Ah Baja, a crystal clear sunrise, isolated sandy beaches, warm sun, cold margaritas…and a hangover. It’s the kind of stuff that invokes thoughts of a Jimmy Buffet song—but not on this south-of-the-border morning. Adrenaline shot through my veins as I awoke to the high-pitched whine of a Class 1 buggy clearing a rise just a few yards from our tents. It had broken down during the night and was hot-footing it toward the La Paz. We were 24 hours into the 37th annual Baja 1000 and camped near mile marker 652 just north of San Juanico. Though my mind was somewhat clouded from the previous night’s encounter with a few friends (the distinguished señor Don Julio and señor Corona), I launched (ok crawled) from my sleeping bag to get the race updates, coffee, and plan the day.
During the previous four days we had traversed over 600 miles of Baja’s backcountry and witnessed 100-mph trophy trucks flying by just meters from our tent. Though the race was over, our Baja adventure was just beginning. Heading north along the Pacific Ocean, we veered east near the small pueblo of La Ballena. Cacti and chaparral lined a boulderouse and narrow two-track into the Arroyo del Raymundo. A broad canyon lead toward Mulegé and Bahia de Concepcion. Century-old rancheros lined the route, some reportedly dating back to the days of the Jesuit, Dominican, and Franciscan occupation of the peninsula during (1697 to the 1800’s). The original adobe structure had long been reduced to nondescript piles of earthen mounds, and most buildings are now constructed from a mix of local stone, timber, and corrugated metal.
Mid-peninsula we located a swimming hole we had visited in the mid 90s. After many sweaty days on the road without a bath, dipping into its surprisingly cool water was refreshing. The terrain transition to rolling foothills as we ascended the canyon. That was about the time the CV joint on my rear driveline started acting up. Okay, it flat-out died! This was about the 15th Baja bash for the old boy and it had finally taken its toll. Randy and Ned were heard grumbling under a shade tree with a cold cerveza (something about my needing a new Toyota Tacoma), while they again waited for me to fix my truck. I pulled a spare driveline out my parts box and voilà, we were moving again! There was a partial consensus that the reason for my truck’s slow demise was that its owner had overburdened it with an entire truck’s worth of spare parts.
The summit, which is several thousand feet above sea level, was thickly carpeted with oak and cottonwood trees; a stark contrast to the deserts below. Descending the leeward slope, we dropped into a large agricultural valley west of Mulegé and meandered our way through pastures and small farms.
Mulegé, which has a population of just a few thousand, has a tropical ambiance and is the kind of place one could hang his hat for a while. Founded by the Jesuits in 1705 on the banks of Rio Santa Rosalía, the original mission was washed away by a flood in 1770 and rebuilt on the adjacent hillside above the high water line. The city also sits on the edge of Bahia de Concepcion, one of the richest marine sanctuaries in the region. The central town square and the surrounding century-old stone buildings give Mulegé a rustic third-world feeling: like a scene from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Passing orchards of fig, orange, and olive trees, bordered by towering date palms, we rolled into town to stock up on tortillas, ice, and cerveza, and to take in some local cuisine.
Lonely Pescadores, and Pig Roasts
The following day’s exploration would take us to an 80-mile trek to the northern most point on the Peninsula de Conception, which creates Bahia de Concepcion. After performing a bit of quality control in most of the local cantinas, we ventured further south on the pavement in search of an obscured two-track leading into the darkness, eventually locating a camp at the waters edge. The only inhabitants on the peninsula are a ranching family and a lone fisherman named Andre. Andre, whom I had visited in the 90s, had been living in a makeshift palapa for 20 years. His sole means of contact with the outside world was a small panga. Andre was still there, still fishing. Running the beach where possible, we passed several abandon fish camps before reaching land’s end. Climbing the unmanned, solar-powered lighthouse provided a bird’s eye azure waters of the Sea Of Cortez.
Backtracking to Mulegé, we headed for the Hotel Serenided to feast on their Saturday night pig roast. The Serenided is major destination for race teams heading north from La Paz, and the parking lot was full of tattered and bruised race rigs. If you want to hangout with the legends of racing, this is the post-race place to do it. We dined with motorcycle racing legend Ron Bishop. Bishop is one of only two racers who have competed in every Baja 1000 since 1967 (he shares that title with Off-Road Motorsports Hall of Fame member Rod Hall). Three days later we would be sucking down cold cervezas with Ron and his wife at their beachfront house in Punta Final. When asked about being out on the track with 800-horsepower trophy trucks and buggies, Bishop reflected, “At night, when you see the reflection of halogen lights on the back of your arms, you’d better get out of the way. The veterans are pretty good about not killing you. But the new guys…you’d just better find a wide spot and get off the road.”
In Baja, the race philosophy is to go fast, don’t break down, and stay alive. While those primal instincts of off-road still apply, today’s racers have a technological edge. Most teams have pre-run the entire course and have a GPS route showing every turn, twist, and arroyo. On a motorcycle however, you are on your own, left to your own demise or successes.
The following day, reality began to set in as we turned the wheels toward northern latitudes and the border. Still 650 miles from the States, we were far from being done the adventure. We had half-dozen federale checkpoints, including the immigration stop at Guerrero Negro, where we ducked into the dunes to avoid certain doom (delays and bribe money because we didn’t have our tourist visas). Our destination that night was Alfonsina’s cantina, on the waters of Bahia San Luis Gonzaga, and another mouth-watering platter of tacos de pescado.
We spent our last night south of the border under clear skies, 100-miles from the closest city lights. Under a crescent moon we reminisced of the past ten daze in Baja. We had logged in more than 1,400 miles on Baja’s wildest roads, bounced across more whoop-de-doos than one could count, witnessed the Baja 1000 at an adrenalin-inducing arms length, and supported the local economy with the purchase at least half the cold Pacificos on the peninsula (Bud Light for Randy).
My trusted `82 Toyota pickup had suffered a broken spring and tie-rod, one toasted driveline, a tweaked fender, broken mirror and antenna, and crashed off the road in the middle of the night. Number of times Ned and Randy’s Tacomas broke down, zero. For the past 20 years and 350,000 miles, the old truck has served me well, but it might be time for a cushy Tacoma. Am I getting old and soft? We’ll see.
Author’s note: This was the last Baja trip for my trusted 82 Hilux, but it continues to hit the trail each year on the Rubicon, Sierra Trek (Fordyce), and various other California routes.