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Scorpion Bay to Comondu
San Juanico is the official name for this surfing and fishing village. The locals’ lives are spent around fishing and the gringos all are there for the surfing. During our visit, overlooking the bluff at the best surf spot around, known as Scorpion Bay, there were only three surfers in the water. Back home in Santa Cruz to have clean, head high waves that one could ride for half a mile with only two other surfers would be absolute paradise. I can see the attraction to this place.
"The Comondus" is how most gringos will refer to the two towns of San Jose de Comondu and San Miguel de Comondu. Both lie about a mile apart and are settled in a beautiful canyon with high lava and basalt rock walls. Goldman wrote that while standing on the wall edge overlooking the valley of these two towns is "one of the most beautiful in all of Lower California." Date and fan palms are widely abundant, crops of various vegetables are grown, and orchards of many varieties of trees seem to be happily growing in this well watered and fertile place.
It is a very sleepy and slow paced town with not much going on. When we arrived at the mission site, there was a group of children on a field trip. That seemed to be the most excitement the town had seen in a while. Nelson and Goldman wrote very little about this beautiful oasis town even though they spent five days here. In 1905, Nelson writes that date palms were scattered irregularly along the stream in a thin line through the vineyards and fields. Today the entire bottom of the canyon is a thick forest of date and fan palms. Several years ago the forest was subjected to a fire of strong intensity. The scorch marks reached to the tops of most trees and left a healthy fire scar on each tree. I suspect that it was a controlled burn to remove debris and litter dropped from the trees and to burn the dead hanging leaves of the fan palms.
While waiting for our next move and giving ourselves a break from filming in the harsh light of midday, we met and talked with two dirt bikers that rode into town. Greg and Eric had split off from the same group that we met in La Purisima. Both these guys were from Washington State and were quite the characters. We swapped motorcycle stories, learned about each other and our families, and mostly talked about how beautiful Baja is.
While we were all sitting on the side of the cobblestone road in the shade of a young ficus tree, another gringo approaches us from around the corner holding a map. He seemed glad to find someone that spoke English. Then he was glad that someone could tell him where he was. After that, his disappointment began to show. He was carying a single page map of Mexico that had a VERY small sliver showing Baja. He was using that to navigate from Cabo to San Diego.
I pulled out our map and showed him that he was 2 1/2 hours from where he needed to be (which was back were he had come from) and that no other road north was a viable option considering his vehicle and choice of navigation methods. This poor guy from Pennsylvania saw no humor in the matter and walked away with a curt "Thanks."
We camped that night a few miles out of town, well enough away from the water and the bugs, and just off the road so as not to be bothered by the noise of the traffic. Four cars drove past us that night. All of them slowed a bit (most likely they could see the flames of our fire) and then slowly drove off. One even gave us a little honk, just to say hi!
La Purisima to San Juanico
We broke camp as soon as possible for fear of being eaten alive by bugs. Our mission for the day was to attempt to find the "intake" for the aqueduct that runs through both towns (San Isidro and La Purisima) and for a length of maybe 8 miles. This canal de agua is still very much in use today and was built by the missionaries. It is also some very impressive engineering for the time.
After several dead end roads, we were able to find the head of the aqueduct. A dam had been constructed across the entire river and at one side water is diverted into the flume. It appears that an old dam, just upstream several hundred feet, might have been the previous intake point for the canal.
The rio, as we were told, flows all year and keeps the town's crops of corn, nopale, citrus, mango, date palms, and others growing well. This area, although quite fertile, is very slow and tranquil. A few farmers were seen tending to their crops, but most were left to fend for themselves and keep the weeds at bay.
JT and I ended up at the only restaurant in La Purisima and soon found ourselves entertained by four young Mexican boys. They all wanted stickers and were in awe of us and our motorcycles. Then a group of 5 dirt bikers came in and we watched the four boys turn their attention on them. JT took advantage of the situation and asked the boys for an interview. The two youngest stayed quiet and mostly hid, but the other two stole the show. We very much enjoyed our time with them and I think they enjoyed the tricks I could do with their soccer ball, spinning it on my finger, balancing it on my head, and the variety of soccer moves like flipping it up in the air and catching it behind my head. This old guy still had it!
