IF YOU HAD ASKED ME A FEW WEEKS AGO WHAT I WOULD DO IF A SCORPION CRAWLED UP MY FOOT, I would have told you that I'd move slowly so as not to agitate the little critter, then deposit it gently a safe distance away from camp. However, we humans do not always come as advertised. When actually presented with the situation, while eating a makeshift fish taco on a deserted beach along Mexico's Baja Peninsula, I emitted a shrill cry before jumping up and down and thrusting my foot into the flames of a driftwood campfire.
The scorpion vanished with a slight crackle, leaving me to explain to my buddies that I hadn't actually panicked—it was more like I'd implemented a swift form of frontier justice. They weren't buying my story, so I attempted to reestablish my tough-guy credentials by blowing a few fireballs of Cuban rum. This might have worked better if Danny hadn't wandered over to our abused rental van and announced that I'd left the ignition on again and this time the battery was completely dead.
My "buddies" amounted to my two older brothers—Matt, 37, a U.S. Department of Agriculture grassland ecologist from Miles City, Montana, and Danny, 35, an aquatic ecologist with the University of Alaska at Anchorage—and my longtime friend Andrew Radzialowski, a.k.a. Pooter, a 33-year-old chef currently working in Savannah, Georgia. The four of us were once world-class wanderers, equipped with weeks to spare but little cash; now that we're all professionals, with less time and more money, we try to pack our outings into small, highly structured slots. One day I realized that we spend more days plotting our trips than taking them, and it made me think that we'd lost our adventurous edge, that we were no longer willing to do something that basically amounts to nothing. While we'd come to Mexico on a mission—to spend the week living the perfect Baja lifestyle while driving the peninsula's length, from Tijuana to Cabo San Lucas—we wanted to do it without any concrete plans, obligations, reservations, or ideas about where we'd spend the night. In Tijuana we'd rented a spotless white minivan that would soon regret the day we came into its life and filled it with tents, sleeping bags, fishing rods, snorkeling gear, and coolers.
So far, the journey had gone almost perfectly, but as I stared under the hood I felt as though I'd messed up the one ingredient that a road trip can't do without. However, we certainly hadn't planned on getting stranded in the desert, so one could argue that everything was still going exactly as planned. It was convoluted logic, but it allowed me to go back over to the fire, crack another beer, and jump into a rather heated debate about which of those impossibly bright stars formed Orion's belt. By the time the argument segued into a fight about who'd had the craziest girlfriend, I'd completely forgotten about our predicament.
ON A MAP OF NORTH AMERICA, the Baja Peninsula is that finger of land, more like a pinkie, that juts out from Mexico's west coast. Its length is the distance between Chicago and New York, and in places it's less than 50 miles wide. Thanks to its narrowness, and its remote ruggedness, Baja has only one major road, the Transpeninsular Highway, or Mex 1, which runs for 1,000 miles, zigzagging back and forth as if caught in a custody battle between the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Cortez.
Our itinerary was simple: In the mornings, Danny would add up how many hours of driving were ahead of us, then he'd divide that number by how many days we had left. Our average goal came out to 150 miles a day, but the actual distances we covered were heavily influenced by roadside distractions and the scant distribution of towns and their accompanying services, such as cold beer, tacos, gas, and lodging: Ensenada to San Quintín, 119 miles; El Rosario to Cataviña, 76 miles; Guerrero Negro to San Ignacio, 88 miles; Ciudad Constitución to La Paz, 134 miles.
We fled Tijuana immediately, partly because it was raining and partly because of rumors of a crime wave. Throughout 2006 and 2007, Baja was the site of a number of kidnappings and robberies committed against American tourists by masked, gun-toting gangs dressed in commando outfits. The attacks prompted a U.S. State Department travel alert in October 2007 and garnered enough media attention to have a significant impact on tourism. The number of visitors to the entire Baja Peninsula plummeted in 2007, even though the crimes have been largely relegated to the extreme northern regions, around Tijuana. I had mixed emotions about this development: There were fewer people to distract the banditos away from yours truly, but there were bound to be a lot more deserted beaches.
