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Baja Mexico Off Road Route - South Of The Border - Part III

Posted in Events on November 1, 2004
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Boulder Fields, Remote Rancheros, and Roadside Fuel
The sun crested the Baja horizon hours before alarm clocks began to chime back in the States. A cool coastal breeze drifted through a forest of tall cardon cactus, which silhouetted the eastern skyline, and several brown scorpions crawled from under our tent as we rolled up camp. On cool evenings, scorpions, rattlesnakes, and other assorted reptiles seek shelter under tents, sleeping bags, and unattended shoes. In search of the road less traveled, the previous seven days had taken us to the eastern side of the Baja peninsula. Tracing the cobalt-blue coastline of the Sea of Cortez, we raced across high-speed whoop-de-dos on the Baja 1000 racecourse and explored abandoned gold mines. Near Bahia San Francisquito, one of our rigs cracked a cylinder head, and the motor we had rebuilt in Guerrero Negro had proved worthy during a torturous pace through 100 miles of sand dunes, beaches, and mud bogs along the Pacific Ocean. In search of the remote mission of Santa Maria and a rumored yet-uncharted route back to the Sea of Cortez, we were leaving the Pacific behind and heading east into Baja California's coastal mountains.

Along the coastal foothills, thick bands of cardon, cholla, cirio, and agave cactus stand sentinel over every arroyo. Due to the dense and heavily armored vegetation, our previous night's camp was right in the middle of the road. Fortunately, the route sees little traffic, and we enjoyed the evening without interruption. The trail steepened and vegetation thinned as we climbed from the coastal plain, following Arroyo de San Jose into the coastal foothills. Several miles inland, an abandoned and unnamed adobe ranchero appeared amongst thick clusters of palm trees. The walls of several time-worn adobe structures stood as testament to the enduring labors of early settlers on the peninsula. Ascending the summit, panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean played a scenic backdrop to a more contemporary relic, a '67 VW Bug long left to the elements. Descending the eastern slope, we found Highway 1 and headed north to the township of Catavina for fuel.

The boulder fields near Catavina are an intrigue to the mind's eye. Cardon cacti, which at 60 feet in height are the tallest cacti in the world, rise amidst a rolling sea of garage-sized boulders. Hundreds of spur roads lead from the pavement into a labyrinth of sand two-tracks going every which way. Horned lizards bask in the sun, and an occasional Black Racer, which grows to 6 feet in length and can move as fast as 10 mph, regularly slithers alongside your window to give you a run for your money.

The Mexican government has a monopoly on fuel, and Catavina had one of two Pemex stations in the 221-mile stretch between El Rosario and Guerrero Negro. It was closed a few years ago, but the hotel now sells fuel, when it's available. Because things move a little more slowly in southern latitudes, there is a two-hour siesta in the afternoon, and when the pump runs dry, it may be several days before the fuel truck arrives. Sure enough, the station was closed. The attendant said "maff,ff,,ana," which means tomorrow or maybe the next day, and epitomizes the laid-back nature of the country. On another trip a few years ago, a tourist, who had been waiting a day and a half for the fuel truck to arrive, offered us $25 for a jerrycan of fuel (gas was $1.25 a gallon at the time). At that moment, fuel was a commodity we had in short supply, so we declined the offer. Fortunately for us, a local entrepreneur showed up with a few 55-gallon drums in the back of a pickup. Our fuel situation was not grave, but the Number One rule for traveling Baja's backcountry is this: If fuel is available, get it! We topped off with 5 gallons for $15, the cheapest price in town.

Pirates, Jesuit Missions, and Petroglyphs
In the distant past, Baja's remote proximity to mainland Mexico, its unforgiving environment, its lack of natural resources, and its sometimes unfriendly native Indians made it difficult to explore and almost impossible to settle. The cost in human life, resources, and time was high. Sailing under the Spanish flag, 15th century mariners Hernan Cortez, for which the Sea of Cortez is named, Diego Becerra, and Juan Cabrillo were responsible for the early navigation and mapping of the "island" known as Isla De California. Directed by the crown to expand Spanish dominance and Catholicism in the new world, the first attempts to reach Baja resulted in two ships being captured by pirates in the Sea of Cortez. The second endeavor, captained by Diego Becerra, ended in a mutiny of the ship and Becerra's murder at the hands of his own crew.

