Part 1: Bahia Tortugas
We left Mexico Highway 1 behind at the Viscaino junction and headed more or less west toward one of the more remote parts of Baja California. The road was paved for the first ten miles or so; we weren't in the business of checking odometers. We passed through many acres of citrus trees and then groves of figs. Somewhere near where the cultivated agriculture ceased so did the pavement. The dirt at first was heavily washboard and our two 4WD SUV's handled it well but what was the rush? We had no firm schedule except to be back in Bahia de Los Angeles by the end of the week, several days away.
I had been to the Viscaino peninsula before, but the road from the village of the same name was new to me. In the late '60's I had made a trip to Bahia Tortugas, Punta Eugenia and Malarrimo, but the road was almost non-existent back in those years - we had had to cross the elevated dykes of the Guerrero Negro salt works and then hug the eastern and southern flats bordering Scammon's Lagoon before heading west where there were only miles of deep sand and we had followed the few tracks of other adventurers. We had had no compass and traveling at night we gazed through our two windshields at the half-full moon. We theorized that, if we bisected the arc of the moon, chasing the long set sun, we would be heading west. It took us three days back then to get to Bahia Tortugas. While today's trip was a longer drive it took us only four hours.
The current road smoothed out after an hour's slow driving before the washboard eased somewhat and our speed increased. We were passing through a significant part of the Viscaino desert, never known for its exciting flora and fauna, but the road passed for miles along salt pans and low but jagged ranges of hills that were interesting themselves. The road remained wide enough for two opposing vehicles to pass easily. That was a good thing as the vast majority of folks that drive that road do it so often that they cover our four hour trip in half that. A number of miles before Tortugas the road was paved again. Smooth as glass after all the dirt driving.
We arrived in Tortugas mid-afternoon, surveyed the hotels in the town, selected one, and unloaded our gear. We discovered that there were two hotels in town and the prices were quite low. The one we selected was $20/night and allowed dogs. It was good that they did as we had four of them with us. What a zoo!
We toured the dusty town and learned our way around and asked about the route to Punta Eugenia. It was an easy going oft-graded track that wound up the Viscaino's arm, hanging out into the Pacific and would take us about an hour. We returned to eat dinner at the hotel. From their vantage point, on a hill adjacent to the Pemex station, we could see the pier jutting out into the waters of the bay and a few sailing ships and fishing boats nearby. The cooler air was refreshing after being in Bahia de Los Angeles for so long and then crossing to the west coast through the central desert. During dinner the town's generator gasped and quit and the town's lights faded, went out. The owner of the restaurant immediately supplied a candle for our table; we were the only people dining there. Looking out the windows we could see that the entire town was dark. But sooner rather than later a personal generator fired up and then another and another and before long every family that wanted "luz" had it. It was a testimony to the rugged Baja dwellers that they were prepared for just about any eventually.
Our traveling partners, including baby Brisa, and Mary Ann and I situated ourselves on a small patio looking north-west. The town was filled with activity, headlights working down dusty irregular streets, children riding bicycles, pedestrians wandering and talking in the late evening. The tranquility of the moment was touching and we sat listening to the activities. Soon the town generator was restored and the entire set of rolling hills that comprise the village lit up.
As we prepared for bed we found that electricity to our rooms, which had been circuited off earlier in the day, was now working. The single light socket in the middle of our ceiling had been provided with a bulb and turned on for our convenience. The towels we had requested earlier had now been provided for morning utility. Dog Dito joined us on his rug between our two small beds. Our friends put two of their three dogs in the back of their camper shell; the third slept in their room. It was a very comfortable night. In our room, adjacent to our friends, Mary Ann and I talked for a bit and then lay down to read. Within a few minutes we were both fading and turned out the light. My head, resting on the difficult pillow, worked over the sounds coming from the street below. It had been a wonderful day. I fell asleep listening to the bubbling laughter of children and women walking the dusty path beneath our simple accommodations. All over town the dogs were barking but they only added to the simple serenade running through my mind.
During dinner we discussed making the trek to Punta Eugenia. It had been almost forty years since I had been there.
Part 2: Punta Eugenia
(I hope this doesn't confuse folks - it is from a trip taken several weeks back but I merge alot of memories from a trip ~ 1969.)
As we had gone to sleep the night before, we woke to dogs barking. They were everywhere in the town. I dressed and stood looking over the village from our vantage point on the hillock. The twisting streets loosely defined small quadrants of houses and business. I had always appreciated how the small villages have most of the houses attached or adjacent to the businesses the dwellers operated, providing security and proximity the ever present and growing family. The streets are almost all small and narrow and dirt. Whenever a vehicle passed there a cloud was sure to follow. This accounted for the fact that many owners of homes or businesses were flinging water from pans and buckets across the earth.
