I flirted with death on several occasions during my boating adventure I did accomplish my goal alive and in good health. I departed Los Angeles Harbor, sailed around the Cape, and then motored my little boat up into the murky waters of the mouth of the Colorado River over 2,000 miles from my start. The trip took four weeks, 4 cases of Snapple, and a whole bunch of gasoline. To the best of my knowledge I am the first person to have taken such a small boat from LA around Baja and into the Colorado River solo. This is my story.
~ Introduction ~
"Sometimes you think about this beach, sometimes you don't. But whether or not you think about it, it is here, every day, waiting. You may be in traffic, going somewhere in a hurry, rushing. This beach is still here. You may be distracted by the many dramas passing through your life, not even thinking about it. But it is here, always here, waiting. Where is this beach? That is for you to find out. Forget life's destinations long enough to enjoy the day to day journey of hidden beaches, time with friends, and the simple joys of just being alive." ~ Chuck Chambers
I wrote the above quip after one of my first trips to the Cape region of the Baja Peninsula in the early 1980's. I was struck by the truly spectacular beaches...beaches that had been there for thousands of years but that I had never seen before. I wrote that note on a piece of paper and put it on the wall of my home office as a reminder that I always had options in life. It took me another 20 years to finally put all of the elements together to go in search of that special beach. And it took my impending 50th birthday to motivate me to the point of actually planning the trip.
For several reasons turning 50 years old is considered a milestone in one's life. People just seem to love round numbers and 50 is a nice round number. Also it is half of 100, which is a very round number. However most people realize they will never hit the coveted triple digits so the 50th birthday is a biggee.
Being 50 years old isn't usually a problem. Once a person 'hits' 50 they pretty much take it all in stride, right along with ear hair and deteriorating eyesight. But the anticipation of "turning" 50...yikes! That process seems to stir the emotions, and more importantly, make people think about their mortality. As I write this page I am only 49 years old. But I can see the writing on the wall, and there is no getting around the fact that I will shortly be turning 50. Looks like it's time for a mid-life crisis.
Barry Schiff, pilot extraordinaire and contributing editor to AOPA Pilot magazine said it well. "The worst thing about celebrating birthdays is that it compels us to confront and concede to our mortality". Put another way, birthdays are a 'head's up' that we have burned up one more year on the planet and the remaining years are indeed numbered (pun intended).
Most men heading for an impending collision with 50 find themselves leaning towards a few tried and true scenarios. But the most common options just didn't seem to fit my personality. Buying a Harley Fat Boy and cruising up the west coast? Something about sticking my head in a helmet for hours at a time, combined with bugs hitting my teeth at 60 mph, just didn't ring my bell. How about having a fling with a pretty young thing to make me feel better about getting older? It sound good in theory, but then as a married man you've got two women in your life that you don't understand. Talk about masochism.
So what is a guy to do to prove to the world (or himself) that he is not getting old? Something outdoors, something fun, something a little bit crazy. How about taking a 19 foot fishing panga over 2,000 miles solo around the Baja Peninsula coastline.
I have always enjoyed traveling into Baja, it is truly a magnificent place that has stirred the soul of many people. Having explored Baja extensively for over 25 years I had developed a special affection for this scraggly finger of land dangling below California. After years of exploring the Baja Peninsula I actually built a travel guide on the Internet to help share the joys of Baja with others who felt the same draw. The Baja Expo web site was then, as it is today, a special passion which gave me more reasons to explore and write about Baja.
But my offshore experiences in Baja's waters were very limited. I had swam in her coves, surfed her waves, kayaked her estuaries and snorkeled her reefs, but I had only been on her oceans in a boat a few times. Nothing close to justifying the buying of a boat and exploring her entire coastline.
So I had mixed feelings about undertaking such a significant adventure. However my emotions seemed to outweigh the common sense of planning a more reasonable quest, so it was time to actually move forward with this dream.
Probably the last thing a wife of 20 years wants to hear from her soon-to-be 50-years-old husband is that he wants to buy a boat and head into the unknown waters of one of the most desolate stretches of coastline on the planet. I knew from the git-go that it was going to take some special planning to get her stamp of approval on this crazy project. I first mentioned the idea to her at dinner. "Don't you think it would be fun if I bought an inflatable boat and circumnavigated the Baja Peninsula?" Silence. The same kind of silence I heard from her when I asked her to marry me at the St. Helena Inn in California's wine country 20 years earlier. And she gave me the same look that she gave me when I told her it would be "fun" to get married. "Interesting, yes. Fun, I don't know". But the wine got the best of her then and she said yes to getting hitched, so I knew I had an outside chance she would agree to my grand Baja scheme, if I could just get enough alcohol in her.
After fielding silly questions like "is that really safe" and "what about your job?" she finally agreed to the adventure, with the understanding that I made sure my life insurance policy was current and that I left her with plenty of shopping money before I departed. Having received her full endorsement, I knew it was time to find a boat.
Initially I thought an inflatable boat would work best for this kind of adventure. Unlike most cruising boats that ply the Baja coast and spend most of their time well offshore, I had planned on beaching my craft often during my journey. So having a boat light enough for me to maneuver back and forth to shore seemed to be a logical priority. But I had set a budget of $10,000 for this entire adventure, and I had planned on spending at least $2,000 for other necessaries such as fuel, port fees and food. Since the nicer inflatable boats that I had my eyes on cost $12,000 to $15,000 I started to get discouraged. For weeks I scoured boating publications looking at inflatables and any other type of boat that might fit the bill.
Finally I ran across a 19 foot panga for sale with a 40 horsepower outboard motor. All of a sudden it hit me. A panga was the type of boat that all of the local Mexican fishermen used on both the Pacific and Sea of Cortez sides of Baja. It was the perfect design to ply the waters and also make those occasional trips through the surf. To make things even better the panga I found for sale was only $7,800 which left me $200 under budget and one happy clam.
I had talked to the owner of the boat on the phone and he invited me to come on out the next day and take a look. He had somebody else interested in buying the boat but promised not to sell it until I had a chance to see it the next day. I was very excited about the possibility of finally finding a boat for my trip and I had a hard time sleeping that night.
The next morning my daughter woke me up and told me that two airliners had just flown into the two New York World Trade Center buildings. It was September 11th, 2001. She turned on the television and I watched in horror as, one after another, the twin towers burned and fell to the ground. It was about as surreal as reality can get. Although I knew that this horrible event would greatly affect our lives, there was no way anyone could fully comprehend how drastically and permanently this act would change the world we live in forever. For hours I tried to understand the drama that was unfolding before me on the television. I eventually got my self together and drove an hour out to Riverside, California to look at the boat.
The panga was everything I had hoped it would be. It was extremely well maintained, seemed to be the perfect length, and the motor started right up as if it were saying "C'mon...let's go to Baja!" The owner and I negotiated a slight discount off of the asking price, I gave him a deposit, and I headed home knowing that the biggest problem for planning my trip had been solved.
During the next 5 weeks I kept busy provisioning the boat with items that would help me with my trip. I bought 5 extra gas containers, a mat and sleeping bag, a life raft, flares, a cooler, and a tool kit. Since I promised my wife that I would keep her informed of my progress on a regular basis, something almost impossible to do in the most remote stretches of Baja, I purchased a satellite phone. Although it was more money than I wanted to spend, I justified the purchase by telling myself that I would be able to use it often on future trips.
Navigation was not a very important need for me as I had planned on being within sight of land during the entire trip. However, as a point of perspective, I did bring along the Auto Club map of Baja, which seemed to show in good detail all of the landmarks along the Baja shore. And just for back up, at the last minute, I bought a GPS. As it tuned out the GPS was helpful for charting my distances between stops, but the Auto Club map was my main daily source of navigation for four weeks.
The Baja Peninsula is a unique piece of the geographic puzzle that covers the surface of the Earth. Ever since this landform broke away from what is now mainland Mexico, the Baja Peninsula has been a very special place. The sliding of the Pacific Plate continues today, moving northwest as the Pacific Ocean rolls in to fill the riff. Baja has become something very close to an island, both geographically and spiritually. Baja's isolation has, for centuries, kept all but the most adventurous beings away.
Historians think the first settlers in Baja were Indians who crossed the Asian land bridge at the Bering Straight and gradually migrated into North America approximately 10,000 years ago. These native Americans eventually inhabited much of North and Central America, and some say even made it all the way down into South America.
The Indians who dared to explore and inhabit the isolated Baja Peninsula were some of the most primitive of the early explorers. The little that is known about these original inhabitants of Baja suggests that they were some of the most basic of all of the Indians who inhabited North America. They wore essentially no clothing, had no written language, and sustained themselves on a diet of light agriculture, fishing and simple hunting. Most of these people had died out by the middle of the second millennium, although a few did survive into the latter part of the 18th century. The native population of Baja in the 21st century is a mixture of these original inhabitants, mixed with the European lines that began exploring the Baja Peninsula in the late 15th century.
For most of it's history Baja's population was relatively static, consisting of only a few thousand Indians. Those that did settle in this rugged environment usually found a suitable location and stayed put for several generations.
Even though various groups of European explorers visited the Baja Peninsula from 1500 A.D. to 1800 A.D., Baja usually functioned as a stopping point on the way to somewhere else, not a destination unto itself.
During the second half of the 20th century Baja gradually started to become a destination of it's own. People looking for adventure in a natural setting were drawn to Baja and gradually the Peninsula became a great escape for those who wanted to really get away. Those years from the late 1940's through the early 1970's were called Baja's "Golden Years" by Baja author Gene Kira.
As Baja's popularity increased in the late 1900's the reasons for going to Baja gradually evolved. Whereas the early Baja travelers were going to Baja to "get away" from it all, an increasing number of visitors started going to Baja to "go somewhere". Larger towns and tourist attractions were established and offered the conveniences and services necessary to attract a larger number of visitors. The newly completed Transpeninsular Highway and commercial air traffic made travel into Baja an easy endeavor for the common man.
Today the vast majority of people who visit Baja are people who visit this special place to "go somewhere". Several tourists destinations have evolved and have developed the infrastructure that has allowed Baja to be something as simple as a 3-day getaway, or as elaborate as a second home destination. Most of the people that visit Baja today experience very little of what this magnificent peninsula has to offer.
Even though there is a smaller percentage of visitors who travel to Baja today for true adventure, those who do go to Baja to "get away" are still able to find the empty Peninsula of yesteryear. Spectacular pristine beaches, empty palm valleys and hundreds of miles of desolate terrain still await those who want to experience some of the best that nature has to offer. This book is about one more person who headed to Baja to "get away" and enjoyed every second of it.
