We were quiet as we drove away from damaged San Ignacio. We didn’t know what we would see along the road as we crossed the canyons and mountains to our first view of the Sea of Cortez.
Which was stunning. From the top of the road in the coastal desert mountains, the sapphire blue waters extended to an unseen shore. The dazzling azure hinted at the warm water and richness of life, and its brightness was magnetic. We were giddy as we descended into Santa Rosalía, where the copper mine has recently reopened and brought renewed vitality to the town. The little town rises quickly into the steep hills formed by volcanoes. Nearby, three recent (~40 million year old) volcanoes, Las Tres Vírgenes, are home to Baja’s 10 megawatts of geothermal energy. The architecture in Santa Rosalía reminded me of a hot climate version of a Colorado mining town, with historic wooden homes with complete wrap around porches. It was unusual to be in a México without any concrete to be seen.
We threaded our way through the narrow, green streets covered in people and cars, and finally found Panadería El Boleo, named for the mine and built in a huge, dark, caverous building with fresh, steaming bread rolling out on racks now poised between the edge of the dark interior and the sunlit bakery front. Long, tall glass cases stuffed with baked goods hid short, cheerful old ladies poised with tongs behind the counter. We walked out with french bread, three sweet empanadas, and a fluffy sugar cookie. The sidewalks were packed with people, and the town bustled with activity even in the heat of the day.
This contrasted with Mulegé just down the road. Mulegé seemed deserted as we drove the dusty streets. The town center, much like San Ignacio, seemed to have weathered the storm with only a little mud, and the few people on their porches looked up and smiled as we passed. However, the arroyo and the houses under the lush date palms looked dark and damaged. Eerie quietness pervaded, and that shifty and disconcerting silence lingered, just as in San Ignacio, a week after the storm.
Despite reports of a bridge that was uncrossable after the hurricane, we crossed the arroyo without incident. A friend had told us we could camp at a place called Naranjos at Bahía Concepción, so we took a sharp right about 40 kilometers after Mulegé and bumped down a dirt road to a deserted beach covered in perfect shells. We stumbled out of the car and directly into the water. It was warm and crystal clear, the wind pushing little waves into the shell-plastered shore. We only returned to the truck for our snorkels and fins. Wading in the water, I watched as a school of fish lept out of the water 50 meters away, and a fish about my size came to the surface in successful pursuit.
Josh, regardless of speaking no Spanish, had befriended the only other people on the pebbly beach, and he waved me over to try the clams with which the son had just emerged from the sea. Anyone who has ever eaten seafood with me knows that I can’t even gag down an oyster or octopus, nevermind something else raw in a shell. However, this clam was smothered in fresh lime juice and hot sauce, and it wasn’t even chewy. After confirming that this was a safe place to swim (that wasn’t a shark I had seen, right?), we ate another clam, thanked the shy and gracious family, and went back into the warm sea.
Uly was in dog heaven, chasing gulls in and out of the water, swimming around us, and triumphantly perfuming his neck with heron poop whenever possible. With supersaturated fingers we combed the breezy beach, finding an amazing assortment of perfect cones, murexes, conches, bubbles and augers.
Having finally shaken the stress of the road, we sat in the shade of the truck, drank a beer, and decided we should camp somewhere nearby. Sometimes I become so obsessed with the destination that I forget that in the daily adventure the are gems of knowledge, beauty, and companionship. Searching with lasers on one path will not help me see and understand a complex and nuanced landscape OR enjoy the ride. Sometimes a person just has to have a beer and let discovery appear in the peaceful ebb.
We drove to the little shacks at the opposite edge of the beach, where I met the eldest of the Naranjo family members. This sweet octogenarian had spent over sixty years living at Bahía Concepción, and I asked her what had changed.
More developments, she laughed, gesturing to the five relatively fancy houses back down the beach.
What else? I asked. She answered pensively: we get more of the big storms now, she said. It didn’t used to be like this. We only used to get a big storm every 50 years. More storms, she nodded. I hope to visit this woman, Señora Naranjo, again in the future to hear her stories.
We were getting hungry and there was no food at Naranjos, so we drove on a little further to Playa Santispac, where we stopped at the restaurant and were offered the only thing on the menu: shrimp. From the grill or cooked in garlic, they were delicious, and we sat in the evening breeze with a margarita and watched the clouds over the islands just offshore.
