Baja journey

  • By Rosemary McClure / Los Angeles Times
  • Saturday, February 18, 2006 9:00pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

BAJA, 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 Route 1, the Transpeninsular Highway. It was one of many such payoffs during a four-day adventure on Baja’s mother road.

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 the stores of Tijuana or Ensenada.

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

There are forests of cactus that soar 60 feet in the air, animals 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 on the Gulf of California.

And Route 1 makes all of this accessible to those with a bit of adventure in their soul – and the fortitude to cope with some occasional hazards.

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

Old-timers say today’s perils are nothing compared with those before the Transpeninsular Highway (Route 1) opened in 1973 to connect Tijuana with Cabo San Lucas, more than 1,050 miles south. Before the road’s completion, the trip from Tijuana to La Paz, the capital of Baja 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.


Getting there

Travelers on Route 1 don’t need four-wheel-drive vehicles unless they encounter bad weather or want to take side roads. A few car-rental companies have four-wheel-drive vehicles available for use in Mexico. Contact the San Diego offices of Avis, 619-688-5015; Budget, 619-542-8686; or Hertz, 619-220-5222.

You’ll want Mexican auto insurance; check with your own insurance agency and see the U.S. State Department’s information page at safety_1179.html.

To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 52 (country code for Mexico) and the local number.

* Baja Cactus Motel, Transpeninsular Highway, El Rosario; 616-165-8850, Comfortable. Doubles from $35.

* La Pinta Hotels, 800-800-9632 (from the U.S.), Well-run chain of motels has six locations, including in San Quintin, Catavina, Guerrero Negro and San Ignacio. Doubles from $69.

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

* Baja Tourist Board,

Los Angeles Times photographer Gail Fisher and I crossed the U.S.-Mexico border at San Ysidro before 7 a.m. on a gray February morning, 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 also a bargain at around $7. 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 the city behind, 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.

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.

In San Quintin, about 190 miles south of the border, cultivated fields of prickly pear cactus – nopales – covered the landscape. The leaves were palm-sized 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 in U.S. homes. Three miles west of Route 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, the town of El Rosario. The last 50 miles had been increasingly monotonous, as farmland disappeared and barren badlands appeared. We were now heading away from the Pacific into the heart of Baja; it would be 200 miles more before Route 1 returned to the sea.

I hadn’t been looking forward to this part of the journey, but it didn’t take long for me to realize this was Baja’s desert at its finest. As we drove deeper into Desierto Central, I decided it was also Baja’s desert at its strangest. Some cactuses were majestic: the towering “cardon,” perhaps the world’s tallest at 60 feet, or the organ pipe, with its many arms stretched to the sky. Others were just weird. The gangly “cirio” is as odd as its nickname, the “boojum tree.” Cirios look a bit like giant candles, with misshapen whiskers growing at their tops.

Scientists say that about 120 types of cactus are found on the Baja Peninsula. It didn’t take long to spot several from the roadside: barrel cactus, ocotillo, saguaro, yucca. And it didn’t take long for the teddy bear cholla to find me and wedge a spine into my leg. It’s not surprising that its nickname is “jumping cholla.”

We had paid in advance for hotel rooms at Catavina, 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. 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 rainstorm that had preceded us. It was running through Route 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 motor 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 the bus window. “I think the water’s 25 feet deep. Impossible to get across it.”

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 had been treacherous: narrow, hilly, with many blind curves and no guardrails. And there could be more flash floods.

We chose driving 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 in El Rosario 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 a bit like us: They like spending the winter in warm places. About 10,000 of them leave the chilly waters of the Bering Sea each year for a 12,000-mile round trip 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 now have protected status. And 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 every bit as amazing as people had said.

Although the whales came close, none of us touched a whale that day. But they touched us. And I can’t wait to go back to try again.

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