travelog 27

Alone in the World

North of Guerrero Negro, at the fishing village Santa Rosalillita (a Mexican tongue-twister!), begins one of the least traveled routes through some of the loneliest areas of Baja Californa. Except for some detours through the interior, the whole route follows the Pacific Coast until you arrive in Puerto Catarina from where there is no connection to San Carlos. "Pura sierra", that is to say "only mountains", some military guys who know the place tell us.

For that reason we fill up our fridges completely in Guerrero Negro. We also have enough water and diesel with us. If we pass some fishing camps on our way up the coast our menu will be even more varied. We have already driven the first part of the route between El Tomatal and Santa Rosalillita in December, 1999. That's why we have decided now in May, 2000 not to drive this very bad track again just to see some beautiful and lonely beaches. We also already know the washboard road between Santa Rosalillita and El Marrón from last December. Hoping to find some spiny lobsters in El Marrón again, we make the little detour to this fishing camp of four ramshackle huts and its pretty sand dunes and all the shells on the beach. They don't have spiny lobsters at the moment, but instead we buy a huge sole. With great difficulty, I manage to fillet it. We get all the fillets and ceviche, and we give the skin and bones to a coyote and a couple of ravens. From our box seats we see a perfect sunset each evening directly in front of our windows. The long sandy beach is bounded by light gray sand dunes. Here we find countless Pismo clams, sand dollars and even a big crab that was washed ashore. Behind the beach, red boulders pile up into mountains. Among them the plants grow as in a little garden: Agave shawii ssp. goldmaniana, Dudleya albiflora, Mammillaria maritima (one plant has still a red flower), Mammillaria blossfeldiana, Echinocereus maritimus, Yucca valida and much more.

The fishing camp is inhabited only sometimes. The shacks are built from corrugated tin, cardboard and parts of wrecked cars. The fishermen can reach the camp by car only during low tide, and during violent storms the huts are totally cut off from the outside world. The fishermen put their day's catch on a pickup truck that is ready for the scrap heap and drive with only the cooling of the wind to Santa Rosalillita. There they meet the guy with a real refrigerator truck who transports the fish to Guerrero Negro where it will be sold as "freshly caught".

The route beyond here is OK for another few miles, that is, we clatter over the usual washboard track. After that the dirt road gets narrow and sometimes we think that we were wrong at the previous fork. The dirt road takes us through narrow canyons, over small passes, through dry riverbeds, with the Pacific Ocean always in sight. All the fishing camps we encounter are deserted. The beaches are beautiful and very lonely because the drive is too difficult - impossible for most cars. One of the big problems for most cars are the long stretches where one must drive through deep powdery-fine dust (= silt). With rain, the silt hardens to impassable mud, and the dirt road becomes one big sludge hole. Mostly we have the choice between several tracks that are equally bad and dusty. If the wind blows from the right direction, we are overtaken by our own billowing dust cloud and we're unable to see anything. Don't let this bother you, there's no human soul out here anyway! From time to time a Baja Rally drives through this area. So that the light rally cars don't get stuck in the deep silt, they carry with them big bags of rocks for weight. Those plastic bags and their no-longer-needed contents can be found all along the route.

We decided to drive the whole route because we wanted to find a specific, newly-described Dudleya (Dudleya attenuata ssp. australis). We're also attracted magically by such remote areas. Probably because we have an exact GPS position of the location, we found the plant, far more south than described without problem. The plants form small ground-covering clusters with gray, light-green to purple leaves that resemble small sausages. Some of them already have flowers.

The second surprise is Dudleya pulverulenta ssp. pulverulenta. We definitely didn't expect to find this plant so far south. The big farinose rosettes (the leaves are covered with white dust/flour) induce us to use up umpteen rolls of film because every plant we see is nicer than the one before. Along the entire coast we find Dudleya albiflora, which varies from place to place in the form of the rosette and the color of the flowers. Another highlight is a small Mammillaria (Mammillaria blossfeldiana) with a diameter of only 1-1.5 inches. The plants barely protrude from the dry ground. Normally we would not see the prickly little plants, but we're here at the right time and can enjoy them in full bloom.

From the moving truck (with an average speed of 3-6mph not surprising) we can see the pink spots glowing among the brown-red rocks. The first plant with one flower is photographed extensively. We crawl around on the ground to catch the best angle. After one roll of film, we decide to focus on plants with two flowers. Soon we raise the limit to three flowers. Later, this is only surpassed by several flowering plants next to each other.

One morning when we're no longer accustomed to watching our rear-view mirror for other vehicles, we suddenly see a dust cloud. Soon two khaki-green Hummers are behind us. These ugly 4x4 vehicles are becoming popular with the rich and beautiful in the US - for sure they don't often see dirt roads). We're used to the military check points on the Transpeninsular Highway, but here in no man's land we're quite astonished to meet the federales. The whole unit from the two Hummers surrounds our vehicle, their machine guns levelled. This macho behavior always generates an unpleasant feeling in our stomachs although we have a clear conscience, meaning no drugs (except of "allohol" of course...) and no guns). The chief of the unit, all of them bored boys around twenty, steps into our little house and inspects the inside. We don't blame him since it's not normal to see such a vehicle out here. After we give the group a roll of film for their point-and-shoot camera, we break the ice and the boys get talkative. We're the first human beings they have seen here in one week - it's exactly the same with us! Finally they want to know what we think about rattlesnakes. When we react positively, they conjure up out of their Hummers a plastic bag with three living rattlesnakes. Mister Cool with black sunglasses winds the snakes around his neck and kisses them on their heads. This is a little too much for us but after the boys swear that they had extracted the venom, I take my courage in both hands and hold two of the snakes.

