The
Baja
Highway

The
La Paz Region





Highway 1 near Ciudad Constitucion.
Inset: Family's roadside shrine,
in memory of a highway victim.


Tortilla and I
had overloaded the '74 Volkswagen bus once again with our worldly belongings, and we were headed north, bidding our adiós to San José del Cabo. We skirted the edge of town on the four-lane, past the Uniroyal shop where yesterday my paranoia, or perhaps good sense, had resulted in two expensive new rear tires to match the front ones. We rolled through the new stoplights alongside all the local drivers in their big Mexican hurries, jumping the lights as if they had been outsmarting stoplights all their lives and not for just a few weeks, jumping the red lights before they turned green, rushing wherever they were going to resume whatever they were doing at their usual snail's pace. We rolled to the end of the four-lane and past the airport, and we were off to La Paz and beyond.

View of La Paz Bay and the malecon.

Testing tires and motor and load, cruising at fifty, then at sixty, even coasting down long inclines from time to time at sixty-five or seventy miles per hour, and all seems well. So far, so good, as we roll past Santiago in the muggy heat, and past the big white ball that marks the Tropic of Cancer where it crosses our road as we roll from the end of the earth northward toward the gringo border.

All is well as we stop in Los Barriles to top off the gas tank and check the tire temperatures at a handy Pemex station. No problem climbing the steep hills to the summit of the Laguna mountains, where we stop at our favorite turnout to stretch our legs and pee in the hot sand behind the bushes.

Rolling out of the mountains and across the plain to meet the main highway from Todos Santos to La Paz, no problem spotting the hidden sign for the cutoff road to Ciudad Constitución, slipping unobstructed past the congestion of La Paz and rejoining the highway north of the city. We were on our way.

Fishermen in the shallows of La Paz Bay.

We hoped to find our next gas at the Pemex station at El Centenario, a few miles past La Paz, so we could avoid La Paz traffic, and the gas pump at El Cien. El Cien, named for its distance from La Paz, exactly 100 kilometers (62.5 miles), is a small cafe and the only Pemex station in the 134 miles of desert between La Paz and Constitución.

The last time I had stopped at El Cien, the dials were not working on the one working gas pump. I had to trust the corpulent pump operator to come up with the correct amount owed, by some mysterious manipulations of a calculator and a pencil that worked figures on a dog-eared pad he was reluctant to let me see.

We had agreed on an amount, and he owed me 130 pesos in change for my 200 peso note. Judging me an even dumber gringo than I was, he handed me a fifty peso note, and offered no more. When I put my hand out for the rest, he had grudgingly peeled another fifty off the giant wad in his pocket.

I had to stick my hand out twice more before he finally coughed up all my change, then he tried to get it back by peddling a handful of local petrified shark teeth from another pocket. He had not been pleased when I told him he could keep his shark teeth, and I would keep my change.

Federales stroll and snack
in waterfront park.


We pulled into the Pemex at El Centenario, but it was overgrown with desert weeds, its pumps askew, windows boarded or broken, and indeed it was abandoned. Rather than backtrack into La Paz for gas, we decided to deal with El Cien's portly peddler of petrol and petrified shark teeth, when we got there. We rolled back onto the highway in the high heat of the afternoon.

Then a red flash from the dashboard caught my eye. Then it was blinking red, and then the oil light blinked on and stayed on, and there was no denying it, our chronic oil leak had blown itself open and we were dead in the water, becalmed in the desert ten miles past La Paz.

So, we took a deep breath, ate the sandwiches we had packed for lunch, drew deep drafts from our jug of cold water, wiped the sweat from our brows and walked back in the hot sun to survey the damage in the engine compartment. Oil, oil everywhere, and not a damn drop where it should be. I poured in two fresh quarts from our onboard stock, and when they barely registered on the dipstick, I poured in another quart.

We limped slowly back to La Paz, thankful to lose only another quart of oil on the way, thankful indeed, that we were near La Paz when the red light came on, and not another fifty miles out in the middle of the empty desert.

This delay in our trip could be long and expensive, but maybe not fatal. We had bought the bus because we knew vintage VW parts were available in this neck of the world, and good mechanics were not hard to find. Now, all we had to do was find one.

Water truck makes deliveries
in downtown La Paz.


We found a place to park by the waterfront, an area of town familiar to us from previous visits, near the gringo-friendly tourist zone where we thought we could ask around and maybe locate a mechanic.

Our luck held out, as we got a strong recommendation from a waiter at our favorite restaurant, who said we should ask for Rogelio, the best VW man in town. We soon located his shop, tucked away on a side street in a nearby residential area.

Rogelio was a bright, energetic man who moved quickly and efficiently around his busy but tidy shop, instructing his crew between phone calls, and he spoke excellent English. He found a moment to greet us, with a warm handshake and a wide smile, as if we were invited guests.

