A hero's journey through the Baja badlands in search of a hidden kilo
By Alastair Bland
I really do not enjoy smoking weed. It has always made me rather dull, useless and unsociable. I grew up in San Francisco, the herb sack of America and have lived there all my 26 years, yet I remain an outsider to marijuana culture. I can barely roll a joint, have never bought my own weed and whenever a scruffy-looking man on Haight Street mumbles "Bud? Bud?" as I pass, I just look ahead and walk on by. I confess: I am a sharp-cornered, straight-edged square.
But this last spring, I left San Francisco to undertake what struck me as a noble journey. I would travel into the scorched wilds of Baja California, to the turquoise waters of the Sea of Cortez, in quest of a secret stash of buried marijuana.
My friend Jackson told me about the hidden weed this past winter. He had discovered the salty, green brick about five years ago, washed ashore on a desert island in the Sea of Cortez. Presumably it had fallen overboard from a small drug-running launch. Jackson had been on a kayaking journey from the Colorado River Delta south all the way to Cabo San Lucas. A diligent weed-smoker, he had carried the marijuana with him for a week. As he neared the great port of La Paz, however, the fear of getting caught in possession of so much contraband overwhelmed him. He sealed the weed in a large Tupperware container one morning before breaking camp and buried it on a bluff overlooking the sea.
The notion of seeking out this treasure crept into my head in the days following Jackson's story. Such a journey would be a fine way to pass another month or two of my slowly puttering life, devoid as it is of a permanent job or any financial obligations to woman or child.
And so, in the gloom of a San Francisco pub one evening in late February, I asked Jackson to draw me a map. He recalled the local geography of the place from his memory, and in just moments, he had sketched out a wonderful little treasure map. Using his pen as a pointer, Jackson lectured me. "You're going south past the village of Agua Verde right here, past this little ranch, two more arroyos. At the mouth of the second arroyo is the weed. It's at the south end of the beach, up on the bluff. It's at the base of the biggest mesquite tree you'll ever see. I buried the weed in a cairn of rocks, and it should be right . . . about . . . there."
He drew a cross on the map and said, "X marks the spot."
I rode to San Diego on March 4 with a stranger I met through a craigslist rideshare posting. He was a businessman of some sort, and he told me everything, I believe, about his investments and holdings and dividends and--oh well, I didn't really listen. I felt sorry for him, since he was a weekend commuter and had to travel 500 miles between his job and his family, while I was free to go to Mexico on a whim and look for buried dope.
We arrived in San Diego in midafternoon. I crossed the border into the hot, fuming filth of Tijuana, where an army of cab drivers waited. I said no to hundreds of them before I found the bus station. For $20, I purchased a ticket for San Quintin, a town 200 miles south on the Pacific Coast. Once there, I camped in the shrubs just off the highway. At sunrise, I hiked to the south edge of town, where I waited around a gas station, talking in rusty Spanish to the drivers heading south. I soon picked up a ride with a Mexican Korean trucker named Kim for the entire 500 miles down to the green, oasis town of Mulege.
The marijuana was stashed 100 miles further south. Baja's main highway passes within 25 miles of the secret spot, in fact, and I could very well have taken the bus--or hitchhiked--almost all the way to the stash. But I have read many classic books of adventure by such authors as Robert Louis Stevenson and Homer, and I have learned that heroic odysseys tend to rely more on foot travel and boats than on public transportation. I believed that this journey of mine was a heroic odyssey if ever such a thing existed in the realm of modern travel, and so I decided I would commence southward from Mulege by the power of my legs.
I walked through the dusty streets of the small town, past rustic homes and bougainvillea gardens, in the shadows of tall mango trees and date palms, and then two miles along the estuary until I reached the beach on the Sea of Cortez. There I set up camp under a sandstone cliff. The town center was far away and there was no one around to bother me. Down the sandy shore was a lighthouse on top of a rocky promontory, and just beyond was the entrance to the estuary.
I went snorkeling that evening with my five-foot-pole spear. The water was about 70 degrees, and I was just beginning to shiver when I perceived a large halibut 10 feet below me. It surely thought itself very clever for remaining so well-concealed beneath the sand. But I took a deep breath, descended upon the beast and pierced it with my spear.
I would eat quite a few halibut in the following weeks. The Sea of Cortez also hosts scallops, lobster, snapper and a hundred other tasty species, but I would eat mostly such fish as mullet, Cortez chub, triggerfish and various grunts--plus lots of sea urchins.
