2023 Trip Report - So Exactly Why Do We Keep Going Back to Baja?
So exactly why do we keep going back to Baja?
by Jay Lawrence • Photos by Stan Sholik and Jay Lawrence
Sometimes you plan a trip and it just takes a while to materialize. This was one of those trips. Back in the 90s I was lucky enough to do a loop around Baja California Sur (the southern of the two Baja states) with Neal and Marian Johns, Lorene and Bill Crawford. One of the highlights for me was La Purisíma, a little village on the edge of Río La Purisima that grew up around the mission there in the early 1700s. It’s a beautiful setting with palms and orchards, springs and the river. A place most would never expect to find in Baja California. I had to go back.
I tried once in the early 2000s with friends Stan and Linda Sholik, my wife Sylvia and daughter Ariel, only to be turned back by a crazy rugged trail that had been washed out by a recent hurricane and some disagreeable front suspension parts. After a lengthy trail repair we reversed course and La Purisima went back on the bucket list.
Fast forward to 2018. Planned the trip but the timing just didn’t work out. Baja is roughly 800 miles long as the crow flies and crows don’t drive. This was a ten day trip at least and life just thrashed our calendars. Thinking swiftly, we thought 2020 for sure! Then came Covid.
Well, Spring of 2023 looked better in all respects and we would run the trip come hell or high water. More on each of these topics as the story unfolds...
Stan and I have run many, many Baja trips together and they always include plenty of fresh seafood, seaside camping, exploration and the ritual “Safe Arrival” cerveza at the end of the day. These are the non-negotiable basics. We usually manage to add in spectacular views, good people, great sunsets and sunrises and a few surprises. Our plan for this trip was to go south FAST and return north SLOW.
We crossed into Mexico at Tecate and made our way to El Sauzal on the outskirts of Ensenada for a key road food stop. El Trailero. This taco stand, once housed in a trailer has now graduated to a brick and mortar establishment and should not be missed. We feasted, then blasted slowly through Ensenada roadbuilding traffic toward Santo Tómas, then quickly through San Quintín and finally El Rosario, about 225 miles south of the border. Counting the U.S. travel time it had been a long day. Excellent food and Safe Arrival cerveza courtesy of Mama Espinosa’s cafe which was the end of the pavement until the mid 70s. Enough for one day.
The following day we set out for San Ignacio at a good clip. This leg was another 315 miles. Along the way, miles from any town I glanced in my mirror to see red and blue flashing lights on a police pickup truck. I checked my speed (65mph) and found a safe spot to pull over. Sunglasses off. Radio off. Friendly and relaxed attitude. Ready!
You may have read about or experienced a traffic stop where the officer is looking for a payday. This was one of those. He strode up the side of my truck with a big smile, aviator sunglasses and a ticket book and greeted me warmly. “Buenos días! How are you? Do you know why I stopped you?” Of course I did. He went on to explain that I had been doing 110 kilometers per hour (65+ mph) in an 80 kilometer per hour zone (50 mph). He was correct and I agreed with him. He explained that this was a dangerous stretch of road and, and, and... then he said the magic words. “You can pay the fine to me or we can go back to my police station and you can pay the ticket there.” Now we were talking. Several things to know. In Baja, it is ILLEGAL to give an officer money. Every ticket has instructions on the back for mail-in payment in English and in Spanish and any legitimate infraction needs to be recorded on a written ticket.
I insisted politely that he write me a ticket, he held out for on-the-spot pay-ment or returning to his station together and we went back and forth a bit, all friendly and respectful. After about five minutes of this banter he could see he was not getting anywhere and other potential paying customers were flying by at a high rate of speed. He folded. He allowed as how I was such a good citizen and clearly a man of good standing he could make a special exception for me today only and let me off with a warning if I promised not to speed any more.
I thanked him and off we went.
Next stop, Guerrero Negro to find an elusive taco truck called El Muelle that we had heard had the best tacos in town. With Stan’s expert navigation and my half-remembered mental notes we found it! And they did have some of the best shrimp tacos either of us had ever had. What a great country!
With that handled, we headed to San Ignacio, a beautiful town with a big fresh water lagoon and a great cathedral on the town square. We had a full tank of gas and made such good time we figured camping on the beach was the right plan so we promply got lost trying to find the back road out of town. This was a case where the GPS was no use, we just had to follow our noses.
We found the road and headed around 40 miles to the coast, arriving a bit before sunset at Kuyima, billed as an eco-tourism destination. There were buildings and waterfront campsites, restrooms and showers and NO people. None. Thinking swiftly, we set up camp at the waters edge and cracked a coulple of Safe Arrival beers. Right on cue, the caretaker, Emigdio showed up. He joined us for a beer, I gave him 150 pesos (around $11.50) and he told us the restrooms and solar heated showers were open and at our disposal and to find him and his truck if we needed anything.