We slept in the back of the truck ten feet from the water that night, and we had the beach all to ourselves–and 100,000 mosquitoes. The breeze died in the night and Uly and I got up multiple times to swim. Bioluminescence twinkled in the water around my hands. I feel asleep that night while Josh fanned us with our travel guide. We almost didn’t mind the loss of blood and sleep, because we knew the morning would be amazing.
And it was. We were up with the sun and pulled the boards off the roof to paddle out into the glassy water, Uly swimming along and our coffee cups on our boards. We paddled out to the closest island, Isla Coyote, which dropped directly into the water and a reef teeming with angelfish, parrotfish, other tropical fish and one tiny, iridescent blue shark we could see from the surface. When I lay on my board, it amplified the crackle of the fish eating underwater. Uly swam around the entire island with us, and he begrudgingly sat on my board for the kilometer paddle back.
We didn’t want to leave, but we slowly packed up the truck with the goal of making it to La Paz, our final destination, that evening. We drove on to Loreto and walked around this little town that seemed to be waiting patiently through the heat for the tourism season to pick up again. Loreto was protected from the hurricane by the volcanic Sierra la Giganta rising steeply outside of town, and there was almost no damage.
I asked a friend if he wanted us to check on his boat, which we knew was drydocked nearby, and this sent us on a mission to the tiny port of Puerto Escondido. In this lovely and well-protected little anchorage, some boats had survived the storm well, while others had washed onto the breakwater. A young couple was pulling soaked cushions and rugs out of their sailboat and hanging all of their possessions on the rail at the edge of the harbor. The harbormaster gave us limited and begrudging permission to walk into the boatyard to check out our friend’s boat, a catamaran that had deftly survived the wind and water without incident on the hard (intentionally left on land.)
From Puerto Escondido, we followed a beautiful, winding road at the edge of la Sierra La Giganta. The green, steep mountains stretching imposingly up to dark, towering thunderclouds. At one corner of the road we found a semi truck flipped off the road on its side, with others trucks parked alongside cleaning up the debris. The cab of turned over semi was crushed flat. Three unhappy looking young men sat in the shade under another semi parked in the middle of the road. Shaken by this scene, we drove slowly until we emerged on the flats and into the center of the state and Cíudad Insurgentes, no longer on the coast or in the saguaro forests. From here, we were driving into the dusk then dark.
The road for the entire peninsula was much better than I had imagined, but it was almost all two lanes with the most common traffic being semi trucks. The road was well lit with reflectors in the night, but it was still driving through inky black darkness. 45 miles per hour felt like 80, and the little innocuous road damage from the day popped out like goblins on the road in the night. We came across another overturned semi in the middle of the road, the cab again crushed and the driver nowhere to be seem, only a tow truck driver directing us to the dirt on the opposite side of the road. As we rolled slowly by (there is no delay because there is very little traffic), we wondered if we should turn around and provide any needed medical assistance. But I remained nervous about blocked roads in Mexico at night, so we drove on.
As we came over a ridge we could see the lights of La Paz, “the peace” in Spanish, the capital and largest city in Baja Sur. It stretched dauntingly on the horizon. We rolled through endless aching miles of dirt and road construction, and as well came into the city we encountered an unexpected detour. We had no map of La Paz, only the direction from a friend that started with the malecon, but we hadn’t reached this road yet and couldn’t see our way to the shore.
One of the things about the roads in La Paz: there are many one way streets, but NOT many one way street SIGNS. Exhausted, Josh and I turned into traffic again and again, blundering up and down the streets. Finally, we found the malecon, packed with Friday night revelers and partiers, piling and overflowing out of the restaurants and bars onto the wide malecon. Music thumped from every door and car. I thought surely Josh was thinking about packing his bags already.
We found the statue of Jacques Cousteau, our cue to turn away from the water, and the next door neighbor (who is the executive director of the local biodiversity nonprofit Niparajá–but more on Meredith later) gave us the keys. We met the dog we would be watching for the next two weeks, Kekito, which means “Cupcake,” and collapsed into the very comfortable bed for a much needed rest.
We would wait to see La Paz in the morning, and I feel asleep wondering about this city that would be our home base for the next nine months.