As I grilled my halibut steaks that first evening on the beach, fishing skiffs arrived at the mouth of the Mulege River and beached themselves like sick whales inside the estuary. From the distance, and through the tangles of mangrove trees, I watched the fishermen fillet their catch on the shore. Flocks of squawking gulls swarmed in on them.
Presently, I got an idea. Immediately south of Mulege lies the Bay of Conception, totaling 30 miles from north to south. The bay is defined by Point Conception, a long and narrow peninsula which tapers finally into the sea four miles straight out from Mulege. I decided that I would like to begin my quest at the tip of Point Conception and walk southward from there. I would need a ride, though, and one of these fishermen would have to be my ticket out of town.
Catch of the Day: Peacefully unaware of the gringo passing by on his dope quest, a family prepares nets for a day on the bay.
At dawn the next day, I walked back toward the village and inquired at the door of the first house I passed about finding a boat ride. A little old lady with hands covered in tortilla dough directed me around the corner, up a slight hill, past the small church and finally to the humble stucco home of a fisherman named Andres Higuera. He answered the door while his kids and wife peeked out from the shadows inside. We chatted in Spanish on the doorstep, and in just five minutes the arrangements were made. We would leave in the morning at 8am; $10--or 100 pesos--was the price, and he was to drop me off at the end of Point Conception as he headed out to sea to harpoon hammerhead sharks and manta rays with the rest of the fleet.
We shook hands on the deal and parted.
The boat ride the next morning took 20 minutes. The sea was flat as glass, and we moved swiftly. I tried to speak with Mr. Higuera, but the wind and roaring engine made communication impossible. We motored up to a quiet, sandy beach and climbed over the bow. I could still see Mulege and the greenery of the date palms and mangroves along the shore, but the town might as well have been across the Pacific Ocean. I unloaded my pack and my three gallons of water, then unfolded my AAA road map and spread it over the sand. I have a fair bit of sense in my head, and I asked Mr. Higuera, who spoke not a lick of my own language, where I would be able to get more water.
"Are there any fishing camps along the shore?"
"Not for 40 kilometers," he said. "But look, this is Three Palms Beach." He pressed his old leathery fingertip into the map. "You will find water here."
He said I would easily recognize the beach by a small cluster of date palms, and that I would find a natural spring just 30 feet from the sea.
"The beach is only six miles south of here," he said. "You will arrive tonight. It is like paradise. There is all the water you can drink."
He then warned me darkly that in the remoter regions of the Baja Coast, drug traffic is heavy and one must be careful to avoid hidden caches of marijuana and cocaine.
"Lots of drug traffic around here," he said. "Do not investigate suspicious trash on the beach. Be careful."
We wished each other well, and I handed him 100 pesos and helped to shove his boat off from the shore. He revved the outboard and shot away. I was left utterly alone, which I quite enjoy, and I started southward with a happy bounce in my step.
Feeling no danger from drug traffickers, I eagerly inspected all the suspicious beach trash I came across. I found no contraband, but I had a wonderful time. To my provisions I added three full cans of Coke, a half bottle of rum, some shoeshine polish, a tube of wetsuit glue, a pair of aviator sunglasses, a faded dollar bill and even some bottled drinking water. I found, too, a face mask of the sort worn by mountain climbers and bank robbers. I figured Mexican drug runners probably use them as well.
That first day out, I also came across the beachside grave of a very lonely dead man. A wooden cross marked the spot. The grave was old and the cross had toppled over, but the man evidently still had some good friends among the living; numerous candle jars and tequila bottles had been laid on top of the rocky mound. Still, the man was dead, and this troubled me.
The travel over the long, cobblestone beaches was grueling. Every step took the energy required to take three steps along civilized surfaces like sidewalks and carpeted hallways. And when the tide came up against the cliff faces, I had to contend with hundred-yard stretches of waist-deep water. Waves sloshed and tugged at me, and small stingrays lay stacked like landmines over the sandy patches.
Near sunset, I came around a bend in the shore and saw several large palm trees. I counted six, yet was certain this must be Mr. Higuera's Three Palms Beach. The beach itself was lovely, with sand you could sleep on and a nice reef just off the shore where I could spear fish. I saw plenty of driftwood to burn and a few large stones I could turn into a seat and table. I took my load off and wondered how long I'd be able to remain in this paradise; it would depend, of course, upon the hunting and the shellfish foraging--but I was getting ahead of myself.
