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Baja Diary


									Baja Diary
by Neal Matthews
Rewrite, filed 22 Jan 97

Day One: Desert Dazies
       It isn't even lunch time yet, and our pleasureboating trip has
already become a trek through merciless Baja desert in search of an
obscure Suzuki outboard component, hounded by a flying Bigfoot with
       We crossed the border from San Diego at 6:30 in the morning, a
'96 Chevy Suburban towing an 18-foot Carolina Skiff down the Baja
peninsula for a week in the Sea of Cortez. Baja's friendly/quirky
seaside villages, her star-gauzed nights, and her teeming desert sea
exert a magnetic pull on boaters looking for easy access to adventure.
But a funny thing happens on our way to this flat-water fishing and
diving mecca: By nine a.m. we've already been attacked by chupacabras.
Some people think the flying "goatsuckers," which have been blamed for
unexplained blood drainings of farm animals throughout Mexico, are a
national joke, a hybrid Santa Claus-cum-Dracula. But I'm keeping an
open mind.
       When we stop to stretch at El Rosario, after 225 sometimes-bouncy
miles on the two-lane Transpeninsular Highway, we discover that
something has smashed the plastic connector at the end of the fuel line
running to our brand new Suzuki 65 outboard. Without the connector, we
might be unable to use the six fuel cans lurching around deck near the
skiff's transom. Only something fiendish, like the chupacabras, could
home-in on such a small but crucial component. True, one of the heavy
fuel cans could have bounced and crushed the connector, but this is
mystical Mexico, where rational explanations don't always make the most
       Lured by tales of bull dorado and schooling hammerheads, my dive
buddy Mark Jennings and I had finally decided to join the hot-weather
trickle of trailerboaters to Baja. Though it's located in the backyard
of the American southwest, not a lot of boaters make the trip to the
shell-strewn beaches and desert islands of the Gulf of California --
the Sea of Cortez to the Mexicans. The fishing and diving in the Cortez
is among the finest in the world during the summer months, and while
many anglers fly down to Loreto or the East Cape or Cabo and charter
the local skiffs called pangas, a hardy few drag their own boats down
for a true boating adventure.
       Lesson one came early: make sure the boat is cinched down to the
trailer as tightly as possible, as the Transpeninsular Highway, while
paved, is a road without pity. Once you get past the first 70 miles of
beautiful, four-lane divided toll road below the border, it's hit and
miss -- hit potholes, miss cows -- on two-lane blacktop built up on a
dike with no shoulder and few pull-outs.
       We were grubstaked by the Marine Division of American Suzuki,
which supplied the boat and motor, and General Motors, which bravely
supplied the tow vehicle. Every few years another news organization
discovers that Suburbans are the number one choice for car thieves
around the Mexican border, and that these hot Bajamobiles often turn up
-- surprise! -- in the hands of the notoriously corrupt Mexican federal
police. By locking up the steering wheel with a club whenever we left
the vehicle, we felt reasonably secure. Taking out a couple of fuses at
night -- a common practice of the crews who come down every year for
the Baja 1000 offroad race -- also would have done the trick.
      As we pulled into the first of several roadblocks at which all
vehicles are inspected for guns and drugs, the federal cops did indeed
eyeball the truck like connoisseurs. But all of the Mexican officials
we encountered along the way remained unfailingly polite and
      The hardware store in El Rosario was closed, and it probably
wouldn't have Suzuki parts anyway. So we pumped up the lumbar pillows
in the Suburban's leather seats, popped in a CD, cranked up the A/C,
and disappeared in the general direction of the sea Jacques Cousteau
once termed, "the aquarium of the world."
      But first we had to traverse some seriously weird country, where
coyotes scamper through spiky forests of boojum, the white-trunked,
one-branched trees that must have been left behind by Venusians after
they poisoned all the dinosaurs.
      Twelve hours and 565 miles after crossing the border, we eased
into San Ignacio, a picturesque little village surrounded by hundreds
of date palms planted by missionaries 300 years ago, and checked into
the La Pinta hotel. Finding a couple of rowdy baseball teams sharing
cervezas in the shadow of the village's 18th Century lava rock church
didn't seem strange at all, this being Baja. As we bedded down, our
only concern was that the chupacabras would leave the boat alone.

