20 Years of Baja Highway : What a Long, Strange Drive It’s Been : Endless Desert to Deserted Beach, a 20th-Anniversary Adventure Down Mexico’s Legendary Baja Highway
Let us now praise a 1,059-mile ribbon of two-laned, sunbaked, shore-lined, desert-spanning, hurri-cane-washed, cow-trodden, mountain-hugging, pothole-peppered, cactus-shaded, rock-strewn, blood-stained, lizard-rich, mind-concentrating blacktop.
Among all the roads I know, only Baja California’s Mexico Highway 1 (a.k.a. La Carretera Transpeninsular Benito Juarez) lives up to each of those adjectives. It follows a peninsula as long as the boot of Italy, tethers raucous Tijuana to sleepy San Quintin, palm-shaded San Ignacio to high-powered Cabo San Lucas. Since its completion in 1973, it has given thousands of farmers and fishermen access to the Mexican-American marketplace, and given thousands of Americans access to wide-open spaces and 200-pound marlin. It climbs to 3,000 feet, swoops to sea level, careens between roiling ocean and placid gulf, and for hours on end in between benumbs travelers with sand-and-cactus infinities. Then, if the traveler’s attention or luck fails, it punishes.
“Why isn’t Baja simply overrun with tourists?” asks author Jack Williams in his Baja guidebook, “The Magnificent Peninsula.” “I believe I know the major answer. It can be expressed in one word: Fear.”
Now there’s an invitation. And so this fall, during the lull between summer storms and winter whales, as the highway entered the 20th year of its much-storied existence, I drafted a Times photographer, rented a jeep and aimed south to see exactly what makes a road a legend.
Things we brought: water bottles, Graham crackers, pretzels, insurance papers, notebooks, film, cameras, two spare tires, a first-aid kit, hotel reservation confirmations, sun block, shorts, T-shirts, sandals and a small library of maps, histories and guidebooks.
Analogy we toyed with: If Route 66 is the beloved father in Western road mythology, and the Pacific Coast Highway is the handsome offspring, then the Baja highway must be the sexy, sporty, not entirely reliable cousin.
Authority we consulted: Tom Miller, Huntington Beach-based sportsman and author who first visited Baja as a child in the 1930s, and never stopped going back.
“For people who know what they’re doing,” said Miller, “it’s a nirvana.”
We crossed the border on a recent sunny Wednesday morning. Veterans say the highway can be handled in three days of hard driving. Pausing here and there, we took six, arriving in Cabo the following Tuesday.
Things we learned: How the Eiffel Tower came to have an iron relative on the Sea of Cortez. Where the first mission on the West Coast was founded, and when. How it feels to snorkel all alone in a crystalline inlet, and to pull a kayak onto a bare beach. And, conversely, how it feels to sense your $25,000 rental vehicle sinking into loose shale above a boulder-studded gully, 600-odd miles south of the border.
After these last two decades of traffic, Baja’s frontier is no doubt much tamer than it once was. But Highway 1 nevertheless educated us, entertained us, carried us far from our usual responsibilities, and ultimately delivered us into warm and pacifying waters. What more can you ask from a piece of pavement?
San Diego to Catavina
We cross the border at midmorning, zip down Highway 1D (the toll road that avoids Tijuana’s congestion), and take in familiar sensations of northern most Mexico. Shacks on hillsides. Clotheslines and satellite dishes. Roadside bakeries. Fish tacos. Unfinished waterfront condos. Miles of beach.Smells of distant things burning.
We pay the tolls--$2.30 three times--sail through Ensenada, pump magna sin (unleaded gas, at about $1.75 per gallon) at a Pemex station about 120 miles south of the border. Near the vineyards of the Santo Tomas Valley, a trail of rusting automotive corpses accumulating by the roadside, we spot our first “green angel,” one of the colorful vans dispatched by the Mexican government to patrol the highway offering help to troubled motorists. (By the time we reach Cabo San Lucas, we will see half a dozen more.)
At San Quintin Bay, a secluded fishing outpost on the Pacific Coast, we turn off the main road and make for the Old Mill Motel. A British settlement subsisted, then failed, here 100 years ago, leaving a sad little cemetery where locals still bury their dead and a big mill wheel that stands in the motel courtyard.
Rumbling motelward down the dirt-and-sand road, we see a pair of frontier images: First, an old man resting on his porch, goat pelts drying on his wire fence. Next, Antonio Arce, a William Saroyan look-alike who has fished and cleaned fish for a living in San Quintin for more than 30 years. He leans over a concrete block at the boat landing, mustache drooping as he runs his 10-inch knife through blindly staring bonita and barracuda.