We were told that the old woman that owned the restaurant and the property had lived there her entire life and her family is well embedded with the town and its history. When we inquired about a possible interview, the young man running the restaurant assured us that she would be delighted. He suggested that we wait and it may be an hour or so. Then it turned into two hours more. We were pushing the daylight limitation and had an hour and a half drive to our next stop. So, we passed on that interview reluctantly and headed for San Juanico (Scorpion Bay).
Loreto to San Isidro
Abel was the most gracious host and honored us by agreeing to sit down for an interview. He has a very interesting life and was willing to share it with us. If anyone is thinking of spending some time in Loreto and needs a comfortable, safe, and inviting place to stay, I suggest Hostel Casas Loreto.
Our next stop was the towns of San Isidro and La Purisima in the middle of the peninsula. Both are touted to be beautiful and interesting oasis towns. The dirt road to San Isidro leaves Mexico Highway 1 at 59 kilometers north of Loreto. At first it is an easy and well-graded gravel road. Several miles later it gets worse. And several miles after that, it gets even worse (if a road could get that bad). We were maybe ten miles into the trek and had been following several motorcycle tracks nearly the entire way. As we came over a rise, staring down a boulder strewn "road" as it crossed the wash of an arroyo, we came to two motorcyclists slowly working their way out of the rocky wash.
Both guys were riding large BMW bikes and the front rider was clearly struggling. As I approached them, I asked if he needed a hand. His face was set in complete focus and had pain written all over it. Apparently, while attempting to navigate the rough roads ahead, he crashed his bike. With several broken ribs, this guy was slowly and painfully getting his bike out of this area and back on tarmac. He was tough and JT and I took a moment to reflect on our situation and the road ahead.
That 60-kilometer road was very difficult in spots, smooth in others, and everything else in between. The KLR 650s did a great job and we crested the lip of the canyon overlooking the Rio La Purisima. Water was flowing, palm trees were swaying, and crops were green and thriving. Another oasis town surrounded by dry desert and high canyon walls. Beautiful.
Typically when we arrive in a new place and will be staying for a while to film, we’ll ride through and get a good feel for what is there and what we might want to capture. We were an hour or so away from "the magic hour" so we set to find a good camp spot. We found a perfect site on a bluff overlooking the river on the other side of town.
JT set off with the camera to film and I was left behind to set up camp. Soon I realized that our ideal camp spot was not so ideal. We were harassed by just about every bug that flies. Swarms of bugs. So many you could barely see. Our only saving grace, we thought, was that nightfall was upon us and maybe they would dissipate.
The bugs stopped harassing us once the sun went down, but the minute the headlamp or flashlight was turned on, we were swarmed again. Thousands of bugs showed up almost instantly. It drove us crazy!
Mission San Javier is (in our opinion) one of two of the most beautiful missions in all of Baja. Next to San Ignacio, this beauty is striking. The pueblo is a small ranchero community that seems to celebrate their heritage, their work, and the mission. Palms, 300-year-old olive trees, sugar cane, and other crops thrive on the fertile soil and abundant water. The sheer walls of the canyon stand out as a wonderful backdrop for every view of the mission. It is truly a must see!
We drove out to Puerto Escondido to get a few pictures of one of the other "ghost harbors." Although this one is in use and seems to do a fair amount of business, clearly construction stopped long ago and the best plans were never finished.
Twenty pesos. That was what it cost to get JT's bike fixed. A wire to his headlight switch came loose and needed to be soldered. Abel at the hostel was great at directing me to his friend's shop to do the repairs. Now it works great.
Mulege to Loreto
JT and I found a nice little beach next to a small community of gringo homes just 8 or so miles south of town to spend the night. As usual, last night was a bit chilly and as soon as the sun came up we were warm and ready to get moving. I had some time to blog, drink coffee, and relax as JT came to life in his sleeping bag. I love the Sea of Cortez and the Bay of Conception. Peaceful and embracing.
