Whales and Stuff
Ciudad Constitución is on Mex 1. Most travelers stop just long enough to fill up on gas before blasting on. Others hang a right to head to Puerto San Carlos and Magdalena Bay to watch some whales. Few stay for a night; there is nothing ‘special’ to attract the traveler/tourist. Apart from it being a pleasant, typical, southern Baja town.
I was there for more than a week. I checked in to a hotel, for a desk and wifi access, in time for the Wednesday evening web-conference/lecture that is the main component of an online course I am taking.
I had been reading about the whale-watching opportunities nearby. Adolfo López Mateos seemed to be the place to go to just show up and arrange a trip. Puerto San Carlos sounded as though it was more geared towards trips arranged in advance out of Loreto and La Paz. One morning, I drove to López Mateos, followed signs for ‘Whales’ and arrived at a huge parking lot, a cluster of open-fronted ‘offices’ and a couple of seafood restaurants. It was too late and too windy to go out that day, I was told, but if I returned early the following morning, they would try to set me up with a group. A plan! I had lunch and drove back to Constitución.
On a whim, as I arrived back in town, I turned and drove out to Puerto San Carlos. I parked up, read my guide more closely, checked Trip Advisor (Yeah, I know…), then went in search of Magdalena Bay Whales. There was a huge sign hanging on the main street but no obvious indication of a nearby office: a lady called out, in very clear English, to enquire whether I needed help. I wanted to arrange a tour, I said. Well, her husband was out on the water now but would be back in an hour. If I waited in the adjacent restaurant, Crispin would come and find me when he returned home.
Which he did. Alone, the trip would be quite expensive with his boat costing about US$70/hour for a three to four hour (depending upon where the whales were) trip. A younger couple at an adjacent table said that, if I’d pay half, they would pay the other half. Aaron clearly wanted a deal; his girlfriend was almost out of money and, apparently, I should subsidize her. (For someone about to interview for an $80k job as a wildlife biologist for the US government, he seemed
one cheap bastard a cheapskate. But it would get me out on the water so what the hell…)
Aaron and Rosemary had just completed a four-day kayak from Puerto López Mateos down to Puerto San Carlos. It sounded like fun, protected from the Pacific all the way by islands.
Next morning, we left around 9:00 am and, after about 20 minutes, found some whales. We weren’t the only boat around but there were plenty of whales. Friendly, gentle giants, the whales would come to the surface around us. Regulations forbade more than four boats around a single whale but at times we had five whales around our one boat. It was magical.
We got back to the dock just after noon. Aaron demanded a discount because we had only been out for three hours. Crispin said we’d agreed the price was for the trip but he wasn’t going to argue; Aaron didn’t have to pay at all if that made him feel better. Aaron angrily thrust what he was prepared to pay into my hands and stormed off, leaving Rosemary behind.
“Aaron seems a bit upset,” I said mildly to Rosemary. “He’ll get over it” came the seemingly unconcerned/resigned response. Not for the first time I wondered why a pleasant, educated young woman would stick with a prick like that? Are nice guys so hard to find?
“Do you want to go out again?” Crispin asked me. The wind had not come up, as it often did in the middle of the day, and he had a couple of interested customers. This time I would only pay my third (although a Gringo friend of Crispin’s did tag along too). Certainly, I wanted to go out again!
A wonderful afternoon was had by all. Whales aplenty. Magnificent, curious, friendly creatures who would come close so we could touch them. Their skin was smooth, where it wasn’t covered in barnacles, and yielded gently to firm hand pressure.
I hadn’t thought about sunscreen before heading out, and had a red face for a day or two until I’d lost a layer of skin. I took advantage of the cheap but comfortable hotel to catch up on some homework, do some pleasure reading, and investigate what Amazon Prime Video had to offer in the evenings for entertainment. Breakfast became a mid-morning routine at the Café Parlante: latté grande, orange juice, pancakes with fruit. Or ‘con fruta’ as us locals like to say :) Depending on the hour, dinner was in one of the several pleasant restaurants or, if late, at one of the many taco stands. Suddenly, a week passed by and it was time for another class.
“Are you here for the wind?” seemed a strange question, at first, when introduced to someone. I was asked it several times and answered, “No.”
