I looked over at Rich Currie, my long-time friend and co-driver, and noted his death grip on the gran handle. This was Tierra De Las Cruces, Land Of The Crosses, and we needed to get the hell off this road.
I lost count at 173, but we must have passed at least a thousand. Some were simply two boards nailed together and painted white; others were ornate metal sculptures, slowly rusting in the briny coastal air. Near many of the sharper corners, groves of these lonely markers huddled together in the relentless desert sun, fragments of shattered lives strewn across the surrounding landscape.
The common denominator was that each cenotaph was in the shape of a cross and bore a name, most of which were scribed by hand. It wasn’t difficult to ascertain their purpose, or why they were adorned with faux flowers, car fenders, empty bottles of Tecate, or soiled toy baby dolls. We were travelling north on a thin ribbon of asphalt, the only paved route to bisect the 900-mile peninsula known as Baja: Mexico’s frontier state. The road lacked a shoulder and the lanes were scarcely wide enough for two commercial trucks to pass mirror-to-mirror without exchanging paint. Somewhere south of Santa Rita at the apex of a long sweeping curve, a semi, hauling a 40-foot trailer barreled down on us, a good six inches over the solid yellow line that separated our designated domains. I hugged the edge, cringed, and held tight to the steering wheel. I looked over at Rich Currie, my long-time friend and co-driver, and noted his death grip on the grab handle. This was Tierra de las Cruces, Land of the Crosses, and we needed to get the hell off this road.
We had spent the previous week chasing and photographing the NORRA Mexican 1000, a four day vintage car rally through the wilds of Baja’s pristine backcountry. Though I usually take my time and avoid Mex 1—camping on sandy beaches and gorging on tacos de Pescado at my favourite taco stands—we were hightailing it to Alfonsina’s Cantina in Bahía San Luis Gonzaga (Gonzaga Bay) 500 miles to the north to meet friends and needed to make time. Pulling over for fuel, we dragged a finger across our map to the first dirt alternative.
We pulled off the highway and headed towards Scorpion Bay, the gringo designation for Bahía San Juanico, a popular surf break that dates back to the 1970s. Perched on a rocky outcropping on the end of a 15-mile long beach of white sand is the local cantina. It is an open-air affair and the view, authentic cuisine, and Cerveza Fria merit any distance required for a side trip. The laidback atmosphere just might entice you to ditch your current life of responsibilities and join the dozens of expat residents who fish, surf, and abuse their livers on a daily basis. Camp this night would be under the stars on a quiet playa halfway to San Ignacio.
CHECKPOINTS AND GONZAGA BAY
For visits to southern Baja of more than three days, you are required to obtain a tourist visa. While I normally do this, it just didn’t work out this time. To avoid the military checkpoint north of Guerrero Negro, we slipped around via a super-secret track through the dunes.
A dust trail and four motorcycles appeared at a crest in the road about five miles past the Chapala turnout. Closing in on the bikes I realised it was my crew from Overland Journal. Overland Expo had concluded a few days earlier and nearly the entire team had headed south for a little road therapy. I pulled out a bottle of Don Malaquias—a special añejo I had picked up at my favourite tequila shop in San Jose del Cabo—for a commemorative nip. We parted ways, they continued south and we north.
The whine of a labouring outboard motor could barely be heard over the gale that had rendered my tent a canvas pancake the following morning. We had rendezvoused with friends, the Ford Raptor clan, the night before at Alfonsina’s—the Pacifico was cold and we had set camp in calm clear skies. Dusting the previous night’s festivities off our grey matter, we wadded up our tents and headed for the gypsy camp of an old friend.
I’m not sure if Coco owns the land where his eclectic mix of campers, cacti, tin cans, toilets, and ladies undergarments are planted. I’ve heard that his ’69 Ford pickup simply stopped running one day and he set up camp. Whatever the case, Coco has become a legend in Baja, and his celebrity status has landed him on the pages of magazines the world over—Coco’s Corner is even found on the AAA map. When I met him in 1997, his truck—which was still (barely) running—was a wonder of Mexican ingenuity that MacGyver would envy. Over the following two years, a group of friends pooled their resources, bought an identical ’69 Ford, drove it down, and handed him the keys. He has always reciprocated the favour with warm hospitality and an open-ended invitation to buy beer from his propane powered fridge. His little camp is an oasis in the desert and another must for travellers south. If (when) you stop, take time to sign his guest book and thumb through the pages; you never know who sat on his picnic bench last. We retraced our previous day’s route back to Chapala.
