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~ Chapter Fourteen ~
Punta Evaristo to Loreto
In that half-dream state before waking I heard what sounded like dozens of people clapping ferociously about 20 feet from the boat. Why in the world would so many people be applauding so early in the morning? The sun was not even up and dawn was just beginning. Was this some form of alarm clock trying to annoy me out of my sleep? As I gained my senses I realized that the noise was not applause for the sleeping gringo, but hundreds of fish boiling in the water just a short distance from the Vaka V. I couldn't tell what kind of fish they were, I could only see a frenzy of splashing and silver flashing on the calm surface. Soon the local pelicans got into the act, crashing the party and creating a noise of their own. I resolved to get up and start my day, even though getting up before sunrise was against my religion.
Upping the anchor and moving north before sunrise was a break in tradition on this trip, but the glassy water was inviting and allowed the Vaka Viti her full potential of 22 miles per hour. The remote coastline was stark and beautiful, with no sign of life of any kind. It took me less than 3 hours to reach Agua Verde, a special spot on the coast I had only seen on a map and from an Aero California 737 from 33,000 feet. My desire to visit here had only increased over the last few months as I read in boating publications that the cove here was the perfect place for boaters to hang out, snorkel and meet with other boaters.
Pulling into the cove it became obvious why sailors hold such a special place in their hearts for Agua Verde. It was a very protected cove with several different locations to tuck into and drop anchor. The "yacht club" at the north end was a small abandoned brick building steps from the water where yachties gathered for cocktails in the late afternoons. The beach at the yacht club was probably the nicest place in the bay, complete with an excellent sandy beach and crystal clear "aqua" waters...the perfect place to take a swim! The urge to slip on a mask and snorkel was irresistible, and I was in the beautiful water almost before my anchor could catch it's breath on the sandy bottom. It felt great to swim in the warm water and watch the fish watch me. After 15 minutes of swimming around I headed back to the rear of the boat, stepped up on the motor to re-enter my kingdom, and dried off the salt water with a beach towel. Shower? We don't need no stinking shower!
I lazed around on the boat as the sun conquered the half way point in the sky. I put together a meal of Lunchables, complete with the 4 chocolate cookies and another Snapple. Sitting on the bow of the boat I counted 3 other boats napping at anchor in various parts of the cove, but no life on any of them. It made me think about how much time real boaters spend below deck during their long adventures at sea. I guess it is something a person gets used to. And I was living proof that a person can get used to just about anything while at sea, including not even having a below deck to go to.
All rested up and full of grub and grog I decided to put the show back on the road. Loreto was only 2 hours up the coast, and I could almost taste Mc Lulu's fish tacos as I pulled up the wet anchor line. I made a swing into a spectacular cove about 5 miles south of Puerto Escondido, discovering a protected beach I did not even know existed. I had explored the coast north and south of Loreto many times by car over the years, but had never taken the dirt road that leads to this little piece of paradise. I continued further north and made a full swing into the large natural harbor at Puerto Escondido. I counted over 2 dozen boats at anchor and knew that the number would double during the next month as additional boaters made their way around the Cape and up into the Sea of Cortez.
As the Vaka Viti slowly headed west inside the harbor I stopped to drink in the flavor of the majestic mountains that float towards the sky just west of the port. This is where Steinbeck dropped anchor and went ashore to explore a deep ravine of rocks, waterfalls, pools and longhorn sheep just west of the port during his partial circumnavigation of Baja over 50 years ago. Those in the know still call the canyon by it's nickname, Steinbeck Canyon.
Departing the harbor left me on my last leg to Loreto. I passed the large new hotel under construction in Nopolo, just south of Loreto. Little did I know I would visit the Camino Real Resort for it's grand opening ceremony a few months later while on a whale watching trip with my family. Soon Loreto came into view and I pulled into the small "darsena" harbor and tied up the Vaka V. to the brand new dock. My fancy panga with the bright yellow life raft strapped to the top drew the attention of the local kids who seemed intrigued at the whole set up. I eventually made my way to the Port Captain's office and performed the paperwork ritual in short order. A taco stop on the way to the Immigration office seemed to make perfect sense.
Mc Lulu's Tacos on main street is a popular gathering place for an afternoon bite, much like Cafe Ole is for breakfast just up the street. Lulu has been running the place for years and doubles as the unofficial mayor of Loreto. It is impossible to eat at Mc Lulu's without cars going by on the main drag honking and waving hello to Lulu. Whether in town for a few days on a fishing trip or just stopping in town to get beer and ice before heading to the Pacific side to go surfing, Lulu's was always our first stop in town. After giving Lulu a big hug and sampling a few tacos de pescado and a cold Coke, I continued west towards the Immigration office. As I walked down the sidewalk on main street I spotted a very familiar green truck that I had not seen since a frenzied night of margaritas and dancing in Ensenada several years earlier. The truck belonged to Pam Boles, the owner of Baja Big Fish, one of Loreto's best fishing companies.
