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 Assn. 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.
A smooth beginning 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 Tomás appeared. As we entered the village, colorful murals and stickers announced El Palomar Restaurant, and we decided it was time for breakfast. So did our two passengers: Gail's son, Zack, and his friend Scott Kemp, both 15. Gail and I have worked together before; when we planned this trip, she mentioned that Zack would be out of school. I told her to bring him; kids and whales are an unbeatable combination. The boys had slept for the first few hours of our journey; now they were ready to eat. Seafood omelets helped all of us to wake up.
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.
The towns are interesting, but they aren't pretty. Most are scruffy, hardscrabble villages where skinny dogs chase cars, bright signs advertise tacos and used tires, and hawkers sell nuts and oranges from roadside tables. On this day, lakes of red mud had formed from the rainstorm that seemed to be preceding us. We congratulated ourselves on our good fortune in avoiding it.
In San Quintín, about 190 miles south of the border, cultivated fields of prickly pear cactus — nopales — covered the landscape. We stopped to look. 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 — Bahía San Quintín — 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 cardón, 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.
We pulled over to the side of the road, and the boys clambered up and down boulders and hiked around for a while, as amazed by the odd flora as I was. 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."
It was now late afternoon. We had paid in advance for hotel rooms at Cataviña, a desert outpost a few miles farther south. But as we drove toward it, 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.
Gail and I hunted down the Hummer's driver, who wasn't keen on fording the river either.
"OK, so I'm conservative," said Larry Fleishman of Boca Raton, Fla., the Hummer's owner. "It's new. I don't want to ruin it."
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."
"What are we going to do?" I asked Gail.
Neither of our choices seemed great. The water was getting deeper, and it didn't appear that it would clear soon. Neither of us particularly wanted to sleep in the car. But where would we stay? 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.
Close encounters 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 Bahía 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. But the boys were disappointed; they wanted to touch a whale. Although the whales came close, none came close enough to pet.
Once again, we were behind schedule. We returned to Route 1 and started south, in the dark, for San Ignacio, where we had reservations at La Pinta Hotel, a good chain with motels in six Baja locations. By now, we had become accustomed to driving in the dark, and we tried not to think about flash floods, errant burros or cars without lights.
San Ignacio was a beautiful change from the towns we'd seen earlier — a lush desert oasis with date palm trees, a lovely central square and 277-year-old Misión San Ignacio. It was the first town we had seen that felt like Old Mexico.
But when we checked into whale watching, we learned it wouldn't be easy. Laguna San Ignacio, we were told, was at the end of a 40-mile dirt road, made nearly impassable now by mud. People said they thought we could make it in our four-wheel drive, but it would be slow. With our time running out, we reluctantly decided to head north and take a second look at the whales in Ojo de Liebre.
This time, I asked the boys to count how many whales they saw. In the first half-hour, Scott saw 16 and Zack counted 30. My own count was 36.
Once again, we seemed to be a draw for babies and moms. A duo did a water ballet around and under our small boat. The baby emerged from the water near my hand and I reached out to touch it, but at the last minute pulled back, afraid I'd upset the skiff if I leaned over too far.
None of us touched a whale that day. But they touched us. And I can't wait to go back to try again.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
The lowdown on Baja
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 travel.state.gov/travel/tips/safety/safety_1179.html1insurance
To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 52 (country code for Mexico) and the local number.
WHERE TO STAY:
Baja Cactus Motel, Transpeninsular Highway, El Rosario; (616) 165-8850, http://www.mexicovisitor.com/bajacactus.htm . Comfortable. Doubles from $35.
La Pinta Hotels, (800) 800-9632 (from the U.S.), http://www.lapintahotels.com . Well-run chain of motels has six locations, including in San Quintín, Cataviña, Guerrero Negro and San Ignacio. Doubles from $69.
WHERE TO EAT:
El Palomar Restaurant, Transpeninsular Highway, Santo Tomás, (646)153-8002. An emphasis on seafood. Entrees under $15.
Mama Espinosa's, Transpeninsular Highway, El Rosario; (616)165-8770. Serving seafood burritos and frijoles y arroz for 73 years. Entrees $6-$20.
Old Mill Cannery, Bahía San Quintín, four miles west of Highway 1 on an unpaved road. American-style restaurant caters to tourists. Entrees $5-$20.
TO LEARN MORE:
Mexican Tourism Board, (800) 446-3942 (for brochures) or (310) 282-9112, http://www.visitmexico.com .
Baja Tourist Board, http://www.discoverbajacalifornia.com
— Rosemary McClure