THE LOST COAST AND PESCADORES
A turnoff just south of Chapala marked our access point to what I have always referred to as the Lost Coast: 100 miles of rugged Pacific coastline and one of the peninsula’s least populated regions. Volcanic cones rise amongst table-flat mesas. In the lowlands, eons of precipitation and erosion have cut channels to the sea, or to sinks where the accumulation of sand and dust has created moon-like expanses of silt.
Though a snorkel definitely adds a measure of comfort when fording rivers, the sole reason I installed it was for Baja’s silt beds. At times the flour-like powder, which can be 6 to 24 inches deep, assumes the consistency of water. It creates bow waves of dust that will literally roll up over your hood and pour through an open window. Without a raised air intake (mine is a Safari Snorkel from ARB) this unusually wicked concoction can clog an air filter and suffocate the engine in a matter of seconds. The funny thing about running silt beds is that you can’t just ease your way through it, and you definitely don’t want to stop; its aqueous properties can swallow your rig like mud. In short, you just charge through, hope you pick the right line and pray you don’t get bogged down. Fortunately, the Chapala silt bed was quite tame this year, and we made good time on the 30-mile trek to Punta Blanca, a hidden surf break on the Pacific.
The route led us north by northeast in the shadow of Pico Fernando, which rises to over 6,000 feet, leaving the Pacific behind and entering a world that was most assuredly inspirational fodder for a Dr. Seuss cartoon. The boulder fields near Cataviña are an intrigue to the mind’s eye. Cardón cacti, which grow to 60 feet in height and are the tallest in the world, rise amidst a rolling sea of house-sized boulders. The twisted and contorted appendages of boojum, ocotillo, and elephant trees form an eerie undergrowth, and horned lizards play hide-and-seek with rattlesnakes and black racers. As twilight gave way to nightfall, we set camp in the base of a large slab of granite. In the distance, coyotes howled in an offbeat cadence as our campfire cast macabre and ghostly shadows through the thorny forest.
CATAVIÑA, PETROGLYPHS, AND MAMA ESPINOZA
The Mexican government has a monopoly on fuel, but the Pemex station in Cataviña, one of two on the 225 mile stretch between El Rosario and Guerrero Negro—has been closed for years. When it was open it rarely had fuel. I was in Cataviña in the mid-90s and met a couple that had been waiting for a day and a half for fuel—They offered me 25 bucks for one of my jerry cans (gas was $1.50 a gallon at the time). Things move a little slower in southern latitudes. It is a mindset referred to as mañana mode. “Mañana mañana,” is a commonly heard expression that roughly translates to “tomorrow, or maybe the next day.” When the pump runs dry it may be several days before the truck arrives. The number one rule when travelling Baja’s backcountry is that if fuel is available, get it.
We followed the asphalt to El Rosario and the world famous Mama Espinoza’s restaurant. Ana Grosso Peña Espinoza, daughter to a French-Italian father and Pima Indian mother, was born here in 1910. After being sent to school in Calexico during the bandit-ridden decade of her youth, she returned to El Rosario and married Heraclio Espinoza, the son of a Spanish land grant recipient. While Heraclio managed their cattle ranch, Ana, between bearing 15 children, grew vegetables and flowers, managed the post office, and eventually, in the 1930s, opened a restaurant. Since the beginning of vehicle-based exploration of the peninsula, Mama’s has been a regular stop. The inaugural NORRA Mexican 1000, based a pit stop here in 1967, and notable characters such as James Garner and Steve McQueen have tipped coldies and dined European style at the long wooden tables.
It was rumoured that Mama was still alive, and when I queried her daughter, Rolly, she said, “Of course, would you like to meet her?” Rolly led me back to a courtyard adorned with vibrant bougainvillea and past an old hand-crank well where I joined Mama at a small table. She had the charm and spunk of a woman a quarter her age. It was a delightful honour to meet the 104-year-old matriarch of this dusty bend in the road.
