March 24th - April 2nd 2005
Baja Norte and Baja Sur
Chuck and Marjorie, Bruce and Michelle, Randy and Jan
Satellite image of Baja in a windstorm
This trip report is about our trip to Baja Mexico in March of 2005. Six people, three vehicles. Marjorie and I are from Los Alamos, New Mexico. Randy & Jan and Bruce & Michelle are from Silver City, New Mexico. We are all old friends, all biologists, all with a love of the natural world that abounds in Baja Mexico. Marjorie got a new SLR digital right before the trip and I have borrowed many of her images. We found adventure, cool critters, and had a great time.
All of the images are sized down, but full resolution images can be requested (my email is on the homepage)
Trip report is below...
Day One (24 March 2005)
Marjorie and I met the rest of the group in Gila Bend AZ at 9am. They were caravanning from Silver City, NM and we were in Phoenix thee night before. We had a quick snack at McDonalds and headed out.
We crossed the border a little after lunch in Mexicali. The border crossing was really busy and parking wasn't available for three trucks next to the immigration office. We drove around for 20 minutes or more trying to find parking together and finally found some 6 or 7 blocks east of the immigration office. We went in teams to walk over and get our tourist cards. The price was 210 pesos, but I heard a rumor that the fee will double soon.
Thanks to my bad directions, we left in the wrong direction and ended up over near the airport. Sorry guys! We did a u-turn and got back on track and we finally were south of town around 3pm, a lot later than we had planned.
The road to San Felipe was crazy! There were hundreds of cars heading to San Felipe for Spring Break and they were all driving like idiots. Of course, there were mostly Californians! Once we got into San Felipe, the sweet little town I remember was over run with drunk Americans partying. We gassed up and headed south as soon as we could.
We made camp around dusk. We camped a mile up an arroyo to the west of the highway, south of Poncho's Place (Page 12, Baja Almanac). The camp was nice and quiet and we needed some rest after many hours of driving. Marjorie and I drove some 10 hours that day and the rest of the gang had done maybe 14 or more. There were storm clouds to the west and I had a tarp near my sleeping bag in case of rain.
(Click images for larger picture)
Day Two (25 March 2005)
We woke to partly cloudy skies. There were fresh layers of snow on Picacho el Diablo to the west. Ash-throated flycatchers were all around camp singing, along with cactus wrens and the occasional Gila woodpecker.
We explored the desert around camp and in no time at all had caught several lizards. Desert iguanas (Dipsosaurus dorsalis) and zebra-tailed lizards (Callisaurus draconoides) were everywhere. In the ironwood tree next to camp we found a nice desert spiny lizard (Sceloporus magister) and we caught one western whiptail (Cnemidophorus tigris).
Near camp we found a late model Ford Expedition that had been partially stripped. It still had several good parts on it like a roof rack, brand new spare tire, rear hatch, and the engine and drivetrain was all in-tact.
Inside the truck under the driver's visor, we found photographs of what we thought were the owner's children and a business card for the owner of the truck. The truck was plastered with a certain website that was also on the business card, some sort of adventure tour company that leads trips to Mexico is what we gathered. I emailed the website when I returned to the States, no reply to date. Hope nobody was hurt in whatever happened.
We finally started heading south before lunch after we had our fun with the local lizards. The road deteriorated as expected on the way to Puertecitos. The potholes were as I remembered, but there were a few stretches that had been repaired. Gas was available in Puertecitos, but only out of drums. We caught a couple chuckwallas (Sauromalus obesus) along some boulders along the way. They are a fun lizard, and I love when they blow up with air.
