Day 1 – There and Back Again

It’d been nearly two years since I’d last visited a country for the first time (Bulgaria was the last, in case anyone is interested). So, when a friend from London was interested in visiting Baja peninsula in Mexico, I felt it was probably time to get add a new country to my belt. It was extra sweet being able to use my Frequent Flyer points to book the flights, essentially making the trip free.

And, this is about when the excitement wears off, and the bizarre sequence of events begins. As I was waiting to board the plane, I noticed they had a TV cycling through different screens, one of which was weather down in Cabo San Lucas. It kinda looked like a big purple circle over the whole peninsular, and it actually took me a few cycles to realise that there was a giant storm going on down there. I checked the weather on my phone, which is something I hadn’t done in a few days, and it confirmed that there was a giant storm cell over the tip of the peninsula, but was going to start clearing tomorrow. It was a bit disappointing, but it wasn’t going to ruin the holiday.

I had the window seat, and was mesmerised by the desert, the mountains, and the beautiful blue waters along the coast. The skies were perfectly clear, and just when I was starting to think that maybe the weather report was wrong, we started getting notification of upcoming turbulence.

And then the skies started to cloud over. And the plane started to wobble and shudder even more. It’s especially fun when it lulls you into a false sense of security, so you go to the bathroom, and then just when you start to urinate, it starts to dip and dive and you’re juggling between staying upright, attempting to stop urinating, and also attempting to not piss all over the bathroom until you can stop. I swear this isn’t a unique occurrence.

We eventually started the descent, where the plane started to get even more violently thrown around. The clouds continued to be thick outside, giving no sense of where the ground was yet. We finally popped out of the clouds and the ground was just there, and it was looking exceptionally wet.

The next thing I noticed the engines were starting up again, and we were climbing up hard. Once we’d plateaued the ascent a little, the captain announced that it was unsafe to land, so we were going to nearby La Paz to refuel, and re-asses options. The weather was a little clearer here, and I could see just how wet it was outside, with muddy rivers replacing the roads. This didn’t bode well for a vacation that was going to be spending considerable time driving on unsealed roads to access beaches for camping.

This was far from the end of the excitement. An older lady in the cabin was throwing up from a migraine, and the announcement came over the PA looking for a doctor to provide help. It turned out that my friend is an emergency paediatrician, so she went to go save the day. Or, as much as you can save the day for a woman having a migraine stuck on a plane on the tarmac in Mexico, without access to medication.

It provided a bit of a distraction while we sat patiently waiting for something to happen, or some news about when we were going to get off the damned plane. There was a little excitement as the family with the lady having the migraine got up and were escorted off the plane into an ambulance, while we continued to wait to hear what we were going to do next.

La Paz airport was busy, as several other planes had been redirected here, too, so we had to wait for them to be refuelled first. We thought that worst case they might just make us depart here, and then shuttle us the 100km down to Cabo San Lucas. Instead, the announcement finally came over the speakers that our only choice was to fly back to San Francisco… We were told it wasn’t possible to disembark the plane here in La Paz, as the immigration staff had left the airport, and they had no way of getting us through customs, and the flight staff were reaching the end of the hours that they were able to work in a day, so we couldn’t be redirected to somewhere else locally that might be able to process us (which didn’t make much sense to me).

So, after nearly two hours of waiting in La Paz to find out our fate, we finally had some concrete plans, which was great. Until we learnt that the plans were to return back to San Franciso…

Thankfully the return journey seemed to pass quicker than the flight down. Unfortunately, they hadn’t expected to do this return journey, so the only food they had available were snacks. At least I had the foresight to bring some protein bars for the flight down, so at least I’d eaten something since breakfast, unlike some of the other passengers…

The frustration of not arriving in Mexico wasn’t quite over yet. Adding further insult was having to clear immigration again (which was supposedly due to the fact that they’d opened the doors in La Paz to let the woman having a migraine out). At least the queue wasn’t as terrible as it usually is, but after nearly 12hrs of ‘travelling’, I patiently standing in immigration was near the bottom of the last things I wanted to be doing.

