Nov 262007

sea lions wreck sea lion
Photos of Scuba diving Islas Coronado, Baja

I had a great time scuba diving at the Lobster Shack on Islas Coronado on Saturday. The Coronado Islands are a group of four islands in the municipality of Tijuana. An hour boat ride from San Diego, they are a popular dive spot. There is usually a bit of heart break regarding gill nets and over harvesting of certain species, but the islands are resilient, and still attract birds, fish, and sea mammals. It was chilly, but the visibility was over 40 feet, and there was a ton of California Sea Lions that wanted to play. We were the first off the boat, and immediately swarmed by about 30 playful sea lions. Some just bit and wrestled with each other near us, others came to play in our bubbles, or blow bubbles in our face while zooming by. One was curious enough to try chewing on Mani’s hood and mask. We explored the wreck, the rocks, and algae, always accompanied by at least two sea lions. It was a fantastic dive.

Nov 202007

– The string of events the past few weeks in Baja seems to have attracted a lot of country wide attention.

– News bits like this don’t seem to help the situation: Kidnapped Spanish tourist found blindfolded beside Tijuana road

– You just can’t make up news this bizarre:

A mysterious helicopter crash during Baja California’s storied Baja 1000 off-road race set off a strange chain of events that left four people dead and two missing after a nighttime raid on a local morgue, officials said Thursday.

…Among the last-minute entries were two men who registered a black pick-up truck called Azteca Warrior, according to media reports and Ensenada city spokesman Daniel Vargas. One of the men, registered as Pablo Gonzalez, was tracking the race team’s progress in a helicopter (60 miles west of the city of Ensenada ) when it crashed into high-tension wires, killing Gonzalez and another passenger and injuring two pilots.

Two people who said they were relatives of Gonzalez showed up at the morgue Wednesday and tried to claim the body, but were not allowed to take it, authorities said. A few minutes later, the gunmen struck. …The convoy of 14 vehicles pulled up in front of the city morgue on Calle Guadalupe. The attackers stormed the building, snatched a corpse, loaded it into a vehicle and sped off through the hills toward Tecate, where two police officers had set up a roadblock. “They tried to stop them. The gunmen answered with bullets,” said Edgar Lopez, a spokesman for the Baja California state police. …Federal authorities are investigating whether the body is that of drug cartel figure Francisco Merardo Leon Hinojosa, nicknamed El Abulon — The Abalone.

– LA Times has an interesting article about the housing boom by norteamericanos in Baja Sur: Taking Baja South

They arrive by land, air and sea, with visions of the good life dancing in their heads. At first, their numbers are so small as to be barely noticeable. But within a few years they may end up taking over your street, your colonia, practically your entire town. They bring their curious native customs with them—skinny Frappuccinos, “personal watercraft,” wireless Internet access—and replant them in foreign soil. Relentlessly, they remake the landscape in their own image, transforming derelict colonial-era manses into stunning million-dollar homes, and majestic swaths of lonely seaside acreage into $300-per-round golf courses. And though many of them make a diligent effort to learn the local tongue, befriend the natives and blend into their adopted country, others stubbornly resist assimilation: hanging out in their gated compounds with other English-speaking exiles, eschewing the local coffee shops and taco shacks in favor of Starbucks and Burger King, plowing their SUVs like woozy battleships through the narrow streets of picturesque 17th century towns.

Nov 162007

I have to admit, I was skeptical the first time I read SurferMags story, “I’ll Never Go to Baja Again” aka Carjacked in Baja. Three surfers losing everything in Baja to a group of professional and heavily armed carjacker-thieves sounded like the truth was a bit stretched. Bribes are not unheard of, but this was a whole different ball game.

Unfortunately it seems it was all too real. The UT reports:

“Southern California surfers have reason to be especially wary about venturing to Baja California after a spate of armed robberies by paramilitary-style criminals. About a half-dozen robberies and carjackings that targeted U.S. surfers en route to camping spots along the 780-mile Baja California peninsula have occurred since June… the perpetrators fooled tourists into pulling off the road by using flashing lights similar to those mounted on police cars. These thieves forced their victims to kneel and put firearms to their heads.”

