Archive for December 2012

Visiting the California Coast near Big Sur   3 comments

In my last post I ranted about the crowds along this stretch of the California Coast that includes the stunning Big Sur.  Well, if you insist on visiting this area instead of the slightly superior (in my opinion) Oregon Coast, please do so during a week other than this one – the week between Christmas and New Years.  I would think much of summer would also be too crowded.  First the bad news, then the good with some recommended stops.

The view north along the California Coast near Big Sur is a classic.

The view north along the California Coast near Big Sur is a classic.

CONS: ACCESS PROBLEMS

I’ve noticed many of my fellow travelers here are on a different wavelength than I am.  They’re dressed to the nines, with heels and nice clothes.  So for them a simple drive with stops to snap photos is what they’re after.  With some exceptions, this is what they get in California.  Coastal access is hampered in this state by lack of foresight.  In Oregon, during the 1960s, Governor Tom McCall passed a law that was brilliant.  In that state, nobody can own the beach; it’s all public.  You will never see a fence with no trespassing signs stretched across the sand in Oregon.

Anna's Hummingbird Feeding

Additionally, there are many many more state parks along the Oregon Coast than on the California Coast.  There are places to access the coastline here, mostly north or south of the Big Sur area.  But a combination of geography (the San Jacinto Mountains are a long and unbroken rank of mountains that keep Highway 1 well up above the ocean) along with the private property have blocked my attempts to experience this coast in the way I like.

I like to take long hikes along the coast, exploring coves and headlands.  This is harder to do here than in Oregon.  Shorter explorations can be done in California, but I’ve found that around Big Sur it’s very difficult.  The Redwood Coast is a little better in this regard.

A green home on the California Coast south of Big Sur basks in winter sunshine.

A green home on the California Coast south of Big Sur basks in winter sunshine.

PROS: 

Redwoods: On the California coast, even this far south, you’ll find the famous Redwood trees.  This is, by the way, something Oregon lacks except for one place in the far south.  Of course if you really want to see the big trees, go up to the Redwood Coast, just south of the border with Oregon.

Golfing: I am not a golfer, but you could do much worse than the Monterrey Peninsula for this sport.  Pebble Beach and a plethora of other courses carpet the land.  By the way, in Oregon, Bandon is a similarly great golfing center.

Elephant Seals and Sea Otters: The stretch of coastline south of Big Sur has many places from which to see these sea creatures.  I would add gray whales to this, but you can see these giants anywhere along the west coast.  Go to Baja in Mexico if you want to get up close and personal with them in their breeding grounds.

Wine & Dine: Although wine country is inland and north from here, there is no shortage of restaurants and wine bars featuring great wines.  In fact, the fine dining in this area is pretty special.  I don’t go in for this type of thing generally, preferring funky cafes and eateries.

Moderate Winter Weather: One winter while living in Alaska I was sent to a conference at Stanford University.  Talk about being thawed out!  The winters south of San Francisco are famous for being rather warm, though big storms are not uncommon.

An Anna's hummingbird rests in the sun before an incredibly energetic feeding session.

An Anna’s hummingbird rests in the sun before an energetic feeding session.

A flower in the gardens of Big Sur Coast Gallery, blooming here in December, is shaped especially for Hummingbirds.

A flower in the gardens of Big Sur Coast Gallery, blooming here in December, is shaped especially for Hummingbirds.

TRAVEL TIPS:

I will focus on photography and nature, since that is what I’m into.

  • Elephant Seals on the beach at San Simeon near the Hearst Castle: These big-nosed seals haul up on the beach and are fairly used to photographers, so you can get pretty close. Don’t get too close though. Males especially can be extremely dangerous.
  • McWay waterfall:  A gorgeous cove and waterfall are accessed by a short trail from Julia Pfeifer State Park, near Big Sur itself.  See image below.
  • The garden at the Big Sur Coast Gallery Cafe:  Up on the headland, you will pass a few lodges and restaurants.  Behind the gas station here (Big Sur’s only one), you’ll find a little cafe with good (but expensive) coffee.  There are cactus all around the place, and they dominate the garden.  But there are all sorts of plants, including those with flowers that draw hummingbirds.
  • Point Lobos:  Not far south of Carmel, you’ll find the Pt. Lobos Reserve.  Hiking trails wind through the trees, and the rocky coastline is chock full of great foregrounds for sunset shots.  This place is very popular, so if you want more solitude try…
  • The headland just south of Point Lobos:  If Pt Lobos is too crowded, go south to the very next headland, just past the public beach.  There is not much parking, but pull in on either side of the hill next to the highway.  A trail heads around on an ocean-side bench.  South of the hill, downhill toward the ocean, a bit of scrambling will take you down to a small beach. There are great tide pools. Back up on top of the bench, work your way around to the north to find all sorts of rocky foregrounds.
  • Lucia: The people at this little lodge south of Big Sur are very friendly and it is a world away from the hoity toity atmosphere of Carmel.  Their restaurant is perched well above the Pacific, with a view into a cove where sea otters play.  You’ll need a big telephoto to get photos of them though.
  • Carmel by the Sea: You’ll find plenty of eating and lodging options, all fairly spendy.  This is a fine town to stroll, but it’s crowded on holidays.  There is an oyster bar named Flaherty’s, so you know I had to visit (that’s my last name).  While it is necessarily more upscale than oyster bars should probably be (it’s Carmel after all), the food is good and the atmosphere not as stuffy as other places in this town.
  • Carmel Mission:  Especially nice if you are religious and want to attend one of the services, this old mission a few minutes west of Hwy. 1 towards Carmel by the Sea is worth a stop and a few photos.  It is well preserved.
  • Monterrey Bay Aquarium:  A can’t miss destination, this aquarium is regarded as one of the best in the country, if not the world.  It lies on the north side of the Monterrey Peninsula, facing the bay to the north.
  • Garland Ranch Regional Park:  This is a nice change from the coast, lying inland in the Carmel Valley about 10 miles from Hwy. 1.  Locals take their dogs for leash-free walks in this beautiful 4500-acre park.  It consists of valley bottom oaks and sycamores, but also ascends to 2000 feet (if you need real exercise).  There are historical remains, both American Indian and that of the Rancho Don Juan.  You can hike, bike or ride horseback on trails of varying lengths.  There is also a visitor center.
A couple walks the trails of Garland Ranch Regional Park in Monterrey County, California.