There was further queueing to sort out alternative flights back to Cabo, and my eyes were barely able to focus, or pay attention to what they were telling us. There was an early flight back to Cabo that they were able to squeeze us on to, so at least it wouldn’t be an entire day wasted.

We were issued with accommodation near the airport, which seemed like a good idea to save a little time tonight/tomorrow morning. It turned out to be less than smart decision when we needed to wait for the shuttle service and then missing out on the restaurant in the hotel.

Oh, and one more frustration. It was still one hour before we could check in the baggage (six hours prior to the flight). Either stay in the airport for an additional hour to check in this evening, or return to hotel now, but arrive earlier to check in the baggage.

If things needed to be any more annoying, after waiting on the phone for long enough to nearly fall asleep, it turned out that the Budget Rent a Car booking could not be modified to be picked up tomorrow instead. If I didn’t pick it up by midnight today, it would automatically be cancelled, and a new booking would need to be made for tomorrow. And, how much would that new booking cost now that I was picking it up a day later? Oh, only twenty times the original booking price… I politely declined, and told them their policies were ridiculous. So, even though there was nothing I wanted to do more than go to sleep, I had to find an alternative rental car, aware of the fact that it was very nearly midnight (and that would mean the booking would be the same day). I found another company that was only three times the original booking price, concentrated as hard as I could to keep my eyes in focus, and made the booking just shy of midnight, then passed out, feeling slightly accomplished.

Day 2 – Cabo Pulmo

I was up before sunrise, onto a shuttle bus that seemed determined to frustrate me with tardiness, detours and lethargy. Naturally I’d left it to the last possible minute to leave the hotel, giving me the most amount of sleep. Thankfully baggage was checked in without complications, and then after the sprawling queues at security (with only half of the stations manned) there was just enough time to grab a croissant and a wrap before having to board the flight. Pretty much timed to perfection. It was nice to see so many familiar (and tired) faces on the same flight.

I’d already watched most of the onboard entertainment that I’d wanted to watch on yesterday’s flights, so today seemed to drag.

Then, the moment we’d all been waiting for (or, at least all the passengers that were on the flight with us yesterday), the plane touched down in Cabo San Lucas! I was expecting it to be hot and humid, but it’d been quite some time since I’d actually experienced heat and humidity, somewhat forgetting what a crushing experience it is. San Francisco has made me soft.

Arriving at the rental car, it reminded me of trying to do anything in Southern Europe between midday and 2PM. There was technically someone at the rental car counter, but I’m not sure if they were just not working, or incredibly inefficient/ambivalent to customers wanting to start their holidays.

Having just lost the equivalent of about 10% of the holiday, the itinerary needed to be adjusted. There was originally a plan to head into the hills above Santiago to visit some hot springs, and do a little hiking up the gorges into the mountains above. But, we were exhausted from the travel, and hiking for an extended period and then camping just felt like too much effort. So, instead we decided to go straight to Cabo Pulmo. I’d originally wanted to take the coastal route from the south, but thankfully I’d checked Google Maps prior. I knew that it was going to be unsealed, and a little rough in places, but there appeared to be several sections of the trail that seemed closed/blocked as reported by others only a few days prior. The recent rains could have only further deteriorated these trails.

It wasn’t the only way to get to Cabo Pulmo, but it seemed the most interesting. It turned out that I needed have worried, as the route from the north was still plenty interesting, though likely not nearly as scenic. The rains had caused pretty widespread flooding, and once the tarmac ended (or just in the giant stretches that were being repaired and you were forced to detour) there were some nice big puddles to make our way through. If it’d been my own car, I wouldn’t have been nervous at all, but the rental didn’t technically cover taking the car onto unsealed roads…

After a long stretch of scenic, but not amazingly scenic driving, we finally turned a corner and got a glimpse of the cape. I was blown away, and all the struggles of getting here had completely left my mind. It was a sight so captivating that I was ready to forget about the rest of the holiday, and just camp up here for a week instead. I was probably delirious.