Day Two: Cortez Fever
      Sure enough, a couple of boat cushions are missing this morning
from the open compartment in the boat's bow, no doubt spirited away to
the island lair of the flying goatsuckers.
      Our first glimpse of the Sea of Cortez crowns a spectacular
morning's drive past cinder cones and flocks of jet black vultures
warming their extended wings atop tall cactus branches. Nuzzled between
Baja and the Mexican mainland, the surface of the sea is un-warped by
swells, a flat slate of ultrmarine marred only by pelicans diving
awkwardly into roiling bait balls.
      We're able to concentrate on the scenery because the towing rig
is so strong and worry-free. The two-axle trailer spreads the road-
bounce through larger springs and four tires, making the unavoidable
potholes much less threatening. Still, by the end of the trip we'll be
wishing the trailer bunt rails that support the boat were welded onto
the trailer frame instead of merely bolted above flimsy-looking
flanges. If you've got any weakness at all in your trailer, the Baja
will exploit it.
      Not that we feel much pain in the 2500 series Suburban, with
heavy duty front springs and the jumbo GT5 4.10 ratio rear axle. With
the third seat removed and the back seat folded down, the cavernous
Suburban is hauling four SCUBA tanks and other heavy dive gear, five
fishing rods, three spearguns, camping equipment, suitcases, food,
boxes of boat tackle and tools, and never breaks a sweat. The big block
Vortec 7400 engine, which delivers 290 horsepower, doesn't ping at all
on the $1.34 a gallon Mexican gasoline.
      Easing past the abandoned ore cars and the giant shell of the
copper smelter in the played-out seaside mining town of Santa Rosalia,
we park beside the cast iron church designed by Eiffel of tower fame,
and go in search of coffee and a marine hardware store.
      The coffee we find in a battered pot at a tiny food stand, served
by a friendly woman who fastidiously washes out our go-cups before
filling them. Down the street we duck out of the blinding sun into a
tortilleria for a dozen flour tortillas right off the griddle. Best
breakfast of the trip, walking down the street eating rolled up warm
tortillas and sipping Mexican joe.
      But we strike out in the hardware store, the clerk explaining
that we're looking for metric parts, which will be hard to find in
      Same thing in Mulege, 40 miles south. No Suzuki parts available.
We do pick up some invaluable information though. "Watch out for the
toritos," warns the manager of the Mulege dive shop. "It can be
perfectly calm on the water, and then all of a sudden you'll be in
sixty mile an hour winds. You can see them coming from a long way off,
so keep looking all the time." Great. On top of the chupacabras, now we
have to worry about little big blows.
      By the time we hit Loreto, our primary destination 700 miles
below the border, we've about given up on finding a new fuel line
connector, and the offshore islands are calling to us like sea nymphs.
The Evinrude dealer at the entrance to town can't help us, so we go
check into the Hotel Mision de Loreto in a virtual frenzy to get into
the water.
      The hotel is fishermen and divers central, located across the
street from the boardwalk, a short cast from Loreto's concrete launch
ramp. Sun-crisped anglers are filtering back in off the pangas with
tales of giant dorado, sailfish, and marlin. Within an hour of hitting
town, we're jockeying for space on the narrow launch ramp with other
frenzied gringos who are trying to get their boats out of the water so
they can ice down their marlin.
      We don't have to worry just yet about the missing fuel line
connector, as the boat has an 18-gallon gas tank under the center
console. The sweat that had been gushing off of us at the ramp feels
like natural air conditioning as the hot wind blows past us at 20 knots
on the way to Coronado Island, about 6 miles north of town.
      Yesterday morning we were in modern San Diego; this afternoon
we're spearfishing in a remote corner of one of the planet's richest
seas. We spend the hours drift diving with the boat in the swift
currents around the rocky points, and move into the calm coves beneath
sheer igneous cliffs when we get tired. At one point a vast school of
tiny baitfish shimmers around me in the underwater sun shafts, a living
melody bidding welcome to an aquatic dream world.

