The Baja is hard… really hard. Two friends embark on a solo off-road adventure down some of the most rugged terrain in the world. This adventure has is all, solitude, friendship, quiet beaches and crazy military checkpoints. A trip of a lifetime.
Here is a quick index to our Baja off-road adventure. This off-road adventure was unbelievable as we followed the famous Baja 1000 race course. We went looking for adventure, solitude and friendship. What we found was so much more.
We hope our story, pictures and video encourage you to start your own adventure.
You read all the Baja off-road adventure stories… You did read them all right? Now grab a bucket of popcorn and a 96 oz. drink (its only a quarter more), sit back and enjoy the movie. What else were you planning on doing for the next 23 minutes.
Robert Ebert (no relation to Roger) says: “I laughed, I cried, it became part of me as I watched the story of two friends’ off road adventure through Mexico, following the Baja 1000 race course from Ensenada Mexico to Cabo San Lucas unfold.”
Pegg Frost of Movie Reviews from Hell’s Kitchen writes: “It’s Hot! Thankfully, this isn’t just a pop-culture checklist, a la What I Did On My Summer Vacation Movie, but rather Hula Betty takes a cinematography risk that pays off for audiences everywhere. Fans will laugh knowingly.”
Bajallywood raves: “Expect to see Hula Betty on the red carpet in a very fashionable designer grass skirt. Possibly Marc Jacobs.”
The route from the Mexican border to the Pacific Northwest took us straight up I5. The drive was filled with trucks, diners, orchards and the occasional swarm of bees impaling themselves on our windshield trying to cross the highway. There was a slight detour through Oakland when left to my own directional choices and I apparently made a wrong choice… That’s what Brad gets for slacking off on the navigation duties.
We were closing in on the end of our adventure but continued to enjoy every minute as if it was the best part of the adventure, even the ones in Oakland. We started the adventure searching for solitude, friendship and answers to some of the questions that haunt a man’s soul.
Friends and family ask me why I do these adventures. Hula Betty would tell you it’s my mid-life crisis. Some say I’m lucky. Others say I’m just crazy.
I’ve spent a lot of time on this Baja adventure trying to answer that question for myself. Why do I go out and explore? Why do I challenge convention? Why do I push the limits and chase these adventures.
I’ve stood in the Arctic Ocean, completed Rubicon, explored the corners of Baja, lived in India, worked in Hong Kong and circled the globe three times. These off-road adventures have filled my life with unbelievable memories. My life has been dragged across blacktop, dirt and boulders. I’ve seen countless sun rises and loved deeply. I’ve driven to places I shouldn’t have and met people who surprised me in so many wonderful ways. My life stories are spread across the Internet and tattooed in flesh. So why is it not enough?
Late at night there’s demons in my head, whispering in my ear. In the light, Hula Betty’s hand is on my shoulder telling me there is nothing to fear. I feel a darkness deep in my my soul serving some purpose that is still unknown. The road shines a light on that darkness, illuminating the empty space that can only be filled by moving past the asphalt, past the ordinary, beyond the usual. God don’t let me lose my nerve to explore. Don’t let me stop. Keep me on the road of exploration wrestling with my demons and making new friends.
This off-road adventure brought me closer to a friend, exposed a side of me I’d forgotten and fed my lust for adventure. Although I’m closer to the answers it seams each adventure brings up new questions. It is this craving for the questions, more than the answers that will continue to drive my adventures and search out the next last great road trip.
The sun is still sleeping but under the light of a lavender moon we are packing the rig and leaving the hotel parking lot. Sitting behind the wheel, the stiffness in my body whispers to me that it would rather be under the warm covers we left behind. But that wouldn’t be our way so we begin another day on this amazing adventure.
Cabo San Lucas now feels like a distant memory as San Diego’s siren song plays in my head, 700 miles of beat-up asphalt in between. We are driving the Baja for what is probably our last time.
For an while now we’ve been driving alone on Mexico #1. As the sun begins to wake, it takes back the dark, reveling blues, purples, yellows and orange. It’s as if the Baja is painting our last day with its full color pallet. Baja has surprised us everyday and this is no exception.
It seemed like hours before the first car appeared on the horizon. We came down here looking for solitude and found it on many levels. Even in a crowd, Baja has a way of letting you feel you have the land, the sea and the wide open sky all to yourself without the feeling of loneliness that can accompany the darkness of the closed in cities back home.
Growing up we would always play license plate bingo on long family road trips. On this road trip we came up with our own version to help pass the miles. In our version you select a sign and try to figure out what it means… This works best if you don’t speak the language and as I’ve pointed out before, we don’t. We figured out the signs that meant speed bump, “Topes”, “Reductor De Velocidad” means lots of speed bumps, although after the roads we’d traveled, they hardly garnered much of our attention. Drive with caution, “Maneje Con Precaucion” usually proceeded a dip in the road designed to allow flash flood waters to pass. But for the longest time “No Tire Basura” eluded us. We toyed with stupid answers like don’t leave tires, don’t burn tires. Our little iPhone translator app was no help and the Baja Gazette didn’t include it in the traffic signs it listed. But at one of the military checkpoints, we caught a break. While waiting our turn we noticed a woman walking with a couple of cups and bottles to throw them away in a trash barrel with a painted sign above that read basura.
The winds in Baja have been cool and soft throughout our trip. Even on the pacific coast where they kept the prayer flags at attention, they still possessed a refreshing feel. On the high plains today between the east and western mountains the sun is fueling the winds which are blowing consistently at us head on. You’ve seen the rig and heard me kid about its aerodynamics but with the throttle wide open and the rig in fifth gear the most we can muster was 45 mph against the hot breath of the Baja. The only thing having more trouble with the wind than us was the 18 wheeler we’d been crawling up on for a number of miles. We may be topped out at 45 but he was grinding through the gears to make 40.