All around Arce, meanwhile, stand signs of the emergent Baja. Motel co-owner Joe Hayes, a former Greyhound driver from Reno whose family took over about 18 months ago, has already opened 15 RV berths, started a hotel expansion (it now has two dozen rooms, running about $35-$90 nightly) and converted a long-idle cannery building into an airy, rustic restaurant. Want a pina colada? Five dollars.
With light beginning to fade, we dash to reach our first-night hotel, and the landscape consumes us.
Forty-foot cacti. Green-gray hills, rippling on either side. When the sun sinks further, those hills go red and the silhouetted cacti begin to resemble an immense army, halted at attention in the middle of an impossible march. The cirio trees are tall and seem to have been teased at the tops by a curling iron. The cardon cacti stand thick, noble and straight. Closer to Catavina, the boulders begin--enormous, rounded rocks, studding the hills for miles. This is a place to climb rocks. That, or bleach skulls.
As nearly as anyone can guess, Baja California tore loose from mainland Mexico about 20 million years ago. It didn’t accommodate humans until an estimated 10,000 years ago, and the history we pay most attention to didn’t begin until 1535.
That year, after underlings failed to secure a foothold in Baja, Spanish explorer and conqueror Hernan Cortes himself arrived at La Paz. Then, when supplies failed, he left again, and was followed over the years by various successors who fell victim to logistics, landscape or resistant native peoples. But in 1697, Jesuits in Loreto founded the first mission on the West Coast, and set the colonization of the Californias in motion. When the dust settled after the Mexican-American war of 1846, the United States had mainland California and Mexico had Baja. But all these years later, Baja still stands apart, largely undeveloped, vaguely unearthly.
The town of Catavina, where we spend our first night, is an example. It lies alone in the middle of the peninsula’s central desert: a Pemex station, a trailer park, a couple of restaurants, the La Pinta Hotel and, amid the desert scrub outside town, a folk shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe. Before dawn, we rise and stumble among the sand, spines and boulders, and stand before the Virgin’s shrine. A much-admired Catavina resident used to repair to the desert for occasional drinking bouts in a cave, the story goes, and when he died, his neighbors made a memorial. When the highway came through in 1973, a new shrine sprung up about 20 yards from the road--an altarlike arrangement of candles, keepsakes, stray furniture and a colorful rock painting, completed by a Tijuana artist in April, 1974.
A few candles were lit when we stepped up, and while we slept the night before, a handwritten chain letter had been clipped beneath our windshield wipers. Unless I enlisted others in letter-writing within 13 days, I would risk bad luck such as that which has befallen such recent chain-breakers as the president of Brazil. And what kind of good luck does one get for passing the word on to 1.5 million readers?
Catavina to San Ignacio
Boulders, cactus, boulders, cactus, boulders, cactus.
We speed across plains, over hills, around bends, through settlements just substantial enough to have names. San Ignacito. San Ysidro. Rosarito.
From time to time, a driver encounters slow-moving trucks or RVs ahead, and occasionally they have their left-turn signals on. If the driver is Mexican, the blinker means the driver is being thoughtful, and that now is a safe time for you to pass. If the driver is American, it means the vehicle may be about to slam on its breaks and attempt a U-turn, in which case your passing will bring likely death or dismemberment.
The road is two lanes, often without a center line, usually without a shoulder or a fence to discourage wandering livestock. Pavement texture varies, as does pothole frequency, and all these variables are felt acutely by those driving the many American RVs and campers on the road. But one rarely drives more than 100 miles without seeing some kind of road crew at work. This must feel like luxury to those who drove south in the days before this was a proper highway.
In his 1953 book “Baja California,” sportsman and author Ralph Hancock describes the many forks in the old dirt road, the varying directions offered by local residents, and how he and his companions specially outfitted a Baja-bound, four-wheel-drive Jeep: spare battery, extra storage for gas and water, 150-pound refrigerator and so on. Hancock continues:
“The only feature we forgot to include in our original planning was a rack for the driver’s beer bottle. . . . We fixed that within the first 100 miles. We built a bottle rack directly in front of the steering wheel.” A comforting sight, I’m sure, for the Mexicans laboring by the roadside.
