Category Archives: Adventure

Independent excursions on the roads less taken

San Diego – San Felipe: two hours & two worlds apart

We’re on the beach in formal attire, gazing reverently west as the sun sinks into the Pacific. 

The surf is pounding, gulls shrieking, shallow tidal pools all aglow in sunset’s last light. 

Beside this stretch of shore lies the Windsor Garden, a storybook setting at the vintage-1888 Hotel Del Coronado. We hear the faint strains of a string quartet, the clinking of crystal stemware. A memorable evening of fine food, music and dancing awaits; later, the comfort of luxurious accommodations offering every conceivable amenity.   

San Felipe sunrise - Playa Bonita campo


We’re on the beach in athletic attire, gazing reverently east as the near-dawn sky lightens and luminous pink clouds appear on the horizon. The waves are lapping, roosters trumpeting, shallow tidal pools all aglow in morning’s first light. Along this stretch of sand, from the lighthouse to the peak of El Machorro lies San Felipe Bay, the Baja beach hideaway on the Sea of Cortez.  We hear the faint strains of the RV camps coming to life: generators humming, dogs barking. The aroma of fresh-perked coffee wafts through the warm, arid desert air.   

We’ve left cushy Coronado Island for an adventure into the unknown in a rented SUV with heavy-duty tires, relying on a bad road map, passable language skills, a roll of U.S cash and internet directions to some campo on a beach.  Packing two totally different trips into week and one suitcase- think strappy evening sandals and dusty hiking boots- we flew to San Diego for a family wedding, then drove into Baja California Norte—to the less-visited east coast, frequented mainly by off-road racers, spring breakers and right now, very many retired gringos in RVs.   

 Loading up the Avis 4-wheeler — the Baja is the only place in Mexico where you can drive a U.S rental more than 25 miles south of the border—we’d headed for Tecate, home of the brewery, just-renewed passports at the ready.   This border crossing is 40 minutes from the San Diego airport by way of California 94, along which the landscape transforms abruptly from suburban sprawl to barren hillside, devoid of habitation and vehicular traffic. Turned out land travelers didn’t yet require passports; in fact, on this Monday afternoon in February 2007 the border was completely unattended.   Entering Mexico involved about as much fanfare as driving through an automatic I-Pass lane.   

Descending from the mountain tollroad we drove through low desert in fading light. I’d heard the Baja described as otherworldly, spooky—a place where the line between reality and illusion blurs. It was definitely living up to the hype. We turned south at Mexicali to drive for what seemed like hours in the Baja’s driest desert. There was no evidence of life. To the west, the San Pedro Martir mountains, to the east, the Sea of Cortez, to our eyes, only sand. Endless, creepy nothingness.  This must be what Mars looks like, I imagined, continually checking the gas gauge and drinking water supply. As darkness descended, anxiety gave way to actual fear – random scary thoughts.  We can’t be lost, there’s only one road. People could die out here. Where are the people? Isn’t Mexico supposed to be overpopulated?  What’re those circling overhead, vultures? And so forth. 

 No other cars passed. We saw no lights, no houses, eventually, no vegetation; from the radio, we heard only static.   

Finally, much to our relief, we were stopped and questioned at a military checkpoint. A baby-faced, M-16 toting Federale  in desert-camo politely informed us that San Felipe was not far. (If you’re driving Mexico’s open roads, you will routinely meet up with the army. They are looking for guns and drugs, not payoffs).   

 Soon thereafter, billboards hawking real estate appeared.  

San Felipe lighthouse


The area was in the midst of a land rush of Wild West proportions. San Felipe has become a second home to thousands of American and Canadian retirees, some of whom made serious dinero on land deals.   

 “They’re trying to make this into the next Puerto Vallarta,” sighed Catalina Montalvo, the New York native who owns the town’s only bookstore.  “It’s great for business, but it’s ruining the aesthetics of the place.”   Mike, a white pony-tailed, black-leather jacketed Chicagoan who hadn’t been home in 30 years, agreed. He had cashed in big on a  deal. “I’m going to the islands,” he said. He didn’t mention which ones. “It’s too crowded here now.” Indeed, the town is overrun with pioneers, mainly from the West Coast, lured by easy accessibility to the border, cheap land, the chance to hold title to foreign property and the company of others like themselves who are moving here with plans to terraform the area. They see visions of golf courses, shopping malls, community theatre.    

But where will the water come from, we wonder.  

It’s Happy Hour at the Taco Factory along the Malecon, almost sunset. The tide is out; shellers are working the beach and the fishing boats are taking in their haul for the day.    

San Felipe- shelling along the Malecon


 We fell to talking with some recent transplants—a good-looking middle-aged couple, their entrepreneur daughter who makes deals happen, and a 30-something guy in real estate who’s wandered over from the bar to join in the conversation. The Californians are unfazed. The water comes down from the mountains, they say, gesturing to the lifeless San Pedro Martirs.