In NASCAR the racers draft behind each other to gain speed. As we closed the gap and the 18 wheeler blocked out more of the wind the power began to return and I could feel big rig pulling us forward. Rather than use this new found power band to push past, we tucked in close behind deciding to settle for a gas saving view of the dirty metal barn doors of its trailer. We we’re not going that much slower and now we would be able to make the next Pemex station on the fuel left in the tank. At 40 mph it wasn’t hard to keep our close distant while we chatted and watched the brush along the road vibrate like a tuning fork against the wind.
Apparently the trucker did not see the equitableness in this arrangement. After a while he started to slow, 35 than 25, his left blinker flashed. He wasn’t turning, he wanted us to pass. We backed off a bit but still staying within the calm of his vacuum. When the 18 wheeler came to a dead stop on the high way our bluff was called. We pulled out around him, venture forward against the wind and before long worked our way back up to steady 45 mph with the throttle wide open.
I tell you that story so I can tell you this. We pulled off the highway to take a break and rid our body of excess fluids that were building up in our bladders. It took all my might to push the door open forcing it against the wind only to have it slam shut as I hope out and let the door go. Standing with the our backs to the rig using it as a wind block we stood in a cocoon of calm.
Men don’t spit into the wind, they don’t pull the mask of the old lone ranger and don’t pee on their shoes. But if you’re not careful and the wind whips around the truck destroying the cone of safety…. Tears began to stream we were laughing so hard. We could barely breath through the laughter and still hadn’t zipped our pants. We’d gone from conquering heroes of the Baja to peeing like little boys a the urinal for the first time. It’s good to laugh and not take ourselves too seriously. After all we’re just a couple of friends lucky enough to be on a really sick road trip in Baja.
Finally escaping the wind’s punishing force we found ourselves in the familiar town of El Rosario sitting at Ma Ma’s staring down at a plate of lobster burritos. We were still trying to wipe the smiles off our faces and pee off our shoes as we inhaled those tasty little sea food morsels of tortilla stuffed love.
Remember that small world thing. As we were leaving Ma Ma’s a tourist stopped us and asked about our rig. He said his sister just purchased an Fj Cruiser and wanted to get into off-road adventures. He asked if we had a card and than told us his sister lived in Seattle, about twenty miles from Hula Betty and me. Is it just me or is the universe sending a message to us on this adventure? Of course we no idea what that message is.
The towns and cities are becoming bigger and closer together now as we make our way north. Unlike the villages, these cities are filled with people going through the tasks of their day. The browns of the cactus filled deserts to the south are giving way to green valleys and rolling hills in northern Baja. Fences seem to be everywhere and the wide open spaces are starting to close.
The daylight is beginning to slip away from us as we approach Ensenada. We’ve put 600 miles behind us and still have a ways to go if we are going to reach the border today. We kept pushing north disregarding the 65 km/h signs in favor of 90 km/h. And on the toll road between Ensenada and Tijuana keeping up with traffic raised our speedometer to 120 km/h.
You know that time at dusk when it’s darkish? Too dark to see everything clearly, too light for the headlights to help much. That was the time day we rolled into Tijuana. When we started this adventure and crossed into Mexico we took metal notes thinking that would make finding our way back easier.
The sign said San Diego with an arrow pointed left. But which left? There were three slots separated by rows of jersey barriers and with traffic we had a split second to decide. I can now tell you the middle slot is not the correct way to the border. In fact if you stay on it you will end up back in Ensenada. As we looped up on the overpass we could see the long lines of cars below waiting their turn to enter the USA. There were dozens of lines with cars backed up for blocks.
Finding the first opportunity to exit we positioned ourselves for another approach at the boarder. At the sign marked San Diego we pulled into line… only this line appeared too good to be true. While cars to our left were stacked up frozen in time, we sat only four car lengths from the booth where an official would decide our fate. The little sign reading fast pass indicated we did not belong here but the car behind us wasn’t going anywhere and the gaits on each side funneled us forward like cattle to the slaughter.
Reaching the booth the officer informed us we had two options, pay a fine or receive a warning and go to secondary inspection. After discovering the fine amounted to $5,000 we opted to serve time in secondary inspection. Pulling forward we slowly motored the drive of shame with a large orange tag place on our windshield as border patrol officers barked out directions and pointed us to a parking slot.
A young wet behind the ears officer came over and pulled our glowing neon orange tag. You could see him fighting back a smile as he read the offense which had banished us to his little corner of bureaucracy. Doing is best to look tough, I don’t think he was old enough to shave yet, he asked for our passport, vehicle registration and told us to wait.
While we waited in our timeout, another officer rolled up a flat cart to the pickup parked to our left. Lowering the tail gate, she proceeded to unload dozens of tequila bottles and boxes of cigars. The guy in the pickup was trying to look cool while the two women passengers held a hand over their face to hide their smugglers shame.
Our officer returned, handed us our papers, asked us to sign a promise we wouldn’t cut the line again and said we could go. Looking back it seemed like a fair trade; skip to the front of a three hour line for a 10 minute timeout. We must be living right.
We’d driven 700 miles today and were back in the USA. Even with its LA traffic and crowds there was something comforting and familiar about being on the northern side of the border. Filled with a new found energy we continued north pushing past the LA area finding a hotel for the night.
Our time in Baja may have ended but its spirit remains. We still have plenty of road trip adventure ahead of us to reach the Pacific North West and nothing will ever erase the memories of our time in Baja.
