Blanquita is the name of my truck and man, did she pull through! I bought her used earlier this year specifically for the purpose of making the long haul from Austin to Baja full of furniture, surf boards, camping gear, and next time: dogs! Here’s the story of our travels, accompanied by photos from the road.
Driving through America is a beautiful experience which every US citizen should do more of. Once outside the bubble of the city, you see the real deal. In Austin, I’m constantly wondering how there are so many rich people living in multi-million dollar homes and driving Range Rovers all over the place. Answer? They aren’t living in the rural southwest. People out here are poor, towns look nearly abandoned and things are old. We made a point to stop at local businesses and quick snippets from Wikipedia confirmed that the average income in many of these places is often less than $20,000 annually. Getting to know these things is what makes travel a beautiful thing.
We powered through Day 1, clocking about 1000 miles, and spent the night in Gila Bend, Arizona at the Yucca Motel. This place was terrific. An immigrant-owned piece of American nostalgia, and what’s more American than that? We were greeted by a sweet old man in pajamas and bare feet who checked us in after our truck stop dinner. Said truck-stop dinner was itself a glimpse into another world. One occupied by struggling families, diabetics and the mentally ill whose truck driving occupation has them hovering one step up from homelessness. I was grateful for the warm shower, clean bed and sound sleep. Grateful every day.
Day 2 we hit the road after possibly the world’s worst breakfast at a small retirement community in Yuma. From someone who actually loves watered down diner coffee, let me tell you, there is bad coffee on the road, folks. Bad coffee. The saving grace was the people-watching. The waitresses must have all been moonlighting as social workers, as they were clearly serving up more than food to the geriatric customers. It was small-town sweet. From breakfast we powered on to San Diego – a bit out of our way for this trip, but we needed to pick up some surfboards!
First bout of major good luck. We arrived in San Diego mid-day, missed out on traffic, and found our used boards at just the second shop we went to. Check out Coconut Peet’s for a good deal on a used board! This repair shop has lots to choose from, and if we had the time and the means to do some work, we would have easily chosen one of their $100 DIY boards in need of small repairs. Good stuff and it looks like the inventory is always rotating.
From San Diego it was a quick trip to the border. We chose to cross at Tecate and this was the best choice ever. Second bout of good luck! We drove through the border with our fully loaded truck without waiting in line and without any hassle. Actually, we had to hassle quite a few people to figure out where to get our FMM’s stamped. Seems like everyone working there was on lunch break. Finally we found the aduana, they stamped our paperwork and sent us on our way. We had filled out our papers ahead of time thanks to the good folks at Discover Baja and even though we listed the wrong date and the wrong border crossing (our fault, of course) nobody cared, nobody charged us extra and it was smooth sailing on to La Ruta del Vino!
We were just about getting hungry when Travis spotted a hillside hotel I’ve been obsessing about for ages. Good eye! I made him pull over and we stopped for lunch at Encuentro Guadalupe. Great experience, amazing food. As a non-drinker I can’t say much about the wine, but I did have some locally grown olives which were amazing. The appetizer-sized dish was clearly meant to be shared by 5 people, but I ate almost all of them anyway. I’m still obsessing over someday staying in the hillside bungalows. The view here was stellar, most of the meals come straight from their garden and the service was second to none.
The Valle de Guadalupe is a gorgeous place. Every shade of green. Hillsides and views. Farms. Horses, cattle and goats. Wine, cheese and good food. In search of a bathroom we stopped at a cute looking roadside stand. We had no idea what was inside, but turns out, it was cheese, and one shy chihuahua. Dona Lala sold a variety of prepackaged dried fruits and jams, but there was a line out the door for the local cheese. We tried a jalapeno variety as well as a chipotle, and headed back to the car with a small slice of traditional Mexican queso.
We pulled in for the evening in San Quintin. Not much to say about this town except this was where I learned my lesson about old school map following versus Google map usage. Not wanting to spend money on using cellular data in Baja, I had downloaded Google maps prior to departure. In search of a particular hotel, which I thought was called El Jardin (but is actually Hotel Jardines)…I mistakenly took my eyes off the road and on to Google maps! Needless to say, the phone directed me to the wrong hotel, we wasted a lot of time and spent the night instead at Mision Santa Maria, which was absolutely fine. Lesson learned. Use the guide book and look for street signs. Every major hotel has ample road signage. Do it old-school and you’re better off. Stay off the phone!
