CONTINUATION OF “A HITCHHIKERS GUIDE TO BAJA: PART ONE”
I have said before that as you head south of Ensenada conditions become more difficult and it’s harder to reach or even find the breaks. After the dust clouds settled and the noise of the car had died to nothing I fully realized where I was. Desert as far as the eye could see stretched off in every direction. The ground was scorched and the sun was high in the sky. Heat waves rose from the ground and I was soaking wet. I decided to walk as I hitched. I put my head phones in and sang out at the top of my lungs to Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Ray Charles, the cacti as my audience. I walked on. My board bag straps were grating against my shoulders and I had already gone through one of my waters bottles. It must have been forty minutes. I walked on, I could tell my voice was getting hoarse and I had begun talking to myself. I had to laugh, looking out at the road, a snake of red dirt winding off over the hills to the coast. I began looking at my feet, one after the other, one after the other, sweat dripping from my nose. An hour and a half. Two hours. I sat down and laughed in desperation. What an idiot to think I could hitch my way around the place, what an idiot to camp, to bring this outrageous board bag. And then the sound of a car. I stood up and squinted in the direction of the sound, dust rose in the distance, it was coming my way! I adjusted my shirt and wiped my brow as I saw this tiny red car racing around the bend. I took off my straw hat and waved it down. He pulled to a halt.
“Playa?” I rasped
“Ci senor!” he smiled and began clearing the back seat.
Overwhelmed with joy I crammed my board and myself into my savior’s wagon and raced on, Mexican music blaring as we wound up into the hills and drove the remaining 12 miles to Coyote Cals hostel. Coyote Cals was exactly what I was after, it was an old wooden and clay house with games room, wooden picnic tables outside around the fire pit and surfboards hanging from the ceiling. I pitched my tent outside by the tepee overlooking the surf break. I drank about forty litres of water and sat outside with a beer to plan my next move. Peter, an aged stoner offered me a beer so together with a Mexican guy my age Rodolfo and a few other travellers we drank long into the night.
The next few days were spent at Coyote Cals where I had assumed the role of chef which suited me fine as everyone provided the ingredients and I cooked. My days were spent surfing, collecting mussels, fishing for dinner and nights were spent around the fire pit drinking and storytelling. Rodolpho told me stories of various ways in which his family would try to cross the border and how he and his friends would paddle on their surfboards from Tijuana to San Diego at night for surf trips. A group of English girls had arrived with a van and they were keen to check out the surrounding surf breaks so I had transport as well. I had a great session at Punta Cabras with a pod of dolphins, me and Rodolfo the only ones out. It was a silent grey day and the dolphins swam around our legs without a sound. It was a beautiful picturesque coast line and there were many surf sessions off deserted beaches looking back from the waves at the sprawling desert tundra.
As difficult as it was, I had to pull myself from the throngs of Coyote Cals and make some ground, with the rest of Baja looming ahead. I had met Anna, a lovely girl from Munich who was embarking on roughly the same trip as I and who would become my travel buddy for much of the rest of it. Some other Coyote Cals residents were heading south so we grabbed a lift and after farewells to the rest of the crew we continued on our way. We drove on through the desert down a bumpy as hell road to Quatros Casas a great right reef/point. I paddled through the tendrils of swaying sea kelp and caught some excellent rides. We decided to set up camp on the bluff overlooking the surf. I had another long sunset surf session as the swell picked up and the water turned glassy. Apart from the Rottweiler guard dogs going ape shit I slept like a log under the millions of stars.
We woke early and had to break camp in five minutes in order to catch a lift to the main road with the hostel owners’ pregnant Vietnamese wife. You have to take rides when you can in these parts; you never know how long the wait will be until the next one. We caught a bus all the way past San Quintin to Lazaro Cardenas where there was the turnoff to Cabo San Quintin, Volcanoes and El Playon, which were the next few spots down the coast I had pencilled in. I smiled to myself as I got my marker and followed the road down the map, highlighting spots I had surfed. I was doing well.
We caught a ride with a big Mexican family, I don’t know why they even stopped as the car was so full with kids, coolers, food and fishing gear. My surf guide said “If you have a sand-worthy 4-wheel drive you are hereby invited to venture out to this great, uncrowded, right, sand-bottom, wrap-around point break”. This was to be the bumpiest ride yet. We held on for dear life as the truck bumped and lurched in and out of potholes the size of hot tubs, both Anna and I had one arm acting as a seatbelt for one or more of the kids who simply couldn’t hold on themselves; they were being thrown around like little Mexican jumping beans. We drove for miles and miles deep into the desert my arse already numb. I can’t really accentuate how bumpy it was, except to say that while showing off that he could remain in the tray of the truck without holding on, one guy was thrown meters down the road by a particularly large pothole. He scrambled back in with a bleeding nose and with a thick Mexican accent smiled “Superman!” we drove on to the coast and bumped past some amazing breaks and small fishing villages until we reached a small series of huts known as El Playon or West Medano Beach which was where the drivers brother lived. We slathered on the mozzie spray to repel the tennis ball sized flies and head out to find some waves. Again as I paddled out I found myself alone. We head back, somewhat knackered and burnt to find that the family had cooked us an absolute feast…I lie, miniscule tacos, but insanely delicious. And it seemed like a feast after the lengthy journey and reasonable surf. We walked around to Volcanoes which delivered some sizey swell but was kind of closing out and had a mean undertow so after a while of being thrashed I paddled in. We had adopted a mangy dog somewhere along the way. The afternoon was spent climbing the volcano on no discernable trail for a glorious sunset. I have to admit I was overcome with emotion as we sat on the rim of the enormous crater, gazing out to sea while everything turned orange. The islands scattered out to sea like spilt coffee beans. There was a warm breeze and I fully realized where I was. After a blind tumble back down the volcano batting away the monster flies we caught a ride to a little sand dune to set up camp. We made some taco wraps with avocado and tomato (soon to be a staple) And I sat outside with the full moon casting a river of light across the water to my feet.
Most seasoned Baja travellers will warn you not to drive fast and definitely not to drive at night. In fact, one should not try to drive at all. Most of the roads are narrow with no shoulders leaving little margin for error. The hazards are endless. Apart from the aforementioned narrow roads, the potholes, drunken truck drivers, wandering cattle, unlit highways and travelling peasant families make driving seem more like a high level Nintendo game. But of course, I wasn’t to know.
We woke to a sand encrusted tent, the wind had blown a gale throughout the night and now we were pretty much part of the sand dune. We walked the length of the cobble stone beach, already the fatigue of the past ten days were very clear. We caught the first ride from the small town at the end of the beach which happened to be a truck transporting mounds of seaweed. To demonstrate my optimism at this point I must quote from my journal: “I sat, sinking into a mound of seaweed but the views were great and we had caught the rides within seconds of putting out the thumb. I was in great spirits, eager to see what the road ahead of us would bring.” Never mind the seaweed! We were dropped at the main road and after a petrol station coffee and some fruit we were amped to be back on the road. After waiting for a while on the side of the road we caught a ride with Ricardo who was going all the way to Rosalita. We couldn’t believe our luck. We drove through scorching deserts, really nothing in sight, just endless desert split by a cracked road, Cacti towering on either side. We drove for miles, and after a while I could see Ricardo was starting to doze so we pulled over to stretch our legs. After stretching and relieving our bursting bladders I heard myself say “want me to drive?” And there I was in the driver seat trying to decipher this ancient tin can machine with gear sticks sticking out from the roof. I managed to get the car in gear and lurched forward, the steering wheel drastically off center, dodgy breaks and needless to say, dodgy roads. Potholes dotted the road, I felt like I was in a real life mine sweeper. Trucks would race down the center line and cattle would lazily stroll onto the road with reckless abandon. Every time a truck came I had to swerve off the road and back, everyone clutching the doors. I slowed down and tried to take it easy but when three trucks came racing down the center of the road I veered to the right only to see some cows trotting my way so swerved back into the line of the oncoming trucks then spun back towards the cows until I lost control and we went bumping off the road and into a ditch, glass shattering, dust billowing, everyone was shouting out, I heard Anna shout “what are you DOING Avi?!” until we came to an abrupt halt. I was rattling off every swear word I knew as we all leapt out of the car.
