For adventurers, Baja begins about 100 miles or so outside of Ensenada at one of the most famous spots known to racers, Mike's Sky Ranch. The ranch is a secluded, backcountry facility making it a haven for off-roaders. Think rustic with all the comforts including a stream fed pool, hot showers, clean rooms and water you can drink. If you're on a weekend get away this is the perfect place to use as your base. The trails and backroads around the ranch offer all sorts of challenges for anyone willing to explore. The trails change each year as flash floods reshape the land often requiring you to crawl your way though rock filled dry river beds and up steep embankments to get back out as you find you way around the hills. Other dirt roads in the area allow you to unleash your inner racer, stomping on the skinny peddle and bombing through the desert as fast as your nerves, suspension and wallet will allow. Back at the ranch, after a full day in the dirt, you can enjoy the company of other off roaders at the bar or over the family style steak dinner that comes with the room rate. Life at Mike's Sky Ranch is laid back and on any given weekend it draws off roaders, motorcyclists and pre-runners looking to drive hard and enjoy life.
Although the Mexican government continues to pave Baja, there are still thousands of miles of dirt roads and two tracks that will take you deep into the heart of Baja. Follow a dirt road south along the Pacific coast and you find little coves and beach communities where surfers, wind boarders and sailors abound. Here you can follow any one of the countless trails that lead down to the beach sand and spend the day or night, away from the crowds surfing, fishing, swimming or just watching the sun set.
Head further south and move inland, the tree covered hills give way to high desert plains. The landscape is spotted with cactus and giant boulders as it takes on a brown hue. Dirt roads through the interior will take you by ranches, working mines and small towns. The rocky dirt roads will test your suspension as miles of washboard ruts heat up your shocks and try their best to rattle every bolt on your rig loose from the frame. While the dirt roads are jarring, in Baja the paved surfaces present the real perils. Barely wide enough for two vehicles, traffic flies in both directions at 60 mph, 18 wheelers taking their half out of the middle, nonexistent shoulders, blind corners, shear cliffs without guardrails and livestock randomly appearing in the road requires constant vigilance to avoid becoming one of the many roadside memorials that dot the highways.
If Mike's Sky Ranch is laid back, things really slow down once you cross into the depths of central Baja. This is where true solitude can be found. Vultures perch atop 20 foot tall saguaro cactus, livestock carcases rotting in the sun and the hot breath of satan blowing in your face remind you that this is an unforgiving land. Break down and you will have a whole new understanding of the term self reliance. Down here pulling two inch cactus thorns out of your tires is the new normal.
At first glance this land appears to have been forsaken by god with no hope of redemption. But look again and you'll see a land filled with beauty and life. Work your way along the Sea of Cortez where isolated bays, such as Bahia de los Angeles, are filled with the sound of seals barking and gulls calling out from above. Walk along the sand and you will most likely be following tracks of the coyotes who patrol the beaches at night. Sit quietly and watch small crabs scour the sand, pelicans dive for fish or even catch a glimpse of a sea turtle cruising at the surface just off shore. The hard pounding surf of the Pacific side is replaced by calm, sapphire blue sea water gently lapping at the shore as the tide dances its endless waltz with the moon in the place where dreams come to life.
In Baja California Sur, the southern state of Baja, hard packed, washboard dirt roads give way to long stretches of soft, sandy, road like trails that connect one little fishing village to the next. Crossing the deserted interior this far south provides endless navigational choices as two tracks and trail spurs criss cross, presenting more route options than any map can cover. Depending on the choice you make, a trail may fade out after a mile, only to reemerge a thousand yards further ahead or stop altogether forcing you to find your own way to the next trail that shows promise of delivering you to your destination. Even driving the main trails presents challenges with patches of axle deep, baby powder fine silt appearing out of no where, capable of holding a rig as tight as any Alabama gumbo mud hole.
