The Cortez Chronicles


In search of solitude in a raging world . . .

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Desemboque and Beyond

(The Road To Ostricola)

March 17-21, 2004


Our vehicle permit must be surrendered to authorities prior to its expiration on April 6th, so with my soul mate free of her daily 70 mile round trip to work it is the appropriate time to seek a few days' respite before jumping into the rat race of job hunting. We pack this Wednesday morning, and with a number of last minute stops find ourselves leaving town about 3:30 pm.

The two cans of Mexican gasoline left from our November rejuvenation go into the tank at Why in preparation for a Mexican entry inspection, but at the border we're waved on with the lighting of the green "pase" light. Drat! We could have left the cans full. We'll definitely need the extra capacity for a planned excursion, so we stop at the Pemex station a couple of miles past the Caborca turnoff to refill them and top off our tank before continuing south.

The newly discovered road around the estuary from the blue gate1a on the Salinas road is getting to be old hat, but we are surprised to find a new fence along the left-hand side of the road for a few miles. The landscape is very green and there is much new foliage along both sides of the road -- primarily in the form of what school children in the Devil's Gridiron refer to as "pink-eye" -- due no doubt to the rains and high water we experienced last fall. And the road is deeply rutted in spots.

The portion of our road that is perpendicular to the beach contains unusually deep tracks and many signs that vehicles have been getting stuck, probably due mostly to insufficient clearance between the tracks. There are signs of digging and much dead plant material buried in the tracks. We put our vehicle in 4-wheel drive, low range and idle through it until we're trapped without enough momentum to get through a low spot. Forced to let our tires down before reaching the beach, we find that we have created our own clearance problem. Still stuck, we unload the two gas cans, two water cans, and the over-sized ice chest, scoop sand from wheels and undercarriage with our military-issue collapsible shovels and try again. This time we're successful. Now we have to walk the four cans and back breaking ice chest up the hill before reloading them. This activity consumes about half an hour, but at least we're not worn out. It was stupid, though -- we knew how to avoid getting stuck.

Solitude - March, 2004

We arrive on the beach at around 10:45 pm and head north, panicking two coyotes along the way that are scavenging in the surf. Shortly we find a nice camping spot among the dunes about halfway between the beached whale of October 2003 and our usual spot opposite the Salinas entrance dune. We set up camp, wolf down a couple of sandwiches, and are ready for bed by midnight, but hang on for an hour or so before turning in to enjoy the pounding surf of the high tide2 -- a sound we have been longing for. The evening weather is perfect -- there is a slight chill on the air, but it is not cold -- excellent for sleeping. Once in our bags we quickly drift off to the sound of the surf, and sleep like babies until morning.

Next Nav


My soul mate prepares the usual gourmet breakfast of eggbeaters, corned beef hash and toast. Once again, I marvel at how good such basics as corned beef can taste on the Mexican playa. While I'm finishing breakfast she takes a short stroll and returns from the surf to report the water is warm enough for swimming. The Sea of Cortez is a warm sea, but I'm not sure it's that warm this time of year!

As we linger over coffee a lone coyote approaches the surf a hundred yards to our north. It pauses to evaluate our presence, and then turns on second thought and high tail's it back into the dunes -- a rare site in late morning daylight.

The day looks like it could be a scorcher if a breeze doesn't pick up soon, but one does just in time -- providing a perfect mix of warmth with a hint of cool breeze all day. We couldn't ask for more perfect camping weather.

A distinct odor sets in about 1:00 pm, about half an hour before the afternoon tide. The odor is subtle at first, but grows on us until it is about all we can concentrate on. Inspecting the beach carefully we find the remains of five seals in various stages of advanced decomposition. One such carcass looks like the "deposit of old burlap" that I have referred to in the past1b which birds of all feathers have been picking at on our last few visits. This carcass is surrounded by a wide variety of heavily imprinted bird tracks. The afternoon temperature must be facilitating decomposition. I heap sand on the nearest carcass and drag two others downwind, depositing them near others of sufficient distance, but it doesn't help. We eventually drag our dining and living rooms (sunshade, table and chairs) twenty feet to the south in an effort to avoid the stench.

