My wife, Lori, and I ended up in the city of Potosi on the last part of our Bolivian vacation. After considering various things to do around the city, we selected the “mine tour” option. The city is over 200 miles south of the capital city of La Paz. At 13,400 feet of elevation, it’s one of the world’s highest cities. And, as we found out, it’s dominated by a big mountain named Cerro Rico, which has been mined regularly for silver since the Spaniards were the rulers.
It was Christmas break of my sophomore year in high school when Jake and I took off from Denton. We geared up and drove his parent’s VW Camper/van (with their permission), bound for Mexico with a stop in Douglas, Arizona. The plan was to meet up in Douglas with an older, more mature person named Jim, whom I knew from the summer camp where I had worked the previous summer. From there, the three of us would travel to Guaymas, Mexico, where we’d camp, have some quality beach time, and experience a bunch of “neat adventure stuff.” In the van, we had scuba gear packed away under one of the seats in cardboard boxes, places to sleep, and we must have had some food somewhere. (Note- I’m not sure how we got our parents to agree to the plan. Although I do remember it being a good thing that we would be under the supervision of someone older).
Jake and I drove to Douglas, where we connected with Jim at his parent’s house. We spent a day there doing “the friends visiting from out of town” routine, which included supper across the border in Agua Prieta. The next day we loaded Jim’s baggage into the van and took off across the border toward the coastal city of Guaymas, which we had randomly chosen as our destination.
We had no idea what Guaymas looked like and no clue about where we were going to camp when we got there. We arrived according to plan in the late afternoon and went straight to a restaurant to eat dinner. We hadn’t seen any signs or billboards indicating places to beach camp on our way into town but didn’t let that detract from our meal. We were confident that finding a good campsite was simply a matter of merely asking around.
As the evening wore on, it finally became time to get ourselves settled in somewhere for the night. Neither the bartender nor any of the restaurant patrons had any camping recommendations, so we just drove north along the coast in search of possibilities. We felt like we would somehow find the perfect camping spot, just as we had known Guaymas was the ideal destination.
A few miles outside of town, we drove up to a locked gate covered with an abundance of signs, one of which had the word “Camping” on it. We decided it must be what we were looking for and stopped to study it closer. It was dark, and as I squinted to decipher the Spanish, an armed guard with a thick mustache walked up and beckoned me to roll down the window. Peering into the van, it didn’t take him long to realize that we were gringos.
“Ah, Americans,” he said.
He walked over to the locked gate, opened it up, motioned for us to drive on in, and told us in broken English that we could camp wherever we pleased.
The place was just what we were looking for, and we’d just stumbled onto it. We drove in as the friendly guard tended the gate. We could have been concerned about the guard’s gun, the locked gate, and the remoteness of the location, but we just started drinking vodka from our half-gallon bottle instead. Our thoughts were that our plan was working out, there was no more driving for the day, and things just couldn’t get much better. As far as we were concerned, the situation was just what Mexico was all about. In our teenage minds, we were in a place where everything was possible.
Once through the gate, we continued along a gravel road. After a few minutes, we drove up onto a massive concrete surface of some sort with buildings visible in the moonlight. We thought we were in the middle of nowhere and couldn’t figure out what we were seeing. After a few minutes, we reached the apparent end of the pavement and dropped back onto what we thought was the same gravel road. At that point, we assumed we were getting ever closer to a beautiful beach with white sands, palm trees, and no people.
We drove on the gravel road for a few more minutes, but then, abruptly, the surface changed to pure sand, and the road ended. Off in the near-distance, we saw the surf rolling in, illuminated just enough by the moonlight to make it visible. We were giddy at the thought of how close we were to the water. We wanted to drive up to the edge and set up our camp there. But thankfully, by a stroke of good luck, we got bogged down in the sand, sank the rear-end down to the axle, and came to a forced stop. Of course, we were annoyed at having to stop where we did. But I realize now that getting stuck where we did, kept us from camping where there would be water when the tide came in. It wasn’t the perfect camping spot we’d envisioned, but given that we had no other choice, we called it good and decided to deal with the stuck part the following day.
Shortly after sun-up, we awoke intent on getting the most out of our few days of beach time. Our first move was to walk out into the spectacular surf. The water was a bit colder than we’d anticipated, but we weren’t about to let that minor detail affect our plans. After all, we were down in the warm country, and we’d heard that the air temperature was supposed to be in the 70s later that day. I guess we shouldn’t have been surprised by the water temperature. After all, it was the Gulf of California, which ultimately means the Pacific Ocean—a body of water not known to be warm. But we were young, adventurous, and not prone to considering such things.
Mountains rose just inland from where we were still stuck. A mile-wide and mostly flat basin separated the mountains from the coastline. There was a scattering of sandy beaches, but much of the shoreline was rocky and craggy. The surrounding vegetation was mostly scrub of some sort. There were no visible signs of people or development anywhere other than the gravel road that had led us to this place.
To us, it was a beach Shangri-La with the bonus of the mountains. It was beautiful, and we could see that the terrain afforded an almost endless assortment of adventure opportunities. However, while we were pleased with the surroundings, the realization that we only had a few days to do everything we had planned made us anxious. Our list of potential activities included scuba diving, ocean swimming, camping out, hiking around, sunbathing, eating out, mountain climbing, and just being in Mexico. And we were determined to do it all.
After getting the van unstuck, Jake opened up his scuba gear box, and we headed for the water. A nearby jetty protected the surrounding area from the constant pounding of the wind. From a high point on a rock near the ocean, we saw a car parked further down the coastline and realized we weren’t alone. Then, out in the water halfway between us and the car, we saw a lone swimmer snorkeling toward us slowly along the shoreline. We walked down to the water’s edge, and the swimmer saw us and swam over. He raised his head, said hello, walked with his flippers over to where we stood, and we immediately began launching questions at him.
