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SPECIAL MEXICO ISSUE A beach playground is fine for
a relaxation vacation. But meeting the country head
on -- on a bumpy trip through Baja, a tour into the
tropics or a visit to revolutionary Chiapas -- gives
real insight into our neighbor.

Get ready for Baja's wild ride

Set your wheels to spinning from barren desert to sea, and expect the unexpected.

November 13, 2005|Rosemary McClure | Times Staff Writer

Baja, Mexico — WE topped a ridge to see a vast panorama of jumbled boulders, chocolate-brown hills and red, flat-topped mesas. Marching up and down the slopes were legions of giant cactus, all of them armed, dangerous and starkly beautiful.

I inhaled sharply, startled by the curious splendor of the place.

We had entered a magical region of Baja California's Desierto Central (Central Desert). It was a scenic payoff for the arduous miles we had driven on Route 1, the Transpeninsular Highway. It was one of many such payoffs during a four-day adventure on Baja's mother road.

The journey took us through the heart of Mexico's last frontera, a desolate region seen by few of the 24 million tourists who visit Baja annually to play or fish in the waters off Los Cabos or shop in the stores of Tijuana or Ensenada.

But the untamed interior of Baja offers unparalleled sights: The American Automobile Assn. guidebooks call it the "most fascinating desert scenery in North America."

There are forests of cactus that soar 60 feet in the air, animals seen nowhere else in the world, missions that look much as they did when founded by the Spaniards in the 1700s. Away from the Central Desert, there are other bonuses: sandy beaches rarely visited, turquoise lagoons full of whales and other sea life, laid-back resorts offering sunrise sport fishing on the Gulf of California.

And Route 1 makes all of this accessible to those with a bit of adventure in their soul -- and the fortitude to cope with some occasional hazards.

"It's not like driving the freeways of California," said Ron White of Newport Beach, a Route 1 regular. "It's dog-eat-dog out here. You have to have water and food and be ready for most anything to happen."

Old-timers say today's perils are nothing compared with those before the Transpeninsular Highway (Route 1) opened in 1973 to connect Tijuana with Cabo San Lucas, more than 1,050 miles south. Before the road's completion, the trip from Tijuana to La Paz, the capital of Baja Sur, took travelers nearly two weeks on washboard dirt roads. And Cabo was 137 miles farther south.

Today's travelers, if they encounter no problems, can make the journey to Cabo in two long days.

But rugged terrain and unpredictable forces of nature can turn the best-laid plans inside out, as we learned during our wild ride.

A smooth beginning

TIMES photographer Gail Fisher and I crossed the U.S.-Mexico border at San Ysidro before 7 a.m. on a gray February morning, bound for the whale-calving lagoons of central Baja. We rolled through the streets of Tijuana at dawn and zipped onto 1D, called the Scenic Road, a four-lane toll highway leading to the seaside resort of Ensenada.

The road, a 60-mile stretch of expressway along Baja's rapidly developing Gold Coast, would be the easiest part of our journey. It was also a bargain at around $7. The highway was fast, expansive views of the Pacific greeted us around the zigzagging turns, and good restaurants beckoned, if we had wanted to take the time to stop.

We didn't. Drizzle had begun to dog us, slowing our progress. At El Mirador, an overlook north of Ensenada, the rain stopped for a moment and a shaft of sunlight broke through. The sweeping coastal panorama came alive with golden morning light. Approaching Ensenada, the toll road vanished, and we moved sluggishly through town, caught in traffic and waiting for lights to change.

When we finally left the city behind, farmland, hills and the vineyards of Santo Tomas appeared. As we entered the village, colorful murals and stickers announced El Palomar Restaurant, and we decided it was time for breakfast. So did our two passengers: Gail's son, Zack, and his friend Scott Kemp, both 15. Gail and I have worked together before; when we planned this trip, she mentioned that Zack would be out of school. I told her to bring him; kids and whales are an unbeatable combination. The boys had slept for the first few hours of our journey; now they were ready to eat. Seafood omelets helped all of us to wake up.

Back on the highway, we passed more farmland and eventually bounced through a few towns. Speed bumps appear here and there on the Transpeninsular Highway. They're the easiest way for tiny Baja towns to slow travelers on a road where children sometimes play.

The towns are interesting, but they aren't pretty. Most are scruffy, hardscrabble villages where skinny dogs chase cars, bright signs advertise tacos and used tires, and hawkers sell nuts and oranges from roadside tables. On this day, lakes of red mud had formed from the rainstorm that seemed to be preceding us. We congratulated ourselves on our good fortune in avoiding it.

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