Overlanding the Incredible Trails of Baja Sur

Using our 2002 Toyota Tacoma with a 3.4-liter V-6, we embarked on a Baja overland adventure through one of the last frontiers on the North American continent. Read on for our account.  

We awoke to the cries of coyotes in the distance as the sun illuminated the eastern horizon. Rekindling the campfire and pouring a cuppa joe, we thought about our previous afternoon’s debacle deep in the Sierra La Giganta. We had followed a thin red line on the map in an attempt to locate a backway to San Ignacio but our ’02 Toyota Tacoma 4×4 ended up pointed at the dead-end of a precipitous arroyo shelf road. Cautiously retreating, our decision to travel solo was at the forefront. But this was Baja Sur, La Frontera, the land of Spanish missions and conquistadors, and what is a south-of-the-border adventure without an occasional infusion of adrenalin?

The trail from Las Barillas to La Paz is a narrow two-track above the Sea of Cortés.

Although most visitors witness the peninsula from 30,000 feet while en route to the tequila-soaked tourist hub of Cabo San Lucas, one must put tires to terra firma to experience the nuances of this magical place. We had departed San Jose del Cabo 10 days earlier in our Tacoma to search out Baja’s hidden gems, savor its culinary delights, and explore the depths of its storied chronicle. This would only be done by turning off the tarmac and taking a left, or right, on its endless backroads.

If you get away from the tourist routes it is easy to find a secluded spot to pitch your tent.

Age of Discovery

The discovery of much of the New World was well-documented, but written records of Baja California’s earliest contact with Europeans is as hazy as the hangover after a night in Cabo. Another detail that hung in the haze was the origins of the name California. Some hypothesize it was translated from an indigenous word for “high hill,” others that it was named after Padre Cal y Fornia, but research has unveiled no evidence to support either.

Although the Sea of Cortés is usually peaceful, underwater hazards and hurricanes have caused the demise of hundreds of vessels.

Turning the pages back to the early 1500s, a wave of Spanish conquistadors was washing over Central and South America, in search of riches, power, and prestige. Operating with near-autonomy, they reigned with a ruthless hand, subjugating what indigenous tribes would acquiesce, and eliminating those who resisted.

We found an isolated beach camp near San Evaristo to set up for the night.

Hernan Cortés, through his interrogation of Aztec nobles near present-day Mexico City, learned of gold-rich regions near the Pacific Ocean. Moving his armies into the Oaxaca area, he began claiming the land for the Spanish Crown. At the same time, his archrival, Nuño de Guzmán, was doing the same in the north. Possibly motivated by the popular book Las Sergas de Esplandian (circa 1510) which described a terrestrial paradise west of the West Indies, Guzmán moved his armies toward the Sonoran Desert along the Sea of Cortés. There he was to find a matriarchal society rich with game, void of males, and ruled by “a Queen, large of body, very beautiful, in the prime of her years … ” According to the author, this blissful utopia was called Isla de California.

It is not uncommon to find fish camp gravesites along Baja’s coastline.

Cortés had probably read the same book, and realized if he was to discover an island, he would need a boat. By 1532 he had organized a fleet of two ships, and in the following three years would dispatch multiple voyages of exploration in the sea that bears his name. One might be tempted to romanticize the high seas travel, treasure, and adventure, but the truth is most of his exploits ended in disaster. Tropical storms, tidal surges and lost ships, mutinous crews and murder—and Guzmán pirating his vessels—were par for the course. When he finally established a colony in Santa Cruz (La Paz), only a few settlers survived starvation and attacks by the natives—the Amerindians dealt with the Spanish in the same brutal way that they had been treated. When Cortés turned tail for home, the peninsula would remain unmolested for more than 150 years.

In some areas, sea salt is still harvested by hand from large evaporation ponds.