~ Chapter One ~
Los Angeles to San Diego
~ Louis Walsh
The day had finally come. After dreaming about this trip for over a year and planning the details for over 4 months, I found myself driving my daughter Tracy to Miraleste Intermediate School on the way to Los Angeles Harbor. After a big hug goodbye and a growing knot in my stomach, I drove down the hill with my wife Leslie to Cabrillo Beach launch ramp at Los Angeles Harbor. Laurie Morrison from The Log newspaper was at the launch ramp waiting to interview me and take photos. John Fields and Dave Berry, close friends and supporters of my adventures, were also waiting to bid me farewell. After hugs and goodbys Leslie was heading off to a meeting, John and Dave had real world appointments, and after an interview and photos Laurie was on her way also. I found myself alone on the dock, loading up the Vaka Viti with supplies and preparing to depart. Alone on the dock it finally hit me. What in the heck did I think I was doing? I was nervous and excited at the same time. After loading the boat and getting ready to untie the dock lines I discovered a problem...the boat would not start. It didn't even sound close to wanting to start. Talk about all dressed up and no place to go!
Being a first time boat owner it took me a while to figure out that I had flooded the motor. I had been advised by the previous owner of the boat that I had to "pump" the rubber fuel ball before pulling on the starter rope. But I had apparently pumped it too much and the carburetor had more gasoline in it than it could handle. After giving the motor 30 minutes to let the excess gas evaporate, I pulled the rope again and she finally started. After this delay in getting started I could hardly wait get out on the water.
The ocean was calm from the launch ramp to the entrance to Los Angeles Harbor at Angel's Gate. But from that point on the ocean swells became noticeable, fortunately they were from the north. This was the beginning of the "following seas" that I would experience for the next 1,000 miles all the way south to Cabo San Lucas.
I motored within a few hunder feet of shore to get a feel for the boat. The southern California coastline was sprinkled with million dollar homes separated by open stretches of spectacular beaches. Although I had traveled along this coast many times in my life on Pacific Coast Highway, this new perspective was exciting and beautiful. The sun was coming out from behind the morning viel of fog, the ocean surface was glassy, and seagulls flew overhead. Maybe this wasn't such a crazy idea after all. This trip might actually be fun!
As I approached the waters off of Camp Pendelton Marine Base I noticed an unusual amount of military activity. President George W. Bush had put the GI wheels in motion to retaliate against the terrorist's attack of September 11th, and I was headed right through the middle of Operation Enduring Freedom's war games. Helicopters fluttered in the sky, Humvees and Jeeps cruised along the shore, and military boats and frog men (and probably frog women) dotted the waters like black dots next to their amphibious boats. I wondered if the area I was traversing was off limits. It didn't seem right for some Yahoo in a panga to be able to zip right through all of this serious warfare. I held my breath, maintained my southbound course about a half mile from shore and just kept on trucking. Within 15 minutes all of the action was behind me and I was closing in on San Diego.
After dodging more kelp beds and lobster traps than I could count I finally entered San Diego Harbor and headed for my first stop on the adventure...the fuel dock at Shelter Island in San Diego. Explaining my destination to the the kid working the fuel dock, he gave me an extra 5 gallon gas can "just to be sure" I had enough fuel to make it between stops down the Baja coast. This was the first of many times that I would be graciously helped by people all along my 2,000 mile excursion. Full of fuel, I tied up the Vaka Viti in a guest slip in the marine, and walked a mile to the main street to grab a light meal and find a place to sleep. If I wanted to make it to Ensenada tomorrow in time to process my Port of Entry papers before the offices closed I knew I had to get an early start in the morning. By 8:00 p.m. I was sound asleep.
~ Chapter Two ~
San Diego to Ensenada
As I approached the guest dock the next morning to boat across the border it was very obvious to me that something was drastically wrong. The Vaka Viti was gone! My heart stopped as I noticed a large U.S. Customs boat where my panga was parked the night before. A quick scan of the docks and I soon discovered my boat, snuggled onto an end slip 25 feet away. Although I was careful the night before not to park in any marked spaces, I must have tied up the ol' Vaka V. in a slip designated for the Customs folks. Oops.
Motored up and leaving the harbor I noticed two very large Navy ships heading my way, returning from their war games. I thought this would be a good photo opp...my little boat with Elvira (the wigged-out pumpkin) in the foreground with a couple of huge Navy Destroyers at twelve o'clock. The men on board the ships didn't think my getting close to their ship was such a good idea. As soon as I got within 200 yards of the first ship I looked up on deck and saw the large men in green uniforms pointing their machine guns directly at me! Although this was not the only time on the trip that I would be face to face with Tommy Guns, it was something you never quite get used to. I immediately gave both ships a wide berth and made my southerly direction clear to the men with the machine guns. The aim of their guns followed me until I was headed due south.
I tingled with excitement as I approached the U.S. / Mexican border. A determined metal fence straddled the border down to the ocean where it continued wading well past the low tide line. Border Patrol agents in green trucks on the north side of the fence carefully watched me with their binoculars as I pulled up to the fence for a picture. They made it obvious that I was being watched, and that they were armed. I snapped a couple of shots of the border fence and then backed away from the beach and headed south. It seemed amazing to me that within less than 2 hours I had personal experiences with the U.S. Customs, the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Border Patrol. Not to mention my romp with the U.S. Marines the day before! I couldn't wait to get to Mexico where it was safe!
The growth of Tijuana starts immediately south of the border fence, in stark contrast to the empty land just north of the border in the United States. Houses, apartments, condos and businesses clog the dusty hills all the way down to the coastline to make "T.J." the Baja Peninsula's most populated city. The city's population has grown significantly since the eighteenth century when Spanish Padres stopped here to eat and sleep at the border in a small inn run by a woman known as "Aunt Jane" (Tia Juana). Now a city of well over a million people, Tijuana serves as a beacon of hope for people in search of a better life from Chiapas to Panama, and everywhere in between. For some of these people Tijuana is the end destination. For others it is a starting place to obtain connections and prepare for the illegal crossing into the United States. Illegal immigrants, tourists, workers and international trade all combine to make this U.S. / Mexico border crossing the busiest in the world. Tijuana, known for the creation of the original Ceasar's Salad, the notorious Long Bar beer hall, Caliente dog races and infamous donkey shows continues to grow in it's own unique way.
To my west, just a few miles offshore, were the Coronado Islands. Just barely in Mexican waters, these islands were once a hiding place for pirates and worse. A hotel and casino had been built on South Coronado Island in the early 1900's, but Mexico made gaming illegal just before it was completed. Since then the Coronados have been the destination of gringo fishermen and Scuba divers who want to strike it rich in the nutrient-filled waters. For me they were helpful in blocking the direct westerly ocean swells, making my passage between them and the shore calm and enjoyable.
Along the coast I spotted several of Baja's famous landmarks sitting on the coast. The Rosarito Beach Hotel has hosted millions of guests since it's opening in 1926 and is still going strong today. I had enjoyed many fun weekends at this hotel over the years and found it quite interesting to see it from this westerly perspective. The Spanish words in the arch over the front door provide a hint of the type of clientele that has flocked to this Baja landmark over the decades. "Through These Doors Pass the Most Beautiful Women in the World". The movie stars that frequented the hotel in it's early years have been replaced by yuppies and tourists of all types, but the crowd is always lively and interesting. The hotel is currently run by Hugo Torres Chabert who is the nephew of the hotel's original owner Manuel Barbachano. Barbachano was a true Baja pioneer and was instrumental in the original growth of this coastal area, including getting electricity and telephone service to the Rosarito Beach area.
Soon after passing the Rosarito Beach Hotel I motored past Fox Studios Baja where James Cameron's 'Titanic' was filmed. I flashed back to the day a few years back when I was driving down the Baja coastal road and was shocked at the sight of an almost full-scale 'Titanic' sitting in the 17 million gallon water tank between the highway and the ocean. It was quite a sight! Senior Cameron surprised everyone by putting over 200 million clams into the film, the most money ever spent on a movie. Then he proceeded to break another record by having the film gross over one billion dollars worldwide. You do the math...the movie was a smashing success. The studio is still in use today and tours of the facilities are now available to the public. From the water I could see the various studios and the back lot, now tourist attractions in their own right.
Just south of Fox Studios Baja I hit Calafia, the blufftop location of one of my favorite places to eat nachos, enjoy Mariachi music and drink in the spectacular views of the Baja coast. The restaurant and hotel rise dramatically above the ocean with it's collection of seaside decks and dining areas. At the bottom of the restaurant sits the model pirate ship 'Corona Aurora Galleon' standing guard in the rocks at Punta Descanso. If you are looking for a place to dance on a Saturday night with waves crashing just a few feet away this place can't be beat. I also hold a special place in my heart for Calafia as the final place to have lunch after the completion of my annual toy drive. For 12 years running we get have gotten 5 vehicles stuffed full of new and used toys, loaded up the kids, and headed into the hills of Tijuana a day or two before Christmas to spread some cheer. It's been a great way for our kids to experience a different culture, and the local kids always appreciate all of the goodies we deliver. I pulled up close to the coast while watching the rolling waves slap the side of boat, slipped the Vaka V. into neutral and snapped a photo of the seaside restaurant and hillside terraces. Then I motored around the kelp and continued south.
The quaint coastal village of Puerto Nuevo was just a few miles further south. Once a weekend escape for hungry surfers who stopped at Juan and Petra Ortega's home for a bite to eat, Puerto Nuevo now hosts over 30 restaurants in a small four block village. Just like the old days the specialty of the house is lobster, served up on a big plate with rice, beans, tortillas and salsa. Throw in a cold beer and it's easy to see why this secret hideaway has become one of northern Baja's most visited destinations.
Continuing south I noticed a couple of surfers sitting in the water at at local surf spot called K-55. I motored in, slowed down and said 'hello'. They seemed surprised that I had pulled up to them and asked me where I was going. I said "San Felipe". They laughed and paddled for the next wave, obviously thinking I was kidding.
Before long I was entering Ensenada harbor and docking up at Juanito's in the marina near the Fish Market. After criss crossing the town doing the necessary Port Captain/Immigration/Customs/Marina dance, it started to get dark. Not that it had to be dark to order a margarita at world famous Hussong's Cantina, they just tasted better after dark.
Immigrant Juan Hussong opened this famous watering hole in the late 1800's and little has changed here over the last 100 years. Hussong's is run today by Richard Hussong Junior, the grandson of founder Juan. I had the good fortune to meet Walter and Charlotte Hussong at an event in San Clemente, and they were happy to share with me some of the history of the family and the bar. The fact that the bar has become hugely famous worldwide is either a testament to the Hussong's family or of the gringos and locals who just can't say no to some of the best margaritas on Earth.
As is usually the case it didn't take long to make new friends in Hussong's Cantina. Before long everybody was buying everybody else margaritas and beer, the mariachis were playing to the crowd, and my resolve not to drink dissolved into a cloud of new friends and laughter. Photos were taken, drinks were hoisted and cards were exchanged. The fun was non-stop. All to soon I had to leave the party to get some well deserved sleep. Tomorrow morning I was headed to the coastal city of San Quintin where I had a planned gasoline, dinner and motel stop. As it turned out none of the above were there to greet me when I arrived!