With the last of the filming needed for Mulege, we drove into town to secure the last glimpse of this spectacular and inviting pueblo. JT struck off by himself, so as to be unencumbered by my "tagging along.” This was an agreement we came to a while ago and it works well...I think!
While in the plaza and catching up on my blogging, I kept noticing and saying hi to an American couple that was walking about. They looked lost and after the 6th or so lap, I asked if they needed any help. They were looking for their lost friend and hadn’t seen her since last night at midnight. They were worried and were heading to the police department.
I finished my work and JT arrived when I noticed the "lost friend" walking down the street, fitting the couple’s description. As it turns out, she was never "lost" and her friends just mistook her actions (getting up early to go for a walk and to get breakfast). We all had a chuckle.
After driving around trying to find the road to the prison museum, we passed the fire station. The firefighter outside the station was wearing a T-shirt that read "Branciforte Fire District" so I slammed on the brakes to stop and talk with him. I gave him one of my patches and told him that his shirt came from my hometown. His English was not good, my Spanish is terrible, and I don't know if he understood me. Regardless, it reminds me how small the world can be!
The Mulege Prison was completed in 1909 and was in operation until 1974. Interestingly, it was the only prison in Baja that was built with no bars. The prisoners were free to go to work every day, but had to return at 6pm. If a prisoner did not return, the others would go and find him.
Our original plan was to head over to San Isidro and not come into Loreto. Nelson and Goldman skipped Loreto completely so as to spend time on the Pacific side of Baja. We wanted to visit the Mission San Javier that resides west of Loreto and in the Sierra La Giganta in a beautiful oasis valley.
The Hostel Casas Loreto opened up their doors to us and we decided to stay two nights. Parking was not an issue as Abel (our host) told us to park the bikes inside...next to our room.
San Jose de Magdalena to Mulege
This little pueblo in the mountains is so tranquil and beautiful. The river runs all year around and the arroyo is dotted with palms, homes, and small crops. Very picturesque and well worth the short drive.
Every Saturday the Serinidad Hotel in town sponsors a "Pig Roast" for guests and locals. Many private pilots fly in for the event from the States and it can bring as many as one hundred people together for dinner and margaritas. We decided to attend the event if for no other reason than to film a pig roast.
The headlight on JT's bike has stopped working. I noticed it as we drove into town. So, while at the beach, I set about to attempt to fix it. I removed the bulb, which was still good. I checked the wiring, which all seemed normal. I removed the seat and side plastic casing, looking for a fuse, but could not find one. I then removed the tank to follow and inspect the wiring. No issues there. I was stumped. I told JT that it must be a short somewhere and I suspected the handlebar switch. It was a different switch (not a standard factory Kawasaki part). JT fiddled with the wires on the handlebar during our last ride of the evening and got it working. Now I have to dive into it to fix it properly.
When we arrived at the hotel, we were met by the owner, Mr. Don Johnson. He was a gracious host and sat to talk with us for a while. Does anyone know of a good autobiographer? He is looking for one. Anyway, he told us that because of a low turnout, he would not be roasting a whole pig, only ribs. We filmed anyway and the food was excellent and we enjoyed the atmosphere. Thanks, Don!
San Ignacio to San Jose de Magdalena
We wrapped up our filming in San Ignacio this morning by climbing the bluff above the town in an attempt to re-create the famous shot of the mission that Goldman took in 1905. Today, the trees have grown to such heights and buildings have been erected so as to completely impede any view of the mission. We found the other location of the second photo to be the same. I guess that is called progress!
We saddled up and headed for Santa Rosalia. The short drive put us in town for the noontime rush. The taco stands in town were full and we were left to wander around, looking for one that had two seats for us. Next we set about filming the old El Boleo bakery, the church that Gustavo Eiffel designed, the mining operation, and the old mining ruins. After a full afternoon of filming on a busy Friday, we were ready to get out of town.
