South… All who wander are not lost.
We took an overland trip south of the border into Mexico, specifically: Baja California. Entering via Tecate – that’s where the subpar cerveza is made – we were met by a Mexican border official who sold hot sauce, several bottles of which were on display atop his desk. He “suggested” we buy some. Fresh in country and getting the impression this might be a good idea, that is to humor this gentlemen, we bought one. Welcome to Mexico! Once we paid our tourist visa fees we navigated our small, but effective 4-banger Toyota Tacoma through the Baja Norte wine country. We were pleasantly surprised by the fact that there’s dozens if not a hundred bodegas in Baja Norte alone! We stopped in at Laja for a multi-course repast, which along with local wine pairings, was in a word: stunning. Not too buzzed, we made haste for Ensenada.
Ensenada is an interesting place. Although it has all the trappings of a blown out cruise ship “Port-of-Call” and tourist trap, it also has craft breweries, sea urchin tostadas and other goodies. We sought out and discovered Wentlandts – a micro brewery and restaurant that will impress even the most jaded beer snob – like yours truly. After several rounds and plates of locavore fare we escaped for under $40. Off we went in la manana a la manana, gunning for a remote”sh” right hand point break well over two hundred and some odd clicks south – Punta Baja.
Punta Baja is just outside of Rosarita, made famous because of the Baja 1000 and a little cafe called Momma Espinosas. Steve McQueen ate her lobster burritos – and you can to. We made our way by rutted and unmarked roads to a little fish camp situated close to a world-class right hand point break. Weary of the tide and when it might encroach, we decided to perch ourselves atop a cliff overlooking the break, presumably out of harms way. As night’s cover thickened, we observed suspicious lights flickering, piercing the fog just over the adjacent cove by the fish camp. At around mid-night when we were ready to bed down, a large truck crested the hillock in front of where we were anchored. We waited until, yes – with flashlights in hand, two people approached our camp. Fuck! What was this? Seriously? I engaged them as my better half (her Spanish far advanced then mine) stayed by the camp fire. Friendly enough, they inquired who we were and what we were doing (I failed to see what wasn’t obvious about our program), and they relaxed a bit. They told us we were “OK” and that we could stay there. We weren’t sure who owned this headland or even if it was all-right to camp here, but we did anyway obviously. They informed us that they “worked” there, at the nearby fish camp? With that they referred to as “products of the sea”, and promptly left us to our own devices. We pondered: “Products of the sea…”, interesting. As the night wore on we continued to look on to the mysterious cove in question as more lights swept up and around giving us the impression of a gang of people working ardently, at… Something.
It seemed like the first few nights – ISO remote points and uncrowded beaches – we would barely make it to a spot to set up camp as the sun settled, punctuating the end of the short winter days. But as we came up-to-speed and our Spanish began to loosen up (use it or lose it), we got into a groove. And another thing: Ask any local directions to a location (restaurant or road, what-have-you), expect them to seriously make an effort to aid you. But woe to those not able to “interpret” said directions; because infallibly they are always overly complex (and wrong), half-assed (and wrong) or just flat out WRONG. Always. I’m not exaggerating.
Three rules of road travel for the overlander in Baja –
1) Always keep your eyes on the road.
2) Don’t stop for anyone or anything.
3) DO NOT drive at night.
The lion’s share of traffic fatalities and accidents in Baja California occur at night. Often due to a cow in the middle of the road, prone down and asleep, in an attempt to cool off after baking all day in the hot desert. Just don’t drive at night down here.
Baja is divided into two states: Baja Norte and Baja Sur. The Mexi 1 takes you the length of Baja, and from Ensenada to La Paz it’s about 1000 miles. This being the route of the fabled “Baja 1000” overland race which is designed around “on” and “off-road” tracks, secondary roads and desert connected via little towns but separated by treacherous dry arroyos and steep, volcanic mountains. During the winter when it rains, roads are prone to flash floods and even the “good” roads (those maintained by the state) are a calculated risk. Needless to say driving in Baja in general is a nerve racking experience. And when you cut off to the coast in search of those promised lonely, peeling barrels, it becomes even more of a challenge.
On the East side of the Baja Pennisula is the Sea of Cortez. The Mexi 1 makes a dog-leg East just south of Guerrero Negro leading inexorably there. With compass due South, many cool spots and distractions will slow your progress. Especially the Bay of Conception. The camp spots are right off the highway in some instances, but don’t let that fool you. It’s the intrepid overlander that finds the best camping… South of the bay is a small expat enclave called Loreto. It’s an anglers paradise, the weather here is generally perfect most of the year and yes, there’s even a micro brewery here (El Zopilote).
On to La Paz. Cool historic city with a huge and impressive malecon (waterfront). You can catch a ferry to mainland here or drink too much and haggle over an over priced hotel room. From here we made our way to Todos Santos, the town – All kinds of cool stuff here including the “Hotel California”. No we didn’t go in. But it looked nice. We posted up here for a few days, more accurately in Cerritos and Pescadero, where the waves are commensurate with the crowds they attract. But, still the area has all the trappings that make you feel right at home; including Baja Beans, a sick little coffee spot with a custom made “Slayer” espresso machine (made in Seattle).
The cape is warm, tropical and “settled in” – Heard of Cabo San Lucas? You can still find that perfect little, or not so little wave you craved and that shot of mezcal you never heard of. And without fighting over it… Sometimes. And as with anything else in Baja California, you just need to time it right.
On the rewind (we did well over 2000 miles down and back) we hit up a cool spot in Punta San Isidro in Baja Norte called Coyote Cals. It’s a motorhead and overlander go-to, and it’s been there for years. It’s a great beginning – or ending – to the adventure North or South that awaits. Around Cals are several surf spots that will keep you occupied for a minute if you’re so inclined. There’s even a Danish cult compound that we stumbled across whilst exploring.
We research accordingly and plan accordingly for trips like this, hell we do for any multi day adventure. But all the preparation and experience in the world can’t possibly condition you for what goes down when you are in country. Baja California is, was, and will be for many more excursions, one of the most amazing and fulfilling experiences we have ever had. If you surf, it’s a no-brainer. If you dig food and adventure, it’s a no-brainer. If you have a good head on your shoulders, a healthy sense of wanderlust, and even speak a little Spanish – Go! You will not regret it.