Baja, Top to Bottom
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This is how I came to be here in Baja California. Because Baja is in a foreign country, with a foreign language. Much of it is forbidding, uninhabited desert. It brims with tales of banditos, of broken-down cars in barren wilderness, and of tequila-fueled insanity. In short: It's an adventure.
At the same time, it's in our backyard. The flight from Chicago to Cabo (the most distant point in Baja) is four hours and change. Many a retailer accepts U.S. dollars. If all goes horribly awry—your car is stolen; your passport is lost; you contract a harsh giardia infection—you can always hop on a bus and be back in San Diego in less than 24 hours.
My plan is to fly into Tijuana (at Baja's northern border, just steps from U.S. soil), rent a car there, and drive the length of the 1,000-mile peninsula (catching my return flight out of Cabo, at Baja's southern tip). I will rent an ordinary compact sedan. I will have no planned itinerary. I will travel alone.
I must admit that, at the last minute, I got mildly freaked about doing this trip by myself. I begged several pals to come with me, but none could clear the vacation time. In an act of desperation, I posted a notice on the Lonely Planet message board two days before I left, hoping some friendly backpacker might hitch a ride with me. But no one replied.
So I'm solo. I speak very little Spanish, I have no experience with the terrain, and I will be easy prey for any roving banditos I might encounter. Cross your fingers.
Tijuana to San Quintin
My arrival goes smoothly. I rent a car from the Avis desk at the Tijuana airport and make the short drive to my downtown hotel. Some might have found this drive harrowing, but hailing as I do from Boston, I am quite familiar with the invent-your-own-lane ground rules.
My hotel sits just off the main tourist drag, so I leave my car in the guarded parking lot and head out for an evening stroll. First stop is an ATM to obtain some pesos. As I'm transacting, an absolutely plastered fellow wobbles up to the next machine. A cute Mexican woman hovers over his shoulder. As the bills shoot out, she asks in a bubbly voice, "Can I have one? Please?" Big smile. The man drunkenly but affably attempts to argue that he needs this money and that it would make no sense to just hand it over to her. But now she's leading him unsteadily by his arm back down the street. I have a feeling she'll end up with the bulk of those pesos somehow.
My own walk along the street is greeted with come-ons from every strip-club doorway (these make up a goodly percentage of the doorways as a whole). One tout even walks with me down the sidewalk, offering me all manner of delight. When I show little interest, he asks: "You don't like girls? I know a gay club." Still getting no response, he takes a surprise tack. "Are you trying to be rude?" he asks. "Are you doing the rude thing? Cuz I can be rude, too."
I'd prefer not to learn what this entails. At the same time, I'm noticing that my jet lag and my sleaze fatigue are catching up with me. I briskly cross the street and call it a night. My hotel gets San Diego TV channels with local news from Southern California. And while Tijuana does have its racy side (e.g., that tourist strip, which of course is to be avoided by people not seeking tequila or trouble), in many ways it's a thoroughly modern and bland West Coast city. I'm not feeling the adventure yet.
The next morning, I leave the strip-club barkers and the carbon-monoxide haze behind. For an hour or two, I drive south along a coastline that is littered with half-built concrete foundations, abandoned bulldozers, churned up mounds of dirt, and billboards hawking resort condominiums.
But then it all starts to change. The development peters out. The road looks like those bucolic, hilly stretches of the Pacific Coast Highway. The radio scans in vain for a signal, briefly alighting on an accordion ballad before fading back into static.
At lunchtime, I pull off the highway onto a washboarded dirt road. Three bumpy miles lead me to a stretch of empty coast, where I find a restaurant built from the remains of an old wooden cannery building. I'm the only customer here. The maitre d', who is also the waiter (and the only visible employee), seats me by a window overlooking the water. There is nothing outside but whipping wind, a bobbing boat, and a fisherman casting off the dock. I order the tacos de pollo.
Halfway through my lunch, a weathered old sport-fishing guide moseys in and takes a seat at the bar. The maitre d' mixes him a drink and they start to chat in a mishmash of Spanish and English. I eavesdrop, expecting to hear sad, wistful tales about that brutal mistress the sea. It turns out they're discussing an episode of Judge Judy.
My delicious lunch done, I ramble further down the highway and then pull off once more at a sign for the Rancho Cielito Lindo. (Because what could be wrong with a "beautiful little heaven"?) Another washboard road. I've got the windows down, and my hair is thickening with dust.
After some twists and turns, I find myself pulling up to a set of dunes at the edge of the ocean. I get out and am blasted by a fierce coastal wind. It's blowing sea spray from the tops of the waves and whipping sand from the dunes across the flat of the beach. Sand grains are attacking my eyelids—and winning. There is one lonely building here, propped up on stilts high above the dunes. A feral dog picks at some garbage near its staircase. I climb up and take refuge from the sandstorm.
Inside is a little cantina named the Wet Buzzard. A Mexican soap opera plays on a staticky television. A Mexican infant toddles between the tables. A couple of guys are sitting, drinking can after can of Tecate beer, watching the sun as it sets on the far side of the dunes. It's getting dark. Life slows down. The adventure begins to unfold.
Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.