Walking out of the front door of Hussong's Cantina and into the chilly evening air reminded me of a another adventure over 15 years ago where Hussong's played an pivotal part of a formula for disaster. My friend Mike and I had played hooky from work and snuck down to Baja for a fun day of snorkeling and taco sampling. Against the advice of my wife Mike and I drove down in my spanking new 735 BMW, justifying that it needed to be initiated in the Baja. We had a great day along the coast and decided to round out our adventure at Hussong's before heading back to the border. After having more fun than we should have had in the famous Cantina (and being over-served by the friendly waiters) we finally walked out of the notorious green doors at about midnight. We were parked across the street from Hussong's and made the mistake of making a U-turn right in the middle of the street. Within seconds we were pulled over and negotiating with the Mexican police. The officer's words were almost as numbing as the tequila..."you are going to jail". It was hard to convince him that these two yuppies driving a shiny new car only had $18 between them, but it was true. Soon we were on our way up the coast, totally broke but happy to be headed home.
As we headed north along the toll road I miscalculated a sweeping right turn in the highway just north of Baja Mar and slammed the left side of the car into the guard rail. I hate it when that happens. The hard impact flattened the two left tires and made a significant change in the sheet metal on the port side of the vehicle. Shaken but not stirred, and not wanting to leave the car parked in the middle of nowhere, we continued driving north hoping to make it to the next off ramp at La Salina, several miles up the coast. Eventually the two left side flat tires worked their way off of the rims and now we were trucking down the highway at 15 miles per hour with the rims in direct contact with the road surface. "Think we should stop?" I asked Mike. "Naw, we can make it" he responded. Never was there a better example of the blind leading the blind. Sparks began to fly as the rims heated up but we still moved forward optimistic that we could make it to La Salina. We were within 100 feet of the off ramp when the sparks from the front left wheel ignited something in the engine compartment. Flames were starting to lick up through the hood and I knew we had to stop and get out...quick.
I pulled the car off to the side of the road and jumped out, hoping to throw some sand on the fire and put it out before things got out of control (thinking back, I guess I had reached that point about a half hour earlier). Mike also got out of the car, on the passenger side, not knowing we had stopped the car right on the La Salina overpass. He stepped out of the car and fell into 20 feet of dead air before smashing into the road down below. I freaked out when I saw him go over the edge of the overpass and immediately ran down the embankment to find him. Expecting the worst, I was relieved to see he was still alive, although the pool of blood he was laying in was a bit disconcerting. As I sat with him I started to hear the succession of noises my car was making as it started to burn up above us. There were more noises that one might expect. In addition to the crackling of the flames, the airbags inflated and popped, the windows exploded, and the horn went off. This orchestra was accompanied by the car alarm going off, the two right tires popping from the extreme heat and the gas tank exploding like a bomb. It was really quite a show.
By the time I had gotten back up to the road the car was fully engulfed in bright flames, shooting up over 40 feet into the late night sky. Half-dressed residents and ranchers started appearing and asking if they could help, and one of them called an ambulance for Mike. After a brief discussion with the police I jumped in the ambulance with Mike and headed south back to the hospital in Ensenada. I could see the car was still burning strong as I looked out of the back windows of the ambulance.
The short version of the rest of this story is that we ended up at home late the next day, Mike with a busted wrist and me with a piece of melted metal as a souvenir of my brand new car. The long version involves more meetings with the police, sneaking a rental car from San Diego back to Ensenada (and getting caught), and a couple of tough phone calls to my wife and my insurance agent. All's well that end's well, but the excitement along the way is something I will never forget. Compared to that unforgetable experience this boat trip should be a piece of cake. Famous last words.
~ Chapter Three ~
Ensenda to San Quintin
The hotel I stayed in was on Ensenada's main tourist street, Avenida Lopez Mateos, just a block from the marina. As I walked down the ramp at Juanito's I noticed something very important was missing. The Vaka Viti was gone...again. I hate it when that happens! Sitting on the end slip where I had parked my panga was a large cruiser which had come in sometime during the night. To make room for the larger boat somebody had moved the Vaka to another slip on the other side of the dock. Both nights my boat had been moved despite the fact that I had removed the clip that initiates the motor's kill switch. So much for security.
I was so caught up with finding the boat that I hadn't noticed the fog out at sea. Pea soup...the thick version. Hoping it might burn off by the time I hit the harbor entrance I prepared the boat, started the motor and slowly slid south. My goal was to hit the huge natural bay of San Quintin in the early afternoon at high tide, as the harbor there was too shallow to navigate at lower tides. The fog was still thick as I reached the harbor entrance...I couldn't see 50 feet. There was no way I could safely enter the open ocean. Discouraged but hopeful of a quick burn off, I tucked back in the harbor looking for a place to kill time while the fog dissipated. Looking for something to tie up to in the harbor I found the perfect object...the SS Catalina!
The SS Catalina had led a long and productive life shuttling people from LA Harbor to Catalina Island in California for many decades. With the advent of faster boats she was put out to pasture, and after sleeping in LA harbor for many years, she ended up at anchor in Ensenada Harbor. Years of sitting in the water had taken their toll, and she finally began taking on water. Now her hull rests on the bottom of the harbor, listing to one side. A banner proclaiming restoration is proudly displayed on her bow. But the old girl is in very bad shape, and as much of an optimist as I am I'm quite certain that this beauty will never float again. But she proved to be a great place to tie up wait out the fog. It was an honor to share the water with her!
After an hour the fog thinned out enough for me to leave the harbor and follow the coast. The visibility continued to improve until I hit Punta Banda, a rocky point southwest of town. Visibility again dropped to near zero, but it looked patchy ahead as I approached the famous blow hole "La Bufadora". La Buf was performing well this morning and I stopped to take a photo of her large sea spray when the ocean swells filled the narrow crevace in the rocks. Indeed, after negotiating the worst of the rocks and reefs in thick fog the sky opened up and the moist air disappeared. I was now leaving the more populated Baja and heading into the wild. Time to take out my main navigation chart...a tattered 1996 version of the Auto Club Map. Don't laugh, it got me all the way around the Peninsula and up into the Colorado River!
The main agenda today was lobster traps, dolphins, kelp beds and fish camps. It was a beautiful run and I made it to the entrance of San Quintin in time to catch a beautiful sunset.
The tide was indeed dropping and twice my prop grazed the sea-grass bottom as I slowly headed up into the 8 mile bay. Within 20 minutes I had reached my destination, the panga pier at the Old Mill Resort. Tying up the boat and untying the gas cans I could not wait to get fueled up for a morning departure. But as I approached the Old Mill I walked into a strange silence. The fishing shop where I had called last month arranged to arrange gas, the restaurant where I had planned to eat, and the bar I had planned to sip a cold beer...all were closed down and vacant. I thought to myself..."welcome to Mexico"!
I walked down the dirt streets looking for a back up plan to get gasoline. Tiberon's Pangas was located just down the dirt street from the Old Mill, and after offering me a cold Pacifico, the owner agreed to have his friend drive me to the nearest Pemex gas station in town. I put my 5 gallons gas cans in the back of his truck and we headed east down the bumpy dirt road. In broken Spanish I informed my new friend that I was taking my panga down to Cabo San Lucas and then up the Sea of Cortez past San Felipe. He asked me in broken English if I was aware of the dangerous Sacramanto Reef down the coast from San Quintin. I mentioned that I was aware of the reef, and of the many ships from previous centuries that had hit the huge reef and lost their loads of gold.
He seemed silent for a second and then he asked me what I knew about the gold lost in the reefs. I had obviously touched onto a subject that was of special interest to him. As we continued to bounce down the road he realized that I was no threat to whatever interest he had in the hidden gold. He confided with me that he had a friend who was currently searching the reef for lost booty and had been somewhat successful. His friend had found many gold coins a few years ago, but then had lost the exact location and had been searching for it again ever since.
I put 10 liters of gas in his truck to thank him for his efforts, gave him $3 cash to buy himself a beer, and we headed back towards the sea. The conversation changed from gold coins in the water to the easy money some of his friends were making on Unemployment Insurance payments up in Los Angeles. The more he talked the more I was convinced that the unemployment system back home may still need a little tweaking.
Back at the coast I thanked him and headed for the boat to set up my sleeping bag. As I got comfortable in the boat it finally hit me...I hadn't eaten all day. No worries...I wasn't really that hungry. I soon fell asleep to the sound of anchovies jumping in the water next to my boat.
One particularly defiant anchovy kept trying to get into the boat. I kept hearing him slap his 6 inch body against the hull of the boat. I could not figure out why he wanted to get inside the boat so badly. It was two days later when I discovered his stiff torso behind the tool box. Apparently he tried his best to get out of the boat all night before he wound up in fish heaven. As the Skipper always said to Gilligan..."sorry little buddy".
~ Chapter Four ~
San Quintin to Santa Rosalillita
Despite the noise made all night by the renegade anchovy, I slept well and was up at dawn to take advantage of the high tide to leave the shallow bay. Fortunately another fishing panga was leaving the other Old Mill pier at the same time, and I was able to follow in his wake to stay in the deepest part of the bay to get to the entrance. I could use all the luck I could muster up today because I already had a lot of work cut out for me. Today was going to be the longest leg of my entire trip...over 150 miles. That may not seem like a long distance but running at 18 miles per hour it becomes an all day trek.
My destination for the day was Santa Rosalillita, a large and beautiful natural harbor where the Mexican government had big ideas. In addition to planning this bay as one of the main supply stops for gringo boaters traveling the planned Nautical Ladder, Santa Rosalillita held the distinction of being the west port of the 86 mile "land bridge" that Mexico had on the drawing boards to truck yachts from the Pacific Ocean to the Sea of Cortez. But to me this small seaside fishing village held only one special distinction...it was the only place for 250 miles where I could get gasoline for the Vaka Viti.
The size of the swells increased as I headed south. They averaged about 4 feet in height, about twice as high as I had experienced since I left Los Angeles. But the wind was down, the sun came out and the ocean surface was smooth so I was loving life. After a serious tag with a lobster trap float and a few tangles with kelp I hit glassy waters and sunny skies. Miles of empty beaches lined the coast until I closed in on Punta Baja. I had visited this rocky fish camp before, delivering clothing and toys to the local people. As much as I wanted to stop and say hello again to these warm people I knew that I had to make good time getting to my next gas stop before dark.
In planning for the trip I continually read about the infamous Sacramento Reef south of Punta Baja. This 2 mile long and 2 mile wide reef had claimed more than its fair share of boats over the last 3 centuries, and I was determined that it would not be nibbling on the bottom of my little panga. Charts showed the safest path as being over 5 miles off shore, or taking a narrow channel between the beach and the reef for those daring souls who wanted to challenge the thick kelp beds. By this time I was a master of dodging kelp so I chose the inside passage. I passed the huge reef with no problem and continued heading south.