I knew Pam had moved her shop from it's previous location near the water to a larger facility in town, but I didn't know where it was located until now. I stepped in the shop and was greeted with smiles and hugs from Pam and her significant other, Francisco. She had heard I was going to try to circumnavigate Baja in a raft, and she seemed quite surprised that I had actually made it this far. I guess that made two of us! After exchanging chit-chat Pam volunteered the keys to the green truck for me to get to the Immigration office and then to refill my gas cans.
Immigration was a snap, and driving the gas cans from the boat to the Pemex station (instead of walking!) was a luxury I was not used to. I set up the boat for a morning departure, and found myself with an empty schedule under a warm Baja afternoon. I took the time to call a friend in Los Angeles who had a place in Loreto, in an effort to set up a free place to stay that night. Joe Oliveri, a long time friend and Baja aficionado who wasn't sure my circumnavigation plan was such a great idea, was happy to hear I was still alive and volunteered his place for my evening stay. I thanked him and headed over to his house which was located between the town square and the seaside Malecon. Evidence of the hurricane that had hit Baja in September was all but gone throughout the streets of Loreto, but Joe had not been down since the storm and his usually meticulous property was under several inches of mud, palm frawns and miscellaneous debris. Exterior aesthetics aside, it was great to have a clean bed and warm pillow set up for the evening.
I took a cold outdoor shower and put on a semi-fresh shirt and shorts. I even brushed my teeth. Feeling fresh and frisky I headed out to walk the town in search of an evening meal. Rosalia's Tacos just north of the Pemex station was well known for it's incredibly tasty carne asada tacos at yesterday's prices. For under $4.00 I left the open palapa-covered restaurant feeling stuffed and very satisfied. It was the perfect time for a cold cervesa!
Mike's Bar is located in the heart of Loreto and usually offers an excellent guitar player and a cast of characters both local and foreign. A street side table gave me the chance to watch the town go by, listen to music, hoist a cold Pacifico and plot my course for the next day. Bahia Concepcion was located a half day's skid up the coast from Loreto, and offered some of Baja's best seaside scenery. As if that wasn't enough, I had heard about a cove an hour or two north of Loreto that was supposed to be one of the most beautiful in Baja. It was worth going to sleep early for.
I finished my cervesa and slowly started walking the cobblestone streets next to the town square in the still warm evening. I was savoring the walk and I had completely forgotten about an amazing incident that had happened to me a few years back that made me a 'wanted man' in Loreto.
During a drive-down trip to Loreto in 1997 I had made the mistake of not stopping at the border to obtain and pay for a Tourist Card before heading into Baja. I was driving down in my 1983 Chevrolet Suburban (affectionately known by those who love her as the 'Blue Burro') to drop off in Loreto as a transportation vehicle and had planned on flying the northbound route out of Loreto on a DC-9 a few days later. At the time the enforcement of Tourists Cards on Baja Highway One southbound was rather loose, and since I was flying home it did not occur to me that I would need the card to get checked in at the airport for the flight home. Well it just so happened that the night before I was to fly home from Loreto some drug-running pilot crash landed his marijuana-filled Cessna 182 on the beach just north of town and he could not be found. Under normal circumstances that event would not have affected me.
But that morning, while trying to get my boarding pass and get on the plane home, the girl behind the Aero California counter realized I had no Tourist card...I was an undocumented visitor. I had to go into a side room where I explained that I had driven down and forgotten to obtain a Tourist Card in the process. At that point the folks at the airport were just starting to get the information about the plane crash and the missing pilot, and they did not fully realize that the Gringo trying to get on the plane without a Tourist Card just might be the pilot of the doomed plane trying to make a last ditch effort to get the Hell out of Dodge. While completing the paperwork for my Tourist Card the Immigration officer casually asked me if I was a pilot. I did not know about the drug-running plane at the time so I answered truthfully that I was indeed a private pilot and showed him my license. He had some notes on a yellow pad of paper, charged me $35 for the Tourist Card and I was off. I figure we were at about 32,000 feet above the Sea of Cortez before they put dos y dos together.
I wasn't home more than a day before the first fax arrived from Santa Rosalia, the government seat for Loreto. The letter stated that they wanted to "discuss" an incident regarding a plane that had landed illegally on the beach the night before I left Loreto. The letter was very official, had a government stamp on it and had a very fancy signature at the bottom. Mexicans love fancy signatures. Anyway, I thought it was a joke from one of my buddies who knew about the incident until I called the number on the letter. It was indeed the government office in Santa Rosalia and they did indeed want to meet with me as soon as possible. Could I fly down tomorrow?
Looking for advice from friends in the U.S. it was unanimous...if I did fly down to Santa Rosalia I would probably not be getting back home any time soon. The U.S. government was applying pressure on the Mexican government to get serious about the drug problem and, if nothing else, the Mexicans would probably make an example out of me whether I was guilty or not. So I did not call back and the incident apparently went away with the passing of the newly elected officials a year later. Still I always find myself a bit on guard when I am landing or taking off at Loreto airport!