Day Three: Water Languages

      A serious fisherman, Jim Hendricks, has flown in from Los Angeles
to act as our fishing guide. Being divers, we'd just as soon jump into
the water to swim with the fishes as catch them, but if you're going to
haul a boat to the Cortez, you'd be daft not to partake of the world-
class angling. At sunrise Hendricks has us buying mackerel from the
bait pangas -- $10 for 15 fish -- just outside the boat basin. Less
than an hour later, we're cruising in the bright sun on glassy seas
near Punta Lobos off the northern end of Isla Carmen, the 20-mile long
island off Loreto. We spot a fin cutting the water. Hendricks baits up
a Penn Sabre 670 and lets the mackerel drag the 30-lb. line out in the
front of the fin.
      The fish gobbles the bait and we wait a few beats before punching
the Suzuki to set the hook. Hendricks hands me the pole and the 70-
pound sailfish starts the first of about 20 leaps clear of the water.
      Its strength telegraphs up the line directly to my hands, and for
every three feet I reel in he peels off four. I'm soaked with sweat
almost immediately as the fish pulls the lightweight, flat-bottomed
boat toward the low sun. With every leap we're treated to its
iridescent sail flinging beads of light.
      The fish tires just slightly faster than I do, and 30 minutes
after the fight began he's beside the boat. The ribbed sail has little
lavender spots, and the long sword is sharp and raspy. Exhausted, it
can do nothing but stare at its captors with a big, intelligent eye. We
idle along holding the creature beside the gunnel, forcing water
through the gills. When we release it, the fish swims alongside us for
a moment, a little confused, then angles deep and disappears.
      "Next sailfish we see, we're jumping in," we tell Hendricks. He
nods vaguely, and we continue scanning the water off the back side of
Isla Carmen.
      It doesn't take long. A group of fins off to port stay packed
together even as we approach using the smooth and quiet Suzuki. Mark
and I don masks and fins and roll over the side to be treated to a
vision few divers will ever experience: Three sailfish buzz by us,
lifting their sails in some kind of threat display. It's a little late
to wonder if they'd ever use their swords to impale a diver.
      As Mark and I are exclaiming to each other using snorkelspeak,
Hendricks can't stand it any longer and throws a baited hook into the
water. One of the fish strikes it and we have to climb into the boat
quickly before he tows it away.
      Two other times we jump into the water, once to swim with a
majestic, remora-addled manta ray, and then to join a pod of dolphins.
The Suzuki engine, which idles almost as slowly as a trolling motor, is
the next best thing to oars in allowing us to have these close
encounters with wary creatures.
      Hearing the clicking and whistling of the dolphins underwater is
like eavesdropping on a conversation in a language you don't speak. A
group of scouts peel off and swim by beneath us, rolling on their sides
to briefly check us out, but rejoin the herd to continue intensely
mulling some other important matter among themselves.
      When the center fuel tank is almost empty, it's time to defy the
chupacabras by jury-rigging the fuel line. We snake the hose down into
the bottom of one of the six-gallon fuel cans and tie the cap on
loosely using a rubber speargun band and a loop of parachute shroud
line. A classic Baja fix.