Around noon I noticed a huge tanker grounded on the shore. From the looks of the rusted hull it had probably been there for some time. South of the tanker the coastline transitioned from sand to low cliffs. Centuries of waves had cut a variety of caves into these cliffs of many different sizes and shapes, making the view along this long run extremely interesting. During the previous days of cruising I had seen twice as many dolphins as seals. Today the tide had turned (pun intended) and the seals were dominating the water all day long. However the one encounter I did have with dolphins this day was one of the best memories I have of the entire trip.
People love to talk about dolphins and to debate their intelligence. Beyond being just plain cute they do seem to harbor a level of gray matter not usually found in the animal kingdom. And the more I watched these wonderful mammals dance along the sides of my boat the more interested I became. And then they just plain blew me away. With 2 dolphins escorting me on each side of the boat I could see the competition heating up. One dolphin would jump out of the water just a little higher that his buddy and then visa versa. Finally the most ambitious dolphin decided it was time to Go for the Gold. Without fanfare he (or she...I haven't yet figured out how to tell the difference yet) jumped out of the water from the left side of the boat and flew directly over the front of my boat. He was literally over the interior of the Vaka Viti about 8 feet in front of my face! Keep in mind that I was traveling at 18 to 20 miles per hour and that his timing had to be impeccable to perform this stunt without error. As he crossed over the boat at eye level he flopped his tail to splash water on my face and then in an instant this mischievous prankster dipped back in the ocean on the other side of the boat! I laughed spontaneously at this impromptu extravaganza and almost could not believe what I had seen. As if to say the show is over (and we know who won the contest) the four dolphins turned around and swam away. It was an instant in time I will never forget as long as I live.
The two bays just north of Rosalillita were extremely protected and beautiful. The perfect place for a solo kayaker to set up camp and enjoy the Baja sun. I waved as I passed him and he smiled and waved back. I envied his free time and lack of a destination. Still I was excited about my adventure and soon I rounded the last point before Santa Rosalillita.
In the late afternoon I noticed a solo man walking northward along the beach totally naked. It seemed to be an odd place to see someone because there were no roads nearby and no development of any kind. His pace was slow but determined and then he stopped. He appeared to be looking at me. And then he continued walking, and I kept motoring.
As the sun slowly snuck up on the horizon I entered the natural harbor and headed towards the protected north west corner. I threw out my anchor and pulled out my sleeping mat and bag. I was exhausted. And I was very happy to have made it this far with no problems. There were a billion stars in the sky and the trip started to take on a new feeling. The feeling of nature. It was a very fulfilling way to fall asleep.
~ Chapter Five ~
Santa Rosalillita to Bahia Tortugas
Sometime early in the morning before the sun had come up I awoke to the sound of the boat bouncing off of the sandy bottom. Although I had allowed for a dropping tide when I set the anchors the night before, I had not allowed for such an extreme drop. I crawled out of my sleeping bag, waded over to the anchors to pull them free from the sand, then started the motor to head for deeper water. Again I anchored the boat and tightened the lines, this time in 10 feet of water, and then slipped back into my still-warm sleeping bag.
Even though yesterday's run from San Quintin to Santa Rosalillita was my longest, I anticipated today's run as the scariest. Today I had to navigate the entire western "hook" of Baja, known for extreme fog, huge shoals and unpredictable wind and waves. And because of the low lying geography I would have few landmarks to check my progress. The good news was that, once I rounded Punta Eugenia at the tip, it would be all downhill to Cabo! Calmer seas, warmer water, less fog and hot days all waited for me around the point. These perks were enough to give me the incentive I needed to get up at 7:00 a.m. and walk to the village in search of gasoline.
Walking towards the main beach where about two dozen pangas were at rest I asked a lone fisherman where I might purchase some gas. He pointed to a yellow house about 100 yards back from the beach with a woman sweeping the front porch. Grabbing my 5 gas containers I walked up to her and asked if she had any gas for sale. She pointed to a large 55 gallon drum and said "Si...mucho". Before long I found myself sticking one end of a plastic hose in the large drum and the other end in my mouth. Sucking hard to get the flow going, I knew that there was no way to avoid getting a mouth full of gas before putting the flowing tube into my gas cans. It didn't taste nearly as bad as I thought it would. Unleaded gasoline for breakfast, what a way to start the day! Within 20 minutes I was full of gas (and so were the gas cans!) and ready to rock and roll.
I was pleased that there was no fog on the horizon and that the winds were calm. The glassy seas enticed me to stray a bit from shore in an effort to take a little short-cut across the bay and towards the entrance of Scammon's Lagoon. Although the lagoon would be full of hundreds of California Gray Whales within two months I knew I wouldn't be seeing any of the big fellas today. My goal was to get past the 2 main entrances of the huge lagoon without getting stuck on the large sandbars that extend almost 2 miles out to sea from the mouths of the lagoon. These shoals of sand were wide and the ocean surface over them was very choppy...and shallow. I did my best to stay outside of the green water which warned me that sand was just a few feet below my prop. Getting stuck here would be a disaster.
After carefully maneuvering past both shoals I angled back closer to the beach to catch a glimpse of the coastline and the never-ending sand dunes. This was the beginning of Malarrimo Beach where all of the jetsam and flotsam riding the Pacific Ocean currents ends up on shore. Items from all over the world land here after bobbing down the Pacific coast and it was a scavenger hunter's ultimate dream. I motored close to shore to see if was possible to hop out for a look at the goods, but the waves were too big and the risk of getting stuck was just not worth it. I made a mental note to come back in the future with a 4 wheel drive vehicle to look for treasures. Within a few miles my fears of getting stuck were confirmed...a huge freighter was grounded sideways ahead, half in the water and half permanently stuck in the sand.
The coast gradually transitioned from sand dunes to low lying cliffs. After 3 hours of not seeing another living thing I finally began seeing fish camps again. The air was still very clear and way off in the distance I could see Isla Natividad, an island just off the tip of Punta Eugenia. It would take me over two hours to get to that point, but when I did get there a feeling of euphoria came over me like I had never experienced before. I guess deep down inside I knew that getting past this point was a major landmark in my big adventure, and rounding the point put me in a fantastic upbeat mood. As I passed the point the ocean surface became lake-like and the following seas pushed me for the next 8 miles to the entrance to Bahia Tortugas. I felt like the luckiest guy in the world and became re-energized for the balance of the trip to Cabo!
After a brief rearranging of pangas with a fisherman at the base of the pier, I tied up the Vaka V. and tried to figure out how to get up the death-trap ladder to reach the top of the pier. The rungs on the metal ladder were old and rusted and once on top there was a huge wooden beam preventing a smooth transition from the ladder to the dock itself. Fortunately a bevy of local kids accompanied by the local town drunk came out to greet me, and one by one they caught my empty plastic gas cans as I threw them from the boat to the top deck of the pier. And then they noticed the tennis balls that I had brought along for gifts on the front deck of the boat. You'd think these kids had never seen a tennis ball before! I had passed up one for each boy but kids know no limits. "Mas...mas!" they shouted with big smiles. Who could resist! I think each kid ended up with 3 or 4 tennis balls and a few of the fly swatters I had brought along as well.
I hiked to the Pemex station to fill my cans with gas and I was not surprised that it was out of gasoline and closed. A young man in a beat-to-death truck offered me a ride to another place just outside town that sold gas, just a soon as he put air in his right rear tire. The tire bead had come off of the rim so we wiggled and waggled the tire until the bead set, filled it with air, and off we went. By the time we got to the gas stop the tire was flat again. I put 10 liters of gas in his truck to thank him for his help, he filled his tire with air again, and off we went back to the pier. I wondered how many times each day this kid had to put air in his tire! I gave him a couple of dollars for a cold beer, thanked him and off I went. Soon I had my full gas cans in place on the bow of the boat, and I was ready for my first meal of the day.
I noticed a hamburger cart next to a small grocery store on a dusty side street. After buying a pack of cookies to snack on for the trip, I ordered up what was probably the best hamburger this side of Todos Santos. The monster burger patty was dressed in fresh guacamole, catsup and mustard, mayonnaise, onions, jalapenos and who knows what else. Partnered with an ice cold Coke...I seemed at one with the Universe. Only one thing could make this night any better...a hot shower. Was I asking too much?
The small but clean Hotel Morraco offered 5 upstairs rooms at $120 pesos each. At $14 U.S. it was a no-brainer...I would have paid that much just for a shower! It felt great to lay on a bed again, and I barely planned the next leg of my voyage to Punta Abreojos before falling asleep.
~ Chapter Six ~
Bahia Tortugas to Punta Abreojos
I left all of the drapes open in the room to let the early morning light wake me up at the break of dawn. If I would have known about all of the roosters in town I could have left the drapes closed. I took a heavenly shower, put on my cleanest dirty clothes, and strapped on my backpack. I slowly headed downhill to the pier where the Vaka Viti was quietly sleeping next to another panga. I carefully climbed down the rusty ladder and pulled in the boat with the damp tie down line. After securing the deck I started the motor and slowly headed out to sea. I was looking forward to visiting a Baja location that I have eyed on the map for many years...Punta Abreojos. Abreojos was known in Baja circles as a fun destination for surfers and windsurfers, and for those who just wanted to get away from it all. And it had a small fleet of fishing pangas, which meant it was a designated gas stop for my thirsty panga!
The Gods had provided another great day for cruising. The sun was out, the seas were only about two feet, and there was only a slight wind. I was beginning to realize what great weather I had experienced on this trip so far, and how fortunate I was not to have to fight big waves, strong winds and foggy seas. I would have done the trip in whatever type of weather I was dealt with, but having nice weather made the voyage much more enjoyable.
South of Tortugas the mountains were high and dramatic, leaving no room for beaches as they reached down to rub elbows with the ocean. About an hour south of Tortugas I spotted an extremely picturesque fishing village snug in a steep valley at the base of a hill. Unlike most fish camps this remote pueblo called Puerto Nuevo seemed to offer a sense of community, and I could see a small church behind the small houses. I thought how simple life must be in a little village so far removed from civilization! They probably had a generator for lights and television, but the desolate location put them very much in touch with life's basics, nature and the sea. Another great destination for a future road trip!
The coastline south continued to be inaccessible, although occasionally beaches appeared between the low lying bluffs. I knew that behind these bluffs there were hundreds of square miles of Baja's most stark desert, the Vizciano. This was the type of desert terrain that epitomizes many of the deserts in southwestern North America...never-ending miles of sand and barren desert. The main town connecting this desolate area to the rest of the world was the small town of Vizciano, slung haphazardly along Highway One like an afterthought. And one of my most memorable Peninsula moments just happened to take shape on the outskirts of town of town about 7 years earlier.