A couple walks the trails of Garland Ranch Regional Park in Monterrey County, California.

An old wagon sits on the grounds of the old Rancho Don Juan in the Garland Ranch Regional Park near Carmel, California.

An old wagon sits on the grounds of the old Rancho Don Juan in the Garland Ranch Regional Park near Carmel, California.

A simple but beautiful fly appears to be trying to figure out how to get the nectar from this cactus flower in the garden of Big Sur Coast Gallery.

A simple but beautiful fly appears to be trying to figure out how to get the nectar from this cactus flower in the garden of Big Sur Coast Gallery.

A waterfall on the California Coast near Big Sur drops directly into the Pacific.

A waterfall on the California Coast near Big Sur drops directly into the Pacific.

So that’s it for now.  It’s a pretty subjective report I know.  If you’re not really a photo or nature geek, I would recommend some further searching of more standard travel sites.  Just try to visit during an off week.

The rocky Monterrey County, California coastline includes some granite, which looks great with the low plants in December sunshine.

The rocky coast of Monterrey County, California includes granite, which looks great with the low plants in December sunshine.

Waves crash up onto the shore of the California Coast near Big Sur.

Waves crash up onto the shore of the California Coast near Big Sur.

The (crowded) California Coast   Leave a comment

A late afternoon winter's sun illuminates the rugged California Coast.

A late afternoon winter’s sun illuminates the rugged California Coast.

I’ll say right off that California is one of the most beautiful states in the U.S.A., and is arguably one of the most gorgeous places that I’ve ever been in the world.  But I wish I had been born earlier and could have experienced it in the early 20th century, no later than the 50s.  While I’m in the wishing mode, I’d actually like to have roamed around here in the missionary days.  Or trapping and exploring with Jedediah Smith!

The California Coast is the attraction to driving Highway 1.

The California Coast is the attraction to driving Highway 1.

Other than the desert, and the far NE and far NW corners of the state, California is really too crowded and developed for my tastes.  The coast has about three times more traffic and people than I prefer.  And so despite its physical beauty, it falls down on my list of favorite states.  It’s not in the bottom half, but it doesn’t quite crack the top 10 either.  Alaska, Hawaii and Oregon are the top 3, in case you’re curious.

An Anna's hummingbird feeds on flowers in a garden on the California Coast at Big Sur.

An Anna’s hummingbird feeds on flowers in the garden at Big Sur Coast Gallery.

The traffic and pollution in southern California are pretty bad, and the traffic in the Bay Area is a big turnoff as well.  I particularly don’t like the fact that in southern California both the air and immediate offshore marine environment are polluted.  Light pollution, the disappearance of stars from the night sky, is also a huge negative for me.  All that said, the high Sierra, the Redwood Coast, parts of the wine country (the Alexander Valley for e.g.) and of course the Mojave Desert are places I will return to again and again.  These are very worthwhile destinations for anyone who loves the natural world.  Mostly these places are not very crowded.

A garden on the California Coast draws hummingbirds with its blooms, even in winter.

A garden on the California Coast draws hummingbirds with its blooms, even in winter.

I am currently on the Monterrey Peninsula. I had traveled almost all of the California Coast before now but had missed out on the section north of Santa Barbara and south of Santa Cruz.  So on the way home to Oregon now, I am taking the opportunity to drive up this coast.

It’s a very beautiful piece of coastline: rocky headlands, crashing waves, mountains which plunge directly into the ocean.  It reminds me strongly of the Oregon Coast.  But here is the problem, as far as I can see.  If you want to travel a coast that has abundant natural beauty, along with quaint towns, picturesque lighthouses, etc., why not go to Oregon?  It’s less crowded, there is more of the spectacular stuff, and beach access is much much better than in California.

Winter waves on the California Coast near Big Sur hit the legs of the tripod.

Winter waves on the California Coast near Big Sur hit the legs of the tripod.

Granted, this time of year, between Christmas and New Years, I should not be surprised that it’s crowded.  Many people take off during this week, families with kids on school break especially.  But I’ve been on the Oregon Coast at this time of year, and it is nowhere near as busy as the Big Sur/Monterrey area.

I have seen so many folks from other countries, particularly Europe, while traveling this coast over the past few days.  While for Californians this is closer than Oregon (so I get why they are here), I don’t really understand why I don’t see so many visitors from other countries on the Oregon Coast.

Have a Seat

Those from other countries are planning this as a travel destination.  Of course they also want to see San Francisco.  But why not fly into that city and travel north?  I simply can’t understand why anybody would want to see L.A.  The San Diego area is awfully warm this time of year, compared to Oregon, so that makes sense.

I am sure this part of the California Coast would be much more calm and uncrowded during a different week.  When I was south of Big Sur, on Christmas night, the highway north was blocked by a landslide.  It was deserted, and I loved being perched high up on a cliff, camped while the wind and rain from an overnight storm buffeted my van.

An inlaid sculpture highlights one wall of the Carmel Mission in California.

An inlaid sculpture highlights one wall of the Carmel Mission in California.

The day after Christmas was beautiful, and the number of people on the road stayed low.  But over the next few days, and as I moved north, the car numbers increased steadily, until now on the weekend before Christmas in the Carmel area it is downright overcrowded.

When the road finally opened (I snuck through at night after the workers were gone) boy did the cars ever come from the north.  Just north of Big Sur I watched long lines of cars heading south, and was glad I got in a hike and otherwise enjoyed Big Sur before the rush.  It’s a little frantic around here, and I’m not used to it.  Now before you write a comment and point out that I am one of those visitors, I am already well aware of this.  I had to see this area at least once.

A green home on the California Coast south of Big Sur basks in winter sunshine.

A green home on the California Coast south of Big Sur basks in winter sunshine.

I am going to post a strong travel recommendation.  I would never do this if I had a legion of followers.  I prefer that people continue to come here and leave Oregon alone.  But if you are considering a trip along the California Coast, reconsider.  If you started in Portland, Oregon and headed south to San Francisco, or began in the south and headed as far north as the central Oregon Coast, that would be an epic trip.  If you don’t want to do the one-way rental car, you could always return via the quicker Interstate 5 inland.