I had driven down from Constitución to La Ventana, on the Sea of Cortes coast just south of La Paz. An old climbing buddy, who had lived and climbed in Calgary in the ’80s, had a house in La Ventana. Chris was a keen wind surfer and La Ventana is renowned for its reliable north wind. (In recent years, kite-boarding has overtaken wind-surfing in popularity.)
Kite-boarding is considerably easier than wind-surfing. Or, at least, that is what my wind-surfing friend told me. Even I could learn to be proficient with three days of lessons, he said. Whereas Chris had had to go to Venezuela for two weeks to learn to water start on his wind surfer. Most of his friends, the winter ex-patriot residents of La Ventana, were kiters, in their 50s to 70s, and kiting most days.
I saw lots of kites but no wind-surfers out on the water while I was there.
Some people were still building down on the beach, clearly in climate change and inevitable sea-level rising denial.
Although his land stretches down to the beach, Chris built his house on top of the hill. Not a bad little shack.
There is a casita, a cottage, on the property. For guests. That I where I slept. And worked, when I had an assignment due. A tough gig, for sure ;)
Both the house and the casita have wooden posts supporting shade roofs. The posts are a type of palm tree with a vine that has grown down from the top, almost completely covering the palm trunk. Very attractive.
This dome, above the bed in the casita, is a form of natural air-conditioning. Hot air rises into the dome, and is swept away out of small windows by the wind.
The dome, from inside. (Yes, I know I should have straightened the bed before taking this shot.)
The dome is built of bricks, laid from the outside, without any intermediate support. It is quite an art; I’d love to see it done.
I had the opportunity to meet a Facebook friend IRL (in real life). I’d made online contact with Alenka about a year earlier when she was enquiring about anyone riding across the Mexican border in November. I had planned to be there around that time so we kept in touch, even after my trip got ‘postponed.’ Alenka rode from her house in Tahoe, California, to her house in La Ventana. From his patio, Chris pointed out her house, a few minutes walk away, so I went round to visit. Alenka and I went for a mountain bike ride the following morning on some trails up behind Chris’ house. “Nothing technical,” Alenka promised but, even so, I managed to lose a bit of skin.
I had only planned to spend a night or two with Chris, to not impose upon his luxury for too long, and to head back to La Paz for a few days studying. But Chris said to stay as long as I liked, it was no problem for him. So I stayed a few extra days, and left when Chris flew to the States for a couple of weeks.
Bad news, I’m afraid. JD was hit by a truck on his way into Todos Santos. From his subsequent Facebook post:
My Bajadventure has come to an abrupt end at km 2739 not including the last few meters my bike and I spent flying way up in the air…
A pickup truck, possibly driven by a blind person with no right foot to use the brakes with had gone through a stop sign…
Considering the magnitude of the impact, it is pure miracle I have no broken bones ( if the first assessment is right). Temporary cast on my right leg until I see a specialist on Thursday or Friday. Leo and Juliette are advancing their flight. Meanwhile I am recovering in a nice hotel.
According to the notes there were 127.3 kms left to complete the route…
Morale is good, I feel very lucky as this could have been a life changing event…
Leo and Juliette are JD’s children. They were coming down to spend a couple of weeks to celebrate the end of the ride with JD. As it happened, Leo was flown down by JD’s medical insurance company and JD was medivac-ed back to Canada.
Fortunately, one of JD’s water bottles absorb some of the energy from the collision with the truck’s front fender.
His injuries were a little more serious than was first diagnosed. He’s had surgery on his leg and is now confined to bed for 23.5 hours/day. In a few weeks, he will be able to start mobilizing his knee. It may well be six months before he is recovered and back on a bike. (If I’m around when that happens, I hope to join him for a ride; it will probably be the only time I am able to keep up with him ;)
Dividing Once More – The Cape Loop
From La Paz, the Baja Divide loops down towards the tourist fleshpots of Cabo San Lucas, up to Todos Santos on the Pacific, then back to La Paz on the Sea of Cortes. Clockwise or not, the choice is yours. Some recommend counter-clockwise to exchange uphill sand for downhill sand.
The route passes close to La Ventana so I decided to rejoin it. Clockwise made sense from where I was. Up into the hills again.