They wind and hiss at me but neither makes a move to bite me. It's more likely that the poor animals are totally scared! Our suggestion of taking pictures of the whole thing is very popular with the soldiers. Instantly two of these guys pose with the snakes and also leave us an address where we can send the pictures later. Unfortunately we don't know if they kept their promise to release the snakes afterwards. Probably they end up later on the barbecue... Since we're so busy with taking pictures, half of the whole unit poses in front of PocoLoco, of course with the guns levelled. In conclusion, they show us a small dirt road which they claim will take us directly to the Pacific and to a small inhabited fishing village (we don't find anybody there). The recommended track is more than bad but it's too late to turn around anyway because it's too narrow and downward sloping. We continue according to the Mexican motto: "Fé en Dios y adelante!" (trust in God and go ahead!).

The GPS position for the Dudleya attenuata ssp. australis is north of the deserted fishing camp at San José de la Piedra. We don't need to find those plants again but we're keen to know if we can travel this road since it's not marked on any good map as an existing dirt road. In our relatively precise Baja atlas the track is marked as a dotted line that means "cow track". We see tire tracks, so it can't be too bad! After crossing a dry riverbed we fight our way up the first hill. Without four-wheel drive and high ground clearance we would have no chance. In some parts the path is extremely narrow. In some places we worry because it's so steep, and in other places it's deeply washed out and littered with big rocks. We creep uphill in reduction gears (very slow crawling gears). After reaching the top of the hill, the dirt road leads along a mesa (plateau). We appreciate this fact very much because a flat road's never too bad. Near the Pacific there are very many washed out spots and we're worried that we are too heavy for the crumbling cliffs to support. Going up and down hills is never great because the first rain destroys whatever the military (the only ones who drive here regularly in search of drugs and weapons) may have repaired previously.

The arroyos are the worst because they are narrow and you can't avoid the rocks or prickly plants - but we will experience all that later! The maze of tracks is very confusing and so we always stay on the most driven route. We remember especially well one descent into a narrow canyon. It begins extremely steep but on the pictures it looks quite ordinary. After that, the path winds its way to the Pacific in a small canyon. Martin maneuvers the Unimog very slowly over huge rocks, once one to the left, once to the right. Suddenly half of the river bed is washed away and it's alarmingly tilted (and this means really really, no wonder that this path is not marked in the maps). My job is to cut the thorns from the century plants so that they don't slit open our tires (we already had this problem on our last visit to Baja). Finally we reach the Pacific and find a perfect camp spot above the roaring sea with towering and colorful cliffs behind us. The place is appropriately named "Morros Colorados" (colorful hills). After this part of the road, nothing else really shocks us again although we still have to manage some more canyons and ascents to and descents from mesas.

Exactly one year ago we had camped in Puerto Canoas. But this time "our" camp spot is already occupied by a trailer that is falling apart (the Mexicans don't have any scruples about driving their cars to a place), by wrecked car, a toilet shack and a hut that is cobbled together with corrugated tin and cardboard. From the Pacific blows a stormy wind that swirls up dust and sand. This doesn't seem to bother the only woman here. Totally unimpressed she hangs up her clean washed clothes that instantly get covered with dust. The fishermen don't look very friendly. After we tell them that we don't want to stay here they are relaxed again. The place is almost unrecognizable! All the short shrubs and century plants are covered with white toilet paper, plastic bags flutter in the wind, the ground is strewn with beer bottles and cola cans. Only the Dudleyas and Ferocactus fordii with its dark purple flowers that we had photographed last year are still in the same place and as beautiful as before. There's nothing to keep us here and we quickly find another nice camp spot, surrounded with century plants, just a few miles inland. In the evening we go out on reconnaissance and find another blooming Dudleya plant. It is very well hidden in small bushes. There are two different flower stalks with red and pink flowers. Even in the evening we're not running out of work.

There is a small track between Puerto Canoas and Puerto Catarina. Once again, it's one of those dirt roads where you think you've taken the wrong fork. It's narrow and it leads us through tall bushes. Suddenly we find a yellow blooming Dudleya which we identify as Dudleya lanceolata (normally has red flowers) but the problem is that this kind of Dudleya should not be present in this area. It's up to the experts to argue about this. We document the plant carefully. With swarms of small gnats, it is a difficult task. Especially tricky is to stand still and provide some shade to the plant while the beasts try to crawl under your pants and explore your eyes, nose and ears. We soon flee into our vehicle and drive on to Puerto Catarina. That is just another fishing camp with ramshackle huts and heavy wind. Children play in the lee of their shacks and yapping dogs welcome us. We don't get fresh fish here because the wind is too strong and the waves too high for fishing. Perhaps "mañana"!

After traveling 200 miles of dirt roads there's only one route inland that will take us back to the Transpeninsular Highway. We know that it rained not long ago because we are harassed by millions of nasty gnats, and in addition the landscape is very green. The Yucca trees are adorned with white candle-like flower stalks. Small sunflower bushes are covered with yellow flowers, and the ground is strewn with tiny pink flowers. Everywhere it's green and sprouting. Next to the dirt road we spot a Stenocereus gummosus with one open flower, which is very unusual for this time of the year. Although the flying beasts harass us very badly, we take out all of our camera equipment to photograph this beautiful white flower, which smells strongly like honey. We already know the rest of the road but there is no other alternative. There's no drivable connection along the Pacific Coast, and if we wanted to go that way, we would have to travel by mule!

June 2000

Julia Etter & Martin Kristen