SIERRA SAN PEDRO MÁRTIR AND MIKE’S SKY RANCHA
Tracing coastal tracks north through San Quintín and Colonia Vicente Guerrero, we turned east towards the 10,000-foot peak of Picacho del Diablo in the Sierra San Pedro Mártir National Park, which was new and hallowed ground for me. The narrow paved road into the park, which is carved into the side of the mountain, is one of the steepest I’ve driven. As we rose from sea level to 4,000, 6,000, and 7,000 feet in elevation, the flora transitioned from chaparral and coastal scrub to tall stands of pine, fir, and cypress. Granite peaks towered above grass-covered alpine meadows, and temperatures settled into the sweatshirt range. We were told that the National Astronomical Observatory, located above at 9,280 feet elevation, was closed for the day. A park ranger approached us and, after recognising our disappointment, deliberated for a moment before saying, “Well, maybe you can see it, but we must be fast.”
The view was truly astonishing. A mile and a half below, Laguna Diablo and the Sea of Cortez reached east. Looking north we could see Laguna Salada, part of the estuarial delta of the Colorado River (before the U.S. dammed the river). To the south-east, California condors, one of the world’s largest and rarest birds, glided effortlessly on thermals rising off Picacho del Diablo.
The park ranger herded us back down the hill, to avoid questioning we slipped out of the park and boogied down the mountain. Turning off the pavement near Meling Ranch, we veered north and shoehorned the Raptors through boulder-strewn Cañón de Coyotes, part of the Baja 1000 racecourse, toward another iconic overland pit stop: Mike’s Sky Ranch.
Perched on a knoll above the crystal-clear waters of San Rafael Creek, the ranch has been a destination for overland travellers, racers, and vagabonds of all genres. Stepping through the entrance of the cantina is a transition into the world of Baja’s racing legacy. Stapled to the walls, doors, windowsills, and ceiling are the decals, business cards, t-shirts, and signed dollar bills of thousands of previous wanderers.
LAGUNA HANSON AND CAÑÓN GUADALUPE
Though there is a graded dirt road to Laguna Hanson, we decided to get lost in the web of unmarked two-tracks that blanket the area. As the shadows stretched across the Sierra Juárez, we ducked into a grassy meadow and found a hidden camp in a thick grove of firs by an abandoned rancher’s cabin. Granite outcroppings framed the scene and a tumbledown split-rail corral stumbled its way toward the meadow.
Circling around the north, we descended from the cool climes of Sierra Juárez into the boilerplate of Laguna Salada and set up camp near the base of Cañón Guadalupe. An oasis in the parched lowlands, Guadalupe is famous for its natural hot springs. Decades ago a family moved into the palm-lined canyon and began to improve the area with campsites. There are now dozens of private hot tubs tucked into natural granite alcoves, some with picture-perfect views of the valley. Unfortunately, the gate was closed and locked, and we were relegated to rolling out our sleeping bags on the radiator-hot sands of the valley.
After morning coffee and a round of selfies with some odiferous, yet very friendly visitors (mules), we set out on foot up the canyon. The two-mile hike to the springs left us sweating like the rookie pilot in the movie Airplane. It was nonetheless spectacular, except for the fact that the hot tubs were dry (they are filled only when in use) and there was no one around. We retreated back to the valley where the mercury was now heading toward the century mark.
It is always a melancholy moment when beginning the journey back home. I’d been south of the border for a little over two weeks and it was time to head for the barn. We’d had the normal travel mishaps—a couple of punctured tyres, a comi-cacti or two in the shin, and a few beers accidentally tipped over into the sand—but the recollections of Baja’s stunning backroads, bartering with fishermen for a bag of clams, and the daunting peaks of the Sierra San Pedro Mártir were the moments that would find permanent storage in our cerebral hard drives. In these latitudes it is all about settling into mañana mode, turning off your cell phone and tossing thoughts of work, bills, and obligations in the glove box. The Raptor crew veered east towards Ensenada to go fishing, and Rich and I headed north. We both cast an eye at the first white cross we passed, standing alone on the bleached white laguna. Would we be number 174? Not this day.