I was making my way to San Juanico Bay via Baja Highway One in a smokey 3/4 ton stake-bed truck. My buddy John Rellos had just finished building a house in San Juanico and I had volunteered to take a load full of furniture to the new residence, affectionately know as Casa Volando. John provided me with the truck, gas and cervesa money and his trusted employee Estaban to share the driving. Just south of Vizciano we noticed what appeared to be a mirage standing next to the blazing hot asphalt. But it was no mirage...it was Sylvia. There she stood proud as a peacock in red high heals, a low cut red blouse, bright red lips and a full head of hair blowing in the dry desert wind. And her thumb was out. I knew there was an adventure here and I just couldn't pass up the opportunity to pick her up.
I had picked up hitch-hikers many times before in Baja and always enjoyed giving a lift to an amigo or amiga in need. That was the Baja way. I had even picked up working ladies before with amusing consequences. But Sylvia was no regular working lady. Indeed, as Estaban jumped in the back seat and Sylvia crawled into the front seat, it took about two seconds for me to figure out that Sylvia was a man. And a fairly good-sized man at that. She gently shook my hand with her island-sized paw and smiled flirtingly at Estaban in the back seat. Estaban didn't know what to think and quite frankly neither did I. She was already in the truck and we were committed. So off we went down Highway One looking a lot like the three stooges.
Sylvia was a chatter box and made it clear from the git-go that she was working. She said she worked the Highway, mainly truckers, and was headed south to San Ignacio for a job she had lined up. She said she would be happy to make some money while she was going down (no pun intended). Even though we weren't looking to buy I always enjoyed window shopping so I asked Sylvia how much she charged for her services. She quoted a price in pesos that calculated out to be about $8.00 U.S. Estaban and I looked at each other and nodded in agreement that Sylvia seemed to have her services competitively priced. But I wanted her to understand that we were just giving her a ride and that her favors would have to wait for her client in San Ignacio. She seemed to take the news in stride...I'm sure it wasn't the first time her services had been declined, it just goes with the job. After another hour of talking we dropped her off at the gas station in San Ignacio and she was on her way. I can no longer drive through Visciano without thinking about the road-side mirage that turned out to be Sylvia.
As I motored the Vaka Viti south the beaches soon became more prevalent. I knew I was closing in on Abreojos. I rounded the final point and the bay and the small village of Abreojos came into view. It was easy to spot my best chance for gasoline...a row of pangas lined the beach mid-town with fishermen behind the boats getting their lines ready for the next morning. Not wanting to get in their way I slowly motored a bit northwest of the boats, heading towards a calm beach which was protected by a small reef. Once past the reef I decided to drop anchor about 20 feet from shore and then walk with my gas containers in waist high water to shore. But before I reached the area where I wanted to stop I heard a high pitched whistle from a fisherman on shore. He was trying to warn me of a second reef that was submerged behind the first reef. Too late. As I spotted the second reef I immediately tried to throw the motor in reverse, but the forward momentum of the boat pushed it directly into the reef and the sound of my prop hitting it made me cringe. After negotiating 600 miles of open coastline with dozens of jagged reefs I finally hit my prop on a rock 20 feet from shore while trying to park!
The boat finally started it's reverse motion and I quickly whipped the steering to the left to avoid hitting the reef a second time as I backed out. Luck was with me as I slipped into deeper water to catch my breath. Maybe pulling up on the main panga beach wasn't such a bad idea after all. I could always motor the Vaka further from shore after I filled up with gas. A quick inspection of the prop revealed only minor damage and even though I had brought along a spare prop I felt very relieved that I would not have to use it...yet.
Gasoline was easy to find just a block up the beach and a block back from the shore. The old man who sold the gas kept large drums in a shed next to his house, and he seemed particularly happy to fill up my 4 empty containers. Maybe it was his birthday. Soon I had my gas cans back on the boat and then I headed back to shore to find a place to eat. I was getting quite used to this one-meal-a-day routine.
As my wet feet hit the main dirt street I saw a newer white Ford pick-up slowly headed my way. I had been to Mexico enough times to know that this was no Mexican vehicle, and that the Gringo driver could probably steer me towards a good place to tie on a tasty feed bag. I had no reservations about walking up and talking to the driver as it is common practice in Baja to stop and chat with fellow travelers. He seemed happy to help out a fellow norte-Americano and directed me to a small restaurant up the street that he highly recommended. As his pretty blonde girlfriend looked on he mentioned that he was building a house just south of town and that he had been coming to Abreojos for several years to surf and enjoy the quiet life. If he wanted to 'drop out' of society he certainly found the right place to do it. I thanked him for his time and headed up the street towards the restaurant he recommended.
No surprise...the restaurant was closed. As were the other two restaurants in town that were recommended by the local people. Although I was enjoying the view trotting around town looking for a bite to eat it was starting to get dark and I wanted to get back on the boat before it got too late. I finally found another restaurant with two tables and 5 chairs on a side street and they were open and ready to serve. After a home-made Mexican meal I felt great and trucked on back to the boat. The tide had come in during my quest for food and I had to swim the last 20 feet to the boat with my backpack balanced on my head. But the air was still warm and the air was still so I didn't worry about getting wet before going to sleep. I made my bed, put on a pair of dry Levi's and a sweatshirt and went to sleep knowing that tomorrow I would be seeing old friends in the beautiful bay of San Juanico 90 miles to the south.
~ Chapter Seven ~
Punta Abreojos to San Juanico
~ Alice Meynell
I initially discovered the village of San Juanico in much the same way I first discovered Cabo San Lucas. In the 1970's I became drawn to Cabo on a map of Baja, the point of land at very tip of the dramatic Baja Peninsula. It looked like it had many of the qualities a Baja aficionado and waterman might enjoy, and Cabo turned out to be everything I thought it would be...and more. The Cape soon became a frequent destination for me, although it has grown immensely since I first swam in her waters.
In 1995, after 20 years of exploring Baja I again spotted a place on the map that seemed unique and well suited for the likes of me. I talked a few friends into making the road trip south, and we arrived at Punta Pequena at about midnight after a 2 day trek. Not knowing where exactly we were when we hit town, we just set up our sleeping bags on the bluffs at the base of the navigation light and fell asleep listening to classical music under the stars. We woke up the next morning to discover one of the most beautiful natural bays in Baja, and a new love affair started that has continued to this day.
So I was very excited when I woke up in Punta Abreojos and prepared to head south to San Juanico. Nobody sleeps in very late in a Baja fishing village, and as soon as the sun came up the Abreojos pangeros were prepping their boats, nets and traps for a new day on the ocean. Because I was anchored just offshore the activity woke me up just as efficiently as the roosters in Bahia Tortugas. I went through my morning routine of checking my map, putting on my life vest and wrapping the leash line that was attached to the motor's kill switch around my ankle. If I ever did fall overboard I didn't want the boat to go too far without me.
Just a few miles south of the village the northern mouth of Laguna Ignacio came into view. This was another huge shallow lagoon where the California Gray Whales visits each year to mate, give birth and watch the tourists watch them. My experience with the last two lagoon entrances at Scammon's taught me that I needed to keep an eye out for the light green and choppy waters that marked the sandy shoals of the lagoons entrances. Soon enough I spotted the white water dead ahead, and made a gradual turn to the west to motor around the shoal.
Most of the whale sightseeing activity in this lagoon takes place on the calm east side of the lagoon, a good 10 miles inland from the ocean. It has been repeatedly confirmed that the whales in this lagoon are friendlier than those of Scammon's Lagoon and Magdalena Bay, and that whale "petting" is common here. Seems that whales are showing a level of smarts not unlike that of dolphins. Maybe this higher level of intelligence is a trademark of mammals in general (aside from a few humans).
Passing the lagoon I took inventory of today's weather...sunny, warm and calm seas. The water temperature had increased to 73 degrees and would continue to rise to 86 degrees when I got to Cabo. I safely negotiated the second entrance shoal for Laguna Ignacio at the south end and began a long coastal run that consisted of dozens of miles of completely empty beaches. I had flown over this stretch of coast in a private airplane years ago and even from the air at 120 miles per hour the beaches seemed to stretch on forever.
Today was another day of dolphins and seals, but many more than I had been used to seeing. In a short 10 mile run I passed over 100 dolphins and at least 20 seals. Where the dolphins usually seemed to enjoy a little play time when the Vaka V. skidded past, the seals would inevitably freak out and frantically take a dive as soon as they realized I was upon them.
The beaches finally gave way to low lying bluffs and then eventually to the huge dark cliffs of Punta Santo Domingo. Even though I was 200 yards from shore and the water was at least 30 feet deep I could see the bottom as clear as if I were in 3 feet of water. This was probably the clearest water I had seen on the Pacific coast so far and I got excited about the snorkeling options that were ahead of me.
Soon I rounded the first of the seven main points that make up Punta Pequena, the headlands of San Juanico, also known as Scorpion Bay. I had surfed most of these seven points over the years but the more I rounded the point the more it became obvious that I wouldn't be surfing this trip. The water was like a lake...a surfer's worst nightmare but a panga man's best dream. I was bummed that I wouldn't be surfing during my stay in San Juanico but very happy to have the calm seas that have made the trip so enjoyable so far.
I pulled up to Juan y Juan beach, a small beach with low lying bluffs and a trail to the top. Above this beach was an oceanfront lot owned by my friend John Fields, which he was planning to put a house on someday soon. This seemed to be the best place for me to walk my gas cans two blocks up to Camacho's place to get gas. I had bought gas from Camacho many times in the past for cars and trucks while in town during surfing adventures, but Camacho was sure to wonder what the heck I was doing walking up to his gasoline depot with 4 empty plastic containers and a 10 day old beard! I told him my story, he told me I was crazy, and he filled up my tanks. He even gave me a ride back down to the beach so I could unload the cans right in front of the boat.
Loaded with gas and set up for a departure in the morning I was free to hang out in San Juanico and play. The sun was hot and a slight breeze made it a perfect day to just piddle around town. Another buddy John Rellos had given me the combination to the lock on his house three blocks back from the beach and I thought a shower might be a good idea before I started looking for some of the friends I knew who lived in this sleepy village. I brought some of my dirty tee-shirts and shorts from the boat for a mini-laundry detail as well. After a refreshing shower I rinsed out the clothes with fresh water and hung them on the wall to dry. Soap? We don't need no stinking soap!
About mid-laundry my buddy Jamie Adkins pulled up in his truck and greeted me with a big wave. "I heard you were headed this way in a panga, but I never thought you would make it this far" he said with a huge smile. "You owe me a shot of tequila!" I responded. We agreed to meet later on at his house on the point after he finished working. I was now on a quest for food and I knew right where to go.
Eight years ago Jaime had built the Scorpion Bay Cantina. It was a slice of civilization in an otherwise uncivilized place. Sitting on a slight hill overlooking the ocean the Cantina offered hot food, cold drinks, and a cast of characters right out of the Star Wars bar scene. People who dropped out of society for a week or a year and landed in San Juanico usually ended up in the Scorpion Bay Cantina. Luxuries such as flush toilets and taped music were always appreciated by guests, but the hot tip for hungry hombres was their delicious cheeseburgers and fries. This place offered the Cheeseburger in Paradise that Jimmy Buffet sings about. Washed down with a cold Pacifico cervesa it was not unlike dying and going straight to heaven!
