“Híjole! I never got beyond Loreto. Be careful when you leave the tarmac — ain’t no asphalt on the small roads.”
This is the car hire guy at Los Cabos airport. He pats the little Dodge, seemingly alarmed I’m going to drive it for 775 miles all the way to the US border.
“How many days you need?” he asks.
“You tell me,” I say.
For years, I’d looked at Baja California on maps, that strange skinny limb hanging off the west coast of Mexico, separated from the mainland by the Sea of Cortez. But Mexican friends in the UK and in Mexico City told me it was ‘empty of anything of interest, unless you’re a cactus expert’.
But the peninsula’s one major highway, the Carretera Número Uno, looked desperate to be driven. It joins Latin America with North America, zigzagging between two seas, and promises a very different Mexico from the one I’d visited in the capital, Chiapas and Yucatan.
I knew there were fabulous wines coming out of the Guadalupe Valley. I knew John Steinbeck had been inspired to do some of his best writing on and off the coast of Baja. I knew San Diego-Tijuana was the busiest border in the world.
Anyway, I wanted to pay tribute to the ideal of the great, lonesome road trip — and to the fact the US never managed to get its hands on this slab of desert that many people can barely pronounce. For the record it’s ‘bakha’, not ‘baa-haa’.
“Make it two,” I say. There’s no way I’m going to rush this.
Cocktails & cactuses
“It would be good to live in a perpetual state of leave-taking,” wrote Steinbeck in The Log from the Sea of Cortez. I’m at ‘kilometro cero’ and I can empathise with him. Before setting off, I’d booked myself onto a boat ride around Cabo San Lucas and it’s one of those early evenings that makes you want to slow down or stop completely.
Frigatebirds wheel high overhead. Cormorants glide on the surf. Manta rays leap around the boat, shooting up vertically and thrashing the sea with a slap as they dive back into the water — this mating performance is an extraordinary sight, but apparently completely routine for Baja sailors and fishermen.
“In La Paz, you might well be able to find manta ray tacos,” says Francisco, the young captain. He’s great company and enthuses about the desert that awaits me, advising me to try huitlacoche on my travels — a delicious fungus that grows on cactuses. But he warns me to watch out for roadrunners and rattlesnakes when stopping for loo breaks off the main road.
We chat away, swapping stories as an extraordinary sunset descends. From yellow to orange, it soon transforms into a constantly changing, rippling sky of scarlet and purple. I can’t see the sun itself because of the mountains encircling the bay. It might have been almost too corny and perfect, if not for the occasional ‘pirate ship’ chugging past in the distance, full of partying spring-break college kids dancing to reggae.
Francisco turns on his music system and a bolero blasts out. The sky turns to fire. Time for one last sleep before I hit the road.
The so-called Corredor Turístico connects Cabo San Lucas with San José del Cabo. This 20-mile road follows the southern coast and is bordered on its south side by a string of high-end hotels, many refuges for LA-based VIPs and assorted entertainment industry celebs. For us ordinary proles, the road is a transition, from the very American town of San Lucas to the charming cobblestone streets and ramshackle sprawl of San José. Here, the centre is a harmonious ensemble of Spanish-style buildings and leafy plazas, set around a colonial-era church.
Pirates raided galleons anchored off San José in the 18th century, and their hiding place is now a protected wildlife area, watered by a freshwater spring — more than 100 species of bird come to wade in the pristine waters of the estuary. Here there are no boat rides — and certainly no cod pirate ships — but the sky is teeming with gulls.
The road north out of San José fords countless dry river beds, and begins to climb and wind and double-back on itself (road signs warn of ‘caminos sinuosos’ — ‘winding roads’). In the middle of a particularly barren nowhere, I cross the Tropic of Cancer and drive into a wide valley. To the west are evil-looking storm clouds squatting on a range of grey mountains; to the east the sky is azure, cloudless — ideal for a day at the beach.
Soon the landscape becomes lush and the low hills are carpeted with dense foliage that seems to be strangling the cactuses. I pass through small towns, silent except for the cicadas; most kitted out with a colonial church, a grid of plain-looking houses and a bar populated by a handful of men on a tequila bender.
