Borrego Springs

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I was asked the other day if I have ever been to Borrego Springs and I sheepishly admitted that no, not only I had never been to this place, but never heard of it, either. I had to make up for the time lost and decided to drive up there the very next day. The trip took about an hour and a half from Palm Springs and it was absolutely delightful to cruise through the magnificent landscapes of the Anza and Borrego State Park, the largest park in California. It’s not a park in the conventional sense of the word, but rather a desertic plateau with rock formations entirely different than the ones found in Palm Springs and Joshua Tree. There are mini canyons made of red clay followed by vast meadows dotted with green ocotillos and bushes framed by the majestic Santa Rosa mountains. About half hour into the park, the familiar palms start to reappear again and houses emerge in a disorganized order on both sides of the street leading to a big roundabout–the heart of Borrego Springs.

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This unincorporated community of approximately 3,000 people is possibly the loveliest I’ve ever seen. The quaint downtown features an eclectic array of architectural styles -including santa fe’ and old west- that all work together well. Perhaps, the best part of Borrego Springs is the sense of tranquility that it instills, I really enjoyed driving around town on the rolling roads and spotting old churches and buildings tucked into the meadows. I kept staring at the greenery and the surrounding mountains and could not stop thinking that my blissful state must have been originated by the elevation. But at 597 feet, Borrego Springs has roughly the same elevation as Palm Springs…so, I came to the conclusion that this place is just magical or it’s probably the absence of traffic lights! (Who would have thought traffic lights could cause me so much stress?) It is precisely the lack of streetlights and traffic lights that makes Borrego Springs one of a kind and California’s only certified Dark-Sky Community by the International Dark Sky Association (IDA).

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I didn’t have the chance to stay until dark, but I had the best time looking for the giant iron installations spread along the main road at sunset. There are dozens of them including horses, camels, elephants, dinosaurs, and dragons and they’re all larger than life and surreal with the backdrop of the mountains. I felt like a kid again, today. Thanks for the magic, Borrego Springs!

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Baja Dream

The Mexican peninsula of Baja California is only a quick three-hour drive and is always worth a visit especially if on a budget and with limited time. I love going there whenever I need to satiate my thirst for international fares without traveling hours to go to a foreign country.

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Whether in Ensenada or Rosarito, the moment I check into a hotel, I always feel like I have just arrived to a very exotic place. I usually stay at La Fonda Hotel on the way to Ensenada if I want to have a quiet, relaxing time. Perched right on the cliffs overlooking the ocean, this is the quintessential hacienda that seems to have emerged from a telenovela. Painted in a vibrant orange and featuring traditional arches and colorful tiles, La Fonda is also perfect for a romantic getaway. The restaurant with its ample terrace offers the best coastline view and great seafood.

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The Rosarito Beach Hotel with its glamorous history and illustrious guests, is the Chateau Marmont of Baja, the one that put the quaint town of Rosarito on the map when it first opened in 1925. One can sense the history and grandeur of it all when entering the huge elegant lobby, adorned with beautiful frescos, large stairs, and antique furniture. I love staying here when I want to have a more dynamic experience, meeting people, exploring the town, and above all ordering fun coco locos (huge coconut drinks) on the beach and enjoy outdoor activities normally not allowed back home, like horseback riding on the shores.

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With many different restaurants located on the main boulevard, Rosarito offers different options for a dine-out evening. This time, I discovered a few excellent cafes, one inside the picturesque cobblestone barrio of Pueblo Plaza called Susanna’s (California Cuisine), a traditional Mexican one with a fun patio resembling a jungle (El Nido), and an eclectic pizzeria just outside downtown called Betuccini.

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But what I love to do the most, is driving along the coast and shopping for potteries. This is the time when I get to see other towns along the way and interact with the locals. This time I noticed that many poor areas have been cleaned up featuring more dwellings and developments. I asked some locals what happened and they say that the economy is simply doing better, as many more tourists are flocking to the Baja beaches. I definitely saw more changes in the pottery vending spots along the way–most of them have upgraded from front lawns to brick and mortar stores. I typically compare quality and prices among the different vendors and choose the ones that seem the best, but this time I ended up buying two large terra-cotta vases from a young man and his nine-year-old son. I didn’t need to do any research, I knew in my heart that that was the place and that this boy helping his dad deserved money more than anyone else. We joked about school and he kindly reminded me that the right word in Spanish for pottery is ‘jarrones’, I was mistakenly calling them ‘vasos’….glasses! Oh, dios mios! I need to go back to school, myself!