By the time we’d made it to the beach, the sun had already set behind the rocky hills behind the cape, but the light show was only just beginning. The delirium had subsided somewhat, but I was still enchanted with this little rough cut gem, and there was definitely part of me that would not have minded having an extended stop here. But, of course, there was that other nagging part of me that wondered what else was out there, and the fear of missing out snapped me back to reality.

As we were both exhausted from the journey, it was decided to splash out on a little luxury and skip on the beach camping for a real bed, in a real cabin. A couple of young boys found us and had worked out that we were looking for accommodation, so, through a combination of their limited English, and my friend’s broken Spanish, we managed to secure a small bungalow for the evening.

There was a small bar down by the beach, and it looked like they were serving food when we were down watching the sunset. I was very keen to eat, having only snacked (on new and amazing Mexican snacks) since breakfast. But, when we arrived we were told that they were not serving food as their generator was not working. On the way in, I had noticed the men working in the dark trying to fix something behind the restaurant, with the occasional electrical arc, and series of backfires. We were invited to have a beer and wait to see if they could get the power up and running again. I was kind of set on eating here, so thought it was worth taking a chance. As you can see from the photos, that chance paid off – and the seafood was most excellent.

Day 3 – Snorkelling in Cabo Pulmo

When we arrived in town yesterday, we initially stopped at the Welcome Centre to get an idea of accommodation options. While there chatting with the super helpful attendant, he mentioned that sunrise was a good time to catch manta rays doing their thing. So, as soon as we woke up, we went for a walk down to the beach, and out to the small peninsular to see if we could spot any manta rays jumping up out of the bay – sadly not.

But, it was the start of a hike we wanted to do anyway, so it wasn’t a total waste of time. I mean, the views back of the town and the cape made the walk here worthwhile anyway.

It started out rather strenuously, with the effort-reward ratio definitely on the wrong side. But, being stubborn, we persevered, and eventually (after a bit of guessing about paths to take), the trail started to snake up the rocky hills just behind town. It wouldn’t ordinarily be such a difficult hike, but the heat and the humidity were definitely taking a toll.

There were many more opportunities to extend the hike to hills further out, but by the time we’d descended from atop this small range, we were both ready to eat, hydrate, and swim.

Just as the trail was rejoining the road, we came across a young local guy that was working on the trail. He jokingly asked for a nutritional bar, then rescinded saying he was only joking. We thanked him for the hard work maintaining the trail, and then he asked again for a nutritional bar – which seemed to be the least we could do for someone doing this kind of backbreaking labour in weather like this.

The reason this area was on my radar was due to the opportunities to snorkel from the beaches. Though, the best areas were just a little further away, at Playa El Arbolito. We’d read that accessing the beach can be a bit challenging in a regular car. While we did have an SUV, it was still a front-wheel drive Kia – just with a little more clearance than a regular car. The recent heavy rains had taken a toll on the roads, causing great big channels and ruts to form on the loose sandy descents. I’d managed to get down just fine, cautiously picking lines to avoid the the biggest of the holes.

The beach wasn’t quite what I was expecting – not that I’d really been expecting much. At the end of the road there was a small car park, and a couple of old caravans that had been converted into permanent dwellings. There were also a few undercover areas, and that was about it. One of the men that lived/worked here came out and explained the rates (which I’ve totally forgotten, but was only a few dollars), with fees for day use, and a small amount extra to spend the night.

We were kindly offered to setup camp under one of the small palapa at the far end of the walkway, giving some protection from wind/rain, so took up the offer and set up camp.

They were also renting snorkelling equipment, which I’d read and anticipated, so grabbed a kit and went for a short walk further down the peninsular to where the reef was said to be more vibrant. There were a series of pretty coves that seemed to get nicer and clearer the closer we got to the tip of the peninsular. The weather was slightly confusing, being both warm and cool at the same time, which was making me slightly hesitant to get into the water. I think part of me still associates water with freezing cold San Francisco water, as when I finally made the plunge, it was really pleasant. Surprisingly so. I think I’d forgotten that oceans can be warm.