Losing your car or your wallet is one thing, but there was also one report of sexual assault during the robbery. All of the victims did not report the crime in Mexico, as they were fearful of the local police force. The general distrust of Baja cops is certainly not helped by the continuing reports of corruption. Just this week I had a coworker tell me about her brush with the TJ police over the weekend. The extortion left her shaken, and unwilling to go to Baja again (she usually goes several times a month). Baja needs to crack down on this fast, or their tourist industry will die.

The UT gives some info on reporting an assault:

– While in Mexico, flag down a police officer or dial 066 on a local phone.

– People visiting Baja California can receive help by calling the office of the region’s secretary of tourism. The hotline is 078.

– Once back in the United States, people still can report crimes that occurred in Mexico by contacting the U.S. Consulate’s office in Tijuana, which channels complaints to the appropriate Mexican agency and assists U.S. citizens with follow-up investigations. E-mail

– The San Diego Police Department, which takes courtesy reports and forwards them to the consulate’s office. Call (619) 531-2000.

Aug 242007

The LA times has a story on the latest attempt to root out corruption in the Baja police force:

They’re installing cameras to catch extortion attempts, publicizing that people can pay tickets with credit cards and transferring corrupt cops. They’ve deployed a squad of female traffic officers to offer courteous help to tourists. They’ve even declared the stretch of road a “no-ticket” highway.

Many police officers turn to extortion, he said, because their supervisors threaten to transfer them to dangerous neighborhoods if they don’t fork over a daily share of cash from bribes. Officers usually don’t demand cash from the drivers they stop, he said. Instead, they start asking a lot of questions and reviewing registration records. Most people are quick to offer a bribe to avoid long dealings with officers who seem to have nothing but time on their hands.

“For Americans, $20 is nothing,” said the former officer. “The American has money. The American doesn’t know the law. The American doesn’t want his vacation delayed.” The best way to avoid paying a bribe, he said, is to insist on being taken to the police station. “If the American wanted to go to the station, I would follow for a while, and then put on my lights and pretend I had an emergency. I didn’t want to get in trouble with my supervisors,” the former patrol officer said.

….After Julio Caesar Garcia, a 33-year-old police supervisor, gave driving directions to a saleswoman for the Trump development, he was given an award by Torres’ real estate association. “She was impressed that I didn’t ask for a bribe, but I was just doing my job,” said Garcia, who was a bit bewildered by the praise. “I never got an award for being shot at.”

The latest anti-corruption measures, say border experts, reflect Baja California’s growing commitment to professional law enforcement. Police salaries in Tijuana were recently doubled — to about $1,500 monthly — making the force the highest paid in Mexico, say officials who hope the increases also will make their officers the least likely to seek bribes. Serious problems remain, including a lack of professional training, minimum educational requirements and an entrenched culture of corruption that in some departments starts at the top.

There’s also the temptation of all the new money in the area. The former Rosarito Beach police officer said many cops viewed the building boom as a bribe-taking bonanza on par with the filming of “Titanic” in Baja in the mid-1990s, when he and other police regularly stopped studio workers and visiting Hollywood executives. “They were easy targets because of the language difference and because they were always in hurry,” the former patrol officer said. “Those were great days.”

Real estate professionals don’t see it that way. Their goal is to re-create the Southern California oceanfront experience in Mexico at a fraction of the price, without the problem of corrupt officers’ outstretched hands.

I found the whole thing worth a read to know what to expect on your next trip south, and get an update on the building boom. I wonder how the Baja condo and walled community boom will do over the next two years, assuming housing continues to dip up north…

Jul 102007

A few Sundays back I became PADI certified for open water. This means I can dive on my own without a dive master there. It is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, but just never got around to doing it. I’ve snorkeled all over, but diving definitely is a different experience. I’m happy I did it.