More important, he inspired us with some confidence when he opened the engine compartment in the rear of the bus, instantly diagnosed our blown main oil seal, and said he could fix it, no problem.

Portrait of Calafia,
in historic Government House.


Only problem was, he was very busy, and could not get to the job before Saturday, and this was only Wednesday. But, he told us where to find the best twenty-five dollar hotel room in town, with secure parking to protect our packed possessions. We were not disappointed.

Conveniently located near the waterfront, our second-floor room was spacious and clean, with excellent beds, modern plumbing, air conditioning that worked, TV, a view of the bay across the rooftops, a pleasant cafe downstairs, and, off our expansive terrace, a large courtyard pool being enjoyed by some happy hotel guests.

Hotel Las Gardenias was showing its age, but was evidently one of the premier accommodations in town in its heyday, and still comfortable, quiet, and more than adequate for our unscheduled stopover in La Paz.

We spent three enjoyable days, relaxing and exploring the neighborhood. Most places of interest are clustered within a few blocks of the waterfront, making La Paz an easy city to explore on foot, with the feel of a small town despite its population of more than 150,000.

The city is a favorite resort for mainland Mexicans, as well as foreign tourists, and also home to a few thousand gringo expatriates. With its turquoise bay, soft breezes, pastel sunsets, friendly people, reasonable prices, leisurely pace and tranquil atmosphere, La Paz lives up to its name: Peace.

Cathedral of Our Lady of La Paz.

Bahia de La Paz, the Bay of Peace, was named in 1596, by the same Admiral Sebastián Vizcaíno whose own name still sticks to the desert he later explored. Vizcaíno met with a friendlier reception at the Bay of Peace than did earlier explorers.

When Vizcaíno arrived, the Indians were in good humor, celebrating the annual harvest of the pitahaya cactus fruit, which also saved his crew from scurvy. In 1602, sailing from La Paz Bay, Vizcaíno rounded Cape San Lucas at Baja's southern tip, and sailed up the Pacific coast, past the Vizcaíno Peninsula, all the way to the Mendocino area, north of present-day San Francisco, California.

He was among the first Europeans to explore the coasts of both Baja and Alta California, following the route taken fifty years earlier by Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo.

In 1533, conquístador Hernan Cortés had sent the ship Concepción to explore the sea that now bears his name. In 1534, Basque mutineer Fortún Jiménez seized the ship and executed its captain, Diego Becerra.

Jiménez and 22 of his crewmen were the first Europeans to land at La Paz. A few days later, while collecting fresh water from a spring, they were massacred by Pericú Indians.

Survivors on the ship brought back tales of the magnificent bay full of pearl oysters, and, ever on the lookout for riches, Cortés himself led an expedition to the bay in 1535. He founded a tiny settlement near Pichilingue (the present ferry terminal), but, with its limited supplies, it lasted only two years in the harsh desert.

It was another sixty years before the next European, Vizcaíno, disturbed the peace of the bay.

Murals, La Paz Museum of Anthropology.

Our own exploration of La Paz also began along the bay, near our hotel. We strolled a few short blocks to the malecón, a picturesque beachfront promenade lined with palm trees, parks, hotels, shops and restaurants, all facing the bay, a grand, turquoise reflecting pool for the city's famous sunsets.

Nearby streets are filled with more excellent restaurants, historical buildings, shops and shoppers, many drawn by southern Baja's largest department stores, Dorian's and Perla de La Paz.

A few blocks away is the town plaza, a tree-shaded park watched over by the Cathedral of Our Lady of La Paz, built in 1861 on the site of the original mission church. Nearby are the large municipal market, the Museum of Anthropology, a historical library and a cultural center featuring the Teatro de la Ciudad (City Theater), which hosts the La Paz Symphony and a variety of stage productions.

La Paz is also home to the University of Baja California Sur and the Technological Institute of La Paz, which specializes in the study of fisheries, using the world's most productive fishery, the Sea of Cortez, as its laboratory.

Residential street in La Paz.

Early on the morning of the third day, I drove the oil-trailing bus from our hotel parking lot to Rogelio's VW shop. There was no sign of life when I arrived at ten minutes before eight. I was supposed to be there at eight o'clock.

I was not surprised to find nobody there. After all, this was Mexico, where appointments are often suggestions and wishful thinking, not commitments. The shop might not be open for another hour or two. If we ever got back on the road at all, I would count my blessings.

But, within minutes, the crew of mechanics started showing up, and within a few minutes more, the bus was hoisted on a lift, and three mechanics were busy extracting the engine from its compartment in the rear of the bus.

Approaching La Paz Bay
from residential neighborhood.


While I waited for Rogelio to arrive, I noticed the walls of his office were papered with postcards and letters, from all over the world. All from satisfied customers, including several well-known Baja race drivers.