We’ll take their word for it. 

We’re from the Midwest, where basements flood, what do we know from the desert?   

Now we’re on a day excursion, 20 miles or so into deep desert, in search of the entrance to Sierra San Pedro Martir National Park. We’d gotten bum directions from a mean lady at the tourist office who was definitely in the wrong line of work. Site of the tallest peak in the Baja and home to cool forests of pine, cypress and fir, where hikers can climb waterfalls and view cave paintings, the park seems to be eluding us. The road—well, the pile of sand, rocks and rubble we’re following —stretches endlessly, frighteningly, to nowhere.    

Then we see it. 

Lago del Diablo near San Felipe- a true mirage


A beautiful lake, sparkling, shimmering blue in the distance. That’s where the waterfall flows into, we figure. We stop and take photos, driving onward to the shore. There we discover a dried-up expanse of sand, rocks and rubble,  animal carcasses, some dead tires.    

Turns out mirages are real. The digital camera was not fooled – but we were.  And we weren’t the only ones. When we got home, and found a much better map, there it was.

Lago Del Diablo.  

We never made it to the national park. We also never bathed in the geothermal springs at Puertocitos, having arrived at low tide, when the pools are scalding hot and you can’t go in.  

We found no evidence of  desert tour operators or fishing boat companies that the guide books mentioned.   

Valley of the Giants - home to the cardon cactus - the world's largest


We’re left to our own devices to explore this alien landscape where nothing green grows but cactus tops 75 feet, where road signage is a tire propped up in the sand, or a defunct air conditioner with an arrow spray painted on it pointing the way back to town.  

We wake up and fall asleep listening to the waves, with bay breezes wafting through the open door to our wraparound terrace overlooking the beach. 

The sky is always blue, the nights starry. We read good books, we eat great food, we see amazing sights, and we meet nice people. 

We retrace our route in daylight, amid all the construction that will convert the San Felipe highway from one lane to six. The return trip seems a couple hours shorter. This time we wait 25 minutes to cross back onto home soil—the U.S.A mans her borders, thank you— and take California 94 back through winding hills that had seemed so bleak, so desolate on the way down.  But now, after 5 days in the Baja these same hills appear lush, inviting, teeming with life.  It’s all a matter of perspective, isn’t it?

Bangkok – after Saigon fell

bangkok street scene2Don’t go to Bangkok they all warned me – stay away.

Overland travelers with serious road cred, those who’d started in Athens and gotten to Southeast Asia the hard way were unanimous in their distaste for the dirt, chaos and crime of the Thai capital and really any other major city.  Surely Bangkok would overwhelm a  novice like myself who had flown to Tokyo from Chicago only 4 months earlier.

 bngkwmn-1But I’d racked up some cred of my own. After  a month navigating the Tokyo subway system, being hospitalized with dysentery in Java, managing  a harrowing border crossing from Malaysia into Thailand with a ditsy travel companion from Lincoln, Nebraska who “forgot” he had some opium in his backpack –  at the last minute he palmed it off on our trishaw driver as a tip  – I felt prepared for Bangkok, where the prospect of Western toilets, hot showers and mail from home being held at the American Express office awaited. 

Also I had a phone number to call. The forest fire fighter/journalist I’d met on Penang could be reached at this safe house for Kuren rebels in Bangkok. Thirty years before this phrase was coined he was embedded with the rebels and their cause and was filming them at their camps and on the front in the remote hill country that spanned the Thailand-Burma border up north near Chiang Mai.  We’d spent a week or so in  Batu Feringhi, in Penang exchanging  scorching glances, always surrounded by a group of people. Peter had left a folded piece of notebook paper with this Indian guy we’d befriended on which he’d written me a poem and this number to call.

In Bangkok with  Nebraska Bill and Eric from the Peace Corps, who’d joined us in  southern Thailand  we got a Western-style motel room with private bath and a pool and had  breakfast at Mitch & Nam’s, an American-styled diner run  by two Viet Nam vets who decided not to go home after the war. This was February, 1976 – less than a year after the fall of Saigon. Eggs, bacon, hash browns, pancakes, heaven. We lingered over coffee and The Bangkok Post – the  first English language newspaper I’d seen since leaving Hong Kong in November.  

budhstmnk-1Overland  travelers in those days were almost completely isolated from the outside world.  In Asia you could go weeks without access to any form of Western media.  It became known that  I had a  transistor radio that might pick up the BBC on a clear night and sometimes a  group would gather, listening to mostly static.  There was a brisk trade in paperbacks, but news was a scarce commodity.

 The Thais loved us Yanks. After months of being heaped with scorn and derision by both natives and  Europeans who held us personally responsible for our government’s decisions – something any American traveling abroad at any time has no doubt encountered – this was heady stuff.

