Wasting no time, we packed up from camping at Balandra and went to the next beach over, Playa Tecolate, to try and join a tour over to Isla del Espiritu Santo – only to learn that they don’t leave until midday, and won’t return until that evening around sunset.
What followed was some hard choices, to either spend the day here and do this tour, or to continue onwards and see more of the peninsular. Part of the problem is the next major destination that I wanted to visit was several hundred kilometres north, and it would take most of a day of travelling to reach the Bay of Conception (and then another to travel back). If I stayed to go to Isla del Espiritu Santo, I wouldn’t be able to get to the Bay of Conception. So, a choice had to be made – one or the other.
In the end, it was decided to continue north, as there were still several amazing sights to see along the way. Of course, there will always be part of me that will wonder what was missed by skipping Espiritu Santo.
A full day of driving lay ahead, and as tempting as it was to lay on the amazing beach here in Playa Tecolate, it was time to get going. Unfortunately, for the most part, the drive was quite unremarkable. Long stretches of straight, flat, and featureless land. It reminded me of driving through Northern Territory in Australia – except there was the occasional cactus/shrub/signs-of-life here.
In the nearly 400km drive between La Paz and Loreto, there were only a few very small towns that we drove through – and, in a total rookie move, assuming there would be more, we didn’t stop when the chance for lunch presented itself.
It wasn’t all boring driving though. Just as we were approaching the Sea of Cortez, we had to pass through parts of the Sierra de la Giganta National Park, with its towering mesa and walls of red rock. I wasn’t even at the destination, and I already felt that skipping Espiritu Santo was going to pay off.
The views continued to improve as we got closer to the coast, but it didn’t stop there. I caught my first glimpse of Isla Danzante, which looked like a dragon floating in the sea, with its long spine stretching out to a horned head, and a long spiny tail. Plus, the cliffs of the Sierra de la Giganta were towering just behind us.
From Loreto, we took a detour inland to visit the secluded monastery at San Javier. Now, you’ll have to trust me that this isn’t just hyperbole, but the drive up the canyon to San Javier was one of the most breath taking drives I’ve ever done. The closest thing I could compare it to was driving in Corsica – however, the road was wide enough for two cars, and in perfect condition. The deep gorges, the towering peaks, the old red land – all of it was setting my senses abuzz. I was also getting Kakadu vibes. I’d love to one day return and enjoy this on a bicycle.
The area plateaued a little, but there were still beautiful rocky peaks all around. The sun had more-or-less set by the time we’d arrived in town. The warm temperatures of the past few days were fading, and I had to reach for my light down jacket. There was an unmarked campsite by the river just outside of town, but we’d have to find it and setup in the dark – or, for $20 could stay in a hut, with a bathroom, and enjoy an amazing homecooked meal.
It felt a little like cheating staying indoors, but at least the accommodation still felt like an unpolished adventure, and not a generic motel.
Did I mention the homecooked meal was amazing?
Day 6 – San Javier to Bay of Concepción
Sadly, the grass hut was just as well protected from flying/biting insects as the last one we stayed in in Cabo Pulmo. Even with the cooler night time temperatures, there still seemed to be an abundance of annoying bugs that wanted to feast from my body.
The day started with a walk out to look at the 18th Century monastery, Mision San Francisco Javier. Now that the sun was up, I could also clearly see the scenery surrounding the town, with large crumbling hills all around. There was something about the town that just didn’t seem to fit right though. The grass hatched buildings, the tall palm trees, the bright pink bougainvillea all seemed like it should be down by crystal clear waters, rather than up at altitude, surrounded by mountains.
It was especially odd for me seeing this old grey-stone church surrounded by tropical plants, like banana and frangipani, as well as citrus trees. I guess I’m so used to seeing churches like this in Europe, and it’s probably a pretty common sight in Central and Southern America. Actually, the monastery was originally built to be self-sustaining, with various crops being grown – though it was with little success.
Inside, the monastery was quite impressive, with large golden altar piece, while also being very plain and austere. Churches, especially ones in active use, tend to make me feel a little uncomfortable, so after a cursory look at the paintings and the carvings (and a little curious bewilderment at the offerings and accessories), I was ready to look at the museum of the monastery.
I’m not saying the museum was a letdown, because I honestly didn’t have any expectations, but, as an unenlightened individual, with zero Spanish ability, looking at religious robes, adornments and books with no real sense of their meanings (due to the Spanish informational text), I can’t say that it was the highlight of my trip. There isn’t much else to do in this town, so it’s worth the few pesos to enter, but, I found the building itself to be far more fascinating.
