Saturday, April 18, 2015

A Bit of Heaven & Hell - Returning Up the Baja

It was a mere 715 miles from Bahía de Concepción to the U.S. border.  An easy 2-day drive on most U.S. roads, but Baja Highway 1 sets its own rules.  Hans, Ursula, and I decided we would make the narrow, winding, shoulder-less drive in 6 days rather than 2.  After 7 weeks in Baja, we were now moving at the same laid-back pace as most of the locals (rather than that of over-scheduled, over-stressed, and over-stimulated Americans). 

Along the way, there would be gray whales to touch, French baguettes to savor, cactus trails to hike, and plenty of serene beachfront sunrises and sunsets to enjoy.


There’d also be a few moments of terror and mishap too…no journey that includes climbing “the Grade of Hell” past 3 volcanoes would be complete without a bit of terror and mishap!

Our first stop from Bahía de Concepción was the town of Santa Rosalía about 90 miles north on the Sea of Cortez.  It’s a copper mining town of about 11,000 people with a somewhat historic downtown area (interpret that as “tight, narrow streets completely unsuitable for motorhomes towing cars”).

Luckily, we arrived mid-morning, when most townsfolk and tourists were still asleep, and  found 2 nice big spots along the street in front of a school.


Santa Rosalía’s claim to fame is its French church and its French bread.  We aimed to give both a quick sample!


The church now called Iglesia de Santa Bárbara, was designed by Alexandre Gustave Eiffel (of Paris’ Eiffel Tower fame) in France the 1880’s.  It was conceived and built as a pre-fabricated iron and steel church that could be easily shipped and assembled to various French tropical colonies in Africa and elsewhere. 

In 1889, its design was prize-winning at the Paris World Exposition, but was apparently soon forgotten and wound up disassembled and stored in Brussels a few years later where Charles Laforgue, the director of  Santa Rosalía’s Bolero copper mine, would finally discover and purchase it.

The church was then shipped and re-assembled in Santa Rosalía in 1897 and has served as the town’s spiritual center ever since.  A very unusual and intriguing little church!


We next headed a couple blocks west to the Panadería El Boleo, supposedly one of the oldest and most popular French bakeries in Mexico (in business since 1901).


Hans walked quickly ahead to be the first one in the door (as any addict to authentic French baguettes would surely do)!  He and Ursula travel to Europe every year and certainly know the real thing when they taste it.  So the thought of getting a stash of the real stuff right here in Baja seemed almost too good to be true.  


We each bought a baguette and a few pastries for lunch, and took a quick taste as soon as we left the store.  Sadly, El Bolero did not quite live up to its hype.  It’s certainly a good local Mexican bakery, but the bakeries in France have no competition to worry about here.

After walking around town a bit more and admiring the old train station, we were ready to continue on to our evening destination of Guerrero Negro.


It would be an easy afternoon’s drive of only 130 miles.  Or at least it had appeared that way when we drove this stretch of road coming south down the Baja in December.

But going north would be a whole different story.  Going up the “Cuesta del Inferno” (Grade of Hell), it seems, is far more difficult than going down it!

This stretch of road just north of Santa Rosalia climbs from sea level to the mountain volcanoes of “The 3 Virgins” within a brief 10 miles or so.   The road grade is reportedly in excess of a 10% (nearly double the grade of most U.S. highways)! 

What better time to drive this infamous “Grade of Hell” in your overloaded Winnebago towing an overloaded car than in the mid-day sun with temperatures hovering around 80 degrees!


I honestly didn’t remember the road being this difficult until the Winnie was pointed skyward and starting to struggle mightily up the ridiculously steep, curvy, shoulder-less roadway.

Soon, we had slowed to a 25 mph crawl as I watched the Winnie’s temperature gauge begin to climb above its normal range.  As I chugged around another blind curve to start climbing again, the engine made an odd noise.  I thought Millie had knocked the shifter into Neutral as the engine immediately slowed to less than 10 mph with the engine RPMs screaming. 

Within a few more seconds, we were now halted and in jeopardy of rolling backwards, with the temperature gauge now preparing to enter “the red zone!”

With no shoulder to pull over to, I walkie-talkied Hans and Ursula behind me that I was shutting off the engine and putting the emergency brake on.


In this precarious situation, I could not have been more grateful to have 2 wonderful, resourceful, quick-thinking friends behind me (equipped with  walkie-talkies too)!

Minutes seemed like hours, but Hans kept me relatively calm and focused on the immediate tasks at hand—to first raise the hood so the engine could start cooling off, and then to detach the Tracker so we could see if that might be enough weight savings for the Winnie to limp up the remaining mile to the summit and move off to the side of the road.  While I worked on toad-unhitching, Hans stood a few yards downhill to alert any approaching vehicles, while Ursula drove their View to the blind curve a few hundred yards above us to slow down any oncoming traffic.

Thankfully, the plan worked, and within 10 minutes, we were able to get all vehicles up to the summit to further cool the engines and figure out next steps.


After an hour’s rest, and still unsure if my Winnie had suffered any permanent damage, we devised a plan— I would try to drive my “toadless” Winnie the remaining 120 miles to Guerrero Negro, while Ursula drove my Tracker, and Hans drove their View behind me.


Thankfully, the trio of volcanoes (the 3 Virgins) seemed to be smiling upon us as we drove by.  We completed the rest of the journey to Guerrero Negro without incident, and my View appeared to be running just fine again now that the “Grade of Hell” was behind us.


