We have been in Baja California, Mexico for several weeks and have totally fallen in love. The people are friendly, the weather is warm, the beaches are beautiful and raw, and the food is delicious. But as we have traveled here, we have found that one of the most interesting elements of traveling by van down the peninsula is the tribe that forms around you. The Baja peninsula has basically one paved highway that runs north-south down the peninsula: Mexican highway 1. There are small dirt roads that branch off from Mex 1, but with only a handful of exceptions these are out-and-back roads, most so wash-boarded or sandy that they turn the average American driver back after only a few kilometers. All the major towns and resources on the Baja are scattered along Mex 1 meaning that if you are traveling in Baja you are either traveling north on Highway 1 or south on Highway 1.
So as you settle into your rhythm on the road and the pace you like to keep heading south down the peninsula, you find yourself traveling in an unofficial pack of people who are also south-bound and moving at a similar pace. We frequently roll into the next town to do our shopping and laundry and find that we seem to know 50% of the gringos there: people we have camped alongside of and shared campfires with, who are also in town to stock up.
And so our tribe has formed. We recognize the vans and bicycles and trucks of our friends. Even when cell service is bad we seem to find each other. One Westfalia set up on the beach seems to call others, like a flag set in the sand or a homing beacon.
We spent several nights this week on a small beach just north of Playa Escondido on the Bahia de Concepcion along with our current tribe. This beach sits on the calm waters of the bay nestled between the cactuses of the desert hills behind and the thick mangroves of tidal waters. It’s a small paradise nestled among other paradises. Several small hot springs dot the coastline. This whole region is riddled with old volcanoes and geothermal activity. It’s not uncommon to find hot springs like these along sandy beaches. At low tide the springs are too hot to do more than dip a few toes in, but as the tide rises, the hot spring water mixes with the cool ocean water and it becomes a game to find the time of day that makes each spring the right temperature for soaking.
We pulled into the small and tight-one-way-streeted town of Mulege several days ago to stock up on supplies after a few days on our own and, as usual, found it practically crawling with familiar faces and rigs. After some enthusiastic hellos and conferencing, we decided to head for Playa Escondido for the night. Eric and Joana, a couple from France who we had met a few days earlier, had spent the night there and said it was wonderful. When we pulled in later that afternoon, we found Eric and Joana’s Westy set up on the small beach with a few other vans we didn’t know. As the afternoon wore on and we settled in the tribe assembled: our friends Donald and Alexis pulled in in their Westy and unloaded with their two dogs, a cycler named Isaac who knew the Spanish couple in one of the other vans walked down the beach to catch up and ended up setting up his tent, and another cycler named John who we had met a week earlier pulled in and set up as well.
The beach was so peaceful and the community so comfortable, that we couldn’t help but stay as long as our water supply lasted. By day we explored the tidal waters and the hot springs along the beach; by night we built beach campfires and swapped stories; and every morning trucks from local vendors pulled up to our camp to sell fresh fruit, vegetables, fish, and baked goods.
A week later, on a tip from a 30-year Baja veteran, we braved a 40 kilometer drive down a rugged dirt road through the mountains with 180-degree blind turns and mind-spinningly sharp drop offs to find a secluded beach near the fishing village of Agua Verde. One thing we have learned in our time here is to always follow the tips from the old-timer Baja travelers. There are a startling number of people who have been coming here in their campers and trucks for 20+ years. Many of them annually. This particular veteran, Jimbo, can describe every road on the map in play-by-play detail and can trace the routes of several other roads not mentioned on any map that I have seen. Jimbo gave us the skinny on the coast-line around Agua Verde and outlined several good camping spots but pointed us toward his favorite: a small north-facing arc of beach nestled under the green cliffs and marked by two large rocks out in the bay.
Following along the dirt track of road along the coast, we spotted the two rocks and found the cut-off trail down to the beach. Our van bounced down the rocky path and we rounded the corner on to the beach to see the familiar outline of Eric and Joana’s Westy set up just above the tide line and Eric running down the beach to greet us. Our tribe was assembled again.
We have now been camping with Eric and Joana off-and-on for several weeks. Our paths will diverge for a few days at a time as we take a day in town to do laundry, or they explore a beach that we skip, but every few days we seem to meet up again. After a few weeks of this we have grown into a very comfortable friendship with them which has settled into that wonderful spot where we are equally happy and comfortable talking late into the night and also just going about our own business side by side without any need to talk. At this point we keep each other informed of our plans and the good spots we hear about. The unspoken agreement seems to be that if we don’t want to hang out any more we can just not go to the spots where the other couple will be, or hang back a few days, or jump ahead. But so far no one has. The conversations are rich, and this feels like the start of a friendship that we will carry on for years to come.
There are four camp setups on the beach including Eric and Joana. The others are scattered along the beach, each one just within eyeshot of the next along the curves of the bay. There’s Larry, another old-time Baja veteran who has been coming here for 20 years in his pickup truck and camper. He told us that this is one of his favorite places in Baja as well and plans to be on the beach here for over a month. Pete and Sarah are down the beach from us in the other direction, this is their first time in Baja just like us. Rich and Patty are set up further down the beach, out of sight of our camp. They have been coming here for years as well. Rich has a Westy at home in the states which gives us plenty to talk about.
This beach is just about perfect. The sand is the good kind of sand that feels cool and soft under your feet but doesn’t seem to work its way into every possible corner of the van. Its just a bit too moist for that. There are a few gulls in the water and a lone pelican diving and we spotted dolphins earlier.
As we make our way back from a walk around the rocky point at the east end of the beach we wave to Larry and I think about him coming here, to this spot, every year for the last 20. I can’t help but wonder if he knows Jimbo, the old-timer who told us about this spot, if their paths have crossed before, or if they have even been part of each other’s tribe.
There are so many reasons to love Baja, but maybe this is what keeps people coming back. It’s more than the beautiful beaches and wonderful fish tacos and the warm welcome you get from the locals. That stuff is all great, but you can find that other places. I wonder if some of the magic that keeps people coming back is the unique geography of the place that forces friendship and community and tribe. Folks come back to catch up with the people they met last year or 20 years ago or to meet some new tribe. The spider-web of the American and Canadian road maps provides chance encounters with people along the way, but rarely do we see the same people again. But here on this long ridge of land we bump into each other regularly and grow real relationships. Relationships that are worth seeking out and coming back for.