South, Into Baja. Part One.
By Kevin Franklin
LONELY BEACHES, DESERTED islands and a temperate sea await. I already feel the warm sun and ocean breeze on my face and can practically taste the lime-enriched Tecate beer. Then I snap back to reality and the 500 miles of road between my current situation in Gila Bend and the glorious future on a beach in Baja California, Mexico.
For 669 miles, Baja stretches into the Pacific Ocean, a giant peninsula filled with secluded sandy coves, stunning 10,000-foot mountains and colonial Mexican hamlets.
The natural world has taken some bizarre turns here, like the boojum tree--best described as a 70-foot, giant, hairy carrot. The geology of the peninsula is similarly unique. The San Pedro Mártir Mountains of northeastern Baja have the greatest height-to-distance ratio of any range in the world. Nowhere else can you find a 10,000-foot peak with such sheer walls. That they practically come down on top of the beach makes them all the more spectacular.
But Baja's allure transcends its physical fixtures. Baja stands as the last home of the exotic frontier the Spaniards stumbled into in the 1500s. Humans have yet to overrun it. This place is detached from mainland U.S. and Mexico not only by distance, but by spirit. Many parts of it, even its human cultures, have stayed old, while the rest of our continent gets newer and cheaper.
The coastlines accessible by paved road or airplane have begun to succumb, but a few miles down a dirt road or into the interior takes you back in time. It's toward one of these dirt roads that we aim now. Mexico Highway 5 heads south toward San Felipe on the eastern side of Baja. About 50 miles south of San Felipe sits the little village of Puertecitos, a collection of fishermen's shacks and gringo vacation houses. The beaches 30 miles south of Puertecitos will be our ultimate destination.
But first we must cross the border. As we race along Interstate 8, we decide to cross at the little town of Algodones with the intention of bypassing the sprawl of Mexicali. When traveling in Mexico, especially on the back roads, you have to know where you're going before you get there, even if you've never been there.
It is a lucky day when you can find a highway, much less a road, with a sign telling you where you are. At many intersections you can find signs that give the name of a town that can be found down the road. Of course that town is never on your map. Your best bet is to get a good map (I highly recommend International Travel Map Productions' Mexico: Baja California 1:1,000,000 map), a compass, and use the odometer on your vehicle to measure the distance to turn-offs.
The novice Mexico traveler might want to cross at Mexicali and follow the signs south; but if you have good travel sense, a spirit of adventure, and the aforementioned equipment, save time and enjoy a more pleasant drive by passing through the lower Colorado River farming communities to Mexico Highway 5.
With some trials and tribulations we find ourselves heading south to San Felipe. The road, while narrow by gringo standards, is a good one and crosses the giant Laguna Salada, a vast dry playa, beautiful in its austerity.
Two hours south of the border brings us into San Felipe. A casual glance at the dashboard reveals the shocking report from the oil pressure gauge of absolutely no pressure. A dead engine in remote Baja is--at best--an extremely expensive undertaking. After inquiring at the Pemex gas station, we find a nearby mechanic. A half-dozen derelict cars with "se vende" (for sale) painted on them are sinking into the dirt lot. I'm generally an optimist, but a bunch of dead cars, (ostensibly from former clients) surrounding the mechanic does not instill the greatest confidence. But after some fiddling around we determine the gauge is giving a false read. The local parts house actually carries the faulty component, but at a 500 percent mark-up from U.S. prices (for a Ford part, common in Mexico and the U.S.! Imagine what an Isuzu part would run!). We opt to go without. Unlike the parts house, our mechanic is very reasonable and we get off for $10 and a pair of cold beers.
Another hour-and-a-half gets us south of Puertecitos and on the dirt road. We roll into an abandoned cove where someone started to build a house and then stopped, probably for lack of funds. The sea laps at the shoreline and a squadron of pelicans glide by, inches off the water. Now it's time for that beer, tomorrow we continue heading south into the magic of Baja.
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