The halfway point, 532 miles south of Tijuana, is San Ignacio. Most Americans traveling in January, February and early March stop 90 miles sooner, at Guerrero Negro on the Pacific. During those months, nearby Scammon’s Lagoon fills with migrating California gray whales, who travel up to 6,000 miles south to bear their young. But the rest of the year, Guerrero Negro has little to offer but road food, magna sin , T-shirts and a view of its salt-producing facilities. We stick to the magna sin and return to the vast, arid expanses, zooming past a two dozen varieties of tall, thin, short, portly, gnarled, smooth cactus, a landscape dreamed by a thirsty botanist.
Then, like another imaginary vision, San Ignacio rises into view--an oasis bristling with date palms, a noble old church looming over a Spanish-style town square and three dozen vultures circling overhead. We check in at the La Pinta, scramble up the mesa overlooking town and see what the vultures see: the workings of the entire community. At the antojitos stand neighboring the plaza, kids play video games. The bell tolls at the 1786 mission building. In the market, the proprietor has his television tuned to the World Series.
The city has two hotels, five restaurants, 2,000 residents and something like 80,000 palm trees. We take dinner beneath the palm-frond roof of Tota’s, a side-street seafood restaurant where the television signal scrambles every time the barman mixes a margarita. At the next table sits Monte Woodworth, a 15-year Baja guide doing advance work for a San Diego-based nature tour company. He tells us about ancient cave paintings in the mountains above town, and winter whale-watching in San Ignacio Bay, about 30 miles west.
This part of Baja California, he says, “is still no-man’s land. It’s one of the only wilderness places left to go.”
San Ignacio to Mulege
After San Ignacio, the highway veers past the Tres Virgenes--a volcanic mountain formation with three peaks--and runs for more than 100 miles along the coast of the Gulf of California, what Mexico calls the Sea of Cortez. The stretch includes the cities of Santa Rosalia, Mulege and Loreto (I’ll write more about them on another Sunday) and a landscape busy with roadside surprises.
The northernmost of those coastal towns is Santa Rosalia, a town of 11,000 that was born as a French copper-mining operation in the 1870s. Its streets are narrow and tree-shaded, and run inland behind an array of massive, and largely idle, waterfront smelter buildings. Settling the site, the French imported lumber and put up clapboard houses and businesses--the only such architecture on the peninsula.
In the middle of all that clapboard stands the Iglesia Santa Barbara, a church of prefabricated iron designed by French architect A.G. Eiffel (yes, that Eiffel) for a world’s fair in the 1890s. It is, to be honest, not the most attractive church on the peninsula. Nor are my guidebooks clear on exactly how it ended up in Baja California. But there it is. We stroll through, head up the block for some fresh bread from El Boleo bakery, and find ourselves in the middle of preparations for a celebration: This late October week 107 years ago, the city was founded. Locals expect native sons and daughters to return from as far as La Paz and Ensenada. A bandstand has risen in the city square, an all-night party is anticipated, and policemen from miles around, variously uniformed, have been called to duty. We look closely at the shoulder patch of one officer, who speaks no English. California Highway Patrol , his shirt says.
In Mulege, 38 miles south and about half the size of Santa Rosalia, we find another palm-shaded oasis, another intriguingly outfitted policeman--he wears a revolver with a gleaming mother-of-pearl handle at his side--a substantial population of American visitors . . . and trouble.
The oasis envelops the city, which lies along a river. The Americans patronize the town dive shop and chat on the patio of the Hotel Las Casitas. The trouble arrives in a cloud of dust on the edge of town.
Looking for a viewpoint, we ascend a steep private driveway, then sense ourselves involuntarily descending, tires spinning in futility. The shale beneath our wheels is giving way, with a 20-foot gully on one side and a solid rock wall on the other. We halt the Toyota 4-Runner, and unsuccessfully try various tricks with rocks for traction. (Deflating your tires, then reinflating them upon escape, is a highly recommended strategy. But we didn’t bring a pump.) Atop the driveway, no one is home but the goats.
I go for help, and soon am standing at the window of a Senor Peralta, Mulege’s leading mechanic, who lives next to his garage. It is 8 a.m. on a Saturday. I knock and call out, and eventually a face appears in the window. It has evidently been a difficult evening. I apologize repeatedly, and Peralta agrees to something an American mechanic probably never would: With no discussion of fees, he washes his face, pulls on some clothes, and shuffles out to his car to help me. His car won’t start. He curses, then leads me to another vehicle, a truck across the street. After some persuasion, this one starts. We drive to the gas station, and I buy half a tankful. We then stop at a liquor store, where Peralta purchases a long-necked bottle of beer.
