18th/19th March: I’m quite sure that guy the other day told me the Mazatlan to La Paz ferry was one of the most comfortable boat rides he’d ever taken…nice quiet cabin, good food, new boat. So how come I’ve crawled into this 1930s playhouse, with its greasy chairs ripped from a Pullman coach, the roof panels flapping like shutters in a gale, my shoes sticking to the carpet, a baby wailing in my left ear and the large speakers beside the cinema screen blaring the soundtrack from the movie Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The crew have assured us all the cabins are taken and a seat in this lounge is all that’s left on the ferry. Such news leave me pondering how I might endure the next eighteen hours. Do I look miserable? ‘Don’t worry,’ the steward says, ‘we play movies right through the night.’ Good God! That’s all I need to hear. And then, with a whistle of relief, Christine secures us a cabin one deck down. She grins, waggling the cabin key on her finger, which causes me to leap in the air and scurry along the alleyway like a rat up a pipe. We celebrate out on deck with a couple of cans of Tecate beer and whilst Gloria Gaynor’s “We will survive” crackles from several battered boxes, we gaze at the Mexican mainland sinking beyond the waves, whales blowing spouts of water, the captain posing for photos with the passengers and several hairy members of the Jalisco Rebels sucking on a bottle of Tequila. We arrive in La Paz’s ferry port at 11.30 am the next morning. The drive up the Baja Peninsula will be the last leg of our journey through Mexico. I’ve heard great things about Baja, like the Baja 1000…where you get to race off-road buggies with such bonkers amounts of horsepower that their tyres shred the landscape and the howl of their engines shatters mountains. And the Baja 500, a shorter version of this demonic race, is due to start in the next two weeks. I can’t wait. However, in the meantime I’ve got to negotiate the security on this port and so far I’ve been in the same queue for two stinking-hot hours. In front of me the Jalisco Rebels are getting a right going over. I never knew such tough guys had so many changes of underwear; one of the soldiers is inspecting a burgundy-coloured pair of boxers he’s dug from a saddlebag – ooh, not sure about the colour, mate. There’s a rumble from the Harleys and soon enough it’s my turn with the soldiers. Are these acne-ridden youths with their M16s a reflection of my age? I fear so. ‘Where have you come from?’ little Johnny wants to know. Is this a trick question? ‘Uuuh…doesn’t this ferry go from Mexico to Mexico,’ I tell him. Christine, who has had to exit through the passenger terminal, has warned me against being impolite or grumpy. I suddenly remember to smile a big, broad smile. Little Johnny grimaces, ticks a box and scratches a spot. ‘We need to look inside the vehicle?’ Little Johnny II clambers up the back steps, tripping on his big boots. He pokes at this and he pokes at that. And then he opens the fridge. He takes out a chilled bottle of Pacifico beer, scrutinizing it with adolescent longing. ‘Indio is better,’ he declares with a certain bravado. ‘This isn’t your real passport,’ accuses little Johnny III. ‘No, actually it’s a copy,’ I say. ‘I need the original.’ Fair enough. I open up the car again. ‘Which is your favourite football team?’ asks little Johnny IV. Have I just waited two hours only to discuss football? I smile and give him my passport. ‘Name an English football player,’ he pursues. The outbreak of giggles causes the M16s on the little Johnnies backs to rattle. ‘Now, why don’t you be good little boys and run along,’ I so very nearly tell them. Leaving the trials of entering Baja behind us we go and bivouac on Playa Tecolote, befriending Miguel, a Cuban who guards the derelict restaurant close to where we’ve parked. ‘It’s very quiet here,’ he says and then goes on to recount how, last weekend, the beach had been flooded by troops hunting a gang of robbers who’d held up a boatload of tourists and then stolen their boat. Robbers? Here? But it’s such a beautiful beach.
21st-24th March: We cross to the Pacific Coast, to the little town of Todos Santos, finding a bivouac on the beach 6 kilometres north. The rollers here attract the gringo surfers at the beginning and end of each day. At sunset they cluster on the shoreline and watch the daylight heading west. At night we are alone with the stars and the ocean breeze. I’ve taken off my watch and packed it away; what can this mean? The colonial buildings in the centre of Todos Santos have been renovated for the resident gringos – boutiques, bars, restaurants, cafes – and make for a pleasant wander. Just off the plaza we meet the chief of police, who’s about to brief his men standing to attention in the shade of a tree. ‘How d’you like Mexico and the Mexicans?’ he’s keen to know. We tell him everywhere we’ve visited in Mexico. He’s a most genial fellow. ‘It’s very quiet here in Todos Santos,’ he says, ‘The gringos get a bit drunk sometimes. But they’re no trouble.’ I can’t help observing how the chief of police sports an automatic carbine slung from his shoulder, a 9mm pistol at his hip and that he’s encased in a bullet-proof vest. But I agree with him entirely: Todos Santos is muy tranquilo. By contrast, Cabo San Lucas, at the southern tip of the peninsula, is wholesale debauchery. There’s a new marina, mountains of bling, a thousand ways to get drunk and a whale-watching expert at every corner. This is not why we came to Baja. We leap in the car and head east.