Laurie and Dave who run the Cantina had also heard about my boating stunt and were surprised I was running the boat solo. I couldn't imagine doing it any other way. As I sat waiting for my burger I thought about all of the crazy times I had experienced in the Cantina over the last few years.
How could I ever forget the night a Big Mac-sized tarantula walked across the floor of the Cantina heading for my foot while I enjoyed a seafood dinner. One of the Cantina employees decided to rid the restaurant of this furry pest and lit him on fire with a match. In addition to this being a horribly cruel way to eliminate an unwanted visitor there is nothing quite like the smell of a burning tarantula to ruin your appetite.
Another night while enjoying a cold margarita a huge scorpion pranced in from the dirt parking lot and proceeded to entertain the guests. He was a monster and put up a good fight but was eventually ejected from the Cantina back into the wild outdoor evening. There had been many other visitors to the Cantina over the years including bats, centipedes and huge spiders. So it was always interesting pulling up a plate at the Cantina. I enjoyed today's meal with no interruptions and after paying the bill decided to take a walk back into town.
I decided to grab some oil for the boat and cookies for me from Patty's Market. I headed back to pick up my laundry, which was now dry and ready, if not just a bit hard. Fully loaded I took my backpack, a bucket of laundry, 4 cans of oil and a package of Vanilla Wafers back to the Vaca V. And then it was back to town to track down Jaime for that shot of tequila. One shot turned into two and then three, while Jamie consumed an inappropriate share of Rum and Coke. We told each other lies until about 10:00 p.m. and then I staggered on the pitch black coastal path back to the boat to sleep on the sandy beach. Picking a spot just above the high tide line I fell asleep immediately.
~ Chapter Eight ~
San Juanico to Bahia Magdalena
~ Katherine Anne Porter
Awake at the break of dawn I noticed that the tide had risen quite a bit from where it was when I went to sleep the night before. The water lapped about 15 feet from my feet and provided the incentive I needed to get up off the beach and to take on the day. I had accidentally left my fifth gasoline can at Camacho's the day before and knew I had to make one more walk into town before I could shove off.
Camacho asked me if I had seen my buddy Greg this morning...a friend I often surf with in Scorpion Bay. I said I didn't even know he was in town! Camacho said that he ran into Greg earlier that morning as he was getting gas for his rental car, before heading back to Loreto airport 180 miles away. He had informed Greg that I was in town and that I had arrived by panga. Not knowing that I had this adventure planned, Greg probably thought Camacho was talking about some other Carlos, and left San Juanico before I had a chance to track him down. This was definitely my loss because Greg Stanton is, without question, the funniest human being on the planet Earth. I realized that if I had called Greg before I left Los Angeles we could have planned a rendezvous.
I swam out to the boat, got things organized, and started motoring along the empty sand beaches south of San Juanico. Today's destination and gas stop was tentatively planned for the seaside town of Puerto Lopez Mateos, tucked inside the northern end of Magdalena Bay. I was pretty sure I could get gas at the fish camp on the south end of town, if I could get in the bay entrance past the shoals.
As I motored past the first of two entrances to Mag Bay prior to reaching Lopes Mateos I noticed that the shoals at the mouth of this first entry point were to choppy and shallow and would not accommodate any boat traffic in or out. I only hoped the next two entrances would be deeper and more accommodating. They were not.
The second entrance to Mag Bay looked just an ominous as the first. Shallow choppy water the entire width of the shoal with no deep channel to enter the bay. I began to realize the likelihood that the next entrance to the bay, which was my planned fuel stop, would also be inaccessible. But I needed gas and I did not know if I had enough fuel to make it to San Carlos, another 100 miles south.
I continued traveling south, hoping that the shoal directly west of Lopez Mateos would be navigable. My heart sank as I approached this final entrance to northern Mag Bay. If anything this entrance to the Bay was even worse than the last two with very choppy waters lapping over a very shallow sand reef. There was no way I could get my boat through the pass to get in for gas. Time for Plan B. The problem with Plan B is that I didn't have one. I would have to create it...and fast.
Heading south along the shore I realized that Santa Maria Bay was my next logical port. It was a large protected bay and well known as a good place to drop the hook on the way up or down the Baja coast. There was a couple of options for gasoline there, a destination surf resort at Punta Hughes and a fish camp tucked into an estuary at the northeast end of Santa Maria Bay. Worst case I could always head into San Carlos, another 20 miles further.
There were dozens of miles of completely empty beaches between the Lopez Mateos area and Santa Maria Bay. The weather was typical Baja...warm and clear. The swells had dropped off and the water was as glassy as a lake. The ocean temperature was now approaching 80 degrees. Twice I saw large turtles floating near the surface and twice they dove under as I approached. Even though these guys are protected by law they seem to know that some fishermen still can't resist taking home a fresh tortuga.
Rounding the point north of Santa Maria Bay the scope of this beautiful cove hit me...it was huge! It seemed like it took me forever to head into the most protected corner of the bay in search of gasoline. I slowed down and then motored close to the surf camp at Punta Hughes for a quick look. I had run into Kevin, the guy who runs the camp, several times in Baja as well as on the Internet. He has been running surf and kayak trips into Punta Hughes for quite a few years now and people who make the trek always seems to leave happy. But the camp was empty today so I continued to head into the bay to try my luck for gasoline at the fish camp.
As I approached the corner of the bay I realized the fish camp was inside the estuary and that it was not accessible at this time because of the low tide. I noted four yachts at anchor in this protected corner of the bay, including a small sailboat whose crew I would run into again in La Paz a week or so later. I could have easily dropped anchor here and made new friends, but the thought of my gas tank being on fumes nagged at me and I decided to head around the corner and into Mag Bay to find some fuel before it got dark.
The water in the bay was extremely calm and the small fishing village of Puerto Magdalena had pangas on the beach. After a few inquiries I nailed down a supply of 100 liters (25 gallons) of gas...at a cost of $5.00 per gallon. Considering their cost was about $2.70 per gallon and they were located some distance from the nearest Pemex station, I felt the price was a bit high but fair. Besides, I really didn't have much of a choice if I wanted to fill up before dark. After getting gas I tracked down a very amiable Port Captain who was happy to complete my papers, take my $32, and stamp my port documents for an official entrance and departure. Looking at his log book I realized that he hadn't had another boat check in with him since February! He put the money in his wallet and wished me "buenas suerte" on my trip.
The sun had already set and I hopped back in the boat to find a quiet cove before it got completely dark. I found a protected beach about a mile south of the village, dropped anchor, and set up my bed. While looking for a fresh T-shirt to sleep in I found a cassette tape from my daughter Tracy and a card from my wife. It was appropriate that the card was a Halloween card and tonight was October 31st. The moon was full, the water was like a mirror and I settled into my sleeping bag while I listened to the cassette my daughter had put together. I listened as she quoted a long list of "fun things to do in an elevator". She had me laughing hysterically for over half an hour! If anybody down the beach heard me they would have surely thought I was bonkers. Before long I turned off the tape, stared at the bright moon inspecting the craters, and then drifted off to sleep.
~ Chapter Nine ~
Bahia Magdalena to Fish Camp
I woke up at dawn to the sound of pangas (real Mexican pangas...not Fijian pangas!) heading south towards the main entrance to the bay. For these fishermen it was just another day on the water. The wake from these boats caused the Vaka V. to rock and roll, a hint that it was time for me to get up and enjoy yet another exciting day of cruising the Mexican coastline. Today was different than most mornings in the respect that I did not have a predetermined destination. The 150 mile leg to Cabo San Lucas had no set gasoline stops, although I had a few options up my sleeve. Both Punta Conejo and Todos Santos would have gas, but landing in both locations would involve going to shore through heavy surf. Having had the luxury of tucking into calm ports all the way down the coast, the idea of running through surf to get gas was something I was not excited about. As a worst case scenario I thought I might be able to make it all the way to Cabo, if I didn't run out of gasoline or daylight along the way.
Motoring south I left the calm waters of Mag Bay and gradually entered the open ocean. I expected some type of ocean swell, but was surprised at having two different swell directions to contend with. In addition to the prevailing north west swell, a southern bump was in the cards this morning as well. This combo swell made for less than smooth cruising but was in no way a hardship. Indeed as I looked back on my days at sea it would have been nothing short of greedy to have asked for better swell and weather conditions. Ironically I had experienced the best seas on this trip on the Pacific side of Baja, and some of the roughest seas I have ever encountered later on as I trudged my way up the Sea of Cortez side in the weeks to come.
I headed south at my typical 18 miles per hour pace, hitting 20 m.p.h. when a large following swell gave me the push. The coastline evolved from low-lying bluffs to spectacular sand dunes, reaching all the way down to the breaking waves. On the south end of the island that separates Mag Bay from the Pacific Ocean I noted another large "blow hole" that spouted white foam high into the air with every incoming swell. Nature seemed to be very much alive and putting on regular shows, with or without an audience. I was glad I was there to appreciate it.
Continuing south within 500 feet of the coast I looked on the Auto Club map and noticed that the next 40 miles to Punta Conejo had no coastal dirt roads, leaving me in a bad way if I should have any problems. All along the coast I had made mental notes as to the locations of the various fish camps in case I needed to go to shore for any type of help. Most of these fish camps were close to dirt roads which usually led to the blacktop of Baja Highway One. Although most of the main highway was desolate, it was at least a potential connection to civilization if I really needed it.
Two more hours passed and then I once again looked at the map and determined that I was about 50 miles from Todos Santos and about 100 miles from Cabo San Lucas. I still had sufficient gasoline to reach Cabo and the sun was still high enough that I might be able to get there before dark. I was getting very excited about the possibility of making landfall in Cabo when without warning my motor stopped running. My heart raced as I realized I still had plenty of gas in the fuel tanks and there was no kelp or lobster traps nearby that might have caused the motor to stop. This was the last place I wanted to experience a motor problem.
I tried repeatedly to start the motor to no avail. Giving the starter rope one final mad pull I yanked it so hard that my elbow crashed through the windshield on the center console sending pieces of plastic, flesh and blood in all directions. Immensely frustrated, I tried to calm down while picking up the pieces of the windshield scattered throughout the interior of the boat. I spent the next 2 hours trying to trouble shoot the motor, removing and checking each of the fuel lines, taking apart and rebuilding the motor's kill switch, even changing the spark plugs. Nothing seemed to make a difference...the motor seemed dead.
