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2000 Trip report - Baja California

Baja Xmas

by Neal Johns

December 23, 2000

Met son Dave Cox, friends Ken and Diane Sears, and Dave McFarland at 11:00 a.m. in the mini-mall (very) parking lot just left of the Tecate border crossing. Tecate is the only way to go; no crowds, no wait, no hassle. We asked permission to park in the few custom inspection spots and received it with two of us sent to park across the street in the reserved spots. Dave McFarland inadvertently parked on a gardener's hose and quickly moved when the gardener complained. The upset gardener told him $25 dollars or he would report his license plate number to the authorities. No deal said Dave M. So far Dave M. is still a free man but who knows who the gardener knows? 

We took the free route east on Hwy. 2 and tried to top off the gas at Rumarosa. No gasolina! We were going to do a lot of canyon exploring so we went to the outskirts of Mexicali and topped off, then back to take the road south toward Guadalupe Canyon (hot springs). We turned right in a few miles on a faint track seeking the Canyon de la Palmas Azules (blue palms - Erythea Armata). Blue palms are bluish green and are less common than the regular Washingtonia Filifera fan palms. Oops, wrong road. We found ourselves in a nice little cove/playa which would make a great campsite. Sharp-eyed wife Marian said, "Stop!" and walked over to a rock in the middle of the playa which had been used by Indians as a metate for grinding mesquite beans into flour. As usual, there was no mano (the hand held grinding rock) around. It's always a thrill to find the artifacts of an ancient people lying around. We left it there to bask in the sun, returned to the racecourse road parallel to the Guadalupe road and whooped further south. Finding another track, we tried again and found ourselves on the right route. Palm logs had been washed down miles from the mouth of the canyon so because it was getting dark we camped for the night. 

The next morning, we hiked up the very rocky canyon bajada for a mile and a half before pooping out just at the actual mouth of the canyon. The palms are usually a ways further up the canyon where there is permanent water and hey! give me a break, I'm 70 this month. 

Dec. 24 

The next canyon we tried was Tajo. We found the two-track road OK and drove to the end where a Gringo tent was erected. Tire tracks were there but no people. Left a card on their table for a surprise. Just before we got to the end of the road there were a few Indian sleeping circles that we all admired and photographed. We were in a hurry (and sore from the rock hopping hike up Las Palmas Azules) so we retreated down canyon in our vehicles. 

We continued south and went toward Canyon Guadalupe where we stopped briefly in the flat spot where the roads to the left and right camping areas split. The two Daves had not seen Guadalupe before so while they checked it out, Marian wandered around finding many nearby bedrock slicks that had been used for metates and two mortar holes. Surprisingly, the campground was not crowded. Heading south again, we took the road toward Canyons Palomar and Isabel. Before we got there, we stopped and camped for the night in Canyon Alamar (commonly known as One Palm because of the single palm at the mouth). We had previously gotten permission to go through the gate and camp there from the vaquero who was tending the line shack (the original shack was gone – replaced with a slide-in camper on the ground). No one home this time. 

The Sears cooked a great Mexican meal for all of us. 

Dec. 25 Xmas day! 

Surrounded by the white sand of the canyon mouth under a palm tree in Baja. Life is good. We hiked up the canyon a mile to the petroglyphs, water, palms, and grinding slicks. There is a tinaja (natural bedrock water tank) nearby but it was dry. After the hike up Alamar, we headed south to Canyon El Mano. I had never driven up it before and today was the day. No problem getting to the bottom, but then the rocky foothill seemed to take forever to climb. Finally we came to the "Locked Gate" shown on the AAA Map and ….….. it was an unlocked cable across the road. Clean living, that’s what does it. Thinking doesn’t count, does it? Once upon a time, a long, long, time ago, the canyon was used for a SCORE race as evidenced by the painted arrows on the rocks. Other than that, no one in their right mind would go up it. Did I really say that? A few steep, loose, places made locking differentials nice to have but not absolutely necessary. That’s easy to say, since we all had them. Ha! The El Mano ranch house is used as a line shack but not lived in. Further on, we came to a "Y" and thought we had to go right through a very locked gate. Heart failure time turned out to be brain fade time because we determined left was the correct direction and proceeded with no problems. At the top, we wandered south through the pine forest until we got to Hwy. 3 west of Heroes de la Independencia. When we got back to the Sea of Cortez, we camped just after nightfall in the wash a mile or so northwest of the Hwy. 3/5 junction and had Xmas dinner! Roast pork, mashed potatoes, gravy, cauliflower, almond beans, jello-pineapple salad, flan and apple pie! Life is tough in the wilds of Baja. 