The first to actually make landfall was Fortun Jimenez, who led the mutiny against Diego. Landing near present-day La Paz, the celebration was short-lived. At the hands of hostile native Amerindians, Jimenez and 22 of his mutineers were killed while attempting to restock their water casks. A third attempt in 1535, captained by Hernan Cortez, included 500 men, women, and children. The settlement lasted just two years before falling to disease, lack of supplies from the mainland, and unfriendly natives. Reflecting on the extreme difficulties of early adventurers reminded us how tough they were and how glad we were to have our trusty 4x4s.

Settlement of the peninsula and the eventual development of a 20-strong missions system did not happen for more than a century after the first attempts. Commissioned to the Jesuits between the years of 1697 to 1767, a contingent of padres, accompanied by regular Spanish soldiers, expanded colonial influence and Christianity by developing a series of missions. Through assimilation of the willing and elimination of those who resisted or rebelled, it is estimated that half of the 40,000 indigenous Amerindians were converted to Christianity or controlled by the Jesuits. The last and northernmost mission credited to the Jesuits was remote Mission Santa Maria, near present-day Catavina. This was our destination.

Due to its remote location and 15 miles of boulder-strewn access road, Mission Santa Maria has often been called Mission Impossible. It sits in a valley known to the indigenous Cochimi Indians as Cabujakamaang, or "place where the spirits dwell."The road to get there was truly the worst - we mean, best - route we had encountered on our adventure south. We liked the idea of doing some good rockcrawling beyond the sight of any stray tourists on the highway. We veered off the pavement to a sandy arroyo south of Catavina. The track quickly disappeared, and we found ourselves navigating through a half-mile sluice of limestone boulders and loose sand. We located the actual route near the local airstrip, and a gravelly two-track led us east. Rising into the southern reaches of the Sierra San Pedro Martir, we cleared a low summit and were treated to a panoramic view of Bahia San Luis Gonzaga and Punta Final, where we had kayaked and camped a week earlier.

Descending into the Valley of Spirits, things got fun. This was true Low-range 'wheeling, and lockers, lifts, and gears were a definite plus. A sparse array of ocotillo and barrel cactus transitioned to a literal forest of cardon cacti and cirio trees as the canyon narrowed and the track deteriorated. Our two Toyota Tacos were a bit vertically challenged over the larger obstacles as we made our way to a ridge overlooking the mission valley. Blue-fan palm trees carpeted the valley floor, and lush green vegetation to the south end of the valley indicated water, the sole source of all life in this harsh desert environment.

Fan palms cast macabre shadows, and it seemed as if spirits lurked in the thick undergrowth as the road disappeared into the brush, narrowing to the width of a footpath. This was the least-traveled route we had encountered on our sojourn, and Mother Nature had almost reclaimed the trail. On a knoll midway down the valley stood the deteriorating remains of Mission Santa Maria. Originally built of thick adobe walls and a palm-thatched roof, the mission's roof had long deteriorated, the fields had gone fallow, and all that remained were several walls, which were slowly being turned back to earth as heaps of alluvial sand. As the shadows enveloped the valley, we set up camp near the mission ruins, explored the local area, and dined on our staple diet of something rolled in a tortilla.

The El Camino Real, Swimming Holes, and Fish Tacos
We dedicated the following morning to locating a lost route through the mountains to Bahia San Luis Gonzaga, 6 kilometers to the east. We were quick to understand why a vehicle track had never been established. The route from the mission rose to the southeast and quickly became impassable. After Randy Ellis gave multiple demonstrations on how to high-center his Toyota and extricate it with a Hi-Lift jack, we decided to continue on foot.As the trail narrowed to an established footpath, we determined that we were traversing the El Camino Real, the original Native-American footpath and mule trail connecting the Baja mission system from San Jose Del Cabo to Northern California's Mission Monterey. We stopped at the edge of a precipitous arroyo, just a few kilometers short of success. To the east, we could see the north-south road along the Sea of Cortez, which led to San Felipe. Realizing that our lost route never existed, we jockeyed our vehicles around and made our way back to the mission for a dip in the palm-lined swimming hole.