Ricardo managed to bump the car to the side of the road as we picked glass out of each other’s hair and nursed minor wounds. Ricardo was insanely calm as he assessed the damage. I, on the other hand, was shaking, sweating and swearing in between 5000 “por favors!!!!” over the next hour we accrued an assortment of people offering advice; me cowering trying to help. Everyone was speaking rapidly in Spanish and casting quick glances in my direction. I knew they were plotting how to kill me and sell my organs to pay for the damage. Eventually we waved down a car and changed the tyre, broke off the excess glass and were on our way. Due to this unforeseen accident we had to drive all the way to Guerro Negro where I would empty my bank for Ricardo. I knew it was massively beside the point but I couldn’t help think of all the breaks we were passing, all the notches on the map that I had hoped to get to but would probably not turn back to. My spirits were low and I looked out the window wondering for the second time what the heck I was doing here. I remember looking at my feet and seeing a Dora the explorer doll, still in the box, that Ricardo had no doubt bought for his daughter on his trip up North. My journal goes on for many pages with “what an idiot! IDIOT!!! Why couldn’t I just…” etc. It goes on to read “I’m stuffed, so exhausted….from sun, travel and crashing cars…here’s to good waves and back to the basics.”
My next entry reads: “what unexpected turns this trip is taking. I am sleeping in a freight truck with 3,000 cartons of pineapple juice in Santa Rosalia.” It had rained throughout the night and we woke up to more of it. Much more of it. We hitched to the next small town with my board tied precariously with old rope to the roof of a dodgy two door Toyota. The guy started the car with a spoon. We got dropped off at a PEMEX station and sat playing cards without landing a ride for over an hour as the rain came harder and harder. We finally got a ride with Eduardo in his pineapple freight truck. It was a scary as hell ride. Eduardo would cross himself and kiss his cross that hung around his neck before attempting any particularly dodgy boulder strewn windy decent down through the mountains. He was going all the way to La Paz so we decided to go with him that far before heading to Todos Santos. We had crossed the dividing line that separated Baja Norte from Baja Sur and it felt like a new chapter. I cringed at the amount of surf we would miss but I had learnt that you had to take what you got out here. And there would be waves to come.
The amount of rain that had fallen had started creating flash floods and we became stranded in Santa Rosalia. Traffic was backed up and shops had been washed out completely, there were landslides and the roads were blocked. The whole town closed down and everyone, including myself, helped with the cleaning of roads and sweeping out the shops. My journal reads “And so here I am, the hills have crumbled down onto the road, so I’m sweating my arse off on the sea of Cortez listening to Mexican rock with a couple of cervesas after some impromptu volunteer work.”
It was a sleepless night in the truck. Eduardo snored like a freight train so I tried sleeping outside until it started to rain again so had to squeeze back into the snore fest. In the morning we got the news that the roads were still blocked. We reached the damaged area where whole entire strips of road had been swept away leaving massive chasms. We helped in creating Makeshift paths for traffic and so we were allowed to pass but ended up only making it to Mulege. There was an entourage of trucks driving the same path and we befriended two other drivers called Javier and Alfredo. We stopped for the night at a truck stop. I looked around at my company and thought about the bizarre situation I had fallen into. I was leaning back with a feed and a beer with these truck divers at this truck stop in a tiny town. I couldn’t have foreseen this. After some card games which I found difficult to decipher, although I think I was winning, we all retreated to bed. A whole herd of trucks sleeping silently huddled together like cattle in the rain.