We continued south on our way toward Isla Miramar, also known as "El Meurto" (Page 18, Baja Almanac). We tried to find some arroyos through Ensanada Miramar to get us out to the beach nearest to El Muerto, but no luck. We backtracked to San Juan del Mar to ask for directions. We stopped at a place called Tono's and spoke with Tono. He was preparing for a big family Easter gathering and his place was bustling with activity. We told him we wanted to get to El Muerto in the morning and hoped he knew the best way out to the beach in front of it. He directed us to drive through his yard and onto the beach and just follow the beach. He also warned that the winds had been bad and to be really careful and get off the water as early in the day as we could. Words that would ring true later…
We took Tono's advice and drove the beach for 3 or 4 miles until we were directly across from the island. The sand was deep in places. The lighter Toyotas just bounced around a lot, but Randy's full size Chevy was heavy and his engine strained to get through the sand. We made camp on the beach and enjoyed the evening. Randy and Bruce went out for a little kayak run to try to catch some fish and enjoy the sunset from the water. The rest of us explored the tide pools all around. Starfish were everywhere. We found them large and small. We also found a little nudibranch of some kind. It was a great evening aside from the wind. The wind blew pretty good for much of the evening and night.
Day Three (26 March 2005)
Today was the day to get out to El Muerto. On El Muerto we hoped to find the El Muerto Island Rattlesnake (Crotalus muertensis), an endemic to the island. We left camp between 8 and 9 am, a little too late we found out later. Randy, Jan, and myself were in Randy's small aluminum boat with small motor, Bruce and Marjorie were in the double kayak, and Michelle was in the single kayak. On the way across the wind started getting stronger and stronger. At one point we doubled back to confer with Bruce to see if he wanted to continue. They had to take a northerly heading in the yaks to hit the waves at the correct angle and still make it toward the island. Bruce said he was going on, but was keeping a close eye on things. We headed over to the island and landed in a protected cove on the southwest side. The wind was coming from the north, which I thought was a little unusual for Baja. Normally the winds come from the west, often blowing weary kayakers out to sea in the Sea of Cortez. We had to be careful. Randy, Jan and myself hiked up the canyon poking around. After 15 minutes Randy spotted one of the endemic rattlers and cornered it with his snake tongs. Jan and I quickly ran up to help out. I wrangled the snake for Randy so he could get some good in situ pictures of the little guy. Here is a picture from the capture point looking back west. You can see the small boat and the beach on the other side was where camp was.
This island was infested with small black flies, millions of them. Over at camp we didn't have them, but on the island they were insane.
We released the snake and were heading back to the boat to head back. We assumed the yaks had turned around in the strengthening wind. Right about then we saw the yaks coming around the point into the cove. We quickly recaptured the snake and headed down to the boats. Bruce and Randy took some time to get real nice pictures of the snake. Meanwhile, I caught the only endemic lizard on the island, the Lowe's side-blotched lizard (Uta lowei). Then a different lizard ran by that was not supposed to be there. A desert iguana, not known to be on this island went under a rock. I caught him and we took a picture and collected GPS coordinates.
It was now near 11am and the wind was picking up, even on this protected side of the island. We opted to pack up and head out. Michelle decided she would rather take the boat back and I was now in one of the yaks. Once we paddled out past the protection of the island and were in full force of the winds, I got scared. The waves were really big and white-capping. The wind made the yak hard to control and it seemed apparent to me that trying to paddle through three miles of these huge waves would be extremely difficult and dangerous. The water was cold and if we did roll one of the yaks, we'd have to somehow get back in else hypothermia could set in. I told Bruce that I thought this was a bad idea and I was uncomfortable with the idea of going across. He agreed and we paddled back to the island.
Once back at the island we climbed up the ridgeline to see how Randy was fairing in the waves. He made it across, but it was about then that we realized that most of our gear was on the boat and we also realized that we didn't really communicate with Randy about the fact that we may head back to the island. I'm sure everyone at camp was worried about how we were doing. Every year people die in kayak accidents in the Sea of Cortez, now I know why. We realized that we might have to stay the night and all we had were the clothes on our back, one set of binos, a gallon of water, and a few cliff bars. Unfortunately, we also had no way to start a fire. This was looking sort of grim. We watched through the binos as Randy refueled his little boat, he was going to try to come back for us!! We all hoped he would wait and not try to come in the wind, but he did anyway. A brave effort I have to say. We watched in horror as he tried to get through the surf, fighting the wind. At one point we saw the little boat stand straight up on end and the wind whipped it 180 degrees facing back toward shore. Right about then we saw Randy pull out the oars and start paddling back to shore. He must have damaged the motor. In a few minutes he had made it to shore and we could see that the boat was swamped and he had a real struggle getting back on the beach.