At La Paz, conquered by Hernán Cortés in 1535, there are ceviche restaurants, cool vintage cars cruising the palm-fronded prom, and slow-paced national football on television. After sampling the seafood, I head out to see thousands of dolphins frolicking in the bay. They’re far too fast to accompany, but I take a dip in a sheltered cove where sea lions join me.
The following day I move through a dreamland of cactus shrines, scuttling lizards and slow drivers in battered old cars. In the absence of air conditioning, the windows have been knocked out of many roadside restaurants. Things are turning dry and very dusty as I roll north. Kids play football on pitches of desert sand. The road often runs dead straight through flat plains broiling in the heat.
The town of Loreto is flanked by castellated, dirt-coloured mountains, the road winding down to the beach through a series of switchbacks. ‘Curvas peligrosas’ (‘dangerous curves’) warn the road signs. In the town (founded by missionaries in the 17th century) two curvy women are handing out free beer.
The pediment of the church reminds me that Loreto was once the ‘Head and mother of the Mission of Lower and Higher California’; the town was the capital of the Californias until 1777, and still possesses a quiet grandeur, with its tree-lined, cobblestoned streets and well-preserved central plaza.
My hotel occupies a former indoor market, and the clever refurbishment makes use of every open space and alcove to show off Mexican fabrics, old tequila bottles and Talavera ceramics. There’s a small swimming pool on the roof, with views over several churches and across to the Sierra de la Giganta mountain range and the Coronado Islands and Del Carmen Island, in the Sea of Cortez.
In the evening I order a cocktail at an open-air bar that’s projecting gory horror films onto a huge wall, and eat some Mexican finger food. The maize tortilla — an invention up there with the pasty and the pie — was born to accompany cold Mexican beer. By 11pm, the town’s quiet and ready for bed.
A tour of the towns
Among Baja’s compelling desert landscapes and enticing coastal stretches, each passing village, town and city has its own character. Santa Rosalia is bustling, scruffy, and full of construction sites. Though less than half a mile from the sea, the beach is obscured by homes and factories built on the back of a copper mining boom a century ago. The town’s only attraction is a metal church, designed by Gustave Eiffel and shown at the 1889 Expositión Universelle in Paris before being shipped overseas. It was destined to be erected in Africa, but was left in pieces in Belgium. French company director Charles La Forgue bought it and had it placed in Santa Rosalia, possibly to cheer up the French mining engineers who lived here. Its steel panel walls are hardly pretty but it must have looked very high-tech and modern in the late 19th century.
In Loreto and La Paz — and even in London — I’d been preached to endlessly about Mulejé. Here the already tame waters of the Sea of Cortez are further calmed by the shape of the bay. The water’s akin to a turquoise lake. When I drive round a bend and spot Requesón, a spit of sand floating in impossibly green water, I decide I want to live here. It’s heavenly to look at — but unbearable to swim in. Imagine doing the crawl in a huge bath of off-the-boil blue Radox.
Mulejé the town is, however, great. I dine, on the recommendation of locals, at Los Equipales Restaurant, the plain two-story building decked out in technicolour tablecloths. Lunch is a siesta-inducing lentil soup, prawns, chicken strips, beef, tortillas, rice, brown beans, chiles, stuffed burritos, tamales and a fried taco.
My next stop is Punta Chivato — although I can’t find it in travel guides, and on my map, it’s accessed via a dotted line or dirt road. By trial and error, I discover a right turn off Highway 1 at Palo Verde and then a bumpy sand road that meanders for 11 miles to arrive at what’s possibly the most tranquil, romantic spot in the whole of Baja California.
Occupying a stretch of beach at the very tip of the punta, the Posada de las Flores is an adobe-coloured complex of small, cosy villas with a classic desert garden of tidy cactuses planted in boxes of small stones. I dive into the waters (pleasantly cool) and swim along to see the garden of the neighbouring building — it’s owned by the Campbell soup family and is a perfect hacienda-style property.
In the evening, I have my first taste of Baja Californian wine — a fruity, gooseberry-hued white. The food’s classic Italian — salad, focaccia, seafood pasta, and then some grilled prawns. After the taco tempest of Mulejé, it’s very welcome. Here, I spot another hyperreal sunrise, and then, in the east, a small storm pouring fire down on the Sonoran Desert, away across the Sea of Cortés.