Dec. 26-27 

After eating Xmas dinner the night before, we struggled up by 8:00 a.m. and got underway to the nearby gas station at El Chinero. After I was 2/3 full, the attendant started wiggling the hose. "No mas!" he said. I gave the other people a smug smile and said I sure hoped they had gas for them in San Felipe. They were not amused. Gassed up in San Felipe and headed out to Agua Caliente Canyon. I had been by the ejido several times but never to the canyon. After lunch, in the mouth of the canyon, we drove to the end of the road (about two miles) and as usual, decided not to hike the two miles further to the hot springs. On the way out, we met two nicely dressed "agricultural workers" walking in, exchanged friendly waves and "Buenos tardes", and soon saw their two wheel Ford pickup parked at the canyon mouth. At that time we were not aware of the, ah, "bean field", that Baja friends David and Lorenzo had found further up. We went back to San Felipe and picked up Jimmy James, an Bill Chapman who stayed home for Xmas. Had dinner at George’s (we recommend) and drove north to camp near El Chinero junction again. The next morning, we went to the Jose Saldaña/Tres Pozos road and took it and the racecourse route west. A couple of miles from the pavement we stopped to rescue the Mexican army. Two of the young soldiers had taken mountain bikes out and one had a flat. Dave M. pumped the tire up and everyone went away smiling. 

We proceeded to Canyon Isabel and checked out the abandoned hunting lodge on the edge of the cliff overlooking the canyon. If anyone has the real story on this, let me know. I have heard two stories: This million-dollar establishment was built by a drug lord or was built by a crooked politician. It has large diesel generators, a guesthouse, beautiful swimming pool, and all the trimmings. It has been dead for a decade but used to have Keep Out, National Park signs on the roads leading in. We had lunch near a former Indian encampment and went north to Canyon Palomar. After taking pictures of the circular corral made of palm logs at the mouth, we continued up canyon via a 4WD road to Rancho Palomar. No one home as usual. There were dozens of palm trees and many grinding slicks in the large rocks in the streambed (no water – except for a trickle keeping the palms alive). We worked on the road past the ranch for a few minutes and continued up canyon a mile or so to the hot springs. There were long unused structures up on the bank and several pools. The water was lukewarm and the pools would require a lot of time and effort to clean. The lower concrete pool by the parking lot/end of the road needed another one or two hundred feet of hose to fill it with warm water so we camped there overnight unwashed. 

Dec. 28-29 

Back across the racecourse road east to Tres Pozos for lunch. Returned to San Felipe for gas and headed toward Canyon Matomi via Valle Chico. We camped for the night a few miles out of San Felipe at the small cave-filled hill area called Cuevitas. Many clamshells in the area spoke of ancient Indian inhabitants also camping there. The road up Matomi was far better than a couple of years when we chickened out. Near the end of the canyon, at Rancho Matomi, Rodrigo, the vaquero who had been there only a month, greeted us warmly and showed us around. The high point was the waterfall and pool that Baja friend David K. had mentioned. It was like Shangri La. My current wife reminded me that many years ago (before we were married), we had come here. In those days, I was, of course, an incomplete person and prone to forget things. Now I get reminded incessantly! Rodrigo's only transportation was a horse and the nearest town was 30 miles away so it is no wonder that he was proud of the deer he had shot for food. Poor Bambi. After affixing a David K’s "Viva Baja" bumper sticker to the door of a defunct pickup, we headed down canyon. Rather than retrace our steps or go down Parral Canyon, we elected to go down Matomi. The only problem was the dreaded squeeze through the narrow rocky part call White Rock. Surprise! It was like a freeway. Either the rains had cleared it out or the Baja 1000 people had worked it over. The crew mutinied at Puertocitos when we stopped for gas, so we camped in the palapas next to the restaurant, had dinner there that night and breakfast the next morning. Wimps. Marian was served beef burritos instead of the shrimp ones he ordered and took a bite out before she realized it. No problem. The waiter took her bitten burritos to another table that had ordered them. 