Checking out of the resort, we settled up our bill and exchanged a little more currency to ensure we had enough Pesos to keep filling the tank for the 1,017 mile drive back to the boarder. As we started loading up the rig, we became somewhat of a spectacle. I’m guessing they don’t see a lot of guest in the main entrance pulling out a Ready Welder, Maxtrax, half shafts, compressor, fire extinguisher, tools, nuts and bolts… packing it all, along with our clothes, cameras, video equipment and the sovereigns we picked up in town.
First one, than two and before long we were explaining to several guests, who were waiting for taxis, how we had driven the race course down and how the previous week had unfolded for us. They wanted details about the rig, the roads, what we saw and what the adventure was like. As their taxi would arrive, they would tell the next passerby to come over and meet us. While I’m not an attention whore (ok maybe a bit), it was a little surreal to realize these people were genuinely interested in our story. We were also interested in what brought them to Cabo San Lucas and where they called home. We’re at the southern most tip of Baja and I swear everyone we met, like us, were from Washington or Oregon. But it was the couple who’d lived in Drewsey, a dinky little town, in eastern Oregon where Hula Betty’s family hails from that really put the size of the world in perspective. I’m continually amazed to see how we are all connected to each other in one way or an other.
After sharing stories, taking pictures, handing out t-shirts and explaining to some girls that our rig was not their taxi, we headed north out of Cabo.
Mexico #19 connects with Mexico #1 in La Paz. Along the way the coastal town of Todos Santos sits welcoming those who are willing to wander its quiet streets. Todos Santos is one of those sleepy little Baja communities with lots of quaint hotels, including the Hotel California, art galleries, authentic restaurants, shopping and beautiful town square. Away from the bustle of Cabo, we decided to settle into one of Todos Santos’ little cafes for breakfast. Sure we were running two hours late but this place looked inviting and after all, breakfast is the most important meal of the day.
While enjoying our huevos and coffee we tried to plan how far we would travel today. One of our favorite hotels was the Baja Cactus. It would be the ideal stop. But we are 1,200 km from El Rosario and it is approaching 11:00 am. If we were going to get home in three days, we’d have to go at least 700 km. Well there, we had a plan, shoot for El Rosario, settle for anything over 700 km from here. I didn’t say it was a detailed plan but it was as good as any that got us down here.
Leaving town, we made it a point to go by the Hotel California. No relation to the song, just good marketing shtick that works on old guys like us who can still remember cruising the boulevards of our youth when the song first came out and hell hadn’t yet frozen over.
We made it as far as San Ignacio rolling in around 11:00 pm (night driving has become a bad habit now). Along the way we zigged and zagged in the hills, saw the Sea of Cortez for the last time, visited Loreto after all, followed old farm trucks for hours in the dark and cleared three military checkpoints.
The military checkpoint procedure coming south was simple: come to a stop; smile; get flagged on. Heading north on the other hand the procedure is a little more… formal. As it came to our turn we weren’t sure what to expect. Cars in front of us had each spent about 15 minutes where the soldiers, opened their trunk, pulled a bag or two out and searched it followed by some talking to driver and passengers. Of course this was occurring 50 yards ahead and in Spanish.
Our rig is a smuggler’s delight. We’ve got stuff piled floor to ceiling front to back. Two spare tires, bags of tools and recovery equipment, cardboard wrapped parts, foam filled cases for cameras, and video equipment, all buried by camping gear… If some one wants to search everything, we could be here for hours… Several hours.
We came to a stop and greeted the armed soldier with a simple hola. At this point a lot of spanish came from the young man flying by us at a NASCAR winning pace. Replying “no hablan español”, didn’t change the language but did slow the pace. We had seen everyone before us get out… so we did the same exiting the rig all our papers in hand. Several other soldiers were joining us now, two of whom spoke English. While we waited quietly one climbed into the rig and started poking and pulling at stuff. The soldiers who spoke English, now positioned next to us, began to ask the basic questions about where we came from, where we where going to, and how long had we been in Baja… We stuck to our story, since it was true, that we had driven down from Seattle and were now on our way back. It was pretty clear we were just dos amigos exploring the back roads and not some coked up cowboys sporting guns and alibis. When they did pull out two cases asking what was inside I had to smile… I let them know one was our tire repair kit and the other our box of cigars. My answer matched the contents and seemed to satisfy their curiosity as they told us politely we could go and wished us well.
We would see two more checkpoints and they all went the same with the only exception being one soldier got a kick out of Hula Betty on the dash. He poked her and smiled as she danced her little wiggle. There was nothing intimidating about the checkpoints but we were never sure how long or deep the soldiers would dig into the gear during their inspection. Just one more time consuming activity between us and our final destination. Oh well, this is Baja and you’re not supposed to be in a hurry.
11:00 pm and we only made the minimum 700 km. But after 13 hours on the road, San Ignacio was as far as we were going tonight. And even though the only food available came in snack bags from the town’s market, we still enjoyed good company, a fine cigar and bourbon in the hotel’s quiet little courtyard under the stars.
After 1,200 plus hard off-road miles, Cabo is a well deserved rest. Thanks to the help of my Sister-in-law we’d managed to get a room at one of the swanky resorts where the the guest are driven around the complex in little golf carts, the beach is cleaned and manicured each night, the pool cabanas scream relaxation and the fragrance of lush, beautiful flowers fill the air. Yes, this resort has a Cabo San Lucas, Baja California Sur, Mexico address but it does not feel like Baja. In fact it feels a little like the geriatric ward.
At this resort we are the young Turks, clashing with the white belt and blue hair crowd shuffling between the pool, spa and bar. Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot to be said living the life style of the rich and famous. It’s just not us on this adventure.
We grabbed a cab and headed into town, believing we would have more fun wandering the streets rather than sitting on a beach where Juan the pool boy was poised to bring fruity cocktail drinks with little umbrellas in them to any guest at the first sign of an empty glass and a tip.