Langosta and Las Barillas

Making our way north on a dirt track, the aqua-blue waters of Cabo Pulmo appeared as we passed the village of Los Frailes. After a century of commercial fishing in the area, which depleted nearly every species, the local community pressured the government to designate it as a national marine park, which they did in 1995. We recalled John Steinbeck describing the sea floor as a pinkish blanket, so thick with langosta (lobster) you could not set foot without stepping on one. Marine stocks have slowly regained a footing, but it has been a slow process. That evening, we were in Las Barillas sipping margaritas with Four Wheeler contributor Ned (and Kat) Bacon at the home of Colin McLemore (of Mac’s Custom Tie-Downs fame). Colin is one of the many ex-pats who have embraced Baja’s sandy playas, authentic culture, and laid-back pace.

The El Portezuelo Nature Reserve is home to bighorn sheep, several deer species, and mountain lions.

Threading a path along the coast, we passed the encampments of Buena Vista and El Pescadaro before finding ourselves on a cliff road, the precipitous edge falling off hundreds of feet to the water. It eventually turned west over the mountain and led us to La Paz and the site of Cortés’ 1535 colony. La Paz translates to peace in Spanish, and it is somewhat ironic that its now-tranquil beaches hold such a stormy past. La Paz is a good place to restock supplies, and if you are hungry, we can recommend Tailhunter on the malecón for excellent tacos de pescado (fish tacos), and Bandido’s for one of Baja’s best burgers.

San Evaristo and Agua Verde

Maintaining our off-piste charter, we targeted San Evaristo for the night’s camp. This crescent cove was one of the area’s early salt producers, and a small collection of evaporation ponds still exists to the north of the village. Setting up the tent near the end of the point, we poured an umbrella drink and watched pelicans divebomb the water for a sushi supper.

The “back-way” into Agua Verde had been washed out by a hurricane last year, but we did an afternoon recce to see if it was again passable.

Our intent was to access Aqua Verde through the backdoor, a long, slow run through the Sierra La Giganta. Ned had attempted this route six months earlier and said it had been washed out by a hurricane. About 60 miles in, worried we would hit a dead-end and not have enough fuel to return, we diverted to Ciudad Insurgentes to top the tanks and make a short run up the tarmac.

It is a good idea to keep your 4×4’s fuel tanks full, as you never know what kind of watered-down fuel you might find along the road.

Agua Verde is one of those places we old timers didn’t write about back in the day, fearing it would be overrun by boombox-toting tourists—share the secret and suffer the wrath. Fortunately, the route descending the jagged cliffs keeps all but the most intrepid away, and we’ve yet to share one of its many playas (beaches) with more than one other camp. The crescent bay at El Puertito is a quintessential Baja paradise, and a popular anchorage for cruisers. Most live on their sailboats half the year, retreating to the life of landlubbers when summer sends the mercury above the century mark.

The protected waters of Agua Verde’s El Puertito are a popular anchorage for sailors, and not a bad place to camp either.

We settled in for a few nights, spending mornings with our toes in the sand and a cuppa joe in hand. Afternoons were similarly stressful, taking walks on the beach, snorkeling, exploring tidepools, and sipping cocktails with our new swabbie mates—we were truly melding into mañana mode.

The sun creeps over the horizon above Bahia El Puertito.

An elderly man named Jose is the cove’s only resident. From his humble palapa abode he awaits returning fishermen each day, and the change of seasons. He typically refuses payment for camping, but we always insist ($10 a night is customary), leave him extra food as well.

We’re not sure if the palapa restaurant at Agua Verde has a name, but the sign says bienvenidos (welcome), so we headed in for a cerveza fria and lunch. Menu selections include fish tacos … or fish tacos.

Missions and Missionaries

After Cortés’ departure, the peninsula was again at peace with the universe, its various tribes living as their ancestors had for millennia. But more tumultuous times lay ahead. Conquistadors had vanished, but the might of the Holy Cross would soon descend again. Under order of the Crown, Jesuit missionaries were sent to establish a series of missions and ensure California was controlled by New Spain. In the name of God, they would save the indigenous peoples from their pagan ways. Some came with the Christian spirit, as the good Father Kino had in Sonora, but others understood their charter as convert or eradicate.

