Bajas roadside signs fit into one of three categories: They have been left to slowly disintegrate in the sun and wind, they are vague and misrepresentative, or they are outright lies.
Every traveler is taken in by all three types eventually.
We are traveling in September and the end of the tourist season means that almost every roadside burrito stand is closed and most highway restaurants have already started to shutter their windows.
Stomachs grumbling, we see a tattered sign for La Cueva de los Piratas restaurant (The Pirate's Cave) and decide to make a beeline for the dusty road leading toward the beach. It seems a straight shot to the ocean, but about 20 minutes in we are having second thoughts. Our road gets dustier, the houses further apart, and we're soon slipping and sliding on lose sand, regretting the ignored warning to bring a shovel with us on the trip.
About 500 meters from the shore the road simply disappears into a flat field of rocks and brushweed. Immediately to our left is a single cement block building. An overturned couch sits looking toward the ocean, the burned-out shell of an old work van sits half-buried in the sand, a stuffed bunny placed gingerly on the windowless dashboard. An open fridge guards the back door and a sweeping breeze shifts trash around. This is easily the home of a serial killer.
Far down the beach what looks like beachcombers, fully dressed in pants and button-down shirts, start heading towards us ata gait. Are they holding bibles in their hands? We don't wait for them to arrive. Jumping back in the car, we are sure we have a missed a turn. Fifteen minutes of backtracking leads us to the fork in the road that we missed. We find the Pirate's Cave a few hundred feet down the road, a shell of a building, with empty, glassless windows, the ocean breeze lifting its raggedly curtains in greeting.
Our First Baja Graveyard
We are determined to see the whole state during our two-week vacation, starting out and ending back in Tijuana, Mexico's most infamous of border towns. The state is most heavily populated on each of its ends, With Tijuana, Rosarito, and Ensenada to the north, Los Cabos, Todos Santos and La Paz in the south. That said, "populated" might be a bit of an overstatement. Only 4 million residents live in 60,000 square miles, 3 million of them clustered in northern Baja.
Just outside of San Quintín, we are told there's a beach hotel just down the road. The sign is faded, but everything in Baja is faded – a local's recommendation encourages us. When we get to the end of the road what must have once been a collection of bungalows sits abandoned, surrounded by a half-buried wire fence dividing it from endless miles of sand dunes. The ocean is nowhere to be seen, but some cars are headed over a dune to the left and we decide to follow. We park on the other side, wade through a piss-warm river, cross another dune, and there it is, the ocean.
Descending the dune in triumph, we notice that the beach's sand has a peculiar look to it. On closer inspection we discover it's covered with millions of sand dollars—every shape, size and color imaginable. It's a sand dollar graveyard, where tiny sea creatures come to die. I collect a dozen or so to take home, remembering all those early mornings on childhood vacations just hoping to find a single sand dollar intact on the beach!
The sea lion sanctuary is marked on the road and on our tourist map of the peninsula. We are sure this is a good sign that it will actually exist. Who doesn't want to see some sea lions frolicking about? As we exit off the highway, an impending feel of automotive doom starts to settle over the car. The sanctuary might exist but the road certainly does not. We slip and slide for 40 minutes chasing the edge of the ocean that had looked so close minutes before from the highway. As we descend into rocks, sand, and brush, it becomes obvious that the 4-door is never making it back up the hill without some serious help. We decide before we start working out an exit strategy to trek the rest of the way to the sanctuary in the heat and at least see some goddamn sea lions.
But the beach, like so many we visit, is abandoned except for two locals collecting some of its millions of oval-shaped, smooth-as-silk stones. No sea lions, no visitors center, not even an unhelpful sign. We walk the shore, considering transporting some of these beautiful stones back to Mexico City, but the car is going to have a hard enough time without the extra weight. We do end up taking a few—to wedge under the tires when we can't get any traction in the sand pit we've driven into. Hours later we are finally back on the road.
The Valle de los Cirios and the Vizcaíno biosphere reserve that sit on the belly of the Baja peninsula are a combined 18,000 square miles of naturally preserved area. It takes almost 7 hours to cross if you barrel right through. It doesn't look that far on a map.
As we head into it, a landscape that had been scattered with towns and farms now becomes downright lonesome. No signs, no people, not even an animal in the mid-day desert sun. Cirios cacti, mesquite trees, and piles of sun-bleached rocks stretchout for eternity. The sun beating in on the passenger side window is turning my arm a rosy pink and the desert dust is coating everything with a pale white film. This is no-mans land, a place like no other than I have seen while traveling around Mexico. We are hushed as we drive. The iPod isn't working and it has been a long time since we have been able to get any radio stations. There's finally some life as a hare scampers across the road.
Halfway through the desert a cardboard sign on the side of the road announces cocos frios (cold coconut water). It sounds delicious in the heat. The ramshackle oasis is manned by a single attendant, who scoots about like Gollum, repeating every word to me twice. "Pato, pato," he says as I look at the duck he has caged up on the side of the restaurant. The duck looks as worried as I am.
I pay for my coconut water and quickly head for the car. Any more time in the desert and I'm going to be that guy.