As the day progresses we are astounded by the number of porpoises -- hundreds -- going by about every 45 minutes all day, back and forth. Later a large group of small whales catches us by surprise, lingering for hours toward the end of the afternoon. They're all over the horizon in every direction, near and far. You can hear them in the quiet of the afternoon blowing and snorting, even grunting. Some jump clear of the waves exposing their white underbellies, their tails slapping the water on re-entry. It appears to be a great herd of Shamus3.

Snowfields, Salinas, Sonora - March, 2004

Around 4:00 pm we assemble our new barbecue grill, load it with charcoal, and set our chicken to basting in thick mole liquid poured from a box. The barbecue is compact and spherical, about 15", with short legs. The spiffy top cover comes replete with a pre-sand impregnated smoke vent to regulate the speed of cooking, according to the scratchy sound we notice when opening and closing the vent.

The seaward sky clouds up late in the afternoon, reflecting white off the glassy water like a massive snowfield. The only reflection in the field of snow is a strip where a shallow tide flat produces an anomaly on the surface sufficient to direct greater reflection of the ambient light in our direction. There is occasional sparkling off the snowfield as if a single crystal of new snow has caught direct sunlight for a split second. Otherwise, there is no movement at all -- nothing but pure white. The effect is beautiful. Bird Islands sit at the outer limits of the snowfield, and there is a very narrow thread of normally reflective blue water along the outer edge -- running just behind the islands, with intense sunlight reflecting off it.

In the still of the afternoon, flies and other small bugs are taking over, buzzing in our ears and against our arms. If you listen close you can hear the pulse of life on the Sea -- birds, fish and more. The distant snorting of whales is audible long after they've vanished from our vision. It is an inwardly reflective time, quieter than we have ever heard the Sea of Cortez.

5:00 pm -- Our charcoal has gone out for the second time. We restart it and manage to finish the job of grilling the chicken. When it is finally ready to eat the mesquite flavor is beyond reproach -- it is delicious.

A slight breeze returns with sunset, and the subtle sound of shrimp boats overtakes the natural quiet. There is no moonlight again tonight as we approach New Moon, but birds chirping in the darkness remind us of a Kansas afternoon.

As a subtle chill perfects the evening air we withdraw to our tent, fall toward dreamland to the sound of a gently slapping surf, and rest deeply the entire night.

Next Nav


We awaken around 8:00 am to the sound of a lumpy breeze against tent. It's still deliciously cool outside. The nighttime tide has risen another 2.5" according to our tide calendar.

As we share a simple breakfast of juice and oatmeal the breeze diminishes to a wisp and then to only a memory.

In the still morning air all manner of bugs large and small return to taunt us, among them an adequate representation of tiny flying insects that look like no-see-ums but don't seem to be biting.

The sea is once again glassy -- without so much as a slap of the surf; but in the morning sunlight there is no sign of yesterday's snow. Whales are out in force again today, moving back and forth, feeding on the plentiful fishes beneath the surface. We can hear them clearly, blowing and snorting.

My soul mate returns to the tent to get away from the bugs, and immediately a subtle breeze picks up which will keep us cool for most of the day. While she's inside, a large swarm of some sort of insects moves by us. The sound is striking -- reminding me of the introductory sounds of the Philip Glass composition, 1000 Airplanes On The Roof. This is another first for us in our years on the Mexican playa. The sound is loud and obvious enough to hear even from inside the tent, but it passes by invisibly and without attacking either of us.

My soul mate emerges from the tent to give me a sun block treatment fit for a king, but it may already be too late because of the amount of sun I took on yesterday.

Next Nav

Journey to Desemboque and Beyond

As the heat of the day begins to climb it seems appropriate to turn our attention to an excursion we have been planning for quite some time. In 2002, before moving to Memphis, TN, our last Mexico visit took us once again through Caborca to Puerto Lobos and north on the playa to Rio de la Concepción, a large well-defined estuary that does not appear on most maps of the region. While we were vegetating there for a few days a Mexican hombre passing by on foot told us that there was indeed a road of some 35 KM, leaving perpendicular to the beach a few KM south of the point on which we were camped, that skirts Rio de la Concepción and goes north to Desemboque. We are anxious to find this shortcut to the south side of Rio de la Concepción and make it ours.

