The
Baja
Highway

South
from San Quintín





Hills north of the
San Quintin coastal plain.


Baja is mostly desert.
It almost never rains in Baja California. That's what I told myself when I decided not to bother to replace the worn out wiper blades on the 1974 Volkswagen bus before heading down the peninsula in January of 1997. In fact, rain in January on the northern Baja coast is not at all unusual, and I allowed myself to forget that simple fact in my haste to get to the sunny desert climes farther south. The Baja Highway can be unforgiving of mistakes, and this was a mistake.

Valle de San Quintin:
Highway 1, Main Street through San Quintin;
Downtown Uruapan.


That January, it rained like no other January in memory, all the way from Oregon, where I set out, to the Mexican border and halfway down the Baja coast. I was a day or two behind the worst storm, and thought the worst was behind me after I got through the giant puddle that had formed in California's Central Valley, flooding Sacramento and dozens of other towns, and lapping over the shoulders of Interstate 5 as I rolled southward.

I had survived an impressive deluge with lightning and thunder in Bakersfield. The washouts and landslides on the Ensenada Toll Road had been a surprise, but they were behind me, too.

The rain was just a drizzle by the time I wound my way down from the coastal mountains into the San Quintín Valley, a low-lying strip of land between the ocean and the San Pedro Mártir mountain range. Despite the conventional wisdom, I was even risking driving at night, secure in the knowledge that a hot meal, a cold beer and a warm bed awaited me at the familiar Hotel La Pinta in San Quintín.

Row crops in the
San Quintin Valley.


A chilling breeze blew up from the floorboards, and I had wrapped myself in a blanket, because, of course, I was in warm, sunny Baja, where I wouldn't need my heavy coat. The ragged wiper blade cleared a small spot on the windshield on each backswing, before dragging a new smear of drizzly mud across it on each frontswing. By straining my body as far as I could to the right, while holding onto the steering wheel with one hand and the blanket with the other, I could, on the backswings, just barely make out the road ahead through the clear spot.

My headlights were dimmed by the mud thrown up by the slow dump truck I had followed over the mountains, where I was unable to pass on the curves in the rain. But, now the road was clear, except for the thin layer of watery mud on the pavement, and the La Pinta was only two hours away.

View of the Pacific Ocean,
from Hotel La Pinta, San Quintin.


I drove on like this for an hour, but the going was slow. After two hours, I still had not reached San Quintín, but it couldn't be much longer now.

My neck and back ached and my eyes were bleary from straining to peer through the intermittent clear spot on the windshield, and my feet were numb from the cold wind blowing up around the pedals in the unheated Volkswagen. I kept telling myself that relief was near.

I saw the lights of a town approaching. This would be Colonia Vicente Guerrero, last settlement before San Quintín. Soon I should see the first lights of Valle de San Quintín, the collective name for the string of normally dusty little strip towns strung along the highway where it traverses this fertile and prospering agricultural plain.

Sand dunes and the Pacific Ocean,
north of El Rosario.


Suddenly, I was right on top of an unlighted roadblock, and a flagman with a dim flashlight was frantically waving me off the highway. Another army checkpoint, I thought, just what I needed, a bunch of muddy soldiers going through my stuff while I stood outside in the drizzle. But, this guy was alone and didn't look like a soldier, and I saw no guns. I could see no place to go, so I just stopped where I was on the highway, as he continued to wave and point. Where he pointed was a very steep, rutted, muddy hillside, between two buildings on my right.

I would not have believed he wanted me to go up that muddy hill, except that there was nowhere else to go but back, and I was in Mexico. So, I turned off the pavement, and gunned the motor up the hill, for the first time glad that I had not replaced the old snow tires left on the bus by its previous owner.

Supermarket in El Rosario,
and one more Tecate beer sign.


I fishtailed up the hill, then hit the brakes as I went over the top and the mud street became a large pond. I slid down the hill and skidded to the water's edge.

It was too late to turn around, and there was no place to go but through the water or into the buildings on either side. On the far side of the water, about a block away, I could make out a reflectorized arrow. I guessed this was in fact the intended detour.

I saw no other cars. But, I figured the people ahead of me on the highway must have made it across somehow, and I really had no choice, so what the hell. I plunged in, and with my snow tires spinning I managed to slosh and skid my way across the lake, and followed the glowing arrow into the dark.

My headlight beams barely penetrated the black night. The detour went on for an eternal twenty minutes of unmarked ruts, mudholes and boulders, apparently into the bed of the "dry" river that had washed out the highway bridge in the rainstorm the night before.