 

 

Desert Jungle

IMG_0286We recently discovered that one of the family’s paintings is none other than a Sam Hyde Harris, a well-known desert painter born in 1889 and active until his death in 1977. The painting in our possession depicts a cluster of tall palm trees completely covered from tip to bottom with layers of old yellow frowns. They stand in a terrain made of whiter sand dotted with scattered bushes, set against a mountain chain. There was never a doubt that this picture resembled our desert, but the question was where was it painted exactly? This scenery looks a little bit wilder than the cove, than the hiking trails, than anything we have seen here so far. Well, the answer came when we ventured without knowing, to the Thousand Palm Oasis Preserve, a 880 acres of protected areas tucked into the northern edge of the Indio Hills, with sweeping views of the Little San Bernardino Mountains and the southern edge of Joshua Tree National Park.

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 There is no entrance charge and the visitor center is situated on the right of a circular area from which different paths and trails begin. I picked the trail called ‘Moon Country’ and right from the start, it was Indiana Jones’ material; the oversize towering palm trees are 50 feet high and sideline a small sandy and rocky path. The trail is so thick with palms, that it’s almost dark even in the middle of the day and it features ponds that are inhabited by bugs, frogs, and giant spiders. I even spotted a couple of huge lizards resembling iguanas!

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I was more spooked than I wanted to be, so I decided to exit the trail when it opened up to a meadow and walk back to the visitor center from the other side. And this is when the ‘a-ha’ moment occurred; from this perspective I was able to see clearly the palm woodland oasis captured by Sam Hyde Harris. I did feel like Indiana Jones, after all! This was a great (accidental) discovery and all of the sudden, even if not completed, my mission took another meaning. It definitely confirmed the concept that it’s good to take detours sometimes in life!

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Slab City

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If you are visiting the Salton Sea, then you have to go see Slab City, another unique place that will define the concept of ‘off-the-grid’ living for you. A former U.S. Marines Corps training base during WWII, this abandoned area slowly morphed into Slab City in the 60’s when the first waves of migrations arrived. Today the land is occupied by 200 permanent residents living in their RV or makeshift dwellings and it’s a community mainly made of retirees and artists of all ages.

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It’s precisely the lack of water, electricity, and gas that make Slab City so resourceful by finding ways to not only survive but to come up with ingenious ideas and creative outlets to beautify its surroundings. Every camp has its own flavor with ‘front yards’ made with repurposed materials such as cans, wood, etc. There are several different communal spaces including a cafeteria, a library, and an outdoor performing stage.

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East Jesus is the area within Slab City with the most artistic compositions, the people living there attempt to use and recycle every bit of consumable trash. But the most eye-catching part is the colorful Salvation Mountain, located right at the entrance of Slab City. This installation made of adobe, straw, and gallons of paint is the work of Leonard Knight and is a love letter to God. There are biblical references written everywhere on the hill and in the adjacent covered structure. Visitors are allowed to walk around the hill and take in all the holiness of this place!

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The Salton Sea

I’m a little ashamed to admit that I had never heard about the Salton Sea before moving to  the desert. Although called a ‘sea’, this is technically a lake accidentally formed from a deviation of the Colorado River that dried up several times throughout the millennia.  In 1905 it was replenished again by a human error; engineers cut the bank of the Colorado River to further increase the water flow in the nearby agricultural fields. The resulting outflow overwhelmed the canal, and the river flowed into the Salton Basin for two years  creating the sea.

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Although the Salton Sea has a higher salinity than the Pacific Ocean, it quickly became a natural habitat for fishes (tilapias, in particular) and a sanctuary for hundreds of bird species  stopping here before migrating elsewhere. Only an hour away from Palm Springs, this paradise thrived in the 50’s and 60’s when it was transformed into a glamourous French Riviera with restaurants, bars, nautical clubs, and more boats that one could count. Many celebrities and families flocked to Salton Sea beach and it is said to attract more tourists than Yosemite during those years.

