Ah, Baja: The sound of the Cabo-Wabo Cantina, jet skis, techno-booming discos, screaming coeds barely legal to order a coldy, and obnoxious gringos dishing out wads of greenbacks for Asian-made trinkets. For most tourists, these are the only "adventure" memories they'll take home from a trip to Baja California. The more intrepid might find themselves peering out the window of an eight-passenger van, while their guide handles everything from purchasing fuel to providing toilet paper. Since you read 4 Wheel Drive & Sport Utility magazine, we'll bet your idea of adventure extends beyond the spoon-fed experience just described. Over the next few months, we're going to take you south of the border to Baja California's remote missions, isolated beaches, endless dunes, and a thousand miles of backcountry two-tracks.
The Baja Peninsula extends roughly 900 miles south from the U.S. border near San Diego. Slicing through the Pacific Ocean and forming the Sea of Cortez to the east, it averages a mere 70 miles in width. Prior to the completion of Highway 1 in 1972, a jaunt down to Cabo San Lucas (which was a small, cozy fishing village at the time) on the tip was no less than a seven-day trek - one way. Today, the same drive can be made in two days on Baja 1, the only road available for a trans-peninsular trek. Of course, that's if all you brought was a minivan or '65 Galaxy 500.
Our contingent consisted of three Toyota pickups: two late-model Tacomas and a very seasoned '82 with 330,000 miles on it. On point, and bringing years of off-roading experience with him (we're not saying he's old), was Baja aficionado Ned Bacon. Hot on Ned's tracks was Randy Ellis, all around four-wheeling wild man and owner of RED Inc. In the true spirit of off-roading, we didn't want no stinking pavement. Our quest was to avoid the blacktop and seek the Baja experience of yesteryear
The Border, Cantinas, And Maana ModeJumping the border at Mexicali, 120 miles east of San Diego, we navigated our way through a chaotic maze of funky intersections and roundabouts. Dodging loco taxi drivers and fending off street-peddlers, we found Baja 5 and motored south. After passing the barrio, an area of makeshift cardboard housing on the outskirts of town, the road faded into a mirage on Laguna Saladad, a seemingly endless alluvial saltpan at the mouth of the Colorado River.
Discovered in the late 1700s and geographically isolated by land and sea, the remote fishing village of San Felipe was almost completely cut off from the western world until the installation of a U.S. radar facility during WW II. Today, San Felipe is a mecca for sun-worshiping weekenders from the States, and it plays host to dozens of Baja 250, 500, and 1000 races. Managing to retain its old-world charm, small cantinas, seafood restaurants, and taco stands line San Felipe's seafront boardwalk. San Felipe is also the last place to stock up on necessities: fuel, ice, fresh tortillas, and cold cervezas.
Once south of town, we settled into the maana mode. The cell phones, watches, PDAs, and hassles of everyday life were stowed in the glovebox as soon as we crossed the border. A chip-sealed road, peppered with potholes and abrupt dips, or vados, where winter floods had washed over the road, led south. The old route, a sandy two-track that runs parallel to the new road, will take you most of the way to the village of Puertocitas. The squawking of seagulls is the noisiest thing you'll hear in Puertocitas. The gas station has been boarded up for years, and a small cantina opens only when the owner feels like working. The major attraction in Puertocitas is a small, geothermally heated hot tub on the water's edge.
South from Puertocitas, the rocky two-track ascends the coastal foothills. Ocotillo cacti and desert sage dot the seemingly lifeless landscape, and evidence of civilization becomes increasingly sparse. The next 50 miles were slow going as the road twisted in serpentine fashion through rock-strewn arroyos and alluvial washes. Numerous islands coated white from eons of nesting gulls profile the cobalt-blue waters of the Sea of Cortez. An abandoned stone dwelling sitting high on the sea cliff made a great stop for lunch. Constructed in typical Baja fashion (local materials, cement, and rebar protruding skyward from each wall), only the occasional desert iguana takes up residence there now.
Beaches, Fish Tacos, And FederalesDescending from the mountains, the distant crescent beaches of Bahia San Luis de Gonzaga (Gonzaga Bay) came into view. Also in view were a couple of OD green Hummers and a barricade across the road. Two 18-year-old federales wielding AK-47s waved us to a halt. With an authoritarian glare, El Capitan, at maybe 20 years of age, approached and asked our destination, our intent, and whether we were carrying any guns or drugs (see Baja Survival Guide at end of story). We politely waited (like we had a choice in the matter), while they opened and inspected our gear, coolers, and vehicles. Finding only dusty camping gear, they were satisfied with their query. We offered a bag of fresh oranges as a gift (the little things are greatly appreciated) and we were rolling again.
On a faint set of tracks, we turned down an arroyo and followed it to its terminus at the water's edge. The tide was at ebb, so we headed south down the beach three abreast. The precipitous sea slope gradually encroached on the beach and the sand turned to a 1/2-mile-long sluice. With the tide encroaching, we crept forward, scanning the seawall for an escape route if needed. With the tide lapping our tailpipes, we cleared the boulder field, found another arroyo, and headed for higher ground.
Alfonsina's sits at the north end of Gonzaga Bay and is a must for the southbound traveler. Although the originally stone-and-mortar cantina has been expanded and modern rooms have replaced the rustic single-cot stone abodes, it has maintained its old-world charm. The view from the veranda is spectacular and it's a great place for a cold one, fresh fish tacos, and authentic local cuisine.
Hitting the playa (beach), we blasted south, exploring isolated coves, abandoned fishing shacks, and avoiding the odiferous smells of an occasional beached porpoise. Punta Final is another gathering of palapas (palm-leafed shade awnings), small houses, and fishing boats, and sits on the south end of the bay. The majority of its residents are expatriate sun-baked Americans. We took the opportunity to set up camp at the high-tide mark and unload the kayaks for a sunrise paddle on the bay.
Coco's Corner And The Baja 1000 Route The Baja desert came alive as the sun crested the Sea of Cortez, casting radiant hues of yellow, orange, and magenta across the southern reaches of the rugged Sierra San Pedro Martir Mountains. Dropping into an arroyo to the south, we followed a set of tracks inland, leaving the Sea of Cortez behind. Two miles from the water, we spotted a hand-painted sign standing alone at the intersection of two Baja superhighways (two dirt roads). We followed the arrow that pointed toward Coco's Corner. Coco's place is an anomaly of human habitation. It sits on the only north-south route along the Sea of Cortez, and all inland travelers must pass Coco's to get from here to there. Coco's is no more than a simple-man's dream of creating an oasis in the desert. It's a place for weary travelers to rest their feet (or seat), throw down the tent, acquire local travel information, or swap lies over drinks. The open-air cantina sports an eclectic dcor of ornamentaltin-cans-turned-wind-chimes and a bright-red outhouse (with toilet paper). Coco is a friend to anyone passing and always offers a smile and good conversation. Take time to sign his guestbook and thumb through the pages; you never know who sat on his picnic bench last.