by Glenn Hamp
I was jarred from my slumber by an incessent beeping, then unpleasant elevator music jingles as multiple phone alarms rang out at o’dark early. It was 4:00 am in the Chandler Arizona casa. Day one of our surfari to Scorpion Bay in San Juanico, Baja California! The excitement and anticipation of our long awaited road trip had us up quickly. Everthing was set to go as all supplies and provisions had been packed into our SUV the night before. Weeks of careful planning, checklist creation and review went into this trip because we would be driving down the second longest peninsula in the world to a remote surfing point break in San Juanico. The area was named Scorpion Bay by surfers and is almost 700 miles south of San Diego. The last 80 miles of the trip would be over unpaved sketchy roads. We planned to meet up with another surfer friend with his family in Rosarito and caravan down together where we would be camping and surfing for several days. The camp site at Scorpion Bay is right on the edge of the bluffs, 20 feet above the surf which at times and with the right swell can provide perfect waves with rides of a half a mile in length. Travel guides and friends recommended to pack all the necessities as if we wouldn’t find anything needed in that remote region. That said, we found that you really can find almost anything you need, it just might be in a small tienda store rather than a large Costco or Walmart.
After quickly brewing some coffee we double and triple checked that we had the most important documents and equipment in the vehicle. "Passports? Check. Mexican auto insurance? Check. Maps and tour books, chargers, phones and radios? Check, check, check." We jumped into our SUV, a 2003 Toyota Sequoia which was packed to the gills with food, water and camping equipment. Two surfboards and a long roll of astro turf were strapped securely to the roof rack. Our plan was to be in San Diego by around noon, cross the U.S./Mexican border and be at Roberts K-38 Motel, right on the beach in Rosarito in the early afternoon to wash off the day with salt water and enjoy the sunset with a margarita.
The long drive west on I-8 through Arizona, California and the coastal mountains east of San Diego was smooth and we skirted San Diego to the east as we turned south on Highway 125 in our run for the border. There are two border crossings in Tijuana, San Ysidro and Otay Mesa. We had no idea which crossing was faster, but the Otay Mesa crossing is about five miles east of the Tijuana Airport and therefore requires a drive past the airport before you can connect with Highway 1, the scenic route to follow the Pacific coast south. An FMM (tourist card) was required which took about a half an hour to obtain from the Mexican immigration authorities, walking a couple hundred yards to a bank south of the border to pay a fee, then return to the officials to get it stamped and approved. It was $25 per person for the FMM. After happily receiving all of our stamped papers, we were very excited to be in Tijuana and enjoyed our little jaunt through the northwest part of the city and past the airport to be on our way to the Playas (beaches) of Rosarito.
We were refreshed with the Pacific ocean breezes and beautiful views of the coast as we made the turn south just above the Tijuana playas and traveled down the coast past Baja Malibu, Rosarito beach, Popotla and Calafia. Roberts K-38 Motel is just south of the Fox movie studios, where Titanic and many other movies were filmed, and right before Club Marena and Las Gaviotas. There are several toll booths on the road with a modest fee of $2+ for a car or SUV.
We arrived at Roberts K-38 Motel right on schedule and after stretching our legs and checking out the surf, we chose a room on the ground floor right off of the large patio. The rooms at K-38 are clean, simple and economical at $55 per night and the motel is built right on the water’s edge. Robert’s is designed with the traveling surfer in mind and has large common shower areas just off the patio to rinse off the sand and salt water. Also, they are equipped with handy racks to store surfboards and to hang wetsuits to dry so as to minimize clutter and sand in your motel room. The waves looked good at about shoulder high and beckoned the weary travelers so we grabbed our boards and headed out to the cobblestone beach. It was a relief to plunge off the rocks into the cool water at the shore break. After paddling south and surfing some nice right point waves for an hour or two we headed in. It was great to have washed off the travels and we were pumped up with a great paddling workout and were dying for some Mexican food. We drove a couple of miles south past Las Gaviotas and into the little town of Puerto Nuevo. The margaritas and Mexican food were great and we spent an hour or two walking around the tourist shops buying trinkets and mostly saying “No gracias.”
The plan for day two was to meet up with our friend John and his family and form our two vehicle caravan early in the morning and make the long drive to San Ignacio in Baja Sur to spend the night before the final off-road adventure into San Juanico. Shortly after dawn, we met them at the Rosarito toll booth. Driving a totally customized 1985 Dodge Ram camping van with 4 wheel drive, lift kit, large off road tires and a roof rack with ladders on both sides, our two vehicle caravan had definitely taken a step up in Baja ruggedized travel. With camping gear and all the surfboards, the Ram stood 12 feet tall. In addition to the surfboards and mountain bikes, John had even strapped a mini bike to the back to use on the beaches and around the campground. After a brief chat, with no time to waste, we headed south to Ensenada and a long day of dusty roads and narrow winding highway.
