this would be fun. drive down the coast of baja california from tijuana to the cabo san lucas and san jose del cabo

Bouncing down Baja: A hit-or-miss wild ride

Rosemary McClure Los Angeles Times Mar. 26, 2006 12:00 AM

BAJA CALIFORNIA, Mexico - We topped a ridge to see a vast panorama of jumbled boulders, chocolate-brown hills and red, flat-topped mesas. Marching up and down the slopes were legions of giant cactus, all of them armed, dangerous and starkly beautiful.

I inhaled sharply, startled by the curious splendor of the place.

We had entered a magical region of Baja California's Desierto Central (Central Desert). It was a scenic payoff for the arduous miles we had driven on Mexico 1, the Transpeninsular Highway. It was one of many such payoffs during a four-day adventure on Baja's mother road. advertisement

The journey took us through the heart of Mexico's last frontera, a desolate region seen by few of the 24 million tourists who visit Baja annually to play or fish in the waters off Los Cabos or shop in Tijuana or Ensenada.

The untamed interior of Baja offers unparalleled sights: American Automobile Association guidebooks call it the "most fascinating desert scenery in North America."

There are forests of cactus that soar 60 feet high, creatures seen nowhere else in the world, missions that look much as they did when founded by the Spaniards in the 1700s. Away from the Central Desert, there are other bonuses: sandy beaches rarely visited, turquoise lagoons full of whales and other sea life, laid-back resorts offering sunrise sport fishing in the Gulf of California (Sea of Corts).

Mexico 1 makes all of this accessible to those with adventure in their soul - and the fortitude to cope with occasional hazards.

"It's not like driving the freeways of California," said Ron White of Newport Beach, a Mexico 1 regular. "It's dog-eat-dog out here. You have to have water and food and be ready for most anything to happen."

Improved but perilous

Old-timers say today's perils are nothing compared with those before the Transpeninsular Highway opened in 1973 to connect Tijuana with Cabo San Lucas, more than 1,050 miles to the south. Before the road's completion, the trip from Tijuana to La Paz, the capital of Baja California Sur, took travelers nearly two weeks on washboard dirt roads. And Cabo was 137 miles farther south.

Today's travelers, if they encounter no problems, can make the journey to Cabo in two long days.

But rugged terrain and unpredictable forces of nature can turn the best-laid plans inside out, as we learned during our wild ride.

Los Angeles Times photographer Gail Fisher and I crossed the U.S.-Mexican border at San Ysidro before 7 on a gray February morning. We were bound for the whale-calving lagoons of central Baja. We rolled through the streets of Tijuana at dawn and zipped onto 1D, called the Scenic Road, a four-lane toll highway leading to the seaside resort of Ensenada.

The road, a 60-mile stretch of expressway along Baja's rapidly developing Gold Coast, would be the easiest part of our journey. It was a bargain for about $7 in tolls. The highway was fast, expansive views of the Pacific greeted us around the zigzagging turns, and good restaurants beckoned, if we had wanted to take the time to stop.

We didn't. Drizzle had begun to dog us, slowing our progress. At El Mirador, an overlook north of Ensenada, the rain stopped for a moment and a shaft of sunlight broke through. The sweeping coastal panorama came alive with golden morning light.

Approaching Ensenada, the toll road vanished, and we moved sluggishly through town, caught in traffic and waiting for lights to change.

When we finally left Ensenada, farmland, hills and the vineyards of Santo Tomas appeared. As we entered the village, colorful murals and stickers announced El Palomar Restaurant, and we decided it was time for breakfast. So did our two other passengers: Gail's son, Zack, and his friend, Scott Kemp, both 15. The boys had slept for the first few hours of our journey; now, they were ready to eat. Seafood omelets helped all of us wake up.

Back on the highway, we passed more farmland and eventually bounced through a few towns. Speed bumps appear here and there on the Transpeninsular Highway. They're the easiest way for tiny Baja towns to slow travelers on a road where children sometimes play.

Hardscrabble life

The towns are interesting, but they aren't pretty. Most are scruffy, hardscrabble villages where skinny dogs chase cars, bright signs advertise tacos and used tires, and hawkers sell nuts and oranges from roadside tables. On this day, lakes of red mud had formed from the rainstorm, which seemed to be preceding us. We congratulated ourselves on our good fortune in avoiding it.

In San Quintin, about 190 miles south of the border, cultivated fields of prickly pear cactus covered the landscape. The pads, or nopales, were palm-size and bright green and looked ready to harvest. The cactus is a staple in Latin American diets; it is served as often as green beans are in U.S. homes. Three miles west of Mexico 1, a lovely bay, Bahia San Quintin, catered to anglers and hunters. A handful of motels lined its edge.

It was another hour before we reached our next landmark, El Rosario. The last 50 miles had been increasingly monotonous, as farmland disappeared and barren badlands appeared. We were heading away from the Pacific into the heart of Baja. It would be 200 miles more before Mexico 1 returned to the sea.

We had paid in advance for hotel rooms at Catavia, a desert outpost farther south. But as we drove toward it in the late afternoon, we noticed a line of cars in the road ahead. We pulled up behind RVs, trucks, buses, sedans, a Hummer and other SUVs.

The road is out!

People were milling around, so we got out and milled around, too. At the front of the line was a brand-new river, courtesy of the storm that had preceded us. It was running through Mexico 1.

