Baja Whale Watching
The Trip of a Lifetime!
It begins on a cool spring evening, as an ad hoc group of strangers gather on a San Francisco street corner. The sun sets behind city’s skyline while duffles, backpacks, sleeping bags, tents, and an occasional suitcase litter the sidewalk. Random pedestrians try to negotiate the temporary obstacle course past the chattering collective of temporary gypsies.
Who is this seemingly random bunch of misfits, whose age varies widely, from mid 20s to mid 70s? For what purpose do they gather?
These are the passengers of the Green Tortoise Adventure Bus. In this case, they all anxiously wait for the big green machine to arrive and sweep them away to warm and sunny lands south of the border.
I’ve been on seven Green Tortoise Adventure trips now and while each was unique in its own right, each was also very similar because, at the end of the day, Green Tortoise riders are similar.
Unlike many who have grown out of their explorative, curious, and inquisitive nature, we Green Tortoise riders seem to maintain a spirit of adventure. From the youngest of us to the oldest, we aspire to explore and ignite that part of our soul that often lies dormant in the average vacationer.
I’ve even traveled with riders in their late 70′s, whose spirits, as if by magic, light up like a child once the social barriers have been broken down and the bus makes its way out onto the open road.
Maybe it’s partly due to the slumber party-like nature of the bus’s design. With nearly half of the bus permanently in bed or lounge mode, an individual can easily stretch out, making themselves comfy for the duration of the drive. The other half of the bus easily converts to accommodate the same via “the miracle”- a term which refers to the converting of seating area into sleeping space. You’ll hear the drivers and Green Tortoise veterans use the term regularly.
But perhaps the spark of wonder I see so often on these trips has more to do with the knowledge and anticipation of what new and exciting adventures lay in store.
There are only three places in the world where the Gray whale gives birth to its babies and they are all in the Sea of Cortez in Baja sur. What makes the Green Tortoise’s fifteen day whale watching excursion particularly special is that on this trip you’ll get to enjoy two of them. In season, Leguna Ojo de Liebre and Leguna San Ignacio are filled with these amazing creatures. And Green Tortoise offer their trips for about a quarter of the cost other American Baja whale tour operators charge, and offering, in my opinion, twice the experience.
It is overwhelming to commune with these leviathans of the sea. One look into their eyes and you feel a humility wash over you that words can barely convey. The fact that you have the opportunity to experience them in such close proximity at all given humanities history with them speaks to how special the experience truly is. But be warned! Once you experience these whales in this context you’ll likely never bother with another whale watching trip.
Glorious aquatic bounty makes up the Sea of Cortez now that more government protections are in place courtesy of conservation groups throughout the region. My particular trip was a smorgasbord of sea-faring adventure, including close encounters with dolphins, sea lions, whales, tropical fish, and dozens of eight to ten foot black tip reef sharks swimming beneath our boat. In the distance I spotted Manta rays (or bat fish) launch themselves out of the sea, as if to give a visual representation of Darwinian Theory. And this was all in one day! The whole experience for me culminated in a feeling of wonderful soul satiation.
Beyond the experiences of the sea, Baja offers a great many by land as well. Mission towns of La Paz, Todos Santos, and Loreto, to name a few, offer a great combination of history and culture without skimping on the kind of amenities gringos have grown accustomed to. Others, like San Ignacio, offer a feeling of stepping back in time with their relaxed pace and rustic allure.
A must-try when visiting these quaint towns is the local ice cream. If you’ve an adventurous palate, you’ll get to taste the kind of unique flavors you’d likely never find at your local Baskin & Robbins. Mmmm, did someone say tequila ice cream?
Another requirement, for those who appreciate a when-in-Rome philosophy, are fish tacos from street vendors and little shops off the beaten tourist path. A fun game to play with fellow travelers is to see who can find both the cheapest and best tasting fish tacos in the area.
The fish itself is usually breaded and fried (though occasionally you can find it grilled as well) and can range in terms of the actual fish used, but it is almost always delicious. Just make sure, if and when you hit up a street vendor, there is a good local crowd enjoying the fare as well. Grab yourself a cold cerveza and you’re well on your way to a proper adventure south of the border.
One of the great treats of riding with the Green Tortoise is their seasonal beach camp. Playa Escondida is a quiet and relaxing beach area with lots of natural beauty to explore. You’ll get to spend four days there with options for a mule ride into the mountains and a tidal hot spring as well as boat rides, kayaking around the local islands, snorkeling, and perhaps even some fishing. These trips are guided by several generations of a local family that has been collectively tied to this land for over 100 years.
Another area where the Green Tortoise generally excels is the food. Most of the drivers in my experience are pretty good cooks as well. In fact driver Dave, on my most recent trip, made some of the best tasting turkey chili I think I’ve ever had. The Tortoise prides itself on making sure you never go hungry and dishes like pecan and banana pancakes, vegetable stroganoff, and falafel, along with an assortment of healthy snacks make sure of that.
On this trip we even made sushi. Shaunna, our beautiful camp hostess at Playa Escondida, happened to not only be quite the sushi chef but was also a rather skilled spear fisher. Often she would disappear for several hours and upon her return she’d have a selection from the sea that, once prepared, would make even the finest restaurant seafood fare pale by comparison.