Misión San Javier, established in 1699, has been well-preserved, and retains its authentic Old Mexico charm.

On October 19, 1697, Father Juan María de Salvatierra laid the cornerstone of Misión de Nuestra Señora de Loreto. Quickly realizing there was not enough water for crops, he summoned the Cochimi Indians to help locate a place more suitable for agriculture. A site was found 12 miles away in the heights of Sierra la Giganta, and two years later, Misión San Francisco Javier was established. Preserved to this day with exceptional care, stepping through its thick wooden doors is like entering a time portal. Whitewashed plaster conceals hand-cut stone walls, detailed wood carvings stand behind the pulpit, and a large brass bell hangs from its tower. Beyond the cobblestone streets, fruit trees and wine grapes brought by the Jesuits still grow in the valley, and farmers can be seen driving mule carts to market. With only a few hundred residents, Misión San Javier is well worth a visit.

Driven by Modesto Sanchez Mayon in 1947, this WWII Willys was the first vehicle to reach Loretto.

As the mission system expanded, rumors developed that the Jesuits were amassing great riches and power … and withholding them from the government. It must be remembered, however, that the various religious sects had the same rivalries as the conquistadors, and although the Jesuits were busy doing God’s work in California, one could speculate their rivals were feeding the Crown a serving of deceptive lies. During the Jesuits’ tenure they established a chain of 17 missions, each linked by a mule trail known as El Camino Real (The Royal Road). King Carlos III of Spain eventually ousted them, making way for the Franciscans, who were themselves eventually replaced by the Dominicans.

Departing Mulegé, we headed west in search of a long-lost track to San Ignacio.

Cantinas and Umbrella Drinks

Heading north, we descended cacti-lined foothills to what appeared to be an inland sea.

Punto de Concepción lies 25 miles to the north, and the bay it creates is an aquatic playground. Sailors find safe harbor in its protected anchorages, and sun-seekers lay claim to white sand beaches. Its azure waters are Caribbean-clear, and one can’t help but to set up a tent for the night and pull out a cerveza fria (translation: cold Pacifico). Playa Requesón, Coyote, or Santispac, we’ve camped on these beaches for decades and they are all amazing. Insider tip: Armando’s palapa restaurant at Santispac makes a great lunch stop.

Rush hour in Baja’s backcountry typically consists of a few mules and a horse.

Fresh water in the desert is synonymous with life—no water, no life. Mulegé, which rests along Rio Mulegé at the north end of Concepción Bay, is a verdant oasis amongst its arid surroundings. Life here revolves around the river, which is a blessing and a curse. Most of the year, its surface-flow and aquifer provide life, but during hurricane season angry storms saturated with subtropical air can release up to a foot of rain in a day. Without reservoirs to slow the flow, it rages down like shot through a gun, flood waters often enveloping the town.

After 50 miles of dirt trails, in search of a backway to San Ignacio, we were stopped by a locked gate.

Smelling like five-day-old socks, we pulled into Hotel Serenidad for a much-needed shower. We rarely mention hotel stays, but Serenidad should be on the bucket list of every Baja wanderer. Established in 1961, it was one of the first fly-in resorts and has retained its classic charm. Umbrella drinks flow from the poolside palapa bar, date palms shade quiet walkways, and there is a pig roast every Saturday night.

When the sun yields to nightfall, billions of stars sweep west across the sky unmolested by light pollution from any urban sprawl.

El Camino Real and Spanish Rancheros

In the morning we restocked stores and pointed our Tacoma west over the mountains, in search of a remote track that Ned and this author did in the mid-’90s. In the days before the internet, we learned of it in Patti and Tom Higginbotham’s book Backroad Baja. Departing the headwaters of Rio San Raymundo, about 50 miles from Mulegé, we veered north to Misión Guadalupe. This region was settled by soldiers who accompanied the missionaries (known as Californios), and many were given Spanish land grants. They could not only wield a musket, but also knew how to raise cattle and crops. Centuries later, their descendants continue to work the land and can be a great source of local information.

