The year was 1985, and as summer approached, my friend Randy Caudill and I had the opportunity to take a humanities and marine biology summer course at MiraCosta College. The "great" part about it was that the class spent two weeks in Baja at Bahía de los Ángeles. Naturally this wasn't one of the tougher decisions we ever had to make, so that July we found ourselves on a bus headed south from Oceanside, CA. We followed the toll road south past Ensenada, paying off federales once or twice, then turned off Highway 1 toward the little fishing village that was our destination.
Most of Baja California is dominated by the Vizcaíno Desert, much of which is protected as the El Vizcaíno Biosphere Reserve. The desert is full of species that have adapted to its extreme environment; one example is the palm trees. There are two types of palm in Baja California: the usual common one found everywhere, and the blue-frond palm, which occurs nowhere else. In the picture to the right, the tree on the left is a common palm; the one on the right is a blue-frond.
Sorry these pictures aren't of a higher quality, by the way; they're rather old photos and they were taken with a 110 camera to begin with, so the resolution was never very good.
We spent the night out under the stars at a Mexican rest area, and were awakened when one of our early risers found a black widow where she didn't expect (on her sleeping bag, in her shoe, or something like that--I forget where exactly, but I might have jumped too). Somewhere along the way, our instructor pulled us over for a learning experience. First he showed us some ancient petroglyphs (these maybe?--it's been a long time) and told us a bit about the Vizcaíno Indians, the Cochimí. Then he had us sit still and silent for five or ten minutes and listen to the desert. Sure enough--it had seemed all quiet beforehand, but the longer we sat and listened, the more sounds we heard from various desert animals around us.
|Then we continued on to Bahía itself. We crested yet another hill, and were greeted with a sight something like this:
(Photo borrowed from http://www.mexfish.com/bola/bola.htm)
|We drove down out of the hills and through town. On the far side, we turned off the paved road, and right about here:
||We turned and parked next door to this, which was nicer looking than the place we were staying at:|
So, the bus pulled up in front of the Vermilion Field Station. This would be our home for the next two weeks; it was right on the beach, so you just had to walk out the back to be on the sand or go for a swim or dive. There were enough cots for half of us, we had electricity only half the day, the water was awful (more on that later), and there wasn't even enough of it to take freshwater showers or flush the toilet. We bathed in the ocean and carried a bucket of seawater to flush with; the "If it's yellow let it mellow..." rule was very much in effect here. Still, we had a lot of fun. Here's a couple of the guys hanging out in back of the place. The one on the right is Jim Spring. On the way down, a lot of the group was indulging in Coronas since they only cost 50¢ down there, and Jim put down more than his share of them. When we got to the station, he traced a bottle on the wall and wrote on it in imitation of the label, "Jaime Corona Smith - El Gringo Más Fina". The name "Jaime Corona" stuck.
The back of the station had a kitchen where we cooked our meals and did our dishes. It opened out to the outside, without doors or windows. At the left you can see the entrance to the kitchen, with one of the semi-wild dogs that used to wander around town. This one we nicknamed "Pulgas" since he was full of fleas and ticks.
Speaking of going for a dive, did I mention there were stingrays?
Yes, the waters off Bahía and around the offshore islands are full of stingrays. The safe way to get in the water was by doing what our instructor called "the Baja shuffle"--shuffling into the water aggressively to stir up the bottom and disturb anything there. It's way counterintiutive, not to mention intimidating at first--but the rays don't want any trouble, so they swim off quickly and leave you alone. If you're wondering how it can possibly be a safe thing to do, consider that it's more dangerous not to do it. I nearly stepped on one out on one of the islands, and that was by not doing the shuffle--so even in pre-Steve Irwin days, a close call like that could put your heart up in your throat. Then again, there was the afternoon where Randy and I got bored and took turns chasing a stingray. That was fun, until we tired of it.
