Driver, beware. Motoring in Baja California, Mexico, is not for the faint of heart, nor is it for the weak of wheels. But if you have a robust vehicle, and if you use your head, you can have a grand adventure on and off the roads-or what pass for roads down here.
We start our three-day journey in Loreto, where we land at the small airport about 680 miles south of San Diego, California. We head north on Mexico’s Highway 1-the 1060-mile-long Carretera Peninsular-to lovely Muleg, about 86 miles away. It’s said that Highway 1 sees more U.S. motorists than any other road outside the United States. It also sees plenty of U.S. and Canadian snowbirds, who cruise down in their RVs and park beside straw cabanas for the winter. The scenery-blue bays and brown mountains-is splendid, and palm-filled Muleg is a beach oasis.
Day two takes us west on an unmarked dirt road toward Punta Santo Domingo, until we turn north near Ballena del Raymundo and jog west and then north again, hugging the coast toward the Laguna San Ignacio fishing camp. Then it’s northeast to San Ignacio, after a day’s total of 110 miles of alternately creeping and bombing through rocky, scrubby, bumpy terrain, over the salt flats, past giant cardn cactus and a few stray steer. San Ignacio, near the north-south midpoint of the peninsula, is full of charms, particularly its beautiful Jesuit mission church and its sleepy plaza.
We hop onto Highway 1 to begin our last day, going north about 35 miles until we pass Vizcano and get off the real road to travel northeast for another 48 rough miles to San Francisquito. Along the way, during a “rest stop” (avoid the sticky cactus when you squat!), we find a “Wrong Way” sign left over from last year’s Baja 1000 rally. We gaze at our stunning surroundings and think maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to be lost here.
Hotel Serenidad, Muleg (011-52-615-153-0530; www.serenidad. com). Traditional Mexican style, with poolside bar.
Casa Lere, San Ignacio (011-52-615-154-0158). Bright blue colonial adobe guest house near the plaza.
Punta San Francisquito (011-52-664-681-0709). Rustic, remote accommodations at a fishing cove on the Sea of Cortez.
Eat & drink
Rice & Beans, San Ignacio (011-52-115-40283). Lobster and tequila-ol! Hearty and casual, with rally-inspired “decor.” If you’re lucky, someone will be strumming a guitar on the porch. Here and elsewhere in Baja, try fish tacos, extra fresh and tangy.
Do bring a good map, such as AAA’s.
Don’t resist, argue, joke around, or shoot photos at the occasional police checkpoints. These young men are serious-and armed.
Don’t forget bottled water, sunscreen, and a spare tire (or two).
Baja California State Tourism Secretariat, www. discoverbajacalifornia.com.
Hidden Baja, by Richard Harris, Ulysses Press.
What we drove
Volvo rhymes with polvo, and that means dust. Our XC70 wagon, with its “FOUR-C” active chassis, handled more than that, though. Shifting sand, flying stones, never-ending washboards, mushy salt flats, steep climbs over rocks and water-the Volvo met all challenges gamely, despite looking more like a suburban housewife’s getaway vehicle than a real sport-ute.