As much as I didn’t really want to, I followed the recommendation of the man working at the beach and put the life vest on. He was right, if not for the reason of saving my life, but for making it super relaxing/lazy to just float around without effort.

As beautiful as the area was, it didn’t turn out to be a snorkelling paradise. The recent rains had the unfortunate side effect of washing out large amounts of silt, causing the waters to be quite murky and dull. There were a few large colourful reef fish lurking around (I still haven’t gotten over my fear after being nibbled on by one in Greece), and some coral, but The Great Barrier Reef (or Fiji) it’s not. Eventually the paranoia of the fish coming up to nibble on me again got the better of me, and when a large school of large fish suddenly appeared, I worried about what might have followed them in, and started to make my way to shore.

I don’t know if it’s just a case of past experiences in some world class areas, or the areas that we chose to snorkel (without going on a boat), but it was a little underwhelming. It was more active than anything I’d seen in Europe, but I’d have a hard time recommending it as a place to go snorkelling – though, I’d have no problem recommending it as a place to visit!

As it was off season, it wasn’t possible to get any dinner from the guys working at the beach. Thankfully we had some sachets of refried beans, avocados, fresh tomatoes and avocadoes to make a meal.

But, before that happened, while relaxing in the tent, I realised that I was having problems with my air mattress… I’d noticed that the inlet plug had come loose a few times while I was using it in a hammock in Greece, but thought I must have bumped it. I thought I must have bumped it, or overinflated it again now, so tried again, but after laying still for a few minutes, there was a sudden hiss and loss of inflation as the valve cover popped open, and I was left laying on the hard, wooden floor under the palapa. As an effort of desperation/futility, I tried again, several times, and the valve kept popping out, regardless of how gentle I was, or how hard I pushed the cap into the valve.

Like the mattress, I was feeling deflated. I was excited to be camping and spending time a little further from civilisation, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep on the hard floor. So, the only option was to pack up and drive back in to Cabo Pulmo to spend another night in a small cabana, hoping that I’d be able to find another in the coming days.

The sun had already set, and we had to drive back up the rough access road in the dark. This time we managed to find a cheaper (and more basic) hut for the evening. I’m sure we were still being charged a premium, but for ~$20, it was hard to really complain. Being back in town also meant that we’d be able to buy dinner, so with the ‘stress’ of finding accommodation for the evening out of the way, it was time to dine. Dinner was fantastic, and would have totally been worth the drive back to camp in the dark, rather than eating cold refried beans on tortillas.

Day 4 – Azure Waters of Playa Balandra

However, a little later that evening, I came to realise what paying that little extra last night got – walls/ceiling that seal and prevent mosquitos getting inside… On the upside, I had a terrible night’s sleep, and was up and awake to enjoy sunrise.

There was enough time to quickly walk down to the beach to enjoy the sunrise over the sea. The tour boats were busy getting ready to take tourists out – though, I’m not quite sure what they were doing? Fishing? Snorkelling? Either way, the town was a hive of activity, with beaten-up American 4x4s rumbling up and down the main street in town.

The initial temptation to spend the entire week here had faded somewhat, and rather than laze about, we were up and on our way further north nice and early. We didn’t really have a breakfast, more of a snack of a few of the things we’d purchased earlier. After driving north towards La Paz for what felt like an entire day, we happened to drive through the rustic looking town of El Triunfo.

Dominating the town were the twin orange towers of their chapel, so I popped my head in to have a look inside. I knew it was a small and isolated town and wasn’t expecting The Vatican, but even so, I was surprised at how spartan it was inside.

What turned out to be far more interesting (for me, ymmv) was the small shop. Stepping inside felt like a time warp, or at least what I imagine a store used to look like before I was born, with a minimal collection of long-life staples. Even watching the young kid mopping the floor felt like a throwback to older times.

I was almost going to continue driving off, but we needed a bathroom, and the small restaurant, Loncheria La Pasadita, seemed like a good place to get some real breakfast (and use the bathroom).