Exploring this far south in Baja is truly a unique experience. You are in a place where you will likely only see one or two other people the entire day and that is only if you stop for fuel or cross the main highway. You can spend the entire day retracing a ten mile stretch of a long abandoned road or cross the the entire peninsula coast to coast. The choice is yours.
When you finally reach the southern tip of Baja, cruise ships replace the leaky little fishing skiffs. If you're after luxury to wash off all the hard miles, Cabo is the place, filled with resorts that define rest and relaxation. Driving into any of the hotel courtyards this far south will make you somewhat of a celebrity. Few, if any, of the other guests can even imagine driving down to this costal resort let alone on the dirt trails. But even in the coastal resort towns you will find a little oasis of culture if you explore the back roads of town for eateries, local markets and small cafes.
Throughout Baja the people are warm and friendly. Everyone we met went out of their way to compensate for our nonexistent spanish skills and were genuinely interested in talking with us, providing suggestions for places to explore or must see points of interest.
I really can't talk about exploring Baja without discussing crime and drug violence. Crime in Mexico is serious business and anyone who suggests that safety isn't a legitimate concern is kidding themselves. The most recent State Department travel warning for Mexico, issued in November 2012, has the following segment on safety in northern Baja.
“You should exercise caution in the northern state of Baja California, particularly at night. For the one-year period ending July 2012, the number of murders in Mexicali increased by 43%, from 127 to 181, over the preceding year. The number of murders in the city of Tijuana was 351 for the same period. In the majority of these cases, the killings appeared to be related to narcotics trafficking. Targeted TCO assassinations continue to take place in Baja California. Turf battles between criminal groups resulted in assassinations in areas of Tijuana frequented by U.S. Citizens. Shooting incidents, in which innocent bystanders have been injured, have occurred during daylight hours. Twenty-five U.S. citizens were the victims of homicide in the state in the 12-month period ending July 2012.”
Most folks who have traveled to Baja agree that the southern part, including cities such as Cabo, La Paz or Todos los Santos, is generally safe. Any international travel (or big city in the USA for that matter) requires some basic cautions. We followed some common sense safety tips and never experienced an issue throughout Baja:
• Don't wander around at night
• Avoid driving at night (this is as much livestock in the road related as crime. We ended up driving into the dark most days but were off the road before 8:30 pm)
• Stay out of the red light districts and leave the bars well before closing
• Don't stand out in a crowd (loud ,drunk, flashing cash, excessive jewelry...)
• Know and follow all the laws, including speed limits
• Pay attention to your surroundings.
Military checkpoints are in place to protect you and reduce the drug trafficking. All the way down the young solders would smile and wave us on. Heading north the routine had a little more rigor. We would be asked to step out of the rig as they politely poked through all our gear and spare parts piled in the back. We found a smile and respectful attitude made up for our poor language skills getting us back on our way within a few minutes.
Is Baja dangerous to explore? The best advice I can provide is: off road adventures come with risks: vehicle damage, medical emergencies, criminal risks. If you are not comfortable with any of them consider your adventure and adjust it accordingly. Never put yourself into a position that will exceed your abilities or personal level of comfort. There are plenty of locations to explore, select the one that is right for you.
Baja is hard... but following the Baja1000 race route was one of the most amazing off road adventures I have ever undertaken. We faced stretches that challenged my driving skills, sections that pushed the suspension beyond its limits and the entire adventure tested our navigational skills at every turn. I found solitude, met great people and lived the dream.
If you're looking for off road travel that goes on forever, sunshine, warm beaches and endless adventure, Baja may be just what you're looking for. But for now, staring at the endless grey drizzle outside my window, I can only dream about going back to Baja for one more adventure.
In 2011 driver Paul Thompson and navigator Brad Day left Seattle, WA and headed south to follow the Baja 1000 race course. The team covered the route from Ensenada to Cabo San Lucas in a modified 2007, Toyota FJ Cruiser without the help of any other rigs or support vehicles. Alone, they had to drive, navigate, repair and overcome any obstacles they encountered on their last great road trip.
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