So that’s enough of my whining.  I will end by saying that it would be much much worse if the people were not so darn friendly here.  Most everyone I’ve met, travelers and locals alike, has been nothing but warm and friendly.  So there!  I’ll post some recommendations next time.

Near Point Lobos on the central California Coast, the sunset illuminates the beautiful groundcover that characterizes this part of the coastline.

Near Point Lobos on the central California Coast, the sunset illuminates the beautiful groundcover that characterizes this part of the coastline.

 

 

 

Stuck on the California Coast   2 comments

An early winter's morning on the California Coast near Big Sur brings clearing after an overnight storm.

An early winter’s morning on the California Coast near Big Sur brings clearing after an overnight storm.

 

I made yet another left turn on this long trip.  I had planned on only going to the Rocky Mountains for a little fall photo tour.  But it has turned into a giant loop of the American West.  After leaving Mexico I planned to try getting back to Oregon by Christmas, but that plan was unrealistic.  Interstate 5 soon became boring, so I turned off and headed for a piece of the California Coast that I’ve never seen before: Big Sur.

The rolling hills of the coast ranges in California undulate below a winter sky.

The rolling hills of the coast ranges in California undulate below a winter sky.

Making my way over the mountains to the coast, I noticed a sign saying Hwy. 1, the road that hugs the California Coast, was closed.  But I kept going and now I am happy I did.  There is a landslide just south of Big Sur, and so all today I have been stuck in a gorgeous and wild place.  The little cafe at Lucia Lodge has been my home for the past few hours.  From its porch I can see hundreds of sea otters and elephant seals playing amongst the kelp beds.  They are too far to photograph, sad to say.

The rocks along the California Coast include turbidites, which originally formed when giant underwater landslides traveled down the continental slope.

The rocks along the California Coast include turbidites, which originally formed when giant underwater landslides traveled down the continental slope.

Last night a storm swept in.  I love parking my van right on the edge of precipitous drop-offs which occur along the Oregon Coast, and this was an identical situation.  So I found a place where nothing stood between me and oblivion, and enjoyed the cozy confines of my van.  The storm tapered off overnight, and sunrise brought clearing, and a morning rainbow!

A morning rainbow appears over the Pacific Ocean off the California Coast near Big Sur.

A morning rainbow appears over the Pacific off the California Coast near Big Sur.

The adventure continues.  I will try to make it through to Big Sur tonight after the workers leave the site of the landslide, and perhaps a classic Pacific Coast sunset will be my reward.  I’ll post a report.

Winter on the California Coast and a storm approaches at dusk near Cambria.

Winter on the California Coast and a storm approaches at dusk near Cambria.

Adios Mexico!   2 comments

 

A sailboat lies safely in Ensenada, Mexico's harbor.

A sailboat lies safely in Ensenada, Mexico’s harbor.

This is goodbye to Mexico, for now.  It’s a long drive to make it all the way home by Christmas.  I really like Mexico, and have to wonder about the reputation it has for not being safe.  While that might be true in Ciudad Juarez, and perhaps a few other places, it is most definitely not true in any general sense.  It is as safe as any country in the world, and the people are generous and friendly.  The food is good, the sun smiles nearly every day, and the girls are very pretty (I can’t speak for the guys, sorry ladies).  So if you haven’t been here yet, what are you waiting for?

An odd construction from whale bones stands on the waterfront in Ensenada, Baja California, Mexico.

An odd construction from whale bones stands on the waterfront in Ensenada, Baja California, Mexico.

I am leaving via Tecate, my preferred border crossing for Baja.  It is more direct to go through Tijuana, but that crossing is very crowded and this is a more scenic route.  The mountains just over the border in California are quite beautiful too.  I have decided I could be happy living in Ensenada.  I  met many nice people there, and I came close to tearing my heart a little bit in leaving one particular person.  A little longer, and…

Frequent any town square in Mexico and you will see clowns who often draw very large crowds.

Frequent any town square (zocalo) in Mexico and you’ll see clowns who often draw very large crowds.

So Adios Mexico, volvere algun dia (I’ll return someday).  Feliz Navidad everyone!

The rocky coastline of the northern Baja Peninsula in Mexico is a peaceful place to be at dusk.

The rocky coastline of the northern Baja Peninsula in Mexico is a peaceful place to be at dusk.

Ensenada City Guide II   4 comments

The Ensenada harbor hosts cruise ships, and on this night when fire works are planned, a fire boat entertains spectators on shore by spraying water.

The Ensenada harbor hosts cruise ships, and on this night when fire works are planned, a fire boat entertains spectators on shore by spraying water.

This is the second of two parts.  Scroll down for the first post.   Ensenada is not a big city.  I don’t know about the statistics, but it feels like a modest city or very large town.  I have always loved places of this size. Having been here a week, I am starting to see the some of the same folks.  They show recognition and are starting to wave and say Buenos Dias.  They probably think I’ve moved here. The citizens are good people here.

The Ensenada fish market shows off some of its more interesting offerings.

The Ensenada fish market shows off some of its more interesting offerings.

 The city center (el centro) is basically divided into two sections.  One is the waterfront, which extends a few blocks away from there towards the east.  This is the “Zona Turistica”, an area with signs in English, high-end shops, and restaurants with food that suit the palettes of Americans and other Anglo Saxon types.

The sun is kissing this jar of honey fo sale in Ensenada, Mexico.

The sun is kissing this jar of honey fo sale in Ensenada, Mexico.

The city’s prostitutes operate out of this section too, though streetwalkers are very rare. Instead, they hang out in strip bars and massage parlors. If you’re a man walking through this area, be prepared for local guys to offer you the services of young girls. I wonder why so many people assume that middle-aged white men want to make it with girls who could be their daughters, or even granddaughters. It’s very true in Asia as well, Thailand being infamous for it. Very disturbing.  All of that said, I very much enjoy seeing and photographing the pretty women of Mexico, both young and old.

Clowning around on the waterfront of Ensenada, Mexico.

Clowning around on the waterfront of Ensenada, Mexico.

