Friday, July 3, 2015

Loreto Life

Loreto, a quiet Mexican town along the warm waters of the Sea of Cortez, where kayakers skim above crystal clear waters and anglers fly a 1,000 miles to pursue the abundance of fish; is no stranger to newcomers.  More than three hundred years ago she hosted the first mission on the peninsula and became the capital city of the newly formed California, a fact hard to believe in June when this little town siestas through the heat of its off season, leaving the few tourists like us to wander through empty streets, empty shops and empty beaches.

Loreto, the first capital of both Baja and Alta California. This little plaza was once the political center that governed territory including our own Los Angeles, as far north as Monterey, California.
Inside of the Mision Nuestra Senora de Loreto which is a working church.

As Kip so reverently pointed out, Jesus has many fans.

Walking through the empty plaza and around shady, tree-line streets on an afternoon too hot for everyone else.

The malecón on a Saturday afternoon, empty of tourists in the heat of the afternoon, but in the evening the street along the malecón became busy with young Mexicans driving their cars and trucks up and down. It reminded me of kids "cruising"in the little town in West Virginia where Kip and I lived as a teenagers.

Table for two, waiting for you.

The night sky was anything but empty though. In the evening, after the kids had gone to bed, Kip and I sat on the balcony, still warm from the day’s heat, and stared at the mesmerizing night stars, moving slowly across the night sky, interrupted only by the few upstart stars that shot across the velvet on their way to oblivion. 
We stayed in Loreto for four days spending the first exploring the town, its souvenir shops and cafes. Because we were driving our own car we also got lost enough to drive around the rest of Loreto where the fisherman, waitresses, shop owners and hotel maids live. Like every other part of Mexico there was the familiar mix of built and unbuilt, paradise and poverty, and dogs -- always stray dogs everywhere.
The second day we hired a local captain to take us to the national marine preserve on the Island of Coronado. For less than the price of taking our family to a day at Sea World we spent the morning surrounded by nature --  seals, fish, birds, the indigenous blue footed booby, even a majestic manta ray leaping above the water like a flying fish. Our boat ride ended on a white sand beach where we spent a few hours swimming and snorkeling in the warm water where you could see not only your toes but the fish that swam several feet below them.

He let our son drive.

Hi seals!

Boating around Coronado Island was like being immersed in a nature documentary, beauty everywhere.

Water so clear you can see fish through the water.

Arriving at the sandy side of the island.

Typical, here we are in paradise and I am consulting the guide book to see what we should see.

Hopeful guy waiting for a fish

It was Sunday afternoon and this Mexican family were enjoying the beach, the fishing  and an afternoon together.
While we were in Loreto we stayed in a casita in the Loreto Bay area, a sprawling community of freshly built vacation homes laid out like Italian villas in Mexican colors, each home with its own private courtyard, the houses connected by lanes adorned with perfectly manicured native plants. Like the rest of Loreto, it was nearly empty, waiting its time between the snow bird season when retirees from United States and Canada made their winter homes there, and the height of fishing season in late summer.

View from the tower of our home for our Loreto stay

Fountains and native plants everywhere in the community around Loreto Bay
Beautiful color and Mexican mission style everywhere

Beautiful walk through the community to the bay

Not the beautiful waves of the Pacific Ocean, but tranquil shore of Loreto Bay on the Sea of Cortez

There is plenty of room under the hotel's palapas which are free for people staying in Loreto Bay to use.

Taking in the sunset after an afternoon of swimming.

They say Loreto is where the mountains come to play at the sea.

Kip getting into the peace of this place so far from work.
We spent several hours enjoying the community swimming pool and the bay where we rented kayaks and stand up paddle boards and explored the shallow bay with its own giant rock peninsula where exotic fish hide behind corral rocks.

Kip and our son in a kayak

Kayaking around the rock. Around the rock we discovered some of the best snorkeling conditions we have ever experienced, beautiful fish, warm water and calm bay waters.
We borrowed some snorkeling gear we found in our rental house and I had the most pleasant snorkeling experience I have ever had. We saw puffer fish, sea urchins, star fish, others that I don’t know the name of but remember seeing in aquariums. Our son said he felt like he was swimming through Finding Nemo.