But first we had to outrun a couple hundred miles' worth of drizzle and overcast skies. We finally got ahead of the weather while Mex 1 was taking a long inland sojourn to the interior's Desierto Central, where we found a room at the Desert Inn in Cataviña, a small, dusty village with a scattering of houses and an intermittently open gas station. When the sun rose, we couldn't believe what was lying just outside the window: The land was peppered with many-armed, 30- and 40-foot-tall cardon cacti, the largest cactus species in the world, weighing up to 20 tons.
We headed south in the rental, entering the heart of the Central Desert. I was just getting into my driving groove when I realized that Matt needed an attitude adjustment. That's what my dad called it when he pulled the car over on family road trips and hauled me and my brothers outside for a quick curbside spanking. I resented it at the time, but in Baja I could see where he was coming from. First Matt got fussy and adjusted his legs so that his bare feet were on my armrest. I was just about to comment on his toenails, which are as thick as window glass (he claims that it's from eating too much game meat), when he let out a few of his signature moaning complaints: "Boring... boring!"
Matt is six foot two and over 200 pounds, which means he outclasses my ability to give him a proper "adjustment." The only thing we could do was plead. Everyone cried out in unison, "Matt, please…" and that shut him up for a minute. I knew the problem: Matt sometimes needs to walk across land before he believes in it, so I found a place to pull over.
Out past the "trash zone," the desert swallowed up the very idea of civilization. The landscape seemed designed for the purpose of inflicting human pain. The ground was hard enough to crack open your skull. The plant life looked as though it had lived through an explosion in a needle factory; everything had spikes and thorns growing out of it, some long enough to pass into your arm and come out the other side. We wandered as though in a drugged trance, silently enjoying the rawness of being somewhere that could dry you out and pick your bones clean in a matter of hours. After a while, Matt announced that he was ready to get back in the van.
DANNY WAS SCROLLING through an iPod for sounds that matched the land. Springsteen's The Ghost of Tom Joad had worked well in the cloud cover, but our newfound sun required the Brian Jonestown Massacre. Just when it seemed like we'd exhausted our desert soundtrack, we pulled up on a town we knew to be near the Pacific coast, Punta Prieta. I found a roadside taco joint with two tractor-trailer rigs parked out front. My high school Spanish always gets me in trouble. I looked at the menu and guessed that they had only two kinds of taco, beef and fish, and explained that we wanted four of each kind. When the woman emerged from the kitchen with 40 tacos, I realized that her menu was more varied than I'd expected.
Not being inclined to waste food, we took the tacos to go and began searching for a place to gorge. We rolled southward, and soon Pooter looked west and said, "Damn, look at that." Through a crack in the brown hills was the distant expanse of the Pacific flashing in the sunlight. The view passed as quickly as a glimpse of bare breast in a movie, but that was all we needed to see.
I should have looked for a better road to the beach, but these were desperate times. As we bumped and scraped along, we occasionally stopped to check for major damage, and I could tell what the rental's underside looked like by examining the rocks that we'd snagged on. Each time we bottomed out, someone would deny the occurrence by saying, "We almost bottomed out." We plowed along despite the mechanical protests and, after a few more miles, found a beach where a long tide pool formed behind an exposed reef of rocks that must have supported 300 pelicans.
No one announced that there was a race to be the first man to tie into a fish, but our careful packing job was destroyed in a matter of seconds as the four of us dug through the back of the rental in a frantic search for gear. I was the first to break free from the pack, and I scampered across the rocks while watching my back trail for competition and simultaneously trying to string my spinning rod. I pasted out my first cast on the shore side of the pool and felt the bump of a fish but missed the strike. Two casts later I landed a two-pound spotted bay bass. By the time I had the fish tied to a stringer, Danny had picked his way out to the tide pool and, ever the purist, was trying to buck the wind with his fly rod.