I took a two weekend course through Auqatech; 4 days, 8-5 each day, plus a few hours of outside study. The first weekend was class and pool time, getting ready for the ocean. Two weekends ago we finally got into the ocean. Two dives at La Jolla shores, and two at the Coronado Islands (Mexico). Both locations were great. The shores had 20 foot visibility (despite a lot of surf and surge), and a lot of life around the shallow thermocline. We saw a huge sheep crab, a few giant sea bass, and a lot of guitarfish and other bottom dwellers. The giant sea bass were very impressive. The first two we saw were quite large, but didn’t stick around. The next one was a bit younger, but still a decent size (about 3.5 feet long, 2.5 feet high, and a bit over a foot thick). He swam up within two feet of my mask three times, just checking us out while we did our alternate air source practice. It was incredible to watch his saucer sized eyes swiveling around to look us over.

The next day we spent two hours by boat to travel to the lobster shack area of the north Coronado island. There were a lot of starfish and urchins along the bottom, with a few sea cucumbers and other goodies. We first checked out an eight year old wreck not far from shore. Apparently someone set out from mission bay, set autopilot, went to bed, and ran into the island. The ship is now in sixty feet of water and mostly covered with marine life – there was even a spanish shawl walking on it. There were a lot of different smaller fish, but nothing much larger than the garibaldi. Our next dive we went along the coast where the harbor seals and noisy sea lions have a little bit of a base. The seals and pups were curious, popping their heads in and out of the water to check us out. Some were curious enough to pop their heads around rocks about eight feet away, but most were happy to keep their distance from us. The sea lions on the other hand weren’t too shy. The huge patriarch was doing his rounds and swam within a few feet of us on his patrols around his harem. I swam back later came back after the dive was done to grab a mylar balloon and do some snorkeling. He swam right up to check me out with his slightly foggy eyes.

I loved our ocean dives, and it would be easy to see how you could get hooked. But it is an expensive (and bulky) hobby, so I don’t think I’ll devote myself full time. But I’m definitely going to have to grab some rental gear for La Jolla cove a few times a year. The Channel Islands would make a great trip as well, I’d love to hit the kelp forests.

Jul 052007

A tad on the dramatic side, but still a good read: UT story on Scott Cassell and the Humboldt squid.

“After hearing the red demon legend, Cassell researched Humboldt squid for two years before he began diving with them. Humboldts, named for a current in the eastern Pacific, have a sharp beak, eight muscular arms and two retractable feeding tentacles that they use to attack their prey with more than 40,000 needle-sharp teeth at once….

“..Cassell made his first dive with a group of Humboldts that were feeding off Baja California. The squid, which often grow to be 6 feet or longer, immediately attacked, Cassell said, pulling his right shoulder out of its socket, yanking him down so fast his right eardrum ruptured and cutting him so badly his wet suit was destroyed…”

“…they have three hearts, blue blood that is copper-based, the ability to swim at about 24 mph and excellent problem-solving skills. They live in water as deep as 3,000 feet, are as smart as dogs and are able to communicate with one another by changing their skin color from white to various shades of red”

Update: Outside magazine did a great article back in 2006 on the Humboldt squid and Cassell: Behold the Humboldt

Aug 252006

The NY times has put up a pretty good travel article about Tijuana. As expected, it focuses mostly on the newer art spots and trendy eateries. But it also goes a little further to talk about the city as a whole, the good and the bad. I’d bet the focus will continue to stoke the fires of change.

It’s Hot. It’s Hip. It’s Tijuana?

This is a Tijuana you don’t know. Most Mexicans, who don’t cut Tijuana much slack — dismissing it as a provincial backwater, a border badlands — don’t know it either. But Tijuana is Mexico’s fastest-growing city (a population of 750,000 in 1990, 1.2 million in 2000 and projected to be 2.2 million by 2010). And it is changing. Cosmopolitan by default because of its proximity to the United States — 60 million people cross the border there each year — Tijuana is developing a new identity that is bringing it out of the shadows of its own reputation. Its fabled lawlessness has become a kind of freedom and license for social mobility and entrepreneurship that has attracted artists and musicians, chefs and restaurateurs, and professionals from Mexico and elsewhere.