With everyone safe for the time being, we opted to climb to the higher points of the island to escape the flies. The only places without flies were in the wind. We climbed to the north face and looked north over the Sea of Cortez. The wind was whipping around us, 40, maybe 50mph, who knows. White caps were as far as you could see. I was VERY glad we turned around; we would not have lasted long in this wind…
We took inventory of our gear and made our way back to our lookout point. Bruce spent the next couple hours trying to devise a way to start a fire with a bowed piece of driftwood, a shoelace, and a few other things. Marjorie and I watched the far shore trying to figure out what they were doing. All the while we had snake bags tied around our heads to keep the millions of flies off of us. The flies were mind numbing.
After a couple hours of valiant effort, Bruce still didn't have a fire. However, knowing Bruce as well as I do, he would have gotten it before nightfall, I'm sure of it. To the south we noticed a couple fishing boats slowing making their way into the protected side of our island. They might be able to help us I thought, we ran to the yaks. We kayaked out to the boats. One was pulling the other. They were gringos trying to get back to Puertecitos, but the wind had messed them up pretty good. They were just waiting out the wind and fishing. We told them our predicament and asked if they had any provisions that they could give us. They graciously gave us a gallon of water, a bunch of peanut butter crackers, a few fish, and a lighter! The lighter was the big plus for us. We could make the night a lot more comfortable now. We thanked them and made our way back to the island. We exited in a new cove and explored there some. We found a dolphin skull and all sorts of bird bones. No wonder they called this island El Muerto, it was crazy how many dead things were there.
It was now around 4pm and we started noticing the wind was dying down and we started talking about making a run for it. We agreed we'd paddle out beyond the sheltered area of the island and have a look-see. We wanted out of the flies most of all. We got back in the yaks and got the skirts all tightened up and off we went. As we got closer to the open water, it was apparent that the wind had stopped completely. It was amazing, the night before it blew until midnight and I thought for sure it would this night too. There were no whitecaps, but the swells were enormous!!!!!!! Ten-foot swells were all around heading in a southerly direction. We angled our path to the north so we would hit most of the swells at a nice angle. Hitting them head-on is not good and hitting them parallel is really bad. The two yaks were within 15 feet of each other, we could speak without yelling, but often we wouldn't see each other because one would be at the top of a swell while the other would be at the bottom of a swell. I was pretty scared at first, but got more comfortable as we made our way when I realized the wind was gone. The swells were intimidating, but doable. We made the 3-mile leg in 45 minutes. Not bad considering.
When we arrived at camp our hearts sank when we realized that Randy was not there. He had fixed his boat while we were gone and headed out. Turns out he headed out about the same time we did, but the swells prevented him from seeing us. He had stripped out his prop earlier and he needed to drill into it to secure it to the shaft so it would run. They remembered that I had said I had a cordless drill in my tool box, so Randy used it to get three sheet-metal screws through the prop into the shaft. This rigging job worked out pretty well. In about a half hour we saw Randy approaching from the south. He had gone to the cove and we were not there. He then searched south where the winds would have blown us assuming to find the worst and nothing. When we all met back up, it was…let's just say…we were all happy everyone was okay.
It wasn't long before we started popping cold ones and tried to relax. What a long and anxious day! Hell, at least we found a new snake! ;-)
After dusk, a full moon rose over El Muerto, an inspiring sight.
Day Four (27 March 2005)
We woke up a little hungover and got ready to head south. We had planned to be in Bahia de San Luis Gonzaga already, but were still in front of El Muerto. We left for points south and stopped over in Gonzaga Bay at the gas station for a fill up. This was the first time I had seen this PEMEX in operation. We also had to buy more beer at the store, only thee days into the trip and we're running low! We had some lunch in some sand dunes on the south side of the bay. There were really nice wildflowers here.
On one of our cooler stops we all got out and were milling around and heard a squeaking noise. Randy looked around and found a small kangaroo rat (Dipodomys spp.) baby. While walking in that direction, someone might have stepped and fell through its home. Every time that happens when you're out hiking, you just wrecked something's home. We put the poor little guy back and hoped he would live, but we all had our doubts. If we were near home, someone would have taken it home. They make great little pets.
