By Philip Watson
(Conde Nast Traveller, 2001)
There is a sign half-way along Mexico’s Highway One that informs you the 1,000-mile road was “designed to promote economic development – NOT HIGH-SPEED DRIVING”. Why then, you think, as you shoot past doing 80mph plus, are the next ten miles as straight as a stale banana (as Raymond Chandler once had it)? Straight, flat, empty and inviting. The temptation, even though you know the speed limit to be 50mph, is to is put your foot down and fly. Pedal to the metal, as they say in Formula One.
Highway One runs the length of the vast Baja California peninsula – from Tijuana, just across the border from San Diego, in the north, to the resort area of Cabo San Lucas in the south – and, as well as satisfying the need for speed, offers one of the world’s great road trips. A barren and jagged length of land that hangs down from south-western United States like an Arthurian sword, Baja has imposing mountain ranges, dramatic cactus forests, eerily remote deserts and spectacular coastal scenery. It is an area of lush oases, secluded beaches, bustling towns and luxury resorts. And with almost 2,000 miles of coastline, it is one of the best places in the world for deep sea fishing, surfing, sailing and whale watching.
Baja also offers some seriously challenging driving. While there are stretches of easy-going dual carriageway south from Tijuana and around the southern cape, most of the highway is narrow, with no hard shoulder and little margin for error. Verges fall away sharply and there are many curvas peligrosas (dangerous bends), not all of which are signposted. Some of the road is badly pot-holed; as a result truck drivers sometimes career down the middle of the highway, only swerving over at the last minute. Cattle, goats and horses roam freely across the road. There can be strong winds, sand storms and flash floods. It is dangerous to drive at night.
These conditions are enough, of course, to deter most casual fly-drive holidaymakers. Even though the Mexican government employs angeles verdes (green angels) – English-speaking mechanics who patrol the road helping drivers in distress – this is an area in which a robust, air-conditioned four-wheeler can be a distinct advantage, especially if you venture off-road. There are army checkpoints where you and your car can be searched for drugs and guns; it helps to speak a little Spanish. Although traffic is light and you can drive for quarter of an hour without seeing another car, Baja is an area that has seen more than its fair share of accidents. Rusting wrecks litter the roadside; elaborate shrines and simple wooden crosses have been erected in memory of those who have perished on the highway.
“To most Americans, the prospect of travelling to Baja is a little like that faced by the English visiting Africa on safari in the 50s,” says a woman from San Francisco now resident in Baja, explaining why more of her fellow citizens don’t visit the area. “It’s alien, intimidating and just too different. Outsiders think every man wearing a moustache [and that’s most] is a potential bandito. The locals don’t speak English. It’s like it’s pioneer country.”
Those trailblazers brave or inspired enough to make the journey will be rewarded with a holiday that makes their road tour of southern Italy or drive down to the Florida Keys seem like an afternoon’s trip to the local supermarket. Because if Baja has an abiding theme it is one of extremes and maximum contrasts.
The vast majority of the peninsula is wilderness and those seeking the great outdoors will find few more monumental experiences. The sense of remoteness is palpable; petrol stations can be as far as 90 miles apart (a fact that necessitates a certain degree of planning). The turkey vultures, roadrunners, lava flows, elephant trees, 60-foot cacti and bizarre, endemic, Giacometti-like cirio trees are potent reminders that few would have ventured here before Highway One was completed in 1973.
On one hand Baja denotes peacefulness and isolation. Drive a few miles off the highway near San Quintín, four hours south of Tijuana, along a dusty and washboarded track, and you will come to a quiet bay that leads out to the Pacific beyond. When the water is glassy and still, which it often is, all you will hear is the gentle lapping of the tide against the shore, the call of seagulls and the soft splashes of pelicans fishing.
Head up the cobbled road to the radio tower that sits atop a steep hill ten miles south of the resort town of Mulege, and you’ll discover a panorama that is truly remarkable. Before you are the myriad islands and indented coastline of the eastern Sea of Cortez; inland are high sierras and chaparrals. At times, the landscape can seem so still, so unchanging, that it is like driving through a photograph.