I first needed to find that spring.
The beach ran for just 100 yards between cliffs, so there was not much area to search, yet I found no gurgling fountain of life. I inspected the roots of the palm trees at the base of the sandstone cliff and found the earth wet and sticky. But I looked and looked, yet the spring itself was nowhere to be found.
Two days later, I drank the last of my water. Eight miles still remained before I would reach the village of San Sebastian, and I considered myself doomed if I could procure no water before then. I wondered if drug traffickers, whom I might startle as they filled their boat with contraband, would shoot me or save me.
By a great turn of luck, I encountered a small, ramshackle fish camp late in the afternoon. Goats milled about inside a small wooden corral, several boats lay beached on the shore and four fishermen lounged on cots under a palm-thatch palapa. A half-dozen mangy mutts took notice of my intrusion and began to circle me and bark savagely, rousing the men, who threw rocks at them. This shut them up and persuaded them to return to their daybeds of rusty cans and dirty diapers.
The men, too, seemed stunned by my sudden presence, but they did not growl and bite at my heels; they were courteous gentlemen. I smiled and shook my empty milk jugs, and their faces lit up.
"Water!" one said in alarm, and he leaped to his feet and led me straight to the kitchen shack where sat two 50-gallon drums of well water and a length of rubber hose. I siphoned my bottles full and drank my fill. The day was late, and the men invited me to eat fish for dinner and sleep on their beach. I accepted, and we had a fine evening. Their wives, children and dogs joined us around the outdoor wooden table. The ambiance was rustic and charming, with old nets and trash strewn carelessly every which way, and the meal was genuine and delicious.
We had Oaxacan coffee first, with mesquite honey and fresh goat's milk to taste. Then came seared yellowtail, seasoned with oregano and paprika, and with Mexican olive oil drizzled over. On the side were dishes of creamy refried beans, tortillas and sliced goat cheese made that very day. As the sun set and the women went to clearing the table, the fishermen and I opened a bottle of fine cognac--or was it cheap mescal? Yes, yes, I remember now: it was cheap mescal.
Anyway, it was powerful medicine for my aching body. Even more powerful was the weed we smoked on the beach after dark. The youngest of the fishermen, hardly more than a teenager, lit up the joint and gave it to me first. I have heard that Mexican marijuana is weak as tea, so I inhaled several times, but the weed was almost indescribably potent. As the men passed around the joint, I abruptly went reeling backward. I stood up, somehow managing not to fall, and excused myself. I staggered into the darkness and lay down beneath some palms. My head spun out of control, and I nearly vomited. I thought I might die, but I slept soundly until sunrise.
Before leaving the next morning, we had coffee and I filled my belly again with water. The men insisted I take a baggie for the road, as well as rolling papers. I accepted the gift out of politeness, figuring to use the goods as barter later on, but the little baggie of weed inspired in me a curious feeling of power and independence. It was like that day I turned 21 and realized I could buy all the liquor in the world without having to ask my older sister for help.
I am, as I said, a square. Yet not a mile down the beach, I couldn't resist the urge to stop and have a smoke. I had my very own weed, my own papers and a lighter! I rolled a very lumpy, ill-shaped joint and smoked a small portion--though I didn't inhale as deeply as the night before. Just like that, I was alone on a tropical beach, smoking weed! Wow. I went snorkeling and speared a four-pound snapper, ate it for brunch and lay on the beach reading Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi. After a lazy hour, I continued southward, high as a kite. I have experienced no greater state of anxiety than when I unexpectedly encountered a group of Mexican soldiers lounging in the shade of some camouflage tarpaulins. They were young men, all armed with intimidating machine guns. Three of them stood and came over to greet me. They said they were camped out for a month while practicing training operations in preparation for some imaginary war.
"Ah!" I said nervously. "Very fun."
They shrugged and said life was actually very slow out here in the Baja bush. My head-buzz was growing, and I wanted to make some small talk and quickly get the hell out of there, but the three fellows had me surrounded. They asked where I was from and what I was up to. They were bored silly and thirsted for information from the outside world. They questioned me about San Francisco and my fantastic metropolitan lifestyle. They asked how many women lived there, and if they were pretty. Another of the fellows asked if one could easily buy weed in my hometown.
I said I believed so. The same soldier then asked if I had any on me at the moment.
"Of course not!" I said emphatically, but the soldier dilated his nostrils like a predator and smiled.
