One of the most desolate places on earth starts just across the border from where I live in San Diego, Mexico’s Baja Peninsula. It will be more than 2,000 miles/3,200 KM to drive the entire peninsula! A long-time dream of mine. Coronavirus has given me the time but forces me to tackle this adventure by myself… in an old car. What true explorer could turn down a challenge like that?!
A half day’s drive from the border sits San Quintin. Even 30 years ago, I considered San Quintin the demarcation between old Baja and today’s over-developed commerce driven border region. San Quintin was seemingly three times as big as the last time I drove through it. But, remarkably, just a couple of minutes drive out of town, civilization dissolves away… just like in the old days. Life is slower here and the people friendlier.
The one golden rule of Baja is never drive at night! Baja Highway 1 that stretches all the way down the peninsula is just too dangerous. The highway is barely wide enough for two cars to pass and drops off immediately at the edge into desert sand. Plus, there are axel breaking potholes, sleepy or drunk drivers, giant trucks, hairpin turns, and voracious winds to name just a few of the hazards that have ended trips and often times lives. The regular passing of roadside crosses attests to the latter. I fortunately arrive at my casita just as the last of the sun’s light disappears.
Now the vast stretches of the Baja desert lay before me. In these long stretches of road, I was able to clear my mind and really start to take in the amazing wilderness that is Baja. This landscape is probably best defined by the Mexican Giant Cardon or Elephant Cactus. They grow extremely slowly and can live hundreds of years reaching a height of 60 feet/18 meters and a weight of 25 tons/22,700 kilos. There is a surprising amount of wildlife here for such a desolate place.
Guerrero Negro is the largest producer of salt in the world. But it is best known for the close encounters with Gray Whales that occur here in March. The Gray Whale migrates from Alaska to Baja California each year to give birth. I set off with Mario Tours to hopefully experience this for myself. We are provided rain ponchos before stepping into our pangas, not for rain or even sea spray but rather to keep us dry from spouting whales, a pretty exciting prospect. We barely reached the calving area when a whale jumps halfway out of the water. So close that his splash sprays us. We could see at least a dozen whales at any given time in every direction on the compass. Each spotting was new and exciting, but after a couple of hours our time was running out. Just as the captain suggests we need to head back, a mother and calf appear next to the boat. The excitement of this encounter has everyone giddy. These whales commune with us for a magical moment, and we feel an amazing bond with these magnificent creatures, conversing without conversation. The whales linger. I am surprised as I touch the mother. The whale’s mottled coloring with hitchhiking barnacles isn’t rough, but smooth and rubbery like a dolphin.
Floating on adrenaline, I continue south to Mulege, a sleepy fishing village. I enjoy the sunset while walking along the river to a local bar run by a family. Their home attached to the back of the bar. After ordering a drink, I am invited to play pool with family members. And I feel like family by the time I leave.
La Paz is the capital of Baja Sur and is where I meet long-time friend, Joachin Renero that I’ve known for more than 15 years. He has good looks and a quiet confidence and is from a founding family of La Paz. He is also a fairly well-known Mexican photographic artist. La Paz is a city that thinks it’s a town and Joachin knows absolutely everyone. Each building and business has a backstory with colorful characters worthy of a telenovela, Mexico’s popular primetime soap operas. Joachin shares these stories casually as we walk the Malecon, the boardwalk along the waterfront that’s packed with impressive public art.
After a couple relaxing days, I press on to Cabo San Lucas at the very tip of Baja. I have avoided Cabo my entire life, considering it just another tourist trap. After the obligatory photo op in front of “El Arco”, Cabo’s iconic sea arch, we spot humpbacks nearby. The pack of boats following the whales is oppressive. In the far distance, I point out a massive humpback that is jumping over and over again. The captain races towards it. These breaches are impressive displays as these whales propel up to 40 tons out of the water. As we near the whale, I look on in awe while the others chatter in elated excitement. The whale surprises us with one more breach close to our boat. This stuns everyone into silence. A fitting end to my southbound journey.
Back in La Paz, Joachin puts me on a whale shark tour. The largest fish in the sea, these amazing animals travel the oceans migrating from the Philippines in summer to the rich waters just off La Paz in winter. Filter feeders whale sharks are completely harmless to humans. The water is so filled with their phytoplankton food that it is murky to the point you can barely see past your outstretched hand.
I spot a fin in the distance sticking just a finger’s length out of the water and point it out to the captain. He positions the boat to allow us to intercept the whale shark as he passes. A small group of us jump in the water with snorkel gear and swim to the spot. Suddenly out of the murky water white dots appear as this behemoth reveals itself. I freeze for a moment, stunned by its massiveness. As the giant tail passes by me, I suddenly remember I am supposed to swim with it. An instant later and it would have disappeared into the murk. My fellow tourists quickly fall behind allowing me to swim with this amazing animal by myself for a long while. I speed up to see its wide head, large mouth, and small eyes and then slow down to watch it swim by. A fish the size of a city bus. There is no communing like with the gray whales earlier on my trip. But I am awestruck and dumbfounded by this amazing animal. I swim with the whale shark for 15 minutes, when I suddenly feel a tug on my fins. The tour guide tells me there is another tourist boat that wants to see this fish. I obligingly swim back to our boat.
There are days of desert to drive through to get back home to San Diego, but my mind is never bored as it plays on repeat my amazing wildlife encounters on my trip down the Baja Peninsula.