Returning to the highway by early afternoon, we backtracked 35 kilometers south and headed east on a graded dirt road toward the Sea of Cortez. We were now moving north, and that meant we were getting closer to the border, cell phones, schedules, deadlines, and reality. Fortunately, we had another 100 miles of dirt road and a few more stops to make. We couldn't drive by Coco's Corner without stopping in to say hi to our old friend Coco, who came out to greet our arrival. Coco always has a shady spot to share a coldy and swap tales of past Baja adventures. The next stop was Alfonsina's Cantina, 25 kilometers to the north on the edge of Bahia San Luis Gonzaga. Arriving just in time for dinner, we dined on the catch-of-the-day and a round of the best fish tacos anywhere.

Wispy strata clouds were ablaze with golden hues of orange, magenta, and crimson as the sun cast horizontal rays across the Baja desert and settled into the Sierra Martir Mountains. It was another spectacular tequila sunset. We realized that in the morning, we would be crossing the international border into the United States, and our adventure south would come to an end, at least for now. Over the past 10 days, we had explored abandoned mines and 250-year-old missions, visited old friends and made new ones, and shredded tires and rebuilt a dead motor in a dust storm. On the Lost Coast, we had been axle-deep in coastal sand drifts and buried in estuarial quagmires, and we kayaked with seals. Overall, we logged more than 650 miles on Baja's most remote backroads. Poring over our maps, we came to the realization that there was another 3,000 miles of dirt roads we had missed. Believe us, we're already planning for our next adventure south of the border. Mafana, mafana.

More Tips To Surviving In BajaOn the Road
Although Mexico is just a stone's throw away, don't forget it is a foreign and semi-third-world country. Using your head can reduce the odds of running into trouble.,* Don't travel alone. There is safety in numbers, especially if you break down with 50 miles of cactus between you and the nearest paved road.,* Don't travel at night. We've seen staged accidents, with someone waving you to pull over while their amigos are waiting in the brush for an unsuspecting target.,* Highway 1 should be driven with caution. Dozens of white crosses strewn up and down the peninsula are evidence that Baja Winding sections have no shoulder and are just wide enough for two semis. Accidents are usually bad and help is a long-time coming.,* Camping: While Baja California's not crawling with the rumored banditos, every place has a bad apple here and there. It's a good idea to set up camp out of sight of the main routes.

Cash Isn't Always King
Sometimes you can buy more lobster with a six-pack and a carton of Camels than with a $20 bill. Gratuities, such as cold drinks, American cigarettes, and those magazines your dad kept hidden are greatly appreciated by federales at remote checkpoints. The most important thing about money is not to flaunt it. That's just asking for trouble.

Fuel
The Mexican government has a monopoly on fuel, and Pemex stations are popping up everywhere. The availability of diesel has also improved. Travel tip: The savvy Baja traveler never runs the tank low. It is not uncommon to see tourists waiting a day or two for the gas tanker to arrive. Often, locals will show up with a 55-gallon drum in the back of an old jalopy. Will the price be higher? We'll just say it will be the cheapest around. Bring a chamois to filter your non-Pemex purchase.

Telephones and Internet
Communication south of the boarder has become much better over the last few years. The cheapest and easiest way to phone the U.S. is with a phone card. Ladatel and Telmex sell cards at most local markets in towns with phone service. Avoid the blue phones that advertise "Call the U.S." They're a rip-off. Some cities now have cybercafes, but your cell phone will not work, so it can be left at home.

CB Radios
The requirement of a CB permit was dropped about 10 years ago. Channel 9 is monitored for emergencies, but if you are off the beaten path, you'll only be talking to your traveling amigos.

Spiders, Snakes, and Critters
Baja is home to a wide variety of wild life. Mule deer, big-horn sheep, the rare mountain lion, and the ever-present coyote, along with a multitude of rodents and reptiles, live in dozens of unique ecosystems. Eighteen species of rattlesnakes are indigenous to Baja. Scorpions tend to live in dead cactus and dark, cool areas, and love to crawl under tents, ice chests, and shoes left out. The sandy beaches of the Sea of Cortez are a haven for stingrays. Get tagged by one, and you can expect several days of serious grief. Wearing a pair of dive booties or shuffling your feet along the bottom should do the trick.

Keeping Your Nose Clean
If it is illegal in your hometown, chances are that it's illegal in Mexico. Possession of drugs, public drunkenness, and speeding are the most common offenses. Down south, trials are not speedy, and the minimum sentence for possession of narcotics is 10 years. Think about that before you cross the border. You don't want to spend any time in a Mexican jail.

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