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Compared to it’s pulsing Pacific neighbors of Tijuana, Ensenada, and towns south to El Rosario, this Sea of Cortez stretch is the forgotten coast of northern Baja.
All of that may soon change, however, as the Mexican government has slowly but steadily been paving the highway that stretches down the coast, and the road now threatens to pass the length of the desolate coastline before it reconnects with Mex 1, the main vein of the Transpeninsular Highway. Many fear that the new pavement will signal the end of an era where difficult access means few crowds, little crime, and a dusty sanctuary where life passes by real slow. Whether the pavement will force an unwanted jump into modernity simply remains to be seen.
For those venturing this way from the American border, all roads eventually lead to San Felipe, though none of them are very exciting. With the exceptions of passing through Mexicali or the hot springs oasis of La Rumorosa, there are pretty much minimal highlights and lots of emptiness regardless of which route you choose.
That all changes, however, once you roll into San Felipe. A longtime draw for college students and visiting snowbirds, San Felipe is a town that is heavy on sunshine and sin, but low on culture or class. Essentially a poor man’s Rosarito, the downtown section of San Felipe is a long stretch of sand that is dominated by souvenir stores and wild beach bars. If it’s a stripclub you’re looking for it’s not hard to find that either. While the beach scene is seemingly nice from afar, the large amount of sewage runoff from the town has turned the water an uninviting shade of brown, and compared to the pristine beaches found further down the coast it is second rate at best. The outskirts of town are dominated by trailor parks for wintering Midwestern snowbirds with little more to do than drink beer and play Ping-Pong all day, though there are some exceptional taco stands for those who take the time to do some well-deserved research. Don’t get me wrong, San Felipe is a very fun town with a scorching desert climate, I just wouldn’t put it very high on the cultural or authentic scale, or come close to calling it the real Baja.
South of San Felipe on Mex 3, the scene goes from party to poverty in a blink of an eye. Fishing charters are replaced by fish camps, and pretty much all facilities go out the window as San Felipe fades into the rearview mirror. The first real town south of San Felipe is the town of Puertecitos about an hour south down the new pavement. For it’s size, the town of Puertecitos itself offers little in the way of really anything. There is one market that stays open until 8pm, and one taco stand that stays open until whenever they feel like closing. There are a couple of places to camp on the north end of town, and Octavio’s Camp is only a mile north of town and offers simple palapas, a wide sandy tidal flat, and calm ocean water that is just the right degree of refreshingly brisk. Plus there’s an entire whale skeleton on the hilltop, and the owner speaks a fair amount of English. For what the “town” of Puertecitos lacks in traditional facilities there is always something to be said for being the only visitor in town.
Just 10 minutes down the road from Puertecitos is the small enclave of Bahia Cristina that has a restaurant and palapas for rent that feature colorful hammocks on a simple bay. While it’s a nice lunch stopover, the wind can sometimes sweep down the mountanside and make the campsite a little on the blustery side. If the wind isn’t cranking though, Bahia Cristina can make a great lodging alternative to the (slightly) more bustling Puertecitos up the road.
From Bahia Cristina right down through Huerfanito (the current end of the pavement) and El Bufeo there are myriad camping opportunities and tucked away little backwater coves to check out and escape from everything, though none of them are as serene as the gem at the end of the road, the one and only Bahia de San Luis Gonzaga. Take your time on the dirt road getting here though; drive too fast on this horrendous washboard and you can blow the shocks, twist the frame, and return to San Diego with thousands of dollars in damages–trust me.
Finally, after an exceptionally scenic drive where offshore islands and rocks stoically poke their domes from the azure blue sea, the road drops through a military checkpoint and into the slice of heaven that is Bahia Gonzaga. Not exactly a secret in the longtime Baja community, the town has managed to retain the charm it most likely held many decades ago. One of those places that is more of a mindset than an actual destination, the center of town at Bahia Gonzaga is a narrow sandspit covered in ramshackle houses, offroad dune buggies, the occasional airplane, and is flanked on both sides by shimmering bays of perfection. At the very tip of the sandspit is the legendary Alfonsina’s restaurant, where the beer is always cold, the fish tacos are always fresh, and the view from the rooftop tables is always breathtaking. Anyone looking for actual services (gas, wood, tire inflator, vegetables…anything really) can find it at the ultra-modern but ultra-appreciated Rancho Grande store outside of town, and they even have a number of palapas for rent that front the idyllic bay, though they are a little close together for my personal Baja standards.
The Vagabond’s Personal Gonzaga Tip: Skip the houses near Alfonsina’s or the palapas of Rancho Grande, and head straight out over the sand to the south end of the bay, where privacy is king and your neighbors amount to zero. Those looking to really tap out can head around the corner to Punta Final, one of the best corners of all of Baja and one of those places you question why you’ve ever been elsewhere.
Back on the dusty dirt trail out of town, the road climbs slowly up into the Sierra and out towards the middle of nowhere. Strangely enough, out in this middle of nowhere, a massive complex covered in aluminum cans, car parts, and all sort of imaginable oddities sprawls out on the north side of the road into the desert. This eccentric compound is the humble abode known as Coco’s Corner, though actually locating Coco at his desert outpost can be 50/50 at best. When he’s not around there are caretakers that control the camping situation and anything else you may need, and even if you don’t stay for long, they always appreciate if you drop them a few cold Tecate’s and perhaps even a fleeting conversation. It can get lonely out in these parts.
After Coco’s Corner the road finally drops down towards the junction with Mex 1 at Laguna Chapala, a turnoff so primitive and conspicuous you can miss it even if you’re looking for it. For the uninitiated driving down the length of the peninsula, there is no way of knowing that this dusty fork in the desert eventually leads to one of the most tranquil gems on the planet, but that’s just about the way everyone in these parts seems to like it.
Tap out, unplug, enjoy. This is Baja.