Traveling on a boat affords us a lot of time to absorb the spirit of a country at our own pace; to enjoy cheap and authentic food prepared in non touristy areas, participate in activities done by the locals, and watch the changes in year round weather. However, one thing that we do miss out on is the ability to travel much further than the shoreline. Lacking a car, or even a bike, the depth of our inland wanderings are often limited to the distance we can achieve by foot, especially in remote locations that lack public transport, or even roads. So it was a welcomed diversion when we realized in May that we were going to have to rent a car and drive up the Baja peninsula to San Diego to get some paperwork done.
Unlike the US, driving thru rural Mexico comes with a few warnings. Do not drive at night, as cattle are fond of lying on the highway after sunset to enjoy the warm pavement. Watch out for car devouring potholes and dirt roads that may wash out in a flood. Be careful driving on narrow highway stretches that lack shoulders. With these thoughts in mind, we packed up our small rental car and headed to the border, alert but excited for our 2 day drive each way. Starting from Puerto Escondido 3/4 of the way down the peninsula, we watched in amazement as the landscapes slowly changed from dry coastal desert, to majestic mountains and valleys, and over to the Pacific where plant life started to resemble the succulent and leafy varieties we had lived among in San Francisco. As we drove by farmland and surfing towns, we looked to the sky and realized that it had been a long time since we had seen puffy clouds. We passed by many tiny towns with self contained industries such as fishing and mining, and stocked with small mom and pop stores, where life is simple and family is everything. Another pleasant surprise was that the value of our money stretched much further outside of places popular with gringos. In El Rosario, we stayed in a beautiful and quiet adobe and masonry hotel for less that we would have paid for a budget motel in the US. With hardwood furniture and a large flatscreen TV on which we enjoyed watching movies dubbed in Spanish, we felt rich and pampered.
Driving along the vast deserts of Highway 1, you will see a striking geological oddity; a boulder field of smooth grey rocks interspersed with boojum trees, fondly referred to as upside down carrots. This place is Catavina. Naturally, we had to turn off onto a dirt trail and get out of the car to admire this strange landscape up close. Piles of boulders sit on an otherwise flat piece of land, looking like they were put here by a giant mischievous baby, but in reality carried here by glaciers of times past. Hardy desert plant life defy the odds of survival, flourishing in every nook and cranny with ingenious traits of evolution.
At the border between the states of Baja California and Baja California Sur is the town of Guerrero Negro. Named after a ship, this town is not heavily marketed to tourists, so we were surprised at the number of attractions the town had to offer. The main industry here is salt evaporation; most of the town’s residents are employed at the local salt mine. Indeed, it is the world’s largest salt mine, supplying the mineral not only for consumption, but also for such diverse use as road defrosting and industrial use. 3 times a day, visitors are brought in and guided around the large operation. Sea water is pumped into expanses of flat land, where it will sit for 3 years, evaporating solely by wind and sun. A low tech but effective technique, the salt pools gradually turn pink as small crystals of salt condense, and eventually white as the salt forms bigger crystals. As rock salt forms, sodium naturally separates from other minerals and impurities, leaving a beautiful clear slab ready to be mined by heavy duty machinery. The operation runs 16 hours a day, resulting in 7 million tons of export ready salt per year, loaded on to barges that are pulled up right next to the silo and shipped to consumers around the Pacific.
We stopped for the night at Hotel Malarrimo, a no frills inn with a cheekily decorated restaurant and bar. Named after a nearby bay, Malarrimo roughly translated means an accumulation of flotsam, an apt name for a bay that seams to collect all manner of items that have floated from across the Pacific Ocean. Although empty during this low tourist season, we enjoyed poking around the bar, which was decorated with an eclectic mix of sea junk, from bits of old machinery, to buoys, bottles and bones. In Malarrimo Bar, one person’s trash is another’s interior design.
The next morning, we woke up at the crack of dawn, in search of a sand dune by the ocean. After several miles of dirt road driving, we came across the dunes at the far end of town, cool and quiet in the morning twilight. We set Rowan loose on the soft powdery sand, where he ran around happily, climbing up dunes and sliding down them again.
In the high season, Guerrero Negro is also known as one of the few places in the world where whales come to calf and raise their young. Accustomed to non threatening human encounters, the whales allow groups of visitors in certified ecotourism pangas approach them, sometimes even pushing their calves up to the surface to have a closer look at the humans. Other species of animals are also plentiful here, such as birds and turtles.
Along this stretch of mountain, there are several spots where cave paintings can be found. Lacking the time to do so properly, we gave them a pass, but were nevertheless intrigued by the idea of hiking into the mountains with pack mules, sleeping under the bright stars and waking up to see enormous paintings done by humans thousands of years ago and feel their haunting presence.
Onwards on our road trip, we stopped next in San Ignacio, an oasis filled with date trees and rivers. Here, we visited the Mission San Ignacio; constructed by Jesuit missionaries in 1728. Within the quietness of the church’s stone walls, a man sat painting a religious picture, while another tended to the plants in the courtyard.
Our road trip has allowed us a glimpse at the vastness of the Baja peninsula, and the intricacies of life that fills it, from ancient rocks and plant life, to the hardworking locals who live here, from the painted visions of prehistoric humans, to the enterprises of modern day restauranteurs. And now we can say that the interior of the Baja peninsula past walking distance is a little less of a mystery to us.