Quick side note: if you are new to this blog, you may have noticed it is filled with miss spellings, incorrect word usage (their / there), and constantly changing, miss matched sentence tense. I deeply regret if that distracts you. But it is what you signed up for when you started going down this Jimmy Buffet, Caribbean rock and roll, mid-life crisis with us… Dyslexic untie.
If you want to find the best places to eat, ask the locals where they eat, not where they take the tourists. Our cab driver was a wealth of information on the places to eat and see that were off the beaten path. Up until now breakfast had been coffee and a snack bar on our way out of town driving down the trail. Today we were enjoying a real sit down breakfast of huevos ranchero with chorizo sausage, espresso americano and warm, buttered tortillas. Being off the radar of most tourists we had the place mostly to ourselves with a view of the locals heading to their shops.
These days Cabo is a major cruise ship destination. Everything and everyone is catering to the big ships and the thousands of tourist who venture off the boat to explore the shopping district. We walked all over, poking our heads into t-shirt stands, jewelry stores and tequila shops.
Walk into any tequila shop and you will be amazed at the varieties available. There were bottles of ten year old sipping tequila that is smooth as a Ken doll, next to the vanilla, pomegranate and Jalapeño infused tequila as well as the basic slam them back and shake your head varieties of shooter tequila. You don’t actually have to buy a $100 bottle to enjoy it. Just ask for a taste shot. 20 minutes in the tequila shop and three shots later we were back strolling peer.
Anything you want seems to be the mantra in Cabo San Lucas. Walking along the docks, locals would ask if we needed, weed, girls, fishing boat (apparently everyone has a cousin with a fishing boat in Cabo), Cuban cigars… Anything you want. Just don’t pay retail.
I love negotiating and the vendors in Cabo have raised it to an art form. Like Mexican traffic signs, prices are simply a suggested starting point. $20 t-shirts (amigo these are the good local T’s not the cheap Chinese ones at the other shops) quickly drop to $15 and than $10 as you imply your willingness to look around at the other shops selling the exact same thing. And if you want a plastic bag (Mexican suitcase) to put the shirt in, that will be an extra dollar.
Baja is famous for fish tacos. Along the route down we’d stuck with more traditional chile relleno, sopa tortilla and burritos. Fully intending to grab a couple of fish tacos we aimed back to the little eateries located by our breakfast cafe. The lobster and shrimp enchiladas smothered in cheese and guacamole won out over the fish tacos in the end.
While we watched the guy fix out dinner we talked about the day: the near death experience at the pedicure spa (just a little blood when Brad’s toe got sliced, twice, as the woman snipped away at his cuticle), which tequila was best and if we’d gotten a good deal on the souvenirs. We still can’t believe we made here in one piece.
Cabo’s focus on the cruise ships means you can find all the comforts from back home, including Margaritaville, the Hard Rock and Starbucks. Hanging out at a table sipping our coffee on the street we watched the sun go down and the night clubs begin to light up. By now the cruise ships had rolled up the gang planks with all the sun birds safely back on board. The streets were taking on a more local flare. Clearly this time of year Cabo is not filled with college students on spring break but you wouldn’t know it by the guys out front of the clubs shouting to everyone who walked by trying to entice them inside. Some things are universal and the streets this night were filling up with local boys showing off their cars and girls smiling at them on their way into the clubs.
Cabo may be a tourist mecca these days but it turns out that relaxing, wandering the docks, shopping, and doing nothing all day was exactly what we needed. We even felt a little sad that we’d be leaving in the morning. But for now it was back to the resort in order to cap off the night with our ritualistic cigar and bourbon that has been our closing signature to a great day throughout this adventure.
Coming off the beach inspired, we were on the move and feeling free. The wind and sun filled the cabin and we were moving fast. This section of the course was living up to everything we’d been told about it. But, not all the stories we’d heard about this section were good.
The locals have 300 words for sand but only one word for trouble… “Silt”. When the earth was still young, barren and lifeless, Satan shook his crusty dreadlocks until a super fine brown mange fell to earth, filling the cracks of Baja several feet deep. These are the famous Baja silt beds that strike fear in the hearts and minds of the 1000 racers. Google Baja 1000 silt beds and watch the videos that come up (go ahead, I’ll wait… ) and you will see dust flying everywhere until the sun is eclipsed by the cloud that forms as stuck 400 hp trophy trucks spin their wheel digging a hole straight down to hell.
The route up ahead had a ginger tint to it that caught my eye… and I don’t mean it in a good way. Pulling over (ok just stopping in the middle of the trail) I walked ahead to scout the route. 30 yards and my boots started to kick up soft billowy clouds of dust with each step. Another 30 yards and my boots were disappearing into the baby shit brown talcum powder that was everywhere. This was clearly one of the silt fields I’d read about on the racing forums: “…my vote for worst Baja silt is down by Constitution and Santa Rita, seems you always hit it at night in the fog. Tres Hermanos and San Felipe are childs play…” That comment from the forum rang in my head.
You could swim in the sweat that covered my palms, stomach acids were gnawing their way toward my spleen and my heart was playing the drum solo from In A Gadda Da Vida, there was no going around this, it was time figure out what to do. We had a couple thing going for us. The racers are typically two wheel drive. We were going to engage all four. We were also going to let air out of the tires, a lot of air, to hopefully float higher. With the transfer case in four low to drive as much power to the wheels as possible and tires at 7 PSI, the rest was going to be skinny peddle driving to keep a steady forward momentum.