"Come on," he said, and I suddenly knew that he could smell it on me and see it in my eyes. They all could.
Their comrades, resting among the mesquite thorns, caught wind of the conversation and began to stir. My face grew hot, and a sickly feeling squeezed my gut. Several more soldiers stood up and joined the convention. They, too, held machine guns, sniffed the air and grinned.
All of them knew.
The encounter with the Mexican army cost me very dearly. I smoked out all eight of the men and resumed my southward advance that afternoon with just a few buds left. I considered my predicament as I walked and decided I would have to carefully ration my intake of weed until I reached the mother lode, buried under the great mesquite tree.
The marijuana trade is prolific in Baja California. Many gringos with homes on the beach have drug stories to tell. In San Nicolas, 80 miles north of the secret stash, a salty ex-pat told me of a day eight years ago when, walking the beach at dawn, he found a skiff filled with marijuana, riddled with bullet holes and splattered with the blood of slain smugglers.
And in Juncalito, 40 miles north of the stash, another salty ex-pat told of an incident in which a smuggling boat from Mazatlan left nine tons of weed on a nearby island for pickup. Some local fishermen promptly caught wind of the booty and went out with a fleet of skiffs to take it back to camp. They were caught in the act, however, and were nearly executed.And in San Cosme, 20 miles north of the stash, yet another salty ex-pat fed me a green brownie with coffee and told me of the time he had fire-bombed a gasoline cache used by the local drug mob. The Federales had been corrupted with bribes, and they arrested the gringo and locked him up in La Paz for a week.
At the village of Agua Verde, eight miles north of the stash, I speared a large halibut off the beach before dinner. I made tacos and smoked my very last bud, determined that I would reach my destination the following day.
Sea Scribe: The author takes notes as he nears completion of his journey.
I drank coffee for breakfast, then began the final leg of my long journey. I hiked inland for most of the final miles, as severe cliffs blocked the way along the shore. Goats had worn a clear path through the hills, and the way was easy. I passed a small ranch shaded by date palms and populated by burros, but I had plenty of water, so I marched on by. I took a break at a sandy beach a mile later. Here, I traded in my AAA road map for the hand-drawn treasure map Jackson had made for me so long before, in the far-away land of San Francisco. I reviewed the directions. After one more length of rocky shore, I would find a sandy beach at the mouth of a large arroyo, and that would be it.
I was just two miles away. I grew giddy and threw sand in the air, then jumped to my feet and pushed on. I felt like a child on Christmas morning. Even today I can almost feel the fluttery feeling in my stomach as I scrambled the last 10 yards up the bluff. I was so young, so alive, so full of hope . . .
It must have been Hurricane Martin. From what I now understand, it came along in September of 2003 and dropped a meter of rain in a day on most of the Baja Peninsula, taking the lives of seven people and washing away homes, cows, tractors and palm trees. It apparently also washed away my kilo of marijuana.
I kicked through the rocks around the base of the tree for a depressing half-hour, but there was no sign of Jackson's cairn or the Tupperware container.
Eventually, I sat down in the shade of the tree and waited for the blazing sun to sink behind the western sierra. The shadows grew long, and I grew sentimental. I considered my lonesome fate here in this scorched desert place. All the heroes of my favorite adventure classics are struck by misfortune at some point, and I felt that I had now joined their ranks.
But I wondered in the shade of that mesquite tree how romantic and dignified it really is to be a pothead. Back in San Francisco, if I were to maintain my newfound habit, I would have to learn the lifestyle. I would have to make connections, snoop around in dank alleyways, avoid cops and find quiet places to smoke undetected, and I did not think I had been ordained for such work.
I am, after all, a sharp-cornered, straight-edged square.
Yes, there was a time in my youth when naive visions of grandeur and heroism led me astray, into the terrible deserts of Baja California to seek out a Tupperware container full of . . . oh, I have already told the story. Let's now move on and forget this short chapter of my life.
Sea Slugs of the Cortez
In the past two years, I have walked 1,500 miles of Baja California's rugged peninsula. Hiking along the beaches, I met many Mexican fishermen, and in daily conversation it was quite common to touch upon the subject of seafood as aphrodisiacs. Many are the men there who esteem sea urchin roe, oysters, mussels, scallops and triggerfish liver as medicines of love. I, however, have eaten pounds and pounds and still many more pounds of these foods, raw and cooked, and there have been no effects to speak of.