The great thing about the tourist section is that, being the waterfront, locals use it heavily. Even when cruise ships arrive and disgorge their passengers, locals outnumber tourists.  This means there are taco stands, great local restaurants, and even a local coffee shop or two.  I’ve been frequenting a delightfully cozy little cafe in the same mall where Sanborn’s Cafe is located (look for their sign).  Called Cafe Italia, it’s mere steps north of the town’s Starbucks.

A young senorita smiles for the camera on a pretty December day on Ensenada, Mexico's waterfront.

A young senorita smiles for the camera on a pretty December day on Ensenada, Mexico’s waterfront.

Sadly, the Starbucks gets much more business, perhaps because it is streetfront on Lazaro Cardenas, the road that runs right along the waterfront.  My little cafe is sort of hidden away, but it’s worth finding.  Sanborn’s Cafe is a nice restaurant as well, with traditionally dressed waitresses.

Reddish madrone and granite make a pleasant color combination on a climb in Baja Norte, Mexico.

Reddish madrone and granite make a pleasant color combination on a climb in Baja California, Mexico.

Cruise ship passengers seem not to wander beyond the Zona Turistica.  Granted there is plenty to keep you here.  The malecon passes the fish market, which is alongside a row of seafood restaurants (convenient!).  You will be offered boat rides here, from whale watching to fishing trips.  There are the requisite tours that go to various places that I am not familiar with, but I have not heard of anything that really piques my interest.

Ogla, the waitress, dressed in nice traditional clothes, wants to know if I want more coffee.

Ogla, the waitress, who is dressed in nice traditional clothes, wants to know if I want more coffee.

 If you simply walk a few blocks further from the sea, you come upon cheaper shopping and a much more traditional Mexican vibe.  There is a Sears and a couple other department stores, but there are also many small shops where you can pick up clothes and other stuff at good prices.  I bought myself a sombrero, my very first cowboy hat, for only $17.  It’s very nice, and the same shop has high quality leather cowboy boots for much cheaper than you’d find them in the U.S.  Further down south, a little ways from the city center, American big box stores have opened (Walmart, Home Depot, Costco).

On the streets of Ensenada, Mexico, a dune buggy is freshly painted for Christmas.

On the streets of Ensenada, Mexico, a dune buggy is freshly painted for Christmas.

 In amongst the shops in the city center are a plethora of streetside eateries.  This is a big part of Mexican culture.  Walk down the street around lunchtime and pick a popular taco stand.  You’ll get tasty fresh-fish tacos for about a dollar.  And you will likely be serenaded by guitarists singing traditional Mexican songs.  Most everybody eats standing up in the shade of the stand.  Very often it is grandmothers making the tacos, and their grand-kids will usually be there if school is not in session.  Catch a Mexican when they are eating and you will always get a friendly attitude.  Food is the glue that binds people, especially families, together here.

Two good friends greet with a hug in Ensenada, Mexico.

Two good friends greet with a hug in Ensenada, Mexico.

 As far as nightlife goes, there are local favorites, such as Hussong’s Cantina a few blocks inland from the harbor.  Then there are the touristy places like Papas & Beer.  Dance clubs are also in this same area.  At about 10 p.m. on a weekend night, look for the lines to get in, young (and gorgeous) girls along with guys trying to be cool about it all. Policia are all about the area, but truth be told, this is a perfectly safe area, even at night.  Ensenada is not Tijuana.

The desert of Baja California Norte in Mexico is a seeming hodgepodge of odd-looking plants.

The desert of Baja California Norte in Mexico is a seeming hodgepodge of odd-looking plants.

Plenty of people from California take vacations down here in the summer.  But I really think Ensenada is by and large overlooked in favor of La Paz and Cabo to the south.  Many visitors to the Baja Peninsula fly to the southern resorts, and I can’t say anything bad about a quick and easy winter escape down there.  But if you have the time to drive down, or if you’re going by bus down the peninsula, Ensenada and the deserts of northern Baja California are certainly worth some time.

A young Mexican couple in love.

A young Mexican couple in love.

Moving on from Ensenada, you can head south via San Felipe over on the eastern side of the peninsula.  This involves some gravel road south of San Felipe, but it is very scenic and unpeopled.  And you get to see a lot of the Sea of Cortez, a more beautiful coastline I think than this part of the Pacific Coast.  You can always return north via the main paved highway, so as to visit Parque Nacional Sierra San Pedro Martir (see previous posts).  That’s all for Baja (I think). Hope you enjoyed it!

A fire boat sprays water into a colorful dusk sky in Ensenada, Mexico.

A fire boat sprays water into a colorful dusk sky in Ensenada, Mexico.

A Carnival cruise ship lies in Ensenada, Mexico's harbor.

A Carnival cruise ship lies in Ensenada, Mexico’s harbor.

Ensenada City Guide I   Leave a comment

Fishing boats and pleasure craft share the harbor at Ensenada, Mexico.

Fishing boats and pleasure craft share the harbor at Ensenada, Mexico.

I feel after being here a week (my second visit) that I can safely recommend some things for anyone planning a short visit to Ensenada, which is on the Baja Peninsula in Mexico a couple hour’s drive south of San Diego.  For someone planning to come for longer than a few days, perhaps I would need to stay longer, maybe a month.  That’s the way it works, at least for me.  I need to be in a place for awhile in order to speak intelligently about it, and then my thoughts are only good for a shorter visit than I had.  It’s something I recently discovered about travel.  Note that I don’t cover many of the standard attractions; do a quick internet search (e.g. Trip Adviser) for the standard sort of advice.

Everyone needs a hat: Ensenada, Mexico.

Everyone needs a hat: Ensenada, Mexico.

I’m finally posting some people pictures, though my last post actually talked about the people more.  Sort of a mismatch I realize, but it probably only bothers me, and not all that much at that.

A pretty girl on the streets of Ensenada, Mexico.

A pretty girl on the streets of Ensenada, Mexico.  Note the pay phone, a disappearing sight.

Ensenada, like so many places, grows on you.  Many people from San Diego or elsewhere in SoCal maintain a house down here.  And many of those end up retiring down here.  So it is slowly becoming more popular.  Sure, Loreto to the south on the Peninsula, along with other places in Mexico, are more popular retirement destinations.  Ensenada, after all, has a seedy side.  And there are not really any good beaches nearby.  But it is a superb place to have a boat, and the fishing is excellent.  It is also a very safe place to be in Mexico, which is pretty important these days.  And for an American, being so close to U.S. soil is downright convenient.