Kip picked up a beautiful shell for our daughter, and when he brought it back to the house we found it had a surprise.

Hello hermit. We took him back to the bay.

By the end of the third day in Loreto we seriously considered canceling our hotel in Cabo San Lucas and staying in our own private paradise for the rest of the vacation time. To stay in Loreto would save us hours in the car and after our long, somewhat frazzled drive from Ensenada to Loreto, and none of us were anxious to get back in the car -- except for our son who reminded us that we needed to find out what happened in the story we had been listening to in the car.
Loreto locals, tourists and residents, offered vague warnings about Cabo like “So you are headed to Cabo? Yeah, it’s really busy there.” While no one said, “don’t go,” they clearly preferred their quiet peace half way up the Sea of Cortez.
We hesitated, but my weather forecast phone app predicted several days of rain in Loreto and sunny skies at the bottom of the peninsula, and Kip had a goal of driving ALL the way down the Baja, so on the fourth morning we reluctantly packed up and left our perfect little retreat for the famous tourist destination we had heard so much about.
We were so glad we did.
My son and I went for one last snorkeling session early in the morning before we left for Cabo.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

600 Miles of Baja

Day 2

The second day of our road trip dawned in Ensenada, a lovely Pacific facing city with a pleasant tourist area of restaurants and shops. Kip had been to Ensenada once before when he and two other guys sailed our little sail boat from Marina del Rey to Ensenada, unofficially tagging along a caravan of sailors participating in the world famous Newport to Ensenada race, but this was my first time to Ensenada and at some point I would like to spend more time in this charming little seaside city.

Waking up early in Ensenada.

The kids were immediately fascinated with Ensenada, its surprisingly modern areas as well as its dirt road, taco-stand areas; and our daughter who has been looking at all kinds of post high school options even mentioned she would be interested in learning more about a Bible college that we had heard about in Ensenada. I’m not sure if she will follow up with that, or even if it would be the best thing for her to pursue, but I was really happy that our adventure was opening her heart to new ideas and opportunities. One of my goals for the trip was already accomplished.

After leaving the hotel we made our first stop at the gleaming, enticing Starbucks. And I was immediately disappointed with some of the worst coffee I have ever consumed. But it was a good experience in that it helped us break from the “safe” and launch into the local fare.

As we got on the road our GPS immediately told us it would take 17 hours to get to our destination, which scared us. I had known that we lost time by stopping in Ensenada and not pressing on to our original destination, a dot on the map mentioned in several Baja travel blogs I had been researching; but I had not considered that it might take us until 2 a.m. to get to the house I had already rented in Loreto Bay. And that is when I realized that we would have to either get a hotel somewhere short of the original plan or press on and drive at night. We had already decided we would not drive at night. Even while standing in line at Starbucks we heard rumors that recent tropical storms may have washed out parts of Highway 1.  One woman was telling me a story about semi trucks ferrying people across washed out areas (which never saw). But all the blogs agreed that night driving in Mexico is dangerous, and I was already feeling nervous about taking our family so far from our safety net, so we decided to do what we always do. We kept going and decided to decide later.

Once outside of Ensenada the road changed from a modern, well-kept, well-lit, interstate-style highway, to a two-lane road with a single yellow line down the middle. All signs were in Spanish, no English translation.  But for the most part the road was good enough, similar to what you would expect on a secondary road in rural areas of the US. It was windy in places where it went through the mountains, but with the help of our GPS we could see when the curves were coming and it was not too difficult to manage.

For about 1,000 miles I thought that meant don't trash your tires. It actually means "Do not litter." Thank you Goggle Translate.

Another sign I saw a few dozen times and never bothered to translate until I got home. "If you drink, don't drive." Didn't need that sign either. You would have to be loco to drink and drive.
The first four hours between Ensenada and El Rosario were a progression from city to scenic mountains and new wine vineyards, to flat agriculture plains and dusty towns with tire repair shops and taco stands. 

Everyone seemed to largely ignore the speed limit signs which were in kilometers per hour. At times it felt like a cross between the wild west and the Autobahn. Semi trucks and buses generally progressed pretty slowly, especially up and down curvy mountain roads, but there were a few drivers who felt comfortable taking the road faster. I got passed by a few pickup trucks when I was driving 75 mph in a 80 kph zone. But even with such a disparity of speed, it seemed that drivers were respectful of each other. Slower traffic often pulled to the side to give us room to pass.