We don’t have pictures. They probably wouldn’t have shown anything but streaks of sunlight and clouds of dust. We white knuckled our way for what seemed like hours but more likely only five minutes, keeping the RPMs up and our momentum as straight as possible. You really can leave impressions in your steering wheel if you hold on tight enough, but we made it. The air filter did not. I swear Baja is Spanish for “dirt gets everywhere.” Once stopped, we popped the hood to see how much air clogging dust had been caught by the filter… it started out blue. Now it was brown through and through. (Thank you, thank you, thank you, Beau Jaramillo for sending us off with extra Amsoil fluids and air filters) Swapping out a new filter and airing the tires back up, we had a sense of invincibility as we continued to head down the trail.
The town signs are in spanish. But when they are faded by the sun and hidden from view it really doesn’t matter what language their written in. We were busy taking pictures of the church, the little bodega and town square. We should have been watching the hand held GPS. After driving back and forth several times, turning around in and out of town, we spotted the race markers. Sure the GPS said we were a little off course but the race markers said we were dead on. There were even bright orange cards stapled to cactus that read “Score 1000 Race” with an arrow pointed forward. I don’t know if it was the rush of testosterone from the silt fields still coursing through our veins or the easy soft sand trail ahead or maybe our new devil may care attitude about sweating the small stuff but for whatever reason, we put the GPS down and followed what was clearly the marked race course route.
The 40th anniversary Baja 1000 race, the route we down loaded, finished in San José del Cabo. Most years the race runs from Ensenada De Todos Santos to La Paz on the Sea of Cortez. About an hour in, we are still seeing lots of race markers, but we’re aimed more east than south. The bet wasn’t if we were off our route, just how much off course we were. We popped out onto the highway right where Brad thought we would, about 10 miles from La Paz.
We drove into La Paz victorious! We had followed most of the Baja 1000 race course and driven terrain that we could not have imagined possible a week earlier. Each day had felt like jumping into the deep end and learning how to swim all over again. But this was La Paz, so we fueled up and headed back west on Mexico 19. We were going to finish this our way, in Cabo, even if we had to drive all night.
Since we only aired up partially after the silt beds our tires were a bit squish and highway cornering was anything but road hugging. The low tire pressure also meant our head lights were pointed a bit high. The portion of Mexico highway 19 between La Paz and Cabo runs in the hills along the Pacific coast and is heavily traveled. EVERY vehicle coming the other way was convinced we forgot to turn down our brights and retaliated by flashing theirs back at us. I know it is not smart and could have gotten us killed but a few times I politely let the drivers who maintained their brights on us know what bright lights really were, by flashing the HIDs…. for just a second. I know it was dumb but it felt so good at the time.
Since it was dark, we were spared the sight of missing guardrails and non-existent or cobbled shoulder that gave way to steep drop offs on the passenger’s side. We did however catch a glimpse of several cows and the occasional donkey grazing next to the road out of the corner of our eye as we passed by.
If you’re ever driving up a twisty Mexican highway in the dark and come around a corner to find a semi-truck stopped, facing you, in your lane with its lights on… you wont be the first. Behind him, were two more semis facing up hill, parked in our lane. (I’m not making this up… We could have hurt ourselves, for your entertainment.) I’ll grant you, that there are no shoulders to pull off too, but they were dead stopped blocking our entire lane.
Unsure if this was normal, a stalled truck, a blockade or what and seeing no lights peeking around the corner ahead… With a little fear and a lot of caution we proceeded into the on coming traffic’s lane. Luckily the car coming down the highway at us, saw our headlights shining and slowed until we could pull back into our lane past the three parked semi-trucks.
Driving victoriously into Cabo , 11:00 at night, is like entering New Orleans at Mardi Gras. Bright lights and streets filled with people, carts, dogs, taxi cabs and trucks all moving in parade like fashion toward a single point. We had no reservation or any idea of where to stay in Cabo. We did however have cell phone coverage and used our life line to my sister-in-law. She had been in Cabo a few weeks earlier and had scouted the beaches and bars for us. She of course had chosen the easy route and flew down, cabbing it between hotel bars.
As Brad talked to her, I could hear the laughter and surprise in her voice as she reconciled the truth that we were alive and in Cabo. I also heard several derogatory comments that I can only assume were aimed at me. After all I am her favorite brother-in-law. I don’t recall a lot of what Brad was saying to her, except that when he asked her for recommendations I distinctly heard… “I don’t care what it costs, I want a luxury resort, with room service, where I can rest on a soft bed, take a long hot shower without keeping my mouth shut and send out my laundry.”
Tonight we enjoyed a fine cigar and our evening’s bourbon in style, on our spacious private balcony overlooking the moon lit beach of a five star resort.
Driving the Baja on an off-road adventure means everything we own is covered with dust, including us. Mix in a little sweat, spilled drinks and dribbled hot sauce, and things can get a bit messy. We packed light when it came to clothes. In fact we only had a couple of shirts, cargo shorts, sweat shirt and a change of socks and underwear. Wear everything inside, outside, forward, back and you get four days of hygienic bliss (if this is too much information, you may want to skip down a few paragraphs). Staying in motels improved our hygiene strategy significantly.
I have one clothing rule on an adventure: Avoid cotton at all cost. These days, it is easy to find clothes, from companies such as Columbia Sportswear for outdoor adventures, made of moisture wicking polyester with features like built in sun protection, anti-microbial treatment (stink less) and breathable weaves. The feature I’m most fond of is quick drying.
You wont find our laundry management practice in any high school home economics class text book but it served us well:
Step into the shower still wearing your shirt, shorts and socks… everything but your boots.
Get good and wet, rinsing the first layer of dirt and sweat off everything. Remember keep the water out of your mouth this is Mexico after all.