Dec. 30 

Headed south toward Mission/Canyon Calamujue. The road was in great shape, almost like it was when new! Gassed up again in Gonzaga (never pass by a gas station in Baja). Stopped at Las Arrastras for lunch and then took the lesser road from there east, which is the route of the El Camino Real. The Mission ruins consist of melted adobe walls, which were the hapel and the storehouses, and fallen rock walls that were the Indian quarters. The nearby artesian spring and the resultant white tufa formation had the most flow I had seen. The water from springs flows in the road for more than a mile but never fear, the mud has a bottom. After reaching Hwy. 1, we headed north to gas up in Catavina from five-gallon cans at $3 a gallon, and camp in our hidden palm oasis with a trickling stream through it. We went to sleep with a frog serenade. 

Dec. 31 

Got rolling this morning and headed for a pictograph site we had not been to. After going north on the Hwy. to El Progreso, we headed south on dirt for twenty miles or so and following some old, out-of-date directions, finally found Tinaja del Palo Verde. In a small arroyo, there is a natural tank in the bedrock, which was dry even though a small concrete dam has improved the tank. On the rock walls there were abstract painting hundreds of years old. Nearby, on the banks of the arroyo, discarded seashells from long ago feasts littered the ground. True to its name, Palo Verde trees shaded us as we ate lunch. This is in one of the most isolated places we had found rockart. Getting lost is half the fun of Baja travel and lost we were. The directions to the next rockart site were impossible to follow correctly, so we went on some "interesting" roads. Tipping over 30 degrees in a pickup with a pop-top camper on it should qualify you for the Adventurers’ Club. Giving it up, we returned in the dark to Arroyo San Fernando to camp in the nice sand wash a mile from Mission San Fernando. We had an uneventful New Years Eve. 

Jan. 1-3 

Went over to see the Mission, and at the petroglyph site near the Mission, we found an archeologist and group camped there. We had met the other half of their group near Tres Pozos on the other coast. Small world when it is only 60 miles across. A fancy new gate and fence showed off the adobe Mission ruins well. By this time, many of our people had headed home to take up their real lives. We took the last remaining soul to the Las Pintas petroglyph site southeast of El Rosario. There was no water in the waterfall so we got to explore the maze of passageways underneath the boulders below the falls. He was more interested in the fossil filled boulders than the rockart. On the way out, we decided to check how far up Arroyo San Fernando we could drive. After a few miles, the road dumped us into a ranch compound filled with two dozen people. Torn piñatas littered the ground. Apparently the relatives and kids had gathered for a big New Years Eve celebration. They talked us out of going further on the "malo camino", so we turned around and retraced our route to the highway. Headed home, we stopped for the night at Celito Lindo in San Quintin. The food was good which augurs well for the Spring Gathering there that M is cooking up. 

The next morning we headed for the Tecate border crossing (the only way to go). As usual, we stopped for lunch at Mustafa’s restaurant a few miles past Ensenada. The catch of the day was swordfish, which had –surprise!- a fishy taste. Next time we will ask what kind of fish before we order. At the border, in response to the usual question of "What do you have with you?" I answered, "Just an old wife and an old dog". La Migra rolled his eyes and said ‘Pass friend, you will soon have big troubles talking like that". And so I did.