A little further behind the monastery was a trail that led to a giant olive tree, originally planted in the 17th Century when the Jesuits originally came to create their settlement.
All this cultural activity was hard on an empty stomach. I had actually wanted to visit La Palapa last night, but had arrived too late. But, after an hour-or-so of walking around the monastery and surrounding grounds, they were open for business, and ready to fuel my day. I wasn’t really sure what I was expecting, but what I got was delicious, if not the most visually appealing of dishes.
It should have been a few hours drive from San Javier to the northernmost point of this vacation, the Bay of Conception. Of course, that would be if I wasn’t tempted to stop for photographs every other corner we drove around. But, when the views were this spectacular, could I really be blamed? What was the rush, anyway – other than sunset. The phenomenal road from San Javier eventually wound its way back down through the Sierra de la Giganta, and brought us back to the flatlands between the towering cliffs to the west, and the coast to the east.
After a while of driving north along Highway 1, following the coast, the landscape calmed down, and it became an endless parade of cacti, looking exactly the way cartoons draw the desert. I lost it when I saw vultures perched up on those cacti, sunning their wings – I joked to myself that I just needed Speedy Gonzales to race past to complete the simulation. What I got instead was the occasional roadrunner darting (ahem, running) across the road – but with no Wiley E. Coyote in sight.
It took a while, but finally we caught our first view of the Bay of Conception. There was a basic beach, with a few basic palapas (wooden huts lined with palm leaves), and that was about it. It wasn’t the most stunning of beaches, but it was wild, and I knew the best was yet to come.
And, that proved to be correct. The highway continued along the coast, with beach after beach. Some were a little grey and wild, others, like Playa el Requeson were beautiful (and ‘crowded’). It was hard to keep on driving, as I just wanted to stop and setup camp for the night at each cove that we drove past. But, it seemed like a good idea to at least do a lap of the bay, and find the most beautiful of the beaches to spend the evening.
The eventual winner was the northern most of the beaches, Playa Santispac. It might have been one of the busier beaches, but that’s a relative term. There were still plenty of empty palapas for rent. As a bonus, there was also a toilet – or at least a building that you could use as a toilet. As there was no running water, you would have to fill a bucket with water from a large drum to flush.
There was also a small restaurant/bar, complete with a DJ, so rather than another (honestly delicious) meal of cold refried bean and salad tacos, I could spend a few dollars on a (disappointingly average) margarita, and some warm tacos. It did make for some interesting people watching, with some people that were clearly planning on spending several months down here – and, as I’ve probably said before, if I had to choose between this, and a winter in middle America, I’d absolutely choose this! Even if the margaritas could do with some work, and the DJ could look to inspiration from the 21st century for music.
I know, I go on and on about how amazing it is to wake up to a view. It’s one of the biggest draws for me for ‘wild camping’. Away from buildings, and just surrounded by natural beauty. I’m willing to admit that it wasn’t truly ‘wild’, but, it was still a fantastic first sight to open our tired eyes to.
When I first arrived in Baja, I laughed at myself for bringing a down jacket with me. This morning, as I stood outside to drink in the sunrise, I was willing to admit I absolutely needed it. The sun lit the wispy clouds with beautiful pink hues for just a few fleeting moments, before daylight officially started.
To get the most out of a single day in the area, we decided to go on a quick hike. Finding information about trails in the area was pretty difficult, but AllTrails did have something listed starting from Playa El Coyote, just a short drive south. This beach was one of the other contenders for staying at last night. Neither would have been a bad choice, but there was something beautiful about the view of the islands from Playa Santispac that Playa El Coyote just didn’t have.
It took a little trial and error to find the start of the trail, including a few conversations with some snowbirds that had setup their camps for the winter. We eventually found the small trail starting from behind a makeshift toilet, which quickly ascended up towards the highway, and soon turned into a very rough 4WD trail. It was intoxicating looking back down at the beach, with the beautiful waters, and rugged charm of the area.
However, it didn’t take long for the trail to head inland, and away from any nice views. It became a bit of a grind, following a dirt access road that had been used as an informal tip. The rubbish dumping got sparser, and we were soon instead welcomed by mosquitos, forcing us to continue at a brisk pace, or risk them settling down and attacking. The trail eventually made it’s way to a very remote beach, but here in the Bay of Conception, not all beaches are made equal. This empty stretch was grey, lined with mangroves, and while exceptionally wild and exciting, was far less photogenic. But, at least the mosquitoes didn’t follow all the way to the beach. The beautiful sunny weather from the morning had gone, and the clouds were turning the sky into a flat and lifeless grey. The temperatures, which had always been cool, were now even cooler, and the desire to go for a swim was pretty quickly fading.
