Vi and I had been talking of taking a couple of weeks to cruise Mexico and in particular Baja California, but hadn’t, for all the reasons and tribulations that afflict humanity. Finally we just hopped into the CRV and went. Wing it, figure it out when we got there, wherever “there” was. Reason, planning, and common sense are much overrated. Too much to describe here: Arandas, Zacatecas, Aguas Calientes, León, Durango, Mazatlan, and finally Baja. A few notes, though.
Zacatecas is an old, old city built on what is almost a universal Mexican plan—central plaza with a government building and a church. Mexico is not yet a mass consumerist society with everything decided at corporate in New Jersey, and may never be, so town centers are distinctive and the churches all different and often lovely. It is a touristy city (Mexicans tourist: I think we saw three gringos, including me) and so has loud, bad music blaring from every bar and restaurant.
On a side street, however, we found a cantina of the old school from the turn of the previous century, small, convincingly itself, and homey. We ordered shots of Centenario Reposado, planning to stay half an hour. But then a few regulars came in—it was that sort of place—with guitars and we ended up leaving maybe four hours later. I am persuaded that Violeta knows the words of every song ever written and the melodies of the rest, so she happily sang along and there were many toasts.
I like the city. The streets are sometimes vertical because of the underlying hills, and paved with large flagstones that seem to hold up very well. It was not always so pleasant. The silver mines, once worked by brutally mistreated Indian slaves, are dark and cramped tunnels. Now they are a sort of horror-show tourist attraction. How people treat each other that way is a mystery to me. But that was then, and now isn’t.
The weirdest stretch of the trip was Highway 40 between Durango and Mazatlan. A problem for east-west travel in northern Mexico are the mountains of the Sierra Madre Occidental. If you set out to find the absolutely godawful worst place on this planet or perhaps any other to build a highway, the Sierra Madre would be a contender. However, Mexico decided that it needed the highway, and was going to build the damned thing, whether it was possible or not. I looked at the territory—populated by huge, dry, spikey mountains with an uncountable infinity of ghastly valleys falling away to nowhere—and concluded that it couldn’t be done. Of course I was driving on it at the time which weakened my argument.
Says the Internet, 115 bridges, eight of them over 900 feet high, sixty-three tunnels with a combined length of almost ten miles. The Sinaloense Tunnel alone is nearly two miles along and the Baluarte Bridge, above, 1300 feet above the river bed and 3600 feet long. The thing is starkly insane. It’s there, though.
From Mazatlan we took the ferry to Baja. I was expecting it to be the size of a tennis court with a minor shelter for passengers. Waiting to drive aboard, we watched something like sixty eighteen-wheelers come off. Pretty fair tennis court. The reason is that there are only two ways continental Mexico can communicate with Baja except by air: Have a gynormous ferry or several, or drive waa-a-a-ay up to the US border and back down again. The things are huge with nice cabins for seventy bucks and a decent restaurant.
I was in Baja several hundred years ago, when it barely had roads. Now two highways, Routes 1 and 5, extend the length of the peninsula and except for a couple of patches are good. (In addition to a lot of good highways, Mexico has, especially in rural areas, roads that are allowed to fall into ruins. Occasionally driving is like crossing a rock quarry on ice skates. The reason, Violeta assures me, is usually that the local government stole the treasury.)
Baja is a marvel if you like dry, constantly changing desert, most of the world’s supply of cactus, brutal spectacular dry brown mountains and occasional startling glimpses of the blue, blue Sea of Cortez. If you don’t like these things, you need to go somewhere else. Much of the road is gun-barrel straight and we sailed along at eighty miles per, almost no traffic, somebody on tabla and sitar on the cd deck. Through the mountains the curves would alarm a touring snake, but what the hell.
The cities along Baja, all few of them, have a Mediterranean feel, Mexico being a Latin country. Always the malecón, a cement boardwalk along the shore, restaurants where you can eat dead shrimp over a leisurely michelada, which is an improbable drink made with beer, Clamato, Worcestershire sauce and some other things. In particular I recommend La Paz and Loreto.
The exception to the general pleasantness is Cabo San Lucas, which is the geographic equivalent of prostate cancer, mixing the charms of Atlantic City with Lauderdale during spring break, and a yacht basin full of very pricey boats owned by people who should be made into dog food. It’s the kind of place where you expect to see the Clintons. Go somewhere else. Anywhere else.
Having reached the US border, we crossed into the continental side and drove murderously long hours home. I guess we were vacationed-out. At one point we encountered one of those bad roads I mentioned, twenty-four miles at fifteen miles on roads where the government had definitely stolen the the treasury. It goes with the territory.
The dogs were glad to see us and we, them.