At the motel I tuned the transistor to an English-language station playing the blues and my frst hot bath in three months. The water turned black. Apparently the cold dipper baths didn’t slough off dead skin cells.  So I refilled the tub with more hot water and shampooed my hair – lather, rinse repeat. Heaven.

I wrote home faithfully once a week but hadn’t gotten mail since Hong Kong;  parents   communicated with backpacking kids back then  by sending letters  to Amex offices marked “Hold for Arrival.”  There were 7 letters from home.  Ecstatic, I sat at the pool and read them from the  most recent back, not understanding  my mom’s   references to “bearing up under the circumstances.”   The earliest letter – one from my brother – was hilarious.  I laughed so hard  people around the pool turned to look at me. Then he wrote that our grandmother had died. Gram and I were astral twins -we shared the same birthday – and I was finding out three months later. I  cried so hard the same people around the pool turned to look at me again.

When I got back to the room I reached Peter at the number he’d given me, amazing since this was the first time he’d actually been at the safe house; he’d be leaving for the hill country that night but he wanted to see me. He caught a three-wheeled taxi  and came over. Bill and Eric were out. As soon as I opened the door he knew something was wrong .  He held me while I cried, and for a long time afterward.

Santa Fe: Hiking the Atalaya Mountain Trail


Santa Fe is one of those destinations that has something for everyone so it’s a great place to go with friends whose idea of what constitutes a good time may differ slightly from yours.  The area offers hiking, skiing and rafting for the outdoorsy types, Canyon Road and the museums for art and history buffs, shopping and spas, Taos and the Pueblos, great restaurants and bars. Spring and fall bring gorgeous, dry warm days and cool nights when it’s nice to curl up by the kiva fireplace in your casita and relax after the day’s activities.

There I  did something I vow I will never do again –  took a solitary mountain hike on an unfamiliar trail.  It was a 7 mile loop that you picked up close to downtown Santa Fe that started off kind of easy and flat and became increasingly challenging. Some people I met coming back down mentioned a shortcut that joined up with a dirt road that eventually led to where I’d parked.  They also said once you reached the final peak the trail split. You could take a longer more gradual incline or a steep straight shot up to the summit. One of them looked middle-aged me over and said, “you know, it gets extremely strenuous from here….”

Game on.  The steep uphill was actually no  problem, I’m at the gym every morning. Anyway I was antsy to finish the hike already and meet up with my travel companion, who was back in town dividing her time between browsing the galleries and searching frantically for public restrooms when it became apparent she should have opted out of the hot chile sauce on her huevos rancheros  – enough said.

The lack of trail markers was concerning.  In the Midwest there are always those little signs with the colors, here, not so much –  just a narrow footpath winding through the pines. Covered in pine needles it  didn’t look a whole lot different from the ground where the footpath wasn’t.  Nevertheless, I made the summit without incident.

The vistas from up there were amazing. The 18x zoom on the Olympus SP 550-UZ was getting quite a workout. That camera is no longer with me, it got ripped off last winter at a different Mayan ruin. Bad camera karma at those ruins, makes you wonder….

In any event, a woman at the summit who did this climb daily obligingly snapped my pic and started back down.

I said to myself, I should follow right behind her,  she knows this trail. I should have listened to myself.

Heading back down one minute I was on the trail, the next minute, not so much.  I ended up perched out on some high precipice, with a serious case of acrophobia, no water and almost no battery power left in a cellphone that only showed one bar. I tried calling the New Mexico State Forest Department. This trail wasn’t in their jurisdiction and they couldn’t help. I called some number at the Santa Fe county. They told me to call state forestry department.  I heard the low battery signal beeping and hysteria creeping into my voice. A cold icy hand gripped my chest and  squeezed really hard. I broke out in a sweat.

Then my inner voice said, Self,  hang up. If you panic all is lost. It said trail or no trail, clearly the direction you must go is down. It said,  just keep the sun on your left. I listened. Grasping some tree roots I got off the precipice and on solid ground. That the ground was at about a 60 degree angle I had no choice but to ignore. I crouched down and slid – pine needles are actually softer than they look – finally reaching somewhere flat enough to stand upright. Sliding down was  a hell of a lot faster than climbing up but I don’t recommend it. There I spotted a v-shaped seam in the side of the mountain,  like maybe where snow melt runs off. 

The voice said water knows it way down a mountain better than an ignoramus like you. It said, follow that sluice and it will bring you back to the trail. 

That never happened.  But damned if that sluice didn’t deliver me to the exact spot those people told me about where the dirt road linked up to the parking lot. Eventually I met up with other hikers on the road who were looking at me funny. Apparently the pine needles had ripped my aerobic tights to shreds and they saw London, they saw France, they saw Caryn’s underpants.