And inland, at the beautiful desert oasis of San Ignacio, famous for its Dominican-built mission church, there is a hidden spot that could not be more idyllic. Follow the sign along the road into the town that reads “La Candelaria Park – Swimminsinriver” and you will come to a clearing in the date palms where there is a lagoon that is vivid green, cool and irresistible. As long as you don’t mind sharing the water with fish that occasionally flip to the surface and turquoise dragonflies that hover overhead, you can swim here undisturbed for hours on end.
Yet Baja can also offer a holiday as hectic, hedonistic and commercialised as anywhere in the world. The southern cape, where the Pacific meets the Sea of Cortez, is the peninsula’s chief resort destination, a 20-mile stretch of beachfront hotels and complexes ending at the popular party town of Cabo San Lucas. No more than a fishing village and pirate hideaway fifteen years ago, Cabo has been comprehensively developed and exploited in recent years as more and more Americans have come here in search of things they cannot get back home: bars that permit under-21 year old drinking; Cuban cigars; cheap beer and (it must be said) cheap women. They come, as one tequila-soaked redneck told me one night, “to get some sin in”.
Cabo is a pretty horrendous microcosm of American tourist imperialism. There is a Planet Hollywood, complete with fibreglass palm trees and celebrity hand prints, as well as a KFC, Pizza Hut and Baskin-Robbins. There are shopping malls full of (mostly) authentic Mexican arts and crafts; turn the corner and there are beggars, strip joints and lap dancing clubs. At El Squid Roe (geddit), a bar/restaurant that was a firm favourite with one Cabo regular called OJ Simpson, you can have tequila shot into your mouth from a height of ten feet or more. Punters wear T-shirts emblazoned with slogans that read “One tequila, two tequila, three tequila, floor”, “Beauty is in the eye of the beerholder” and “What happens in Mexico, stays in Mexico”.
For all this, there are plenty of towns that offer a more genuine slice of Mexico. Just along the coast from Cabo San Lucas, for example, is the sleepy settlement of San José del Cabo, with its narrow streets, Spanish-style buildings and tree-shaded plaza. In the busy seaside Southern Baja capital of La Paz (the peninsula is divided into Baja Norte and Sur, separated by time zones and a tacky monument), tourist police patrol the seafront on bicycles; there are piers, students, a lively club scene and an atmosphere that curiously reminds you of Brighton.
Santa Rosalia, 300 miles up the east coast from La Paz, feels about as real as it can get. It has clothes shops “for real men”, barber shops where you can get a really bad cut-throat shave, and restaurants where they serve really spicy chilaquiles, a delicious breakfast dish of chicken, chillis, cheese and scraps of tortilla. It has a museum of mining history (this was once an important industrial town) and a tourist office that closed down several years ago. I kind of liked the town.
Baja also has an amazing variety of accommodation. If you are prepared to rough it and you’re travelling with a sleeping bag you can sleep out in the open; I spent an incredible night in a beach cabaña that looked out onto a perfect bay and the warm waters of the Sea of Cortez. On-the-roaders don’t have to go to quite these lengths, of course; there are plenty of motels, hotels and friendly “mi casa es su casa” lodges along the way, and rarely will you find places fully booked. While it’s true there are some seriously upmarket options in the major resort areas – along the cape and around Tijuana, Ensenada and San Felipe – good, clean double rooms with ensuite bathrooms should cost no more than £40 in most towns.
Even the drive itself, especially if you cover more than 2,200 miles, as I did, is one of revelations and surprises. While you need to grip the wheel firmly and concentrate, at all times, and the many hills and dips can make you feel as if you are on a giant roller coaster, the longer, straighter stretches, with their heat shimmers that disappear into the distance, can have a curiously meditative effect. Turn on the radio and you will hear anything from shock jocks barking across the big American networks to local Mexican DJs playing scratchy mariachi and salsa records. Head off-road and you’ll feel as if you’ve entered another world entirely. Along the 40-mile stretch of rutted dirt track that I took from the historic and picturesque town of La Purisma in the western half of the peninsula, across the mountains to rejoin Highway One in the east (a journey that took three hours), I passed remote desert ranches, vast scrublands and vultures feeding on the carcasses of cattle.