We had rented a four-wheel-drive SUV for this trip, but I wasn't sure I wanted to ford a river, especially because it seemed nearly as deep as the SUV was tall.

A Baja bus driver decided to go for it. He gunned the engine and made it across, the backsplash reaching halfway to the windows.

Within half an hour, he was back. "There's an even deeper washout ahead," he shouted from his window. "I think the water's 25 feet deep. Impossible to get across it."

"What are we going to do?" I asked Gail.

Neither of our choices seemed great. The water was getting deeper, and it didn't appear that it would clear soon. Neither of us particularly wanted to sleep in the SUV. But where would we stay? It was about 70 miles back to El Rosario, and we weren't sure there were rooms. And now, it was dark. People always advise against driving in Baja after dark. Even during daylight, the road is treacherous: narrow, hilly, with many blind curves and no guardrails. And there could be more flash floods.

We chose returning to El Rosario in the dark over sleeping in the car. It was a white-knuckle ride, with a couple of burros crossing the road when least expected. But our rewards were comfortable, inexpensive rooms at the Baja Cactus Motel and lobster tacos next door at Mama Espinosa's, a Baja landmark.

The next morning, we tackled the Central Desert again. It was just as beautiful this time, and the flooded areas had cleared enough so that we could ford them. We hurried on toward Central Baja's Pacific Coast lagoons, where whales were frolicking. And where we wanted to frolic, too.

California gray whales are like us: They like spending the winter in warm places. About 10,000 whales leave the chilly waters of the Bering Sea each year on a 12,000-mile round trip that brings them to the shallow, languid bays of Baja, where calves are born and the whales unwind for a few months, their numbers peaking in February. Among their recreational activities, it seems, is communing with humans. I'd heard tales of their friendliness in the warm lagoons of Mexico, but I wasn't sure whether to believe them.

Hunted nearly to extinction in the late 1800s and early 20th century, the whales have protected status. There are thousands in three major Baja bays: Laguna Ojo de Liebre (also called Scammon's Lagoon), halfway down the peninsula; Laguna San Ignacio, 100 miles farther south; and Bahia Magdalena, north of La Paz. We had hoped to see whales in both Ojo de Liebre, near the town of Guerrero Negro, and San Ignacio.

We had reserved an organized tour in Guerrero Negro, but we didn't make it in time. So we fishtailed our way 15 miles through deep red mud on an unpaved side road leading to the lagoon, where 22-foot skiffs were waiting to take tourists out. The 90-minute tour cost $35 and brought us face-to-face with dozens of whales.

The babies were particularly curious, popping their heads out of the water within a few feet of our tiny boat to take long looks at us.

The experience was as amazing as people had said. But the boys were disappointed; they wanted to touch a whale. Although the whales came close, none came close enough to pet.

Charming San Ignacio

Once again, we were behind schedule. We returned to Mexico 1 and started south, in the dark, for San Ignacio, where we had reservations at La Pinta Hotel, a good chain with motels in six Baja locations. By now, we had become accustomed to driving in the dark, and we tried not to think about flash floods, errant burros or cars without lights.

San Ignacio was a beautiful change from the towns we'd seen earlier - a lush desert oasis with date palm trees, a lovely central square and 277-year-old Mission San Ignacio. It was the first town we had seen that felt like Old Mexico.

But when we inquired about whale-watching, we learned it wouldn't be easy. Laguna San Ignacio, we were told, was at the end of a 40-mile dirt road, made nearly impassable now by mud. People said they thought we could make it in our four-wheel drive but that the going would be slow. With our time running out, we decided to head north and take a second look at the whales in Ojo de Liebre.

Once again, we seemed to be a draw for babies and moms. A duo did a water ballet around and under our small boat. The baby emerged from the water near my hand and I reached out to touch it, but at the last minute, I pulled back, afraid I'd upset the skiff if I leaned over too far.

None of us touched a whale that day. But they touched us. And I can't wait to go back to try again.

Baja California

Getting there - driving tips: Travelers on Mexican Federal Highway No. 1, also called the Transpeninsular Highway, don't need four-wheel-drive vehicles unless they encounter bad weather or want to take side roads. You'll want Mexican auto insurance. Check with your own insurance agency, and check with the U.S. State Department at tips/safety/safety_1179.html.

Telephones: Generally, to call Mexico numbers from the United States, dial 011 (the international dialing code), 52 (code for Mexico) and the local number. Some of the numbers that follow do not require that procedure.

Where to stay

Baja Cactus Motel: Transpeninsular Highway, El Rosario, 616-165-8850 or /bajacactus.htm. Comfortable. Doubles from $35 per night.

La Pinta Hotels: 1-800-800-9632 or Well-run chain of motels has six locations, including San Quintin, Catavia, Guerrero Negro and San Ignacio. Doubles from $69 per night.

Where to eat

El Palomar Restaurant: Transpeninsular Highway, Santo Tomas, 646-153-8002. An emphasis on seafood. Entrees under $15.

Mama Espinosa's: Transpeninsular Highway, El Rosario, 616-165-8770. Serving seafood burritos and frijoles y arroz for 73 years. Entrees $6 to $20.

Old Mill Cannery: Bahia San Quintin, four miles west of Mexican Federal Highway No. 1 on an unpaved road. American-style restaurant caters to tourists. Entrees $5 to $20.


Mexican Tourism Board, 1-800-446-3942 (for brochures) or 1-(310)-282-9112 or

Baja Tourist Board,

- Los Angeles Times

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