Now, rather than head back inland for a short section, before joining the same gravel access road to continue the hike, my friend decided to try and walk around the small peninsular instead. It started easy enough, with a bit of a scramble along some rocks. But, it eventually got more and more cliff like, making it very difficult to walk along, forcing us to make a choice to turn around, or to tempt fate and risk getting (very) wet feet. We got (very) wet feet. But, we didn’t have to admit defeat, or face the mosquitoes again.
Eventually, we made it to another secluded beach, with what looked like a few luxury bungalows in the distance. We were also back on the trail that was taking us to a lookout that we could spot out on a peninsular in the distance. But, as we walked further down the beach, and closer to those bungalows, we started to hear dogs barking. Rather than risk running into some loose (and potentially rabid) dogs, we turned back.
It didn’t take too long of being harassed by mosquitoes to convince us to try freestyling a route back to the start of the hike. And yes, I know what you’re thinking, aren’t your soggy shoes a reminder of what happens when you go ‘off piste’? No, clearly it wasn’t a strong enough reminder.
It looked easy, with sparse cactus, and large (but not too large) boulders to climb up. It was easy to see where we were, and, more-or-less, where we needed to go. It turns out with hindsight, it wasn’t a very wise decision. I thought that it was only going to be a short climb up, and then we’d end up just above the beach we started at. This wasn’t the first time that my attempts to take a shortcut went poorly – though, thankfully none have ended disastrously. Standing on the top of the first ridge, we couldn’t see where we started, and it was quite difficult to pick a line between cactus, and steeper sections of the ridge. There was now also the sudden fear of finding a rattlesnake, making every step, onto every rock a very brief moment of fear.
However, the views and sense of adventure were off the charts. There were hidden coves, and fresh views out over the islands in the bay – plus the sun was starting to come back out. But, with the views that the sun giveth, it also made the clamouring over rocky ridges hard and sweaty work.
We’d made it to the neighbouring cove to where we started at Playa El Coyote, and there was something that kinda looked like a trail headed back that way. One of the women we spoke with at the start, said that there was a trail that followed the peninsular around to this beach, but approaching it, it seemed far too steep to safely navigate around. It took several attempts, ending in thick clusters of cactus, or at steep sections of rock, but, with persistence, we made out a clear path that was headed where we wanted to go.
While we’d never really been in any danger, nor had we taken any serious risks, it was still a relief to turn a corner and get a view of all the RVs lined up along beach where we’d started several hours earlier.
With all the freestyling taking considerable time, it was now much later in the day than planned. I was hoping to spend more time relaxing at the beaches in this area, but with the cool temperatures, increasing winds, and grey skies, it wasn’t such an appealing place to spend additional time.
We still popped in to get a closer look at the narrow sandy peninsular at Playa El Requeson that looked so amazing on the drive north yesterday. But, with the change in weather, all colour had left the area, and the cold winds didn’t really motivate me to just hang around and relax.
We did go explore a little, walking across the shallow channel (with its deceptively strong tidal pull) and into a tunnel through mangroves to climb the rocky hill on the other side.
The mountains in this area still blew my mind, and I still couldn’t understand how there was so little in the way of tourism in this area. It seemed like endless layers of serrated rock and mesa as far as I could see. And, completely devoid of artificial structures – just rocks and cacti.
I had an idea in mind for where I wanted to spend the night, after having seen some amazing photos of Isla Danzante. It was a touch ambitious to make our way so far at this time of the day, but, I’m nothing if not ambitious (at least when travelling).
The sun set, which meant that this evening was going to be finding and setting up camp in the dark – this is not my idea of fun, but sometimes things don’t go exactly to plan. I was making use of an application, iOverlander, which has a decent list of campsites in the area, with comments from people that have made use of the sites in the past. The benefit of these comments is getting a few different perspectives on what to expect. The negatives, is that it makes you think every location is going to make you a target for banditos. We went to go and look at one small beach site at the end of a long dirt road. It was completely isolated, no other people, and other than tyre marks, no other signs of people. It was exciting, but also terrifying. In the end, the fear of the unknown, fed by comments of other visitors and their fears/concerns.
We briefly looked at staying at a hotel in Tripui, but it was expensive, and felt a little like giving up and cheating. Just behind the small gated hotel area of Tripui was Rattlesnake Beach, a stretch of beach lined with long-term RVs. It too had some negative comments, but the thought of at least being in the vicinity of other humans at night made us feel a little more at ease. I think if we’d arrived during the daylight, things would have been completely different, but going into the unknown, with nothing but headtorches, and armed with mixed messaging of others, it makes you nervous of the worst.