Desemboque is a 29-mile beach drive, more or less, from this camp on the Outer Dune, so we are anxious to get started. We learned some years ago4 that the drivable playa ends on the north side of the estuary a short distance south of Desemboque, and so it is our goal to find the road around, which either comes directly into town or connects with the Desemboque - Caborca highway.

We tidy up our campsite and depart. As we head down the beach we notice a large group of gringos set up well back from the beach under an avenue of sunshades. They're adjacent to what appears to be an exit road -- one we have never noticed before and possibly a slight shortcut from the road we came in on. We've never seen anyone on the outer dune that hasn't come through Soledad -- a rare occurrence -- except a handful of hardy four-wheelers who have challenged the treacherous inland side of the estuary and survived to cross the crab infested backwashes. We lament that it didn't take long; an avenue of gringos is a high price to pay for a convenient way to the beach.

But we must move on; it is a beautiful day, and the oncoming tide will be a high one. Enroute to Desemboque we note a significantly lower bird count than we have previously seen -- probably in the hundreds rather than the hundred thousands or even millions -- gulls, cormorants, sand pipers -- but not a single Pelican. It's probably the time of year. We wait opposite a cliff for the tide to go out enough for us to proceed past a "rocky" shelf. After thirty minutes I take a walk through the rocks to see if there is a drivable route that would allow us to go on without waiting any longer. To my surprise I find that it is actually red clay rather than rocks. Using a travel shovel I knock down the edges of a couple of eighteen-inch offsets to facilitate early passage, and we proceed.

At Desemboque we take to the pavement and head east on the highway, stopping at the edge of town to ask a gentleman on foot about the route south. He indicates that it is a short distance out of town and leaves the highway at a 90° curve. The road is easy to find, but it is blocked by a gate with a sign that reads "private property." We decide to drive a little further up the highway, and quickly discover a well-worn primitive road. We leave the highway here. We will do our exploring on the way in and our documentation on the way back out.

In typical fashion, our road takes us past a few ranches and farms and eventually into the desert, where it branches many times. We follow the time-proven rule, taking the best road through mud flats, a basura, sandy desert with thick green flora of all kinds, and a beautiful forest of giant Cardons. Previously unaware of any Cardon cacti outside of the Baja peninsula, we're flabbergasted at this discovery. Our camera batteries are, unfortunately, critically low, so we vow to take an ample supply of pictures our very next visit.

While in the Cardon forest we pass within a mile of a large green mountain that has been growing in our sights for the last 45 minutes. It is spotted with very large deposits of wind-blown sand now covered lightly with brown and green grass. Then, abruptly, we turn away from the mountain and head into more arid desert again, shortly cresting a hill to view the estuary. What the. . . ? After 16 miles we're still on the north side of Concepción.

Oh, well; there'll be another day. It's after 5:00 pm, and we should have already turned around, but we are compelled to check it out. The road becomes well defined again as we approach. There are several widely separated dwellings on this side of estuary -- houses we have seen from the opposite point. The road splits -- the left branch (facing the Sea) being a good candidate for a way around the estuary, the right heading over a low hill toward the northernmost dwelling. There is a sign at the left branch, reading "Gran ja Ostricola".

Mexican Program for the Protection of Bivalve Mollusks / Area Exclusively for Cultivation of Oysters / Deposit Trash in Your Place / Governor of the State of Sonora - March, 2004

The area appears to be a federally sponsored program for the cultivation of oysters. This explains the activity we have seen in the estuary from the southern point -- they seem to be studying or harvesting the animals. The sign further states, "Prohibido Bañistas." We can't find bañistas in our dictionary, but a thorough Internet search suggests that it means more than no swimming; it is probably the colloquial equivalent of no partying, which in our minds includes picnicking, swimming, camping -- anything that molests the environment, and especially the estuary bed. Any camping, we resolve, must be on outer banks directly exposed to the sea rather than on the estuary.

There is a second sign, "Campo Ostricola" a few yards up the right branch of the road.

Cooperative Society for the Protection of the Estuary - March, 2004

The message reads, approximately translated, Cooperative Society for the Future of the Creek.

The right branch of the road clears the hill, and then passes to the left of a dwelling and onto the beach. When we visited Desemboque in May 1997, the drivable playa ended at a point a short distance south of town. We feel the pressure to get back to our camp as early as possible, since it will most obviously be dark before our arrival, and so seven years later this seems like a good way to cut off an hour of driving time in getting back to town, which has to be less than a mile up the beach.