Soap up. Don’t reach for the chintzy, baby sized hotel soap bar. If you want to work up a good lather into your clothes, the itty bitty bottle of shampoo is your best bet. (not like we need it for our balding scalps.)
Pull off your soapy wet clothes, rinse them off good, and ring them out.
After you finish up your shower, hang everything thing and let it dry over night. Did I mention the quick dry feature?
By morning, good as new. Certainly clean enough for us, no sweat stains and smelling like whatever foo foo fragrant hotel shampoo you happen to have used.
We grabbed our morning coffee from a little street side cafe, deciding to sit and people watch as Ciudad Constitución came to life. The streets there, and everywhere in Baja were filled with election signs. We sat trying to figure out who was running for what but with our attention span, only slightly shorter than a Twitter tweeting, Facebook liking, text messaging teenage girl skipping her morning Riddlin meds, we shifted to counting fruit trucks parked on every corner, guessing why the guy across the way is sweeping the dirt alley (really it was dirt), where did I pack the my sunglasses, you have the maps right, maybe we should get a scone, damn this is good coffee, I’ll bet he’s running for governor… We got to go!
The route from Ciudad Constitución heads back to the Pacific. This is the section I’d been waiting for. According to the maps and folks in the know, this would be fast driving along the coast with amazing views. Just watch out for the silt beds.
About an hour out of town and we found the turn off where the route shifted back onto the Baja’s network of dirt roads and trails.
The landscape was changing again right before our eyes. The agricultural green plots surrounding Ciudad Constitución were giving way to the low lands of southern Baja. Less than 75 kilometers of land separates the Pacific from the Sea of Cortez. This morning, fog was dampening everything in between and providing desert plants with all the moisture they needed… or at least all they were going to get around here.
This time of year in south Baja has its moments of color, if you are willing to look for it. Don’t get me wrong, we’re not talking lush tropical amazonian foliage. Think more snippets of brilliant yellows and red tucked in between the long sharp thorns, dotting gray-green brush along the trail. After the barren high plains deserts any color other than brown was easy to spot.
It’s taken awhile but we have both finally shed the pressures of the world back home. Neither of us are thinking about dead lines, project schedules or vendor meetings any more. We were recalling our last adventure together when back in our youth we spent a couple weeks exploring Yellow Stone. A lot less elk and buffalo here, but no mosquitoes or biting flies.
When ever my friends and I get together, Hula Betty likes to point out that we tend to retell the same old tired stories over and over and over. We’ve all moved away and have our own families these days, no longer able to get together at a moments notice for a road trip to the beach or exploring hidden fishing spots. So yes, we like retelling our old stories. For me a big part about taking this Baja off-road adventure with Brad was to ensure we had a few new stories to tell when we get together. We maybe growing older, but it doesn’t mean we have to grow up.
The early morning’s route was still filled with bumps and whoops that keep our progress in the low 20’s mph as we headed to toward the coast. Soon enough though the hard-pan shifted to rut filled soft sand hinting at the approach of the Pacific.
In no time the course had us paralleling the pacific, riding up and down the dunes. The views from the trail were as promised, amazing. But they were from the tops of the dunes, not from down on the water. One of the interesting parts about the Baja 1000 race is that the route is not a hard and fast rule. Watch the You Tube race videos and you will see motor cycles battling for position where one rider will follow the course while the other skips down along the coast hoping to find a faster line and shave off a block or two before jumping ahead at the next intersection. Sure you have to hit all the check points, but choosing where to jump the route and sneak ahead is all part of a winning strategy. When we came across the next washout leading to the water, we veered hard right and headed directly for the waters of the Pacific.
Coming out of the dunes onto the beach sand was unbelievable. There are not a lot of places left in this world you can explore that feel new and fresh. This stretch of Pacific beach is one of them. No tracks in the sand. No boats in the water. Not a fishing village in site.
Even if others have been here before us, right now it was all ours, just us, the crashing waves, Pacific winds, blue sky and sunshine. And in this illusion of an uncharted beach we stopped to take it all in.
The Pacific beats hard on the Baja cost. The waves don’t lap at the shore like the calm Sea Of Cortez, they crash angry and loud down on the sand. The wind is not a gentle breeze, it is a steady force of nature driving hard, throwing sand high into the dunes which pile up behind us. The tilde shifts here are measured in city blocks erasing all evidence of man on the beach each day. Only the line of seaweed along the dune’s edge hinted at the limits of the ocean’s reach. The occasional shell scattered on the sand gave away the abundance of life that must call this place home, even if it is hiding from us.
Since we were going to hike around and explore awhile, we put up a few prayer flags as our way of paying back the universe some of the good karma that had brought us to this long stretch of shoreline. In the stiff Pacific winds, the flags were beating out their mantras, carrying prayers of compassion, peace and healing into the universe.
A theme for me when writing the stories of this adventure seems to be “it is hard”. It has been hard. But on the beach the words of my father came back to me: “you’ll appreciate it more if you work hard for it”. I remember growing up thinking… “No! If you would just give me a car, I would appreciate it. Really I would.” The older I get the more right my father is.
If this beach were anywhere else but here. If we hadn’t driven over 2,000 hard miles to get here. If we hadn’t risked life (ok maybe not life, but there were a number of very sketchy moments in the washouts up north and we do have plenty of scratches and pokes from the cactus), limb and rig to get here. There is no way we could appreciate this place as much as we did at that moment.
We spent what seemed like hours just appreciating where we were. Our lunch hardly did the place justice. Not grilled Ahi resting in a light cilantro and lime butter sauce rather tuna from a pouch. We felt tuna fish at least was more fitting for this place over the tins of stuffed egg plants or marinated rice balls wrapped in grape leafs we’d been eating for lunch on the trail the previous days. Brad still wants a little more crunch to the meal but tuna in a pouch is what we had.
