travelog 25

Four for the Road

It starts very harmless as an email communication, but suddenly the chatting seems to turn into reality. Our friends from the cactus society in Zurich see their chance to experience and enjoy a small part of Baja California in a fantastic vehicle and with experienced tour guides.

For them it's their first big journey over the Atlantic into the desert and to the home of their thorny darlings...

For us it's the first adventure holiday with four people in the Unimog!

Since most of the time we're travelling in almost impassable terrain it's impossible for us to check our e-mail very often. So we knew just two weeks before their arrival in Loreto that our friends really wanted to visit us. We prepared ourselves mentally and emotionally for the visit with a relaxed week on the beach. The day before we filled up our fridges, water and diesel tanks.

Punctually we wait at the airport at Loreto and on time the small plane from La Paz lands. Out come the two pale faces of Nesa and Fredy with lots of luggage. The welcome is joyful, the greetings from family and friends from Switzerland numerous. We stuff all the bags and rucksacks into our little mobile and chug off to Loreto. For some relaxation after the long flight and the stress in Mexico City, we then drive to Bahía Concepción. The two visitors can't stop with ah's and ooh's because there are so many cacti around us. They get even more enthusiastic as we reach Bahía Concepción, with its crystal-clear turquoise water and the white sand beaches. As we arrive at our regular place under the palms at Playa Coyote our friends are in seventh heaven.

Now comes our big moment and it's like Christmas and birthday all in one: real Swiss chocolate, books, current newspapers and magazines, mail and even a small box of Sprüngli truffles. For those of you who don't know Sprüngli, it's one of the most famous confectioneries in Zurich, if you ever get the chance, try the "Luxemburgerli"! The three days fly by with swimming, lazing about, chatting, enjoying the hammock, reading and of course taking pictures. In the rocks above Playa Coyote grow the barrel cacti (Ferocactus emoryi), which belong to Nesa and Fredy's most beloved species. Of course every other barrel cactus is nicer than the one before, has longer thorns, is even redder, is tinier, longer, fatter or bigger than all the others. In a word, both Nesa and Fredy are so enthusiastic that they already snap a good part of their stock of film.

On the first little hike Fredy loses one sole of his shoe, and the other one won't last much longer. In a shop we buy real shoemaker glue and a brush and Fredy tries his hand as being a shoemaker. Because it's going so well, he's also repairing our already very worn tennis shoes. After that the zapatería "Fredy" is open every afternoon for a few hours.

In Mulegé we fill up our stocks and then we drive into the Sierra de Guadalupe which we already know very well from our previous visits. On our way we discover more and more cacti and other interesting plants to which we show of course proper respect. It always takes a while until the whole team is unloaded and then packed again. One of us always has to sit in the back and is happy for every break because this is the only possibility to gasp for fresh air and to escape the stifling heat in the house portion of the vehicle. Once again we want to hike onto the Cumbre de San Pedro because there's still a plant (Sedum alamosanum) that we have sought without success.

The road is much better than last time. They must have worked on it quite a bit and we manage half of the distance to the pass with the Unimog. After that, there are the really tight parts for which we are way too wide. In a switchback we find a quite level parking place and there is also a nice spot on a cliff for the tent. Beneath us is the Valle de Guadalupe with its palm oasis around the former mission and some volcanic chimneys. Above us are the inaccessible peaks of the Sierras. In the evening, a slight wind comes up that soon grows into a good storm that rattles our vehicle the whole night long and especially gives Nesa and Fredy's tent a good shaking.

The hike to the Cumbre de San Pedro is now practically a stroll. We saved ourselves a few kilometers of walking, and more importantly gained much altitude. The views over the Pacific and the Sierras are breath taking. Our visitors are enraptured by the big barrel cacti and Fredy climbs like a mountain goat to every single specimen to take pictures and video. Meanwhile we climb up the west side of the pass into the small canyons and really find the Sedum alamosanum. Of course there are also nice specimens of Dudleya rubens but all of those have flowered already. Back at the vehicle the line (and especially the waiting time) for the bathroom is much longer than when we travel alone. As soon as the sun disappears behind the mountains the strong wind comes up again and we are happy to have our own four firm walls around us.