That night we camped at a spot we found in May, just off the road to San Jose de Magdalena. As I set up camp, JT headed out to explore the nearby town of San Bruno and film. We had a great dinner of beef tacos with salsa verde and broccoli cooked over a fire.
El Arco to San Ignacio
JT and I bid farewell to Greg and Guy and we turned our front tires for Vizcaino. Leading out of town is one small dirt road signaled by a hand painted and very faded sign. I glanced at the GPS and thought the 22 miles would go by fast as the road was very easy on our bikes. Not more than a mile into the trip, patches of sand began to appear. At first they were very short stretches and not to terrible. These sand patches began to appear more and more frequently, were of longer duration, and had deeper sand. I found myself gripping the bars tighter and tighter. The strain and discomfort in my muscles of my shoulders began to creep in and I felt like one large, knotted ball of fibers.
The only relief came when we would hit good stretches of road and I could relax a bit. On one of these, I was admiring the desert beauty when I hit a patch of sand, did the swerving thing several times as I tried to right myself, then slowed to about two miles per hour and lost control of the bike. I was pitched from the bike into the sandy road, luckily completely unharmed. I stood up, looked at the bike for damage (none), then looked for JT. All I saw was a dust cloud. The desert swallowed him up.
I quickly righted the bike and set off to find JT. We have a rule about trails. When one arrives at a fork, he is to stop and wait for the other. I arrived at a section that split off into three roads all seemingly paralleling the others. JT was not there. Which one did he take? Why didn't he stop and wait for me? Which one should I take? My mind raced.
In the Baja desert, it is very common for the locals to "make" their own side road so as to get off of the ruts, washboards, and deep sand. Maybe this was the case here? Nelson and Goldman were expert trackers and it is well recorded that their tracking abilities had saved their lives several times. So, thinking like them, I dismounted and set about to find JT's tracks. There were several other bikers on the road previous to us and we had marveled about how they were able to negotiate the sand pockets.
The tread patterns on our bikes are strikingly different, however, and it didn't take too long before I found which road JT had taken. It was the road on the far right. Interestingly, the middle and right roads did rejoin and that was the correct road to Vizcaino. If we had taken the road to the left, who knows where we would be.
It took a while, but we managed to get back to the highway and into Vizcaino for Kenny's Fish Tacos. We arrived at noon, just the right time for the best fish tacos in all of Baja. When we saw that Kenny's taco truck was not where it was always parked, we noted a new store and parking lot in its place. We set out to drive up and down to main road in town to find him, but struck out. He wasn't at his house either. Bummer!
We settled for tacos from another vendor nearby and made the decision to push on to San Ignacio. The wind was blowing at about 20 knots, dust was being kicked up, and we were tired. San Ignacio it was.
We found a room at the Desert Inn amid the beautiful date palms and lagoons. We needed a shower, means to charge all of our cameras and electronics, and to download and send data. Well, the power was out in the entire pueblo. No power to charge equipment. This also meant no water, since most of the town relies on pumps for their water.
We were saved several hours later and we proceeded to take care of business.
Mex 1 shoots out from under us like a black snake, wrapping around the jagged contours of the desert as if to constrict and consume it. Wildflowers explode from the hills and blur into streaks, a painter's pallet of color and life. Baja is in full bloom.
We roll into the next puebla like some knockoff Steppenwolf, waxing poetic about the heavy metal thunder of life on the road, our steel machines thirsty for oil. We're chasing ghosts that we can never really relate to, separated by the chasm of time. But we try. We're hounds on the hunt for clues to understand the past. Or are we just gringos desperate to connect with a life that was never ours? Outsiders looking for a way in?
What are we in this place? Leather gloves fraying under pounding vibration, gasolina burning around our pistons, a turn of the wrist away from oblivion? Or a couple of nerds with too much free time, way over their heads, and batting far above their pay grade? Wanna-bes with a death wish?
The people and places here vibrate with a rustic intensity, a convoluted contradiction of hard-earned experience and rural niavete. Baja is a liminal place, always on the border between progress and regress. Boom and bust. To try and capture it is a Sisyphean task. But we try.
All we can do is try.