Chasing Summer in Baja California
The California super bloom spread south to Baja Norte as shown in the above picture. However, more on that later. For now (early January) we are heading south in search of summer. Craig built a camper on top of our aging Toyota pick-up. While looking somewhat like a taco wagon with the top down, it’s quite comfortable with the top up.
We’d not been to Baja California before and hadn’t a clue what to expect. Crossed the border on the ides of January at San Luis just south of Yuma, AZ. An easy crossing early afternoon on Sunday. However, don’t dally as the bank closes early on Sundays. It costs about $25/per person to enter. If you stay in the “hassle free zone” of upper Sonora and all of Baja, you needn’t register your vehicle (big time and money savings). You should, however, buy Mexican insurance for liability and damages, and carry the proof of insurance with you. There are many sites online and at the border to buy this insurance. If we do it again, we might cross at Lukeville/Sonoyta, south of Gila Bend, AZ, because re-entry through San Luis on a Tuesday afternoon in March took several hours of waiting in a long, long line.
The whole peninsula north to south is about 900 miles. It takes only a few days to zip through to the Cabo resorts at the tip. (We don’t recommend this.) It’s comprised of two states…Baja California Norte (BCN) that we’re visiting in this chapter, and Baja California Sur (BCS). The Trans Peninsular Highway (TPH), is constantly being improved, but much is still very narrow with non-existent shoulders. Bicyclists who venture south on this highway apparently take their lives very lightly. Large trucks, speeding motorists and random potholes make driving an adrenaline-pumping adventure. Better to putter along, enjoy the scenery and let the impatient drivers go around. Or, as we did, avoid some of the TPH by going first to San Felipe on the upper gulf side. An interesting aside: because the Sea of Cortez (or for the more politically correct, Gulf of California) is long and narrow, the tides around San Felipe are over 20 feet. Even higher where the Colorado River enters the sea.
Found a secluded inland spot northwest of San Felipe for the first night’s camp. The Sonoran desert in AZ, while grand, pales before the expanses and plant variety found below the border.
Highest peak in Baja, Pica del Diablo, 3100m, is visible from here. Snow could be seen in the higher crevasses.
San Felipe is not much of a town, but gringos like it. It’s surrounded by inland subdivisions and coastal development in both directions. Perhaps tourists only come down for big holidays because when we were there, mid-January, most houses were uninhabited. Our theory is after the crash of 2008, many investors lost interest in or title to their Mexican holdings. Some big development schemes and dreams of late-comers obviously went awry shortly after building impressive entrances.
We’d read in our guide book that the road south was still wild, unpaved and would take us about 4 days to drive through. After provisioning ourselves, we set out. The paved road south was bad; we worried about the dirt section to come.
Imagine our surprise to find a completely new highway just past Puertocitos… wide, no potholes, elegant bridges…and practically no traffic! Along this new highway we found a lovely spot to camp overlooking a gorgeous canyon. No one anywhere near us for miles.
The last section of this new highway before it joins the TPH on the south end is still under construction, but it only takes another two hours to bump through. At road’s end one enters the Valle de los Cirios (literally valley of the wax candles). Cirios is what they call boojum trees…one of the weirder members of the plant kingdom, endemic to Baja. The candle comparison is apt…tall and tapering with a florescence of creamy flowers on top. They had bloomed earlier during the fall rains.
Here is a quote from Joseph Krutch, a naturalist seeing these trees for the first time in the late 1950’s…”Here all about me were the thirty-foot cirios, or boojum trees, found nowhere else in the world except here…all within a radius of something like 125 square miles. Here also the true elephant tree raised its contorted branches, monstrously thick near the trunk and tapering abruptly as they grow outward.”
Cardón cacti replace their more northerly saguaro relatives. The boojums and cardóns can grow to 50′ tall. Started searching for baby boojums as we weren’t seeing any. Boojums only grow a few inches a year so there had to be little ones. Krutch mentioned this mystery. His conclusion was that a good germination year had to be followed by a few low rodent population years so the seedlings would have a chance to survive long enough to avoid being eaten by rodents. After days of searching we found a mother-lode of baby boojums.
The desert is sere, with wildly varying annual rainfall. Wildlife is scarce. Ranchers let their cattle seek water and forage wherever they can. The open range crossing signs show a rather dejected looking bovine. Not hard to understand when seeing what they are forced to eat.
There are a few local and wintering birds from the north, plenty of coyotes, some rabbits, small rodents, a few lizards and lots of feral burros. Most desert life only comes out at night. Snakes may be still hibernating because, although the temperatures are in the 70’s and 80’s, it is still winter.
Along the unfinished portion of the new highway, Coco’s corner still hangs on with cold beer for the weary traveler.
The San Andreas fault runs under the Sea of Cortez. Mainland Mexico rides the North American Plate while Baja rides the Pacific Plate. High, nearly naked, steep granite and basalt mountains jut out of the narrow peninsula, some out of the sea itself. The western edge of the peninsula is subsiding still. Underlying aquifers of dwindling fossil waters keep the agriculture businesses afloat. Springs in the unlikeliest spots provide oases for human and animal inhabitants.
Thanks for reading chapter 1. More to follow eventually.