It had been so many years since I'd been here it was impossible for me to say what was new and what had existed with my visit in the '60's. I was certain the village had a new church, near the water and at the end of what appeared to be a primary street. The villagers were friendly and quickly offered us whatever instructions we needed. The stores of the town were filled with items unavailable anywhere else in the central desert except Guerrero Negro. We paid our bill, gathered up and organized the dogs, piling into the rear of our vehicles. We were off for Punta Eugenia.
The road heads north from the village. It is wide and occasionally graded. I was thinking while upgraded from decades before it still followed the approximate route it had so many years back. While the Vizcaino - Tortugas road is certainly faster, it by-passes the parts of the malarrimo arm that I had once shared with others. We had then passed, well into the desert, a sign for the old Rancho San Jose del Castro. So many years Castro was a focal point for the entire area. En route to Malarrimo we'd pull off there to share a meal or a night's sleep at that ranch. We had siphoned gas from oil drums there. After all the miles of deep loose sand we had traveled it was always a welcome sight, San Jose del Castro.
From Bahia Tortugas to Punta Eugenia took us about an hour. It's something over twenty kilometers. It is in good condition the entire stretch, winding through some relatively steep then plunging hills and valleys. Several turnoffs on smaller roads to the west led to what I assumed to be tiny fishing villages. The drive just for the sake of the drive is worth the effort. We dropped into the final washout and climbed to a small plateau. A few village outbuildings extended toward the Pacific and several houses had been built there. We were approaching the village and everything felt familiar without specific recollections from years passed. I looked for the old desalination plant that had existed on a small hill west of town. I couldn't spot it; assumed it was long gone as the government had installed it but never trained anyone to maintain it, at least that was what I'd been told back then.
I was in the lead of our two vehicles and wasn't certain where to go. There were certainly more buildings now then my last visit. But I kept to the road and we soon dropped down into a small arroyo that I recognized. In fact I spotted an old building that might well have been where I had sat and watched children playing 40 years before. We pulled to the side of the road and shut off the engines. The dust settled. We unloaded ourselves and the dogs from the trucks. Baby Brisa had her bottle of mile in hand. She was walking now and quite secure on her feet, even on this slope that dropped gently toward the bay that served as the village launch ramp. We must have appeared a ragged band by those who'd spent their extended days in this hamlet by the sea. There were a number of young girls standing nearby. When we released the dogs the girls were terrified. Our friends retrieved the dogs and told the girls that they all friendly, which they were. But they did enjoy a good bark. Baby Brisa, mom and dad walked down to the edge of the water and sandy beach. Many pangas bobbed just off shore. A small opening in the lava that surrounded the beach formed a bay. A group of young fishermen were pulling onto the beach, unloading their cargo. We walked down to visit. They had caught many Bonita, large sierra and a good number of Yellowtail in the 15 - 20 pound range.
"There are many fishes here." One of the men said in broken English. We spoke Spanish in response, lauding their catch. They were offloading into a sand-parked 2WD pickup but the men knew the beach and had no trouble pulling the loaded truck up to the small building, open on two sides and intended for cleaning fish. In looking at the building I recognized the cinderblock walls and tin roof, was a reconstruction over the site where I had watched the village, during the proper season, haul in their lobster traps by the hundreds. So long ago I had arrived at that magical moment and was encouraged to join in with the process. Each aged wooden trap measured about three feet by two feet by 18 inches. They were all filled with lobster. The traps were individually positioned in the old building. There were several officials who picked up individual lobsters and placed them atop a very old measuring device. Depending of the length of the lobster, it was placed in another container with others of its size. Work had proceeded throughout the afternoon. At one point a very large lobster was pulled from a trap. He was at least twice the size of even the biggest of all the others. As this was unfolding a young man asked if I had a camera. I handed it to him. He asked if I would like my picture taken with the giant lobster and waved me forward. One of the men told me to hold my hand out and put the beast in it. The boy stepped back a few feet and snapped my camera shutter. I was honored.
On our current trip the old building was gone but the new one built exactly where I remembered the original. By now the girls that had been standing nearby were playing lovingly with tiny Brisa, who knew very well she was the center of attention. My friend and I were asking about the village; one of the fishermen invited us to lunch on his catch. I noticed an older man, about my age or older. He was sitting on a curb in the fishing hut.
"Have you lived here long?" I asked him.
"Fifty-five years." He said. He had lived here when I came for my first visit. I noted how the village had grown. He agreed.
"Do you remember the desalination plant that they used to have on the hill entering town?" I asked.
"It's still there, but a building now covers the equipment."
"Are there still plenty of lobster?"