On a length of wild coastline between La Paz and Loreto, I first learned of the reputation of the sea slug. I came around a rocky headland, drenched in sweat, and arrived at a long beach of fine, soft sand. A turquoise bay stretched out before me, and across the water I saw a fish camp on the shore. Several small fishing boats had been hauled up onto the beach, and against the bright white sand, I saw the movement of several men amidst a jumbled pile of gear. I continued hiking and soon could discern a dozen fishermen lounging in the shade of a tarp they had set up with some rope and mesquite posts planted in the sand.
I walked along the curve of the bay, past an old whale skeleton, and soon came upon the immediate vicinity of the ramshackle camp. The men lay in the shade, reading magazines while several huge cauldrons out on the beach steamed over fires of driftwood. I waved hello as I approached and peered into one of the cook pots as I passed. It was filled with sea slugs.
We exchanged greetings, then I asked, "Are you divers?"
"Yes. Of sea slugs. Come in. Rest."
I took off my pack, set down my water jugs and joined them in their shady nook.
They lived in Ligui, they explained, a little village up north, near Loreto. "We dived here last night," one said, "and this evening we will pack up and leave." He told me they had taken nearly 2,000 sea cucumbers.
"Holy shit! Who buys them?"
A receiver in Loreto, he said. From there they go off to Tijuana, are dried and salted, and sent to Japan and Korea.
"Viagra of the sea!" he added, and he flexed his bicep.
"Ah!" I said. "An aphrodisiac."
"And it works for men and for ladies!" another of the divers said. He smiled at me from where he sat and held out the porn magazine he was reading, its pages filled with photos of big-busted blondes. "She has eaten sea slugs! Look how happy she is!"
I asked the men if they made good money as divers.
"Twenty-five dollars per kilo of boiled slug," one answered.
"Good money, no?"
"After gasoline, equipment and repairs, it is not very much."
I made further inquiries and learned that the commercial sea-slug season in Baja California Sur runs from March through May. Permits are granted by the government to cooperatives, which consist of four or five boats and 10 to 20 men. In the 2005 season, these men would be aiming for 141,732 sea slugs.
"We must work every day," one said.
To gather the sea slugs, the men dive at night. I asked if any of the men knew someone who had died, and they immediately said no, and several knocked on wood.
"Sorry!" I exclaimed.
"It's OK," one man said. "We are Catholics, and we dive with God."
The talk about the "love potion" powers fascinated me, but I was skeptical. I asked what happens after eating a sea slug, and the men all laughed heartily and made gestures with their hands, representing impossible dimensions and incredible feats of strength, and I suspected they were full of talk.
Yet a receiver in Tijuana can sell the things at $80 per dried kilo to the Asian market. Someone down the line believes in the power of the sea slug.
In days following, I heard similar sea-slug talk from other fishermen I met. My curiosity motivated me to try some for dinner. After eating, I slipped into my sleeping bag and wondered what happens to a person who has overdosed on a powerful aphrodisiac. The day had been long. I yawned. The sun sank lower, and the shadows lengthened. Meanwhile, the epic feast of sea slug sat heavy in my belly, doing nothing remarkable. My eyelids grew heavy, the day swirled away and night overwhelmed me with a deep sleep.
Sea slugs are not easily acquired by the home chef. In my experience, though, they taste like nothing extraordinary, and if the experimental home chef cannot locate sea slug for his Fourth of July potluck dinner, substitute scallops and call it good.
Sea Slug Tacos for Those Who Insist on Trying Things
3 sea slugs
2 garlic cloves
4 tbsp. olive oil
corn or flour tortillas
salsa of tomato, onion, lime juice and cilantro
hot sauce in a bottle
salt and pepper to taste
Eviscerate the sea slugs just like you would clean a fish. Pull out all gross-looking things and discard them. Boil the slugs for 15 minutes. Next, cut out the strips of white, meaty flesh that run laterally along the inside and discard the rubbery skin. Cut up the flesh and drop it with the garlic into the hot oil. Stir the slug around until it turns golden brown. Heat your tortillas, fill them with the meat and salsa, season as you like and eat.
Interestingly, the sea slug is higher in protein than any other food on earth except egg whites, which are 99 percent protein. I recommend that the reader forget all about sea cucumbers, and perhaps even fish, and just eat egg whites.
From the June 29-July 5, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.
© 2005 Metro Publishing Inc.