By Lorna Hill & Rodrigo Manterola
Across the peninsula and back again, a trip from Cabo to Golfo de Santa Clara
I am sitting here in my apartment in Cabo San Lucas, drinking a coffee and reflecting on what a wonderful few weeks it has been; with Huw, Karl, and Rodrigo driving up the Baja Peninsula, right up and over in fact! We drove through 3 states of Mexico – Baja California Sur, Baja California, and Sonora. What an epic drive it was, full of unknown, wonder, and exploration.
It was special for so many reasons. I had never driven through the northern state of Baja. I have flown across it in a Cessna Caravan, which was cool and wonderful to see the topography but now driving through enabled us to stop and see the incredible and strange-looking Boojum trees, witness the amazing heights of the Cardon cactus, and compare the differences between the landscape of the north and south states of the peninsula.
The whole trip from the bottom of the peninsula to right up and over to Sonora was about 1000 miles (1500 km).
It’s easy to lose track of the distances you’re driving when you’re in a constant state of awe of the environment that surrounds you.
It was also incredibly special to reconnect with old friends again; our driving companions were actually old work colleagues, from back in the day when I lived and worked in the TV production industry in the UK. They were on a particular mission, searching for a special creature that only appears the third day after a full moon in April and we, Rodrigo and I, were hired to drive and guide them there, to this place that sounds like something out of Alice in Wonderland.
We were more than happy to accompany them, driving up this awesome land, helping them arrange the shoot. However, it really was just as much of an adventure for us as it was for them.
The first leg of the journey was familiar to us – we were driving our usual route to our beloved San Ignacio, where we work as whale watching guides in the winter/spring. This time we stopped only in the town, as we had an early departure planned the following morning, to continue our journey north, nodding our heads in the direction of the lagoon with feelings of nostalgia, all the same.
We took a little tour of the pretty mission of San Ignacio, which shone in heavenly light, given by the setting sun of the day. We stopped in our favourite place “El Rancho Grande” restaurant, a family-run restaurant that overlooks the laurel tree-lined plaza, with sights still firmly on the glowing mission.
Our heads hit the pillow fast and firm that night, not moving until we arose the following morning, before dawn, to pack up the cars and catch the first light for our journey.
I love mornings. Especially when the glow of the sun starts to warm the body and bring feelings of newness and a fresh start to the day. We soon passed through the town of the other breeding lagoon for the gray whales, Guerrero Negro, and then passed the turn off for the Sierra de San Francisco, where you find 7000-year-old cave paintings. Then comes the border between Baja California and Baja California Sur.
After a couple of hours, Rodrigo’s car, which was in front, suddenly came to a stop and pulled over to the side of the road. Concerned, I immediately went to jump out and assist when Rodrigo had beaten me to it – he was already at our window, telling us to look up towards the mountain that flanked our Eastside – boojum trees!
There they were.. in all their alien-looking glory. They didn’t stand up proud and grand like the Cardon cactus. instead, they shot out at an angle, as someone had roughly planted them there. Also, their interesting elongated cone shape proved something weird and unusual. I had to giggle when some of them bent over so much, they were pointing back down to earth again, allowing our tall friend Karl to reach up and touch the tips.
That was the most incredible thing! Everything up just got bigger and bigger the further we drove North.. the cactus, the trees, the plants – the Ocotillos were enormous!
I was happy to finally see an Ocotillo as I was more used to their smaller cousin in the south, Palo de Adan.
We kept driving.. and driving.. and driving.. and with each mile, came a different scene. Big rocky boulders changed to mountains
Then as we left Highway 1 and changed to highway 5, following the coast of the Sea of Cortez, it was salt flats and a beachy coastline.
Passing through the checkpoints and stopping at gas stations, I noticed a change of accents, as we made our way to the border of Baja California and Sonora.
Suddenly, as we started to round over the top of the sea of Cortez, the land changed again completely, to a more lush, tropical brown and green.
It was like we had moved to a different country, as we passed through the various little villages along the way, being reminded again that we were still in Mexico, just with differences now.
We finally arrived at our destination, El Golfo de Santa Clara or the Gulf of Santa Clara. A special place where the Colorado River ends and the Gulf of California begins, where many species of fish come to spawn, due to the nutrient-rich waters, fed by the Colorado River, or Rio Colorado (which means Red River).
Historically, the interaction of the river’s flow and the ocean’s tide created a dynamic environment, supporting freshwater, brackish, and saltwater species. Within the delta region, the river split into multiple braided channels and formed a complex estuary and terrestrial ecosystems.
The use of water upstream and the accompanying reduction of freshwater flow has resulted in the loss of most of the wetlands of the area, as well as drastic changes to the aquatic ecosystems. However, a scheme is currently in place which aims to rejuvenate the wetlands by releasing a pulse of water down the river delta.
We were looking to film a certain type of fish, one that displays a very specific type of breeding behaviour, where the female emerges from the sea, launches herself right out of the water onto the beach, stopping her breathing while she buries herself in the sand to lay eggs.
The males quickly follow suit, hauling themselves onto the beach, wrapping themselves around the female, depositing milt onto her eggs.
It was a short, sweet, and very intense affair, the whole show lasting about an hour, whilst the short window to catch the desired “money shot” spanning some 20 minutes.
I didn’t think I would consider lying on a shore surrounded by millions of fish any kind of an adrenaline rush, but oh it was, and when we finally came back up for air, we felt slightly dazed and almost questioning “Did that really just happen?”
Nature is just incredible, how it can inspire you and completely astound you with its weird yet wonderful life spectacles.
The following days were just as full, filming other aspects of the place, the river delta and, I was delighted to discover, birds!
We discovered that a type of (endangered) migratory bird called the Red Knot (Calidris canutus) spends the winter in Mexico and South America.
Every spring it flies back to its breeding sites in Alaska, Canada, and the United States but stops en route in Golfo de Santa Clara to feed almost exclusively on Grunion eggs!
We came to our final evening of the trip here in Golfo de Santa Clara and the local fisherman who had been helping us get to know the area invited us to his house for a barbeque – Sonora style!
It was such a heartwarming gesture to open up their homes to us and show our visiting friends how they like to celebrate life… By being together, sharing food, enjoying a tequila (or two!), and even setting off fireworks!
The time to head back finally came, our job was done.
We woke up early that morning as a long day of driving awaited ahead of us. We packed the car, we settled our bill and we drove off town through those amazing landscapes once again.
We stopped in San Ignacio for the night and we left early on the next morning again.
The drive back South presented us with more incredible views, and now with the pressure being off a little, we even stopped to enjoy a dip in the stunning Bahia Concepcion.
We arrived in Cabo later that night, rested and the guys stayed as our guests for a few more days where we enjoyed the beach and restaurants in town just before they left.
They were traveling with so many cases and boxes that a huge transfer van was necessary to take them back to the airport.
Rodrigo and I will always cherish those days we spent with them while shooting incredible natural phenomena through some of the most incredible natural landscapes of Baja and Sonora.