A man selling honey on the streets of Ensenada, Mexico laughs at a friend ribbing him.

A man selling honey on the streets of Ensenada, Mexico laughs at a friend ribbing him.

There is one little piece of Ensenada that I was missing, that is until I found one last night; that is, a brewpub.  On a recent walk near sunset (my favorite time to take a walk), I ran into a great microcerveceria, or microbrewery.  It’s called the Old Mission.  I was skeptical about the quality of their brew, but they proved me dead wrong on that score.  It is the first in Ensenada.  La Paz, Tijuana, Mexicali, they all have several brewpubs.

A plain wall and window are given a bit of color in Ensenada, Mexico.

A plain wall and window are given a bit of color in Ensenada, Mexico.

A good brewpub is something we take for granted now in the Pacific Northwest.  But in Mexico you cannot buy microbrews in the stores.  Tecate is like Budweiser, and that company even manages to keep out competitors like Pacifico (which is my favorite mass-produced beer in Mexico).  You can find Pacifico in cans, but the best kind, that is, in thick-glass returnable bottles, is rare indeed.

A glass lamp and the setting sun combine to make a miniature lighthouse in Ensenada, Mexico's fishing harbor.

A glass lamp and the setting sun combine to make a miniature lighthouse in Ensenada, Mexico’s fishing harbor.

The microcerveceria, which has only been open about a year, is a very well built place, with soaring ceilings made of good ol’ Oregon Doug fir beams.  It cost the owners a bundle to import them.  They serve good pizza, and a variety of very good Mexican dishes and pasta.  They serve a couple great IPAs, plus a few ales, including a brown and a red.  And unlike in the U.S. (at least the ones I’ve been to) this brewpub sells mixed drinks.  Prices are quite reasonable, what with the good exchange rate between American dollars and pesos.  A margarita goes for about $2.50, while pints are in the $3.00+ neighborhood.  Sadly, $1 beers are pretty much gone in most of Mexico.

Men selling honey (miel) in Ensenada, Mexico pass the time in a card game.

Men selling honey (miel) in Ensenada, Mexico pass the time in a card game.

This post has two parts.  Tune into the second of these tomorrow!

A walk up a desert wash on Mexico's Baja Peninsula reveals some nice surprises, including palm trees.

A walk up a desert wash on Mexico’s Baja Peninsula reveals some nice surprises, including palm trees.

Baja California III   2 comments

Along Ensenada, Mexico's waterfront are a number of places to eat fresh and cheap seafood (mariscos).

Along Ensenada, Mexico’s waterfront are a number of places to eat fresh and cheap seafood (mariscos).

This post is about some of my experiences with people here in Mexico.  I love the focus on family, and the mellow attitude most Mexicans have toward rules and regulations.  There seems to be too many Americans these days who are in love with rules and regs., official and otherwise, if it allows them to act with disdain towards people they come across during the day.  This is not very true in Mexico.  And on the Baja Peninsula, which is this country’s wild west, things are pretty relaxed.

Elephant Tree in Black and White

An elephant tree grows large in the desert of interior Baja Peninsula, Mexico.

 There is a general lack of people photographs here, and I apologize for that.  If you’ve read some of my posts from other countries you know I do not have an aversion to taking photos of people.  But for me it has to be the right atmosphere.

The enormous granite boulders of the northern Baja Peninsula desert catch the day's last light.

The enormous granite boulders of the northern Baja Peninsula desert catch the day’s last light.

I almost never do casual people photography in the U.S., or most other developed countries.  Most people do not like it, and they are harder to approach anyway.  When it seems right, I always ask, and almost always engage the person in conversation, with some laughs thrown in.  My goal is to loosen them up.

The northern Baja Peninsula in Mexico shows off some color after rains.

The northern Baja Peninsula in Mexico shows off some color after rains.

But sadly, Mexico is getting to be more and more similar to the U.S.  There is a sort of standoffish vibe here now, and it seems to get more and more prevalent with time.  Perhaps not coincidentally, I have noticed a real increase in the desire to shop and accumulate stuff in Mexico.  I think the same is happening in China, but I don’t have enough visits to that country, so as to make that observation.

This statue of a native warrior in Ensenada, Mexico has one heck of a headdress.

This statue of a native warrior in Ensenada, Mexico has one heck of a headdress.

But go into the rural areas of Baja, and you will meet friendly farmers, ranchers and woodcutters.  They survive on the edge, working a dry piece of land, or even living off broad stretches of land.  I’ve met a few of these folks – always men it seems.  Things are still very much traditional in rural Mexico (not just Baja).  There is a traditional division of labor between men and women, and the woman runs the house with real power.

The Riviera, an architectural landmark in Ensenada, Mexico, basks in golden late afternoon light.

The Riviera, an architectural landmark in Ensenada, Mexico, basks in golden late afternoon light.

Actually, I’m fascinated with the traditional, matriarchal senora of rural Mexico.  I’d love to do a photo essay one day.  Another great thing to do would be to take a horse or burro and travel down the length of Baja, staying well away from bigger towns and cities.  I wonder if my horse could do it?  A burro and walking would definitely work better, what with the lack of grazing.

The cactus in Baja California's desert take on vibrant reddish hues after a winter rainstorm.

The cactus in Baja California’s desert take on vibrant reddish hues after a winter rainstorm.

I have stayed in Ensenada for a few days now, getting something done.  I’ve started to discover the out-of-the-way places: the little corner deli with great sandwiches, the best streetside stand for shrimp tacos, the sections where families walk, as opposed to those where streetwalkers walk.  It is pretty cool for a traveler who is normally on the move to be somewhere for awhile, to begin to get to know the place.

There is green space along Ensenada's waterfront.

There is green space along Ensenada’s waterfront.

In Mexico, it is usual for the town or city to at first appear very ugly.  Trash on the streets, a sad, polluted and concrete-lined ditch that used to be a stream flowing down to the sea, houses made of sheet metal and plywood.  But if you hang around, you start to notice how people use the place, how they make the best of things.  Eventually you start to ignore the negatives and focus on the positives.  I wish I were better at this, but I’ve always been a neither glass half-full or half-empty sort of person.  I’m really in the middle, though the really bad stuff I have a habit of completely ignoring.