The next highlight is the visit to the Rancho San Isidro. Loreto (our friend from travelogue 22) hears us from far away and quickly attacks us with a torrent of unclear words and explanations. After we first settle into his Spanish it gets better, but still we don't understand every word he says. Since our last visit, Loreto and his father have thached the roof of the kitchen with palm fronds and have laid new bricks around it. Everything looks professionally done and both of them are glad to hear our compliments. At once they invite us into the dim kitchen for a cup of coffee. Loreto shows Nesa and Fredy the jumble of treasures he has collected over the years. As they pop up their tent, Loreto watches every movement very carefully and Fredy has to show him all the tools he uses. Immediately Loreto thinks about other uses for all those nice tools but fortunately Fredy doesn't understand very much Spanish and so avoids the embarrassment of having to deny Loreto something. In the evening we sit together with goat cheese, crackers and beer. Loreto entertains us with his remarks about the world and about his wife in general and about friendship in particular. Soon he takes out his guitar and plays some Mexican songs for us. Then it's Fredy's turn and he entertains Loreto with original Swiss and Austrian melodies. The yodels especially meet a storm of applause (a real Swiss yodeller would turn in his grave while listening to Fredy!). Around midnight we convince Fredy to give back the guitar and to go get some sleep since the next day will be another strenuous day.

In Santa Rosalía we show our visitors how to shop on the Baja. The Panadería had already run out of rolls and the only things we could buy were sweet baguettes. We buy the tortillas fresh from the machine at the tortillería. For the fish, we have to wait until 5pm. We can get it in the backyard of a small house, but in the process we have to walk through the family's living room. We get the beer at the deposito because it's the cheapest place. We get our drinking water at the agua purificada places where we can fill up our tanks for a minor fee. All the rest we have to find in the small shops and we are happy when we have found everything we wanted to buy. In general, everything is quite different from the way Nesa and Fredy thought it would be. Their ideas about camping holidays on Baja are "destroyed" very soon. They thought about real campgrounds with hook-ups and stuff. They gave our email address to some people in Switzerland so that they could contact us in case of emergency - The last connected place on our little tour was the town of Loreto. Most of the time, we cooked outside on a comal, a cast-iron plate that gets red-hot on the bbq. Sometimes we prepared fish with vegetables wrapped in aluminum foil. For dessert we barbecued bananas in their skin, spread them with honey and flambé them at the very end with rum.

Well equipped, we now enter virgin territory even for us. Our way leads us into the Sierra de San Francisco where we want to see some plants and also some cave paintings. Our progress is very slow since the plant life is overpowering and we have to stop for pictures every few hundred meters. At one moment, it's a field of red and orange flowering barrel cacti (Ferocactus emoryi and Ferocactus peninsulae). The next moment, it's Echinocereus engelmannii totally covered with pink flowers that glare out of a meadow. Now we spot blooming Yucca whipplei ssp. eremica, fields of Agave cerulata ssp. subcerulata, and the first nolinas (Nolina beldingii). In the deep canyons we admire palms (Erythea armata) and, hanging high up in the rocks, Dudleya rubens together with big cushions of densely-thorned Mammillaria setispina. In the small village San Francisco de la Sierra we pick up our guide, who turns out to be an 11-year-old boy. He would love to take all his friends on the short spin in our Unimog.

He will be the talk of the town for the next couple of days because he has gotten a ride in such a special vehicle. After we bought 8 pounds (they absolutely didn't want to cut the whole thing in half!) of fresh goat cheese in the local community store (stocking a variety of coke, tuna cans, crackers, drinking water, sweets, onions, potatoes, soap and toilet paper), we drive to the entrance of the cave, which is actually just an overhanging cliff. Our guide has not the foggiest idea about why, when, or by whom the cave paintings were done. Fortunately there are signs answering those questions. Our guide's job is simply to open a gate for us and to wait until we're finished exploring. Nobody's interested in the permit for two cameras that we got and paid for in San Ignacio (they even wanted some more money for using the tripod). At the end the smart little fellow is too lazy to walk back to the village. He invents many excuses why we should bring him back with the truck. First of all he wants a larger tip (we don't give him any because he didn't do and didn't want to do anything). Then he says that all his other customers drive him back. Then he tries it with "I'm still too little" (we counter with "but you're old enough to be our guide!?"). At the end his best argument is: "There are mountain lions around!" After he confessed that normally he has to go and look for the goats all by himself, we are not convinced by the lion argument either. After he finally leaves without our help, we climb the cliffs and take some pictures of Dudleya rubens. With all the steep drop-offs it's not an easy task.

For the night we find a nice camp spot on a high cliff near a deep canyon. Between the red lava rocks the plants are growing so densely that it looks like a succulent garden. Since it's very windy, Fredy pops up the tent behind one of our big tires so it's sheltered from the wind - not the best idea as they will find out the next morning. Constantly, the wind blows fine red dust from under our tires that penetrates into their tent and covers the inside with a fine layer of sand. In the morning the dust crunches between their teeth, Fredy shakes lots of red dust out of his hair and their faces have more the color of Indian faces.

