Campo Archelon, the site of the now defunct sea turtle rescue and research center in Bahia de los Angeles, is one of my favorite places to car camp.
It is named after the genus of giant sea turtles that glided through the shallow seas of prehistoric North America 70- to 80-million years ago. Fossils reveal that Archelon was more than 15 feet long and 15 feet wide and weighed as much as a small pickup.
I first visited the turtle research station in 1983, and I’ve been camping there regularly for almost 20 years. For just $8 a night, it has sturdy beachside stone and thatch palapas offering both shade and essential protection from the sometimes relentless LA Bay winds. The palapas usually come with tables and cots, and some have old cupboards and other useful bits of furniture. There are flushing toilets and hot showers. Being an ecotourist campground, trash separation and recycling and water conservation are encouraged.
The sunrises over Isla Angel de la Guarda and the islands of the inner bay are always terrific. At low tide the shore is rocky... at high tide it’s sandy. One or two kayaks are available for camper use. Shore birds abound and it’s easy to get great photographs of pelicans, egrets, boobies and oystercatchers even from the comfort of your palapa.
I‘ve spent many hours just sitting in the shade taking in the spectacular view and all the activity in the bay. Fine hotels have their place, but there is something special and priceless about falling asleep on a cot or in your tent listening to a calming sea gently lapping the shore and the far off sound of dolphins and finback whales breathing into the night.
Campo Archelon owners Antonio and Bety Resendiz are goldmines of information about the area. Bety often volunteers at the museum in town, and "Tony," a former Mexican government biologist, now retired, has boundless energy, is passionate about conservation and sustainability, and will be happy to advise you about activities or trips you might be interested in.
If you have a larger group or want something more substantial, Campo Archelon has three stone built spacious casas (which have served as classrooms) for rent for $50 a night. Just back from the beach, they come with showers, flushing toilets and kitchens. With the beds and cots supplied you could easily sleep 6 people in each, and a few more out on the patio or under the stars.
Fortunately, Campo Archelon wasn’t severely impacted by Hurricane Odile last September when great sheets and channels of water carried away the highway in places and swept all before it into the bay at several points north of town. Campo Archelon’s damaged palapas were soon repaired and put back in service, but the turtle tanks and research buildings came perilously close to being washed away.
And immediately to the south, Brisa Marina, the old government-run RV park which had lapsed into a primitive campground over the years, was not so lucky. Deep channels cut through the park undercutting and dislodging several concrete slabs and leaving buried pipes exposed and hanging in the air.
Look for the Archelon signs about two miles north of town, on the road to La Gringa. It is one of the first places you come to when the paved road, or what’s left of it after Hurricane Odile, runs close to the bay.
By contrast, a new camping location I’ve found this year, and already returned to five times, is at the north end of Valle Guadalupe, 3-4 kms east of the entrance to L.A. Cetto, one of the biggest and most important wineries in Mexico. The spacious campground, adjacent to a large playground and sports area, is in the heart of the indigenous Kumiai village/ranching area of San Antonio Necua.
On every visit I’ve been the only guest in the campground. Though once, when I was leaving, a church or family group of about forty people arrived to indulge in some good old wholesome picnicking fun and socializing. Even so, the extensive campground could still have accommodated 3 or 4 other such groups.
Tables and benches, barbecue grills and water faucets are supplied. Huge oak trees provide shade. There are bathroom buildings with showers and flush toilets, labeled in both Spanish and Kumiai. And it costs just 30 pesos per person to camp for the night… about two dollars! That has to be the best camping deal in all of Baja.
Even though, during the early evening, you’re enveloped by the distant sounds of goats, pigs and chickens, and children playing, the village eases into peace and quiet shortly after dark. I have always been left completely alone in the gated and fenced camping area and I’ve always slept well and felt totally secure. There is a small store next to the campground selling bread, milk, fruit, snacks, juices and other basics. It’s open 7 AM–9 PM, and that’s where you check in and pay.
To get to the village follow the dirt road a km past L.A. Cetto to another popular winery, La Casa de Doña Lupe, and instead of turning into their entrance continue east following the “Centro Ecoturistico” signs to the village. Keep to the right at the split in the road. There is a fairly large arroyo to cross, but unless there has been heavy rain any reasonable clearance passenger car can make it The village has an interesting well kept "community museum." It’s only open at the weekends. Traditional Kumiai woven baskets, pottery, and other craft items are available for sale. And guides are available for a few dollars to escort you around the village and out to the sacred sites in the hills about.
I suspect on summer weekends the campground might be busy with family groups and events, but if you need a bargain place to stay in Valle Guadalupe, or if you’re interested in learning more about the indigenous Kumiai (spelling Kumeyaay north of the border) it’s well worth a visit.
And on your way in and out of the campground, it’s hard to resist enjoying a wine tasting or two. Seeing a tour bus parked at Doña Lupe’s one morning (Hours 9 AM–7 PM) I popped in to see what was on offer. Visitors from a cruise ship were enjoying a wine tasting along with a performance by a leaping, costume-clad Aztec fire dancer. Rather than their wines, Doña Lupe’s is perhaps more renowned for their selection of fruit marmalades and other preserves, and more exotic Mexican foods. Over the years, I’ve bought a few jars of huitlacoche (corn smut)–a prized fungal parasite of corn cobs which tastes a lot better than it looks or sounds.
The L.A. Cetto tasting experience is excellent and fun, certainly at 10:30 AM. A four glass sampling of their "Traditional" wines is just 25 pesos. Or step up to their “Reserve” wines–you can enjoy four of those for 75 pesos. A "Boutique" tasting for 200 pesos requires a reservation.
After sampling one of the new "Peninsula" varieties of wine made from Italian grapes grown in Valle Guadalupe, I decided to take a bottle home. It tasted fine to my uneducated palette, but I must confess my choice was heavily influenced by the name and the retro map of Baja California on the label.
Graham is the author of four books on Baja California including Nearer My Dog to Thee which describes a four-month sojourn in the Sierra San Pedro Mártir with two adopted street dogs.
Details on all Graham’s books can be found on his website: www.grahammackintosh.com