Matt's always the first to put his neck out, and I watched as he scrambled his way over urchin-covered rocks to reach the reef. The pelicans were still lifting off when he let out a whoop. He was hooked into something good. His rod doubled over and then bounced back up, the fish gone. I heard him yell, "Aaaawww, shit!" He smacked his spinning rod against the water and then flung out another cast. Within seconds he was into a nice bass.
An hour later we realized our mistake. We'd been in such a rush to hit the ocean that we'd neglected to stock up on a night's worth of beer. And now here we were at the perfect beach, with the sun slipping down into the horizon and no one wanting to drive to the next town. This had us feeling stuck between a rock and a hard spot, but just then a middle-aged surfer with sun-bleached hair came riding across the sand on a beach cruiser and yelled, "Welcome to Fibber's Paradise!"
As it turns out, we'd inadvertently taken our tacos and stumbled onto this man's home turf. He pointed out to a wave, explaining that it was one of the longest rides on North America's Pacific coast, and informed us that we were just a half-mile away from "headquarters," which amounted to a small motor home, a brick oven built out of beach cobbles, and a stack of surfboards. Fibber makes an annual migration from California to spend six months a year there and keeps enough wine on hand to get him through the entire season. He supplied us with firewood and all of the intoxicants we could physically handle. It didn't take a genius to see that this trip was going to work out.
I'M SURPRISED THERE'S NOT a video game called Mex 1. You get the sense that engineers simply measured two trucks and built the highway at exactly that width. There are bumps that shake your vehicle with the ferocity of a head-on collision. Cars pass closely enough that you could reach inside and change their radio station. In the mountain passes, the highway plunges into turns so severe they should probably be labeled "corners" instead; looking off the edge, you see the rusted bodies of cars that didn't make it.
But the highway is as eager to help as to hurt. On the fifth day of the trip, the morning after the scorpion ascended my leg, I woke up with a pounding headache and looked out the flap of my tent to see a collection of pelicans and seagulls gathered around the carcasses of grouper and snapper that we'd filleted the night before. There was a neat pile of squashed beer cans next to the fire pit, and the ground was littered with the shells of oysters that we'd peeled off the underwater roots of mangrove trees. The disheveled campsite reminded me of the dead battery, so I pulled on my clothes and started walking west toward Mex 1.
On my way I cut across some fresh coyote tracks and the slithery trail of a snake in the sand. When I finally made it out to a road, I started walking north toward Mulegé, a gringo-friendly seaside oasis about seven miles distant. I'd gone about a mile when I saw a guy messing with a collection of partially dismantled trucks outside a garage. I walked up and said, "Hola," which pretty much exhausted my Spanish. I opened my notebook and began plotting a sketch. I was imagining a beach scene, featuring an unhappy traveler pointing under a van's open hood. I was wishing for an easel when a brilliant coincidence occurred. The guy pulled out a set of jumper cables and clicked the connectors to the battery terminals in one of the dismantled trucks. I ran over, pointing and gesturing. The excitement stirred some distant memories of forgotten Spanish and I blurted out, "Yo también... muerto... en la playa." A half-hour later, I was backslapping our new buddy Ramón as he jumped the marooned rental back to life.
We got lucky like that again and again. Things just worked out magically, without a plan, from beach to beach and town to town. We rolled into Loreto, an up-and-coming hot spot for watersports, and discovered what might just be the peninsula's best fish taco, at a place called Mc. Lulu's. The fish was crispy, the tortillas were fresh, the cabbage and onions had bite. Farther down the road we drove into the bustling city of La Paz. It was close to ten at night and we had no reservations, but we pulled up to the nicest waterfront hotel we could find, Hotel Perla, and walked in unannounced. I thanked the Tijuana crime wave when we scored two side-by-side third-floor rooms with a view for a hundred bucks apiece.
Our last morning came all too soon. We woke up along the Sea of Cortez near the tip of the peninsula, where we'd stretched out our bags on a white-sand beach. I'd snorkeled the shoreline the evening before, then we'd sat in camp and watched dozens of rays leaping out of the water as we grilled a clown hawkfish and a red snapper and shucked a new batch of oysters. When we pulled onto Mex 1, I scraped the length of the rental's underside across the lip of the road. "Almost bottomed out," I said.