It was a hard decision to make but I was up against a wall. I needed help. Looking on the map again it looked like there might be a fish camp next to a river wash about 5 or 6 miles further south. If I was going to go for help that looked like a good place to anchor the boat. I had brought along a small electric motor to help me in just such an emergency, and I firmly attached it to the transom. As I rotated the throttle with my wrist I pushed for full power. It was then that I realized that this motor was way too small for the weight of this fully loaded boat. It was going to be a long day as the boat slid through the water at 2 to 3 miles per hour! I watched the coastline pass by at a rate I was sure I could beat if I was walking, but at least I was making some progress to the south. After almost 2 hours I noticed a point along the coast about 3 miles ahead that looked like it might be a fish camp. But my battery was draining hour by hour and I did not think it would last much longer. I throttled the motor back to half speed to conserve battery power, now crawling along at less than 2 miles per hour. I thought it was quite interesting that at my turtle-rate speed the coastline moved by me at a pace faster than the coastline view from the Space Shuttle, which cruises at 17,500 miles per hour. In the 3 hours that I covered approximately 6 miles the Space Shuttle could have circumnavigated the planet Earth twice, watching the sun rise and set on 2 different occasions.
Just before the point, next to a dry river wash, was the mirage I was hoping for. A fish camp sat just above the low bluffs with several pangas laying haphazardly above the high tide line. It wasn't much of a place to land in other circumstances but I felt extremely fortunate to have found it today. As the late afternoon winds picked up I dropped and set the anchor, hoping it would hold after I abandoned the boat and went to shore. Now it was time to set up the life raft, which I had affectionately named "Plan B".
I had kept the yellow raft inflated and strapped to the bimini top, hoping I would never need to use it. I unhooked the bungee cords, and brought Plan B on deck to make sure all of the air chambers were completely full. I hooked on the oars and placed her in the water next to the boat. Not knowing for sure if the Vaca V. would be here when I got back, I tried to decide what was important to bring along and what I could live without if the Vaka's anchor let loose and the hull was shattered on the reef just 200 feet away. I decided to bring my backpack, my jacket, my sleeping bag and a cooler of tee-shirts and shorts. I had a lot of other things on board that I would miss, but that I knew I could do without. Elvira, you are on your own. Just like in life, we usually carry along much more baggage than we actually need. At the last minute I grabbed the cards and cassette tape that my wife and daughter had given me. And then I carefully placed everything in the raft, deciding to wear the big jacket to save space, and leaving an area in the back of the raft for me to sit. Taking one last look around the panga I noticed that the sun had slid below the horizon and that it would be completely dark within the hour. I had to get going...now.
Lifting my legs over the side of the Vaka V. I tried to drop myself gently into the rear of the life raft. The rear of the raft immediately sank with my weight, allowing water to drain in. It was obvious that the raft was not going to accommodate all of my belongings and me as well, so I resolved to slide my body into the ocean behind the raft and to push it to shore through the waves. It was then that I realized how much a down jacket weighs when it becomes saturated with salt water. I immediately began to sink as the jacket became heavier with each second it absorbed water. It was now too heavy to take off and still hang on to the life raft, so I let go of the raft and dipped my head under water in an frenzied effort to pull my arms out of the jacket to take it off. I struggled under water for what seemed like forever and was finally able to get both arms out and get my head back above the surface. I tried to throw the jacket into the raft but it was so heavy I could only push it over the plastic rail. I felt like crying but I was too scared and had too much on my plate to splash around in self-pity. I began wading to shore, trying to time myself between the large waves that raced towards shore. I was doing a pretty good job of keeping the raft afloat as the waves hit me until one particularly large wave swamped me and the raft, sending all of my belongings into the water. I hate it when that happens.
I could now touch the sandy bottom and tried to collect the floating debris while still being pounded by the waves. Out of nowhere I spotted a Mexican man wading towards my still-floating sleeping bag, grabbing it along with my cooler full of clothes. I knew this was a grand effort on his part as Mexican pangeros don't usually like to go swimming, especially when it is getting dark. I grabbed my jacket and backpack and threw them both back into the life raft. We both made it to shore tired and sopping wet. I took a breath and said "muchas gracias" and he just smiled and started hauling my wet belongings up towards the fish camp. It was completely dark as I hiked up the small hill to a shabby wood shack that was his home. I introduced myself as Carlos and he said his name was Jesus. It seemed rather appropriate that I would be saved by a man named Jesus, even if he was Mexican. Lord knows his namesake had no success saving me when I was north of the border!
Jesus built a fire to warm us both up, gave me a dry pair of pants and shirt, and then handed me a dry pair of shoes that I could tell were too small. I thanked him for everything as he pulled up a makeshift wooden stool for me to sit on by the fire. Neither one of us spoke the other's language very well, but somehow we talked for over an hour. He was proud to show me a gun he had made out of an old Winchester barrel wired to a couple of pieces of wood. He was also happy to show me his stash of locally grown pot, which he carefully rolled up in the thin white backing paper of a chewing gum wrapper. So here I was, having abandoned my boat at anchor it the chop, sitting in a fish camp in the middle of nowhere by a fire with a Mexican holding a rifle in one hand and smoking a joint. Wouldn't my wife be proud.
As the fire slowely burned itself out I could tell my new friend was getting very tired (or stoned) and that he was ready to go to bed in the corner of his litle shack. He walked me to another clapboard hut about a hundred yards away which was partially roofed and offered something inside that almost resembled a bed. It was a piece of flymsy plywood held a foot off the ground by a gas can at one corner and a lobster crate at the other. I couldn't see what held it up at the other two corners but I knew that I had to be careful laying down to avoid having the plywood come off of it's shakey foundation. He motioned that I could sleep here tonight and that he would track down a 'mechanico' to help me fix my boat in the morning. I thanked him again, dusted off an old blanket hanging on the wall to shake off any scorpions, and puffed up my backpack for a makeshift pillow. I layed motionless staring at the stars that snuck through the cratered roof of the hut, thinking about the day's events. It was a bit more of an adventure than I had wanted, and I wondered what would happen with the boat. I reminded myslef that the sun always rises, no matter how dark the night. I would somehow get through this and get back on the ocean.
~ Chapter Ten ~
Fish Camp to Cabo San Lucas
Early the next morning I heard a group of men walking towards my shack. It was a warm and clear morning...not a cloud in the sky. I glanced to the west and was extremely relieved to see tha Vaka Viti still floating offshore. Jesus introduced me to Arnaldo the neighborhood "mecanico". Arnaldo motioned me to follow him down to a fishing panga were his 4 buddies were getting ready to head out to sea. I offered to help them push their boat into the oncoming waves but he was smart enough to know that I would probably be more of a liability than an asset. He asked me to jump in the boat and hang on. With the first incoming wave they pushed the panga off the sand and into deeper water and then jumped in. The swells had gotten bigger overnight and it looked like it would take a miracle for these humble hombres to negotiate this small boat past the huge waves. They motored slowly forward trying to time the final push when the biggest waves were past. When it looked like a break in the waves Arnaldo hit the throttle and we darted westward, only to find that there was one more huge wave coming our way. The face of the wave was at least 10 feet tall and it became obvious that we were not going to get past it before it started to break. Arnaldo held the throttle firmly and blasted head on into the monster breaking wave. We shot up the face of the wave like a rocket and the boat pitched almost straight up into the air! The nose of the boat then dropped down as the bottom of the boat slammed hard on the flat ocean surface. We had made it. "Ole!" I yelled and the men in the boat smiled and seemed very proud of the successful "launching" and the value added excitement.
Arnaldo's helpers dropped us off at the Vaka V. and then headed out to sea to tend to their nets. He brought along an empty plastic one gallon water container with colorless tools that seemed well beyond their useful life. But within 20 minutes he had the carburetor and fuel lines apart, removed the fiber obstructions that were blocking the flow of gasoline, and had the whole kit and caboodle put back together. In typical Mexican fashion he refused to quote me an amount of money for his services. He finally accepted $43 as his buddies returned to pick him up. As they pulled away and waved goodbye I realized that my sleeping bag, jacket and cooler full of clothes were still on shore with Jesus. What the heck, I was now in the tropics and probably wouldn't need the sleeping bag and jacket much anymore, and I could always buy more shirts and shorts. Besides Jesus could probably use them more than I could, he certainly deserved them. I pulled up the anchor, buckled on my life vest and ankle leash and headed south. It was a great day to be alive!
Heading south I passed the rocky beaches of Punta Conejo. This remote outpost wasn't much more than a quiet fish camp until surfers discovered the place in the '70's. It's still a pretty quiet place, but on any given day there are more surfers in the area than pangeros, additional evidence of the Gringo evolution in Baja. The landmark steel lighthouse could be seen just inland from the crashing waves, and then miles of open beaches lined the coast. I was looking forward to seeing Todos Santos, a sleepy town that has taken on a kind of artsy "Carmel" flavor over the last few years. The possibility of a shower was also in the back of m mind.
As I progressed along the coast the motor began acting up again. It would run at half throttle but would stall at full speed. Eventually I realized it was the same type of fuel-related problem that I had experienced the day before. After inspecting the fuel system I finally I discovered a clogged fuel connection where the main fuel tank hooks up to the rubber fuel line. Taking the brass fitting apart I was surprised the boat could run at all. Thin fibers clogged the flow of gasoline to the point where only a fraction of gas could pass into the fuel line. I cleaned the fibers out of the fitting with my toothbrush and then blew hard to eliminate any residual obstructions. After reinstalling the line and pumping the fuel ball the motor started immediately with the first pull of the rope. At least if the motor stalled again I had a pretty good idea of what to do to get it running again. Seems like that $5 per gallon gasoline I had purchased in Puerto Magdalena had more ingredients in it than I wanted!
As I neared Todos Santos I began to notice evidence of this quaint town's future. Ocean front homes began to dot the coast, most of them new and quiet nice. These were not Mexican homes, these were Gringo owned and inhabited. The closer I got to Todos Santos the more homes I saw along the coast. Most of the homes were not gigantic in size like the newer homes now being built in Cabo. They were moderate in size, and designed to blend in with the natural surroundings. Yet it was obvious that they were all quite nicely furnished and landscaped. I was now only 50 miles from Cabo San Lucas and I could almost taste my Welcome Margarita.
Past Todos Santos the pristine coastline became more desolate again, with only an occasional home interrupting some of Baja's most beautiful beaches. Cars traveling just inland along Baja's Highway 19 reminded me that I was leaving the solitude that I had grown very used to and that I was re-entering civilization. The last 10 miles of coastline north of Cabo featured some of the most expansive and incredible sand dunes on the Baja Peninsula. Off in the distance I noticed the old lighthouse just up from the beach, with Cabo's newer lighthouse capping a large hill higher and to the east. It was mid afternoon and sportfishing boats that had been out at sea were returning to Cabo, flying blue and yellow flags showing the type of fish they had caught. I wondered what they thought of the small panga with a yellow life raft strapped to the top. They probably thought it was just one more boat out for an afternoon of chasing Dorado.
