To Hell with Tijuana

No Exit Signs: Desert Coast Off-roading
Photo by Erik Gauger
Get wet: Off-road through Baja

"Stop by a tire store first," say the local. "I've known monster four-by-fours to lose three tires on that route." We're in Bahia de Los Angeles, a beachside fishing haven 126 miles from Catavina, and picking up suggestions for our 87-mile drive from Chapala to Puertocitas.

We take him up on his advice, then backtrack north and west along Highway One to Chapala and turn north onto an unmarked gravel road called Route 5. Making this turn is the only way to circle Northern Baja without having to backtrack along the Pacific side—and there's no paved road on this stretch of the Sea of Cortez.

Crossing the sandy, rock-strewn road across the flats takes a desert tortoise's persistence. Two hours and 20 miles later, we pass out of a canyon and onto a hot, dry saline flat that holds just white sand and ocotillo—not even a creosote. We see a flash of silver in the distance and slowly come upon a strange shanty made of ocotillo and hanging cans of Tecate beer. It's the first human sighting since Chapala. "Hola," we hear, but see no one. The hanging beer cans clink in the wind. "Hola. Hola. Hola," came the voice.

"Hola, Senor. Where are you?"

A dark-tanned half-Mexican, half-American climbed from under a truck and attached a wooden leg. "You want cervezas?" The man, Coco, is reading our minds. We sit at his open-air table and he shows us a guest book. "You're the first people who come this month," he says.

Coco knows the roads—and how to drive them. He looks at the truck, kicks our tires, and helps us to deflate them. "Let the air go for five seconds," he said. "Always take the side roads. Much better than the main road. You will get one flat, at least."

Listening to Coco's advice proves valuable, as we circle up mountaintops and into deep, sandy arroyos. The roads become rockier: Hurricane Nora had largely destroyed the road in 1997, and we ride along at the only appropriate pace for this beautiful desert coastline: 10 miles per hour.

The land becomes more desolate—fewer shrubs, sharper, craggier rocks, and browner plains of baking stone. Vultures, hawks, and frigates float above. Pavement magically returns 87 miles later in the small fishing town of Puertocitos, and we're hoping for signs of life. But what we find is empty houses, broken windows, steel wires banging against aluminum siding in the wind. Even the PEMEX gas station is closed.

So we keep going to San Felipe. The road is paved, but that just means we can drive 35 mph. This road still displays the characteristic potholes of what bajacaliforniados call "the old days," a time when bad roads made for slower driving and a greater appreciation for the scenery.

You can find campgrounds with showers, restrooms, and watersport rentals along the northern perimeter of Bahia de Los Angeles. Sites are directly on the beach and there's a view of the bay's islands. Many have palapas (thatched canopies) and stone grills.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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