There was little to indicate I was on the right track, and I couldn't shake the feeling that I was headed away from the highway and toward the ocean. I had premonitions of ending up stuck on the beach in the dark, with the tide coming in.

Sign for backyard tire repair shop,
almost as common as Tecate signs.


Just when I was sure I had made a wrong turn and should try to find my way back, I saw a faint light ahead, then another reflectorized arrow and, finally, the distant lights of moving vehicles. Fifteen minutes later, I was climbing out of the riverbed, up a steep embankment and back onto Highway 1, where a flagman with a dim flashlight was waving another unsuspecting driver down the embankment and into the dark unknown.

Back on the highway, I remembered I was low on gas. I knew there was a big Pemex station in San Quintín. What I had not anticipated was that it would be under water.

A single pump, the only one not submerged by the flood, was serving a long line of vehicles, and I knew if I didn't get gas tonight, there might be none left by morning. I took my place in line, and after another hour my tank was filled. I suspected it was full of more water than gas, but the motor still ran, and I was finally back on my way to the La Pinta.

San Pedro Martir Mountains,
east of El Rosario.


The La Pinta Hotels were built by the Mexican government after the Baja Highway was completed in 1973. They were spaced along the highway about a day's drive apart, to accommodate and encourage travelers at a time when no other facilities were available. Today, although aging, overpriced, uneven in quality and facing competition, they are still among the more modern and reliable places to stay along the route. They are not the finest accommodations, nor the best bargains in Baja, but they are there when you need one.

The San Quintín La Pinta is a showpiece of the chain. It sits alone on a lovely, long stretch of white sand beach, three miles off the highway. But, it is accessible only by what might be the world's worst stretch of paved road, a narrow lane cratered like Swiss cheese with potholes that would discourage anyone with good sense from attempting to drive it at all.

Some of the potholes are the size of dinner plates, some the size of dining tables, but all are a foot deep, with sharp edges. You can't go around them, they are everywhere. Even the potholes have potholes. The road can only get better. Soon there won't be enough pavement left to make edges on the potholes.

Sierra San Pedro Martir,
east of El Rosario.


When I saw no lights, and no other cars on the access road, I feared the hotel had been closed by the storm, if not by the potholes. I was relieved when I turned a corner and saw the lights of the hotel. Then, I realized that the parking lot was packed full of cars, and I had no reservation. Luckily, there was still a room available.

The hotel clerk huddled in a dry corner while I filled out my soggy registration card. There was no place to avoid the water that leaked from the ceiling of the lobby, splashed on the counter, ran down my face, soaked my clothes and puddled at my feet. But, the restaurant was open, the shower was hot, the bed was dry, and I slept well that night.

At breakfast the next morning, I tried to get information about the condition of the vados I knew I had to cross later that day. A vado, also known as a "Mexican bridge", is a dip built into the road at dry river crossings, designed to allow the occasional flash flood to wash harmlessly over the pavement.

Vados are usually marked with warning signs, and must be taken seriously if water is present. They must also be taken seriously when water is not present, because not slowing down can mean leaving your transmission at the bottom of the vado.

San Pedro Martir foothills.

Bridges are expensive, and vados are cheap, so Baja has lots of vados and not many bridges. I once teased a Mexican friend that we gringos build our roads to go over the water, not under it. He replied that Mexico builds plenty of bridges, but most of them don't go over the water, they go into the pockets of politicians.

To my relief, a fellow traveler told me the vados were dry, the storm had gone east, not south. He also told me of other times when he had waited for days to cross flooded vados in the desert near Catviña, where I was headed next. He said the tradition in these situations, especially among younger machos, was to drink and party to pass the time while waiting for the rushing waters to recede.

Truck begins long climb over the mountains,
from Catavina westward toward El Rosario.


He claimed he had observed many stranded travelers get drunker and drunker each day that they waited at the water's edge, until they could cross the vado safely. Every few hours they would send out a probe to test the depth and the current. He said he had personally seen a number of probes washed away and lost.

On further questioning, he explained that a "probe" was somebody drunk enough to drive his car into the vado until he either made it across or was swept away by the current. Once a "probe" had safely crossed, other stranded travelers would bravely begin to follow.

When I got back on the highway, the sun was shining. It was dry all the way to El Rosario, the last small town on the Pacific coast before the road, now at its narrowest, turns inland and twists and climbs its way on a stomach-fluttering roller coaster ride over the mountains, and on to Cataviña.



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