All right, we're ready to roll. Most of Baja's recreational action, mainly of the weekend variety, takes place on the dunes and beaches of the 100-mile stretch from Tijuana, just below the border, to Ensenada. This region is much like the Southern California coast—cool, foggy mornings and pleasantly sunny afternoons; excellent surf but numbingly cold water. All save masochists should bundle up in wet suits. Tijuana (pop. 315,760), once the grungiest border town in the world, is a lot cleaner these days and still a delight, what with its two bullrings, its racetracks and its jai alai frontons. Alta California, with its topless and bottomless joints, its endless porn flicks and bookstores, has taken some of the sin out of T-town, or at least made it seem less eroto-exotic, but the Avenida de la Revoluci�n remains one of the Western Hemisphere's more pleasantly libidinous main streets.
Ensenada (pop. 87,160), at the bottom of the weekender's Baja, is another type of town altogether. It is clean, bustling, possessed of numerous fine hotels and restaurants, plus blocks of stores selling the town's excellent leather goods and less-excellent tourist junk. Some visitors feel no need to go any farther, being content to surf-fish for perch and rock bass, to surf at San Miguel (just north of Ensenada) or to view La Bufadora (literally, The Buffalo Snort), a spectacular blowhole at the tip of Punta Banda just across the bay from the Estero Beach Resort Hotel. It is not unusual to see motorcycle gangs cruising the toll road between Tijuana and Ensenada, "Highway 240" in the local parlance since it costs $2.40 American to use the quicker, safer, four-lane toll road here that parallels Numero Uno. But these gangs are usually older folks from Gringoland, wearing such decals on their leathers as LONG BEACH ELKS or PEACEMAKERS.
A favorite stop for surfers, sunners and just plain weekend watchers of the scene is the Halfway House, at the midpoint between Tijuana and Ensenada. On any Sunday it is possible to see a couple of dozen surfers below the 100-foot cliffs that beetlebrow the beaches and an equal number of dirt-bike riders pounding over the desert and dunes. "Up in Southern California, you can't surf on most beaches after 11 p.m.," says one salt-haired surfer in his piping California-cool voice. "Shucks, you even gotta keep your dog on a leash. Here, anything goes." He turns to gaze at a young lady in a lounge chair who is in the process of getting an overall tan.
For those who prefer even more action in the sun, there are the hang-gliding dunes at Cantamar, just above the Halfway House. Here the batmen of Southern California gather each weekend to play "Icarus Descending." A battered white Volkswagen van wheels up to the Cantina de Cantamar, where flies buzz, beer bottles foam and meat cooks in a fire-blackened pot over a wood blaze. The van has snorkeling gear and a beer cooler on the inside, surfboards and a blue-and-yellow hang-glider on top. "If there's wind, we fly," says a kid nicknamed "Barf" as he unlashes the big kite. "If it's dead, we surf or get bombed or snorkel. Sometimes we do it all."
Up on the dunes, at least a dozen kites are flapping and flying in the steady, cool, westerly breeze. Dick Messina, partner in a San Diego outfit called California Gliders, is on hand to instruct neophytes at $20 a lesson. A bearded former Air Force navigator and psychiatric social worker, Messina came down to Cantamar one weekend, flew a hang-glider and dropped everything to open up his new business the next day.
To get down to earth, consider the crag in the Sierra San Pedro M�rtir, which is the quarry of 14-year-old Al Hurlock, a mineral seeker from El Cajon, Calif., who has been coming to Baja on rock-hounding expeditions for more than half his life. Al and his parents are regular visitors to Mike's Sky Rancho, a pleasant oasis tucked away at the 3,900-foot level of the sierra, a three-hour drive over well-marked dirt roads and just a short hop by light plane to the landing strip on a mesa above the ranch. "There's fire opal, topaz, garnet and even a wall of pure glass out there in the hills," says Al. "Sometimes I find these geodes—they're like volcanic eggs, crystal covered with iron." He points out a chokeberry plant in a cactus-filled arroyo. "Don't ever even taste one of those bulby little fruits on that thing. The glands in your throat will swell up, your blood pressure will soar and you'll be finished." An hour's poking among the garnet-freckled boulders of the arroyo produces a flour sack full of stones, nearly all of them red garnets, a few whole but mostly fractured. "Garnets sprinkled randomly over the bleak Baja terrain," singsongs Al. "As my math teacher would say."
Later in the day, he hikes up the Arroyo San Rafael for a spot of trout fishing. The arroyo runs steadily with water year round, fed by springs that produce 2,550 gallons a minute, even in the arid fires of July. Unfortunately, a recent rain—the tail end of a hurricane—has muddied the waters and the trout will not rise to Al's offerings, dry fly or streamer. "When it's clear, I've taken them out of here with my hands," he says. "They're not big trout—about eight or 10 inches—but they're tasty."
Other guests at the ranch that weekend include six off-road enthusiasts from Baton Rouge, La., who have come to Baja for the first time with two dune buggies and a brace of dirt bikes. "All this space, this emptiness, these hills and washes and flat places," exults Billy Carriere, a young Vietnam vet and Bultaco rider. "I could ride forever down here and never get bored." He stares off to the southeast where the last light of day is pinking the peak of the Picacho del Diablo. "Wouldn't mind taking a crack at that baby one day. Looks bigger than 10,000 feet in this light, don't it?" Backpackers and horsepackers who outfit themselves at Mike's and have tried the peak would certainly agree. They would agree, too, that the pi�on and ponderosa country, to which the Sky Ranch provides access, is well worth the trekking, rich as it is with deer, mountain lion and birdlife.
The drive back out of the mountains at first light the next day is marked by scenes of empty splendor, filled for a moment by a covey of flushing slate-blue quail, then by a sprinting jackrabbit or a galloping roadrunner, once by a hunting hawk that drops a half-peeled, dead quail in front of the truck, spooked no doubt by its four-wheeled growl, then by an eagle perched on the asparaguslike top of a 10-foot century plant. A cliff drops into inky darkness, unlit as yet by the dawn, just the tops of bristling cardon cactus catching the first light.
The goal for this day is Guerrero Negro, a town of 1,410 population, primarily workers in the local salt factory that sits at the edge of Scammon's Lagoon and the Pacific, just below the 28th Parallel—the dividing line between Baja California State (the northern half of the peninsula) and Baja California Sur (the federal territory to the south). Here the true strangeness of Baja begins to manifest itself. In the eroded draws around El Rosario, paleontologists have found the bones of prehistoric creatures—50-foot hadrosaurs and tiny shrewlike early mammals—but the vegetation of today is equally weird. Giant cardons, bigger than the saguaros of Arizona, measuring up to 60 feet and weighing as much as 10 tons dry; grasping ocotillos; and the easily anthropomorphized cirio trees, called "boojums" by their discoverer, in honor of the "thing" in Lewis Carroll's The Hunting of the Snark. Guerrero Negro sits at the edge of Vizcaino Desert, a region that often goes rainless for two years at a time, but receives enough moisture from perpetual Pacific fogs and winds to support a forest of spiny plants. Along the way is the cutoff to the Bah�a de Los Angeles, a paved road that leads 70-odd miles over the waning mountains to a charming fishing resort run by Antero and Cruz Diaz where there is excellent yellowtail fishing in the fall and action for light-tackle enthusiasts year round. When Joseph Wood Krutch was there nearly 20 years ago, Los Angeles Bay was a sort of "land that time forgot." He loved it for its remoteness; the pavement is changing that, and fast.