Past Coco's Corner (Page 18, Baja Almanac) we caught a western patch-nosed snake (Salvadora hexalepis) on the side of the road. Wildflowers were in every direction in some places.
Once we got back to Highway 1, we pulled off to air up the tires. This was the first trip for my new OffRoad Air Tank System. It's a ten pound tank full of liquid CO2. I filled all four of my 33" tires from 20 to 35 pounds in just a couple minutes. I was happy with my new toy!
We turned at the Bahia de Los Angeles turnoff and headed back east. We stopped after 20 miles or so at an old dump site to poke around a bit. We hoped to find some snakes, but no such luck. We did find a desert night lizard (Xantusia vigilis) underneath one of the piles of junk. I had never seen one of these before. Pretty cool lizard.
We got back on the road around dusk and rolled into Bahia de Los Angeles after dark. Bruce has friends that live in Campo Archelon and we were headed to their house. We stayed with Patty and Mauro and their two children, Josepe and MaxineRose. Mauro is from Italy and speaks Italian, Spanish, and English and his wife Patty is from the US. They have lived in Bahia de Los Angeles for 5 or 6 years I think. We cooked up some spaghetti with elk meat sauce and had a late dinner.
Day Five (28 March 2005)
The wind was howling on this day and we didn't do much because of the wind except nap and relax all day. We walked over to the sea turtle rehabilitation center at Campo Archelon to see the turtles they had. They do some good work here educating the locals and tourists alike and they also do some real science. It was great to see. A man named Antonio owns Campo Archelon and he came over to Mauro and Pattys for dinner and drinks. We all sat around drinking and talking politics for a couple hours. It's always fun to get a foreigners real perspective about America and the politics of the world. Patty baked up some homemade pizza, thin-crust style and it was savory. I ate really well!!!
Day Six (29 March 2005)
We got up early because we had rented a panga from a local fisherman for a five hour tour of the bay. We met the boat at 7am and thankfully the winds were gone. Our boat captain was Bacilio, a local fisherman that takes tourists out for extra cash. The tour was to go around to all the islands in the bay, but we didn't go all the way to Isla Angel de la Guardia though. I'd love kayak to and backpack that island someday.
Early into the boat trip we saw some whales. As we approached them, we all thought that they were fin-back whales (Balaenoptera physalus), the 2nd largest whale in the world. We got pretty close a few times. It was amazing to see how disturbed the water would be after one pass of the tail. We also saw a group of California sea lions (Zalophus califonianus) pretty close. The ones in the picture are all female, the male was only seen a couple times. He was much larger with a huge head.
The bird life was amazing too. We saw both brown boobies and blue-footed boobies on the islands. I felt like we were cruising around the Galapagos! Just a few of the many birds on this boat trip were: American oyster catcher, magnificent frigatebirds, Brandt's cormorants, double-crested cormorants, great blue herons, black crowned night herons, Bonaparte's gulls, and many, many others.
Bacilio took us to Isla Coronado for some exploring. We had to buy special permits to actually get off the boat onto the islands. The permits were 20 pesos. We were hoping to catch the spiny chuckwalla (Sauromalus hispidus) that lives there. It is a lot larger than its sister species we caught earlier in the trip. We hiked around for an hour or so and saw a few small specimens, but we wanted a big one! Well, we got what we wanted! We found a huge one perched on a rock outcropping and Bruce noosed him with his lizard noose. Problem was, he was so big that he broke the string on the noose like it wasn't even there. Then Bruce just ran after it and it ran into a cave about 2 feet across. We saw Bruce's legs dangling out of this hole in the earth and then he came out with the monster. His hand was bleeding a little too because the chuckwalla slapped him good on his hand with its tail! It was way off the charts for the size of lizards I've held before, a real grand specimen.
After we released the big chuckwalla we headed back to the boat to try some snorkeling. I had new gear I was excited to try out. The water was colder than I thought it would be. I had a shorty wetsuit and still froze. Saw a lot of sea urchins, star fish, sand dollars, spotted sand bass, and several other fish I didn't know. I had forgotten to shave that morning, so I had some issues with the mask sealing properly. At one point I got water splashed in my eyes, damn the Sea of Cortex is very salty!!!