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Sadly, this golden age didn’t last long, as the sea started to evaporate at an alarming speed and the salinity increased killing many fish species and causing a huge environmental problem that is still waiting for a solution. So, gone were the tourists and gone were the lively businesses that made this area a vibrant holiday destination. All is left now are the carcasses of that life past seen especially at Bombay Beach, a surreal place with dozens of abandoned homes and random objects spread on its shores and mostly reclaimed by nature.

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My impression when I visited was actually poetic, if you stare at the sea especially from the north shore, you would never know that there’s a problem as it seems the perfect picture of an exotic beach. But this is just an illusion, the white sand is actually made of layers of barnacles and bones from the millions of fish that have expired in mass die-offs over the years. The huge blue body of water against the beautiful mountains is a reflection of the desert sky.

This is the largest lake in California and all is left is the promise of what it was going to be and the potential of what it could become. Is it worth a visit? Yes, because you will never find a place like this, reminding us that also life itself is an illusion. #savethesaltonsea

Araby Trail

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Bob Hope’s house is perhaps the most iconic and noticeable residence sitting on the mountains of South Palm Springs. I have always wanted to visit it, but it’s not open to the public and the private road that leads to it is guarded by a rather ominous sign that is either morbidly comical or disturbingly forewarning. So, what can a girl do to get close to this architectural wonder? Hike right to it, of course!

The Araby Trail, accessible from the Rimcrest/Southridge Road right off Highway 1-11, leads you right past the space-age estate and will leave you breathless (in any sense) with the stunning views of the plateau below. You will have to walk past a mobile home park on the left, and some condos built into the hillside on the right, before getting ¼ of a mile further on to the switchbacks that will take you up the side of the hill. I absolutely love this trail, as it has a great path surrounded by occasional beautiful shrubs and cacti. In terms of difficulty, it is easy to moderate, depending on how far you want to go. If you hike to the top of the hill beyond Bob Hope’s house your hike will give you an elevation gain of approximately 800 feet.

There are no picnic tables at the top of this trail, but there are several places where you can sit on large boulders for a well-deserved break, so be sure to bring some snacks and plenty of water, as always.

Tahquitz Canyon

I finally had the chance to hike Tahquitz Canyon over the weekend and it took my breath away; this canyon is beyond beautiful! Although it’s open all year round, I waited until now because Spring is the ideal time to witness the spectacular waterfall formed by the San Jacinto Mountains’ melting snow.

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The hike is a two-mile loop and takes only one hour and a half to complete, but once you start walking on the trail, you’ll feel like you’re inside a time machine and you will not want to leave. This sacred land was home to the Cahuilla Indians centuries ago and the remains of their daily life and culture such as rock art, housepits, foundations, irrigation ditches, dams, reservoirs, trails, and food preparation areas still exist in the canyon.

Eight different points of interest marked along the trail make it more than just a hike, but something of an educational experience. The landmarks that I found the most interesting were the large sacred rock covered with art dating back 1,000 to 1,600 years ago and the rock mortar used for grinding grain. These traces of life at every corner make this hike more an anthropological adventure than a workout, the fact that there are so many to discover along the way, makes the whole experience feel like a fun scavenger hunt! You suddenly become your very own Indiana Jones.

The landscape is—of course—mesmerizing, as well. The stream of water flowing through the canyon brings the most beautiful vegetation including western sycamores, bushes of honey mesquite, desert apricot, and red-budding chuparosa to name a few. The stream features a few little bridges that allow crossing one side to another to explore different rock formations or views.

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At about 3/4 of a mile in, the trail starts to incline 300 feet through a series of rock steps cut into the canyon side. These steps will lead you to the highlight of the trail: the 50-foot waterfall, which plunges gloriously into a pool creating the most relaxing oasis in Palm Springs.

It’s absolutely accurate what the map says about the Tahquitz Falls, it’s a place of power that rejuvenates and energizes. It’s refreshing, tranquil, and spiritual. Who would have thought Palm Springs had such a great gem?