Ensenada is picturesque and a bustling tourist town, a favorite cruise ship destination, but the long road south was calling, so we spent only a short time buying the essentials and then headed the caravan south, away from civilization for the miles and miles of open, but narrow two lane road to San Ignacio. We used small Motorola Talkabout radios to communicate between vehicles about road conditions, passing and planned bathroom and PEMEX (gas station) stops. It made it much easier for John in his heavier vehicle to get a heads up from us in the Sequoia as to the clear stretches when attempting to pass the slower moving traffic. We were careful to follow the speed limits in towns, but the speed limits seemed way too slow in between towns at 80 kph (50 mph) when out in the middle of nowhere. The roads were paved and fairly well maintained, but shoulders are narrow or nonexistent. Pushing the speed to 70 mph, we were pulled over by the policia just south of San Quintin. He simply gave us a warning and we continued south, relieved, but with a little more attention to our speed.
After a long day of driving past endless boulders and saguaro, clinging carefully to narrow shoulder less mountain roads, we arrived in San Ignacio and the incredible oasis of Ignacio Springs B&B! Ignacio Springs B&B is literally built in the shade of a large grove of date palms right on the edge of a cool lake fed by the spring. This is the source of one of the few true rivers in Baja, where most of the "rivers" are really washes and gulches that are only wet during rare flood times. This was a unique and welcome change from the incessant dust and dryness. We stayed in a Yurt, which is a large round hut designed like the structures used by the Mongolians, only a lot bigger.
This was close to the end of the paved road. The next day's run would be dust to glory! It would be almost 80 miles on rock, dirt, salt and sand to reach the famous point breaks at Scorpion Bay and the town of San Juanico. We enjoyed our brief stay at the oasis of Ignacio Springs B&B more than we can say! The owner operator, Terry, was fantastic with her hospitality and knowledge of Baja California. That evening we poured over maps as we feasted on yummy fajitas we purchased from a stand in the old town square a quarter mile away. Because sand and tides around the salt flats are always shifting, we needed to determine the best of multiple routes for the most difficult and treacherous leg of our journey. This was the jumping off point. One wrong turn and we would be stuck in deep sand or mud and wouldn't be found for months. Story tellers usually add a little hyperbole to keep it interesting. We decided to take the north route closest to the ocean on the salt flats. After some relaxing talk and a cerveza, we went back to our yurt.
After a huge breakfast in the shady date palm grove at the beautiful Ignacio Springs B&B, We geared up, repacked the Sequoia and Dodge Ram and were excited to tackle the last leg of the journey into Scorpion Bay at San Juanico. Just a quarter mile from Ignacio Springs B&B was the quaint and historic San Ignacio town square and the San Ignacio church. We stopped to have a look and take some pictures. The famous San Ignacio church was built by Jesuit priests in 1728. That's right, almost 50 years before the signing of the Declaration of Independence in the U.S., the Jesuits built this beautiful structure out in the middle of nowhere. With a natural spring and river it was a way point oasis for weary travelers, but It is hard to believe there was anybody, even many natives out here back then. It hasn't changed much in almost 300 years and is still providing refuge to weary travelers.
John had been noticing a little fluttering/vibrating sound when he turned his Dodge to the left and beginning the roughest part of our journey with a mystery sound coming from the wheel or bearings was very disconcerting. While pondering the situation and the odds of something falling apart, we heard something like thunder and looked up to see five Baja racers come rumbling loudly into the town square. We went over and talked to them about their vehicles and took some pictures. These are the serious unlimited machines that are used in the Baja 1000 race (watch Dust to Glory for a great movie about this legendary race down Baja). The race wasn't going on, but the owners of these vehicles tour around on the same race routes on vacations, stopping in the little towns to enjoy the sites. Of course they still travel like hell's bells with their massive engines and tricked out suspensions at about 3 times the speed we would be driving. One of these racers recommended that we better not leave the town without solving this problem. They had just come up from Scorpion Bay and although their vehicles can handle anything it was not a place you want to breakdown.
We decided to turn back about a mile to where there was a mechanico located near the Pemex station on Highway 1. They were stumped at the sounds too. After further inspection it was determined that the shroud brackets had broken, and the mechanicos welded the brackets together in about 45 minutes. After a quick lunch of fish tacos just off the town square, we headed south to no man's land to power through the salt flats and strange landscape that looked more like the moon than the earth. This was the graveyard of 2 wheel drive vehicles. The terrain varied from bone jarring washboard bumps to smooth as silk on the tidal salt flats. After three to four hours of salt, dirt, dust, rocks and sand, we came over the last hill and saw our reward - the Pacific Ocean and perfect waves peeled around first point at Scorpion Bay in crystal clear water. After driving over Gringo Hill and a quarter mile to the Scorpion Bay camp ground, we rushed to setup camp right on a bluff 20 feet above the surf and to wash off the dust with our first surf session. Camping and use of the showers and bathrooms is 150 pesos (about $12) per person, per day. We enjoyed the small, but perfectly shaped waves and after a nice shower at the Scorpion Bay restrooms, we started a campfire and enjoyed the cool night breezes. “Life doesn’t get better than this,” I thought as we gazed up at the billions of stars in the dark sky. The beauty of a moonless night in a remote area like Baja Sur is breath taking, especially for someone who lives in a major metropolitan area. The swaths of stars in the Milky Way look like clouds in the sky until you focus and see that they are individual twinkling pinpoints of light. After seeing several shooting stars, we went to sleep to the sound of the waves rolling around second point and into the bay.
To be continued...