Bonus link – Ask San Diego Blog: Tijuana 101

Aug 192006

(All photos for this post can be found here: 2006.07.14-17 Baja and Bahia de los Angeles)
Bahia de los angeles finback whale bahia de los angeles desert cross baja

To follow along: My Bahia de los Angeles google map

July 14-17, 2006
Anna and I had wanted to visit the Sea of Cortez side of Baja for a long time. The stars aligned, we finally got some motivation, set a date, and did it. We dedicated four days to the trip, not a whole lot of time. But the trip was just a taste, a test of sorts. Was it worth a ten hour drive? How were the roads? Should we spend more time heading south in Baja? Why Bahia de los Angeles? The answers, for the impatient are 1) yes 2) decent 3) yes, 4) everyone we talked to had great things to say about the bay, and it seemed to be a great representation of the peninsula.

Carretera Transpeninsular or Transpeninsular Highway 1 runs all the way down Baja – from Tijuana to Cabo San Lucas. We traveled down to Punta Prieta (roughly 600KM from San Diego) on Highway 1, then a side road the last hour to the bay. The drive was pretty easy for the most part. There were the standard sketchy moments from local’s passing big rigs on the hills, but tame compared to Costa Rica or Vietnam. The road conditions were good, but they all have minimal shoulders. Gas was easy and available the whole trip, except the last stretch from the Pacific side to the Cortez side. However, there is a Pemex station in Bahia de los Angeles, so its not a concern. The drive is scenic, the tall cardon cactus and Dr Seussian boojom trees produce a very unique landscape. You see plenty of mountains, valleys, deserts, and beaches. All of them are worth the drive.

The bay holds a small town (also called Bahia de los Angeles) that is cut off from the rest of Baja. All water and food (other than fish) has to be trucked in, and the power grid is a smoky diesel generator in the center of town. I’ve never seen so many water tanks, solar panels, and wind generators. The isolation and apparent unreliability of utilities has definitely lead to a lot of self reliance. The main industry is definitely fishing (mostly of the tourist variety), with a dash of support for the small military base a bit north of town (tacos, beer, and an audience for their futbol games in town).

The bay and town are protected by a large island in the Sea of Cortez; Isla del Angel de la Guarda. This makes the bay and smaller islands behind the guardian angel perfect for fishing, diving/snorkeling, and kayaking. The vast majority of the tourist infrastructure is set up to support sport fishing. Almost anyone knows someone that can arrange a boat trip for you, and prices seem to be $130-160 per 4-6 hours. The boats are called pangas, I assume after the original panga – 30 year old world bank plans for an economical, seaworthy craft for the commercial fishermen of the Third World. I doubt any of them are using the original design, but most do seem to be derivatives of the project.

There seems to be a lot of competition for providing tourist boats, but no one seems to bother convincing you to be a customer, and there certainly isn’t a haggling vibe. In general this town seems to have a take it or leave it attitude for business. Many people seem to honestly not care if you become a customer or not. I’m not sure if it is a result of not many owners running things, or a prevailing relaxed attitude that comes off strange to us gringos.

We had originally planned to do a good bit of kayaking in the bay. You can rent kayaks at Costa Del Sol and Daggetts, but they don’t let you take them out to the islands. We ended up visiting the museum, the beaches, and wandering around town instead. Kayaking would be wonderful out here, but to do any sort of day trip or more serious kayaking you are better off bringing your own gear.

Apart from one or two guides, snorkelers and scuba divers seem to be a minority here. If you want to go out, you will probably end up renting a fishing boat. Most of them seem to know the spots for snorkeling/diving, so it all works out. We rented a boat for 4 hours and snorkeled around the Coronado point and Isla Coronadito. Unfortunately for us, it rained both nights we were there. This lead to the water being a lot cloudier than it normally is.

