Monday, March 21, 2011

Baja Day 2! "A Tsunami Warning and the Posada de las Flores"

Friday, Day Two - Mulege-to-Campo Rene. The plans had us scheduled for an early morning flight to the west side of Baja to Laguna San Ignacio, one of the primary bodies of water where the gray whales give birth and spend the winter. After the boat trip and lunch the tour group provides, we were to head to Campo Rene, about 40 miles to the west, where we were to "rough it" in some primitive cabins in a tiny settlement on a pacific beach.

An early breakfast at the Serenidad restaurant. One of our Baja experts (and clinic translator as well as my personal lawyer!) Joey (the one with cell service in Baja) had news - a magnitude 9 earthquake in Japan. Bad enough news in itself, but how it affected us is that Tsunami warnings for the Mexican coast might affect our whale tour. We continued on, taking off for points west. Climbing out of Mulege, we actually found that little oasis Ray's in the middle of that field. The clear morning air accentuated the view of the mountains, and the sparkling water of both Baja coasts were visible through much of the 40 minute crossing.

We landed on the dirt strip (more a combination of salt, dirt, sand and shells) and taxied to the ramp where a half dozen other planes were parked. It seemed amazing that some of the expensive planes were brought into these remote little strips. There were a number of 2-engine planes, but mostly single engine 4-seaters like ours. And yes, our fears were confirmed, the Tsunami warnings had closed whale watching operations. Ruby (whom everyone seemed to know), seemed to think all operations were closed down for the next 14 hours, and, in fact, she was the only one there - everyone else had evacuated! The Phoenix folk that had joined us at Rays the night before - 6 people in a 2 engine turboprop, had come down for the one chance at a whale trip and had to be back in Phoenix that night. With the operations shut down, they were out of luck...

After discussions, our group of 9 decided to press on to Campo Rene. Fortunately, the hop to the west brought us right over Laguna San Ignacio (LSI). And while generally planes were not allowed over the lagoon, since it was on our flight path, we got to see whales! True, we were a few hundred feet up and going 120 knots, but we saw a good dozen or two in the 2 mile wide mouth of the lagoon! Pretty amazing for our first view of them!

Campo Rene was a similar story - dirt strip, this time no other planes, no people. The little sleeping shacks we were to stay in were there, but it was a ghost town - one fellow left behind to watch over the restaurant and inform passers by. Everyone else evacuated. More discussions... With an active tsunami warning, we were in the danger zone, though with a SSE facing beach, I wasn't too concerned. Still, the consensus was that we had 45 minutes to explore, then back to the east coast of Baja - either back to Mulege or a different site - Loreto. Gail, a nurse travelling with us had been there once before and highly recommended it, so the plan was amended!

Less than an hour, a virgin beach to ourselves. Tide appeared to be out and creeping in. Joey claimed that on a previous visit the sand dollars were so thick you couldn't avoid stepping on them. Well, they must be out of season, as we saw none on the beach - just sand, but above the high tide line in the small dunes were the sand dollars the Johnson girls sought. I found what appeared to be the rib and partial plate of the shell of a sea turtle, and I also found the jawbone of a gray whale partially buried in the sand - pretty old and well beaten up... There was some nice surf - our first view of the Pacific. The beach stretched for miles in each direction. A lone great blue heron fished in the surf. I'd only observed them fishing in the Fox River back in Illinois, and had a hard time thinking they would brave 2 foot surf for salt water fishing, but there it was!

Back to the planes, load the new shell booty. We had noticed crossing the landing strip to the beach that the strip numbers were marked in shells! Runway 24 (240 degree azimuth) number shown in picture at left. We took off, crossing LSI again. This time I was a little more prepared for pictures of whales, and pilot Chuck even circled a pod of 5 a time or two. Unfortunately, I made a beginner's mistake and had set the ISO too low and the slower shutter speed and vibrations from the plane resulted in slightly fuzzed images. With the mouth of LSI crossed again, we climbed, mostly staying parallel to the pacific coast. A spectacular view of blue pacific, alternating with marshes, wetlands, desert and mountains. Setting the course for Loreto, we had to cross the Sierra de la Giganta (Mountains of the Giants), maxing out at about 6,000 feet elevation. Crossing them, Loreto came into view, a little green jewel of a town nestled between the mountains we just crossed and the Sea of Cortez. And miraculously, an asphalt runway! 
Our little Maule seemed happy landing on the smooth surface. After the obligatory army unit inspection, the pilots went to file paperwork, the tourists headed towards the banos.

Of course, we arrived without hotel reservations. Gail, who had been here before, had some ideas. With all 9 loaded into a van/taxi, we headed in the 2 miles to town. After chatting with the driver, we pulled into the fancy hotel Posada de las Flores. While we waited in the Taxi, Gail and Joey went to negotiate for rooms. Even though the place was empty, they talked them into lowering the price a bit, and with the central location, it was decided to stay. It was a beautiful place - 3 floors of rooms with a pool on the top floor. From the lobby atrium, you could look up through beams to see people in the pool! Quite different - spectacular architecture, arches, spiral staircases. The room was cozy, nicely decorated, and the bathroom all Talavera tile - our favorite!

We all gathered in the sidewalk bar down on the ground floor. After beers and nachos, we scattered in all directions. Our group walked the block to the old mission in the center of town. The Loretto Mission was established in 1697 by colleagues of Father Kino ( a household name in Tucson), who established missions through southern Arizona and Sonora, Mexico. It always seems amazing it's over 300 years old! We found shopping across the street in a building nearly as old - built in 1744! I returned to the room and relaxed for a bit. Melinda joined the girls in their room. Everyone met at Mita Gourmet, a local restaurant at 6:30, located across the street on the town square. The owner/chef Juan Carlos took our orders, telling us we can get whatever we want, whether it was on the menu or not. Finally I was able to skip the seafood, and got a very nice rib eye steak. Another great dining experience, no disappointed diners among us! We stopped at the hotel's sidewalk bar for a final beer. Facing the town square, it was taken over by the town's youth. There were some juggling and one performing with a flaming "hula hoop of death" as I called it. After a few tall tales, it was time to turn in - another adventurous day.

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