We strolled down to the water line and searched for shells. We climbed up to the top of the dunes and gazed up and down the coast looking for signs of movement.
We took our obligatory pictures. We laughed at own dumb jokes and talked about how our paths had crossed more than 25 years ago. We thought about what it took to bring us together here. Damn, I hate it when my dad is right. And it happens a lot.
We could have stayed here forever, but as we were packing up, our solitude was broken by a pair of rigs racing south, using the beach as their private highway. Waving a hand as they drove by, we watched them disappear far down the coast line.
Ten minutes later we were following tracks left behind by the rigs along the water waterline. We decide to head south as far as we could on the beach until we needed to jump back on the route or ran out of coast line, which ever came first.
We are close to Cabo. In fact if all goes well, we’ll be there tonight… If all goes well.
The people in Baja are warm and friendly. Similar to my travels in Alaska, I found the folks down here are self reliant but count on each other if needed and they are quick to extend a helping hand to others. When stopped on the side of the highway, if a car did drive by, there was a good chance they would slow down to ask if we were ok.
We never felt uncomfortable, out of place or unsafe. Yes there are problems in Tijuana and other boarder towns but in Baja everyone we met was gracious and showed interested in our adventure. When we stopped for fuel, coffee or dinner we tried to get a little small talk going. Everyone was always willing to chat with us. The problem is, we don’t speak Spanish!
Ok the phases we do know… In order of importance:
no habla español
The rest of our communication with locals in the back country has been a combination of charades, pointing, and a reliance on their English skills which only slightly surpassed our Spanish. Yet wherever we went we managed to work it out.
We did our best to avoid being the ugly Americans and for that we were rewarded with guidance to the best restaurants and a feeling that we were welcomed wherever went.
We brought t-shirts to trade and give away. We gave them out to the military guys at check points, inn keepers and kids. While everyone appreciated the shirts, what we discovered was that in Baja, the real currency is stickers. We drove through several small towns and when the kids saw us slowly motoring through, they would start running towards us. Like kids chasing the ice cream truck, waving their hands and yelling at the top of their lungs, stickers… stickers… stickers. Even when we tossed a few shirts their way, we’d still hear their squeaky voices scream “any stickers”. Every window, sign post and car in Baja has been sticker slapped by kids with race logos.
For some reason we found ourselves stopping at cemeteries a lot on this trip. We would quietly look around and pay our respects. The towns and landscape are three shades of brown, but the cemeteries are filled with brilliant colors. We found beautiful marble headstones next to simple crosses. All the graves were covered with bright plastic flowers and prayer candles, letting everyone know the person resting below the marker is missed. There is a certain peace in these places were so many voices now rest quietly under the hot sun, surrounded by color and light.
I’ve traveled to many foreign countries where the military runs airports, check points or border crossing. The one thing I learned is that you don’t take pictures or poke around. So when we came up to an abandon camp, we decided to look around.
Someone had put a lot of work into arranging gardens, clearing cactus, painting rocks and making the base look nice. The structures weren’t much more than fancy pole barns with thatch roofs but they had been kept up.
We wondered why this base had been abandon. Is the base simply temporary, used when there is a check point close? Is it for training cadets when there are new recruits? Or is it just that budget cuts know no borders.
The race course uses lots of marked roads. Sure they are beat up rock and hard-pan, but they are on the map and used to connect many of little towns with Mex #1. The one we were on was the usual rattle your teeth, kidney punching, make you pee road. As usual we had it to ourselves and hadn’t seen another truck on it since we climbed onto it from the marshes. Occasionally we’d think about how the locals don’t call it the Baja race course, they just call it the only road into town.
But progress is coming to the Baja. We came over a hill where the road bent around a corner and found out where progress was, exactly. One of the road crews was grating and paving while the other was building a bridge over a washout.
No one seemed to mind that we were driving through all the construction and no one seem to care that we were unsure where they wanted us to go (no signs, arrows or cones). No one even noticed that we that we had to drive through the dirt and cactus to get around their equipment sitting idle, blocking the road. They just looked over and waved as we drove by.
Getting through all the construction rewarded us with fresh smooth asphalt laid out before us. No lines, no markers or signs, just miles and miles of black silk ribbon as far as the eye could see.
We’d driven over some other Baja asphalt roads that were more pot hole than road. We’d been on this road since its beginning (or ending), at the little coastal fishing village and we had not seen an other town or car, just the one miner and his little donkey. So WHY PAVE THIS ROAD?
Whatever the reason, progress is coming to the Baja. The next adventurers to come down here will never enjoy the same experiences we had motoring down this lazy dirt road.
The new pavement took us quickly back to the coast and a town which made its living from tourists. Surfers, boats and beach combers dotted the sand. We slowed down to look, but after having miles of coast line to ourselves, we didn’t need to stop. After all it was getting into the late afternoon which meant it was time to start thinking about tonight’s accommodations.
We wanted to put a few more miles behind us before calling it a day. Thumbing through the Moon’s Baja Traveler’s Guide did not paint the picture we were hoping. The guide used terms like, cockroaches, shared toilets, and dirty linens to describe the better motels in Ciudad Insurgentes. The descriptions for Ciudad Constitución were only slightly better with one exception.
Rolling in well after dark into Ciudad Constitución gave us one more new Baja experience. Ciudad Constitución is a city with about 40,000 people who work in agriculture, light manufacturing, and transportation. This city offers little for tourist except motels (really this is how the guide describes it). No touristy gift shops, this is a true representation of where Mexicans work and live.
We’re not exactly looking for tourist stuff. We loved this place. Hiding three blocks off the main drag, the Hotel Oasis was a very nice, modern, clean, albeit spartan motel. It also has secure parking, a big plus with all our gear strapped to the roof.