The last stage of our journey takes us over dirt roads from El Arco to the Bahía de los Angeles, the mission San Borja and finally to the Pacific Coast north of Guerrero Negro. For a relaxing day at the beach of Playa San Rafael we practically get stuck in the sand while parking the Unimog. Fredy films everything and after the excitement we can watch the action very relaxed. The light bags of our visitors now get filled with nice shells. On one of his hikes along the beach Martin tracks down a golden colored rattlesnake. From now on Nesa and Fredy don't move from our side and jump in horror with every rustle of a tiny little lizard. In general they have a big love for the desert flora but the creeping fauna is not their preference. It's not bad that Nesa and Fredy sleep in their tent on the ground instead of on the roof of the Unimog. At night they even wander, armed only with the flashlight, behind the bushes for a last pee. Every day Fredy builds a perfect campfire and collects wood, but always with the unpleasant expectation of meeting a creeping creature. Fortunately, the rattlesnakes and scorpions realize long before they can be seen that there is somebody approaching and they go off to hide. At the beach we also are lucky enough to show our guests some dolphins which dive close to the beach on their search for fish. At the end of the bay they turn around and swim by again. Fredy tries to spot them through the viewfinder of his videocamera but of course they disappear and surface again snorting and puffing somewhere else.

In the interior of Baja Peninsula the temperature is already summery hot and the best way to survive this stifling heat is outside in the shade of a tree or a columnar cactus. Even at the campfire we can sit comfortably with a t-shirt. At dusk even the little nasty flies (jejenes / gnats), which are attracted during the day by the sweat of our bodies, leave the place. It rained not long ago in the Sierra San Borja for three days and now the sandy plains are covered with pink flowering sand verbenas. Agave shawii ssp. goldmaniana has thick flower stalks covered with yellow flowers. The leaves of the cirios (Idria or Fouquieria columnaris) and the elephant trees (Pachycormus discolor) take all on the yellow colors of autumn. The disadvantage of the rain is the already-described little flies harassing us as soon as we leave the truck.

At the Pacific, the wind blows again very strong but we find a nice group of palm trees and bushes that are a perfect shelter from the wind.In the distance there are dark gray clouds moving in from the west. Nesa and Fredy are prepared for the worst. A rainy night in the tent is all they needed! We convince them after a while that this phenomenon is quite normal for the Pacific side.

The second to the last day we drive to Guerrero Negro and treat ourselves to the luxury of a real campground with a hot, spacious shower. First of all we inquire at the bus station about the bus to Loreto. It leaves at 6am and is due in Loreto at noon. This would still leave four hours for unplanned breakdowns before their plane leaves for La Paz. They tell us that we should buy the tickets the next day before 6am, and that they never have any problems with not enough spaces in the bus. This is very reassuring, since our guests already had some restless nights because of this unpredictable Mexican bus journey with an airplane connection at the end. Afterwards Nesa and Fredy are occupied with their bags, which get filled with books and more of our stuff that we don't need here anymore. For dinner they invite us to the "Malarrimo" restaurant, the best place in town, for the good-bye party. We celebrate with Margaritas and perfectly prepared fish. The only thing that remains a complete mystery to us is how a Mexican restaurant can serve garlic bread and pasta salad as a side dish together.

The next morning the alarm rings brutally early. While Nesa and Fredy pack their tent and everything else, we (as the thoughtful tour guides) make some sandwiches for their long trip to Loreto. On time and in total darkness we arrive at the bus station. The ABC-Bus also arrives on time, but it seems to be pretty much full. At the ticket window there's nobody to see and the driver is busy elsewhere. Nesa and Fredy get very, very nervous when the driver reveals to us that there is no free space in this bus. Outraged, I shout at him saying that he should have informed us earlier and that yesterday the people assured us that there would be enough empty seats in the bus. I told him that the couple had to go and catch the plane for Switzerland and that this, by the way, would be the wrong moment to make some jokes with them. The suggestion to let them sit on the steps in the front of the bus is not to the drivers taste, but suddenly he changes his mind and says that there are still two seats available. That's a weight off our mind and we can all laugh again. Our friends are seated in the first row and a little bit later there is even some more space for two ladies with a baby. With only five minutes of delay the bus leaves Guerrero Negro into the darkness.

And what do the "Tour Guides" do? They wave to the disappearing bus, and after 18 days go straight to bed to enjoy a peaceful slumber!

April 2000

Julia Etter & Martin Kristen