Definitely up. Dusty and slippery road. Not sure how much fun this would be on a bike…
I followed the Divide route as far as Los Barriles, then took the road to Santiago, another old mission town. Fairly recently, a church had been built on the site of the old mission so there wasn’t so much to look at. But I had a pleasant evening in the small (population 752), quiet Mexican town. Santiago is home to the only zoo in the Baja but I didn’t search it out.
The Tropic of Cancer is just outside Santiago.
After an overnight stay in Santiago, I rejoined the Baja Divide route, driving through some beautiful mountain landscapes.
It was dark by the time I arrived in San José del Cabo. I stayed for a couple of nights in the somewhat funky Hotel Posada Señor Mañana, with steep narrow elevated concrete walkways connecting small blocks of rooms. Despite the obvious increase in the number of tourists in San José, and the associated businesses intent upon separating visitors from some of their cash, there is still a nice feel to the town.
A well-established business opportunity in Mexico, and conspicuous in San José, is to open a pharmacy and offer drugs without the annoying requirement of the prescription required north of the Mexican border: Viagra and other brands of erectile aid, sleeping pills, diet pills…
Cabo San Lucas is an hour-or-so’s drive from San José. Here the tourist impact in unavoidable. The only reason I went to Cabo was to see the impressive-looking cliffside arch that features in so many photographs of the southern Baja. This beach was as close as I could get, with nothing to see, without joining the throngs of people lining up for boats to take them for a quick photo-op of El Arco. I decided that it was not absolutely necessary that I add this particular photo to my collection.
I spent a couple of hours in Cabo, most of it stuck in traffic trying to leave, then headed back towards San José on the toll road: quick, quiet and easy. From north of San José, I rejoined the Baja Divide for the section to Todos Santos. But, before long, the route became quite truck-unfriendly: deep ruts and a gate blocking progress (although there was space to ride a bike comfortably around the gate). I could, I thought, get across these ruts and through the gate.
I investigated on foot but about fifty metres further was another challenge. Deeper, wider ruts, with a couple of fresh mountain bikes’ tracks clearing the obstacle on the left. I wasn’t sure about this and, looking at my offline-map app, it looked like the trail followed a powerline for a while with no road shown. Not worth the risk; I could retrace to the road and rejoin the Divide a few kilometres further.
The Divide route was remote and spectacular (well, most of it had been so this is not especially surprising). I was expecting to run out of daylight before reaching Todos Santos but a night camping out here would not be difficult or unpleasant.
I did push on through to Todos Santos, simply because I had reserved a room for two nights and didn’t want to lost the reservation for the second night by not showing up for the first.
The much-touted less touristic and more artistic Todos Santos did not captivate me. Less Mexican charm. On to La Paz, along the road (the Divide did not look promising), with a brief stop (photo-op) detour to El Triunfo.
An old Chevy truck parked on the main road in El Triunfo.
In La Paz, I picked up my annual Canadian vehicle registration from FedEx – Bev had couriered it down to me. The sticker I had expired at the end of February, two days later.
The La Paz hotel I’d chosen was not particularly well-located: I had to drive to get downtown; after a couple of days (spent doing course-work) I moved to a more modern, more centrally located hotel to finish up my weekly course-work.
The malecon (waterfront road/promenade) was barricaded when I first drove down there. I found somewhere to park away from the crowds and explored on foot – it was the first night of the weeklong Carnaval. Bandstands were set up along the waterfront, at 150m intervals, each blasting out loud music performed, mainly, by middle-aged Mexican performers in formal dark suits. There were fairground rides, some almost guaranteed to have you jettisoning your last meal. Hawkers for blankets, tacos, candy-floss. Shooting galleries where, if successful, you could win shaggy pillows or large soft toys: all the attractions of the English fairgrounds that I remembered from the ’60s and ’70s, with a Mexican flavour added. Mexican families and couples (in addition to well-lubricated gringos) walked (staggered) up and down the length of the malecon.
It was time to start making my slow way back north – I had forgotten all about it but Bev reminded me that my Mexican auto insurance expired at 12 noon on March 17th.
I was driving north on Mex 1 when I remembered that JD had recommended the section of the Divide, north of La Paz, to San Evaristo. Quick change of plan, potentially ill-conceived.
