The Baja Bunch

When Fred Lidinsky suggested that I join him and Dick Gray on a flying trip to Baja to camp on the beach for a week in February, it took me no more than ten seconds to make up my mind. What a great way to escape the winter snows of Colorado by basking on the balmy beaches at the south tip Baja. Fred had spent three months driving and camping all up and down Baja a couple years before, so he knew all the good (and bad) places. He knew just the place for us to go: Bahia Los Frailes, a secluded cove located on the east coast about 40 miles from Cabo San Lucas at the tip. It has a dirt airstrip half a mile from a sandy beach, and with the closest pavement some 40 miles of rough dirt road away, very few tourists visited there. The only people around, other than a few scattered ranches, was a fish camp that seemed to come and go depending on how the fish were running. He said he had become acquainted with one of the local ranchers named Rafael who would be a most helpful person to know. He was more or less the Don of the area, a person who the rest looked to for leadership and advice.

Flying had been the primary way for people to travel the thousand miles from San Diego to the tip of the peninsula because of the rough and dangerous roads. The Transpeninsular Highway had been completed only two years before, and only a small number of winter tourists were finding their way further south than the wide-open town of Ensenada. The Baja 1000 Road Race had been going on for a few years, which helped introduce people to this rugged and beautiful area.

With full tanks, three of us and all our camping gear, we had Fred's Cessna 182 loaded to maximum gross as we lifted off at Black Forest and swung the nose to the southwest while it was still dark on a cold February morning. Our first stop was for breakfast and fuel at Winslow, Arizona, 450 miles and nearly three flying hours away. After about an hour on the ground, we were back in the air bound for Mexicali where we would clear customs, bring the tanks back to full and enter Mexico. Fred didn't want to fly over the Sea of Cortez so we were taking a bit longer way around to stay over land.

It took nearly two hours to get through customs and back in the air at Mexicali, and with the short winter days and 480 air miles to our planned overnight stop at the Serenidad Hotel in Mulege, both fuel and daylight would be in question. There are two places where fuel is available between the border and Mulege, but if we had to land at either of them, we would not make it before sunset and one can get into considerable trouble for flying over Mexico at night.

Our plan was that if we hadn't reached Bahia de Los Angeles, which was 300 air miles from Mexicali, in two hours, we would land there for the night. If we made it in under two hours, we would keep going. Flight planning is difficult in Baja because there is no way to get winds aloft other than perhaps a report from another pilot. An hour and fifty minutes after takeoff, Bahia de Los Angeles slipped past our left wing. We had Mulege made.

With 1300 miles behind us and the sun sinking like a red ball in the west, we turned final for the Serenidad Hotel strip where we could tie the ship down right in front of the door to our room. We hadn't had anything to eat since breakfast and were famished. The only problem was that the kitchen was closed preparing for the Saturday night pig roast which didn't start till 8:30pm. The only thing we could find to eat was peanuts in the bar where they have three sizes of Margaritas: Chica, Grande and Mucho Macho. A couple Mucho Machos and you can't hit the floor with your sombrero.

While we were waiting for the pig to come off the spit, we explored the area. We figured that it was either get out and walk around or get totally wasted in the bar. We helped a man pull his boat up on the beach and when he asked us the time, Dick pulled off his watch and handed it to him, which began a tradition with us for as long as we continued to fly to Baja. We would give our watches away to the first person we met who did not have one as a symbolic gesture that time meant nothing to us while there.

It's about 200 miles from Mulege to La Paz, which would burn off enough fuel so we could pick up groceries, ice for the cooler and beer without overloading the plane. It was also a good place to have lunch before the final 75 mile flight to Los Frailes. It was early afternoon as we turned final for the dirt strip at our destination.

We tied the ship down, and as we began to unload our camping gear and food, we began to wonder how we were going to get all that stuff moved from there to the beach half a mile away where we planned to camp. Fred said he would walk to the fish camp to see if anyone there had a truck, but just as he reached the road, his old friend, Rafael, drove up in his pickup.

There is a huge fig tree, estimated to be 300 years old, growing on the beach and it's the only shade for miles in either direction. Some people who had been camped under the tree while catching tropical ocean fish to sell in their pet store in San Francisco were loading to leave just as we arrived. We got a great camping spot with the cow plops already cleared from under it.

We flew there every February for the next ten years, and as word got out about our annual trips, various people joined the group with eight people and three airplanes being the largest number; but there was always the three original members. Rafael was always there to help us, and we tried to repay him by taking things that were either difficult to find there or too expensive. It was at least twenty miles as the crow flies to the closest phone or electrical power, but he had a tiny little 6" black and white TV with an antenna made from coat hangers and ran off a 12 volt battery that he would charge by hooking it up in his pickup when he went someplace. It picked up two very snowy channels, but it was the only TV in the area.