But fools we are! After several miles the beach is getting narrower and narrower along the edge of a mud flat, which turns inward to the right to form a large empty estuary. Navigation grows increasingly difficult as the beach becomes more and more strewn with hundreds of large bleached dead tree trunks up to two feet in diameter, many with a few sturdy branches down to two or three inches across. Where these came from is a big mystery, with no natural foliage of that size anywhere along either coast of the Cortez. There is a lot of other beach litter as well. Eventually, it becomes impossible to go on without driving onto the mud flat, which we refuse to do because the color of the mud suggests that it may be very soft in spots. With Desemboque nowhere in sight, we are ultimately forced to turn around.

Next Nav
miles partial
0.0 Road Intersection - Campo Ostricola.
7.5 7.5 Right fork (north), to end of line along mud flat.

Ice Plant Covered Dunes - Month, 2003

Desemboque is apparently just around the corner across the mud flat -- up the beach about .5 mile; but there is no way to get there from here. The rear of the funnel-shaped mud flat continues inland through what seems reminiscent from a distance of a washout through an old earthen dam some thirty feet high. Maybe it was put there long ago to drive livestock across to this otherwise inaccessible stretch of desert and beach, but it is more likely a natural feature of the landscape.

Having discovered a second estuary, we now have no idea as to its name, nor which of these is actually Rio de la Concepción. None of our maps show two estuaries, and most show none. Whatever, we now know this stretch of beach is not accessible without the long back-country trek we just completed; it should make for unusually secluded camping in the future. For this reason our disappointment at failing our goal of getting around Rio de la Concepción turns to elation. In this day and age we still have three stretches of relatively secluded camping which should be good for a number of years -- this new one in particular. But we must head back to camp as quickly as possible, because it is now late in the day.

We return to Campo Ostricola, dump our two cans of gasoline into the tank and head toward Desemboque, recording the route as we go. Soon we're passing through the Cardon forest. These huge, magnificent cacti have an appearance similar to Saguaros except that they are much larger. The many arms branch from a single point and the fruit and flowers grow on the sides of the upper arms rather than on top. In addition to this forest, there are a number of giant individuals standing from place to place along the road for several miles. This is truly a magnificent find, because until now we have never seen Cardons this far north, nor even outside the Baja peninsula.
miles partial
 0.0 Road Intersection - Campo Ostricola. Stay left. Right fork (facing inland) is best candidate as route around bay to the beach at Barra los Tanques.
 1.3 1.3 Road fork somewhere in mud flat; intersection not discernable. Right branch goes over low dune to the east and appears to head inland, possibly to the Puerto Lobos road -- twenty, thirty or more miles distant. It is another less promising candidate for route around bay. Left branch splits and comes back together after a short distance.
 3.0 1.7 Cardon and Bearded Old Man forest. Huge Cardons.
 3.8 0.8 Cholla patch.
 4.2 0.4 Ocotillos and other very green foliage toward mountain to right. Relatively flat terrain.
 5.5 1.3 Road is very sandy but still washboard.
 6.1 0.6 Terrain becomes bumpier and hillier, with no apparent drainage channels. Many dried ruts and water holes.
 6.9 0.8 Mud flat. Road poorly defined; use best route.
 7.5 0.6 Road is 1-2 feet below ground level. Quail all over. Terrain is flatter. Many ruts, dust pockets, and alternate routes.
 8.1 0.6 Earth piles on right; apparent excavations.
 8.3 0.2 Straight wide washboard gravel road in from right rear; may be another candidate for route around bay.
 8.5 0.2 Roads fork right; stay left (best road).
 9.2 0.7 Property perimeter road behind fence on left; stay to right.
 9.6 0.4 Roads fan out; but fence still visible on left. Power line on left; road poorly marked; dust pockets.
10.4 0.8 Power line. Roads come together and turn left at end of property; stay to right of fence.
11.3 0.9 Farm with palm trees, several buildings, power.
11.5 0.2 Road turns right 90°.
11.7 0.2 Abandoned farm. Road continues straight ahead, but we turn sharp left immediately after farm -- the way we came in. Road wanders; mucho dust bowls.
12.7 1.0 Road crosses deep wash then forks right. Stay left.
13.0 0.3 Fence on left again.
13.1 0.1 Road crosses well defined wash, then wanders. Power line still visible at extreme left.
13.7 0.6 Road hooks back to fence and power line.
13.9 0.2 Pavement. Turn left toward Desemboque.
15.1 1.2 Road curves right 90° toward Desemboque. Off this curve is where we were originally directed by the gentleman in town.
16.5 0.4 Desemboque; end of pavement. Road on right 0.1 mile to beach.

