Baja, Top to Bottom

Exploited Iguanas, Horrific Dance Floors, Pleated Shorts
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
Dec. 16 2005 11:35 AM

Baja, Top to Bottom

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Click here to see a slide show.

Click here to see a slide show. I've reached the end of my journey. My final stop is Cabo San Lucas at Baja's southernmost tip. And here's the thing about Cabo San Lucas: It is appalling.

You drive the length of this marvelous peninsula, observing along the way all sorts of breathtaking natural beauty and quaint bits of Baja culture … and then you get to Cabo, and the entire experience gets distilled into repulsive commerce. For example: In Cabo, Baja's vast deserts are reduced to an iguana sitting on a man's shoulder in the midst of a touristy promenade wearing a sombrero. (To be clear: Both the man and the iguana wear sombreros. The iguana's is much smaller. Also, to be clear: The man expects that you will pay him money for the thrill of seeing an iguana in a sombrero.)

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When I go out to a downtown restaurant, every table around me is stocked with corn-fed, well-marbled, roaring-drunk Americans. For some reason, as their meals end, they all take group photographs with their waiters—throwing their beefy arms over the waiters' slight shoulders. (It's not unlike the photos these same tourists pose for in the marina, with a just-caught swordfish trapped between their paws.) "You the man, Nestor! You the man!" they shout. Nestor smiles obligingly, squints at the camera flash, and returns to clearing away their dirty plates.

I can't see why you would willingly spend a moment in this dreadful place. It's where the world's most awful people come to indulge their most awful instincts. Minutes after I arrive here, I want to leave. As soon as I can, I make the quick drive to nearby San Jose del Cabo—a genuine Mexican town with an adorable central plaza, non-kitschy restaurants, and some lovely beaches of its own.

Also, it has a protected estuary. Estuaries are probably my favorite bodies of water—better than brooks, fjords, inlets, sounds, and channels combined. This particular estuary is the best I've ever seen. There's an osprey turning wide circles, sometimes dive-bombing the water and flapping back up with a glimmering fish in its talons. There are egrets coasting over the marsh like paper airplanes. Ducks paddle around and honk at each other.

I could relax here all day, but I've got to get back to the Giggling Marlin in time for the 3-for-1 rail drinks special.

In seriousness, I do feel obliged to at least take a peek at the Cabo nightlife while I'm here. If only for the sake of completeness. So, I drive back, park the car at my hotel, and walk into the heart of the tourist quarter.

Thankfully, the touts tend to ignore me, even as they hassle the other gringos no end. There's something about my face, it seems, that suggests I am unlikely to purchase a tequila-themed tank top. I wander past Cabo Wabo, past the Hard Rock Café, even past the Giggling Marlin … and step into the legendary El Squid Roe.

It's like a thunderdome of binge drinking and sexual aggression. Two floors of vomit-encrusted plywood. Margaritas served in yard-long tubes.

If I drink enough, I figure, I will start to feel at home. So, I'm pounding away. Around me, the place fills up with gaggles of shrieking women in halter tops and enormously paunchy men in polo shirts embroidered with the names of their cabin cruisers. Cabo has perhaps the world's highest concentration of white people in pleated shorts.

The DJ, for his part, is only playing songs that I hate. The dance floor is a Hieronymus Bosch triptych. It's not that I'm against hedonism and excess—quite the contrary, in fact. It's just that I'd rather not watch these arts practiced by a mob of unattractive chuckleheads. When "YMCA" surges through the sound system and everyone screams with delight, I can take no more. Adieu, horrific nightclub dystopia. I weave tipsily through the streets and back to my room.

And that's it for Baja. Tomorrow I catch a plane home.

Did I find the adventure I sought? Sort of. The guidebooks essentially warn that driving the peninsula should not be undertaken without three spare fan belts, an air compressor, 600 gallons of water, and an elephant gun. Yet I found driving here to be no more difficult than driving in the American Southwest. (Although the gas stations are farther apart in Baja, necessitating a bit more forethought.)

It's pretty hard to get lost when there's only one paved road. Even if you wander off it, you'll smack into an ocean within 75 miles in either direction. If the sun rises over this water, you'll know it's the Sea of Cortez; if the sun sets into it, you'll know you've hit the Pacific.

I never felt the slightest bit unsafe in terms of crime. Actually, I felt much safer here than I ever do at home in D.C. The people are laid back and friendly, and if you speak just a touch of Spanish, you can mostly make yourself understood. I wish I spoke more, of course—I might have enjoyed more profound interactions with the locals—but then I wish I spoke French and Chinese and Hindi, too.

I guess the thing I'll remember most is the nothingness. The opportunity to pull over in the middle of the desert, take a leak by the side of the road, and see no cars in either direction for mile upon mile. No billboards. No rest stops. No McDonald's every 15 exits. In fact, no exits at all. Just the occasional ungraded dirt road winding off to some hidden beach behind the hills.

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