Traversing the Transpeninsular

Or conquering the carretera
BY: MARLA O'BRIEN

We all love the Cabo region and everything it has to offer. For many vacationers, this is the only Baja they see. But there is so much more to this extraordinary peninsula than its tiny tip.

This fall, my husband Andrew and I drove the transpeninsular highway for the ninth time with our truck and 19-foot fiberglass trailer.

Marla O'Brien travel story.jpeg

Whenever we tell people in the U.S. or Canada that we camp throughout Baja, their first question is inevitably “Do you feel safe?”

Honestly, we feel much safer here than in the traffic snarls around Los Angeles or the backroads of the Midwest during hunting season.

That said, crossing the border for the first time is understandably intimidating given the glaring differences in poverty, lack of infrastructure, road conditions, and language.

But, we are now comfortable with getting all the proper insurances, picking up tourist cards at immigration, and navigating the numerous military checkpoints along the way.

It is wonderfully worth it. Our favorite first stop is Playa Hermosa about 30 kilometers south of San Felipe, where the Rancho Neuvo Mazatlan is situated among pinon pine fronted by a miles-long swath of beach on the calm Sea of Cortez.

After the stress of the border, letting my toes sink into the soft warm sand always brings a rush of peace and utter joy.

Except for last year, when Andrew forgot to shuffle his feet in the shallows and learned first-hand why this advice is so stressed. He got whacked by a stingray.

Andrew says this was the greatest pain he’s ever felt in his life, even more than when he cut his thumb off with a skill-saw doing carpentry decades ago (doctors were able to re-attach it). Mind you, he has never given birth.

The next leg of our journey takes us down Highway 5 past Puertocitos and Gonzaga Bay, and along the infamous stretch of bone-rattling dirt road past Coco’s Corner.

This is a Baja institution that fly-in visitors never get a chance to experience. Coco’s Corner is a shack, very literally, in the middle of nowhere presided over by host extraordinaire Coco.

The sexagenarian double-amputee has been serving cold drinks to thirsty travellers along this dirt track for over 20 years. During that time, he has meticulously recorded the names and birthplaces of his visitors and decorated the ceiling with underwear from female guests.

But 2019 has brought big changes. The long-awaited paved connector is almost complete, shaving hours off our journey and bypassing his corner entirely.

While we missed saying “hola” to our friend Coco, we certainly didn’t miss the jarring gravel that has been known to shake RVs apart.

The area where Highway 5 joins the 1 is remote with nothing except boulders and cactus as far as the eye can see. Yet these are not ordinary rocks and plants.

Here the desert blooms with massive saguaro, many over 40 feet tall, and unique cirio cacti that look like upside-down furry green carrots. Amidst this flora are giant granite piles arranged with seemingly mathematical precision.

After a few hours winding through this Dr. Suess-ian landscape, we cross into Baja California Sur and come to Guerrero Negro. This city is known for its salt flats and the largest sea salt processing plant in the world, as well as whale watching tours in the Ojo de Liebre lagoon on the Pacific side of the peninsula.

Sadly we also know it as the only place in Baja we were scammed by police, ticketed for rolling through a stop sign that wasn’t there. I think it was removed by an enterprising cop. So yes, it does happen and gringo drivers need to be watchful.

Past Guerrero Negro Highway 1 heads south-east, and we stop in the charming date palm oasis of San Ignacio to camp next to its freshwater lagoon.

Our company for the evening are fellow travelers who kayak past and a noisy flock of coots. At dusk tiny bats put on an aerial display swooping over the water’s surface feasting on bugs. It is blissfully tranquil.

The next day’s drive takes us past extinct volcanoes and lava flows before descending the Cuesta del Infierno (Grade to Hell) back down to the Sea of Cortez.

At the base of the mountains is Santa Rosalia, an industrial city with a large copper mine and ferry terminal to the mainland. Though not a typical tourist stop, its central plaza is very quaint and boasts something unique in all of Baja - a prefabricated iron church designed by Gustav Eiffel, famous for his Parisian tower.

Our destination for the day is a few more hours south at postcard-perfect Bahia Concepcion. This gorgeous bay hosts over a dozen campsites and tiny villages along shallow turquoise waters.

We park at Playa Requeson, a white triangle of sand with beaches on two sides and a small off-shore island that can be walked to at low tide. Half a dozen palm leaf palapas provide shade for guests.

Here, there is no cell service and no options other than to completely unplug and enjoy the surroundings. That means chatting with other campers from Europe, feasting on great food and margaritas at Playa Buenaventura’s locally-famous Taco Tuesday, and dipping in the ocean whenever the mood, or overheat, strikes.

We spend an extra day chilling at Requeson, and then it’s time to continue south into the Sierra Gigantica. This aptly-named mountain range forms the backdrop for the area around Loreto and Puerto Escondido. Its jagged sharp peaks look like you’re in Jurassic Park and the views as you ascend the highway are both jaw-dropping and terrifying.

This road never lets you forget how truly dangerous it is. Along with many curves are roadside memorials and shattered glass shimmering on the slopes. When you hear advice not to drive at night, it has nothing to do with mythical banditos and everything to do with speeding transport trucks and wayward cows.

At this point, the carretera heads west over a lush plateau of agricultural fields. The tangerines grown here are delicious and the asparagus finds buyers as far afield as Germany.

Here we are also cautious of the stop signs in Cuidad Constitution, with 17 of them in a two-kilometer stretch. Of course, we are the only ones actually stopping.

After six days, 1,451 kilometers, and a significant increase in temperature, we arrive at our winter home in El Pescadero.

Why do we drive for days when you can fly to Cabo in hours? It’s the journey, not just the destination. It allows us to experience the real Baja, not the glitzed-up touristy version. And it allows us to bring our tiny home and dog, a rescued meximutt, along with us.

If you think we’re adventurous, we got nothing on some of the characters we’ve encountered on the road. There are many cyclists on the transpeninsular highway and we always can’t help wondering if they have a death wish.

We even met one brave young man from Asia skateboarding his way south pushing his belongings in a stroller. And a lady in her 60s actually walking from La Paz to San Jose del Cabo along the East Cape. Each day she had to carry enough water to stave off dehydration.

If you feel inspired to conquer the transpeninsular highway, I highly recommend getting a copy of “Camping Mexico’s Baja” by Mike and Terry Church. Though some of the campsite information is out-of-date, it is still an invaluable resource for the preparation and issues you will encounter on the road.