A type of gall growing on a desert plant in Mexico's Baja Peninsula resembles a Chrismtas ornament.

A type of gall growing on a desert plant in Mexico’s Baja Peninsula resembles a Christmas ornament.

Ensenada draws tourists.  There are a few big hotels here, and quasi-resorts line the rocky coast to the north.  Cruise ships actually call here, disgorging passengers to roam the streets where tequila and trouble await.  I’m always one to be drawn to the seedy side of town, at least for one late-night foray.  What can I say, I like living dangerously.  Last night I went out, and visited a very popular bar.  On a Tuesday night it was elbow to elbow with locals, all having a drink and listening to a mariachi band, who played with real spirit while being jostled by people weaving their way through the crowd.

The Riviera is an architectural landmark in Ensenada, Mexico.

The Riviera is an architectural landmark in Ensenada, Mexico.

Then I went to a not so popular club, with maybe a dozen men sitting and watching girls dance.  I had a couple lap-sitters come my way, angling for that expensive drink, or possibly more?  After pleasantries (I want to help them learn their English after all!), I sent them gently away.  In Mexico the girls generally do not take everything off, and some even strip down to nothing less than you see on many American streets, in broad daylight.  So it seems somehow a bit classier than the typical place in the U.S. (which I haven’t visited in many years).

There are numerous sculpted caves in the granite of Baja California's desert.

There are numerous sculpted caves in the granite of Baja California’s desert.

It’s funny to see Mexicans all dressed up in their winter clothes, as the temperature dips to 60.  Many are women who are taking the opportunity to wear fashionable stuff, the kind that only comes in cold-weather style.   They are quite image-conscious here, slightly more so than in the U.S. I would say.  Of course this goes for the single senoritas much more so than the settled senoras.  I think men are too, but in a totally different, more subtle way.  Or maybe I pay more attention to the women.  This isn’t to criticize, just an observation.

The town of Ensenada on Mexico's Baja Peninsula shows a nice face when the light is right.

The town of Ensenada on Mexico’s Baja Peninsula shows a nice face when the light is right.

The sun is out again, with clear blue skies after a stormy day yesterday.  So I will head out and try to get a few people pictures before posting this.  Thanks for reading!

The Baja California Desert in Mexico quietly bids goodbye to another day.

The Baja California Desert in Mexico quietly bids goodbye to another day.

I didn’t get any photos of people, though I met plenty today.  But I did get this photo of the Carnival ship that is docked in the harbor right now.

A Carnival cruise ship is docked in Ensenada, Mexico's harbor.

A Carnival cruise ship is docked in Ensenada, Mexico’s harbor.

 

Baja California II   9 comments

The sun rises over the desert of Baja California Norte, Mexico.

The sun rises over the desert of Baja California Norte, Mexico.

Still in Baja.  This was to be a short 1-week dip into Baja California Norte.  I’m a bit over that now, but this is the day for saying Adios to Mexico.  Several years ago I came down here with a friend and we went all the way down to the southern tip at Cabo San Lucas.  Actually I liked San Jose del Cabo more than the famous tourist center.  It is to the east of Cabo San Lucas and is more of a local’s town.  The beaches all face south, are uncrowded, and (this is crucial) in December the sun shines warmly on them.

The desert in Mexico's Baja California Norte has some surprises, including the rare California Palm, which grow in small canyons fed by springs.

The desert in Mexico’s Baja California Norte has some surprises, including a variety of palms which grow in small canyons fed by springs.

The other great thing about the southern part of Baja, in my opinion, is the canyon hiking.  About halfway between La Paz and Cabo, just south of the windsurfing mecca of Los Barrilles, you’ll find Agua Caliente.  There are dirt roads leading west away from the highway and towards the mountains.  A great camping site awaits you, and a short walk from your camp brings you to a riverside hot spring.  But if you keep hiking upriver, you enter a granite canyon that is sublime.  I don’t like using that word much, but it fits here.

The desert floor in Baja California Norte takes on festive colors in December.

The desert floor in Baja California Norte takes on festive colors in December.

There are waterfalls and plunge pools galore, and even a few boulder fields where you can run across the perfectly-placed rocks.  I love doing this, though I can’t seem to generate the speed that I once did.  The trick is to start slowly and to concentrate on the exact spot where your next foot will land.  As you pick up speed, you begin to look for that next spot well before your front foot lands on the rock before.

The constant winds on the Baja Peninsula have sculpted the granite outcrops of the interior desert.

The constant winds on the Baja Peninsula have sculpted the granite outcrops of the interior desert.

Soon you are on the edge of wiping out, which will happen immediately if you lose concentration.  You go until the boulder field ends or your legs give out.  We did it often while climbing in Alaska.  It was a way to break up the monotony of traversing truly enormous boulder fields.  Here in southern Baja, the rounded granite boulders are perfect for it.  And after you get all hot and sweaty you can hit the next freshwater plunge pool.  Excellent!

The plants of Baja California's desert will often bloom in mid-winter when the rains come.

Plants of Baja California’s desert will often bloom in mid-winter when the rains come.

This was the first road trip for my beloved VW Westy.  I had just purchased it the summer before, and it really needed an inaugural trip.  I slept above while my buddy slept below.  He continued through Mexico by taking the ferry from La Paz, while I returned north with the van.

Aloe and granite outcrops in the desert of the northern Baja Peninsula glow with golden light at sunset.

Yucca and granite outcrops in the desert of the northern Baja Peninsula glow with golden light at sunset.

I also loved a little place called Aqua Verde.  This is a little-known coastal settlement on the Sea of Cortez side of the Baja Peninsula just south of Loreto.  You take a dirt road from the highway just before it cuts inland.  When we took this road it got bad, narrow and with extreme drop-offs.  But this was because a tropical storm had hit the area just a month before.  The road should be better now.

An aloe plant and its characteristic white threads is yet another interesting plant of the Baja California Desert.

A yucca plant and its characteristic white threads is yet another interesting plant of the Baja California Desert.