The señorita (ok la mujer is proper but it doesn’t roll off the tongue like señorita) at the desk was all smiles and little english. With a few hand gestures, a Visa and a little back and forth we were checked in and pointed to El Taste, a restaurant that lives up to its name.
The evening was filled with sopa tortilla, authentic chili rellenos, spicy rice and beans followed by our usual fine cigar and bourbon back in the Hotel Oasis’ courtyard. Sitting in the palm filled courtyard we relived the day’s events, laughed about the goats in the road and screamed “stickers” at the top of our lungs… Another day in the Baja and we still have all our fingers and toes. I’d call that success.
A good night’s sleep does wonders for the soul. San Ignacio is a big city by our standards these days. 4,000 people, a 24×7 Pemex, good size market (10 isles, a row of coolers and taco cart out front), baseball ball field, park and a very traditional town square. San Ignacio signified the line of demarcation between the desert and Pacific coast. This morning we left the palm tree filled oasis, driving west on our off-road adventure.
Out of San Ignacio the off-road route leads down to Scorpion Bay where surfers, naturalists and birders from all over flock… Just not this time of year. The early morning’s dense cloud cover and fog kept the sun hidden and temperatures low as we drove the roughly 100 miles of dirt and gravel to the bay.
This section of the Baja is marked by sandy roads and salt marshes making progress easy. Even under a thick cloud cover you can’t help but be taken in by the tranquility of Scorpion Bay. With our new “it’s not a competition” mantra, we decided to stop and spend awhile taking it all in. Finding a quiet place, we could have all to ourselves was easy… We just pulled up to the water.
I love fly fishing. Although I did not bring a rod, I found myself fascinated by watching the fishing birds in action. Maybe I’m jealous of them. Watching pelicans glide through the sky, dive into the sea and come up with a pouch full of fish is not an experience I normally get watch. As I sat staring out over the bay, I half expected to see flying tigers doing barrel rolls, loops and stalls. This place, this adventure, life in general, is full of mystery and its getting easier and easier to get lost in the magic of Baja.
Despite the calm of the bay, the off-road route and Cabo San Lucas still called. Today, the course would keep us hugging the coast line for a good chunk of the route. Driving on the mostly dry marsh flats gave me a feeling of freedom. There were a few tracks to follow, but you could easily veer off and create your own path. Driving through the marsh flats felt good. It felt like we were the first to see this place. Of course being the first does come with its own hazards.
Anyone who explores coast lines knows they are constantly changing with the water’s ebb and flow. Mix standing water with marshy soil and you have the recipe for a catastrophe. We stopped and thought about it. The off-road course clearly went forward through the shallow water which laid out for blocks. We could probably slog through it but that seemed low on entertainment value. We’d already aired down for running in the sand. But was this the time to test our machismo? I wouldn’t call it a retreat, more like a five minute detour, back tracking a bit until we managed to find a dry path that would weave around the all the standing water.
All along the coast are fishing villages, little towns dotting the shore line. The families making up these small communities work hard to eke a living. On the roof of each house sat a large black plastic barrel that acted as the solar based hot water tank. Fishing nets stretched across poles in the yard waiting to be mended and rusted truck beds sat half buried in the sand next to each shack. A propane cylinder was held up by the fitting pipe that protruded from the wall. Back in the states this would be a vacation, fishing camp for getting away from it all. Down here it was daily life. Sketchy electrical service. Running water, maybe. No Pemex stations.
Fishing boats, pickup trucks, pumps… all run on fuel, but we are a hundred plus miles from a town with a gas station. And even if the gas prices are lower in Mexico, it is hard for a family to justify a 200 mile round trip into town to fill up the family pickup. In Baja there are two sources for fuel; official Pemex stations and the not so official other guys.
In each of these little villages, we drove by a guy with a pickup full of plastic barrels and jugs as well as a siphon hose. There is no octane rating or posted price but these towns survive because of these enterprising black market gas stations.
Add a lift, big tires, wind blocking lights and enough gear to support a small army to a rig with the aerodynamics of a billboard in a wind tunnel and you are lucky to get 10 miles to the gallon when traveling over the back roads. Unsure of the gas’ purity off the back of these trucks we had brought our own extra. We kept 20 gallons on the roof just for emergencies. The low fuel light screaming at me from the dash and 40 miles before the next town with a Pemex meant we were going to tap into our rooftop reserves for the first time.
The soft sand and course carried us out of the marshes heading back into the heart of the Baja. This is the section of the course where the trophy trucks grow wings. While we may not have been carried on the back of Mercury, we did hit 55 mph for the first time making this section of the course one of our favorites. We were making great time.
One thing about driving in the middle of no where is that when you want to stop… you stop. We stopped wherever and whenever we wanted. We didn’t have to pull off or worry about what might come down the dirt trail. When we had to pee, we just stopped. When we needed to air up or air down we just stopped. When we came across the world’s largest cactus standing tall among the barren sand and tumble weeds. We just stopped.
There is no problem finding solitude on this adventure. We would go hours without seeing any sign of civilization. I’m not sure you would count a lone man and his donkey (turns out our lone man is Mike Younghusband who is hiking the length of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula. He started back on Oct. 1st.) walking down the path with his donkey and dog as civilization but seeing him reminded us that how fast you go through life is all relative. No we don’t have a trophy truck with 32 inches of suspension and a 400 hp V8, capable of 100+mph speeds, but we are also not wearing a hole in our boots. We all have a pace that is our own.
We were making good time, having fun, stopping when we want, where we want. We are dos amigos some where in the middle of Baja. Not a bad way to spend the day.
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