As I rounded the Cape I slowed to take a picture of Los Arcos, the famous arch that marks Land's End. I have always thought that it was quiet remarkable, and deservingly appropriate, that the incredible Baja Peninsula would come to an end with such a spectacular natural land formation such as the huge granite arch. I took my photo and rounded the point. There is was in all it's glory...Cabo San Lucas. I almost could not believe it. I made it halfway to my destination!
Despite my anxiousness to get on land, I did not want to break my tradition of filling up the Vaka Viti with gas before I put her to bed. The fuel docks at Cabo Marina were very busy this time of the afternoon with everyone harboring the same idea of filling up for the next run out in the morning. I waited my turn to get space at the fuel dock while drinking in the sounds, smells and activities of this busy port. This was so far removed from where I was last night that it seemed like a different world. Soon it was my turn to tie up and I was particularly proud to get off the boat and stand on the dock. It would have been foolish to tell everybody on the dock where I had come from, but that is exactly what I felt like doing. Although I kept my announcement to myself for the most part, I did tell a short version of my story to the Pemex worker who handed me the gas pump hose. He was indeed impressed with my feat, and I swam delightfully in the recognition he gave me as I answered his questions about my trip. I filled all of my gas cans and was happy to hear that they accepted credit cards for payment. I had spent over six hundred dollars in cash for gasoline on the way down, and was trying to conserve whatever cash I had left for the run up the Sea of Cortez. The guard on the adjacent dock pointed me towards the guest docks in the southeast corner of the marina. It couldn't have been more appropriate that I was instructed to dock my boat in front of the restaurant / bar "Margaritaville". It was even more remarkable that the song playing at the restaurant as I tied up was Jimmy Buffet's "Son of a Sailor". Coincidence? I think not!
The marina guards informed me that I had landed on an official Mexican holiday weekend, the Day of the Dead, and that I would not be able to perform my boating paperwork until Monday. I had been dreading the thought of all this running around and became giddy with the knowledge that I could legally postpone it all until Monday, the day I was leaving! I knew my wife and daughter would not be flying in to meet me until tomorrow, so I set tracks into town to get a hot fish taco, a cold beer and well deserved hotel room. After checking in to the Mar de Cortez Hotel I decided to get a rental car so I could pick up my family at the airport in the morning for my halfway roundevous. The Volkswagon convertible was definitely the hot tip, and I drove it back to the hotel and parked it. That night I made the rounds to Cabo's famous night spots, more out of habit than desire. The Giggling Marlin was definitely happening, and El Squid Roe was on fire. But ultimately my desire for a warm bed eclipsed my need for additional cervesas, and I walked 3 blocks back to my room and fell sound asleep.
~ Chapter Eleven ~
Cabo San Lucas
~ Daniel W. Josselyn
Sleeping in a real bed was like a dream come true and it was hard to justify getting up. But I knew I had a full day ahead of me so I got up and checked out of the hotel by 9:00 a.m. I needed to be at Los Cabos International Airport before noon to pick up my wife Leslie, my daughter Tracy and my friend Todd, so I knew I had a little time to take care of loose ends. I thought it might be a good idea to pick up a little cash while I had the opportunity, so I headed over to the Bancomer to try my luck with the ATM Machine. The $1,500 peso jackpot was charged to my Visa credit card, and I was now about $150 U.S. dollars richer. Even though I had no immediate plans for the money, I knew that various things would come up as the four of us enjoyed Cabo San Lucas over the next three days. Having a little more time to burn, I decided to go through the check-in procedure at our hotel for the next three days, the Melia San Lucas. There were plenty of hotels in Cabo to choose from, but this is the one I thought would work best for our stay in Paradise. After checking in I made a quick stop to buy a clean tee-shirt and shorts, then I was off to the airport.
The flight was right on time and I felt huge a sense of relief as Leslie and Tracy walked past the baggage claim area and towards me. We all shared emotional hugs and small talk as we headed towards the rental car. It was absolutely great to see my family again! And I could tell they were v-e-r-y happy to see me. Tracy, at 13 years old, thought the Volkswagon convertible was an awesome way to do Cabo! And Todd, who worships the sun as much as any Aztec citizen from the 14th century, was happy to share the back seat with Tracy under a perfectly clear and warm Cabo sky. We decided to make our first stop a bite to eat, and I knew just the place. Leslie and Tracy had been to Cabo before, but this was Todd's first trip out of the U.S. I knew of a place on the beach just outside of Cabo that would help set the mood for the next few days of fun and relaxation. La Concha Beach Club is a small and beautiful beach with a small restaurant and plunge pool, accented by lounge chairs in the sand and along the waters edge on a protected beach. The scenery was spectacular, the food was great, and the margaritas intoxicating. Soon we were off to the hotel to put on our bathing suites and head poolside.
Knowing that I would deserve a great room if I ever made it to Cabo, and wanting to provide Leslie, Tracy and Todd with a nice place to hang their hats, I had reserved a suite at the Melia. A suite was not my normal style, in my travels I was the kind of person who could just crawl into a sleeping bag on the beach and be a happy camper. But this was different...I deserved something special after surviving the first half of my adventure! For whatever reason the regular suite we were supposed to have was unavailable, so they upgraded us to the Presidential Suite. It was on the top floor closest to the ocean and was without a doubt the largest room I had ever stayed in in my life. The two bedroom, two bath layout was elegantly decorated but not over the edge. The real treat was the 500 square foot wrapping verandah which offered incomparable views of the pool, the beach, Cabo bay and of Land's End. If it wasn't for the spectacular pool calling us from down below it would have been difficult to justify ever leaving the room. But the pool area was just as awesome as the room so we headed down to catch some sun.
I knew this pool area well. I had snuck in to enjoy it many times over the years and loved the way it met my vacation priorities. Great ocean views, steps to the beach, various nooks to slip into, a waterfall and small waterslide, plus a swim up bar that became the focal point for the whole shooting match. Throw in a very efficient and friendly waitress ready to meet any culinary request and, well, it just doesn't get any better. It was almost impossible for me to believe that a little over 24 hours ago I woke up in a desolate fish camp with no clean clothes and a boat that wouldn't run. Now I was sitting poolside in paradise with family and friends, nursing a Pina Colada and eating nachos. Who'da thunk it!
We ended up spending the whole day in and around the pool. Food, drinks, music, new friends...it was a great day! Leslie was celebrating our reunion in grand style, and really loved the drink of the day at the poolside bar called the "Monkey". These stealth cocktails, in conjunction with the margaritas we had enjoyed earlier in the day, joined forces to put Leslie to sleep a bit earlier than she had expected. As Leslie caught up with her beauty sleep and Tracy watched Mexican MTV, Todd and I headed out to one of my favorite restaurants in Cabo San Lucas "Mi Casita". We enjoyed a wonderful meal, accented with live music great service and a lively setting. We decided to catch up on our rest tonight and to let the Cabo nightlife wait until tomorrow night. The suite was calling us!
The next day in Cabo was a lazy day. Sometimes on vacation it's fun to do nothing but hang out, and that's exactly what we did on Sunday. Our main goal was to completely relax and celebrate Todd's birthday all day long. Poolside was the venue of choice again, and we spent the whole day in the pool, on the beach and napping on lounge chairs. Which isn't to say we didn't get creative.
Sometimes in life things get invented out of necessity, and today was one of those inventive days. As we cruised the pool drinking our cocktails and nibbling on munchies, it became obvious that we were developing a need for some type of "floating table" in the pool to hold our drinks and snacks as we waded from group to group. Noticing an empty floating foam lounge mat a few feet away, I brought it over to our growing group of friends and placed my Pina Colada on it. Soon others placed their drinks on the mat and then someone brought plates of food. Our floating table became the hot tip as we slithered through the waist high water drinking, eating and keeping cool. It was probably the most unproductive day I can ever remember having. I had forgotten how much fun it was to do nothing!
As the day faded we grudgingly agreed that it was time to leave the pool. It was time to get cleaned up and dressed for an evening on the town!
Our plan tonight was to do it all. A big dinner, drinks and dancing, and then hitting the sack late. We chose the old Trailer Park for our dinner and the food was indeed great. The prices were horribly expensive, especially compared to my dining tabs over the last 2 weeks. But it was a special occasion and I knew the cost of dinner would be forgotten long before the memories of the evening would. After dinner we watched the 7th game of the World Series in the bar area, and then headed out to explore the Giggling Marlin.
The Marlin was on fire, and the floor show was hot! Between the crazy girls in the floor show and the wild girls in the audience there were more breasts on display than in a Foster Farms packing plant. It was quite a bit different than my normal nightly routine of counting stars and going to sleep early. Later we slipped over to El Squid Roe for more dancing, but the nightlife was taking it's toll. By midnight we had gone back to our rooms to try to catch some sleep for our last day in Cabo. Soon I would be back in the Vaka V. heading north up the Sea of Cortez.
The weekend was over and it was Monday morning. Today was going to be a busy day. I had to go through all of the port paperwork that I did not have the chance to do when I arrived on Friday afternoon. Getting up and out of the hotel before the family got up seemed like the most efficient use of my time.
I arrived at the Port Captain's office at 9:00 a.m. While in line to get my papers stamped I met a gentleman who was wearing slacks, a belt and a shirt with a collar. Although he was not dressed like most of the yachties I had met, I could think of no other reason why he would be standing in line. I figured I could get the scoop by starting up a conversation while we were both waiting.
It turned out he was one of those people you hear about who sold everything, bought a boat and decided to cruise the world with his family. I had met additional people with similar stories as my trip progressed, and they all had similar themes. Something huge had happened in each of their lives to cause them to re-evaluate their priorities and life goals. In Paul's case he had 2 close friends die with little warning, both of them in their 40's. Getting into his 50's these deaths were a wake up call he heard loud and clear.
Paul was on foot and I offered him a ride in my topless rental car to our next two stops at immigration and the bank. We got stuck in different lines and then I lost him in the crowds. I never saw him again, although I found myself looking for his boat over the next few days on the way up to La Paz. I wanted to talk with him more about his adventure and share with him more about my trip, but it never happened.
Finishing my paperwork I headed back to the hotel where my trio was on the beach shopping for souvenirs. I caught them at the top of the stairs from the beach as they prepared for another day poolside. We had more fun sunning, eating and drinking, but the cloud of our impending departure loomed over us all.
We spent several hours of playing by the pool, and then we decided to pack up and head up the coast for a final meal. I knew the perfect spot to enjoy our last rendezvous, a restaurant on the sand just outside of San Jose del Cabo called Zippers. Good food, great views and lively music set the stage for a wonderful meal. Driving from the restaurant to the airport it hit us that the party was over.
After getting boarding passes Leslie, Tracy and Todd lined up for final hugs. It was an extremely emotional moment, and an impossible time to keep dry cheeks. I felt a horrible pain in my stomach as they walked through the security check, knowing I would not see my wife and daughter again for at least 2 weeks, if all went well.