"Yes, but they're not in season now. The time to trap lobster is fall and spring." He named the months.
It was mid day. The towns and our dogs had integrated, the children were adoring Brisa and she them in return. We were obliged to decline the young mans offer of lunch at his family home. I have taken up folks on these offers before and it is always wonderful to experience the warmth and generosity offered to me so far into the outback. But it was getting to the point of spending another night in Bahia Tortugas or heading back to Guerrero Negro where we wanted to do food shopping the next day.
Regretfully, we piled back into our vehicles, turned them around, did a lot of waving and were gone. But I was majorly rewarded to have met the gentleman that had lived here most of his life. I wondered if I had met him on the '60's trip. We returned to Bahia Tortugas, drove through the town one last time for this vacation, and headed back toward Viscaino. I was sad to leave after only two hours but the stability of Punta Eugenia over the decades and the friendly folks there will remain with me forever.
Part 3: Return to Bahia de Los Angeles
It was sad leaving Punta Eugenia so far out on the Malarrimo peninsula. The old man had warmed me with a feeling of continuity at a time when the States seemed to be either at war or irritating the rest of the world. Here, a tiny hamlet at the end of all roads offered a stability to the few that lived here and warmth to those few visitors who cared to travel that far. My new friend had lived and loved here most of his life and I respected him.
We returned to Bahia Tortugas. I bought gas from the Pemex and we were off heading east over the roads we had traveled two days before. I would have liked to explore all the side roads we encountered but, alas, schedules put the skids on that. Maybe next time. Knowing what to expect this leg of the trip I had only to reflect on so many years ago and the "roads" that more or less converged at San Jose de Castro. For the moment I could only add that ranch as one of my destinations for the next trip. Three days was not enough. And I'd like to take the road south to Bahia Asuncion and points south. On my 1969 trip, I had come north from that direction. As I remember there are some wonderful hills not far inland and I wanted to revisit them too. There are so many natural and sociological interests in Baja. Most of us from the States are going so fast on a one- or two-week vacation that we don't have time to stop and listen to the bees and smell the wildflowers of spring, to look for interesting trails, to follow endless roads that led nowhere. I asked myself why someone would go to the trouble to start a road that led nowhere. But I knew plans could change.
We encountered the pavement of Highway 1 well before dusk and continued on into Guerrero Negro. With four dogs we had a little trouble finding a hotel that would accept them but eventually prevailed. We unpacked the needs of a single night and carried them to our rooms. Brisa had been bouncing in the backseat of our friend's truck and was ready to romp. She had made many new friends at Punta Eugenia; I wondered if she was too young to even think about them now, let alone remember her warming experiences for life, something to carry her through the rough spots she would later encounter along her way.
We ate dinner at the Malarrimo hotel and restaurant. The food was, as I have always found it, excellent and the service is even better if that's possible. We slept early that night after all the dirt driving.
Guerrero Negro is the primary "supply" town in the central peninsula. The morning found us seeking out a small CD player and a number of music CD's. A group our friends had introduced us to at their house in Bahia de Los Angeles, just down the sand from our place, was the Elefantes, very mellow stuff. Then we stopped at a hardware store which had everything we needed for home improvements on a small scale. Then we shopped at Tanguis market and found a great supply of foods. While Bahia de Los Angeles carries a lot more than a few years ago, it is so small there isn't need for much. At Tanguis we stocked up in bulk before we headed north
The pavement between Guerrero Negro and the turn off is well paved and the countryside not spectacular. It allowed my mind to wander. We'd seen most of the points of interest near the bay. We had many times made the La Paz - Cabo - loop. It's just too developed for my tastes these days; maybe when I was younger?
Once we hit the turn off the desert is filled with a rich assortment of Cordon, Cirio and many, so many Elephant Trees all catching the water vapors climbing up from the bay nightly.
So now, I'm thinking, maybe more trips into the central desert outback. There are so many places I haven't seen, ever or recently. There is so much warmth to appreciate, most notably the local folks. On this trip I had seen that the smaller more remote villages are touched by the "civilization" that's closing in. I know what interests me but the peninsula is bound to change. I think about what many of us call poverty. These locals are not poor. Not having an abundance of money doesn't make poverty. Depravity will certainly add to it, but everywhere we visited in our too-short trip we encountered acceptance, smiles and greetings, and helpful support of those who knew better than we did. I hope the changes hanging on the horizon like water-laden cumulous clouds will benefit those families that settle here and there in the outback. While progress is necessary and inevitable, I wish they could avoid the extremes regardless of from where they emanate. But in my heart I know they will; they'll carry their values of honor, family, helpfulness forward to whatever generation is waiting patiently.
When they win, I will too.