Orange-tinged sunshine spotlighted the mountains’ tips, and thin trails of smoke pointed fingets at the slowly disappearing stars. An appetizing aroma could be seen hanging in the air like lightweight cotton candy-a combination of sizzling bacon, pressed garlic, sliced onion, refried frijoles and fresh, hand-formed tortillas cooking over open fires. The ranch hands and farm workers were preparing for another 12-hour day.
We were driving into the sun on our way to San Felipe, and we had just cleared the pass into Valle de Trinidad on two-lane Highway 3 from Ensenada, Baja California Norte. The valley’s residents were cooking and eating breakfast-it was daybreak. The wonderful smells of the valley woke our kids and our appetites, so we were forced to find a safe parking spot in order to cook our own breakfast. My husband and I had awakened in the earlymorning darkness in Ensenada, hooked up the trailer quietly while sharing a Thermos of coffee, transferred the kids from beds to backseat and cruised east before the town awoke from its Friday-night partying.
It was early spring, and it was so dear the stars looked close enough to touch-they were like ships’ anchor lights floating in the harbor of the sky. In almost all of the Baja California peninsula, outside of its few cities, there is no ambient light at night-most of the casas (houses) have no electricity and the only light comes from kerosene lamps, Coleman lanterns or candlesand the stars are clear and close.
We especially like camping in Baja California because it’s a year-round destination. During the dog days of summer, when Southern California’s temperatures and smog alerts compete with each other for attention, the cooling sea breezes off the Pacific Ocean down Baja’s 1,100-mile length beckons.
Although the last 10 to 15 years have seen major changes in the coastal camping along the Pacific Ocean-farms, orchards and ranches have expanded southward along Highway 1-there are still an awesome amount of campgrounds along the coast. Between Ensenada and the U.S. border, there seems to be either a campground or a motel covering nearly every acre of ground between the toll road and the high-tide line.
In and around Ensenada there are several combination motel/campgrounds available. Most of them have all the amenities of campgrounds north of the border-swimming pools, full hookups and showers-and are within easy walking distance of the surf.
South of Ensenada, campsites can be either primitive or boondocking. A fullservice campground can be found here and there (Santo Tomas and San Quentin to name two locations), but most of the campsites will be either primitive on privately owned land (park wherever you like and pay the owner a daily fee of usually around $3 per day) or on open, unclaimed land. To reach most of these areas you’ll need to do two things: negotiate two-lane dirt roads for 3-5 miles and know where they are (for the most part there are no signs telling you where to turn off the pavement).
Also during the summer months, campsites can be found in the spiny backbone of Baja California, in the pines of the Sierra San Pedro Martir. One of our favorites is Laguna Hanson in the Parque Nacional Constitucion de 1857 (Constitution of 1857 National Park), about 16 miles off Highway 3 on a well-used dirt road, due east of the town of Ojos Negros (Black Eyes). The last time we were at Laguna Hanson, there were no improved campsites, only open areas along the lake shore under the pine trees. It’s hard to believe, but the Sierra San Pedro Martir even receives snow in its higher elevations during winter.
If you prefer to take your camping trips after the kids are back in school, the coast of Baja California on the gulf side will warm the cockles of your heart from September to May. However, the long Labor Day and Memorial Day holiday weekends should definitely be avoided. Not only will the desert heat be baking the coastline during those days, the crowds are always enormous. Long lines on both sides of the border crossing, in grocery stores and at Mexican car insurance kiosks would have your personal temperature rising. For most of us, the Gulf of California-or the Sea of Cortez-is just too hot for comfort from late May to mid-September.
On both sides of San Felipe-within about 5-10 miles of town-there are dozens of campgrounds, all of which vary in their level of amenities. However if you plan on staying at any of these, you’ll need some sort of car or truck to run around town in. When we want to relax, not worry about having to drive into town for supplies, be able to stroll down the beach, or swim and sunbathe poolside, we stay at the El Sombrero, which is a quality combination hotel and campground.
The El Sombrero is just a mile south of San Felipe’s downtown. It’s right on the beach, with a concrete seawall high enough to keep your RV dry during San Felipe’s extremely high tides. It has two very large adult-size (and depth) pools– one with a swim-up, in-the-water poolside bar-several smaller pools and a Jacuzzi or two scattered about the property. There’s an outdoor dance floor and an indoor one, too, several restaurants and cocktail lounges, a game room for the pinball wizards, and all the usual features that most upscale hotels or campgrounds are likely to have.
Even though the El Sombrero Motel and Campground is our favorite camping spot when we stay in San Felipe, there are many highly attractive campgrounds in town. We also enjoy beach camping in any number of campgrounds to the south of San Felipe, up to and including the public beach below Mulege, 600 miles down the coast.
if you like seafood, Baja California is a veritable smorgasbord made just for you. When in season, yellowtail bait can induce 300-pound black sea bass to snatch your hook. Clams and conch fresh from the gulf make the finest chowder you’ve ever floated a cracker on. Along the Pacific coast, you’ll find all the same species you would hook off Southern California, except in larger numbers. Fresh lobster can give a whole new meaning to the term “pot luck,” and if you’ve never tried abalone, you’re missing one of the world’s greatest gastronomical treats.
After finishing a hardy breakfast, we continued on our leisurely way to a safe, comfortable harbor at El Sombrero in San Felipe.
Just remember three things when you’re traveling and camping in Baja California: Act as you would as a guest in someone’s home, because you are, always buy Mexican vehicle insurance and drink only bottled water. TL
Copyright T L Enterprises, Inc. Jan 2001
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