It’s worth braving the death-defying road though.  It leads down to an extremely scenic embayment, complete with offshore islands and sandy coves.  And the water is indeed colored a beautiful greenish turquoise.  When we visited, there was only a single family living down there.  The matriarch will serve meals if you ask.  Otherwise you can camp just about anywhere near or on the beach.  But watch yourself or you will end up doing a lot of digging and cursing getting unstuck.  I recommend bringing a shovel.  There was one American guy down there.  From San Diego, he comes here every year to dive and spearfish.  He says the water off Southern California is just too polluted now.  He loves the family, and this is his time to commune with his beloved sea.  All he requires is his little dinghy and a wetsuit, and he’s happy.  I hope Agua Verde hasn’t changed!

A desert plant on Mexico's Baja Peninsula displays vibrant color after winter rains.

A desert plant on Mexico’s Baja Peninsula displays vibrant color after winter rains.

Not all went well on that trip.  In Loreto on the return north, I had my van side-swiped by a drunk driver while it was parked.  Of course it was a hit and run.  But a small piece of the pickup that hit me was left at the scene, enough to identify the color and even the make of the truck.   Also, I interviewed every business owner on that street and sure enough, it was a swerving, speeding black Toyota pickup that hit me.

A temporary pool fills a depression in a granite outcrop on Mexico's Baja Peninsula.

A temporary pool fills a depression in a granite outcrop on Mexico’s Baja Peninsula.

So I spent a couple days wandering the entire city looking for that pickup.  It was sort of fun playing detective, though getting the police to help was frustrating.  When I found a pickup which matched, I actually got a Mexican policeman to follow him, with me in the passenger seat.  When we pulled him over it turned out to not have any damage.  Then the next morning while walking I saw a nearly identical truck with the right damage, parked on the roadside.  But when I returned with a cop, the truck was gone.  I never saw it again.

An elephant tree reclines on a granite outcrop in the northern Baja Peninsula, Mexico.

An elephant tree reclines on a granite outcrop in the northern Baja Peninsula, Mexico.

On this current trip I did not make it down there, but I did spend some quality time in the desert.  I also hung about in Ensenada for a few days, getting some (cheap) body work done on my van.  Staying away from the Chiquitas has been key to my saving money doing it here instead of at home, where labor rates are much higher.  But I am feeling a little road weary, after almost 3 months.  It’s time to head home.  I can feel it.  But one more post on Baja to come, this time focusing, as I promised last post, on the people I met down here.

A saguaro basks in the warm late-afternoon light on Mexico's Baja Peninsula.

A cardon cactus basks in the warm late-afternoon light on Mexico’s Baja Peninsula.

The crescent moon shines behind a towering cirios on Mexico's Baja Peninsula.

The crescent moon shines behind a towering cirios (or boojum) on Mexico’s Baja Peninsula.

Baja California I   Leave a comment

A rare rainbow graces the desert during sunrise in Baja California, Mexico.

A rare rainbow graces the desert during sunrise in Baja California, Mexico.

This is my second trip to the Baja Peninsula, and sadly this time I could not travel all the way down to the southern tip.  But that is definitely something I’ll do again with more time.  On the bright side, on this trip I spent more time in the northern desert, specifically the Parque Nacional Sierra de San Pedro Martir.  There are two sections to this park, the northern (which I posted on last time) and the southern (which is bisected by Highway 1 and so is more accessible).

In Baja California Norte, Mexico, the desert plants often take the place of trees.

In Baja California Norte, Mexico, the desert plants (including these yuccas) often take the place of trees.

I drove down to the little town of El Rosario, which is where the highway turns inland from the Pacific Coast.  There I met a couple friendly American expats, one of which let me park and camp on his property.  The other guy has a restaurant, and since he’s a commercial fisherman this meant some excellent fish that night for dinner.  El Rosario is nothing special, but for this reason it is sleepy and traditional.  Other towns further down the Peninsula, such as Mulege and especially Loreto, have more going for them.  But predictably, this results in their also being touristy.  Loreto’s development as a retirement haven has completely transformed that formerly pleasant seaside town.

A beautiful ground cover is the reward for hiking out into the desert near El Rosario on the Baja Peninsula, Mexico.

A beautiful ground cover is the reward for hiking out into the desert near El Rosario on the Baja Peninsula, Mexico.

Striking inland, the highway heads down the granite spine of the Peninsula, and soon you find yourself in a beautiful desert.  It is floored with giant boulders of granite, and features an enormous variety of desert flora.  This is the unique Baja California Desert.  The endangered California Fan Palm grows here, as do the fascinating cirios (or boojum tree) and the amazing elephant tree.  You will also notice a wide variety of cactus species, as well as some species of the Sonoran Desert.  The Sonoran borders this desert to the east, and runs up along the Sea of Cortez into Arizona.

Cactus and granite are features of the landscape of the northern Baja Peninsula interior.

Cactus and granite are features of the landscape of the northern Baja Peninsula interior.

I camped and hiked in the area for a few nights, enjoying the desert under some very nice light.  This was courtesy of the weather, which turned stormy for a couple days.  The desert received significant rainfall while I was there, which made for happy plants and colorful skies.

Cactus are happy in the arid but not too dry interior of Mexico's Baja Peninsula.

Cactus are happy in the arid but not too dry interior of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula.

The highway does run through here, and there are precious few tracks heading off into the hills.  And these are mostly 4wd only, especially when things are wet.  So with the loud Mexican truckers rumbling through here during the night, it’s important to find a track that will take you at least a quarter mile from the highway.  Then you can walk as far as you want in order to lose the sound of the highway.  With all the granite monoliths sticking up out of the desert, and the shallow canyons heading in all directions, you will soon lose the sound of  the truckers’ “jake brakes”.

Granite and towering cirios characterize the beautiful northern Baja Peninsula desert.

Granite and towering cirios (boojum) characterize the beautiful northern Baja Peninsula desert.

This place is a desert botanist’s dream.  What diversity!

This species of fan palm is usually only found these days in gardens, but in Baja California, Mexico, it still grows in the interior of the Peninsula.

This species, the California fan palm (left), is usually only found these days in gardens, but in Baja California, Mexico, it still grows in the interior of the Peninsula.

