The road has many names. Mapmakers call it Mexico 1 or the Transpeninsula Highway. To Mexican patriots it is La Carretera de Benito Juarez, while to the less patriotic it is simply Numero Uno. To the yanquis from Alta California who pour down its two-lane blacktop in pursuit of those wide-open spaces and smogless serenities now largely extinct on their own turf, it is the Frijole Freeway or, to the more lyrically minded, the Thousand Mile Dream. Whatever the monicker, it is, in all senses of the phrase, a Highroad to Adventure.
Since its official dedication in December 1973, the 1,067.5-mile Baja Highway (as most motorists call it) has carried hordes of outdoor-adventurous norteamerkanos into the heart of a previously impenetrable wonderland—a sun-scorched, seagirt playground where almost anything recreational is possible. Baja California, the peninsular appendage that begins at the U.S.-Mexican border just below San Diego, is nearly 800 miles long, twice the length of Florida, which seemingly balances it on the hemispheric map, and fully 100 miles longer than that other romantic peninsula of literature and legend, Italy. Aside from its shape, it is totally unlike either of them. Flanked on the west by the chilly Pacific Ocean and on the east by the warm, fish-rich Sea of Cortez, Baja's 55,000 square miles contain a unique mix of mountains and beaches, plant and animal life, wind, sand and seascape that offers a lifetime of exploration and exhilaration to anyone bold enough to visit it. And with the help of the $120 million highway and appurtenant hotels and gas stations, one need not even be that bold.
Apart from the chance of picking up a touch of turista, the stereotyped "dangers" usually associated with Mexican travel are absent from Baja. There are no gold-hatted bandidos with pearl-handled six-guns lurking behind the mesquite, though there are plenty of American rip-off artists—usually hippie-type surfers traveling on a board, a bus and a sawbuck. That danger is confined, fortunately, to the northwestern coastal region, mainly between Tijuana and Ensenada; anyone who presses farther south is usually well-heeled and well-equipped. A greater danger is automotive breakdown, but the government-sponsored Green Angel patrols, which cruise the entire length of the highway at frequent intervals, are on hand with spare parts, fuel and mechanical skills to alleviate much of that peril. Hospitals or clinics can be found in the larger cities, and light planes are available almost everywhere to fly out accident victims in case of emergency. Danger is minimal, the chance for fun maximal.
A list of the basic recreational opportunities available in Baja includes surfing, sailing, water skiing in various forms, skin diving, fishing (everything from a dry fly for the unique Baja rainbow trout, Salmo nelsoni, through surf casting for corvina and rock bass to jigging for grouper, roosterfish and yellowtail or trolling for marlin and sail), hunting (for everything from white-winged doves and quail through desert bighorn sheep to fossils of giant dinosaurs, extinct sharks with petrified teeth the size of a man's hand and the odd mammoth or mastodon tusk), flying (from light planes to hang-gliders) and riding (horses, mules, burros, dirt bikes, dune buggies and that newfangled, aquatic bucking bronco, the Jet-Ski).
The botanist, the bird watcher and the bivalve freak can also have a field day in Baja. Of the 110 species of cacti found on the peninsula, fully 80 are endemic. In addition to the millions of ducks, geese, herons, plovers, gannets, terns and gulls that shroud the beaches and marshes of Baja, there are rare birds as well, such as the small red raptor known as Harris' hawk or the big black carrion eater, Audubon's caracara. Shellfish fans (both collectors and eaters thereof) need only touch a shovel to the shore along the Sea of Cortez to come up with a treasure trove—anything from a delicate pink murex to a bucket of juicy butter clams. Nor will the rock hound be disappointed; onyx, turquoise and garnets galore are available for the plucking in the sierra. If the rock hound is also a rock climber, he will be doubly delighted. The Sierra San Pedro M�rtir, in the northern reaches of the peninsula, offers the challenging 10,126-foot Picacho del Diablo—the Devil's Peak—while the Sierra Giganta to the south still counts some unsealed summits in its jumbled, arid, 200-mile reach. And though by now many a man has flown, driven, motorcycled, bicycled and sailed the length of Baja, no one has yet walked its serrated spine.
