A Trip Through Baja with Callan Clendenin of Lemonade
Prior to this trip I had only trace impressions of Baja and somewhat typical expectations. Singing alcohol salesman Sammy Hagar has promised fire-breathing scorpion tequila, while a certain Señor Frog guarantees wet t-shirts and beer backpacks in the middle of the afternoon. Another thing I was fairly certain of, is that I would eat some fish tacos- the fried ones with coleslaw on them. After following a friend to an Airbnb vacation rental in the town of Los Barriles (note: listing has mysteriously vanished), nearly an hour’s drive from the San Jose del Cabo airport, we found a much more mystical experience nestled against some mountains on the calm and breezy Sea of Cortez. While Cabo may provide the all-inclusive package of floating drunkenly in a highly chlorinated pool with spring breakers, Los Barriles is more appropriate for a Peyote Trip with Mad Max where you end up windsurfing to a beach bar.
The Waterfalls of Santiago & Aguas Calientes
We attempted to go to the waterfalls near Santiago, a town about a twenty minute drive from Los Barriles, and ended up going to the Aguas Calientes (hot springs) instead by accident. That’s what happens when you don’t pay for data when you travel! Getting lost in our waterfall quest was perhaps the best part of the experience, as it involved taking our two-wheel drive Nissan rental down a loose sand road for several miles with little faith that we were going the right direction. The Waterfalls did seem neat on Trip Advisor, but perhaps the hot springs, though nice enough, can be skipped.
All I knew of Todos Santos, prior to this day’s mountainy hour and a half drive from Los Barriles, is its reputation as a surf rat paradise. I had visions of straw blonde Californians, high out of their minds on tacos, tearing down dusty roads in pick-up trucks with big tires toward epic, uncrowded surf. What we saw instead was an adorable little town with lots of gift shops, B&Bs, and picturesque cantinas, patronized by an older, gentler group of visitors.
We ventured about fifteen minutes out of town to Playa Los Cerritos, the Internet’s most recommended beach in the area. The cove is long and uncrowded, except at it’s rocky point, and you can wade out for hundreds of feet while warm waves break gently upon you. The late afternoon sun lights up miles of ocean around you in a blinding, all encompassing glare, turning to a resplendent winter sunset by 6 pm. The lingering impression of the experience is in the lunar feeling of space and remote isolation, where time moves incredibly slowly around you. If a moon-beach, however, is not what you are looking for and you want to drink with the gringos in a country-club setting (think Hamptons Bay Margaritaville), there is a beach club at the end of the point where the timeshare owners hold court. No español required whatsoever.
Balandra Beach and La Paz
Today’s drive would take the Nissan over the same mountain pass but significantly further. We passed through the congested outer limits of La Paz, through somewhat of an industrial wasteland (was that a nuclear power plant?), and then finally to the completely magnificent, undeveloped desert paradise that is known as Balandra Beach. What looks like a huge crater is actually just a lagoon, with mangroves at its base and some sea cave action at the mouth. The water was so shallow and calm you could watch as people slowly waded across the whole bay, looking sluggish, determined and relaxed at the same time. We rented kayaks, for roughly $8 US dollars an hour, and paddled across to a pristine, empty, white sand beach with but one couple sunbathing. We saw a yellow and black sea snake sidewinding in the extreme shallows and Mikey, our companion, claims he saw a silvery eel, though sadly, none of us saw the whale sharks which supposedly inhabit the area.
After scorching ourselves in raw sunlight, we took the coastal route back and ended up in La Paz for dinner. The restaurant we ate at, Las Tres Virgenes, was mediocre, though highly regarded, and perhaps recommended for people who don’t like spicy food or Mexican dishes. However, the extemely cheap mixed ceviche tostadas we ate as a sunset snack at Mariscos Los Laureles had everything from sea snail to octopus and I would eat those every day.
After a few hot days and cool nights of watching the ATV’s cruise up and down the arroyo (a dry sandy riverbed) below our vacation rental, it was time to go down and grab a quadman and rip around the canyons and cruise to some remote beaches.
It was at this point, behind the wheel of the quadman, that I understood the true nature of the Baja Gringo. The Mad Max desert landscape and the relative lawlessness — we saw a police officer drunkenly riding an ATV with his buddy, and the police station was a beach house on a cliff that appeared to be empty — brings out a bit of savage energy in those not accustomed to such freedom. It’s harmless and just a bit “desert outlaw,” which is something I had no idea I had always wanted to be, but now would consider bringing out this version of myself once a year at a time-share.
Of the meals we had in Los Barriles, none were bad, but I only truly recommend the breakfast or lunch at El Viejo. Get a Jamaica cooler and some huevos rancheros with chorizo and watch as the gringos, mostly Canadian, greet each other with delight and ask questions like “Have you seen Tokey?” We hoped, of course, that Tokey was the local weed and psychedelics dealer, though this was never confirmed, and sadly, nobody seems to have seen Tokey lately.
If you want to get drunk on the beach, which you know that you do, head to Lazy Daze or El Gecko, similar beachside establishments for very different experiences. Lazy Daze is bar-tended by a salty older American woman and the decor is a bunch of plastic chairs sinking into the sand, while El Gecko is somewhat upscale, and the owner came and made us table side guacamole while a nearby waiter poured a family some sort of flaming Kahlua cocktails. Both are cheap by New York standards, but Lazy Daze is ridiculously cheap, and there are some downright funky, cool dogs hanging around.
On your trip to Baja there will be many options. The first will greet you as you are exiting the airport at San Jose del Cabo. After passing through baggage claim, there will be an outdoor bar blasting aggressively “fun” music, and people will be doing shots of tequila in t-shirts bearing audacious slogans. You will feel a bit disoriented from your flight, but do not join them and end up on a party bus to Cabo Wabo, desperate to get to your hotel so you can put on a plastic wristband and immediately pee in the pool. Instead, get a rental car (don’t panic, 4x2 will be fine on the dirt mountain roads) and whip up the desert highway to Los Barriles where you can hack open a cactus with a machete on the beach by day, and at night find your inner coatimundi as you gaze at every star in the milky way with the company of outrageously loud night birds.
All photos by Callan & @wigglewomp