By Greg Niemann
Sometimes it’s hard to find the right dirt road in Baja. On a map, a single road might be shown leaving a highway to take you straight to the ocean a couple miles away.
That’s the map. The reality often confounds the best of Baja off-roaders. There might be four or five dirt roads taking off in the same direction within a half- mile area indicated by the map. Which one do you take?
Often the roads ultimately merge together and it makes no difference which one you start out on, but equally as often, they don’t. They might take you to a nearby ranch, or a well, or a corral, or just twist forever, narrowing as they wind through rocky foothills, thus leading you far from your destination. Or they might end up in the village dump.
That happened to us. Even if you’ve been on a road previously, things change. New roads might spring up nearby; landmarks can vanish and new ones can appear.
The year was 1984. I knew an idyllic beach just south of Todos Santos I had visited over a decade before and now wanted to show Leila, Don and Marie. Confident, I whipped the little car off the highway onto the broadest, widest, most traveled dirt road near where I knew the beach was sure to be.
Our road quickly narrowed and we found mounds of trash on either side of the car. Not to worry, I thought. There are a number of Baja towns where the trash is carelessly discarded by the side of the main road.
As the road narrowed, and got bumpier, and the mounds of trash more formidable and more frequent, I began to get concerned. Trash was everywhere. We passed ripped up old mattresses that once dispensed comfort for an entire generation. Even rusty old vehicle carcasses that once provided valuable transportation lay browning in the tropical sun.
Plastic bottles and other non-disposable items lay in clumps, to cover the desertfloor for decades, if not centuries.
The versatile plastic bag replaced the prickly pear or pitahaya as the area’s bloom. Ocean breezes have through the years swirled the flimsy bags in all directions, many snared by the sharp points of the desert foliage. Like airborne jellyfish, their presence blighted the vegetation.
The others looked at me.
“Well,” said Marie, clearly not impressed.
I grabbed that map again. “But it shows that road to the beach was just past that curve,” I blurted in self-defense.
It’s Embarrassing To Be Wrong
It’s embarrassing to be wrong, especially when the others counted on my Baja experiences and sense of direction. Swallowing my pride, I tried to get out of there. I had to find a solid, turn-around place in that constricting location. It meant driving farther into the haphazard dump site.
We finally turned the little car around without getting stuck, went back to the highway, and found the correct road in the same arroyo, within yards of the dump road that had beckoned me.
The beach was as I remembered it, and well worth the drive. A beautiful lagoon nestled against a rocky outcropping graces the south end of its shores. Sugar-white sand forms a picture postcard setting, with the beach dropping down a 10-foot dune-like cliff to the sparkling ocean.
We were amazed to see a couple of pangas on top of the sand berm and a crowd of fishermen removing equipment from them. We wondered how they got up there. Then we saw several more pangas out in the ocean hovering just outside the breakers.
Suddenly, just after a set of large waves broke, we learned how they did it. One panga revved his outboard motor to maximum power and made a beeline for the beach. He was flying, fast as he could go. The others on shore cheered him on.
It looked like suicide seeing a boat come charging full bore toward land. The panga hit the shore hard, the skipper deftly lifted the motor and allowed the forward motion to carry the boat not only across the beach but all the way to the top of the berm. The boat bounced and flew up the hill before the forward motion stopped. It then teetered on the brink for a few seconds before the others grabbed it to secure it on top. (A photo of this is on the cover of my book Baja Fever).
We were enthralled by such a brave and adroit performance. The fishermen who did this daily, even appreciated each other’s efforts. We saw the rest of the pangueros come in, all coaxing the same daring maneuvers. A couple of them attained such speeds they needed no assistance at the top, landing well on top of the sand hill. They received thumbs up signs and smiles. The peer appreciation was the motivation to excel at this game.
If one chose not to “go for it” and stop at the surf line, all would have had to help drag the heavy 21-foot panga up from the tide. With such communal effort no one wanted to force undue labor upon their friends.
We enjoyed our stay at this beautiful beach, swimming and walking the shoreline. Some local kids were splashing and having a ball in the palm-lined lagoon just before it drained into the ocean.
On our way back to town we couldn’t see the dump, but we all knew it was there. This place really is a paradox. Here you have one of Baja’s prettier beaches just down the road from the ugly eyesore of a municipal dump.
I’d returned several times to Playa Punta Lobos. As the Todos Santos area more than tripled in size in recent years, and a good paved road now comes in from Los Cabos, more and more people have enjoyed that small but impressive beach. Yet today, expats, even newer ones, have to shake their heads at the level of development underway. It “ain’t the same Baja anymore."
Greg Niemann is the author of Baja Fever, Baja Legends, Palm Springs Legends, Las Vegas Legends, and Big Brown: The Untold Story of UPS. Visit Greg's website.