Fred owned a TV repair shop and suggested that we take him a 13" color TV designed for use in RVs and a good antenna. We chipped in to cover the cost and took it with us the next trip. We also took along an antenna, but it was too long to fit in any of the airplanes so I cut it in two and made a connector to join the two parts together when we got there. While we installed the antenna and set up the TV, word went out to all his relatives and there must have been thirty people there to see the new TV. We hadn't told them that it was color, and when it came on, they were really amazed. The new antenna not only brought in two stations from La Paz sharp and clear, but he could also get two other channels from Mazatlan about a hundred miles away across the Sea of Cortez.

One of the other gifts that we took every year was several cartons of 22 caliber ammunition. Mexico has very strict laws about fire arms and ammunition, but it is possible to buy 22 rim-fire ammunition if you can show a need for it. The local fishermen needed a rifle to shoot sharks and barracuda before they pulled them into their boats. To buy ammunition, they had to travel 70 miles to La Paz and fill out an application at the capitol. The application would be sent to Mexico City and if approved, it would be returned and they could buy one box of 50 rounds. Each box cost about $15 as compared with a couple dollars in the US. We would take three or four cartons of ten boxes to the carton and give them to Rafael. He never mentioned what he did with them and we never asked. The Mexicans, and I suppose other Latin American people, will simply say, "Muchas Gracias" when you give them a gift. Then they will put it someplace without looking at it. It's their custom to never look at a gift while you are there.

One year he told us that his son was going to the university in Loreto and they hadn't seen him in about a year. We decided that the least we could do was take him and his wife to see their son. I was flying a Cessna 210 which had a cruising speed of around 180 mph which would make the flight to Loreto in a little under an hour. We needed to make a grocery run anyway so we told Rafael to bring his wife and we would take them to see their son. Neither of them had ever been in an airplane and they were amazed that a trip by car would take an entire day but just an hour by small airplane.

Rafael had a fairly large herd of cattle and milked some of them to make cheese. He always kept us supplied with cheese and milk when we came there. I know that he sold it to the fishermen and others but refused to ever take a cent from us. Speaking of cows, there was an old yellow cow that hung around the fig tree and harassed campers until she became known as The Cow That Ate Baja. Rafael said it did not belong to him.

We also became good friends with many of the local fishermen. We'd usually bring along some spaghetti and sauce in a jar so we could have a spaghetti dinner and invite everyone to it. In return, they kept us supplied with all the fresh fish, oysters, clams and eggs we needed. One day when one of them brought some eggs, I asked him, "Su tengo pollo?" (Do you have chickens?) He pointed up and replied, "Gaviota" (Seagull). Then he added, "Huevos es huevos" (eggs are eggs). I'd never thought of it that way but I suppose eggs are eggs, no matter where they come from.

I flew there with the Baja Bunch for five or six years before my wife and I decided to start spending our winters on Baja. Our first vehicle for that trip was a van I built up for camping. It had a bed across the back with slots under it to hold a folding table and two chairs. Next to that was a pull-out kitchen with a propane stove. Setting up camp was simple, open the back door and pull out what we needed.

Inside the van was a small cabinet with drawers, a wash basin and a portable toilet. I had owned a company at one time which built pickup campers, so I knew how to take advantage of every inch of space. The van was pretty much a totally self-contained unit. We didn't need electrical or water hookup, so we could camp anyplace we happened to be. The only shortcoming was that I had to move around on the inside on my knees. This was no real problem as we spent most of our time outside, only moving inside to sleep.

Even though we were driving, we tried to arrange our schedule so we would be at Los Frailes at the same time that the flying group arrived. We usually left Colorado in early November, which would give us time to visit our son in Southern California and then work our way south to arrive at an RV park south of Ensenada where the Vagabundos del Mar, a Baja travel club, held a big Thanksgiving dinner. From there we moved on south to La Paz, the capitol of Baja Sur, so we would be there for their ten day festival from Christmas through New Year. After the holidays, we'd continue south to Cabo San Lucas and back to Los Frailes by mid February. We'd alternate from rough camping on the beach to RV parks and staying in a hotel perhaps once a week to break the monotony. While we had everything to cook our own meals, we normally ate in restaurants if they were handy. When we were ready to return home around the middle of March, we would take the ferry across the Sea of Cortez and up the west coast of the mainland.

We spent three winters in the van in Baja before buying a Winnebago. While the larger rig was nicer with far more room, it lacked the convenience of being driven like a car and needed far more space to park. If we wanted to drive someplace, it required more effort to get it ready to move. We spent two winters in Baja in the motorhome by which time Fred had moved to Idaho, Dick had died from cancer and we had moved from Colorado. The Baja Bunch dissolved after that.

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Copyright 2003 by Jim Foreman