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Baja's Secret Shores : Uncovering Some Surprises in a Search for the Perfect Baja Beach Town Along the Sea of Cortez : A Search for 'Daydream of a Town' on Sea of Cortez

20 YEARS OF BAJA HIGHWAY: Last of a three-part series.


LA PAZ, Mexico — I was unreasonable. I was impatient. I was, in short, a tourist from Southern California, sampling Baja California's southern gulf coast for the first time. I wanted to discover virginal beaches, fresh fish in cheap restaurants, interesting architecture and friendly residents, all united within one unassuming, underexposed, tiny, highway-convenient town.

This hypothetical place would lie along the aquamarine shores of the Sea of Cortez, dawdling through life with sea-soaked languor, the way tourist-crazed Los Cabos at land's end must have been a generation ago. This town would have an old Catholic church, shady side streets, and something on its mind other than luring more tourists. (Unlike thousands of American visitors to Baja, I wasn't chasing marlin or roosterfish.) Surely, I reasoned, somewhere along the hundreds of miles that the Baja Highway spends snaking along the sheltered seashore from Santa Rosalia to this capital city, such a town would remain.

The good news for the Mexicans is that I didn't find that daydream of a town--though it may well exist--and so I cannot send norteno hordes south to exploit and ruin it.

The good news for the rest of us is how much I enjoyed not finding it. Wandering through the coastal cities of Santa Rosalia, Mulege, Loreto and La Paz, I found my vision in bits and pieces--here the beaches, there the personalities, over there the unself-consciousness--but never all in the same place. By the trip's end, the landscape had reshaped my expectations, and I had a new favorite Baja city.

No, I'm not telling yet. Be patient. Be reasonable. Remember, first, the words of Howard Estep and John Steinbeck.

Howard Estep is a guy I found one afternoon on a lonely beach between Santa Rosalia and Mulege. He sat in a beach chair near his wife of 40 years, Jeanine, sipping screwdrivers while their three dogs romped around them. Their 27-foot RV stood a few feet away, satellite mounted on the roof, barbecue by the door, and the warm gulf waters lapped more or less at their feet. For this spot they were paying $120 a month. "We gringos are ruining this place. But right now, it's still beautiful," said Estep. "I would choose Baja over Hawaii any time."

Steinbeck's words you may have already heard.

"Trying to remember the gulf is like trying to recreate a dream," the author declared 52 years ago in "The Log from the Sea of Cortez."

"But the gulf does draw one. . . . If it were lush and rich, one could understandthe pull, but it is fierce and hostile and sullen. The mountains pile up to the sky and there is little fresh water. But we know we must go back if we live, and we don't know why."

Trace your way down the Baja peninsula along the Gulf of California (better known to Steinbeck and a few million others as the Sea of Cortez), and you find Santa Rosalia at the midpoint.

Last October, a Times photographer and I arrived here by car on a trip down the Baja highway. Though tourism officials say the highway is again open after the storms and washouts of January, the drive would no doubt be a chancier mission now. In any event, most travelers to southern Baja travel by plane to the airports of Los Cabos, La Paz or Loreto.

From Santa Rosalia, Tijuana lies to the north, beyond 577 miles of highway. Cabo San Lucas lies 482 miles to the south. Across the gulf, at the other end of a regular eight-hour ferry route, lies Guaymas.

Downtown Santa Rosalia lies about four blocks wide and a mile deep, in a dusty declivity between two hills. The streets are narrow and tree-shaded, here and there bougainvillea creeping on a tin roof, but unlike every other town in Baja California, they are dominated by wooden buildings. The French, who started a copper mining operation here in the 1870s, insisted on importing lumber to largely treeless Baja.

The prefabricated iron church, another French import (designed by A.G. Eiffel), adds further strangeness of texture, mingling with the more predictable rusty hues of the old fishing boats on the waterfront. Between the clapboard of downtown and the waterfront jut the metallic shells of the old mine buildings, immense and mostly idle. The population of the town is about 11,000.

I made my first aquaintance, a taciturn young pistachio peddler, on the roadside. He wouldn't bargain, perhaps because he knew he had quality goods, or perhaps because he saw our shiny rental car and figured we'd pay whatever he asked. Smart boy.

On foot, we passed a bookstore, a beaming naked boy being bathed by his father in a soapy plastic tub on the sidewalk, a sweet shop, and a pool room alive with sounds of smacking and rolling. At the closed-down old Hotel Central, two dozen aged mattresses lay stacked in the bare lobby. A handful of shops did seem aimed at tourists from the north, but on the day and night of a major local festival--the anniversary of the city's incorporation in 1885--I saw only a handful of Americans.

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