MEXICO, it seems, begins in Los Angeles. Our taxi drivers and hotel receptionist were Mexican. So was the assistant in the all-night drugstore. Poverty begins further south, across the steel border fence, where young men gaze listlessly north towards dreams of avarice.
We rode an Amtrak train south to San Diego. The bossy lady conductor warned us: “Passengers may smoke only in the smoking car. No pipes, cigars or illegal substances.”
At San Juan Capistrano one of the conductors was injured falling out of the train and the lady conductor took the opportunity to give us such a stern lecture on safety and obedience that it was a relief finally to cross the border.
From San Diego it is a short coach ride to Tijuana, capital of Baja (Lower) California North. Mexican justice may seem harsh – drivers involved in an accident can be thrown in jail until insurance details are sorted out – but the officials are more laid-back than their American counterparts. Police on street corners look on bemused: 30 million Americans head South of the Border every year, though few go outside the triangle formed by Tijuana, Ensenda and Mexicali.
We had come to Mexico for wilderness, though, not city lights and cheap shopping, nor for the booze, girls and gambling that once made Tijuana infamous. So it was a relief to collect our hired VW Polo and join a scattered procession of RV’s (“recreation vehicles”) and juggernauts heading out into the ever-changing desert.
Imagine North America as an open right hand, palm uppermost, fingers and thumb pressed firmly together. Now separate index finger from middle finger. That, roughly, is what happened to the continent between 15 million and 5 million years ago. The Pacific flooded in to fill the gap, forming the island-studded Gulf of California, or – its more romantic name – the Sea of Cortez. The Baja California peninsula is a dry, gnarled finger, pointing 800 miles from the US border to below the Tropic of Cancer.
Less than ten inches of rain a year defines a desert, and by that definition two-thirds of Baja is desert. While great Aztec civilisations flourished on the mainland, the inhabitants of this burning land struggled to leave for posterity even crude cave paintings. Habits forced on them by the climate shocked the Jesuit priests who came with the discoverer, Hernán Cortez, 300 years ago. For ten months of the year, the priests noted, the indians were hungry. But when the rains came and the organ pipe cactus fruited, they gorged themselves. The indians would select a communal lavatory, and return to collect the dried faeces, from which the undigested cactus seeds were picked, to be ground into meal.
In 1973 the Mexican government bravely built a 1,000-mile transpeninsular highway, Mex 1, hoping to bring the 20th century and civilisation to the peninsula. Before then, only adventurers came to Baja, among them John Steinbeck who, 50 years ago, wrote of a voyage here in The Log from the Sea of Cortez.
Another explorer is the travel writer Tom Miller. We met Miller, and his partner Carol Hoffman, in Santa Rosalia, where Mex 1 gives the hot and dusty traveller his first sight of the bewitching Sea of Cortez.
It was late afternoon as the tortuous mountain road spilled us on to the beach above Santa Rosalia, where the hot air was suddenly humid, and feeding pelicans clumsily folded their wings and crashed after schools of fish that boiled in the oil-calm water.
From the guide book we picked the El Morro hotel in Santa Rosalia; clean, slightly dishevelled, and cheap, though it is said to be the best in town. Miller and Hoffman were our neighbours, and gently chided us for remarking on the incongruity of roadside shacks of hardboard, cardboard and palm thatch, complete with state-of-the-art satellite television dishes. “They’ve got their priorities right,” Miller said. “It doesn’t rain and it doesn’t get cold. What do they need a house for?”
Conditions have improved since 1953, when Miller first rode the old dirt track to Cabo San Lucas, the peninsula’s southern tip and a mecca for big-game fishermen. But the desert still claims its victims, and roadside shrines are ubiquitous. “Perhaps it comes with the car insurance,” one of us quipped. “Third party, fire and shrine.” The bleached bones that litter the desert now are of twisted steel and chrome. The turkey vulture circles menacingly overhead, just as he does in the movies.
Off Mex 1, itself dubious in parts, few roads are surfaced. Jurgen, a German-American traveller, invited us to sit in the shade of his RV and told us of “great beaches”. “You’ll never get there in that car, though,” he said. “The road is a washboard.”