We were south! Now we could lay back a bit and explore at a more leisurely pace. We broke camp and headed down the beach toward Bahía de San Juanico, also known as Scorpion Bay. Having been horribly stuck once at the waters edge with the tide coming in, we opted for a route slightly back from the water. Lots or rocks, reeds, dust, sand, cows and a few abandoned little villages. Covid left some scars down here and the villages that survived all had some new monuments in their cemeteries.
We arrived in San Juanico and found a spot for lunch. Once again, great food and nice folks. Then we surveyed the bay, hoping to see the famous point break with six or seven lines of perfect 1,000 foot section waves. It was beautiful, but flat as a lake. Maybe next time. On to La Purísima. Finally!
This time we would be approaching the town from the Pacific side, not coming through the mountains. The road from the coast into town had been paved! We cruised up the river valley and found the old adobe ruins that mark the end of the village and stopped for a photo. Did a loop around the village – it’s just a few blocks long – then decided to see if we could find a good riverside campsite. We were in luck. Stan navigated us to a spot about a half mile west of the last houses that was a winner. Right on the river with some flattish ground under some trees. A couple of dads and a bunch of kids were playing in the river and stacking river rocks. They welcomed us and said it was OK to camp there. Their group was tuckered out and ready to head home so we had the place to ourselves. There were egrets and herons in the river and red cardinals and yellow hooded orioles that eyed us from the trees nearby. Another great day wound down.
We broke camp the next day and headed into the village to see who had gas. Turns out it was Abel and his place is on Google Maps. Abel wasn’t home but his teenage assistant filled up the truck by siphoning from a 50 gallon drum to five gallon jugs to the filler neck or the truck. It took a while.
Our plan was to head east on the road over the peninsular divide to meet Mexico 1 just south of Bahía de Concepción, a huge bay on the Sea of Cortez side of Baja. We wound up the river valley through two more smaller villages then stopped to reconnoiter. The roads had been so good and this backroad had been bladed pretty well in the last couple of years, why not turn south instead of east and visit the Comondús? This would put us headed south on the formerly awful trail that had us broken and stumped a dozen years ago, but the trail had been repaired pretty well and after all, we were exploring.
So that’s what we did. The first village was San Juan de Comondú where the Franciscans built their original Comondú mission. It was lush with greenery and palms, creekbeds, frogs, ancient canals and a few dozen houses. We turned west to visit the newer San Miguel de Comondú where the Franciscans built a replacement for original mission upstream. San Miguel is now at the end of a pavement road that can be accessed from the west coast and sports several small tourist “eco-hotels” and is very charming in a Sunset magazine sort of way. We turned back toward San Juan and our original southbound route through the mountains. The day was about to get much, much longer.
As the road south rose out of San Juan de Comondú it quickly went to hell. What had been a nicely bladed backroad two-track immediately turned into a rocky, ungraded, unmaintained, untraveled track. We thought maybe it was just that uphill section and there was a better alternate route that the locals used. There wasn’t.
The 2022 hurricane Kay had washed out the road and left gullies and eroded rivulets where the tracks had been. Every bit of sand on the rocky uphill sections had been washed out and only the rocks remained. The road devolved as we headed south. Four wheel drive was engaged, hills were climbed, low range 4WD was the order of the day and we plodded along. Every hill we crested was an adventure and we were pretty remote. There were a few small abandoned ranchos, no vehicles and no people. The morning turned to afternoon as we inched closer to Rancho Viejo near the village of San Javier. A few miles short of our goal we hit an arroyo that had been recently washed out. The trail stopped at a ten foot sheer drop at the arroyo edge so we explored a bit, found a gentler drop and eased into the riverbed. We eventually found an “out” spot and carried on. Not too many photos were taken on this leg.
Once we found the pavement we encountered something new. I had noticed that on the trail the steering had been pulling to the left. Now on pavement it really pulled to the left, but intermittently. It wasn’t a flat and it wasn’t a big deal so we headed the last couple of miles to San Javier for a taco and an Orange Fanta.
Greatly relieved and full of food, we thought it was high time to stay the night someplace with a shower and real beds. No such luck. The only places in the village to stay were closed up tight. What the heck, we’ll just limp the truck over the mountains to Loreto, a big city with motels and mechanics and seafood.
We limped, we arrived, we found a tire place with a mechanic working after hours. He told us to come back in the morning and “the guy who knew everything” and I could put the truck on the lift and check things out. That happened. It turns out we had somehow broken a bolt in the right lower control arm that attaches it to the frame. That meant the right front wheel was just flopping around loose and wasn’t doing any steering. No wonder it pulled to the left and made such weird noises. He did not have the part but could order it from La Paz and have it there the next day by two. He quoted the princely sum of 7,000 pesos ($408) for the parts and labor and a deal was struck.
More great food. Sea bass and chiles rellenos for dinner, fresh smoked clams in wine/butter/garlic sauce for lunch. How we suffer for our exploring!