I’m so glad that we did, as the food turned out to all be handmade. I’d thought that Cabo Pulmo felt rustic, but this really felt rustic. I watched as our food was being carefully prepared over a wood-fired stove, in a building that looked like it had been thrown together from a collection of various pieces of discarded building materials – though, not in a dirty or dilapidated way, just a refreshingly simple and warming way.

I don’t know if this all affected my sense of judgement, filling me with some nostalgia and excitement for a simpler life, but the food was fantastic. So good that I ordered a second round!

It wasn’t long until we’d entered La Paz, and I was missing the quiet roads that we’d been driving along. The city felt busy, dirty and chaotic – at least after where we’d come from. We found a giant supermarket and stocked up on the important things, like more avocados, tequila, and sachets of refried beans.

I also had to try and sort out a bed, but wasn’t having much luck searching for a outdoor/sports store. One of the main results that kept coming up, no matter how I tried to phrase the search was Walmart, so I gave in and went to see what they had to offer. It turned out to be perfect, as I was able to get a regular air bed for dirt cheap, rather than another lightweight hiking matt. The downside was not having a pump. The upside was guaranteed headspins from inflating it with my breath.

La Paz was just a gateway to getting somewhere far more interesting, so as soon as we’d finished shopping, and were ready to be self-sufficient again, we were out. Or at least trying to get out – the streets and the traffic made it somewhat more challenging. On the upside, the streets in San Francisco seem comparatively better.

About 30 minutes north of La Paz is the beautiful beach/bay of Balandra – and it certainly wasn’t a secret, with an overflowing car park and all sorts of vendors selling wares. We got lucky with a park, unpacked beach gear, and went to go lie in the sand and enjoy the sunshine (responsibly – I still have my Black Magic Sunscreen I bought for Greece keeping me safe).

The water, although supposedly being filled with stingrays, was fantastic. It was clear, quite calm, and shallow enough that I believe you could walk across to the other side of the bay. It was also surrounded by more of those amazing rocky mountains that give it a real sense of drama.

Rather than try to walk across the bay, we managed to negotiate a kayak rental, and paddled around to some of the neighbouring bays and back. One of the attractions of the area is the natural rock formation mushroom of Hongo de Balandra. It was almost comical how many people were crowded around this small rock, primping and posing in front this interestingly eroded stone. Being in a kayak, I left the camera in the safety of the car – though, being in a busy tourist car park, I’m not sure which was really safer…

As the sun began to set, the wind began to pick up, and the skies started to turn dark. There was a few brief moments of panic, wondering if we were going to get hit by another fierce storm – though thankfully the clouds appeared to be blown off into the distance.

It was possible to free-camp here at this beach (or any beach in the area). We’d initially scoped out a more secluded site on the neighbouring bay, but, with the wind gusting, and Hongo de Balandra being slightly less sheltered, we stuck to the a quiet spot on the main beach of Playa Balandra.

It didn’t take too long for the beach to empty out, leaving only a few motorhomes that were going to spend the night in the car park. We parked the rental car nice and close to one, and asked them to keep an eye out on it overnight, and thankfully nothing happened.

Sunset was celebrated, with some avocados and refried beans on tortillas, washed down with some delicious tequila. Some of the local dogs even came out to join the party.

Day 5 – Sierra de la Giganta

It was a quiet evening, thankfully free of biting insects. I was up just before sunrise, and feeling fresh.

I was keen to enjoy the sunrise from a better vantage point, so started to walk up one of the lookout hills above the beach, and was sucked in to my usual failing of wanting to follow the trails ‘just a little further’. There were zero regrets, but after a considerably longer walk than I’d planned, I was getting pretty hungry and thirsty.

But, I was able to look out over to Isla del Espiritu Santo just across the bay, just as it was catching its first rays of light of the day. It was enticing, and we both really wanted to visit this beautiful wild island.

On the return down the hill, back towards camp, I got distracted and took a detour out to see the Mushroom now that it was free of tourists.

I’m honestly not sure which view I preferred – the rock free of distractions in a natural state, or the unfolding drama of dozens of selfies observed in third-person.

As we were making our way back to camp, the first of the tourists were also making their way down here, so it felt like a good time to pack up and move on!