Before departing Desemboque we turn left and drive a couple of blocks to the only gas station, where gasoline is still dispensed via siphon from 55-gallon drums. The attendant struggles to get the siphon going from the first, nearly empty can, spitting repeatedly. I would spit, too; but can't help thinking that the fumes are probably more damaging to his lungs than the liquid is to the tissues in his mouth. You couldn't pay me any amount of money to start gasoline siphons for a living, but to some it is a way of life. We purchase 19-20 liters for $15, about $3.00 per gallon. It is a reasonable price considering the remoteness of Desemboque, but I wouldn't bet on their always having enough spare gasoline to sell to outsiders.

On the way back to the beach road we make note of new visitor facilities since our last visit, in the form of Hotel and Restaurant Playa Dorada. Continuing our log as we head north on the beach:
miles partial
29.7 13.2 Permanent fishing camp.
41.6 11.9 Outer Dune access road out on right.
43.9  2.3 Old beach road across and around estuary to Salinas entrance dune.
44.8  0.9 Our campsite.

So it is 28.3 miles from Desemboque to our camp. Along the way we pass a large dead leatherneck turtle on beach, which we did not notice on the way south. We did not observe any new road off the Outer Dune, so maybe we were mistaken about there being a new road adjacent to the gringo camp.

Tracks - March, 2004

For supper, my soul mate prepares the remainder of the smoked chicken barbecue along with beef stew, prepared in the dark with much care and devotion. We settle into the evening and almost immediately observe a major meteor to the north. It splits into two separate green and white fragments and lights up the landscape for several seconds -- it is probably the brightest we have ever seen.

We watch the sea for a time. There are a number of lights on the horizon. Puerto Penasco is all lit up about 50° off shore to the north and you can see some individual lights for the first time. It seems a bit strange, because we remember nothing but the glow last night. In addition, there are eight or ten fishing boats on the horizon, each visible as a solitary light.

As the evening temperature drops below 72° we retire to our tent to play a few hands of cards, and then capitulate to the sandman when we can no longer keep our eyes open.

Next Nav


We awake to a subtle breeze, which diminishes before we get outside. My soul mate prepares a delicious breakfast of eggbeaters, corned-beef hash, and toast. Strangely, there are no bugs this morning despite the calmness of wind. It is a beautiful day!

As we're finishing up breakfast the gringos from the camp we passed yesterday roar by on the lower beach headed toward the point -- two pickup loads. One vehicle returns about an hour later, and the other an hour after that. The first looked too friendly, but the second was a little better. It is more of the price you pay for a direct route to the Outer Dune. Later in the morning two Mexican pescadores go by in a beat-up pickup. They return almost immediately. We appreciate their demeanor a great deal -- friendly in the formal sense, but disinterested in visiting with us or making a spectacle. It is the reason we come to this lonely haunt.

We vegetate in the warm sunshine. By high tide the water is getting mildly choppy, and there is a perfect breeze. We see very few porpoises today. Gulls pass one or two at a time -- very few -- but no pelicans at all.

At about 1:30 pm a load of American fishermen pass, headed toward the point with fishing poles mounted on the front of their vehicle and angled forward about 45°. We appreciate fishermen because they respect the environment and our privacy.

The tide reaches full at about 1:50 pm and recedes quickly thereafter. By 2:30 the breeze seems lighter and the surf more active. A tall vehicle of some sort stands in the heat waves about half a mile down, its lone occupant casting in the surf. Eventually he passes on his way to the point.

We fire up the barbecue and prepare to grill hamburgers for our evening meal -- but this time we hope to do the job right the first time.