The sun creeps over Sierra La Giganta, washing our camp along Arroyo Raymundo with warm hues.

Passing a small ranchero, we stopped to talk with Armando. He had grown up on the ranch, as had his father and grandfather, and after working in the U.S. for many years, he had returned to find his roots. Boasting how brilliant the stars were at night and how tranquilo (peaceful) it was here, his pride of ownership was palpable. He wasn’t familiar with a trail to San Ignacio, so we said our goodbyes and continued with our quest.

Long after the winter rains, a few canyons still had standing water.

All that remains of the mission is its stone foundation, so we followed a faint track in the desired heading across a washed-out riverbed. A few miles in, we were stopped by a locked gate. Scanning our map, we decided on an alternate route northeast to Misión San Jose de Magdalena. Dropping into a narrow canyon, the road deteriorated to the point that the wise person would recce on foot. Ahead, we found refrigerator-size boulders where the road once lay. The sun had dropped below the ridgeline, we were in a pickle, and the only person who had the faintest idea where we were was Ned. We’ve flown solo in Baja for years, defying all advice we have given to others about traveling in a group. Making a six-point 180, we stacked rocks, engaged the rear locker, and cautiously climbed out of the canyon—camp this night would require several toasts with our amigo, Señor Don Julio.

The coastal region south of San Ignacio offers vast estuarial salt flats.

Coyotes rousted us the next morning, and we followed San Raymundo Arroyo to the Pacific. Turning north toward San Ignacio, we crossed vast estuarial salt flats, detouring at the occasional village to inspect the catch of the day. As is the case with any great adventure, there is a moment when one glances at the calendar and realizes it is time to head for the barn. We begrudgingly aired-up our truck’s tires in San Ignacio, shifted into two-wheel drive, and hopped on Mex 1. Still 500 miles from the border, we sped by countless two-tracks that vanished into forests of cardon cacti and unfamiliar arroyos. Baja Sur had revealed some of her hidden treasures, but we were already taking mental notes on Baja Norte and planning our next fix of southern exposure.

Our final night was an isolated camp somewhere in Baja Norte, where we were already planning our next adventure south of the border.  

Baja Basics

The best 4×4 to take to Baja is the one that keeps running. The vehicle we took to Baja is an ultra-reliable 2002 Toyota Tacoma with a 3.4-liter V-6. It’s equipped with an Icon Vehicle Dynamics suspension, BFGoodrich KO2 tires on Mickey Thompson wheels, a Warn winch, and an ARB bull-bar fitted with the company’s AR21 lights. Up top is an Autohome rooftop tent and Front Runner aluminum rack mounted on a Leer bed canopy.

The gear you stuff inside your 4×4 must work every time you reach for it. The list could fill a book, but we’ve included a short review of what we took in our rig.

Recovery gear includes products from Warn, ARB, Bubba Rope, Factor 55, Maxtrax, and Viking. Air-ups are accomplished with an ARB twin compressor.

Baja is brutal on tires, so don’t cross the border on tired dogs. We’ve found the BFGoodrich KO2 to provide excellent service and survive Baja beatings without a hiccup.

Under the hood are twin Odyssey Extreme batteries and a Premier Power Welder.

We use a basic Coleman stove, Reliance water jug, and two aluminum Zarges cases, one for food and one for the mess kit.

You will need extra fuel, and we haul ours in a pair of Expedition One 20-liter stack-flat cans.

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When hosts Fred Williams and Dave Chapelle attempt to build one vehicle that can run all types of terrain, the results are ridiculous. On episode 51 of Dirt Every Day, they combine an old Range Rover with a Ford Ranger to build an overlanding prerunner that can also play in the mud and rockcrawl. Sign up for a free trial to MotorTrend+ and start watching every episode of Dirt Every Day, plus much more!

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