Day Four: In the Cave of the Vampire

       The bait sellers tell us the dorado are at the south end of Isla
Carmen, so as the sun lifts to a cloudy dawn we follow the pangas on a
20-mile journey into wind-whipped chop.
       The Carolina's flat bottom makes the ride a little rougher than a
deep-V would, but it's worth the trade-off for less towing weight and
the ability to beach the boat anywhere. The lightweight Suzuki 65 also
helps, as we can plane with it at slower speeds and count on plenty of
       After rounding the southern point of the island we join the other
boats in fruitless trolling over a bottom gradient that drops from 600
to 1500 feet. But another lesson of the Cortez, Expect the Unxpected,
is soon demonstrated."Hey!" Mark yells, just as we're starting to get
       We watch his 20-lb. line spinning out fast from the Penn
Powerstick. I gun the Suzuki, setting the hook. When the dorado leaps
free of the water, his gold/turquoise head flashing in the gray light,
we all scream in unison. It's the biggest dorado (dolphinfish, mahi-
mahi) I've ever seen, in person or in pictures.
       When Hendricks finally gaffs the 50-pound fish, its astonishing
size and strength humble all of us. His fantastic colors start to fade
as we watch him die near the transom; our excitement cools with it.
       We know we can't top that experience, so we head for a beach at
the southern end of Isla Carmen. With the engine trimmed high the boat
draws about three inches of water, making it no problem to cross over a
rocky bottom to get to the sand. We fillet the fish (we'll have the
hotel restaurant cook some of it for us later, and give the rest of it
to the kitchen staff), and doze for an hour under freshly cleared
       Nobody's eager for much more fishing, so we cross the electric
turquoise sand flats and scud along the lee of the island searching for
some sea caves I've read about. We spot two that are actually one: a
horseshoe cave that might be the hideout of the chupacabras. "Maybe we
can get our stolen boat cushions back," Mark wonders.
       Easing close to the gaping black mouth in the cliffs, we kill the
engine and raise it completely out of the water. We use an oar to row
the last few feet toward the opening while Mark swims into it with
snorkel gear. "It connects through!" he yells out of the darkness, his
echoing voice sounding metallic. "I think you can get the boat in
       We pull the skiff inside by grabbing the black rock on the walls
and ceiling of the cave. Big red Sally Lightfoot crabs glare at us from
the crevices as the boat's guard rails scrape and crunch, creating
sounds that have probably never been heard in here. Finally we spot
Mark sitting half out of the water in the back of the cave, illuminated
from below by eerie green waterlight. "It's definitely a chupacabras
cave," he observes, his voice sounding ghostly. "But we must have
scared them out."
       I join him in the water as the guard rails continue to scrape on
the walls. We circle in and out of the two entrances, flanked by
sergeant majors and Cortez angelfish. When we finally leave, the
aluminum guard rails are all gouged, and we need a cover story to tell
Suzuki. "Chupacabras claw marks, looks like to me," advises Hendricks.

Days Five and Six: Paradise at Six Fathoms

      After our fishing guide flies back to Los Angeles we move our
base of operations down to Puerto Escondido, a hidden bay 15 miles
south of Loreto, to concentrate full time on diving. We check into the
small motel at the Tripuli trailer park. There's good security here for
the boat, which can be parked right in front of the room behind a
locked gate. So we won't be removing the prop and all the electronics
every night, as we were forced to do when parking the boat on the
street in Loreto.
      We purchase a permit to use the wide, modern launch ramp from the
port captain -- 12 pesos (less than $2) per day -- and by midafternoon
we're adrift in the boat basin punching lat/lon positions into our
Furuno GPS.
      The Baja quietude suddenly rips open as a noisy pod of dolphins
comes roaring like a motorcycle gang through the bay's narrow channel.
They tear past us toward the deep anchorage, intent on their own
private business. When they've cleared the channel, leaving flipper
chop in their wake, we pass through it and aim toward a protected cove
on the northeast end of Isla Danzante, half a mile away.
      Puerto Escondido is popular with cruisers and trailerboaters
because of the range of options available just outside the anchorage.
The many nearby islands and jutting rocks make it possible to find
diveable or fishable water in virtually any weather condition.
      We choose to scuba dive the protected Danzante cove because the
wind is up. Dropping down to the rocky bottom at thirty feet, the place
is loaded with giant scallops and oysters, and some of the Cortez's
multi-hued lobster. The water is motionless until we round the northern
point, where a swift current is ripping at a depth of 70 feet. We move
back inside and eventually surface at the other end of the cove for
what turns out to be the best part of the dive.
      A weey possibly could, filling three or four ice chests apiece
before flying out, should have been inspiring. But at the pristine six-
fathom spot, swarming with gamefish, I have no stomach for removing any
of the locals.
      We plunge down through a jungle of fish, a visual cacophony of
puffers, triggerfish, rainbow wrasse, hogfish, moorish idols, and many
others. At one point there must be fifteen or twenty different
varieties within my direct field of vision. Without a gun or noisy
SCUBA gear, the fish are all over us, curiously inspecting the strange
visitors. Sharing time with these wild creatures, eyeball to eyeball on
their own turf, in a place few humans have ever seen, feels like the
cosmos is trying to tell us something.