After the snorkeling we headed out for some fishing in the final hour to hopefully catch some lunch. We all took turns and everyone caught something, mostly spotted sand bass and lingcod, and one scorpion fish. Bacilio filleted all of the fish as we reeled them in.
When we got back to camp, it was time for tacos de pescado!!!! Randy set up his table and stove on the beach and got out the big cast iron skillet. He had a killer blackened seasoning!!! We had blackened fish fillets, salsa, green chili, sautéed onions, cheese, and rice all on the local bought tortillas! It was the best meal of the trip, hands down! I lost count of how many tacos I ate. Needless to say, I skipped dinner all together! :-)
In the afternoon we went up into town to see the progress on Marro's bakery and bed and breakfast he is building. The building techniques in Baja are interesting. He uses sand bags for walls between concrete pillars. Once the wall is formed he plasters over the whole thing. It's real analogous to the adobe style I see in New Mexico. The final product is really sturdy and insulates against the heat really well. Maybe he will be open for business next time I'm passing through the Bahia de Los Angeles.
Day Seven (30 March 2005)
We said our thank yous and goodbyes to Marro and Patty and headed to town.
We wanted to see the museum before we left town. I don't recall the name of
the museum, but I highly recommend it. They had a great collection of old
photos showing the history of the area, lost of well maintained exhibits showcasing
the natural and cultural diversity of the area, and even a nice little gift
shop. I was overly impressed.
We headed out of town around lunchtime. We intended to take the San Borja Mission road. A mile or so into the road, we took a two-track to the left that headed toward La Laguna (Page 21, Baja Almanac). We wanted to see the petroglyphs reported to be there. We found the petroglyphs on the right hand side of the road along a large vertical rock formation. There were different types of paintings everywhere, images of people, sea turtles, circular formations, etc. We explored the area taking lots of photographs.
To the south of the cliffs was a large boulder field. Bruce caught a Central Baja California banded rock lizard (Petrosaurus repens), a beautiful specimen. We took lots of pictures.
The desert around the La Laguna area was amazing, even breathtaking. We were in a cardon forest, a "cardonal". We got a nice group picture in at one of the stops.
We got back out to the road and started toward the mission. We made several stops along the way for cold brews and to explore different areas. We found a graveyard of old Chevys and Fords and we had to stop and look around. A bunch of us loaded up into one of the trucks and Marjorie snapped a pretty good picture!
We made camp around 9pm off the road a bit several miles west of the mission. The wind was back and it was howling….
Day Eight (31 March 2005)
We awoke to the wind still howling. We decided to split up on this day. Randy & Jan and Me & Marjorie wanted to try to get south to see the whales, while Bruce & Michelle didn't want to see them this year. We agreed we'd meet up in the evening north of Cataviña in the boulder fields.
On the way out toward Rosarito we found a large Baja California gopher snake (Pituophis vertebralis) crossing the road. He was a little aggressive, but we managed to still get a few pictures. The wind made it difficult to get good shots too.
We got back to Highway 1 and headed south. We filled up at Villa Jesus Maria and continued south. The agricultural inspection station was running at the border to Baja Sur. They checked our tourist cards and also charged the usual 10 pesos to spray our vehicles for pests. I wish I could see the containers of insecticides they used, I'd bet money it was DDT. We didn't stop in Guerro Negro and just continued on to the whaling camp. The road leads through various salt mining operations. It was interesting to see the operations, the scale was enormous. Marjorie and I stopped to grab a few of the larger crystals off the road. We drove out to Ejido Benito Juarez whaling camp on Laguna Ojo de Liebre. I had never looked for whales here before, but we didn't think we had time to make it all the way to Laguna San Ignacio and back to Cataviña by dark. They charged us three dollars to park!!! There was flat barren land for miles around and we had to pay three dollars to park! Crazy…
We enjoyed a few beers in the bar waiting on the morning boats to return. The boats came back around noon and sadly, not one boat saw anything in the whole lagoon. One of the captains told me that they drove everywhere and all the whales had left for the year and the day before they had only seen two. We were all disappointed and pondered about what to do. We debated driving on down to San Ignacio, but we figured those whales would have been gone too. If we were to do it over again, we would have visited San Ignacio at the beginning of the trip and worked out way back up from there.