25th March-7th April: We leave the strip of hotels and golf courses (uh, did anybody tell them this is a desert?) behind us and, slowly but surely, even the beach-side gringo houses and battered motorhomes thin out as we pursue this coastal piste eastward. Somewhere we find ourselves a quiet bay. From here we can watch the whales leaping from the sea and thwacking the waves with their fins. Having calved in the Sea of Cortez it is time for them to make the journey north, back to the feeding grounds off Alaska. As each day passes it becomes more difficult to move on. I guess that’s why some of the people we’ve passed on the way here look like parched boot leather – root yourself here long enough and the dry desert wind and the sun take their toll. For 48 hours we’ve seen no one on this beach and then a guy arrives on a motorbike, sweating profusely in the mid-day sun. He wrestles a grubby rucksack from his back. ‘Chicken tamales?’ he warbles. In this heat? From that rucksack? I don’t think so. Where has this guy come from? Further down the track we find a farm called Whitts End and buy excellent goat cheese from the American owner. And in a secluded bay we purchase fish from a bunch of guys looking like pirates. We BBQ the fish on the beach at Los Frailes. Fresh fish and goat cheese – wonderful. The snorkelling beside the rocky promontory here reveals an extraordinary collection of marine life and such striking colours. Shafts of sunlight penetrate the depths, displaying this magnificent world. One could weep at the quantity of rubbish we dump in our oceans. Back on dry land and two local fishermen have landed with a 100 kilo hammerhead shark, just so we shouldn’t forget to look behind us when next we go snorkelling. By the time we reach Los Barriles the twin-ring gas hob in our truck is playing up. We don’t have the correct tool to dismantle it and neither does the plumber who comes to visit. He looks at it, shakes his head and then drives off. So there’s nothing left for me to do but alternatively hit it with a blunt tool and stab the jets with the toothpick from my Swiss Army knife. I appreciate how it’s not an ideal way to treat a gas hob, though when we blast it with our high-pressure air hose a cloud of fine black cinders fills the car and…hey presto…now it works perfectly. Beyond Boca del Alamo the route becomes even more remote and the piste deteriorates. At Bahia de los Muertos (Bay of the Dead) it hugs the cliff edge, in places crumbling into the sea. I wince at the tumbling stones. Bay of the Dead … is somebody having a laugh?
9th April: We’ve stumbled across one of the pistes featuring in the forthcoming Baja 500 rally. The occasional marker flag at the side of the piste gives an inkling of what’s coming this way. The rally is scheduled to start in four days time, so we have the chance to get through the 200 kilometres of piste to Cuidad Constitution before they arrive … at least that’s the idea, until the growl of a highly-tuned engine reverberating off the cliffs suggests a change of plan may be forced upon us. A huge black buggy roars up beside us, sweet music burbling from its exhausts. Then a Jeep arrives with a bunch of guys who lug rocks off the track. This is no rock-slide but a deliberate attempt to block the route of the Baja. More buggies arrive, followed by motorbikes. Geoff, a gringo from California, tells me a number of the competitors will be making a dry run of the course today. ‘Go for it,’ he says. Though I’m not sure these guys want to be stuck behind our truck at the 10-20 kph we will need to drive at to negotiate these broken tracks. This means that, reluctantly, we should retrace to La Paz.
12th-14th April: Heading north on Highway 1 we cross paths with Ben Davenport. Ben is making a solo drive in his Land Rover from London to Cape Horn and has already crossed Scandinavia, Russia, Mongolia and the “Stans”. His journey is to raise awareness for Noonen’s Syndrome and Congenital heart disease, with which he is afflicted. Go for it, Ben (www.cornwall2capehorn.com). On the way to Puerto Agua Verde we pull off the piste and camp amongst the cacti. The mountains rearing up from the coast have already turned a fiery red in the falling sun. This place has the look and the earthy smell of Africa. The piste is a further 30 kilometres to Puerto Agua Verde, where a few dwellings house the families involved in the three fishing cooperatives operating from here. We purchase fish from the buyer, who transports the catch to Cuidad Constitution, from where it is taken to be sold in the border town of Tijuana. Later, two gringos drive on to the beach towing their fishing boat and two canoes. The wild-looking one is already pretty drunk when they settle by the fire for a long night of drinking, though in the morning he’s up way before us. I watch him paddling in from across the bay. He abandons the canoe on the shoreline and trudges to their tent. Depositing 6 empty tins of beer on the ground, he draws two fish from a bag. He sees me watching him and holds up the fish. ‘Y’all hungry?’ he cries.
20th April: Santa Rosalia, on the Sea of Cortez, is very much a French-influenced town. The French company El Boleo founded the town in 1884 and exploited the copper mines, until they closed in 1954. Naturally, there is a lot of French influence in the architecture, giving the town a certain Gallic charm, particularly its wood-built, colonial houses, the lumber having been shipped from Canada by the Boleo company. The Iglesia Santa Barbara was designed by Gustave Eiffel and exhibited at the 1889 Paris Fair, after which it was stored in Belgium, awaiting shipment to West Africa. When a Boleo director took a fancy to it in 1895, it was bought by the company and shipped to Santa Rosalia, where it now sits in the centre of the town. There is a French bakery here called Panaderia El Boleo. It proclaims “World’s Famous Bread Since 1901”, above the door, and so we go and buy some … plus a couple of doughnuts, which aren’t at all bad. There is a Hotel Frances overlooking the bay. Built in 1886, it was originally the dormitory for the “working girls” of a brothel near the mine. And if that isn’t enough Frenchness for one town, a French family in their Renault truck have been stuck in the town square for the last 6 weeks, awaiting spares so they may repair their vehicle and continue their journey.
IMAGES OF SOUTHERN BAJA CALIFORNIA: