Feature > Events/Trail Rides
Got Baja? - Part 3
Ten Daze South of the Border
story and photos by Chris Collard
From lands end on Peninsula de Concepcion, an unmanned solar-powered lighthouse provided a bird’s eye view of the surrounding area.
Ah Baja, a crystal clear sunrise, isolated sandy beaches, the warm sun, a hangover — it’s the kind of stuff that invokes thoughts of a Jimmy Buffet song — but not on this south-of-the-border morning. Adrenalin shot through my veins as we awoke to the high pitched whine of a Class 1 buggy clearing a rise just a few yards from our tents. We were 24 hours into the 37th Annual Baja 1000 race and camped near mile marker 652, just north of San Juanico on the Pacific Ocean. The rising sun cast hues of yellow and orange through a thick dusty haze, filling the void between the buggy’s tires and tierra firma as it flew past like shot through a gun. My mind was somewhat clouded from the previous night’s encounter with a few friends, but I remembered why I was there — to cover the racing action, the adventure, and to provide a Baja beating to a set of X-Terrains tires for Pro Comp. I launched (ok, I crawled) from my sleeping bag to get the race updates, some coffee, and plan the day.
A typical Baja breakfast consists of fresh tortillas from the tortillaria, smothered in mantequillia (butter) and coffee. A large stack will set you back about five pesos, or fifty cents.
During the previous four days, we had covered over 600 miles of Baja’s backcountry. The race frontrunners had already crossed the finish line in La Paz and the stragglers were pushing hard to finish the race within the 48-hour time limit. By 10 am, anyone with a chance of reaching La Paz on time had already gone by. The previous night had wreaked havoc on many race teams and in order to witness the carnage and some daylight action of the latecomers, we decided to make a run up the course against traffic. We’ll just be careful, right? The straights were no problem but the blind corners were a little nerve-racking. Proceeding north, we had to dodge off the road several times to avoid becoming a fixture on the front of a few previously rolled and smashed buggies.
When the dust settled in La Paz, less than 200 of the 300 starting teams would finish the race. And after a thousand miles of Mexico’s most treacherous terrain, the top seven finishers were within an hour of the winner. Of the 26 pro classes, six of last year’s winners successfully came back to defend their title. The team of Troy Herbst and Larry Roessler took Class 1 honors with a screaming average speed of 62.167 mph. Mark Miller/Ryan Arciero clamed victory in the Trophy Truck class, but the overall championship was again captured by Johnny Campbell and Steve Hengeveld, riding for the Honda motorcycle team. The two riders set an all time course speed record, averaging 63.505 miles an hour.
Swimming Holes, Mountain Passes And Mulege
While the race was finished for us, our Baja adventure was far from over. Heading north along the Pacific Ocean, we veered east near the small pueblo of La Ballena. Cacti and chaparral lined a boulderous and narrow two-track into the Arroyo Del Raymundo, a broad canyon which lead towards ciudad (the city of) Mulege on the edge of Bahia de Concepcion (Concepcion Bay). Numerous generations-old rancheros lined the route, some reportedly dating back to the days of the Jesuit, Dominican and Franciscan occupation of the peninsula during the missionary periods (1697 to the 1800s). The original adobe structure had long been reduced to nondescript piles of earthen mounds, and most buildings are now constructed from a mix of local stone, timber and corrugated metal.
Mid-peninsula we located a swimming hole we had visited during a 1997 trip. After many days on the road without a bath, a dip into its surprisingly cool water was refreshing and provided a sorely needed cleansing. The terrain transition from arid cacti covered lowlands to a series of ascending rolling foothills. That was about the time the CV joint on my rear driveline started acting up. Okay, it flat out died! Shot! Kaput! Toast! This was about the fifteenth Baja bash for the old boy and it had finally taken its toll. Randy and Ned were heard grumbling under a shade tree (something about my needing a new Toyota Tacoma), while they again waited for me to fix my truck. I pulled a spare driveline out and ...voilá, we were moving again! There was a partial consensus that the reason for my truck’s slow demise was that its owner had overburdened it with an entire truck’s worth of spare parts.
The Baja desert comes alive as the sun crests Concepcion Bay, casting hues of orange and yellow over the desertscape.
On the road to Mulege, we located a swimming hole we had visited during a 1997 trip. After six days without bathing, a dip into its cool water was refreshing and provided a really needed scrub down.
Although Concepcion Bay is supposed to be a marine sanctuary, a commercial fishing fleet stripped the entire bay of scallops in 1995. The scallop population is returning to healthy levels, but millions of shells lay along the shores as reminders of its demise.
The summit was several thousand feet above the valley floor and was thickly carpeted with dense oak and cottonwood trees. Descending the leeward slope, we dropped into a large agricultural valley west of the city, meandering our way through pastures and small farms.
Mulege, which has a population of just a few thousand, has a tropical ambiance and is the kind of place one could hang his hat for a while. Founded by the Jesuits in 1705 on the banks of Rio Santa Rosalia (the Saint Rosalia River for the gringos), the original mission was washed away by a flood in 1770, and subsequently rebuilt on the adjacent hillside above the high water line of the river. The city also sits on the edge of Bahia de Concepcion, one of the richest marine sanctuaries in the region. The central town square and the surrounding century-old stone buildings give Mulege a rustic third-world feeling, like a scene from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Passing orchards of fig, orange and olive trees, bordered by towering date palms, we rolled into town to stock up on tortillas, ice and such, and to take in some local cuisine.
Contrasting the past and present near a ranchero East of La Ballena, this Ironwood tree doubled as an engine, and saddle stand. With the engine hanging in the tree, we were guessing the saddle got put to use a bit more.
Racing is a dangerous sport, especially when overtaking another vehicle at 70 miles an hour on a blind hill.
Lonely Pescadors, and Peninsula de Concepcion Pig Roasts
Building code in Baja is a little different than that in the United States. It’s more of a build-what-ya-brung attitude. What was left of this structure along Arroyo San Raymundo was made of empty Tecate cans and mud. Ether way, they must have forgotten the cement in the process of sucking down all those beers.
The following day’s exploration would take us to an 80-mile trek to the northern most point on the Peninsula de Concepcion, which creates Bahia de Concepcion. After doing some quality control of most of the local cantinas, the next day we ventured further south on the pavement in search of an obscured two-track leading into the darkness, eventually locating a camp at the waters edge. The only inhabitants on the peninsula are a ranching family and a lone fisherman named Andre. Andre, whom I had visited and purchased fish from in 2000, had been living in a makeshift palapa for 20 years. His sole means of transportation and contact with the outside world, a boat. Andre was still there, still fishing. Running the beach where possible, we passed several abandoned fish camps, eventually reaching land’s end, where the azure waters of the Sea Of Cortez extended north as far as the eye could see. An uninhabited (except for a nest from a large Fisher Eagle) solar-powered lighthouse provided a bird’s eye view of the surrounding area
Backtracking to Mulege, we headed for the Hotel Serenidad to feast on their Saturday night pig roast. A major destination for race teams heading north from La Paz, the parking lot was full of tattered and bruised race rigs. If you want to hangout with the legends of racing, this is the post-race place to do it. We dined with motorcycle racing legend Ron Bishop. Bishop is one of only two racers to start every Baja 1000 since 1967, sharing that title with Four Wheel Hall of Fame member Rod Hall. Three nights later we would be sucking down some cold cervezas and having conversations with Ron and his wife at their beachfront house in Punta Final. When asked about being out on the course with 800 hp Trophy Trucks and buggies, Bishop reflected, “At night when you see the reflection of halogen lights on the back of your arms, you’d better get out of the way... The veterans are pretty good about not killing you. But the new guys, you’d just better find a wide spot and get off the road.” In early Baja racing, the philosophy was to go fast, don’t break down, and stay alive. While those primal instincts of off-road still apply, today’s racers have a technological edge. Most teams have pre-run the entire course, mapping every turn, twist and arroyo. By pre-entering the data, they now track their location, average speed, how fast they can hit each corner and if they should be accelerating or hitting the brakes. On a motorcycle however, you are on your own, left to your own demise or successes.
A light rain on the previous day turned a silt bed near Bahia De Concepcion in to a sticky, slimy mess. Our new set of X-Terrains sent the mud flying, thoroughly coating the bottom of our vehicle.
The Hall family has a long history in Baja racing. Off-Road Hall Of Fame member Rod Hall is one of only two racers to start every Baja 1000 since 1967. This year, his son Josh carried on the family tradition in a basically stock H2 Hummer, taking a forth place finish in the Pro Full Size Stock class.
The following day, reality began to set in as we turned the wheels towards northern latitudes and the border. Still 650 miles from the U.S., we were far from being done with the adventure. We had half-dozen federale checkpoints, including the immigration stop at Guerrero Negro, where we ducked into the dunes to avoid certain doom (delays and bribe money because we didn’t have our tourist visas). Our destination that night was Alfonsina’s cantina, on the waters of Bahia San Luis Gonzaga, and another mouth-watering platter of Tacos de Pescado.
We spent our last night south of the border under clear skies and miles from the closest city lights. Under a crescent moon and the light of a million stars, we reminisced of the past 10 daze in Baja. We had logged in more than 1400 miles of Baja’s wildest roads, bounced across more whoop-de-doos than one could count, witnessed the Baja 1000 at an adrenalin inducing arms length distance.
By the end of the race, broken vehicles were strewn out from Ensenada to La Paz. Most were towed into the pits and repaired. Those that were damaged beyond repair were put on trailers for the ride home.
Running the beach where possible, we passed several abandoned fish camps, eventually reaching land’s end, where the azure waters of the Sea Of Cortez extended north as far as the eye could see.
My trusted ’82 Toyota pickup had suffered a broken spring and tie-rod, one toasted driveline, a tweaked fender, broken mirror and antenna, and crashed off the road in the middle of the night. Number of times Ned and Randy’s Tacomas broke down? Zero! For 22 years and 350-thousand miles, the old boy has served me well, and will continue to be my favorite rock rig. Was it time for a cushy new Tacoma? Am I getting old and soft? We’ll see. As for the new set of dogs, the Pro Comp X-Terrains? After putting them through the grueling paces of the Baja 1000 racecourse, I was unsuccessful in my quest to destroy them. No flats (that is a 1st) or chunks out of the sidewalls. Not Bad! And the $64k question, did I get the money shot? By the virtue that you are reading this, I suppose I did. If not, it gives us the perfect excuse for another adventure south to Baja California’s wild backcountry.
The Saturday night pig roast at Hotel Serenidad near Mulege is not to be missed. A major destination for race teams heading north from La Paz, the parking lot was full of tattered and bruised race rigs.
Having a little pyro fun around the ol’ campfire.
After loosing our headlights, steering and a leaf spring, the driveline on our 350-thousand mile ’82 Toyota gave up the ghost. Pulling a spare from the parts box, we were rolling again in good speed.
Two Thumbs Up
So how did the Pro Comp XTerrians do? Our renegade dash to the Baja 1000 took us over more than a thousand miles of the frontier state’s most unforgiving terrain. Sand beaches along the Sea Of Cortez, and estuarial mud in Bahia De Gonzaga: We crawled granite boulders in the Sierra Las Asamblea Mountains, razor sharp lava flows near Bahia Adreana, pounded over miles of high speed whoop-de-doos, and exited the road in an out-of-control fashion into a sea of cactus. Aired down to 12 psi, the XTerrian’s compliant sidewalls squatted, enlarging the footprint and offering excellent floatation in the sand (see June issue, page 12). On the rocks, the tread design and soft rubber compound was compliant, wrapping around the terrain and providing ample traction. During high speed cornering over uneven terrain, mixed with fist sized scree, lateral stability ranked high. And for the midnight cacti encounter, they were resilient to the piercing blows of our thorny adversaries. Do we write this because the tires were gratis? We’ll just say that we’ve never come back from an adventure south of the border without slicing, dicing or plugging at least one tire. After more than a thousand miles on the dirt, we crossed the border heading home without touching a lug nut. Despite our intentional thrashing, which is just part of the game in Baja, they took it all without protest. Christened with a cold Corona, we’ll have to give our Pro Comp XTerrians a rating of: TwoThumbs/Two Cervezas Up, the highest available for a Baja Bash.