Shaunna offered the group a free sushi making class, and we feasted on her catch and our creations for the next two days. On the menu? Ceviche, fish tacos, an assortment of sushi rolls and wraps, sashimi, driver Dave’s famous egg drop soup, fresh clams on the half shell, fresh guacamole, and flash-fried fish which I helped prepare. Shaunna even went so far as to get us some lobster (or bug) tails from the locals for us to enjoy on our last night at the camp.
The first day we arrived I had the remarkable opportunity to join her on an undersea clam dig. Now one must understand that these clams are often found anywhere from five to twenty feet underwater while snorkeling in often less then clear visibility. What you look for on the ocean floor are two holes about an inch or so apart. If you’ve snorkeled before you know the sea floor is full of holes from various creatures so it’s a fine trick to figure out which is a clam and which is well…not a clam. I’m a diver so I’m used to being able to breathe underwater making this venture a challenge for me. While my haul was paltry by comparison, I felt validated by the fact that I had at least brought in some portion of our catch and not drowned myself in the process.
After the evenings’ feasts, the group would often gather around a fire and share stories or tell jokes while inventing various ways to cook and/or burn our makeshift desert which consisted of some combination of banana, peanut butter, chocolate, and marshmallow all tidily wrapped in tin-foil. It wasn’t pretty but it’s hard to go wrong with a mess like that.
My time there offered many high points but often it’s the simple things that offer the most insight. That simplicity manifested itself in quiet moments under the cool and clear, starlit night. Laying under such vast and infinite beauty, exposed to the night air, my brain reeling with wonder, I found it difficult to sleep. Eventually my eyes and mind surrendered and I slipped into dream land.
On our way out we stopped by the household of the local family who had
guided our previous days’ adventures to bid farewell. Their final offering was a scrumptious pot of goat stew with rice, beans, fresh avocado, and hand-made tortillas. Some of us played with the youngest of the family, others bought the handmade jewelry they had for sale, but nearly all of us ate a belly full of goat stew.
La Paz is a happening ex-pat town with a great little sea-side area sporting two big marinas, lots of gringo hangouts, and plenty of beach and blue water to go around. We happened into the town during their Mardi Gras festival, which was set up on the main road along the playa.
I found myself moved by the sight of local families enjoying themselves so freely while children played up and down the boardwalk. It reminded me of some of the street fairs I witnessed in Thailand and how similarly free and open to enjoy themselves the locals were.
Sea-side La Paz is the kind of place you’d want to rent a bike and ride up and down the beach due to its long smooth sidewalk and sandy shores. You can also easily find a local with a boat, who, for a few pesos, will take you out snorkeling around some of the nearby islands. If the timing is right you may even get the opportunity to swim with the famous whale sharks, something that remains on my personal list of to-dos.
A new experience for me on this trip was finally getting down to Cabo San Lucas to see first-hand what all the fuss is about. It was only a few hours but it was enough time for me and a few of my fellow riders to grab a boat from one of the many tour pimps flocking around the gringo mall and make our way out to the farthest point of the Baja Peninsula. It’s cheap, offers up some beautiful scenery, and it’s well worth doing.
After the boat ride, the remainder of my time was spent in the local’s cantina which consisted of several food trucks parked behind the hustle and hassle of the gringo mall by the marina. I wandered in on a tip from our 2nd driver Andy and was welcomed by two older but very enthusiastic local hombres, one of which seemed to wrangle in stragglers in search of sustenance and get them situated while the other was obviously playing both server and patriarch of the lot.
I was sat at a white plastic table and chair next to a table full of Koreans in white. I couldn’t get a read on whether they were tourists or if they actually worked in one of the nearby shops at the mall.
It was a curious scene as I watched this mixed brood try to communicate what they wanted to the Spanish speaking waiter in a Korean-influenced Spanglish. Turns out, what they all wanted was fried fish heads and rice.
One of the group sported a white golf hat and sat strumming his guitar, essentially mangling different American favorites such as “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” while the rest seemed to crack jokes, drink Tecate and smoke Marlboros. At one point I even noticed the weathered server glance over at me, roll his eyes, and repeat aroz (rice) which was apparently again on order by the crew in white. I assumed his glance was to meant to indicate that the stereotype was in fact being fulfilled in that moment.
My thoughts were interrupted when “the wrangler” brought in an older couple from California to be my lunch companions. Given the lack of space and the fact that I took up an entire table for four, it obviously made sense to them that the gringo strangers (that was us) should naturally be seated together. I was glad for the new company though and enjoyed hearing stories of retired life in Mexico.
From then on we headed north, stopping at a few beautiful beaches and desert hiking areas as we wound our way back towards home. The feeling that something special was about to end was palpable on the bus. People were more contemplative and talk about what each of us had planned next became a way to stave off the reality that this adventure at least was soon to be a relegated to a compilation of photos, videos, and series of fond memories.
Should you decide to travel with the Green Tortoise down through Baja you may just find a spark aroused in you that will have you, like Diego – a repeat passenger since 2000, making it almost a ritual experience. He’s in his 70′s and has done the Baja trip now well into the double digits.
One thing is certain. You’ll find many new experiences await you; stunning beaches, culture and colorful characters, chance interactions with majestic creatures, and the sense of fellowship you’ll enjoy with your rolling community of vagabonds.
If you’re open, they will be wonderful experiences you’ll carry with you and cherish for the rest of your days.
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