Exploring Baja California: Off-Roading Adventures and Hidden Gems

313

Stretching for over 750 miles along a slender peninsula, Baja California has long been renowned for its water-based adventures. However, a new trend of off-roading tours is allowing travelers to experience this unique region from a fresh perspective.

As I grip the roof handle and peer silently over the dashboard, I divert my gaze from the 160-foot drop to my left. A mere six inches of dirt road separate us from the cliff edge, and any misstep by our driver could send our pickup truck hurtling into the Sea of Cortez.

My first encounter with Mexico’s Baja California was during a backpacking journey through Central America. I covered over 650 miles, hitchhiking and taking buses from Tijuana (near the US border) to Todos Santos, just shy of Baja’s southernmost point, Cabo San Lucas. Along the Carretera Transpeninsular, I explored major towns, indulging in wine-tasting in Ensenada, whale-watching in Guerrero Negro, and swimming with sea lions on Espiritu Santo Island.

During those long drives, I’d gaze out at the stark desert landscape for hours: salt-encrusted greasewood shrubs and towering cardón cacti sprouted from expanses of sand and clay-red mountains. At sunset, the landscape often transformed into a cotton-candy pink hue. But what intrigued me were the narrow dirt tracks crisscrossing the desert like a map etched in the sand, leading away from the highway toward sun-drenched sierras and hidden turquoise coves. I vowed to return one day and explore where those roads led.

Fast forward five years, and I find myself in La Paz, located in the southern part of the Baja California peninsula. I’ve joined Baja Expeditions’ inaugural overlanding trip. While the company has long specialized in whale-watching, kayaking, and wild camping, they’ve recently expanded to offer off-roading tours, encouraging visitors to delve into the peninsula’s less-visited interior.

“People often associate Baja with beaches and whales,” says our driver, Mike Thorneycroft, a Canadian who relocated to Baja California in 2020. “But it’s much more than that. These trips aim to take people out of resorts and immerse them in Baja’s lesser-known communities, allowing them to learn about the region’s history and culture.”

Navigating past the cliff edge, Mike deftly maneuvers around asteroid-sized potholes and boulders as we ascend the Sierra de la Laguna, part of a mountain range connecting Baja California Sur with southern California in the US. As the roads widen slightly, I finally relax and absorb the views. Unlike the parched desert I’d seen from the highway years ago, these mountains now thrive with lime-green mesquite trees and pink-and-yellow wildflowers, nourished by recent hurricane rains. We cross dry riverbeds (arroyos) brimming with crystalline water, where orange butterflies flutter alongside free-roaming piglets from a nearby ranch. A vulture and a flaming red cardinal bird join our journey.

“Baja California is tailor-made for off-roading,” Mike explains. He’s no stranger to rugged terrain, organizing and competing in long-distance off-road rallies across the state. “The rocky, wild, and unpredictable roads change rapidly during the rainy season. But that’s precisely what makes it exhilarating.”

Near the former silver-mining town of El Triunfo, we pause at the Santuario de los Cactus, a community-run garden housing some of the world’s oldest and rarest cacti, including the cardón, the largest cactus species globally. Guided by the garden’s gray-mustached volunteer caretaker, Guadalupe ‘Lupe’ Gonzalez, we learn which cactus fruits are edible and how to extract water from their flesh. Lupe also shares knowledge about cacti used to treat kidney stones, stomach aches, and open wounds.

“This wisdom comes from the Indians,” Lupe says, gently caressing the spines of a 400-year-old cactus. “Although none remain here today, their survival skills continue to guide us in the desert.”

Before the Spanish arrived, Baja California was home to three major Indigenous groups: the Cochimí, the Guaycura, and the Pericú. Ancient rock paintings in the Sierra de San Francisco, approximately 465 miles north of my current location, attest to their presence for at least 10,000 years. Despite colonization occurring later than on Mexico’s mainland, the culture and history of these local Indigenous groups faded more swiftly. Nomadic hunter-gatherers, they lacked the urban centers that preserved the legacies of the May.

ByJessica Vincent

Source: National Geographics