According to The Traveler’s Guide to Camping Mexico’s Baja, the Playa Escondida campground on Bahia Concepcion (tent camping, no showers, no running water, inexpensive): “This small isolated beach is picture perfect. There is a row of palapas along the water. Outhouses are on the hillside behind. The road in to this beach is rough, we recommend it only for high clearance cars and vans and pickup campers… the name means hidden beach”.
I reflected on this terse description with Val after three or four nights at the camp, as we munched on fresh lobster poached in a white wine and shallot reduction and had to wave off a tray of raw chocolat clams on the half shell, which had been taken early in the day from the reef just beyond the north edge of the beach.
“Somehow,” I said to her after pausing to wash down a lump of the gorgeous lobster meat with a mouthful of basmati rice sautéed with black trumpet mushrooms, watching Val’s face dance with shadows from the warm light of the mesquite campfire, “that description doesn’t really seem to do this place justice, does it?”.
There is a gallery at the end of this post for the visually inclined. Otherwise, you’re stuck with my words… read on.
We made it out of El Barril and across the spine of the Baja to join the pavement of Mexico 1 again just south of Guerrero Negro, and then decided to push all the way through to Mulege for an exotic night at a hotel that would feature hot showers, clean towels, and an actual roof over our heads.
After a restorative night in town and a morning spent in resupply mode, we made our way south again to nose into the half dozen or so gorgeous little beaches along Bahia Conception, banking on little more than good luck that we’d run into Feral and Stephanie, and perhaps R.K. and Cherry, based on the vague itineraries we had traded with each other at Bahia de Los Angeles something like eight days prior.
The highway undulated through the coastal mountains and while in good shape was quite notably narrow, and there were more than a few occasions I found myself holding my breath as a tractor trailer passed the other way, with no shoulder and no room to spare between our mirrors.
We decided we’d keep an eye open for a rustic beach campground Feral had mentioned to us and Val spotted the sign, a weathered board with peeling stencils indicating Playa La Escondida, which directed us past a bay crowded with smallish homes and then up and over a pretty challenging little road where I pulled the truck to a stop at the peak in order to walk ahead and inspect the way down.
My doubts had risen during the scramble to the top, and given how skinny this little road was, I was doubtful that Cherry and R.K. would have made it (or even attempted it) in their bus, and I also wondered if we were even going the right way to Escondida.
I jumped up on a rock to get a better picture of the way forward and, now able to see over the crest, laid out before me was a lovely white crescent of beach, a clutch of little palapas along the shore, glorious, still, azure waters and a spray of islands and islets at various distances into the bay.
And there, below, was not only Feral and Stephanie’s Dodge pickup, but R.K and Cherry’s old white school bus, and thirty yards away, another old white school bus of nearly identical vintage and make – it was as though the sheer joy at making it alive through the saddle in the hills had the bus spontaneously reproduce itself.
Finally, off all the way to one side of the beach was an old Land Rover, looking for all the world like it had just made it ashore from somewhere on the Serengeti, completely kitted out with armor, diamond plate steel, a roof top tent and multiple awnings.
It was great to see the familiar vehicles and know that their occupants were at the beach below. As much as we enjoyed our solitude in the backcountry, the thought of a potential reunion with these fellow travelers had occupied us for the past two days’ of driving – the girls anxious to see Abbie (and, of course, the ChiWiener) and us genuinely excited be able to sit down with our new friends, properly catch up, and talk into the night.
I ran back to the truck announced my find to everyone, and the girls, big one included, went wild with delight.
Our reunion was briefly delayed as it appeared that everyone was out on the water, so we pulled Red Beauty alongside a palapa next to the old Dodge and began to set up our sun tent as well as the big OZ Tent, right on the beach, shamelessly occupying two spots and wondering who was driving The Other White Bus.
Presently, we heard movement and Cherry stepped out of her bus, her siesta finished, and was immediately pounced upon by the girls, who mobbed her. Minutes later, we heard whooping from the bay and saw a kayak approaching with three people in it, heralding the return of Stephanie, Abbie, and Feral.
In the midst of all this mayhem, R.K. returned to shore from a fishing trip with the denizens of The Other White Bus, who turned out to be two Canadian doctors busy doing what Canadians seem to do best: completely avoiding winter.
Proper introductions were made all round, and we also made acquaintances with the younger couple piloting the built old Land Rover, Ashek and Alex, who themselves turned out to be Canadian. Finally, the proprietor of the camp made her way toward the beach and Val secured the sight, and discovered that her name was Sally, and she was, of all things, Canadian.
I felt warm to the core.
The days worked themselves into more or less similar patterns, changing only to the extent that they seemed to become incrementally more and more pleasant as we all got to know each other and discovered, as we have been doing all along, that there is something in the heart of the traveller that resonates with other travelers, and that there is some boundless combination of good company and wise thoughts and clever jokes and acute observations and stories, stories of here and of home and of other places and it all conjoins in some extraordinary, extemporaneous quilt of fellowship that is impossible to imagine replicating in any other circumstance.