Just after Guerrero Negro, I pass across the 28th parallel and out of Baja California Sur and into Baja California proper — known as ‘La Frontera’, for obvious reasons. I’m in the land of truck stops and motels, and it’s a relief to arrive at Baja’s best cafe, in Rosarito, where the owner has painted a huge Starbucks symbol on the wall to tempt desert drivers tired of warm water and stewed filter coffee. Here, I breakfast on good tortillas, eggs and beans.
The road becomes tortuous and tedious as it winds through a series of steep mountain ranges. At La Bufadora, known for its noisily dramatic marine geyser, I collide with frontera culture — a gauntlet of tacky souvenir shops (unfunny T-shirts, jumping beans and wrestling masks are among the specialities) and pharmaceutical shacks offering US tourists cheap antibiotics, analgesics and Viagra pills. At Habana Banana, I wolf down fajitas — the Tex-Mex word for tortillas suddenly appearing on menus — while gazing out at the Pacific as it crashes on some rocks below.
A swim in the Pacific’s big rollers, after the calm and tepid Sea of Cortez is invigorating. Ensenada, a little further on, is a proper city. It’s strange, after long days on one road, to have to deal with traffic and one-way systems, and choices about where to eat and drink. I follow a band of guitar-wielding mariachis and they lead me to Hussong’s Cantina, a very cool, very old — well, 1892, which is old for Baja — saloon where the light slants in at any time of the day and beer-sipping cowboys are prone to strum a bolero.
Tijuana and the airport are waiting, but before I leave, I turn right and drive along the border, to the entrance of the El Pinacate y Gran Desierto de Altar Biosphere Reserve, declared by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in June 2013.
I don’t have the microlight or the chopper you need to photograph this extraordinary place, but I do gawp at its sweeping dunes. An unpopulated and relatively unspoiled expanse, it’s also prized for a handful of massive craters and dozens of cinder cones.
Part of the Sonoran Desert, this is the kind of inhospitable deadzone immigrants hike across when they decide to chance it all on a new life in the States. It’s beautiful to the eye, but fearsome too, and prompts more than a gloomy reflection.
I have one more sunset here. But the sky, for once, is calmer than the world around me. The black-and-red lava flows begin to glow as the light softens and comes in low. Stumpy cactuses and hardy grasses catch the rays and seem to explode out of the grey earth. A bird of prey lifts up into the cooling air. It’s a fine place to end a long drive: standing still, far from the road, under an immense and wholly Mexican sky.
There are onward flights to Los Cabos International (2h10m) and Tijuana International (3h35m) with Aeromexico, Interjet and Volaris. If finishing your drive in Tijuana, you may wish to cross to San Diego and fly direct to the UK from there.
Some travellers combine Baja with a Copper Canyon rail trip, taking the ferry at Los Mochis and arriving at La Paz, then heading north from there.
A hire car for a week — collected at Los Cabos and left at Tijuana — costs from £670. Three bus firms ply the route, stopping at the major towns; as a guide, a single ticket from Cabo San Lucas to Guerrero Negro costs around £78 with Transportes Aguila.
When to go
Warm year-round, Baja can be very hot in summer, with the odd tropical storm in the hurricane season (June-November). From February to early April, migrating grey whales bask in the shallow waters south west of Guerrero Negro, and with temperatures around 27C, it’s a great time to go.
Need to know
Visas: UK citizens need a tourist card, which is completed on arrival at immigration.
Currency: Peso (MXN). £1 = MXN 22.24.
International dial code: 00 52.
Time: GMT –7.
Lonely Planet Mexico. RRP: £12.99.
The Log from the Sea of Cortez, by John Steinbeck, combines travel reflections and marine biology. RRP: £16.99. (Penguin Classics)
How to do it
Journey Latin America offers 12 days visiting the Copper Canyon by train followed by a camping/kayaking trip in the Sea of Cortez, with time in La Paz for whale-watching. From £2,633 per person, including flights, B&B, transfers, excursions and full board during the kayaking trip.
Published in the November 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)
Click here to visit the website and book this great travel deal or call, quoting the correct promo code. T: 020 7644 1738. Promo code: THPMoonPalace