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Bare-Bones Bivouac on a Baja Beach

November 11, 2001|ROB DUNTON

KENNEDY'S CAMP, Mexico — On Labor Day weekend I had the good fortune to find myself aboard the Paradox, a 43-foot cabin cruiser, for an excursion to La Bufadora, on the Pacific coast of Baja California about 90 miles south of Tijuana. We motored all night from San Diego under starry skies and watched invisible fish cut phosphorescent trails in the water as they raced from our bow.

We anchored in a cove just south of La Buf (pronounced "Boof") and enjoyed a weekend of scuba diving, hiking and shopping for kitschy tourist trinkets. As dusk approached on Saturday, Jim Frimodig, my host and captain, asked me to join him on a sunset cruise in his seven-horsepower inflatable dinghy. Hugging the jagged shoreline, we sped south across tiny coves and inlets, past barren islands the size of small city blocks and frosted with the guano of seabirds. We followed a soft booming sound to a miniature blowhole, then motored through a small rock arch.

A thousand yards farther, slumbering sea lions crowded a small island. Beneath the dinghy I could see undulating kelp, schools of sardines, bright orange garibaldi and the ocean floor 50 feet below. Small stone beaches had kayaks moored on them. Scanning the bluff, I spotted a few SUVs and tents and, more important, a dirt road carved into the hillside.

I knew I had to find my way back to this Shangri-La, though by more prosaic means: my automobile. Easier said than done.

Back in my San Diego home, I could find no reference to the place in any guidebook. No map detailed the dirt roads I had seen switchbacking up the hillsides. I could find no name. I had no idea how many miles south of La Bufadora we had cruised that evening. But the more difficult it was to find, the more alluring it became.

After almost two months of searching, with my resources nearly exhausted, I asked the staff at the rental department of a San Diego sporting goods store.

A visiting kayaking guide piped up: "You've got to be talking about Los Arbolitos! It's awesome--one of our best weekend kayaking sites," he said.

"Can you tell me how to get there?" I asked.

"Sure," he replied. "After the turnoff for La Bufadora, you'll pass this town ... well, sort of a town," he began, and then rattled off the sort of "turn-right-at-the-stand-of-trees" instructions that exist in unmapped territories.

Two weeks later five friends and I packed ourselves into a 1991 Explorer and a vintage four-wheel-drive Subaru with a pair of kayaks strapped to the roof like giant spooning bananas. Inside we had stowed gallons of water, coolers of food and enough dive and camping gear to open a small sporting goods store. We were ready for a weekend packed with aquatic activities and car camping in the wilds of Baja--without toilets, showers or restaurants.

"I know wonderfully little about where we're going," I admitted to my trusting friends, two of whom had stopped to visit on a circumnavigation of the continental U.S. by car. Their faces wore tight smiles.

"I've driven into Mexico 20 or more times over the years, and it's not like I haven't been there before," I reassured them, "but only by water. It is the most amazing place. It's like a giant rock garden in the sea."

"But you're not sure how to get there, right? Or if the roads are intact, if our cars will make it, or if it's private land?" asked my road-weary friend Dewey Webster.

"Well, a guide who goes there fairly often, towing a truck full of kayaks, gave me these directions. If he can make it, so can we," I said as I passed around the vague, indecipherable notes I had scribbled on the back of a flier. "If we never find it, at least we'll have fun looking around," I added encouragingly.

We crossed the border in predawn darkness on a Saturday, following signs for the Rosarito/Ensenada Scenic Route. We made our way past shanty dwellings in the barren, fenced border zone to the toll road just west of central Tijuana.

The toll road to Ensenada runs almost parallel to the original two-lane Baja Highway. Though the free rustic route offers fascinating diversity and is cheaper, we would have been stuck in Tijuana traffic if we had taken it.

Instead we kept our caravan moving toward the toll road. After paying $2.25, we headed down Mexico's Highway 1-D. Gliding along the smooth, empty four-lane highway, I noticed that many new homes with ocean views had sprouted on the hillsides, making the area look more like Orange County than suburban Tijuana. Only recently have the ranchitos of local farmers, with their small plots of corn, chickens, horses and clapboard homes, given way to the developer's dollar, displaced by custom homes for Tijuana's burgeoning upper middle class and expatriates looking for a more relaxed life. Rosarito now sports high-rise hotels. Calafia has condominium towers. Puerto Nuevo, once a one-restaurant road stop, is now a bustling village with 30-odd lobster and seafood establishments.

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