Make sure you are not like the 99.9% of people who rush down the peninsula headed for the warmth of Baja California Sur.  I do understand.  Mostly Canadian, but plenty of American snowbirds as well, they all have their favorite places to land, and they’re in a hurry to get there.  But it’s a long long drive (well over 1000 miles one-way from San Diego to Cabo), so make it a point to stop and stretch your legs in some of the fine desert you’ll pass.

A big saguaro cactus soars into the Baja skies.

A big cardon cactus soars into the Baja skies.

And this stretch in the north, where the highway crosses Parque Nacional Sierra de San Pedro Martir, is some of the most beautiful on the entire peninsula.  If you like stars, do more than stop and take a walk.  Camp here at elevation.  Although the stars are nice and bright on the beach as well, they have an extra sparkle up here.  Next up is a bit more on the people and culture here.

A rare desert rainstorm has left pools of water among the granite and saguaro of Baja California Norte, Mexico.

A rare desert rainstorm has left pools of water among the granite and cardon cactus of Baja California Norte, Mexico.

Baja’s Sierra de San Pedro Martir National Park   3 comments

The granite moiuntains of Sierra de San Pedro Martir National Park in Baja California Norte, Mexico catch the low December sunlight.

The granite mountains of Sierra de San Pedro Martir National Park in Baja California Norte, Mexico catch the low sunlight of a December afternoon.

I have visited this out-of-the-way park on Mexico’s Baja Peninsula before.  I had my telescope then, and the night sky of Baja was what drew me up to this 2500-meter high park of granite mountains and meadows.  It’s a forested and beautiful place that sits high up on the mountainous spine of the northern Baja Peninsula.

 This is also the site of Mexico’s National astronomical observatory.  There are two large telescopes sitting up on the high granite ridge.  The meadows below this ridge are a fantastic place to stargaze and do some telescope observing or astrophotography.  That is, if you are an astro-nerd like I am.

A beautiful December morning dawns in Parque Nacional Sierra de San Pedro San Martir, in Baja California Norte, Mexico.

A beautiful morning dawns in Parque Nacional Sierra de San Pedro San Martir, in Baja California Norte, Mexico.

 

The park is located 50 miles or so up a side road from Mexico Highway 1, which runs down the long Baja California Peninsula.  The turnoff is about two hours south of Ensenada, which is itself about an hour south of the border at Tijuana.  The road is a good one, but watch out for the dips (where arroyos send floodwaters across during infrequent rains).  If you are traveling south toward the beaches of southern Baja, it is a nice side-trip.

A big ponderosa pine pierces the blue skies above Sierra de San Pedro Martir National Park in Baja California, Mexico.

A big ponderosa pine pierces the blue skies above Sierra de San Pedro Martir National Park in Baja California, Mexico.

 

The delightful, open forest is largely ponderosa pine, and the mountains are made up of a very pretty white granite, speckled with black crystals like salt and pepper.  The granite makes for superb scrambling, and the meadows and open forest are perfect for hiking and/or mountain biking.  Perhaps the best part is that it’s not a very popular park.  When I visited for the first time, in 2003, there were no facilities, no gate, no rangers.  I simply drove out into the meadows along sandy tracks and camped.

Climbing the rugged granite peaks of Sierra de San Pedro Martir National Park in Baja California Norte, Mexico.

Climbing the rugged granite peaks of Sierra de San Pedro Martir National Park in Baja California Norte, Mexico.

When I visited this time, however, I came on an official entrance, with a building housing your typical friendly, mellow and bored Mexican park rangers.  It cost actual money to enter now, but only 54 pesos (about $4) per day.  This covers camping at the nearby official campsite.  It is no longer okay to pull off and camp anywhere in the park.  There is also a museum, a newish and beautiful building.  Official trails exist, and there are picnic areas scattered about in the pines.

A ponderosa pine cone has fallen in the forest, in Baja Mexico.

A ponderosa pine cone has fallen in the forest, in Baja Mexico.

The astronomical observatory is undoubtedly the main reason the road is paved and in good condition.  It’s possible to arrange a visit, by day of course.  The development of the park over the past several years probably means they were having issues with people just showing up at the observatory at night, headlights blazing.  Also, dispersed camping is a serious fire hazard, because many people cannot seem to be responsible with campfires.  The telescopes could easily burn down in a big forest fire.

The Mexican astronomical observatory sits atop a high forested mountain on the Baja Peninsula.

The Mexican astronomical observatory sits atop a high, forested mountain on the Baja Peninsula.

 

Signs urge visitors to care for the plants and animals of the park (“cuidada la flora y fauna”).  But there are cattle grazing in this national park, so how serious can they be?  Some areas have been hit pretty hard by the stock.  If you’re lucky, you might see deer or bighorn sheep here; maybe even a mountain lion (puma).

 As I mentioned, scrambles are fun and challenging.  I took a hike one afternoon and spied a granite peak that looked to be easy to get to.  But when I tried to hike there, things got difficult in a hurry.  It was challenging finding a route to the summit amongst enormous granite boulders.  I had to squirm through cavities and caves, friction-hike up granite slabs, and use some climbing moves to finally make it.  And though the view was expansive, the sun was dropping rapidly.  I made it back to the track I had been following just at dark – cutting it close yet again!  The nights grow very cold up here, so you don’t want to spend the night in the open.

Reddish madrone and granite make a pleasant color combination on a climb in Baja Norte, Mexico.

Reddish madrone and granite make a pleasant color combination on a climb in Sierra de San Pedro Martir National Park, Baja Norte, Mexico.

 

This is a gorgeous park that is a world away from dusty and busy Ensenada.  If you’re a stargazer, and have a small telescope (which you should bring if you drive to Baja), it is the perfect place for peering into the heavens.  For those from northern latitudes, this is a good chance to see more southerly deep space objects.  It’s easy to spend 2-3 nights here, hiking or biking the trails by day and camping under the stars.  So as a Baja side-trip, Sierra de San Pedro Martir is definitely worth considering.

One last look back at the surprisingly difficult granite peak I climbed in Baja Mexico's Sierra de San Pedro Martir National Park.

One last look back at the surprisingly difficult granite peak I climbed in Baja Mexico’s Sierra de San Pedro Martir National Park.

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