If anything, this alone is the reason to travel.
But back to our days and nights: we wake up with the sun rising over the peninsula that forms the northwestern shore of Bahia Conception and I make coffee (more difficult these days, thanks to the complete failure of our “unbreakable” coffee press, a malfunction as serious as anything I can imagine out here) and watch the local pod of dolphins work their way along the shore. They like to stay pretty close in, such that they’re really only 20 yards or so off the beach, and you can clearly hear the gasp of their exhalations as they break the surface.
The girls and Val are typically hot on my heels, and it isn’t long before Abbie will peek her head out of the camper and join the ladies for a morning of being shushed by me for being too loud before everyone is up.
A battered old truck would pull into the site from town, and it would be Yolanda selling us tamales and vegetables and strawberry empenadas. Or Miguel selling us scallops, or halibut, or in one magical instance lobster tails. Then there is either morning hiking, swimming, diving for starfish, kayaking, snorkeling, or chasing seagulls.
Further, there is generally some kind of extraordinary excursion being organized and departing before noon, hosted either by Ramon (Sally’s husband and camp co-proprietor) or Jamie, driver of The Other White Bus, Canadian doctor, husband of Mandy, and Fun Generalist.
Jamie and Ramon would load people into their respective boats and take them fishing, diving, island-hopping, beach surveilling, spearfishing, stingray-spotting, blue footed booby-rousting, caving, and otherwise excitement generating activity.
Then it would be three o’clock, or four o’clock, and there would be some reading, or some writing, or more likely some sitting still in a beach chair and marveling at the miracle of lime and Tecate, a pairing without peer.
On one particular afternoon, a whole team of us had soldiered up the steepish, crumbling cliffside that overlooked the beach and featured a marvelous, yet markedly unflattering fifteen foot tall mural of the Heavenly Virgin herself, accompanied by her son, floating on a moon, rays of wholesomeness radiating from her and the odd scorpion, nonplussed by this beatific splendor, seeking shelter beneath the rocks.
From the top of the hill we could see a diver in the shallows between a smallish reef and the shore, towing a blue kayak and methodically working his way along the flats. When we returned to the beach, he had returned to his truck and struck up a conversation with Jamie, and was offering samples of his bounty: an entire cooler stuffed with chocolates, a fist-sized clam that, when split open and doused with lime and a dash of pepper sauce was the rival of just about any oyster I ever recall eating – sweet and firm, with a resistance in the flesh that didn’t quite crunch but provided enough resistance to invite eating them slowly, indulgently.
They were terrific, and the tailgate of the pescadero’s old Ford was soon surrounded by all of us, and the delicious clams and the sunset and the indescribable sense of wholeness and wellness intoxicated all of us, metaphorically, and as a result I made the decision to get literal and deposited a bottle of lovely, smooth tequila on the tailgate.
The pin was out of the grenade at this point, and the only question would be the extent of the damage. Without any real organizing or planning, a fire was made, tables appeared, and a pot luck of raw clams, clam bisque, coconut rice with fresh chard, guacamole, salsa fresca, lime wedges and cans of beer and that bottle of tequila all landed atop them.
A dozen chairs congregated around the fire, Sally and Ramon came down from their palapa to investigate all the noise, and we shortly had them in seats, enjoying the food and the drink and the company.
People came and left, and at some point everything that could be eaten or drank was, and the wood ran low, and it was late and we all went down to the beach to watch the kids pitch handfulls of shells into the water, which burst into bioluminescent greens and soft blues the moment the shells hit the surface, like a terrestrial fireworks display. Finally, we shuffled off to bed to enjoy just about the deepest, calmest sleep we’ve had since we’ve been in Mexico.
And here’s the thing: the same thing, albeit with fewer clams but fresh lobster tails, happened the next night. The night after that, thanks to a fishing expedition that saw Ramon leap out of his panga with ten, maybe a dozen fresh trigger fish and an octopus, saw at least fifty fish tacos made over a campfire and served to the delighted camp, with a side of the octopus served with a side of wasabe and soy dressing.
“So, this is what happens at the budget campsite with no amenities?” I joked with Sally.
“Yes. It makes you wonder what the rich people are doing.”
We’ll be here until Wednesday morning, when we will be doing a sad thing (saying our goodbyes to Feral, and Stephanie, and Abbie and the ChiWiener who, as it turns out, actually have to go home at some point) and a happy thing – joining forces with Ashek and Alex and their ridiculously build Land Rover, Rivets, and heading further south to camp on beaches, try not to get lost or stuck, and perhaps locate R.K. and Cherry who took their white school bus out of here a few days ago to explore Loreto.
But it is really difficult to imagine things getting a whole lot better – as if the inherent beauty of this particular place isn’t enough, the company of the people here, and their basic warmth and kindness, the sheer abundance of it – that will be tough to replicate.