We enjoyed a few more beers and had a nice lunch in the restaurant and headed out. The wind back to Cataviña was horrible. Staying inside the small lanes of Highway 1 was difficult, hell, even on a calm day it's difficult.
After several hours of white-knuckle driving, we arrived it Cataviña. The gas pumps at the La Pinta Hotel were not operating. We drove north of town and called for Bruce on the radios, but no answer. Either the small handheld radios we had were not picking him up, or he wasn't there. We made camp several miles north of town, off the highway to the west, behind some large boulders. The wind was whipping and coming from the east now. Around dusk we heard Bruce on the radio and we got him to camp. He had done some fishing and exploring on the pacific side. More tacos de pescado were on the dinner menu and we all tried our best to sleep in the wind.
Day Nine (1 April 2005)
We awoke on April Fool's Day to guess what, more wind!!!!!!!!!!!! Once the sun warmed things up a bit we explored the boulder field around us trying to find some new species. Bruce noosed a new species of rock lizard, a banded rock lizard (Petrosaurus mearnsi). He was a smaller lizard and not nearly as colorful as the other one we caught a few days earlier.
We left camp around 11am and headed north. We stopped for gas and more tacos in El Rosario. I like this little town. To me, this town is where Baja really starts on the Pacific side; most of everything to the north is overpopulated. We drove north and made camp at El Campito (Page 15, Baja Almanac). The wind was not as bad in the afternoon. Bruce and Randy wanted to try to get a little more fishing in because they didn't get to fish a lot on this trip. They got out the double kayak and loaded it up with gear. The waves were pretty good sized coming in, but they were confident they could get out past the breaking waves and into calmer water. They got loaded up and waiting for the right timing and off they went. They got through the first 5 waves no problem, but then a larger set of waves was coming. The next 4 waves really made them work and I thought Randy was going to break his back! He was in the front hole of the yak and the waves were bending him over like a matchstick as the yak sliced through. The 10th wave was pretty big and as you figured, it broke right on top of Randy and made a mess of everything. This big wave rolled them out of the boat and pushed them maybe 20 yards back toward shore! The water was deep enough to stand in and they guys stood up, then Randy held up the paddle he was using and it was bent in half! The wave pushed the paddle into Randy's chest and broke it over his chest. The fishing side-trip was over! The guys were still laughing when they got back to the beach. I got some grainy video with my digital camera. Not the best quality, but you get the idea. The first video is of the first 8 or nine waves, then the second video is the final big wave as it whips their asses!
(Click the image to start the video)
There were some gorgeous, tall sand dunes just to the north of camp. We wanted to explore the dunes for rattlesnakes and legless lizards. The Baja California legless lizard (Anniella geronimensis) can be found in these dunes. Bruce had found the species here in past trips. We all headed up the dunes, digging lightly around all the vegetation trying to find the lizard. Unfortunately, the lizard didn't want to be seen on this day. I still got some good pictures though. I got a nice close-up of some beetle tracks, they look like tank traps! I got some amazing sunset shots as the sun vanished into the Pacific.
Day Ten (2 April 2005)
We were heading out of country on this day. We got up early and packed up and were ready to roll by 8am. Bruce & Michelle opted to stay behind and leave at their own pace, while the rest of us wanted to make tracks. We hoped we'd make the border crossing in Tecate in about 4 hours. Unfortunately, the traffic was not working in our favor. We didn't make the border crossing until 2:30pm! From there, Marjorie and I had another 5.5 hours to my mom's house in Phoenix. Randy and Jan opted to drive all the way back to Silver City and arrived around 2am. That's a lot of driving. Marjorie and I drove back to northern NM the next morning. We covered 2500 miles in 13 days!
Well, that's it, if you've read this far, you're a real trooper! Thanks for reading.
(I wonder how much biomass in insects is wiped out by autos every year in Baja???)
(You know, the angle on that picture looks like my alignment is fucked! I checked it, it's all fine.) :-)