travelog 16

A Paradise for Campers

If we had followed the repeated advice of all those solicitous Americans, we would have stayed during our trip through Baja California only on more or less well-equipped campgrounds. It's also probable that we wouldn't have dared to cross the Mexican border at all. But the widespread anxiety about the many crooks and gangsters in Mexico also has a positive side effect: the people stay in the good old US or, if they dare to enter dangerous Mexico, they stay along the rare paved roads or in bigger centers of tourism. Therefore we have the whole rest of the Baja peninsula (and that is the majority of it!) to ourselves.

Once you leave the pavement to explore the back country, the rugged mountains, the palm canyons, the cactus desert or the lonely sand and shell beaches, there are many choices of camping spots. Normally no one cares about who is going to camp where. You may be invited to stay on a small farm among goats and chickens, because the local farmer can hardly imagine that someone could favor loneliness surrounded by cacti instead of being connected to civilization! Only on well-known beaches you have to pay a small fee for staying overnight. You may then use a dirty, stinking restroom or (sometimes) an impressingly clean sweetwater shower. And if the man who normally collects the fee once a day has other plans for the day or the week, then you can also stay for free.

The region around Cataviña is especially popular. Here you drive around on small sand tracks between big red sandstone boulders to choose your preferred campground in the middle of big columnar cacti (Pachycereus pringlei), "Telegraph masts" (Idria columnaris or Fouquieria columnaris) and other, mostly thorny shrubs. During the main travel season you will meet sometimes another camper but from April on you "have" the whole landscape for your own. During the nighttime the coyotes howl, the stars sparkle and glitter on a mostly cloudless, deep dark sky. On the flowers of the cacti you see hummingbirds and other brightly-colored birds feeding. The steady wind from the Pacific enables you to stand the intense heat.

Another very popular and well-known region is Bahía Concepción south of the little town called Mulegé. Many "snowbirds" (a nice, but sometimes a little bit pejorative nickname for retired Americans, who want to escape the bad and cold continental weather) stay there the winter long on many of these small sand beaches, to bathe, snorkel, hike, canoe or just to chat the whole day long.

From the highway you can choose the most beautiful beach and sometimes you can find some friends who are already camping out there. In every travel guide you see the well-known pictures of white sand beaches, turquoise water and the seemingly caribbean palm group (Playa Coyote). The travel guides forget to tell you that often the main travel route, the Transpeninsular Highway, passes just behind the scene. Although the traffic is not heavy (compared to American traffic) the Mexican trucks with their screaming engine brakes can bother you nevertheless. Fortunately, most people fear (and they are right to do so!) to travel the narrow, sometimes incredibly winding roads during the night. The travel guide books are also silent about the amounts of garbage you can find there. Although it will often be collected in old oil drums (motto: we do our best to save the environment!), these drums will be emptied into a breathtakingly beautiful landscape just around the next corner - no one seems to care. Behind practically every bush, below every second rock you find used diapers, cans, glass bottle fragments, paper dishes, old shoes, chip bags or other "souvenirs of civilization". The edible stuff will be picked up by coyotes, ravens and "zopilotes" (turkey vultures), but the rest of the garbage will be blown around the whole landscape by gusty winds. We seriously ask ourselves, why people do something like that, especially people who want to come back one day (and these are not only the Mexicans!).

At the beginning of our first visit on Playa Coyote we are practically alone. But during the night a bunch of people arrive and the next morning we are surrounded by a Mexican tent town. Semana Santa (the Easter week) has begun and the Mexicans like to spend their Easter vacation with their whole (and mostly big) family on the beach. After three days the Mexicans start to construct a big beer tent and military people arrive to keep the celebrating Mexicans somehow under control. We decide to leave and to escape into the loneliness of the nearby Sierra.

On our second visit the beach presents itself practically empty. We manage to grab the "seat in a box", the best spot below the familiar palms. We put up our hammock, feast in half-shadow, enjoy the warm crystal-clear water during the daily bathing fun and explore the surrounding hills for interesting plants. Day by day we chat with the local souvenir sellers who quickly understand that we have in our vehicle absolutely no empty space for their dreadful carvings and that we are already stocked up with enough t-shirts. Every day a local tradesman drops in to sell purified water, fresh vegetables and fruits, rolls and sometimes also some fish or clams. If you need something you can also order it from him for next-day delivery; but he is not allowed to deliver beer or alcoholic beverages. Because we know that a few miles down the road some friends of ours are staying at another beach, our good man acts as our personal messenger. Once we only send a message on a piece of paper, once a German book that we have finished reading. (Something that all long-term travelers like very much is the exchange of reading material!).

In the sand on the beach you can search for small clams (butter clams or the bigger, brown colored "chocolates"). They have to be soaked in sea water for 24 hours with a lot of water changes so that the clams can release the large amounts of sand they carry inside them. Then they make a splendid dinner cooked with a little bit of white wine, lemon juice, onion and garlic. Here on the Baja peninsula it is possible to live a good life - like our friends always say: "life is tough, isn't it!?".

June 1999

Julia Etter & Martin Kristen