We were rudely awakened at 6.00 by the ferry horn, telling us it was time to get up, get ready, and get off, as we'd arrived uneventfully in La Paz, at the south-eastern tip of Baha. Baha is seemingly a different country, not because of the swarms of American expats, but because we had to go through full customs and passport searches and checks (including thumbprints) to get into the state - which took hours. No drug mules or illegal immigrants getting in here, I tell you... . After eventually getting out of the ferry port, our bus was stopped nearly imediately by the state police. We all had to get off, have our bags searched AGAIN, whilst a group of mexican lads had to nearly strip down to their undies.. - some serious lack of co-ordination going on.
We booked into a hostel in La Paz. The town had a good write-up in the guidebook. Granted, it was the off-season, but we couldn't really see why. It was an amalgamation of nasty hotel developments, tacky tourist shops with a down-at-heel town centre - a bit like Morecambe! There's even a hotel with a big sign saying 'Cervesas y Papas'!
This is where, checking our emails, we suddenly caught up with the rest of the world and heard that a killer epidemic was sweeping out of Mexico City (it had started around the time we were there). We had wondered why we'd seen increasing numbers of people wandering around with surgical masks on... it wasn't just dust after all! An American girl at our hostel asked us whether we thought she should skip the country - our families were sending us emails telling us to get out. However, La Paz is a long way from Mexico City, and the whole thing, even at that stage (and luckily we were away from the 24hr media frenzy), sounded overblown. Instead, we checked out and headed out on the bus up the peninsula to Loreto, seeking something with a bit more character (and getting a bit nearer the border, just in case that crazy American senator demanding the border was closed got his way...).
The bus station was filled with worried looking people in surgical masks. Posters and leaflets around the place gave advice on what to do if you got symptoms of the plague and mexican nationals had to do a questionnaire to make sure they weren't carrying the pox (strangely, we didn't have to fill it out..) - it was actually quite unnerving, and gave the slight impression we were fleeing the apocalypse, even if we didn't actually believe it.
The bus rolled through flat cactus desert and then wound up roads through sun-bleached, jagged hills until we arrived at the sea in Loreto. Loreto was QUIET. Half the guest houses were closed and the place had a laid-back, off season charm to it (probably exacerbated by the fact that all the visitors and half the expats had flown north...). It was a Spanish mission station back in the day, and it hasn't grown that much now, with some nice old colonial villas in the centre, through cobbled streets. The Malecon on the sea front has beautiful views over to the large islands in the adjacent marine national park, the hills of which are lit up in deep reds and yellows at sunset.
The Sea of Cortes as a mill-pond, on the way to Isla Coronado
The town also has some really decent cafes and restaurants, largely home to an expat crowd, but really welcome after the generally below-par stuff we'd been having on the road up Mexico. One morning we sat having a rather good breakfast in Cafe Ole in the central plaza, watching a pair of incredibly cute little fluffy birds trying to build a nest in a light fitting out of long sticks and seed fluff. Every time they nearly got to a critical mass of material, the bottom would fall out, leaving them to flit around re-gathering their fluff, and placing it carefully back in their doomed nest. Full marks for persistence, but maybe not for darwinian selection.
Being next to a marine park, Loreto is a great base for diving, so we booked a dive off one of the offshore islands, in the deserted dive shop. We went out early in the morning from the little harbour - dozens of brown pelicans were stooping and crashing into the water around us as we chugged out. We also passed mating rays, flipping around on the surface, before eventually getting to our destination - Coronado Island. We sailed past an Osprey, looking down at us from a bush on the cliffs, before coming to what we'd come here to see - a colony of sea lions basking on the rocks. A big bull puffed out his chest and roared at us, whilst the females and little'uns carried on sunbathing, unperturbed. This is where we jumped off. We were in full, thick wet-suits here, and actually, we were warmer in the water than we had been down in Cozumel or Belize. We saw an octopus hiding in a crevice, puffer and parrot fish, groupers and rays. Finally, we floated below the colony whilst Rafael, our dive-master, blew bubbles up to try and catch the sealions' attention.
Rachel, kitted up as a pretend sea-lion... owww owww!
Sure enough, after a few minutes a few of the mums dived in to see whether there was something worth eating down below. It was quite simply a fantastic experience floating in the water column and having these massive, feline-like predators zipping past you (if also just a slight bit unnerving). Once we got out we could still see them knocking about, back flippers in the air, checking out whether the rubber-encased, not-so-tasty visitors were still around. We then headed for a secluded golden beach to dry off, with a really rather lovely view of turquoise sea and yellow-red hills.
Loreto was a great, relaxed place, but our impending plane back to blighty, plus the ever more panicky news reports from the US border meant we couldn't stay - so we headed off again further north to San Ignacio - grey whale capital.
For more pictures of Loreto and sea-lions, click here.
What better way to dry off after a dive?