Baja - April 1998

The road south beckons once again. Highway 395 stretches out across a land dominated by arid scrub: the creosote biome carpeted in spring wildflowers as if Kemehameha had gotten lost on a foray and laid down his robes to rest. Electrical towers march toward the horizon like a procession of kachinas lined up for the ceremonial dance of electrons. We are on our way to Baja! Our new truck demands to be introduced to the road and aquatinted with our routes, to become a member of the family and share in the memories and common adventures that forge family bonds. The task of student teaching and striving to discover what motivates a seventh grader has primed me for a hiatus. I must make my pilgrimage from the dry windswept reaches of my desert home to the beaches of the Pacific, where I can hear the breakers’ rhythm as I pull the Mexican sky over my head and discover what it means to sleep and rest once again.

The more I travel, the more I learn. I have shaved an hour off my travel time to the south by choosing new routes. I have learned that when crossing the border, by choosing the left side of the customs station at the Tijuana crossing I can pass through secondary inspections faster. (For some reason as a long-haired psychedelic relic with a camper, the inspectors are always curious as to what might be back in the camper. They never look very hard, but always seem to enjoy poking around just a little bit.) I love learning. I love to travel.

The new truck handles our 3,000 pound camper with style and grace. I have just acquired a 1998 ton Dodge 4WD with the new 24 valve Cummins Turbo Diesel. Cummings took the best engine on the road and made it better. The truck is suspended seven ways from Sunday, with extra leaf springs on the rear axle, a sway bar, and air bags, making the large camper feel like a passing second thought. The cab has been insulated for sound, so that the clatter of the diesel is all but insignificant in comparison to the cab of my old ’93. Any noise that does filter in is subdued by the extraordinary fidelity of the new CD player. My wife has given our truck the name: Miss Netty (stands for "mine is newer than yours;" our previous truck was named Miss Betty, which stood for "mine is bigger than yours.")

Miss Netty and la familia Gent merrily jaunt along Baja’s Highway 1 through Tijuana, on past the encroaching condo virus spreading south from southern California, and on toward Ensenada and the Estero Beach resort: our little jewel on the Pacific where we will pass the week in well deserved torpor. We arrive just a tad after the supper bell has rung in our heads, signaling the congregation in our stomachs to prepare for services. Hurriedly, we sign in at the desk for the campground: an immaculately landscaped grove next to the estuary, and claim our turf for the night before strolling over to the restaurante, where our old friend Mario has been patiently waiting to greet us since we saw him last at Thanksgiving. A fine repast awaits, and I have always appreciated the fact that, although the Shrimp Cordon Bleu has not appeared on the menu in years, Mario is always happy to instruct the chef to whip up my favorite dish for me. Shrimp wrapped in strips of bacon covered in cheese sauce over a bed of rice is the outstanding specialty of this restaurant, and I cannot fathom why they keep it a secret. On the other hand, their advertised Calamari is not to be dismissed lightly! A fine dinner and a few margaritas luego, and we are ready to call it a successful day!

Next morning we offload the camper from the truck, giving the appearance that we might stay for a while. Indeed it seems very strange for us not to be heading further south as is our usual habit, but the unfortunate reality of my present condition (working!) preclude such freedoms. Just because this is the case is no reason for my not being able to run my new toy up and down the peninsula everyday! Our first side trip is to the south of Ensenada, and out along a coastal terrace bounded by the Aqua Blanca fault to a spot called La Bufadora: the blow hole. This is reputed to be the largest blow hole in the world. Waves approaching the shore of Bahia Papalote trap air in a rocky cave on the northern shore of the bay and block the cave mouth. As the wave crest moves into the cave, it compresses the cave air until the release of pressure along cracks in the roof of the cave forces a plume of water skyward. The steepness of the wave front and the amount of water blocking the cave mouth determine the strength and height of each plume of water. In addition to the natural wonders of the area, local merchants have established a large bazaar which serves to attract the attention of visitors who have tired of the repetitive tidal phenomena. My daughter is included in these ranks. She is totally captivated by the glitz of jewelry and the schlock of porcelain figurines. My wife and I, having stocked up on blankets and hammocks on every previous trip patiently wait out Rena’s forays while gnoshing on fish tacos at the sidewalk loncheria.

On the way back to town we want to check out rumors that hot springs emerge along this stretch of shore. We have heard that one can take a shovel down to the tidal zone, dig a hole, and hit hot water. A likely looking place is a small enclave of palapas and houses named Aqua Caliente (Hot Water.) We swing in and find ourselves in a small cul de sac whose muddy streets are paved with sleeping dogs. One lone gringo appears to be in residence, unloading his late model Dodge truck from a recent trip to town. One look at my truck and he gives the universal sign: the good one: a thumbs up backed by a large smile and nod. We pull over to make chat, talk shop, praise Dodge, and inquire as to the rumors of hot water. "You’ve come to the right place, let me show you how it works!" He swings open a louvered door on a small pump station next to his house, throws the switch, and is soon pumping 130 degree water from a garden hose into the spa built into the side of his patio. "You can’t drink it, and even the washing machine hates it, but it sure is fun to sit in!" We do discover that indeed you can take a shovel down to the beach and mine the water the old fashioned way, but we admire the way Gino has dialed in his creature comforts.

In our continual search for geothermal goodies, we decide to visit a spot we first discovered on our original excursion into Baja. Leaving Ensenada on Route 3 to San Filepe, about 27 km up into the mountains is a little haunt known as Aqua Caliente. (The Mexicans aren’t very inspired when naming hot springs: most geothermal springs are named Aqua Caliente.) The road out of town climbs a steep and tortuous route regularly punctuated with potholes the size of small impact craters. Road hazards notwithstanding, it is pleasant to leave the urban sprawl below and turn our attention towards verdant mountains peppered with tonalite boulders and carpeted in El Nino’s spring harvest of wildflowers. Reaching our turnoff the adventure begins as we navigate 7 km of dirt road that has a tendency to go straight up, and then straight down, with an occasional curve bordered by a large crack which shows that the inside of the curve is soon to join the detritus in the drainage below. When I first made this trip six years ago I had a camper on the back of a two wheel drive truck, and ruined two shock absorbers getting in and out. I am quite happy on this occasion to have left the camper in Ensenada and have 4WD capabilities.

The springs are privately owned and operated, and we are pleased to see the family seems to be doing a good business. There is a hotel, two swimming pools, (one hot and one cold), roman bath houses, a restaurant, and a campground. When we visited years ago, only the warm pool was full, the hotel was in shambles, and the restaurant was an empty shell. Now the hotel receives guests, the toilets are working, the cold pool is half full, and the restaurant has some table and chairs inside, though we saw no sign of any food being prepared. About five or six families were in residence under the Live Oaks of the campground and the warm pool was in full swing as family members of all ages frolicked and played. We enjoyed the company of travelling Americans and Mexican nationals for several hours before returning to Ensenada for sunset services with a bottle of Merlot on the beach.

The trip was not quite as torpid as I had suggested earlier. However, it was profitable in many ways. Lots of lounging and languishing, as well as exploring, and extolling of tales over the laptop. I was also able to prepare a few lesson plans for my middle school students, and most importantly I had the opportunity to work on a revision to my graduate thesis proposal, which, should it be approved, will appear on this website. For a project focusing on groundwater I cannot understand why this piece of literature is so dry.

Meanwhile I suspect it is time to hit the "Shift-U" buttons, close down the laptop, pack up the truck, and journey north to Santa Barbara where we have been invited to attend a birthday party for a backyard of ducks. Strange life, isn’t it?

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