Baja, Top to Bottom

Unexpected Roadblocks, Entirely Expected Illness, Cataloging Gringos, and Riding Dwarfs
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
Dec. 15 2005 6:59 AM

Baja, Top to Bottom

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Bahía Concepción to Todos Santos

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

It's time to (reluctantly) leave this idyllic beach where I've been camping. But there's a problem. I can't get out.

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This morning, a British family in a massive Mercedes camper came bounding loudly over the ridge and then rolled to a stop on our little beach. They got out of this mobile mansion and walked around for a few minutes, but then they quickly decided to leave again. On their way back over the hill—on the treacherous, steep dirt path that is the only means of egress to the highway—their camper suddenly lurched and stopped, and the engine went dead. Much indecipherable British cussing.

It soon becomes clear that the camper's not going anywhere for a while. As a consequence, I'm not going anywhere, either. There's no room to pass this beast of a vehicle on either side (that is, without tumbling down a cliff into the Sea of Cortez). So, I settle in, enjoy another dip in the cove, and sip a beer to pass the time. After about 45 minutes of the Brit dad toiling with a hydraulic jack (he refused all assistance when it was offered), I hear the camper roar to life and pull away. Free at last. Lesson: Do not make plans in Baja, because the universe will throw something in your path—e.g., a gazillion-ton diesel camper.

My own car somehow negotiates the off-road slalom up the hill, and then it's back to the highway. When I reach beautiful La Paz, I check into a hotel just off the waterfront promenade (the malecón). A delicious dinner, a skull-tingling margarita, and I'm off to bed.

But not off to a pleasant slumber land. My dreams turn dark and ornate and stressful. In one, someone calls me on the phone and (though in my dream logic I know he is trying to schedule a lunch) just shouts unintelligible things over and over at earsplitting volume. Meanwhile, I'm trying to balance eight or nine tennis rackets—and several cans of tennis balls—in my arms while still holding the phone to my ear to endure more yelling. Also, my mother is in the next room, huddled with some type of shady cabal, plotting the murder of a prominent politician.

OK, a tad odd. But there is more taco than terror to these visions. I wake up sweating, with my stomach a spouting volcano of acid—for I am ill. "Dónde está la farmacia?" I ask the desk clerk when I manage to hobble downstairs.

Thank goodness for Mexican pharmacies. I buy a 500 milligram Cipro regimen for dirt-cheap, then find an Internet cafe to look up the indications and dosage (because I can't suss out the Spanish on the package). Usually, I enter a Mexican pharmacy to casually inquire about prescription opiates ("Vicodin, por favor? Como Codeine, pero más fuerte."). But this is even more useful!

Feeling the antibiotic doing its noble work, I hit the road again. I'm headed back to the Pacific side of the peninsula to a town called Todos Santos. It's supposed to be a gringo artist's community—the place where sculptors and watercolorists fled to once Santa Fe, N.M., got played out and over-touristed.

On arrival in Todos Santos, I see instantly that over-tourist-i-zation is just a matter of time here, too. The town is completely gringo-fied. There are the tacky, tequila-pounding gringos in jean shorts and mustaches. There are the bourgeois, NPR gringos in khaki pants that seem entirely constructed of pockets. Perhaps worst of all, there are the gringos who look remarkably like … me. This greatly reduces my sense of superiority.

Still, the town has a lot of charm. Once the day-trippers from Cabo leave, it gets quiet and calm. I can see the appeal. And so can developers: Real-estate offices are everywhere. Their windows are lined with pictures of gorgeous beachfront lots at $100,000 apiece. One agency posts a sign: "Wir sprechen Deutsch."

I'm not interested in a condo, but I'm very interested in a surfing lesson. My pasty, East Coast soul has always longed to ride some waves. When I was in Waikiki last summer, I just couldn't bring myself to take a group lesson side-by-side with throngs of fat American tourists. But Todos Santos seems a perfect place to learn: consistent, nonscary waves paired with relatively uncrowded beaches.

For $35 (an absurd amount in the context of Baja prices—but to haggle seems so un-surfer), I get an hourlong lesson at Playa Los Cerritos. I'm handed a heavy, forgiving, beginners board. Mario (my friendly but somewhat disinterested instructor) helps me paddle out into the waves.

It turns out that surfing—at least on a novice level—is sort of like a younger, buffer man's golf. For instance, you often must wake at dawn to have any hope of participating. Everyone obsesses over expensive gear. And ultimately, you end up spending hours in a funk of bitter frustration, all for a few moments of bliss that, with luck, will tide you over until next time. (On the plus side for golf, there are rarely any limb-eating sharks patrolling the fairways. But there are rarely any bikini-clad surfer chicks, either.)

If you're considering a surfing lesson, these are my tips: 1) Be prepared to have the snot knocked out of you. Literally. The waves kick you when you're up and (much worse) when you're down, crashing one after another. One monster breaker knocked me off my board, thrashed me against the sea floor (abrading my forehead), and tore my watch clean off my wrist. (I never did manage to find it.) I came up grateful to be alive, eagerly anticipating how much more grateful I would be when I could remember my name and basic life history. 2) Wear sunscreen. I have no further comment about this, except to say: Stop touching my shoulder, butt wipe! Owwwwww! Mercy! 3) Consider not taking a surfing lesson.

It's exhausting, you likely won't be much good at it, and you'll end up bruised and broken. Over the course of three hours, I spent a cumulative 75 seconds standing up on my board. The rest of the time was spent paddling headlong into waves, floating aimlessly while getting a sunburn, or gasping for air after being abused by the ocean's whims.

All that said, it's an amazing sport. You're half athlete, half naturalist—gauging the currents, reading the shapes of the breaks. And the community is incredibly friendly. Once Mario left me to practice on my own, I got more useful pointers from a random Aussie dude who happened to paddle by.

Would I surf again? Yes. But I'd stop first at a Mexican pharmacy to prepare. "Vicodin, por favor?"

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