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Highway One to Nowhere


There can’t be a better place to start a drive into Mexico than the border town Tijuana. Within an hour and a half you can leave central San Diego on a Disney-style trolley bus – which romantically weaves its way past a stream of companies with illuminated signs for jail bonds – and cross the border by foot into the chaotic world that is Tijuana, where your senses are accosted by the smell of roasting meat, gaudy coloured buildings, blaring music from car radios, and endless taco stands.

Minutes after I pick up my hire car, I find myself on the outskirts of a shanty town watching a fox taking home the chicken he’s killed for dinner and realise this is not a journey for the delicate or faint-hearted.  Nonetheless, I press on to the nearest town, Ensenada – the last, tawdry outpost of Western civilisation – where Hussong’s Cantina has come highly recommended.  Founded in 1892 by a German immigrant, the wood-panelled Cantina is full of tourists listening to soulful mariachi music, who encourage me to drink margaritas. After three glasses, I concede that the margarita is good and find that reinforced with Dutch courage, I’m keen to get back on the road.

Highway One through the desert (Rich McHugh)

Beyond Ensenada I’m in white-knuckle driving territory, the land of thundering juggernauts, mad dogs and dead, ballooning cows lying prone on their backs with their feet in the air, being preyed on by vultures the size of a child.  Cacti belong here – giantesque cacti, taller than the tallest men, that grow 70 feet without thinking into the deep blue sky above, and stretch in their droves over the wide, open valleys and low mountains on the horizon that tourists gaze at in wonder, and never travel into.  Surreal, short, knobbly elephant trees and fantastical Boojums (named after the fictitious plants in Alice In Wonderland) – growing in thin, spindly columns – are everywhere around me.

This is the home of highway one: a long, slithering snake of a road bound nowhere but south, further south, and further south again down the long proboscis that is Baja California.  At every major turn of the road, my will to drive on is challenged by sudden dramatic vistas of a road leading into what looks like nowhere over a vast Grand Canyon-esque desert.  The serrated edges of tarmac on the two-lane highway hang precariously above the desert floor, clearly pointing out that if you swerve even slightly when trucks thunder past no more than fifteen inches away, you will without question drive off the edge and flip your car.

It’s impossible to doubt this might happen, because the highway is littered with car-wrecks and crosses by the side of the road left for people who’ve died in road accidents (sometimes accompanied by pieces of the relevant dismantled vehicle – a tyre here, a bumper there).  I don’t want to be one of the casualties. But at least there are no ‘topes’ here – the sleeping policemen that plague drivers throughout most of Mexico by being not only virtually invisible, but also so sharp that they’re capable of ripping through the radiator of the toughest jeep. 

In the middle of various rambling mental meanderings, I cross the peaceful Valle Tranquilo (tranquil valley).  My thoughts escape as a sigh and something inside me lets go. I stop the car in the middle of a long stretch of tarmac, pointing straight as an arrow through an avenue of tortured, twisted, gnarly cacti; turn off the engine, and realise that at this precise moment in time, there is nobody here but me.  I stop breathing, and the only sound I can hear is the fly buzzing past my ear… bzzz.  Then I wait…. nothing.

Directly behind me, adventure-seekers bonanza are bombing across valleys and over hillocks at break-neck speed with motor homes, speed boats, four-wheel drives and kayaks in tow, ignoring all the speed limits to make it by dusk to the whale-watching meccas Guerrero Negro and San Ignacio, or the blissful waters of Bahia de la Concepion and the Sea of Cortez.  I watch them rush by in a road-side café near  the tranquil valley, while sipping on a cold cerveza….one trusty Ford pick-up truck (one local couple, two children), one Chevy camper van (two gringo men, two gringo women), one motor home (indistinguishable middle-aged couple, tent on roof), one off-road racer (four loud men, two kayaks).

The manager of the café, Gabriella, asks me where I’m going next.  South (where else would I go?). “Soltera?” (alone?). Yes, is it dangerous? She shrugs.  I hesitate and then experience a moment of complete financial alarm when I realise that I’m running out of petrol, haven’t seen anything apart from abandoned Pemex garages for miles and only have 200 pesos in my pocket. But I’m in luck. A freelance attendant, waiting for alarmed drivers in the next village, fills my tank from his own barrel of petrol.