The part came, the truck was fixed. On inspection it turned out Alexis knew his stuff and had ordered all new rod ends to replace the old worn ones as well as the broken part. He installed them and did a complete alignment as part of the deal. Any dealer in the U.S. would have charged four or five times that for the same work. Another small miracle in Mexico. Life is good.
OK, we were done with breakdowns and Loreto. It was time to head north again. We camped at beautiful Playa el Requesón, a sand spit, twin bays and small island on Bahía de Concepción, once again on the waters edge. A Safe Arrival beer was had watching the sun set over the mountains at the end of the bay.
Our next destination was a petroglyph site called San Borjitas, just north of Mulegé and about twenty offroad miles west of Mexico 1. The turnoff was marked and the road was a bit rugged. It followed a rocky arroyo about 1,000 feet across. We crossed the arroyo a dozen times, driving on rounded river rocks and gravel through the small flowing river. It was slow going.
After two hours we arrived at a small rancho with two homes and a couple of vehicles out front. The owner of the ranch, Alfonso, came out to greet us. We inquired about a guide to the petroglyph site and it turned out to be him. He was certified by INAH, the Mexican antiquities office and would be happy to guide us there. We signed a guest register, met his wife and kids, gave him the small fee for his work. Alfonso and I headed out and Stan chilled out at the ranch with a book and the kids put on a small impromptu circus in his honor.
After backtracking down the rancho road a couple of miles we turned up a canyon that had a flowing creek. We crossed the creek a few times and stopped at a small corral. From there it was a hike. I had injured my knee a week before the trip and was wearing a knee brace and using a cane. This was going to be interesting. We hiked up the creekbed, scrambled up small rocky sections and after a mile or so we were at the site. The cave at San Borjitas is about 12-15 feet high at the entrance and about sixty or seventy feet wide. It goes back thirty or forty feet to a lower area that is not quite tall enough to stand up in, but very spacious. A perfect shelter cave. It showed years of campfire smoke on the ceiling with images of deer and fish scratched into the black soot. There were many large stone metates for grinding and mano handpieces on the cave floor. The creek was only a few feet from the entrance to the cave and Alfonso said it ran year-round. A large rock outcropping at the left side of the cave opening was incised with more than fifty yoni intaglios, some etched more than an inch deep. What a spot!
The real show stopper was the mural paintings on the ceiling of the cave entrance. Human figures in red ochre, black, and white. Some as small as four feet, some as large as twelve feet. Some upright some on their side, some alone, some on top of one another, painted, repainted and embellished. Several with bones, eyes and headgear, a couple with arrows sticking out of their chests. Deer, turtles, seals, fish and birds. All overhead from corner to corner across the cave entrance. This was clearly an important place to the original inhabitants. Today it is protected and well out of the way of taggers and graffiti people.
When originally found, early archaeologists guessed that these paintings were 500 to 1,500 years old. Recent carbon dating shows they are much, much older. 4,000 to 11,000 years. Some of the original paint dates back to 11,000 years ago. Some of the repainting and touch up paint dates to 4,000. Either way, they were made by some of the very earliest inhabitants of North America.
Once we were back at the rancho we said our goodbyes and headed back down the rocky arroyo. It took just as long going back as it did coming in. We hit the pavement and went back through Santa Rosalia, San Ignacio, Guerrero Negro and then on to Bahía de Los Angeles. Another great seafood dinner was had and we camped at Dagget’s Camp, a few miles north of town. Tired and full, camp chairs were occupied, cold brews were opened and we watched the ocean and talked to our neighbors.
On our south side was Tom and his nephew who had just graduated early from high school and wanted to see Baja. His uncle said “Cool, let’s go!” In the winter the nephew had helped Tom build a small boat and they had it behind Tom’s Sprinter van. They had sailed it and rowed it all over Baja and explored for the last couple of months and were on their way home. On our north side was Derek, an 80+ year old displaced Irishman who lived in Washington state, had an apartment in San Felipe, liked Scotch and told pretty good stories.
Morning arrived and we figured we would just head for San Felipe on the recently finished and paved Mexico 5 to avoid the roadbuilding traffic south of Ensenada. We accomplished that but arrived in Ensenada to find it was full of offroad racers. The NORRA 1000 was on and the town was packed. Not a room in sight.
Well, it looked like the trip was over a bit early. We made our way to the U.S. border in Tecate just in time to wait in line for an hour and then be turned away when it closed at 10:00 p.m. Hmmm. We headed for the Otay Mesa border crossing on the east side of Tijuana and just got in the long, long, long, long line. As usual, the biggest hassle on the trip would turn out to be getting back into our country. The Customs and Border Patrol people motioned us into secondary inspection but they barely looked at the truckthen waved us through with a quick “Welcome to the United States.” I dropped Stan off at his place and headed home on the very last leg of the trip, arriving home at four something a.m.
A long, long, weird day but a really great trip. Can’t wait to go back. ~ Jay