Friday is turning into somewhat of a disaster in terms of solitude. Gringo pickup number 2 now sails by a third time, young greenhorns hanging out all orifices, overrunning the cargo bed and riding on the tailgate. They're driving faster than ever now, hooting and hollering; and one of them is shooting a video of the passing terrain, including us. They'll watch it once and then never go back to it a second time.

"Who is that?" a viewer will ask, and the obvious question will follow, "Why did you photograph them?"

"I was a little borracho", he'll say sheepishly. He'll be speaking for all of them.

We hope they make the same decision about this stretch of coastline as they make about the film; but ah, well, we've added another alternative -- among several, the best in years -- to our list of remote choices. This is the end of semester break at U of A; chances are we won't see them again, ever -- if we're lucky. Even so, we've moved before, and if this stretch proves as bad in the future we have places to go which will be good for years to come.

4:00 pm -- As the afternoon progresses the minor choppiness of the sea continues to subside while the noise of the surf increases to a very pleasant level, bringing a perfect amenity to the day. In a few minutes time, the lone fisherman returns from the point followed by the fishermen with rods affixed to the front of their vehicle, followed by the hoot of gringos. The outer dune is once again ours.

Wind picks up the last two hours of the afternoon; the surf is now the most evident element of our environment. It delivers a constant roar from the boundary of low tide, a quarter mile away. We finish grilling our hamburgers and consume them like it was our last meal, then return to the surf and our meditation.

Just before dusk a feeding frenzy breaks out in the shallow pool created by the receding tide, directly in front of us. Birds of every feather dive madly into the shallow pool, splashing, taking off, splashing. Squawking madly. When the last rays of direct sunlight disappear, the feeding frenzy goes with it.

After dusk the wind starts a downward decline and continues over the next three hours. Evening temperatures are very warm, perhaps 68° to 70° well into the night. We sleep well, coddled by a subtle breeze until morning.

A Salinas Sunset - March, 2004

Next Nav


It is very dark in the wee hours of the morning. The roar of the surf is intense despite little apparent wind. We arise late. It is hotter than blazes, and there is not a breath of moving air. We sit in our tent for a time, too sleepy to get moving despite the discomfort, but are eventually driven outside to find much cooler air. We want to tarry, but we must pack.

We get away from our campsite sometime after noon. The beach is torn up all the way back to the exit road by yesterday's hoot of gringos; but mercifully, their campsite has been vacated. We hit the deep sand of the entrance road at a respectable speed, clear the top of the first dune without difficulty, and sail through the sandy mire that captured us on our way in. Once free of a need for floatation, we stop to pump up our tires at the usual corner -- where the road turns away from the fence to meet the main Salinas road -- parking under the take me to your leader saguaro5.

While inflating tires it becomes apparent that our Ostricola adventure has come at a price. We have a ruined right front tire -- injured, no doubt, on Friday's lengthy cross-country drive. It is a sidewall injury causing a bad bulge, typical of low-pressure tire damage. We are forced to unpack significant parts of our load to gain access to the jack and tools that enable us to get the spare out from under the rear end of the vehicle. We spend a considerable amount of time changing the tire and pumping up the others, and reluctantly get started again in time to reach the pavement around 4:35 pm.

In Sonoita, we take the time to have our windshield cleaned thoroughly by the vendors at Vasquez Liquors, as well as purchase the usual chiclets from the cuties selling it under the watchful eye of their mother, then purchase an Aztec Sun Calendar from vendors working the waiting line on the way to the border. Our aging larger sun calendar from my first life was left behind in our move to Tennessee, and we have been anxious to replace it. Before we cross, we must turn in our vehicle permit, which will expire in less than three weeks. We're back in the U.S. and finally on our way at dusk, arriving home at around 10:30 pm.

Although Saturday brought too much gringo traffic, not much else happened in the prior three days. It has been a near-perfect weekend on the Salinas Outer Dune.

March 17-21, 2004


1a|1bReference Excursions: 10/17/2003.

2It has always been a mystery to me why there is so much more noise associated with some tides than with others. Up to a point, the strength of the wind seems to have little to do with it. Whatever the cause, we are definite fans of a loud surf.

3Killer Whales, magnificent gentle beasts which do not live up to the name assigned by humans.  Shamu was a Killer Whale.

4Reference Excursions: 05/09/1997. Article not yet posted.

5Reference Excursions: 11/28/2003 - Gallery



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