Along the way, and with a few side trips to the islands that dot the Sea of Cortez, a truly adventurous traveler will also see some remarkable wildlife. Not African in scale, since so dry and spare a land cannot support the huge herbivores and predators of that continent, it is interesting enough in its own right. Some 28 species of vertebrates exist only in Baja, among them a tubby two-foot-long chuckwalla lizard that stores the infrequent rainfall (two to 10 inches a year in the lower reaches) in sacs within its body and literally sloshes when it walks. On the island of Santa Catalina off the east coast lives a small, dun and deadly rattlesnake, Crotalus catalinensis, that has no rattle on its tail—the only crotalid thus undistinguished. Perhaps the most interesting mammal, if you exclude the Pacific gray whales whose turbulent sex life makes them such an attraction during the winter mating months at Scammon's Lagoon, is a gulf-side bat that eats seafood. Skimming low over the vermilion waters at dusk, it snags small sardinas with its claws—one of the few piscivorous bats known to science.
The surreal reality of Baja is reason enough to visit it. Until the completion of the highway, such a visit was restricted mainly to the airborne and the off-road wise. For more than four centuries, Baja had resisted the attempts of civilized man to penetrate it. Hernando Cortez first visited the peninsula in 1535; missionaries and fortune hunters soon followed. The missions failed, while the fortune hunters, having discovered oysters bearing black pearls in great abundance, lasted a bit longer. In the 1940s a mysterious disease wiped out the oyster beds, some say as the result of germ warfare by the Japanese, who had pearling interests on the far side of the Pacific. Agriculture is nearly impossible in Baja, since, unlike its sister California to the north, it has no snow-capped Sierra Nevada and no gushing Colorado River to drain for irrigation. What little agriculture exists does so courtesy of the "fossil water" pumped up from deep wells in the Vizcaino Desert and the Magdalena Plain—water locked into the porous substrata eons ago during a wetter era. Like oil or natural-gas deposits, it is a finite resource, and the Mexican government is using it wisely—i.e., slowly and surely—while it lasts.
The highway has opened up this once-impenetrable wasteland with remarkable ease. Today it is fully possible, if a bit worrying, to drive a low-slung American passenger car the length of the peninsula, from Tijuana to Cabo San Lucas, in two days. During the early 1960s, when the pavement ended at Ensenada, just 100 miles below the border, even so canny an observer as the late Joseph Wood Krutch was able to title a lovingly rendered book about Baja The Forgotten Peninsula. No more. Last year, fully 7.5 million vehicles crossed the imaginary dotted line separating America's most populated state from one of North America's wildest. Most of them came in regular road cars. All of them came for fun. And in one way or another, the majority of them got it.
Still the best way to travel Baja, if one is really serious about taking its pleasures as they come, is by four-wheel-drive vehicle. A passenger car can make it all right, but it restricts one to the pavement. With four-wheel traction, the options are more than quadrupled. What's more, most 4WD trucks come tough enough to carry the other toys that make a Baja jaunt such a blast: a car-top aluminum boat, perhaps, with an outboard motor that can put an angler in reach of the 586 known species of fish inhabiting the Sea of Cortez (only 10% of which hang out in the really deep water); a surfboard to test the variable waves that occur in almost every cove (one beach below El Rosario boasts a 1�-mile ride under proper wind conditions); snorkeling gear; fishing tackle; tents and sleeping bags and charcoal broiler; a shovel that can not only dig you out of a sand dune but also turn up a dinner of clams any night on any beach; a motorcycle equipped with knobbies that can teach a man or boy the toughness of the desert and the proper respect for fang-tipped puckerbushes.
Self-sealing off-road tires are a good idea, the wider the better if one plans to do much driving in sand. If tire pressure is reduced to 12 or 15 pounds, a set of 12-inch tires can take even as heavy a vehicle as a Chevy Blazer through sand that would be difficult to walk through. One of those handy-dandy pumps that plug into the cigarette lighter eases the job of re-inflation once the soft stuff is past. A note of caution regarding the paved highway is in order: since its opening two years ago, the Baja Highway has reportedly killed hundreds of American motorists (and uncounted but doubtless many more Mexicans). It is not a freeway. Only two lanes wide, never more than 24 feet in total width, and shoulderless for much of its length, it should never be driven in excess of 55 mph, and more often than not no faster than 35. Blind curves, sheer cliffs with minimal guardrails in the mountainous sections, the vagaries of grazing cattle and horses, not to mention Mexican truck drivers who seem to feel their fate is in the hands of God or machismo—all these make for dangerous driving, especially at night when the trucks and the cattle are out in full force. In fact, it is best to establish a firm rule—reach your destination before dark, or else use your emergency food supplies to camp out at dusk. You can hardly go wrong camping anywhere in Baja if you have water, fuel and food. The countryside, anywhere, is splendid. (Subcautionary note: when picking up wood or cactus for an evening fire, watch out for scorpions. More people die in Mexico each year from scorpion sting—usually infants or the infirm—than from rattlesnake bite.)