After a mediocre meal at the hotel the night before, we were ready to hit the road for breakfast and it’s a good thing we did! We made it to El Rosario and had ham and eggs at Mama Espinoza’s. This is a classic off-road culture stop and is chock-full of dirt bike, trophy truck and dune buggy memorabilia and artifacts. Too bad we missed Mama Espinoza herself who passed a few years ago at the age of 109. (we also heard 108 and 110, but by that point, who’s counting?)
As we drove further south, the landscape changed in the most beautiful ways. We moved from greenery towards desert, and passed through the Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve set up to protect the boojum trees, a wiry Dr. Seuss looking oddity that only grows across this particular latitudinal stretch of Baja. We did not see the Berrendo, an endangered antelope-like animal with an unusual shovel-shaped snout. The drive took us from desert hills to the rocky terrain of Catavina, where we stopped to check out some 1,000 year old rock paintings at a popular site just a short walk from the freeway. Most likely because we’re past whale-watching season, we were the only ones there in this magical place once decorated by the Cochimi people. If there weren’t so many flies, we’d have sat there for much longer.
Just outside of San Ignacio, our stop for the evening, we passed through our 5th military checkpoint. Only the 2nd where they bothered to look through our stuff, but the first where we both had to exit the vehicle, and the first (and only!) checkpoint where the military was none-too-friendly. Up until then we had engaged in chit chat with the soldiers, shared a few smiles and drove on. These guys were not at all interested in talking, basically told us to shut up, and kept us there for way too long while they “looked for drugs.” As two sober travelers, it was an uncomfortable blow to the ego and in the least, an annoyance, as they seemed much more interested in taking our time than doing any actual searching. This one particular checkpoint had clearly developed a culture that was far different from the rest, but we moved on without incident.
As we dipped down the hill to San Ignacio, we were met with the most amazing oasis. We had no idea what to expect, but we’d chosen the Ignacio Springs B&B because it looked close to a river on the guide book map. Good choice by us! We stayed in a yurt, had the company of the most amazing hosts, Canadian owners Gary and Terry, and enjoyed the use of their swim noodles and kayaks for a quick dip in the river. Far cooler than we expected. This will be a regular stop in the future for sure. San Ignacio is a town you can easily fall in love with. At dinner that night at Viktor’s on the square we watched kids playing volleyball, teens hanging out, toddlers running all over the place, and even the street dogs socializing. This place is magic and I wish we’d had more time here.
At breakfast the next morning our host, Gary, did his best to give us directions for the famed “North Road” to San Juanico. This is a 100 mile stretch of unpaved road beyond the San Ignacio Lagoon, through a few small fishing villages, across salt flats, and past desert ranch land to our destination, Scorpion Bay. The road has a reputation for being unpredictable, requiring 4 wheel drive, and at times covered by deep sand or water. Yet the North Road shaves a good 9 hours from the trip should you choose to skip it and head the long way along the paved route instead. This is what our 4 wheel drive Tacoma was built for! We opted in. The North Road itself is split into two options, the “high road” and the “low road,” and no matter what your mama might tell you, the advice we got was to go low. This road hugs closer to the shore and is, lately anyway, more well traveled and less risky. Although the “high road” can shave another 30 miles off your trip, you’re more likely to get stuck in a rut. Literally.
Starting off was a little tricky. Following verbal directions in an area with no street signs, few landscape markers and lots of dirt roads can be dicey. We aimed south, and with a combination of notes from breakfast, downloaded blogs from other travelers, and our GPS, we made it through just fine. Not only that, it was a blast. This is for sure the wildest off-roading I’ve done. And even at an average 30 miles per hour, I could visualize myself racing the Baja1000. When in doubt, we took the paths that looked the most traveled, we avoided all wet areas, and we stayed on the road. Success! 4.5 hours later we pulled in to San Juanico.
It’s been a good 20 years since I’ve done a road trip this long. In total, it took us 3.5 days of all-day driving. Blanquita did amazing. We got lucky and everything worked out great. I looking forward to doing it all over again with dogs, more frequent stops, and less furniture.
Sara-Mai Conway is a yoga instructor in Austin, Texas and a retreat planner with Baja Surf Yoga. She loves her Tacoma and is still cleaning sand out of the bed. To rent her home in San Juanico, follow @bajasurfcasa on Instagram.