THE SEARCH FOR SURF
I had started feeling anxious for a wave. It had been over a week of flash floods, bumpy roads, car crashes and much ground covered with not as much surfing as I could have hoped for. We woke early and drove to Loreto for the best fish and shrimp tacos I have ever had. We exchanged drivers outside La Paz and drove to Todos Santos with Javier. We were let off in what seemed like a ghost town and wandered into the night. We found our camping spot after being chased by some furious dogs and fell asleep with the sound of mangos hitting the ground, the overripe smell of fruit lingering in air. It was a sticky tropical night and I lay awake and smiled as I heard the echo of waves reach me from across the desert.
The next day Anna was desperate to get a surfboard and since we had become quite reliant on each other I said of course I would come along on the ride before our next stop. The day was as hot as a furnace, the egg yolk sun hanging heavy in the sky. The search for a suitable board took us to Todos Santos town, the surf camp at Pescadero, along the long stretch of beach to the surf shack at los Cerritos and eventually and crazily, to Cabo San Lucas where we found a good board. We got a lift back with Bill and trophy wife Kathleen then had to bus it back to Todos Santos, too late to move on.
We woke early. I had a fierce determination to get a proper session in. The purpose of this trip was slipping away and I was questioning what exactly I was doing on this peninsula of cacti and sand. We hitchhiked to San Pedrito. There had been many missions to the coast from the road, some easier than others, but this really took the cake as the worst one yet. The road turned into deep sand so every step was an effort. My board bag hadn’t got any lighter and it was a stinker of a day. The sweat poured down my face as I fell into a trance, one foot falling in front of the other in a steady rhythm. From time to time I had to swap the bag to the other shoulder wincing in pain as my chaffed and sunburnt skin strained under the weight of the bag. We reached the beach and lo and behold, there were waves, a heavy beach break and further down some great hollow lefts were peeling off the south point. I practically ran down to the point where we found an abandoned Palapa. I pulled out my board and to my absolute horror saw a crack running through the middle of the clean undinged belly of my board. I ran my fingers over it and applied some pressure, shaking my head denying what I was seeing “no…no…no…” I repeated to myself. I ripped it out of the board bag and ran out to the pounding surf and leaped on my board and paddled out. I turned round as the first wave came rolling in, caught it, spent two seconds on the face and then felt the board give way under me. I gave out a mighty “NO!!!!” before becoming engulfed by white wash, both halves of my board beating me and scratching me as if accusing me of its condition. I swam in and stumbled over the rocks, slipping, bleeding and furiously untying my brand new leash and kicking my brand new board across the sand. I stormed off down the beach feeling entirely defeated and broken. I knelt in the sand and hung my head. I’m not going to lie; the beginning of something resembling tears was building inside me. I was so hungry, so weak, so hot, so tired and now my sole reason for being here was destroyed. My money was gone with my board and now I just had a useless massive floppy board bag as my pack. I tried to speak to myself but a whimper came out. I ran into the ocean, the curer of all things and dove under, screaming at the top of my lungs underwater.
The day somehow turned around. Anna, who was and is an amazing girl, lent me her board and I stayed out for hours which was some of the best surfing I have done. The waves weren’t particularly that good, but the severe intensity with which I attacked them made me carve like a pro. Or so it felt. When my arms became heavy, I stayed out even longer. When my stomach rumbled, I stayed out longer. I surfed three long sessions that day until the sky tuned red and the palms lining the beach turned into silhouettes. Our little abandoned palapa was the only structure on the long stretch of coast. I could see from where I sat out on the water that Anna had strung up her hammock and was collecting firewood. The two halves of my surfboard were propped against a log… like tombstones.
TO BE CONTINUED IN “A HITCHHIKERS GUIDE TO BAJA: PART THREE“