Morning comes early when you’re sleeping in a car, but the transition to getting on the road gets a bit easier as you go on. At this point, we had perfected the process of sliding awkwardly from the platform into the front seats, where we had set our clothes out the previous night. Avoiding entering the cold morning air, we quickly found, was pretty crucial to a non-grumpy morning. I’d say cheerful, but even when you love road trips, six AM starts to the day aren’t always fun.
The next stretch of road led us to San Ignacio, the name of both a small town, and the laguna nearby. Another missed sign and a u-turn later, we exited Route 1 and headed through town. As we expected, the pavement quickly disappeared and a long and winding dirt road emerged before us, but this time we knew that goal that lay before us: whales. We knew the Baja was famous for its whale watching, and being the beginning of the season, we had planned to stop somewhere along the way to catch a glimpse of these wonderful creatures. Word of mouth (let’s be honest, it was Ernie) had steered us in the direction of Campo Cortez, an ecotourism camp on the Laguna San Ignacio, a favorite mating and breeding ground of Mexican grey whales.
The dirt road continued away from town for several miles as it headed – as far as we could tell – towards the ocean. It was no problem for the ‘Cruiser, and we quickly overtook a silver Prius making they’re way down the path. We waved as they let us pass, and we continued our way down the road. At the end of the road, a series of small shacks and buildings scattered the beach. Small boats and crab pots lined their borders, and a few dogs lazed about in the shade. We stopped and got out, following a sign for whale watching, and approached an old man sitting on his porch. In his broken Spanish, Grant discerned that we were in fact at the laguna, but the campo was a further ways down the beach. Fifteen kilometers down the beach. We’re all for finding new roads, but this was kind of ridiculous.
On we went, down the road while ospreys flew by overhead and mounds of salt formed in the drying water that had pooled in the ditches below. Before too long we passed the same silver Prius from before, but this time we swallowed our pride and decided to ask for advice. That’s how we met Dave and Marta, a couple driving down from California for a long weekend, and our eventual boat mates. They were taking a short vacation to celebrate Marta’s birthday and were also headed to Campo Cortez, and fortunately, they were a bit more prepared than we were, giving us directions on down the road. They also had actual reservation at the camp. Not planning is both the beauty and the pitfall of spontaneous exploration, but after some polite negotiation and the incredible welcoming of our new friends, we hopped on a brightly colored boat and jetted off into the laguna.
The worst part about whale watching is the apprehension. Camera in tow, our eyes scanned the horizon for any sign of life, our gazes darting back and forth to ensure we wouldn’t miss anything. Every slight wave crest or spray of water grabbed our attention, but just as we were ready to scream, “WHALE,” it quickly dissipated and we were resigned to our impatient scanning. Even a pod of dolphins and a few sea lions did little to hold our attention – albeit apart from the initial excited glance. We were after a bigger quarry. We should have just listened to Maldo. Our guide and boat captain had been navigating these waters for several decades, and if anyone knew where to find a whale, it was he. It was like he could sense them coming. Without lifting a hand from the onboard motor, he nodded his head toward the right and uttered a soft “There.”
As we gazed to the patch of blue where he was pointing, bubbles began to materialize and a blob of grey mass began to emerge. It was a mating couple. Not fifteen feet from our tiny boat the duo surfaced and submerged, putting on a show for the four of us. What can I say about whales? Monstrous and gentle at the same time, the remaining hour we spent was just breathtaking. We followed the couple for some time before finally leaving them to their honeymoon. It was their territory, after all, we were just visiting tourists.
After returning to shore, we bid farewell to our boat-mates and got back into the car. We had another few hours of driving ahead of us and were running well behind schedule, though we would both agree it was a detour well worth the extra time. The next section of the drive was inland, so we traded scenic beaches and cliffs for desert and cacti as we headed back towards the Pacific. We had to get to Guerrero Negro by nightfall and the sun was rapidly fading. We got to town right as the sun set behind the ocean, but the campsite we had scoped out on the map didn’t seem to exist. We had found impromptu sleeping places before, but this was the first time we had to do it in the dark. Channeling his best adventuring spirit, Grant had an idea. Passing through a military base on the outskirts of town, he steered the Cruiser off of the highway down a small dirt road headed off into a dark field. Sure enough, he navigated our way to a sandy hill and found a perfect nook away from the road to pull in to: we had found our campsite.
It was nice to wake up away from civilization the next morning. We were only a few miles from town, but it felt like we were in the middle of nowhere when we made breakfast and packed up camp. A quick gas and ATM pit stop and we were headed further north, this time actually into the wilderness. We were headed to Coco’s Corner, small outpost in the middle of the desert ran by a boisterous double amputee. Imagine the tackiest restaurant you have ever been to and multiply that by ten and you can get an idea of the décor of this checkpoint for the Baja Rally. Surrounded by notes, postcards, and women’s underwear of all sizes and varieties, we couldn’t refuse Coco’s insistence to have a beer and take a load off. But as with all adventures, we still had a long way to go, so we finished our cans, snapped a few pics, and waved as we left Coco gesturing enthusiastically at one of his cohorts.
We drove over rocks, sand, and dirt as we made our way further north in search of the highway. After finally making it back onto a paved road, it was time to make a decision. Do we head west and meet back up with Route 1, or do we take a gamble and follow yet another dirt road north to find a national park for our last night? Another military checkpoint had put us behind schedule yet again, so the highway was tempting, but we’re explorers, damnitt. If you ever have the choice between dirt and pavement, well, you know.
We crept into Laguna Hanson after dark and made our way to what appeared to be a ranger station. It was completely deserted except for one attendant who seemed quite confused by our presence. He sheepishly gave us the OK to camp in the park and headed back to his heated cabin, probably just shocked as to why anyone would want to camp in the middle of winter. And it was quite cold. Our one complaint about sleeping in the car was that it was too hot for the sleeping bags, but that night we wished we had brought a blanket.
The next morning we finally saw the park in light, and boy were we impressed. Massive rocks jutted up from all sides, forming these grand outcrops all around us. We wasted no time eating breakfast so we could scramble on top of them and climb our way about. The views were stunning. In all the desert of the Baja, this laguna had trees, our first real glimpse of greenery on the trip. It was like a little oasis hidden away in the north. Naturally, my camera died after getting a single picture of the laguna, so you will have to use your imagination (or a Google search….). We wanted to stay longer and climb more rocks, but deadlines have the tendency to creep up on you, and we still had plenty to do. We were headed to Mexicali to cross the border back in to the States, and from there, a cannon-ball run from California to North Carolina. We had plenty of highway ahead of us, but here was one final dirt road out of the park. With the car packed up and iPod blaring, we enjoyed every curve and bump.
…Man’s battle with nature will never end. But is it really a battle? Like Sisyphus and his boulder, we build roads, tunnels, and canals, shaping nature to our will. But these are only temporary. Nature will always roll our boulder down the hill at the end of the day. So don’t fight it. Don’t make it a battle, make it a challenge: instead of adapting nature, adapt to it. That’s what is so beautiful about the Baja. It is rugged and unforgiving, yet somehow welcoming and comfortable. Life shouldn’t exist here, yet it thrives. Towns sprout up where they can find water, dried up river beds become roads, and even the goats find food wherever it is available. The desolace of the Baja is it’s beauty. Nature has already won, yet the Baja manages to achieve a wonderful existence on the fringe of defeat. So don’t be upset. Your boulder is always going to fall down the hill. Just try to enjoy the view while you’re at the top.