By the time Peralta and I have made it back to the driveway and the Toyota, my traveling companion has found a way to get some traction--a combination of stray boards, back-country ingenuity and good luck. Peralta and I watch and gesture while the Toyota crawls back to safety. We’re back on the road. Peralta, tipped about $12 for his trouble, wishes us luck and goes home to bed.
Loreto to Cabo San Lucas
Eighty-four miles south of Mulege, beyond a staggering coastline of brilliant, calm waters, empty white beaches and $6-a-night waterfront trailer parks, lies Loreto. Mexican tourism officials have high hopes for the town, and have staked out an enormous area south of it for destination resort facilities. But for now Loreto remains a largely unshaded grid of streets, home to about 9,000 people.
It is the last mid-peninsula city before the highway bends inland, and nearly 300 years ago--and more than 70 years before the first mission was established in Alta California--it was the first base of operations established by the Jesuit missionaries.
We rolled in on a Sunday morning, just in time to see standing-room-only services conclude at the well-preserved Mission Nuestra Senora de Loreto, founded in 1697 by Padre Juan Maria Salvatierra, and to hear a common man’s complaint about how the Baja highway has worked out.
Juan Ramirez, 48, works as a gardener five days a week, then spends his Saturdays and Sundays across from the church, peddling cups of flavored shaved ice to children for about 33 cents each. Between the two jobs, he estimates, he makes $35 a week.
Since the road was completed, he says, “there’s a little more money, and a little more construction. But there still aren’t enough jobs. And now I can’t afford to buy a house.” Then the knot of children around him grows again, and he goes back to raking his wiry arms across the ice block.
We go back to the road, rushing past the moored yachts at Puerto Loreto, threading our way through mountains and scrub, finally catching a peek of the Pacific side of the peninsula--a thin ribbon of blue, flecked by whitecaps--then plunging back into cactus country and eventually sneaking up on La Paz.
We’re now 922 miles south of Tijuana, and pulling into town. Something seems strange. It’s the traffic lights--these are the first we’ve seen in almost 500 miles. After all that cactus and lonely shoreline, La Paz seems impossibly urban: 140,000 or 160,000 residents (depending on which sign you believe), stacked-up traffic downtown, Italian and Chinese restaurants, hundreds of young people lounging by the waterfront at dusk, listening to music and eyeing the opposite sex. But even here, a traveler can drive 20 minutes north of town on Highway 11 to Puerto Ballandra, a crescent-shaped inlet favored by locals on weekends. I headed that way on a weekday morning, and it was just me, my snorkel, my mask and many thousands of fish.
The last miles of Highway 1 are the strangest. You’re aiming south, yet the nearer you get to San Jose del Cabo and Cabo San Lucas--once entirely separate cities, now linked by a corridor of luxury resorts and advertised together as Los Cabos--the more it seems you’re about to arrive in Palm-Springs-on-the-Pacific. Cars get fancier. Blufftop villas multiply. The wandering cows persist, but now they have thick traffic and impatient drivers to contend with. In tourist season, most of these drivers have probably flown to the airport at San Jose del Cabo, then rented cars.
Here, after 1,000 miles of sinking, soaring and abruptly turning to accommodate the unyielding landscape, the highway is being widened to four lanes and rerouted slightly . . . to make room for a preternaturally green golf course in the middle of the desert.
The road vanishes for good in downtown Cabo San Lucas, near a big marina and a gaggle of music-blaring, American-oriented bars. In Squid Roe, the busiest of those bars, we watch squirtgun-wielding bartenders shower eager customers with sangria, and hear the chants and whoops of four dozen off-duty LAPD officers.
Now we’re ready to bid the highway goodby and it’s nowhere to be seen, at least not in true character. So we make do. For $5, one of the few bargains in town, we hire Manuel Jesus to take us around the rocks and the famous arch of Cabo San Lucas in his 25-foot glass-bottomed boat. There we sit, rocks to our starboard, yellowtail and sardines darting beneath us in the clear water.
“This is land’s end,” says Jesus, pointing to the pelican perched on the last rock.
Good enough. We nodded, returned to shore, handed over the rented Toyota, and flew home to Los Angeles on an Alaska Airlines MD-80 jet. The trip took 2 hours and 20 minutes, and it wasn’t the least bit interesting.