Just before Guerrero Negro my car is searched by military guards – presumably looking for marijuana – who take far too long to inspect it, while waving trucks by that are probably much more likely to hold something of interest to them.  Ten minutes later I perform my own inspection for anything they might have planted on me for their friends at the next checkpoint.  I wonder what the route must have been to like to travel on before the dust-track highway was covered with tarmac in the Seventies and conclude that everybody must have had barrels of petrol packed in the boot.

Despite being labelled as the Mexican Siberia, Guerrero Negro receives instant commendation when I discover that it not only has a Pemex garage and ATM but also an Internet café, where I instantly plug myself in for a quick fix. Deciding that I can’t take the risk of what might, or rather, what might not, lie ahead in the endless cacti-dotted beyond, I withdraw a wadge of dollars from Guerrero’s Banamex cashpoint and stuff it down my bra.

The town is renowned for its lagoon, which is the mating ground for Californian gray whales.  Each year, they migrate 6000 miles from the Bering Sea to the lagoon, where they stay from January until March. Now, however, it’s November, and I’m being magnetically drawn South to two towns I’ve been told about called San Ignacio and Mulege, where there are Neolithic cave paintings, a palm tree oasis, and a bay called Bahia de la Conception where apparently I have to go kayaking.

San Ignacio appears from nowhere after a turn in the now occasionally potholed road, surrounded by palm trees.  It is indeed a small oasis with spring-fed streams, where birds are singing. Next to the laurel-shaded central plaza there’s an impressive church. I log the town immediately with my now finely-tuned survival instincts – somewhere to sleep? Yes. Pemex petrol station? Yes. ATM? No. I pat my bra and thank my lucky stars for erring on the side of caution.  On closer inspection, it transpires that Jesuits established San Ignacio in 1728 (Baja was conquered by missionaries, not guns), planting the groves of date palms and citrus trees, but Dominicans supervised the construction of the church.  Covered with bougainvillea, with 1.5 metre-thick lava block walls, it’s widely considered to be one of the most beautiful churches in Baja California.  While San Ignancio is a welcome relief, I find that I’m keen to get to Mulege, the jewel in Baja’s crown, and the legendary Bahia Concepcion.

Mule River (Pic Rich McHugh)

Bahia Concepcion, at 22 miles long, is the largest bay on the Sea of Cortez.  After a long drive through the raw desert on highway 1, nothing can quite describe the rapture and sense of the sublime you feel when you first see its aquamarine waters. Set against a severe mountainous backdrop, it seems that the crystal-clear water shimmering in the sunlight is just an oasis illusion.  On closer inspection it not only turns out to be real but also multi-dimensional, with many different places to kayak – some with hardly any protection from the winds or any sight of beach beneath the rust-coloured cliffs.

It seems that the marine life that live here know this too, as in the eight hours that I go out on the water with my guide Marcelino, we see such a large number of different species of birds (including brown pelicans, frigates, cormorants, blue herons, ospreys, vultures and terns) that I become convinced that the bay is blessed.  Pairs of dolphins play within metres of us, filling us with nothing other than sheer delight. At every turn, a different type of bird flashes past or pelicans swoop and dive for fish. The wonderful thing about kayaking, I discover, is that you can be so near so many beautiful creatures in their natural habitat without disturbing them.

I have heard about the towns that still lie ahead – particularly about wealthy Cabo San Lucas and the bejewelled, glitzy, jet-setting crowd that goes there, and find that my desire to go further South has completely disappeared.  I am apparently not alone in getting stuck mid-journey at Mulege – it’s a common affliction that strikes many highway 1 road-runners. Watching the sun set over the bay, painting the sky shades of deep orange, hot pink and fiery red, my only wish now is to stop and not move, while I absorb the beauty of the magical landscape around me.

ESSENTIAL FACTS:

Most US car hire companies try to avoid renting cars for travel into Baja California (and will nullify agreements if a car hired in California leaves the state). However, California Baja Rent-a-car in San Diego and several companies in Tijuana can help, including Avis, Alamo and Hertz, although Avis (www.avis.com)– is the only company that offers 100% third party insurance).  Weekly hire rate is roughly $250/week (return) or $700-$900 for a one-way drop-off at the southernmost point of the peninsula, Cabo San Lucas.  A trolley bus runs from central San Diego direct to the border, where you can walk over without too much fuss to pick up your car.

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