Driving off-road in the sierras and mesas it is so dry that you can see vehicles approaching from miles off, the dust billowing out behind them like steam from an on-coming train. Yet near the oases and arroyos (streams), as the road dips down and the terrain becomes more muddy, it can be dangerously slippy. It helps to have, of course, as I was driving, a £22,000, four-litre, fuel injection, permanent four-wheel drive Land Rover Discovery XD. The vehicle has a two-speed gearbox that allows you to transfer into a lower set of gears for really steep and challenging terrains, and was truly impressive. The lower gears hold and control the car in the most impossible of conditions.
Yet, first and last, is the ghoulishly unmissable border town of Tijuana, a place that symbolises perhaps the most extreme contrast of all: that between the United States and Mexico. In the outskirts of the city you’ll see many hillside dwellings made of little more than scrapwood and cardboard; look north and you can make out the silhouettes of ranch houses and suburban condominiums in wealthy southern San Diego. Wages and living standards here are a fraction of what they are just across the border, although Tijuana is said to be booming.
Head out to the city beaches, past the bullring and the boundary monument that lies adjacent to the ten-foot chain-link fence, and you will spot the US government vehicles, boats and helicopters that patrol the area in search of those daring or stupid enough to break across the border. Where the fence meets the sea, kids can squeeze through and play on the sand the other side. Some stand with a foot each side of the line.
Downtown Tijuana seems designed to extract the maximum amount of dollars from the many millions of Americans who cross the border on day trips. Around the pedestrian footbridge that leads into the city (a sign reads “Bienvenidos to the most visited city in the world”) and along Avenida Revolución, there is a ragbag of tacky souvenir shops, shoeshine stalls, sombrero sellers and discount liquor stores. Hawkers beckon you in to all manner of bars, discos and “real family Mexican restaurants”.
The city also has a well-founded reputation for attracting those looking for more personal services. Medical treatment is cheap here, as are some other forms of physical therapy. As I head back to my car, a guy wearing 70s sideburns, Wranglers, a stetson and full urban cowboy gear sidles up to me.
“You want dentist?” he asks.
“You want doctor?” he tries again.
“You want girl?”
Dear reader, I made my excuses and broke for the border.
Transport: None of the major car rental agencies – Avis (0990 90500), Budget (0800 181181), Europcar (0345 222525) and Hertz (0990 996699) – permits a car to be hired in the United States and driven into Mexico. All, however, can supply air-conditioned hire cars from Tijuana airport; prices start at around £50 per day inclusive of unlimited mileage, collision damage wavers and tax. No four-wheel drive vehicles are available from these companies, but some do allow free drop-offs at other locations in Baja. Central America specialist Trips Worldwide (0117 987 2626) can supply 4WDs; prices are around £100 per day all inclusive; pick-ups are possible in San Diego. The company can also organise flights, itineraries and accommodation.
Recommended Hotels: Hotel Misión Santa Isabel, Ensenada (617 83616); Old Mill Motel, San Quintín (619 428 2779); Hotel La Pinta, San Ignacio (619 422 6900); Hotel Serenidad, Mulege (706 853 0111); and the newly opened Las Ventanas al Paraiso in Los Cabos (UK reservations on 0171-333 7013), perhaps Baja’s finest hotel.
Specialist holidays: Crusader Travel (0181 744 0474) offers scuba diving holidays in Baja from £425 per person; Kuoni (01306 742222) also has whale-watching packages during the winter months, starting at £699 per person.
Publications: The bible of road travel in Baja is Jack Williams’ expert, comprehensive, self-published and researched The Magnificent Peninsula: The Comprehensive Guidebook to Mexico’s Baja California. The book is available in travel bookshops in California and at certain hotels along the way, but the best way to get hold of it is direct from the author at PO Box 203, Sausalito, CA94966, USA (phone/fax 001 415 332 8635). The book is priced $17.95 plus p&p. Lonely Planet also publishes a Baja California guide at £8.95.