In Baja slower drivers have a confusing custom of putting their left turn signal on to let motorists behind them know that it is safe to pass them, but I always waited until I could actually see far enough down the road. After a few hours of driving I became comfortable with passing buses and trucks, something I probably would not have done in the US, but I always required a quick high five from Kip because I need that kind of affirmation for being brave.

In the little towns all the traffic slows to a crawl, mostly because there are children and dogs running in and out of the street, and the city has significant speed bumps, some of which are unpainted. Hitting one of those “welcome” bumps at 30 mph is enough to bounce the kids in the back seat to the ceiling. I only hit one or two before I learned where to look for them.

One thing that disappointed us about the road south of Ensenada was the fact that you could not see the Pacific Ocean from the road. There must be hundreds miles of untouched, undeveloped coastal land hidden from Highway 1.

So when we got our first sneak peek at the ocean, we forgot about needing to press on, and took an unmarked dirt road that looked like it might lead to the ocean. We were not disappointed.

Turning from the road less traveled onto a road even lesser traveled.

A beach to ourselves

Notice my son has a GoPro. I can't wait to see the movie he makes of our trip.

Back on the road we headed to El Rosario, home of the Baja Cactus and a dirt biking race that Kip had heard about. We got the famous, crab burritos that were amazing and too much, all at once, and filled up the car with gas since it was over 200 miles until the next gas station.

This next stretch of road crossed a national reserve and was a showcase of desert cacti, colorful rocks and unfortunate abandoned tires.

Beware of cows, in the desert? This is no joke as we learned later.

The only gas station for over 200 miles as you pass through the

Water running over the road near the Oasis town of San Ignacio
 The most bazaar moment of the afternoon was when we heard what sounded like someone throwing a bucket of water at our windshield. I looked up at the blue sky without a hint of rain and realized that we had just driven into a swarm of bees. I counted at least 30 on the windshield.

Bee swarm collision.

The speed limit is 40 kph or about 24 mph. Would you pass?

Not a scarecrow, but a friendly sign dressed in combat clothing to warn drivers to slow down for the mandatory military check points. I had read that some travelers are nervous about these check points, but once I got used to seeing young men holding machine guns, it was fine. They were all really nice to us.

We pressed on through the agricultural area near the town of Guerrero Negro and across El Vizcaíno desert, oasis towns, an extinct volcano and a challengingly steep canyon the dropped us into spectacular views of the Sea of Cortez bathed in sunset light. By my estimation we still had a couple hours driving so we kept going. 

I've heard this incline is similar to dropping into the Grand Canyon. They call it the Inferno and it is right outside Santa Rosalía, above the Sea of Cortez.

We passed through the intriguing French influenced mining town of Santa Rosalía and played a fun game of "Is my English good enough to beg you to let my teenager use your bathroom?" in the very friendly little town Mulegé, but for the most part we were aware of the growing darkness and anxious to press on to our destination.

This is the town dump, the first thing visitors see after they drop out of the mountains, glimps the Sea of Cortez and head into the little town of Santa Rosalía

Through the whole day of driving the kids had not complained at all, not a word. We were all deeply engaged in the audiobook Peter and the Shadow Thieves, the second book in the prequel of Peter Pan by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, and so it came as a sobering shock when out of my peripheral vision I saw an enormous brown cow nibbling grass inches from the road. 

The cow was probably not enormous, but regular cow size, but to pass one at 80 mph on an eerily empty road in a foreign country was nerve-wracking for me. We slowed down, turned off the audiobook and had a serious game of cow spotting. We also had a family prayer time and only passed one more cow. 

The cow we passed in daylight didn't seem too scary, but we heard several people relate horror stories about drivers hitting livestock on the road. Turns out banditos are not the problem. It's the cows.

 So by the time we arrived in Loreto Bay, a fairly new, mostly American and Canadian-owned community of upscale villas, we were all fully awake despite the fact that it was near midnight. It was hot and it took a while to find a security guard to let us into the villa we had rented. But once we settled in and the kids went to bed, Kip and I sat on the expansive balcony, amazed at our new home for the next few days, and watched shooting stars.