We made good time in the light traffic of early morning, and it was looking like we'd make it to the Los Cabos airport early. Each mile of the highway was painful now, the odometer like some evil-minded clock counting down to the end of our fun. I wanted to find some way to stop its progress when the road did it for us. Matt was just starting to let out a few of his "Boring!" moans when we rounded a bend to see a massive line of parked trucks blocking the road. A policeman walked up and explained in broken English that there was a wreck ahead and we'd have to take an almost 200-mile detour. I swung the rental around, thinking that fate had decided to keep me in Baja after all, but then Danny found a faint squiggly line on an atlas and said, "Check this out. Looks like it comes back to the highway a few bends past that crash."
We took a wrong turn and ended up in a washed-out arroyo. I did a 16-point turnaround and we got back on the right track, the rental taking on yet another coat of dust. After some ten miles of washboard roads, we were spit back onto Mex 1 with a horrendous scraping noise. The detour was invigorating, just one more thing that couldn't be planned, and I gunned the van toward the airport.
I was relieved when the guy at the rental agency didn't even investigate the minivan. I still had that tingly feeling from the highway in the backs of my legs when I took my seat on the airplane. A woman in the seat next to me asked what I'd been doing in Baja. I told her I hadn't really done anything, but that it had gone really well.
ACCESS + RESOURCES
GETTING THERE Flights to San Diego are often cheaper, and more frequent, than those to Tijuana. Bonita Costa Tours and Charters ($120 for two people, $10 for each additional passenger; 619-227-8927) offers shuttle service from SAN to TIJ—where you can pick up your rental car. PRIME TIME November through March is high season, but Baja is best in late spring, when temperatures are still moderate and tourists are few. GETTING AROUND Alamo (carrentaltijuana.com) at the Tijuana airport offers full-size cars ($50 per day) with one of the lowest drop-off fees ($650) for Los Cabos airport. Gas stations are rare, so fill up every chance you get. CAMPING Many beaches in Baja are free—just park and pitch—but campgrounds will charge a fee. For fishing, buy a license from one of the state tourism offices. For more info, check out discoverbajacalifornia.com.
WHERE TO STAY AND WHAT TO DO
Ensenada> Hotel Cortez: This downtown hotel is close to the city's best bars. Doubles, $95; 011-52-646-178-2307. Hussong's Cantina: Don't pass through town without hitting up this famous watering hole. 011-52-646-178-3210. San Quintín> Los Poblanos: Belly up to the counter for a flank-steak taco at this taquería on the highway's west side.
Cataviña> Desert Inn Cataviña: 28 rooms surround a central courtyard and swimming pool. Doubles, $79; desertinns.com. Rosarito> Rosarito Beach: Hang a right five miles south of Rosarito, near kilometer marker 61 on Mex 1, between Punta Prieta and Guerrero Negro, and head two miles down the dirt road for your choice of perfect beaches and campsites. San Lucas> San Lucas Cove: North of Mulegé, on the Sea of Cortez, there's great oyster-picking near two campgrounds. Follow signs to San Lucas RV Park and hike to the mangroves. Mulegé> Bahía Concepción: Some of the bay's most secluded beaches are at the end of a maze of dirt roads about seven miles south of Mulegé. Loreto> Mc. LuLu's: LuLu herself mans the deep fryer at this taco stand in central Loreto.
La Paz> Hotel Perla: 110 rooms face Bahía de La Paz or the inn's immaculate gardens. Doubles from $75; hotelperlabaja.com. Baja Outdoor Activities: This outfitter offers everything from nine-day sea-kayaking trips around Isla Espíritu Santo ($790) to daily kayak rentals (from $35). kayactivities.com. Todos Santos> Caffé Todos Santos: Grab a chai frappe in the café's bougainvillea-covered patio. 011-52-612-145-0300. San José del Cabo> The Westin Resort and Spa: Authentic Mexican character, with an ocean view from every room. Doubles from $285; westinloscabos.com.