Later, we prayed for our axles and packed spare water. The only casualty was a damaged tyre, which we changed in the shade of a giant cardon cactus.
Maintaining the road must be a thankless task. Day after day the white-hot sky burns, bubbling and blistering the tarmac. The only relief is no relief at all: hurricane-force winds bring floods that carve Baja’s mountainous spine into a jagged moonscape.
Laura Greces, who runs The Moorings, a yacht charter company based at Puerto Escondido, said that the previous summer 12 inches of rain had fallen in 48 hours. That, and another five-inch downpour in December, equalled the total for the previous five years.
The Moorings chose well for their Baja base. Steinbeck, approaching from seaward, observed: “About noon we arrived at Puerto Escondido, the Hidden Harbour, a place of magic. If one wished to design a secret personal bay, one would probably build something very like this … A point swings about, making a small semicircular bay fringed with bright-green mangroves, and only when one has turned inside this outer bay can one see that there is a second, secret bay beyond …”
Anchored in the outer bay lay a small sloop, Wonder, home to Beret (pronounced Barrett) and Marv Harmon. They had left the United States two and a half years earlier, planning to cruise the world. Baja’s magic trapped them; burned almost black by the sun, they swim, snorkel and explore. In between times, they work for The Moorings, briefing charterers on the pleasures – and the hazards – of the Sea of Cortez.
Between them they prepared us well for a week of luxury on Felicidad, a 38ft Beneteau yacht. “There are plenty of sharks,” said Beret. “But they’re so well fed that they won’t bother you.” Fine. Is that what pork chops tell each other? She was right, though. Tiny jellyfish stung our shoulders as we finned across reefs that swarmed with life, but we escaped with limbs intact.
In late May, the weather was flawless, out among the shimmering islands. The sea breeze that began at 11 each morning made lunch bearable at anchor in yet another deserted bay after mornings of dolphin watching. This was “bareboat” charter at its best. “Barefoot charter,” joked Carole, first mate and navigator, wriggling her bare toes in unaccustomed freedom.
Under engine on a windless morning, we stalked huge manta rays, that basked in the sun, wingtips showing, or leapt somersaulting into the air. Two fin whales as long as the boat passed us purposefully.
“There must be fish in here, just waiting to be caught,” I thought. I tied on a huge feathered lure and streamed the line aft. For ten minutes, the lure bounced and leapt in our wake, mimicking the frenetic schools of small fish.
When the strike came, the screaming of the line as it was stripped from the reel was like an alarm. For half an hour the fish and I duelled. With no protection for the butt of the rod in my groin, my pain was as great as his. Every foot gained disappeared again as he fought for freedom.
Imperceptibly, the battle swung in my favour, and at last I saw my adversary: a handsome sailfish, prized by sportsmen. Then the line went slack as he dashed for the shelter of the boat and, with a flick of his mighty head, threw out the lure and was gone.
Contento. I would not have wanted to kill such a fine animal. I doffed my hat in respect for the fish, and accepted the jibes of my companions.
There are more than thirty major islands in the Sea of Cortez, all wildlife preserves. Isla Carmen, at 17 miles long, is one of the biggest and lies just ten miles off Loreto, once the capital of Baja California South; now a fishermen’s resort. We sailed early in the morning around Carmen’s northern point, overtaken by a far-off procession of sport-fishing boats.
Around noon we anchored in a wide, sandy bay, Bahia Salinas, and stepped ashore in a village that seemed no more delapidated than many we had seen. But the people who once mined salt here went away a decade ago.
In the grandest house, a discarded pair of underpants still lay beside a bed. Among the tattered novels in the living room, we found an exercise book whose owner had been learning English. In the dining room next door a map of London lay on the table, tourist sites ringed. Whoever had dreamed of Madam Tussaud’s and Buckingham Palace had left abruptly. His chair remained where he had pushed it back from the table.
This abandoned town is one of Baja’s more tangible ghosts. Even now I am haunted by the raw, fierce beauty of the desert. It is a catlike landscape, aloof, strong and sharp-clawed. Love it all you will – at best, it will tolerate you.