The day started like any other day. I awoke too early; had coffee and toast for breakfast; walked my sweet Luna-Tickle; climbed into my caravan (Mi Casita) and hit the road. That, and the fact that I was staying in San Diego with my friends Gina, Randy, and their three Rhodesian Ridgebacks, is where the similarity ends.
My first stop that day with the USA/Mexico border. After my year traveling Mexico and Central America, borders no longer scare me. Ok, they don’t scare me until the first agent steers me into the inspection bay, asks for my papers and if my dog bites, in Spanish.
The Tijuana border, by all accounts the busiest border in the world, was a breeze, which I negotiated like a champ. My life was made much easier by the fact that you are not required to register and pay the $250 vehicle deposit in the states of Baja California and Baja California Sur. I did not have to make a special trip to the agriculture inspector to declare my dog, Luna. I did not even have to get fumigated. I walked right into office with my passport, got my stamp and visitor card, crossed the breezeway to pay my $280 peso (less than $20.00) entrance fee, returned to my car, jumped on the toll highway (cuota), and away I went. This all took less than 30 minutes.
I’ve always been amazed by Mexican Customs and Immigration. I’ve crossed their border many times. Rarely have I had a wait and the process is quick, easy to navigate, and efficient. They even have signs posted declaring that it is illegal for agents to ask for a bribe (mordida). Their process is more akin to entering Canada, painless. It is nothing like entering the USA, even as a citizen I get that sphincter tightening feeling when I encounter the border agents.
The first half of the journey is by cuota. Approximately four hours on the cuota cost less than $7.00. That is an amazing price for perfect pavement, no topes, and a highway that travels along a gorgeous coastline, one that rivals Big Sur. Once the cuota ends, the dusty Mexican towns begin. It feels like a constant stream of nondescript towns until you reach Santa Rosalia and the sign, “Next Gas – 318 km.” At that moment, you are entering the black hole of the Baja desert.
I left Santa Rosalia at 4:30 p.m. My guidebook stated that it was only 73 miles to Cataviña, my first destination, but it would take a solid 2.25 hours to arrive. The race was on. I am not a great planner, and I wasn’t sure exactly what time the sun would be setting, but I did know that if it truly took as long as the book suggested I would be arriving after dark. As everyone knows, one does not drive in Mexico after the sun goes down, period.
Of the many reasons not to drive after dark, banditos are the least of your concerns. There are no streetlights. There is no shoulder on the highway and the curb is severe. The lanes are barely wide enough for two vehicles to pass, especially if one is a big-rig and the other a small caravan. The road makes many twists and turns, with dangerous curves and sudden dips into arroyos. Rain can turn any arroyo into an impassable raging river, potentially leaving the pavement littered with potholes and debris once the flood has abated. Mexican drivers are generally solid, but they do have a disturbing penchant for passing on blind corners. The pavement surface is considerably worse than the cuotas, and there is a distinct possibility of encountering an unmarked tope, a Mexican speed bump that is so gnarly that there is always a tire repair shop located within a few feet. Added to that is the potential for humans, livestock, and wild animals crossing the road. My first reminder that I could not fly down this road at top speed smacked me in the face at the first “Curva Peligrosa.” There were three makeshift crosses, peaking through the guardrail, at the apex of the curve.
With one eye in the rearview mirror watching the sun drop into the Pacific Ocean behind me, the other eye on the road ahead of me, and Tom Waits crooning about the Heart of Saturday Night, I made my way as quickly and cautiously as I could to Cataviña. I arrived just after 6:00 p.m. The sky was nearly black but the Rancho Santa Inez campground was easy to find, the nearly full moon illuminating the painted white rocks that line the route. I crawled out of Mi Casita after eight hours on the road. The sky was midnight blue and the stars were brilliant. The Big Dipper was just rising over the eastern horizon and Orion, bisected by a glorious Moon Dog, was aiming his arrow directly at the moon. I had arrived safely in Cataviña, a nowhere stop on the 318 km Baja desert hole, and home of one of the most amazing boulder/Cirio (Boojum) fields in the world.
“In the midst of the word he was trying to say,
In the midst of his laughter and glee,
He had softly and suddenly vanished away—
For the Snark was a Boojum, you see.”
From “The Hunting of the Snark”