He was a friendly young man with long hair and mutton-chop sideburns and had a lot of info to offer– He was from a college in California. He was doing some sort of ocean research. An American owned the property. The buildings we had seen and the pavement were the set for the movie Catch 22. He was camping for another day or two. The water was not all that good for diving or snorkeling…
After a bit, he turned and walked back into the deeper water and just continued snorkeling. At that point, Jake began filling me in on the basics of scuba, and after about the third description of what not to do or you could die, I decided that I would just snorkel. So he geared himself up and went out into the water alone. Jim just hung out on a rock, catching some rays, watching it all unfold, and undoubtedly lifeguarding. I put on a mask, snorkel, and fins and acted as though I was enjoying the water, which, as we had been told, was not all that warm or clear. I did my best to enjoy it but found my thoughts turning from snorkeling and being in the water to mountain climbing, camping, and vodka drinking. Since there wasn’t much enjoyable about being in the water, I soon got out of the ocean and would’ve dried off had there been a towel.
While we spent our first beach day getting the van unstuck, organizing, and scuba diving/snorkeling/pondering, on the second day, our attention turned inland. We headed to the mountains. Since they were almost a mile away and because we were eager to take a look at the movie set in the daylight, we opted to drive.
The set consisted of several large burned-out buildings and a long runway. Once we knew what it was and with the advantage of having the light of day, it made more sense. At the far end of the runway, a different gravel road veered off toward the mountains, and we followed it. Within a few minutes, we were a few hundred yards from the line of dry and rocky hills (or mountains as we called them) that rose perhaps 100 vertical feet above the brush-covered basin. We parked and began walking toward them, intent on climbing to a summit.
Jim and I decided to follow a theoretical route that went straight up the face. Jake looked around and opted for another option that didn’t involve any dead vertical. He soon disappeared around a corner, and the two of us began our climb, confident that we’d be up on top first since we were taking a more direct line.
For some reason, we decided that I would lead the climb, and Jim would follow. I’m not sure exactly why it worked out that way because Jim had once talked about having rock climbed, and he was from Arizona, and I could claim neither. We had no actual rock climbing equipment, which was good because we wouldn’t have known what to do with it anyway, and it probably would’ve just gotten in the way. So, we just went with what we had.
I saw what looked like a good way to go and began climbing. Large boulders loomed above us at the top, and I relished the moment we’d be up there, before Jake, and sitting on them while gazing out at the ocean. Unfortunately, the rock face we were going up was a bit loose, or “chossy,” as experienced rock climbers would have called it. It was a mix of dirt, sand, and little rocks and was a bit crusty, probably from recent rain. I moved up 10 feet or so from the bottom before everything I grabbed or stepped on began coming loose. Knowing just what to do, Jim put his hands under my feet to create a sort of foothold. Initially, I thought I probably just needed to look and feel around a bit to find the good stuff. But, it quickly got to the point where every time I shifted or moved, the surface would crumble even more. I realized that my options were disintegrating. Suddenly, my thoughts went from the summit to just returning to the van alive. Then, just as the situation became dire, I noticed a fist-sized rock stuck out from the face a few inches to my left and looked solid. I slowly and deliberately reached for it, and nothing crumbled. Thankfully, it was the solid handhold I needed to help me move closer to the bottom. And so, the retreat continued. Just then, Jake peered over the edge and hollered down to us. Earlier, I would’ve taken that as a defeat, but now I was just glad that he’d made it to the top and that Jim and I were almost back on stable terrain.
He yelled that he’d meet us back at the van in an hour and then disappeared. Jim and I finally got down and off the rock and were soon back at the VW, happy to be in familiar surroundings. After an hour or so, Jake arrived. We got into our seats and were quickly ready to drive. But before we even cranked up the engine, Jake recounted two intriguing things he’d encountered along his way. First, there was a line of big rocks along the top. He’d crawled to the edge of one to look around and yell down, but once out there realized that it was only a slab, just a few inches thick, and was jutting out into the air all by itself. Second, he’d ultimately descended the backside of the mountain via a drainage gully and trail of sorts. After a few minutes of hiking, he’d rounded a corner and walked right up on a beautiful naked gringa washing off under a waterfall. To a teenage boy, it was wildly unexpected. As it turns out, she was camping with the researcher. And while it’s logical that she was just out bathing, at the time, it created an interesting situation. A bit flabbergasted, he’d done what seemed the right thing to do— just said hello and kept walking.
We had a few more days of living the good Mexican beach, mountain, and camping life, but nothing happened during that time to trump Jake’s naked girl experience. The water had not been ideal for scuba/snorkeling, we were always too spread out and in disarray for going into town, and the vodka ultimately lost its allure. Also, we realized that we needed a pick of some sort if we were going to rock climb anymore. So, we just occupied our days with sand, periodic nonsense, and conjecture about whether or not there were naked girls under most waterfalls.
Our beach time in Guaymas eventually ended, and we drove back north. We pulled into Denton well after dark but with plenty of time left to get ourselves organized for the next day’s return to school. Our parents were glad to see us, but I felt they weren’t all that interested in the specific details of what we’d seen and done.
As in any adventure, there were lessons learned. During this one, I developed an appreciation for the technicalities of scuba diving, a better understanding of climbing surfaces, and a realization that all seawater is not crystal clear and warm. But most importantly, I concluded that adventure lurks around every corner.