Week's End: Tough Road Home

      It's a 335 mile drive north to Bahia de Los Angeles, our final
stop. The first 290 miles are fairly easy, with occasional conniptions
when we have to pass trucks. The narrow, shoulderless road gives us
only inches on either side as we barrel past the tractor-trailer rigs
at 70 mph. It's a relief when we finally reach the cutoff for L.A. Bay.
      From here to the sea is some of the most beautiful desert on the
peninsula. Too bad long sections of the 42-mile road look like an
artillery range. The first hundred potholes are understandable; the
second hundred are irritating; the third hundred are infuriating.
      By the time the exquisite bay comes into view, with its many
islands floating in the blue, we're in no mood to enjoy it. And the
garbage dump you have to pass through on the way into the glorified
fishing camp doesn't help. Then, upon reaching the hardscrabble little
town, we discover that the natives have abandoned the wrecked pavement
completely and are driving in the hardpan beside it.
      Many people love L.A.Bay for its wild beauty, excellent
yellowtail fishing, and complete absence of telephones. At about 365
miles from San Diego, you can make the drive in a day. It's best to
camp here, as the two motels in town are barely habitable. When we
check into our room, the broken air conditioner is blowing a hot
torito. But the town's generator shuts down at 11:30 every night
anyway, so we don't have to suffer too much more than everybody else.
      The town is filled with Vagabundos del Mar, members of the Baja
travel club who have towed sixteen boats down on a yellowtail fishing
expedition. The talk in the main restaurant, Guillermo's, keeps
circling back to the storms called chubascos that blow up out of
nowhere in the summer.
      "It was like somebody pointing a blow dryer right in your face,"
says one grizzled Baja veteran.
      "One storm blew the windshield wipers off the van on the way to
the airport in La Paz," offers another. "The driver just said, 'Adios,'
and kept driving."
      Chupacabras are the least of our worries here. I saw the biggest,
ugliest scorpion I've ever seen in my life here four years ago, and
other guests have warned us about the size of the resident cucarachas.
After a miserably hot night, we back the boat down the ramp across the
street from the Villa Vita hotel at sunrise.
      A beautiful ride past cinder cone islands, then we drop over the
side in a deep, jade green channel between Isla Coronado and its sister
islet, Coronadito. Freediving over deep water is always a little
spooky, and we spend an alert hour at it without seeing a single
yellowtail. After trying another spot in the channel with no success,
we've pretty much talked ourselves into heading home this afternoon,
rather than staying another night in misery as originally planned.
      There's just one more stop we have to make. Coming around the
weather side of desolate Isla Coronado, I steer us past several
glittery coves rimmed with cobble beaches until we've almost reached
the island's southern end. We ease the boat over boulders near the
shore and drop anchor in three feet of water.
      This beach is littered with chunks of pumice, exploded remnants
of floating rock that seem emblematic of Baja's ancient detachment. I
gather a few fist-size pieces as mementos, float them out to the boat,
and fire up the Suzuki. Our week in eternity has come to an end.
      For trailerboaters, Baja is rougher in theory than in reality. We
had no problems finding or burning Mexican gasoline, and the concrete
launch ramps, while certainly not state of the art, were serviceable.
What more does a footloose boater need than fuel, a ramp, a ribbon of
blacktop, and a sparkling horizon? Baja has it all, amigo, and then
[end of main story]

