Pull out that map! One thousand miles of open road belongs to you. Taking time to explore the unexplored riches of Baja California is a life changing experience. My sis and I took our first road trip to La Finisterra in 1993 in my '73 VW Beetle; packed to the roof. We exchanged one US dollar for 3,200 pesos (this was before the peso crisis), stuffing the bills into bags, feeling very rich with the freedom of the road beckoning.
Today, crossing the border into Mexico the peso hovers around 14 to the US dollar. Stop at immigration for your FMM tourist card - it's easy and costs just over $20. Tijuana can be a bit daunting for the first time traveler. However, if you want to make the dive into a rich culture, you'll find Tijuana is emerging as a dramatic destination place in the 21st century. You can easily spend a weekend exploring the Tijuana Cultural Center, fine art galleries, world class gourmet restaurants, quaint bistros, micro breweries and wines of northern Baja.
Rosarito Beach, just 45 minutes south, has made its own changes in the last twenty years. When I first visited, the town was a dusty two lane road with dirt parking in front of the Don Pisto liquor store; my sister's favorite first stop. The town was known as a place for the Spring breakers to come and tear it up. Now, there are four lanes running through town, modern condominiums, a Walmart; making it feel like you never left the US. South of town and headed to Ensenada you can't miss the Sacred Heart of Christ statue and receive his blessing or the four-story home, built in the shape of a voluptuous mermaid. Most recently Rosarito claims the first eco-friendly Earthship home built from old tires, bottles and cans. Gorgeous, self-sustained living with a million dollar view.
At La Fonda you will pass through La Misión, a tiny community that once was a mission site. You can opt to take the “free-road” on the old highway 1 to Ensenada or stay on the toll road. If you prefer the free road option, there is a lovely drive east into wine country. The Guadalupe Valley has almost one hundred wineries and artisanal wine producers. Baja California wines are poised at the threshold of discovery, just as Napa Valley was in the 70s. It is soon to be recognized as a region where fine wines are produced including the rich Nebbiolos and the delightful organic Mision Red. The Vine and Wine Museum gives a comprehensive look into the valley's history.
Ensenada has a scenic harbor where great cruise ships seem to emerge from the sea. It takes a hearty ocean breeze to unfurl the majestic Mexican flag over the plaza. Near here is Lopez Mateos with a touch of old world. Gift shops, restaurants and coffee houses invite you in. Hussong's is the lusty night life for a true traveler's experience. Continuing on out of town towards the destination of La Bufadora, agricultural farm land stretches out in all directions. At this point you make your way through the dusty town of Maneadero. I have a funny memory about this town when my sis yelled, “Tope! Tope!” just as we slammed into an unmarked speed bump. She couldn't switch to English soon enough. Laughing I said, “Well that is one way to learn Spanish!” La Bufadora, or blow hole, is on a point of land overlooking the Pacific. At high tide the plume of sea water shoots into the sky accompanied by Ohs and Ahs.
On the way to El Rosario, small towns with stores and gas stations dot the coastline. El Rosario is the last gas stop, and the next real gas station on Highway 1 is 222 miles south. Crossing over a long bridge, many people say that this is where the real Baja begins. Swinging up through the hills and mountain passes, over the top and sliding down through switchback turns, the traveler meets the boojum, elephant trees and the gigantic cardón cactus all set amongst boulder fields as if by design. Just after a rain, the desert literally comes alive. Cataviña is a wide spot in the road, approximate 150 miles beyond El Rosario. A beautiful hacienda hotel sets in the midst of this wonder. Cataviña is easily reached within 6 hours from Ensenada. This is a great 3 day weekend destination. Guerrero Negro is a working town that exports sea salt and tours are given. However, it is most well known for the seasonal migration of the gray whale. People meet eye to eye the mammoths of the sea and come away with a rare experience of interspecies communication. After leaving town there is a nice side trip to Bahía Asuncion on the Pacific for surfing, fishing and the best shrimp tacos anywhere.
Crossing the volcanic landscape and jumbles of red lava is San Ignacio, an oasis in the desert, with a fresh water river lined with date palms. It is a bird watchers delight. An overnight stay can include a day of whale watching or meeting the son from a long line of Vaqueros, the original cowboy, who shares his extraordinary leather work. Before the Spanish arrived there were tens of thousands of Indians living on the peninsula. Here you can arrange a tour to a Cochimi cave painting. Heading east toward the Gulf of California the road cuts through mountains and desert with only a rancho along the way. You can't miss the Tres Virgines, three ancient volcanic cones. Dropping down a steep grade into Santa Rosalia, the copper mining is at first a disturbing welcome to the town, however the stunning carillon blue gulf waters and the red purples of this region catch the greater attention. This whole area has a rich wild west past with a French influence.
Just 45 minutes south of Santa Rosalia is the small fishing village of Mulege and Bahia Conception, a place of the most beautiful beaches and inland protected waters. Enjoy Kayaking to pristine islands, a pig roast or relaxing in town to meet the locals over a cold beer. The historic mission and prison without doors are within walking distance. Mulege still observes the siesta and has a laid back quality hard to find these days. My sister and I were so smitten with its simplicity and extraordinary beauty, we delayed our departure an entire week.
Loreto, two hours south, has created a National Park of protected waters and outer islands. Off the malecón and into town you will find Misión de Nuestra Señora where singing voices of the faithful float out into the charming plaza. Everything is within walking distance; art galleries, gourmet foods, great oven “fried” pizza and silver shops. Many people fly into the airport here. A two night stay will allow you to travel into Sierra de la Gigantia to Mision San Francisco Javier, the most beautiful of all the missions founded throughout Baja California.
La Paz, the capital of Baja California Sur, is built on the water front and sweeping bay. The malecón is a favorite for romantic strolls in the warm evening breezes. It has become a tourist resort that is a gateway to Los Cabos. There are two routes to Lands End at this point. Highway 1 will take you to San Jose del Cabo and the airport or you can go by way of Highway 19 to Todos Santos and on to Cabo San Lucas. Sis and I chose to go the wilderness route into the artist community of Todos Santos, a quiet and charming pueblo.
Only 48 miles from Cabo San Lucas we had time to stop at the top of a hill gazing down on the breathtaking view. The land penetrated into the shimmering Pacific Ocean like a great prehistoric backbone. We were thrilled by the completion of the 1000 miles of extraordinary experiences. Back then, Cabo was a quiet town with warm sleepy streets and sensuous night breezes. Time was transformed. We explored on a shoe string budget and made friends with the locals. We fell in love and vowed to return. An impossible task this is to pluck a few words from the infinite beauty that is Baja California. Like gems they become an invitation for those who would make the journey to Land's End.
Martina's email: mteomaya(at)gmail.com