Also on the left you can see the mural we left behind on the back porch, which faced out to sea. That was a great porch--you could sit on the run-down furniture and look out at the water and boats and whatever was going on out there.
Here's a composite panorama I took of the Gulf while I was there. Yes it's crude; all I had was a 110 film camera and I'm no wizard with Photoshop (or the GIMP), so I just stuck them together and cropped. There are other sites out there that show a higher-quality panorama, but this is how it looked in 1985 from our field station. What looks like the mainland way off in the background is actually a great big island, Ángel de la Guarda, which was much farther out than any of the islands we visited.
Bahía is a village of just a few hundred people. Unlike border towns like Tijuana, it doesn't house a burning resentment of Americans; there are even US expatriates who've lived there for years. It has a mayoral building, grocery store, cervecería (brewery, or in this case, a beer store), seafood restaurant, curio shops (including Guillermo's), and a town park which is rather large for the size of the village. The park, like the village, is very dry--this being a desert area, after all. It's too small and remote to have Federales; instead there's a small marine base. The marines could be seen every day, hanging in and out of the base building--there's very little to do in a place like this; I'm sure this wasn't a choice posting.
One day one of the guys was headed to the cervecería on the north end of town to buy some Tecate, and asked if I'd like to come along. Sure, why not? I was surprised how little it cost: $8.00 for a case, which was cheap even back in '85. On the walk back we dropped one (oops) and he gave me another, but I didn't like beer at the time* and couldn't finish it. On our way past the marine base one of them approached us and asked for one--sounded to us like an offer we couldn't refuse, so we gave him the one that had dropped. It probably fizzed up all over the place, but we'd have been gone by the time he could get it open.
* This will probably come as a surprise to anyone who knows me today.
Most of us ate at the seafood restaurant once or twice; it's where I had my first taste of raw scallops. They taste just like cooked ones, but the texture isn't as good. One of the guys insisted that dipping them in lemon juice effectively cooked them, but I didn't notice a difference. Looking back on it, Mexico might not have been the best place to sample raw food, but what did I know? I was 17--it just seemed daring at the time. The word was that you could also occasionally get turtle soup at this place, which was considered a sought-after delicacy (and a big no-no to us, since the turtles are endangered). There is a turtle refuge on the north end of town, by the way.
There are several small islands off the shore. They're very dry and are uninhabited except by birds and chuckwallas. The islands look like you could swim out to them, but appearances are deceptive; they're several miles out.
But with motorboats it was a piece of cake to get out there. We spent several days out among the islands, and even landed and explored a few, especially Isla la Ventana, one of the larger ones. On the left you see some of us up at the top of the slopes that surround the main bay of la Ventana, and at right you see the "window" that the isle is named for. I took an opportunity to go exploring with some of the others, realizing too late that I'd left my shoes in the boat, which was moored offshore. There was nothing for it but to go mountain climbing barefoot, over those sun-baked rocks and scrubby vegetation. Ooh it smarted, but for the rest of the summer I could walk on practically anything.
We skin-dived off several islands. Near one was a rock reef with an actual shipwreck, which we dived at. It was the remains of a fishing boat which had gone down about a year earlier, and there was surprisingly little left--still, how often do you get to skin dive at a real shipwreck? We also spent some time in and around a bay on Isla Smith, the largest of the little islands, which is where I nearly stepped on one of the stingrays.
Also in and among the islands, we did a bit of whale watching from the motorboats. Whale sharks are sometimes spotted in the area, though we didn't see any. Still we managed to find fin whales. Other wildlife included cormorants (see right), pelicans, and brown and blue-footed boobies.
During our stay I heard there was a ghost town about 10 miles to the south, and being always interested in historical sites, I got a small group together to visit it. The four of us bounced down the dirt road in the van, and finally arrived at what Randy later described as a "godawful ghost town". It took a while to find this online, but it turns out to be what's left of the Las Flores Mine (see here and especially here for other sites with more pictures and information about it). More correctly, this is the remains of where the ore was processed; the ore mill and saloon are apparently long gone, but the jail where overly borracho miners would be intercepted and brought in to sleep it off is still there.