The bay has a lot of marine life, and we managed to see a good bit of it on our boat & snorkel trip. On the way out there was a lot of sea lions playing in the water and birds fighting over rock space. We managed to spot two finback whales in the bay. Their size is deceiving. Unlike the gray whales, they do not fluke, or raise their tail out of the water to dive. Instead they just gently roll their backs and disappear. The part of the whale that you can see on the surface is only ever a small portion of the whales back. So if you can see 20 feet of finback, the full whale size is probably twice that. We followed them at a distance for a few dives, then they disappeared.

After the whales we headed to the south tip of Isla Coronado, La Punta. There seemed to be a lot of large fish, but most were lower than 15′. The sides of the point were very nice, a lot of sea fans and corals. We also spotted a number of small rays and even a moray eel in the rocks. After a bit we packed up (getting back in one of the fishing boats can be a trial) and headed up to Isla Coronadito – a small island on the north end of Coronado.

Isla Coronadito has a nice mix of shallow and deep water around the edge. This is the perfect spot of a lot of schools of small to medium sized fish and 1-2′ rays. We spotted some fans, corals, and sponges, but the main draw was definitely the fish. We swam around the island until we started to get cold (water temp was roughly 77F) and it was time to head back anyway. As I said before, the water wasn’t great for us (10′ visibility) because of the rain, but I’m sure it would be an amazing dive on a regular day.

Most of the shoreline of the bay is a mix of rock sizes, but there are some decent beach spots in town, and up and down the coast. You can pull up to Guillermo’s on the south end of town, head for a palapa and order a beer. Doesn’t get much better than that.

The museum in town is worth a 30-60 minute visit. It has a little bit of everything. Lots of marine life, desert life, and information on the history of the area – natives, spanish, miners, and early days of tourism. One of my favorite bits is actually outside the museum. A full whale skeleton, including the baleens faces the town park/square.

Dining in town is a bit of mixed bag. During the day you have a choice of a whole lot of restaurants, all of which seem to have OK food (Isla seemed the best of the bunch), but high (for Baja) prices. I could understand a jump, given the location, but in many cases the prices for restaurant food or items in markets was more expensive than in the US. The exceptions to this rule were taco stands. Only open in the late afternoon, their prices were normal (at or less than a buck a taco) and the food was outstanding. The expected choices, and I even managed to get some great sopa birria (goat soup) at the stand next to Moctezuma Market.

We originally planned to stay at Costa Del Sol, but they were full up. After checking out a few places, we settled on one of the rooms from Daggett’s. It was about three in the afternoon, and the manager had to clear a path through Modelo Especial cans from the guy next door that was passed out on the porch. She didn’t blink, and we were wondering how the hell he was alive after drinking that much in the heat. The rooms were nice, and there was power for AC from 8pm to 5am. The only complaint about the room was the shower. There was so little water coming out of the shower head, I think it would have been faster wash in the sink.

For the next night we wanted to check out some other spots. We eventually settled on Los Vientos on the north end of the bay. They were more expensive than everyone else, but had power all day, and took credit cards. The last point was important, as we didn’t expect to be spending as much money as we were in the bay. (There are no cash machines here) The hotel was very nice, and the staff good. There is just one gripe, the water went out on the second day. They were good enough to give us a complementary day the next time we go down, so it all worked out. Though double the price of the others in town, they really are worth the money if you can part with it.

I was hoping to visit some cave paintings and one of the missions, but was told we needed a vehicle with a higher clearance, as the road goes through some creek beds. For all the folks with trucks or motorbikes, I’ve heard both locations are worth at visit.

We would really like to return when the water is clear, and ideally, when the whale sharks are around. They are supposed to be near the bay in late August and September, but it can be hit or miss. Two years ago there were approximately eighty sightings. Last year, only eight. In any case, it would be amazing to see these amazing creatures, let alone swim near them.

We really enjoyed our trip to Bahia de los Angeles. It definitely made us want to travel Baja more, as we passed by some other amazing places getting to the bay. Just make sure you prepare for the trip. While modern Baja travel does not require the self reliance it once did, parts of it are still very wild and isolated. That’s a good thing.

More information:
Baja Expo on Bahia de los Angeles
Larry Robert’s page on Bahia de los Angeles
My Bahia de los Angeles Google Earth map (KML)