As I chatted with the stream of clients passing through the shop, I soon learned that Rogelio Vázquez was known throughout North America as one of the finest master mechanics in the business.

That explained not only the correspondence on his walls, but also the impressive-looking customized VW's in his shop, some with motors almost as large as the beetles themselves, bristling with chromed pipes and booming like thunder whenever a mechanic started one up.

I felt more confident than ever about getting the bus back on the road, but plenty apprehensive about the size of the bill to expect from so renowned a mechanic as Rogelio.

Bayfront scenes:
Students; Pedestrian pier;
Young love; Divers.


An hour later, Rogelio arrived and assured me the job would be done by this afternoon. In the course of our brief, friendly visits as he busily supervised the shop throughout the morning, he mentioned that he and his family would be leaving tomorrow for a trip to San Diego, and maybe we would see them on the road.

When I commented on all the cards and letters on the wall, he modestly mentioned that a gringo investor had recently offered him a sizeable fortune to become his partner and move his shop to Cabo San Lucas. Rogelio had declined the offer. "I belong to La Paz," he said. "I love La Paz. Money is not the most important thing."

The bus was ready right on time. Rogelio assured me that everything was fixed, including things I hadn't asked for, it was in excellent shape, and should give us no more problems with leaking oil. I braced myself for the bill.

For pulling the motor, taking it apart, replacing the necessary seals, putting it all back together again and replacing various other items, each of which Rogelio had carefully itemized for me in both Spanish and English, including parts and seven hours labor by his team of mechanics: a grand total of 1,012 pesos, or less than a hundred U.S. dollars.

And no charge for finding us a good hotel and providing an excuse for a thoroughly enjoyable three-day vacation in La Paz.

Golden moment on the bay.

We decided to enjoy one more night in the City of Peace, using the excuse that it might be prudent to take the bus for a test drive before heading back up the highway, just in case.

We drove the length of the Pichilingue Peninsula, the thumb of land that encircles La Paz Bay on the east, past the ferry docks to Punta Balandra and Tecolote Beach, a forty-mile round trip scenic drive. This is where La Paz residents go when they go to the beach. We were back at the hotel before sunset, and, for the first time in three years, there was not a drop of oil on the pavement beneath the bus after we parked.

For dinner, we returned for a second time to the Dragon Chinese restaurant, and stuffed ourselves with plates piled high with the best spicy shrimp we've ever eaten, at a fraction of the prices we were used to.

Sunset on Bahia de La Paz:
The malecon; Waterfront park;
Harbor; Sailboat.


Early the next morning, after another excellent three-dollar breakfast for two at the cafe downstairs from our room, we finally got the tank of gas we were looking for earlier in the week, at the Pemex station five blocks up the street from our hotel.

We wouldn't have to contend with the shark with the petrified teeth in El Cien after all. We made good time across the sandy desert to Ciudad Constitución, southern Baja's third largest city.

Constitución is a town with very little history. It was built in the 1950's as a marketing center for produce from the fertile, but only recently irrigated, Magdalena Plain. Despite its population of around 40,000, this less than photogenic strip town has little appeal for tourists, except as a jumping-off point for whale watching at Magdalena Bay, on the nearby Pacific coast.

With the twin jewels of La Paz and Loreto within a couple of hours drive in either direction, it's no wonder most travelers stop here only for gas, passing through the featureless agricultural plains without much notice, taking advantage of the long, straight stretches of highway to make time for more attractive destinations.

We stopped twice in Constitución on this trip, once at each of the fancy new Pemex stations. The first one, with its dozens of shiny new pumps, wasn't pumping any gas.

Pichilingue Peninsula:
La Paz across the bay; Punta Balandra;
Tecolote Beach; Espiritu Santo Island.


On the way out of Constitución, we were reminded of the fragility of life in this desert peninsula, and in general. We were slowed by a roadblock, and as we rolled slowly past, we saw police cars and an ambulance.

Lying in the road was the body of a small woman or child, covered with a white sheet, except for two little feet resting near the yellow line in the center of the road. Nearby was a small crowd of people, some of them quietly crying.

The highway that brings life to this remote land can also take it away. We thought of the countless little shrines we have seen along the road, almost always freshly decorated with flowers, in the memory of loved ones lost to the Baja Highway.

Leaving Constitución behind, we were soon sailing eastward across the flat Magdalena Plain, toward the Sierra de la Giganta. Suddenly, a car passed us, its driver honking and waving.

It slowed in front of us, and sped up again, then slowed and sped up, and slowed again. Then we recognized the gray Audi as one we had seen the day before. It was driven by our mechanic and new friend, Rogelio Vázquez!

We waved back in recognition, prompting a whole car full of friendly waves from Rogelio and his entire family, and they sped on ahead of us toward their vacation in San Diego.



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