Randy was right--there wasn't much left. Most spectacular was the old jail, which was apparently built by Dick Daggett Sr., but little else remains. There was a bare-bones cemetery (Daggett's grave seems to be the centerpiece), the remains of what I thought was the foundation of a house (but which seems instead to have been the roadbed for the railroad that connected this to the mine itself), and some old rusted mining equipment.
You can find some more recent (and higher-resolution) pictures here. You can also cruise the page to see more stuff about Bahía.
The tap water in Bahía was atrocious. It was piped in from a lake ten or twenty miles away, and our instructors euphemistically described it as "brackish". I grew up drinking Southern California tap water, and I couldn't stand the stuff; neither could many others in the group. A lot of us bought bottled water in town, but I found another solution: I discovered that the villagers got their drinking water from an artesian well on the west side of town. It didn't take long to figure out that not only could I improve what I'd been drinking, but others would pay for it if I was willing to do the legwork. So, with a lift from one of the instructors, I'd go up to the well and fill an Arrowhead bottle or two, then bring the water back and filter it through a cloth into gallon jugs. I'm not sure how much I made from selling that stuff--not all that much really, but it was enough to get me nicknamed "Water Czar of Bahía de los Angeles" by my classmates.
This was a class, of course, and each of us was supposed to do a project in either marine biology or the humanities. For mine I chose to research and write a history of Bahía, as best I could learn from its inhabitants. As part of that, I wanted to draw a rough map of the town. Of course today it's easy to find that stuff on the Internet, but in 1985, forget it. Of course the best way to get the lay of the land would be by air, but that wasn't an option. I decided the next best thing would be to see it from out in the bay. We had a little two-seater rowboat, so I convinced Randy to come out with me (apparently he hadn't learned enough from the ghost town experience to say no). We rowed out some distance, about to where the land north of us seemed to turn northward--probably about half or a third of the way out to the nearest islands (see map at left). Then we paused, I sketched the coastline (see map at right, with key), and we rowed a little further out for fun, then paused for a break.
You probably saw this one coming, but that's where things started to get complicated. On our way out, Randy had noticed we seemed to be moving awful fast. I dimsissed it, thinking that was an illusion caused by the waves heading toward shore. But now that we weren't rowing, when we looked at the land to the north and south we could see we were heading noticeably seaward--the tide was pulling us out to sea. D'oh!
So here we were, being pulled slowly out to sea, too far offshore to call for help, in a small boat with only 2/3 of a gallon of water for provisions. It wouldn't have been so bad, except the boat lacked oarlocks--this wasn't much of an issue when the tide was helping us, but now whenever we didn't coordinate our stokes just right (and I was usually the guilty one), the boat would turn hard to one side and we'd have to spend extra energy to point it back toward shore before we could get back into sync. So we had many false starts and it took us a long time to get back to shore, though we finally made it--and never set foot in that rowboat again. Lucky for me that was my last harebrained scheme of the trip; I think Randy would have throttled me if I came up with another "great idea".
At the end of the two weeks it was time to return to Oceanside, so we packed up and came home. The return trip was pretty uneventful (maybe because everyone was exhausted by then!). One of the most remarkable things I recall was news of the outside world on our return. When we left for Bahía tensions in South Africa were getting worse and worse and it looked like they were about to bubble over into something really ugly--but when we got back, it seemed to have all suddenly been resolved. It seems the whites figured out how things were likely to go if they continued to insist on the status quo, and negotiated an end to apartheid. Now sure that was them acting in their own enlightened self-interest, but I like to say that enlightened self-interest is still enlightened. It's also resulted in a much saner and more humane South Africa than we would probably have today if revolution or civil war had broken out.