sidebar --

Baja Bound? Read Me First

      There are two ways to be bold in Baja: Drive the Transpeninsular
Highway at night, when cattle curl up on it for warmth, or travel
without the proper Mexican paperwork. Both are recommended only for the
      Getting legal isn't difficult. Baja trailerboaters need a Mexican
boat permit, a Mexican fishing license for every passenger whether
they're fishing or not, and a tourist card.
      Although Mexican car and boat insurance isn't a legal
requirement, the government of Mexico does not recognize American
insurance policies below the border, and if you get into an accident
you'll be required to prove financial responsibility on the spot. If
you don't have a Mexican insurance policy or the cash to cover damages
to the other party, your vehicle will be impounded and you'll be jailed
until you can pay for the accident. In short, don't leave home without
Mexican insurance.
      You can take care of all of this at one time by joining a Mexico
travel club like Vagabundos del Mar (1-800-47-4BAJA) or Discover Baja
(1-800-727-BAJA). Or you can take care of each requirement separately,
as I did.
      My Mexican boat permit cost $25 at a San Diego tackle shop called
Hook, Line & Sinker, the same place I buy my Mexican fishing license
($28) every year. I could save a few bucks on both of them by going to
PESCA, the Mexican fisheries office in San Diego, but I needed fishing
gear anyway, so it was easier just to get the paperwork at the tackle
      I bought insurance at Instant Mexico Auto Insurance (1-800-638-
0999) near the border only because a good Mexican friend of mine is
their liaison in Baja. They can supply everything, including fishing
licenses, boat permits and tourist cards as well as insurance.
      The cost for full coverage on the '96 Suburban and the Carolina
Skiff for ten days was $318.65. If I'd been a member of a travel club,
which offers group rates, coverage for the whole year would have cost
only a few dollars more.
      My policy, which was pretty standard, covered total theft and
collision, bodily injury to occupants of the other vehicle, and
emergency medical costs in Mexico of up to $2000 apiece for occupants
in my vehicle. The coverage ends when you cross back into the U.S.
Boats are only covered for damage when they're on the trailer; they're
not covered in the water.
      Finally, in addition to a good Baja guidebook, tide tables, and
charts, make sure you have a valid tourist card. Chances are, you'll
never have to show it to an official in Baja, but risking any kind of
trouble below the border just isn't worth it.
      You can get tourist cards from the Mexican consulate, most
Mexican insurance outlets, and some travel agents. If you do have to
show it to an officer, you'll need it to be validated beforehand. This
is accomplished when you cross the border, and Mexican Customs
officials (count on it) pull you over into secondary inspection. Ask
them for directions to the immigration office (about a 100 yard walk at
the Tijuana border crossing), where you'll have to prove your
citizenship with a passport or birth certificate in order to get the
tourist card stamped.
      Although there are boat shops in some of the larger towns,
finding metric parts can be a problem. Wise Baja veterans go as self-
contained as possible. So be sure and carry tools, extra spark plugs,
plenty of outboard motor oil, extra props, fuses, and as many spare
parts as you can. An extra fuel line would have come in handy for us.
Buenas suerte!

[end of sidebar]

Suburban Data Box

Model                Suburban K2500 4WD

Engine               L29 Vortec 7400 V8 SFI

Net Torque (      410 @ 3200

Net HP/RPM                  290 @ 4000

Maximum Trailer Weight      10,000 lbs.

Price (as tested)           $37,274


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