Monday, March 21, 2011

Our Excellent Baja Adventure - Day 1! "The adventure begins..."

Mention a whale-watching trip and the bulk of experiences most people have is a boat excursion from San Diego or other port town (I've been on one of those), where you might see a distant spout or shape of the whale as they migrate up the coast. Don't see anything and they may give you a discount or even a free trip on a subsequent trip. This is NOT the adventure we were expecting on our trip to Baja last weekend! Our ER doctor buddy, Chuck, has organized many small plane groups going south to Baja's Pacific coast to visit the gray whales in the lagoons where they spend the winter. My first wife Vicki and our recently deceased friend Valerie took the trip in 2003, and I was able to join the group in 2005. In these trips, you generally get right next to them, get to "scratch 'em behind the ears", and get covered in whale spit - well, whatever you call the misty spray that soaks you when they "exhale"!

This trip was triggered by our friend Carolyn. After Melinda had been in Tucson a few months, Carolyn started an annual February/March visit to escape the cold of the Chicago area. The first time we went to the Canyon, last year to the beaches of San Diego and Los Angeles. This year, joined by Melinda's sister Maj, we aimed to make it a little more memorable, and enlisted Chuck to try organizing the whale trip. I think he had 5 planes organized at one time, but ended up with 3 planes and 9 people total, combining whales with a medical clinic trip for some of the fliers. There are a number of clinics in the remote villages of Baja where the "Flying Samaritans" provide medical and dental care, and these doctors, nurses and translators are intimately familiar with Baja and the groups that run the whale tours.

We decided on 2 days of whale watching, going against the normally-scheduled single day. "Just in case" was our reason - bad weather, who knows... It turns out it was a great idea! But it required a Thursday-thru-Sunday trip, and 4 days of Maj and Carolyn's week in town.

Thursday,Day One - Tucson-to-Mulege. The schedule had us leaving Ryan Field, a small airport west of Tucson serving small planes, in late morning. We would go through Mexican Customs in Guaymas, 300 miles (475km) to the south. We would then overfly the Sea of Cortez to the Baja Peninsula to Mulege (another 105m, 175km), where we would stay overnight at Hotel Serenidad, adjacent (literally!) to the airstrip.

It was an uneventful trip to Guaymas. It is always interesting to fly in small planes. There is always a search to find the optimum altitude to fly, not only for less drag (a minor effect), but rather, to minimize headwinds (or maximize tailwinds). For the couple-hour flight, a difference of 10 or 20 knots can save significant gas when you are going through 10 gallons of expensive aviation fuel per hour. And with forecasts available on GPS units, there is a geeky joy in wringing out optimum performance.

And while the first leg was uneventful, there was an abundance of sightseeing from small planes. Flying at 6,000 to 8,000 feet provided excellent views of scenery. Minutes out of Ryan we passed the huge copper mines 25 miles south of Tucson. Right at the Mexican border west of Nogales was a restricted flight area due to a range/forest fire being fought from the air. We needed to vary our flightpath slightly to avoid it. And there was an interesting-looking canyon SW of Nogales that might be worth checking out from ground level - it resembled the rocky structures of Chiricahua National Monument some 120 miles to Tucson's SE. Otherwise there were ordinary views of Sonoran Desert intermingled with mountain ranges. It was exciting and, of course, always a little incongruous when the Sea of Cortez is first sighted while over Hermosillo, desolate desert right up to the edge of the water...

We landed at Guaymas to top up fuel tanks (gas is scarce in Baja) and go through customs. Complications arose when the airport was closed shortly after our landing for a fire drill, which included a smoky fire with fire engines at the south end of the strip! Most everyone had other duties to perform during the drill, so a stop that normally would have taken 30 minutes went on for nearly 2 hours. Finally, passports were presented, stamped and visas granted. While luggage was carried into the terminal, "The Button" which when pushed randomly picks out passenger luggage for hand inspection, all showed green for our group. Finally it was time to continue.

The flight to Mulege was completely over water, so the life preservers were worn for this leg. Shortly after departure from Guaymas we flew adjacent to the tourist stop San Carlos, where I visited several times by car a couple decades ago. I was a little dismayed to see "Catch-22 Beach", where the movie was filmed back in 1969, almost completely filled with development. When I last saw it in 1992, there was a Club Med at the NW edge of the beach, but it was still mostly empty sand dunes. Not anymore...

The trip across the Sea included a flyby of Isla Tortuga (Turtle Island). It is a volcanic island, about 20 miles from the Baja shore, complete with a central caldera. It sits on the western edge of the North American Plate. While pretty desolate-looking and undeveloped, there was a fishing boat and a couple small boats perhaps on a day trip from nearby Santa Rosalia. From there, it was a short hop south down the shore to Mulege.

The strip where we land is adjacent to Hotel Serenidad. The thing I never quite got used to was that nearly every landing we made, we were surrounded by army or federal officers with M-16s or machine guns verifying we had legal paperwork. We were also surrounded by kids eager to haul luggage the few yards to the hotel office for tips. I can imagine this was a lucrative job for most of them!

The group scattered - after check-in, some walked the mile or so downtown, we took a short walk over to a beach for shell collection. The plan was for our group and another plane from Phoenix to meet for a taxi ride to Ray's, a restaurant that was to be a highlight of day 1.

Ray is quite the character - a flamboyant Cuban ex patriot that seems out of place in a sleepy cow town like Mulege. The story is that he used to run a restaurant in town, which burned down under mysterious circumstances. He rebuilt the business some distance out in the country, about 1o miles of bad roads that doesn't seem to hinder much of his business. It is THE place to go, certainly for the likes of those who fly into town in their private planes. Mike Collier, one of our pilots, told me beforehand that some consider Ray's the best seafood IN THE WORLD! Well, I'm not a big fan of seafood (Iowa farm boy, you know), so will not criticize... Piling out of the taxi, in seemingly the middle of nowhere, it was a little oasis in the desert, well actually, it is in the middle of a hayfield, but with green lawn and fountains in front of the restaurant - the second floor of a farmhouse. Table for 16? We had to wait a couple minutes... Time to get a $2 Mexican beer (Pacifico was the standard in Baja). After seating, Ray says that with our crowd, he was just going to ply us with his specials for the night rather than 16 orders off the menu. Well, I guess I'm having seafood! There were about 4 big platters each of 3 or 4 appetizers, including stuffed clams, oyster Rockefeller, and others I've forgotten... Our dinner came as a combo platter - coconut shrimp, a fish fillet, steamed veggies in sauce and more. Dessert came, and though everyone claims they were stuffed, the pistachio cream pie all disappeared. The grand total (without drinks) was $18 a head as I recall! Again, I'm no seafood expert, but for a meat eater, it was pretty darn good! Our taxi drivers waited the 90 minutes while we ate - no ill effects from the 10 more miles of bad road to our rooms where we crashed.


David A. Harvey said...

Great story Dean. As a pilot - I would have loved to be with you on this adventure. I've flown down to MX a couple of times by myself in the early 90's - including an ill-fated trip for the "big one" in '91 for the Solar eclipse (got clouded out) great adventures to be sure.

Melinda said...

Dave! I didn't know you flew! We'll keep you in mind for the next trip! =)

Anonymous said...

Most definitely an Excellent adventure!