The Secrets of Baja

The story of a truck, two machine guns, and endless beaches

Mark Stephens

Left: Mission San Borja; Right: Two Federales in the back of my truck

Everyone has seen photographs of Mexicans wearing those big sombreros. When you come to Mexico, the astonishing thing is, nobody wears these hats at all.
—Bruce Beresford

The Baja Peninsula. If you travel here, it’ll pull you in. So be careful. You’ll adopt broken flip-flops as your footwear of choice. You’ll sit on a beach and stare at the golden glimmer upon the endless sea and come close to believing that email never existed at all. You’ll drink beer for breakfast. You’ll assume that a perfectly suitable retirement plan is to live in a little seaside hut facing the Pacific.

I could be wrong, but I hope not.

My wife Brooke was six months pregnant with a little girl when we crossed the border at San Luis and dialed it in toward San Felipe in March of 2007. Our little muñequita-without-a-name went to Mexico with us while we lived out of the truck for a week—a classic adventure road trip for us, camping on beaches and eating lobster burritos.

We like to think we first introduced her to the ocean in remote Mexico where the air is just different and the beaches are empty, free of trash and glass and stuff made in far-off factories. Even if she couldn’t really dip her toes in the water, she could experience the shushing of the midnight tide from our little home on top of our truck every night. She’d get to taste the tacos and guacamole.

One problem with back road travel in Mexico, especially the Peninsula: if you break down, you’re probably screwed. And it doesn’t matter if you’re on pavement or not. Off pavement, it goes without saying, is the most fun. While the trails are hardened washboards that can go for a couple hundred miles and never pass through a town with more than abarrotes or sleepy fishermen, the adventure of it is tangible and non-stop. You can camp on any clean, empty stretch of beach you find, spear fish for dinner, sleep as late as you like, and get up to do it all over again.

While cruising down the unpaved road to Bahía San Luis Gonzaga somewhere south of Puertecitos, the washboard dips grew deeper, seemingly swallowing half a tire at a time, and that whole “You’re screwed if you break down” thought repeated in my mind. No matter how fast or slow I drove it, I imagined the shock absorbers working so hard that the oil inside boiled and they combusted with a loud, dramatic trip-ending bang. It never happened. But it could have.

The Baja Peninsula is mysterious, a land of contradictions. Some parts are paradisical beachfront, but it’s still the desert. Cardónes, a cactus similar to the saguaro, grow right up to water’s edge in some places. The air palpates with the sensation of a boiler room, until a cool, refreshing wind blows in off the water.

In 1532, the peninsula remained a legend—“The Island of California.” Hernán Cortés ordered three of his ships to find this island. They set sail, followed Mexico’s Pacific coast north, and ultimately disappeared without a trace. Poof. Gone.

You know what I think? His men found the peninsula and some cold beer, hunkered down, and burned the ships. Makes sense. It’s a great place to hide out and put the pesky business of exploring behind.

I stared off to the east thinking about 16th-Century explorers, when an odd dot appeared down the road in a cloud of dust. It grew, then split into two dots that took the shape of a pair of motorcycles. But they weren’t motorcycles. I could see their slow progress, their buh-buh-buh-buh-buh-buh-buh-bumping along with every single washboard dip along the road. I stopped to let my dust plume die. For God’s sake, it was two bicyclists pedaling north along the 100-mile dirt road. A really bad road, if you must be reminded.

The man and woman on their bikes were coated in a fine layer of dust, but it didn’t hide the misery that winced on their faces. One crank rotation after another, they were going to get to know all 1,000 miles of the Baja Peninsula in an intimate way. They slept on the ground when they didn’t have a hotel, feasted on guacamole and tacos when possible, and likely grimaced at the idea of sitting on a bicycle seat while Montezuma’s Revenge ran a course.

Around 4 in the afternoon, we coasted down a hill about two miles from Gonzaga Bay and spotted a military checkpoint on the side of the road. Brooke picked up speed due to the steep downgrade, then I saw eight or ten bodies rush out of the building that sat back from the road by 30 or 50 yards.

“Ummm, maybe we should slow down. They have guns.”


“Right in front of us.”

The Federales waved us down to stop, and gathered around the truck as one spoke to me through the open window. Typically, they just want to inspect the truck for contraband—weapons and drugs. I’d been so stunned at the sight of guys with machine guns running at us that my heart pounded and their words just slipped on by. All I noticed was their demeanor, the sweat on their heads, and their inconceivably young age. Adolescents, every one of them. And they looked at me with wide eyes that seemed to ask, “So, are you going to answer?”

Repite, por favor,” I had to request.

They needed a ride. Just two of them, actually. “No problema,” I answered—because, you know, who turns down guys with machine guns?—and proceeded to shove stuff around in the backseat to make some space. The two boys hopped on top of the Eezi-Awn and smacked the fender twice with an open hand, the international signal for “let’s go.”

Brooke took us down the road, two Federales sitting on top of our kit in the back of the truck. This tickled me, and we were still coming down from the adrenaline rush of being confronted with machine guns. This moment needed to be recorded. So I got out my camera, and reached out the window with it facing backwards and blindly snapped off two frames. I didn’t have any idea what I captured, if anything at all, until weeks later when I had the film developed.

One Federale caught me in the act. He held up the two-fingered peace sign.

Mark Stephens is a father and husband living in Arizona. He writes about the people, places and things that appeal to active parents enjoying outdoor adventure in any of its forms on his blog


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