Blazing a Trail Through Baja
Driving strategies: A four-wheel-drive vehicle is not essential if you stick to the highway and well-used dirt roads. Don’t drive at night, unless you’re ready to risk broadsiding livestock. Don’t pull over to enjoy a view unless you’re sure the shoulder can safely accommodate your vehicle. Don’t be surprised--and don’t overheat--if you find yourself stuck behind a slow-moving vehicle on a long sequence of blind mountain curves. It happens. Don’t forget lots of water, a first-aid kit, at least one spare tire and, perhaps, a pump for re-inflating tires if you get stuck and have to deflate one or two for traction. There are long stretches between Pemex stations, but you probably don’t need to bring a spare gasoline supply if you refill your tank every time it falls below half full. If the weather is changing, ask around about the condition of the road ahead.
Homework: Anyone planning a long drive in Baja California should study up first, and probably bring along a guidebook or two. Three useful volumes:
* “Baja California.” Comprehensive maps, mile-by-mile descriptions, directions and thumbnail histories, published by the Automobile Club of Southern California (Travel Publications Department, 2601 S. Figueroa St., Los Angeles 90007), available through the Auto Club’s district offices. The book is free to Auto Club members, and otherwise not for sale. An updated version is expected next spring.
* “The Baja Book III.” Includes more background information and more subjectivity than the Auto Club book, much of it offered up by angler-adventurer Tom Miller, who has traveled through Baja since the 1940s (Baja Trail Publications, P.O. Box 6088, Huntington Beach 92615, 714-969-2252; $12.95). The most recent edition was released this year.
* “The Magnificent Peninsula.” A compendium of maps, directions and background information. The author-publisher is Jack Williams (H.J. Williams Publications, P.O. Box 203, Sausalito 94966, 415-332-8635; $15.95).
Good Baja maps are published by the Auto Club and International Travel Map Productions (P.O. Box 2290, Vancouver, B.C. V6B3W5, Canada).
If you’re planning to spend more than 72 hours in Mexico, or travel more than 100 miles south of the border, you must carry a tourist card. They’re available, free, at insurance offices along the border, the Mexican Government Tourism Office and many airlines and travel agencies.
Where to stay: Between Tijuana and Loreto, an obvious but unglamorous choice is the La Pinta chain (reservations available through Mexico Resorts International; 800-336-5454), which has taken over six of the old El Presidente hotels financed by the government and built about the time the highway was opening. La Pintas do business in Ensenada, San Quintin, Catavina, Guerrero Negro, San Ignacio and Loreto. Rates usually run $60 for a double room. Local accommodations may be cheaper but substantially more modest. In La Paz, San Jose del Cabo and Cabo San Lucas, there is a far broader choice. All along the peninsula, RVers will find scores of campgrounds, with widely varying amenities. The books above have lengthy campground listings.
Renting a car: Several rental car agencies do business in Baja, and four are listed here as a sampling. Travelers driving only one way will save time, but pay a hefty price, as prices below indicate. Note: Insurance usually adds $10-$20 per day to rental car costs, and a 10% tax is added on top of the total rental bill.
* Budget Rent a Car (800-527-0700) maintains offices in downtown Tijuana and at the city’s airport. As of last week, basic daily rates began at $50 daily or $313 weekly (unlimited mileage) for reservations made 14 days or more in advance.
* Avis (800-331-1212) maintains offices in Tijuana and San Jose del Cabo, and rents compact cars beginning at $372 weekly, $62 for each additional day. Drivers leaving the car behind in San Jose del Cabo face a drop-off fee of about $320.
* Hertz (800-654-3131) has offices in Tijuana, San Jose del Cabo and Cabo San Lucas. Fees for compact cars begin at $118 daily and $714 weekly, and carry additional mileage charges. The drop charge amounts to about $655.
* M&M; Jeeps (619-297-1615), an Italian-owned company that rents Ford Explorers and Toyota 4-Runners, has offices in San Diego and San Jose del Cabo. Round-trip rates begin at $580 weekly; $90 for each additional day. Rates for one-way travel from San Diego to Los Cabos begin at $860 weekly; Los Cabos to San Diego from $580 weekly. No drop-off or mileage charges.
For more information: Contact the Mexican Government Tourism Office, 10100 Santa Monica Blvd., Suite 224, Los Angeles 90067, (213) 203-8191 or (800) 262-8900; or Baja California Mexico Tourism, 7860 Mission Center Court, Suite 202, San Diego 92108, (800) 522-1516 or (619) 298-4105.
It's a date
Get our L.A. Goes Out newsletter, with the week's best events, to help you explore and experience our city.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.