The ‘road’ hugged the coast, through multi-hued rock formations, occasionally detouring inland for a few kilometres.
Then, a little before San Evaristo, there was a fork in what had become rocky double-track. I looked on both of my phone apps. Problem.
A few days before, a software problem had necessitated a factory reset of my phone. I lost all my installed apps, my phone logs, etc. but my phone was working fine again. I had reinstalled my two trusty mapping apps (Locus Pro and Osmand+, both highly recommended). But not, I now found, the maps of Mexico! My apps, presumably accurately, indicated my position, on a blank unhelpful white screen. No roads. No contours. No place names. Just a thin red line, the track for Divide (that I had remembered to reload).
It was also getting late in the day. What to do? Retrace my path to La Paz and Mex 1, delaying my arrival in Constitución by a day? Or wing it?
I did have with me a quaint anachronism of a foregone era: a paper map. (Yes, they are a thing. Google them.) From where I judged myself to be, a ‘road’ went westward, before branching. Well, west was the direction I needed to go. So, west I went. The app showed that I was still on the Divide route, my location pointer firmly astride the thin red line of the .gpx track. But I didn’t want to follow the Divide too far; I remembered that it wasn’t driveable all the way to Constitución.
None of the places (isolated ranches, mainly) had names that corresponded with the names on my map. I came to a fork, went left, and after a few miles was back on a fairly wide dirt road. No rocks to navigate. This was fortunate as it was getting dark. Suddenly cobblestones. A small town. And Mex 1. Even cell-reception. There was time for a quick chat with Bev before she went to bed. Then, one hour and a half to Constitución.
I checked in to a different hotel, a little more up-market ($30 instead of $25!). Very comfortable. Reasonable wifi. Good for a few days.
A Life Story
I was walking down the main road in Ciudad Constitucion, Baja California Sur, on my way for a late breakfast. I passed a man washing a truck (with a bucket of soapy water and a cloth) and he called out “How’s it goin,’ man?” with a smile, as he had the previous few times I’d passed him. This morning, I asked him “How much for a truck?” “Like this one?” he asked. “Yes.” “50 pesos,” he replied.
On my way back from breakfast, he was sitting in the shade, waiting for custom. “You want a truck wash? No pressure” he added as though worried he was being pushy.
“My truck is at the Hotel Oasis,” I said.
“I’ll come there,” he said.
“I’ll park the truck on the street outside the hotel,” I said.
“OK, I’ll come in 30 minutes.”
I was planning to spend the day ‘working,’ doing some reading for an online course I’m taking but got distracted by a Manchester United versus Paris Saint Germain soccer match on the TV. At the end of the first half, I went out to the street and checked everything was OK. It was, and much of my truck looked cleaner than new. After a few weeks of dusty driving, some on back-country desert dirt and 4-wheel-drive roads, it was much in need of attention. I went back to the game and, twenty minutes later, the hotel receptionist came to get me. My truck was bright, shiny and white again.
“How much?” I asked, wondering whether the initial state of my truck’s cleanliness warranted a price adjustment.
“As we agreed,” he replied.
50 pesos: less than the cost of my morning latté. I handed him two fifty pesos notes and he gave me a look of deep, deep gratitude.
He then told me he had been in the States (I’d guessed as much, his English was better than most) but, when Trump was elected, he had been deported. (I’m not trying to be political here; to be fair, Obama was quite aggressive when it came to deportations.) He had two small girls to feed and he said he really appreciated the extra money. This story, plainly delivered – just a fact of life for him – choked me up: here was a person doing what he had to do, to survive and to provide. I handed him a 500 pesos note, feeling quite awkward. That was still less than a night in the modest hotel I was parked outside.
Since I traveled from Britain to Asia in the early ’70s, I have known that I am privileged. By an accident of birth, I am white, British, educated… And no more deserving than anyone else. But today’s encounter brought my privilege, my luck, home to me in an especially real and intense way. When I called Bev back home in Canada and described my day, I couldn’t keep the emotion out of my voice and the tears out of my eyes.
I’m coming to the end of three months in the Baja. In that time, I have not heard a word spoken in anger by any of the Mexicans I have traveled amongst. They are truly beautiful and worthy people.