From Mexico to the Tip of Baja California
Iknow what you’re thinking; not a trip to Mexico, it’s far too dangerous. You might get lost, kidnapped, or tricked into buying a fake silver necklace. Let me tell you, Baja California isn’t the “boogieman” we’ve made it out to be in the past few years. The majority of violent crime is border town gang-on-gang crime or in parts of mainland Mexico. Baja California is different.
As soon as you cross over into Tijuana, you easily and immediately hop on the only road you’ll ever need heading south: The Mexico 1. From Tijuana through Ensenada, the 1 is a broad, and well-maintained toll highway. Patrolled by Federal police, or “Federales,” it’s as safe a road as one can travel. Criminals don’t bother people on these roads for this very reason. The Mexico 1 is also patrolled by the Angeles Verdes (The Green Angels), Mexico’s free answer to AAA roadside assistance. There are, however, a few things you will need to buy to ensure a safe trip. You will need a supplemental car insurance policy before you enter if you don’t want your car impounded in the case of a minor fender bender or speeding ticket. One last thing you will need, along with your passport, is a tourist Visa for extended travel into Mexico.
As you pull through the border, you can’t help but feel as if you are about to be engulfed in an adventure. Maybe it’s akin to Alice’s rabbit hole? During my research of the drive, I learned there is not a lot to worry about during travel in Baja. Though safety is never a guarantee as there are always concerns when traveling abroad anywhere.
Minutes after crossing the border, I soon found myself driving along the Pacific, passing somewhat familiar towns like Rosarito Beach and Ensenada. The Mexico 1 takes you through the heart of Ensenada, where traffic can get very congested. Let me quickly give you a little more road travel advice to make your trip run smoothly: Surprisingly, there was more phone reception in Mexico than I would have guessed. That being said, out of the total 20 hours it took to drive down to Cabo, I had reception 25 percent of the way. This comes in handy if you make a wrong turn in one of the larger towns like Ensenada or La Paz. You can turn on your navigation setting to guide you directly through. If you’d rather play it communication safe to ensure cell phone access the entire way, rent a satellite phone and purchase prepaid minutes. For me, the money was best saved for beer. However, it is a responsible move to consider. There are moments on the drive when you are hours away from anything but cactus and buzzards.
After about five hours of driving, you will reach San Quentin, which marks your last pass along the Pacific. Here, you will want to fill up on gas. Remember that with Baja travel, half a tank of gas is an empty tank, so fill up whenever you’re given the chance.
Roughly three hours inland from San Quentin, you’ll come across a no-name rancho town. There is an opportunity to purchase water, soda, or food, if you dare. You can also buy gas, but instead of a station, you’ll deal with a roadside dealer sitting at a card table under a beach umbrella. He will sell you gas cans and a funnel at four times the amount you pay anywhere else. If you filled up in San Quentin, your tank will be at about halfway at this point, which will be enough to get you another couple hours to Guerrero Negro, a decent place to stay the night. There is a clean roadside hotel and restaurant here, and it’s the half-way mark to Cabo. The road is remarkably smooth, however, the trade off comes with extremely narrow roads. In America, you can afford to veer slightly off the road as you reach for your Starbucks in the cup holder. Here, there is a white line, and immediately a 4-inch pavement drop-off. Between that and the semi trucks that pass you going in the other direction, you are forced to pay close attention.
You will also come across military checkpoints between Ensenada and Cabo. Here, uniformed military personnel, usually young men, will ask you a couple questions and possibly inspect your car. I had no problems here since all I had was an ice chest where I kept bottled water and Red Bull. I offered one to the service members, and they gratefully accepted.
I happened to break the one cardinal rule when driving through Mexico, which is highlighted on every travel website that talks about the drive: do not drive the 1 at night. I didn’t stop in Guerrero Negro because I wanted to try to make it to the Sea of Cortez, on the other side of the peninsula, by nightfall. I ended up trapped, driving for two hours after sunset. The upside was that Baja at sunset is enchanting. The desert in the afternoon sun can be uninviting, but she lets her hair down in the coolness of dusk. The landscape seems to soften under the purples and blues of twilight. There is magic in the air, and it’s a good time to turn off the radio and roll your windows down. Then you can listen to the hum of your tires glide down the road, while wind swirls in your cab and the scent of perfumed sand heightens the senses.
I was an hour into my night drive when something jolted my heart in a way the Red Bull didn’t. I rounded a bend and a white donkey and her colt were standing roadside. Had they been crossing, it would have been curtains. I noticed up ahead there was a semi truck going in my same direction. I gave a little gas to catch up, then rode his tailwinds, realizing I could stop before he could stop, and if he can’t stop, he would clear the road of any obstacles.
It was fairly dark when I rolled into Santa Rosalia, a town I knew nothing about. But as I got into it, I saw the town square, park, and more streetlights, though they burned a little dimmer than average streetlights. People walked around casually, enjoying the evening air.
The Sea of Cortez shimmered like a sea of oil with specks of light dancing on it. There was a beautiful quaintness to the town. It appeared to be a town enjoyed by its locals, and the buildings around the square were charming. I did some research and discovered it was actually founded and designed by a French mining company in 1884. I quickly fell in love with this seaside village, where women were doing an aerobics class in the town square, and another group of young people were holding a street fair to benefit and bring attention to the local animal shelter. There was progression in this town. I also enjoyed a two-lobster tail dinner with a few beers and tequila shots for $24.
The next morning, I was on the road early. I had a beautiful eight-hour drive ahead of me to reach Cabo. The sea was bluer than I would have thought, and it only became more beautiful as I traveled south. Multiple Islands jutted dramatically from the water a mile out, looking like teeth from the mouth of a crocodile. This part of the drive is arguably the most beautiful, with areas of lush greens and palm forests, staged in front of a backdrop of dark, jagged rock mountains. You pass towns like Loreto, a fishing Mecca for tourists, and further down, La Paz, where the Sea of Cortez turns multiple shades of frosted emerald and blue as it meets the Pacific. Here, you know you are just a few hours from Cabo.
I was guided into Cabo with an impressive lightning storm above the nearby Sierra de la Laguna Mountains. Moments later, the clouds passed, as they often do in tropical environments, and the Pacific appeared once more to my right. A few minutes later, I pulled into my seaside hotel, where I would stay for a couple days before my return trip home. I looked down at my odometer: 1,053.3 miles. I felt a sense of accomplishment and motivation to enjoy the next two days.
Solo road trips are unlike any other travel. They might not be for everyone, but they are great for those who don’t mind their own company and getting into their own mind. While you keep an eye on the road, you can allow thoughts to flow. It’s a good time to figure out life’s problems. Maybe it’s a time to heal, or a time to look for answers. Driving through villages, you see people who have very little, but they do not seem poor. For any with the means to make such a road trip, it’s a good lesson in humility and appreciation for all you have. Salud!