Wahhooooeeee!! My copilot screamed as the tires lifted off the ground and 12 inches of clear, warm air came between our tires and terra firma. Gravity quickly won over our short-lived moment oflevitation, narrowing the void between us and the sandy desert two-track. The front tires touched down-low air pressure and soft sidewalls absorbing the initial impact before assigning their burden to a pair of Donahoe coilover front shocks. Compressing to the bumpstops, our 33-inch Pro Comp XTerrains sucked up the residual force, flattening like a couple of inverted mushrooms. The rear followed suit, absorbing its share of the load before responding with enough force to send us back into the air for another round.
This was Baja, Mexico, the kind of place that draws one back, year after year: a destination you don't really need a reason to visit. Temperate weather, endless unfenced two-tracks, isolated fishing villages, and plentiful cerveza fria (cold beer); it's all there.
However, we did have a purpose. We were there to test our Two Week Taco, subject of last month's Donahoe Racing suspension makeover. We put it through the wringer on Baja's wildest whoop-de-doos, alluring arroyos, and twisting two-tracks, including some hammer-down blasting over parts of the Baja 1000 race course.
While we're not going to race it on the 1000 (although we could), it did awesome. The combination of the coilovers and Pro Comp tires felt right at home on more than 700 miles of Baja abuse. The new Donahoe Plush Ride leaf springs carried our overloaded Tacoma without issue, and our ARB bumper held tight to the frame while fending off numerous comi-cacti, boulders, and harsh landings.
On our first morning in Baja the sun crept over the Sea of Cortez, radiating a golden swathe of light across an uninhabited sand beach, rousting us from out tents to witness the birth of a new day. Bare feet wriggling in the sand, we were beginning to settle into maana mode: Maana mode is a mental condition of mind and space: One in which meetings, deadlines, and commitments of northern latitudes fade into distant memories.
Discovered in the late 1700s and isolated by land and sea, the remote fishing village of San Felipe was almost completely cut off from the western world until the installation of a U.S. radar facility during WWII. Today, San Felipe plays host to dozens of Baja 250, 500, and 1000 races and is a Mecca for sunworshiping co-eds from the States. Retaining its old-world charm, the small cantinas, seafood restaurants, and taco stands line San Felipe's seafront boardwalk. San Felipe is also the last place to stock up on necessities: fuel, fresh tortillas, tequila, and cold cerveza.
The Baja Peninsula stretches roughly 900 miles south from the U.S. border near San Diego. Slicing through the Pacific Ocean to create the Sea of Cortez, it averages a mere 70 miles in width. Along the route from Puertocitas to Bahia San Luis Gonzaga we visited this abandoned abode sitting high above the water's edge. Numerous islands, coated white from eons of nesting gulls, profile the cobalt blue waters of the Sea of Cortez.
Three days earlier we had crossed the international border at Mexicali. We headed south with the tentative plan to follow the coastal routes as far as San Francisquito, about 400 miles south of the border on the Sea of Cortez side. The odometer showed 700-plus miles as the day's last light faded and the lights of San Felipe came in to view. Our reward for the long haul was heaping plates of tacos de pescado (fish tacos) and a few rounds of cold Corona. Cell phones, Blackberries, and the hassles of everyday life were stuffed in the console when we crossed the border, and we were slowly slipping into the maana mode.
Maana is the frame of mind in which one forgets all the trivial crap we deem important. Bills, deadlines, e-mail-all gone. Job problems, traffic, and TV, forgot about 'em. In maana mode, you focus on the important things: When does the sun rise and set, is the cerveza cold, do we have enough fuel, what two-track to explore today, and again, is the cerveza cold? An adventure in Baja is vastly different from a leisurely jaunt across the desert southwest. Baja is the kind of place that teaches you-you don't teach it. It wants you to be there, to feel the energy and tranquility, the warmth of its solar orb, and the cool of its blue waters. When accepted, it absorbs you, you become one with it, and through osmosis, its culture, language, and surreal aura permeates your soul. This is when you know you have achieved maana.
San Felipe was our last place to stock up on necessities. With full tanks, fresh tortillas, a bottle of our favorite locally distilled tequila, and a couple kilos of shrimp, we headed south to set up camp near the edge of the Sea of Cortez. Illuminated by the light of a billion stars, gentle waves lapped at the sand and a light breeze brought a slight chill to the air. Our bellies full from our gluttony of fish tacos and beer, we swapped lies about adventures gone by, tossed back a few coldies, and hit the sack in anticipation of our next seven days. Drift into a southern latitude maana with us as you flip through these pages of our Two Week Taco Baja Bash.
Exploring isolated coves and abandoned fishing camps, we set up near the tranquil pueblo of Punta Final (final point), which rests at the south end of Bahia De Gonzaga. Punta Final consists of a small gathering of palapas (small stone and brick houses) and a handful of sun-baked expatriate Americans on a quest for the endless maana. Nary a sound could be heard as we turned off and tossed back a few Coronas on the edge of the bay.
Alfonsina's sits on the north end of Bahia de San Luis Gonzaga and is a must for the Baja traveler. Established in the 1950s, the original stone-and-mortar cantina has been expanded and modern rooms have replaced the rustic single-cot stone rooms of yesteryear. We sweet-talked the cook into keeping the lights on, and we proceeded to inhale some of the best tacos de pescado (fish tacos) on the peninsula.
In 1542, just 50 years after Columbus landed in the West Indies, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo was the first European to ply these waters. It is said that he made safe anchorage in the lee of the Sierra San Pedro Martir Mountains. Long before GPS technology and internal combustion engines, men like Cabrillo were true explorers in a world where failure was met with the harshest of consequences. As squadrons of brown pelicans and cormorants carved sweeping arcs above in search of the catch-of-the-day, we slipped our kayaks in near Punta Final and revisited the tranquil treasures of Bahia San Luis Gonzaga.
We avoided the paved route to Bahia De Los Angeles for as long as possible, eventually surrendering to a 5-mile stretch which took us to the turnout for Mission San Borja. As one of the more remote Spanish missions in its day, it served as the stepping-off point for the El Camino Real, the original mule/foot route connecting Baja's mission system. Built by Jesuit padres in 1759, the mission was later turned over to the Franciscans and eventually to the Dominicans. Today, it remains one of the best preserved and most isolated of its type and is a true oasis in the desert.
South from Bahia De Los Angeles, the rocky graded two-track ascends the coastal foothills, twisting in serpentine fashion through precipitous arroyos, alluvial washes, and remnants of Baja's mining era. Ocotillo, cardon, and elephant trees dot the seemingly lifeless landscape and evidence of modern civilization becomes increasingly sparse.
The afternoon sun laid shadows across our tracks as we made our way south on a trackless beach towards Playa San Rafael. Unlike the States, in Baja the beaches are used as dependable routes between fish camps. In search of a beach camp, we headed for the protected waters of Bahia San Francisquito, a small fishing pueblo approximately midway down the peninsula. With just a few palapas, a dirt landing strip, and a small rustic restaurant around us, we set up camp along the water's edge.
Baja has its way of weeding out any weak links in your rig. An hour out of San Francisquito, we heard over the CB "We have a problem." The coilover suspension on the other CJ-7 had gone south-way south! The rear mounting crossmember had sheered clean off on the driver side and a passenger-side failure was eminent. This was about the time we were regretting not ponying up for a Premier Power Welder. Out came the batteries and welding gear for a third time. A bit more involved, it was three hours before we were rolling again.