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Weekend Escape: Baja California : Road's Reward : After a Long and Jolting Trek from Ensenada, They Found the Perfect Cocoon in a Rustic Little Mexican Ranch House

March 20, 1994|PAUL FELDMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER; Feldman writes for The Times' Metro section.

BAJA CALIFORNIA — Our image of Baja California used to be power-packed margaritas, crashing surf and ubiquitous street vendors peddling ceramic busts of Bart Simpson on a skateboard.

That was before my wife, Iris, and I visited the Meling Ranch, a 10,000-acre working cattle ranch 100 miles southeast of Ensenada, but generations removed from 1994.

During our two-day visit last winter, we rode horseback and hiked through the mountainous high desert (powered by three home-cooked meals daily), lounged by the pool and, at times, simply listened to the creaking of pine branches in the breeze as a woodburning stove warmed our toes.

It sounds idyllic and it was, but for one hitch: getting there.

The ranch, run by 78-year-old Aida Meling--who was born there--and her daughter Sonia, is located along Baja's spiny interior, 31 miles down a rough dirt road from Highway 1.

In good times--very good times--the journey on the rutted secondary roadway can take less than two hours. In bad times, such as after last winter's torrential rains, the road becomes impassable.

The Melings have a recently refurbished landing strip for those with single- or light twin-engine planes. Our mode of transportation was a good old Pontiac 6000, although many times along the route we wished we had some real horsepower instead of what was wheezing and groaning under our hood. Indeed, halfway through the journey, we began to wonder whether the dried cattle bones along the side of the road were actually the remains of hapless tourists--like us?--who had decided to put a little adventure in their lives.

We had been warned when we made our reservation through the Melings' San Diego-based daughter, Duane, that without four-wheel-drive, the trip is always unpredictable since road conditions change as quickly as the weather. Forget about phoning the ranch: There is no phone available, although the Melings do have a ham radio and an outgoing phone line for emergencies.

*

Our interest in the ranch had been piqued by rudimentary references in several Baja travel books. But after a rainstorm earlier in the week, we decided to spend the night in Ensenada and hold off until the next morning a final decision on completing the trek.

Rather than getting an early start, which we would highly recommend, we didn't leave Ensenada until nearly noon. What looked like a short hop south took far longer than expected since the main north-south Baja highway is a far cry from a freeway. After traversing about 2 1/2 hours of mostly deserted countryside, we hit the turnoff for the ranch (also the road to San Telmo), about eight miles south of Colonet.

As our car began to shimmy and shake, we discovered the pleasures of washboard roads. The gravel surface had become so badly pitted from rain that we realized we could go no faster than about 10 m.p.h. without feeling as though we had just popped another quarter into a vibrating bed. Struggling to keep the car under control, we didn't know whether we had it in us to drive another 30 miles.

At dusk, the ranch finally loomed ahead in a pastoral valley. We swung open the wooden door of the main ranchhouse and were greeted by the warmth and crackle of a roaring fire. Seated at the hearth were an anthropologist/biologist couple from UC San Diego and a hardware dealer from Long Beach who makes an annual Christmas trip to a village in Baja to play Santa and distribute toys. We were all a little shell-shocked from our journey, and felt an immediate kinship with our companions. For the first few minutes, we swapped war stories about the trip, and the horrendous driving habits of our respective spouses.

We had arrived just in time for dinner, and we were starved. Thankfully, the home-cooked meals at the ranch, served family-style, are hearty. That evening there was a beef stew, several vegetables, beans, pork chops and biscuits. Vegetarian meals are prepared on request. Dinner-table conversation was lively, and the evening ended with Aida Meling spinning yarns about life on the ranch after it was taken over in 1907 by her homesteading Norwegian grandparents.

We were exhausted and turned in early that night, although we had little choice. The generator was shut down at 9 p.m. and it was lights out--literally. When the sun rose, the ranchhands turned the power back on, with just enough time to heat the icy cold water for showers before breakfast.

Guests, who are charged $95 per day per couple or $55 single ($35 for children 8-11, $25 for ages 4-7), stay in rustic cabins near the ranch house. There is no heating system, but each guest room has a woodburning stove and an ample supply of cut-to-fit firewood. A good fire before you go to sleep can warm the room almost until sunup, and nothing beats jumping out of bed to light the stove in the morning, and then diving under the covers again to wait for the room to warm up.

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