After a day in Guerrero Negro taking the fabulous boat tour of Laguna Ojo de Liebre to see the gray whales, we resumed our Baja migration with a short 120-mile cross-peninsula trip from the West coast along the Pacific, to the East coast along the Sea of Cortez.

Bahía de los Angeles is a brief 40-mile detour off of Highway 1, but offered one more taste of the gorgeous Sea of Cortez combined with some lush slopes of cactus desert.  This town was hit hard by Hurricane Odile last Fall, but the temporary gravel sections around some of the highway washouts were easy enough to navigate with the motorhomes to reach the town.

We found the small, but popular, Daggett’s Campground to be the only remaining RV-accessible campground in town, but its 80 pesos a night (US $5.50) was more than reasonable for scenic beachfront boondock camping (no electric, water, WiFi, or cell signal here but they did offer a free dump station).


We enjoyed a lovely serene sunset watching the brown pelicans and dolphins gathering their dinners, and decided to stay here 2 nights to relax and enjoy the area.


The next morning, after watching the sun rise behind a fishing boat going out to sea…


I decided to drive a few miles into the highlands west of town to photograph the brilliant purple blooming desert sand verbena.  The desert floor was exploding with color!



This area is still part of the massive Valle de los Cirios (Valley of the Candles) nature preserve, so there were a few great specimens of the namesake Cirios tree to enjoy here as well.


On the way back down to sea level, there was a great overlook to capture a panorama of the bay:


In the afternoon, Millie enjoyed (what would turn out to be) her final day of swimming—this time with a very different playmate, a juvenile brown pelican!


Every time I’d throw Millie’s bright orange water toy, this pelican would fly ahead of Millie to chase after it.  She was used to other dogs swimming with her to fetch toys, but the “Pelican Retriever” was a first!


Fortunately, the pelican would always land just ahead of the toy, letting Millie have the retrieving honors!  The two played together like this for a solid 15 minutes before the pelican thought he’d better stop chasing dog toys and go catch some dinner.


As the sun rose again over Bahía de los Angeles for our last morning, it was time for Millie and I to bid a final farewell to Baja’s sandy beaches.


The remaining 500 miles would be back through familiar territory.  We stopped again for the night at Rancho Santa Inés near Cataviña.  We had stayed here back in December on our south-bound journey.


We arrived early enough to do a late-afternoon hike in the hills surrounding the campground.  Ursula posed in front of this massive cardón cactus, surely one of the biggest specimens of the world’s biggest species of cactus!


We also were intrigued by the smooth rock formations similar to those in the mountains along I-8 just east of San Diego.


Our final day of driving Baja 1 brought us a few more white-knuckled encounters with oncoming truck traffic.  Sure am glad we were driving SKINNY Winnies on this road!


I also had one more potential calamity to fight.  When the crosswinds picked up substantially as we got closer to the Pacific coast near San Quintin, I began hearing some new sounds on the roof that made me fear one of my flexible solar panels was becoming detached.

I radioed Hans to pull over as I climbed up on my roof to take a look.  The solar panels were all still rock-solid, but one of the Winnie’s decorative side wings had lost a screw and was likely just moments from ripping away from the lone remaining screw holding it to the roof.

Not a problem when you have a screwdriver, scissors, and some duct tape!  I removed the plastic wing and stowed it in the Tracker, and then taped down the metal support brackets beneath to ensure they’d stay on the roof for the remainder of our journey.


As we rolled into Ensenada, we weren’t quite sure where we’d for our final night in Baja.  The RV park that looked best in the Baja Camping book, was kind of a dump with no one around to tell us pricing, etc.  The next place we looked at was an “over-the-top” gringo resort that wanted a mere 660 pesos (US $47) to stay one night at their completely empty RV park.  Um, no thanks!

With evening quickly approaching, we finally found unassuming, but clean and friendly, Ramona Beach RV Park just north of town with a couple of oceanfront spots available for US $24 a night.  Perfecto!

We had just enough time to park the rigs and drink in our final amazing Baja sunset over the Pacific.


The next day would be an easy 90 minute drive from our paradise camp on the Pacific to the border crossing at Tecate.  The crossing itself would be FAR easier than the 3-hour bureaucratic nightmare I endured last year at the Columbia crossing near Laredo, TX.  In Tecate, we both made it across in just a few minutes!


It’s hard to put into words just how special these past 2 months in Baja had been (for both me and Millie).  But the trip never would have been as magical if it were not for Hans and Ursula. 


We began our journey as casual acquaintances with no further expectations of each other than to cross the border and drive together for a few days down to our separate Baja destinations.  Two months later, we came back to the U.S. as dear and very cherished friends.   Exactly how all great travel adventures should always end!


  1. I have really enjoyed your travels down and up the Baja. You are a gutsy gal!

  2. I have been following your blog for about 5 months now and have enjoyed all of your posts. We can't wait to tackle this adventure too.

  3. Such an inspirational series on this Baja trip I too would love to see it for myself, going as a caravan was a wonderful idea as you helped each other in times of need. The last sunset photo is awesome.

  4. Awesome pictures as usual and a great read. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Truly a trip of a lifetime. Your photos are awesome as always. Thank you for making the Baja come alive through your blog posts.

  6. We are awed by your sense of adventure, your compassion and your ability to capture the present. What a wonderful trip with your very best friend and your trusty road warrior friends!

  7. I've enjoyed the armchair view of your travel and how nice that you will always be able to go back and relive it again on the blog.


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