Dolphins at play in LA Bay

Baja California is a rugged sliver of bare mountains and empty beaches. Michael Hanlon hit the highway south with one eye on the blossoming cacti, the other on the potholes, and found a little paradise in the desert
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The Independent Culture
THE BORDER crossing between Tijuana and San Diego is not the place to discover you have a flat tyre. We had been crawling slowly towards the Free World for an hour, stuck in an overheated 12-lane hell. Then the guy in the pick-up in the next lane started tooting and pointing at our grimy car's front end. "You've got a flat," he said. "Thanks," we replied, wondering whether we would make it to the US immigration post. Twenty minutes later, we limped across.

Ten days earlier, we had crossed the same border heading in the opposite direction - in a clean and shiny car. There are no queues to enter Mexico from the United States. No one looks at your passport, and you have to make the effort to find the immigration office to get a tourist card - necessary if you plan on driving more than a few miles into Mexico. We planned on driving many, many miles into Mexico - right to the end of the Baja California peninsula, a rugged sliver of mountain and desert, empty beaches and cactus forests. Time was of the essence: the drive to Cabo San Lucas, Baja's tropical Land's End, is about 1,200 miles from the border. So we ignored bustling Tijuana (a disturbing contrast to glitzy San Diego), and instead took the beautiful, 70-mile corniche road to Ensenada, the last town of any size for 900 miles.

Ensenada is a sleepy, pretty little place, built around the bay of Todos Santos and laid out with flower gardens and shady parks. The high street caters mainly for tourists. The shops sell the same things - big hats, carved wooden objects, pottery and other "authentic Mexican" paraphernalia - some of it not even made in China. We sat down for a late breakfast, and studied the map. We planned on spending a night in three or four places on the way down, and having a few days around La Paz at the end. Then we would burn rubber back to the States. No problem, if the road was as good, and as empty, as we had seen so far.

Half an hour out of Ensenada, we started to have our doubts. I had been apprehensive about driving in Mexico. I know plenty of people who had been there, but none who had driven a car. Surely the combination of Latin temperament, Third World roads and dubious vehicles would be potentially fatal.

In fact, Mexicans are probably the most considerate and courteous drivers with whom I have ever had the pleasure of sharing the highway. Pedestrians are waved across; traffic lights are obeyed. Every crossroad meeting leads to an elaborate signing session as each driver tries to wave the other across first. Road rage is not a problem, we concluded, in Baja California.

But, it has to be said, the roads are not good. The corniche from Tijuana to Ensenada is a toll motorway and therefore in excellent condition. Yet for 100 miles south of Ensenada, the Transpeninsular is a nightmare of endless roadworks, potholes and sections too narrow for two vehicles to pass.

The other problem was that despite the closeness of the US, and the beauty of the scenery, there is little, south of Ensenada, in the way of tourist infrastructure. The Transpeninsular runs close to the Pacific coast, but not along it, and access to the beaches is down miles of unsigned and bumpy farm tracks. Motels and hotels seem to be non-existent. As we trundled through one dusty town after another - each a string of corrugated iron shacks, shabby taco bars and tyre repair outfits - we began to wonder whether this was such a good idea. Eventually we pulled into the only tourist information office we had seen, a few miles north of San Quintn. We were directed to a motel 15 miles to the south. By the time we found it, we would have slept anywhere.

We spent the next night at El Rosario, in a strange motel run by Mexican Jehovah's Witnesses, before the daunting drive across the Desierto Central wilderness. This is a remarkable place. South of the army checkpoint at El Rosario, the road climbs to a vast 3,000-ft plateau ringed by craggy granite mountains. In early summer the desert was ridiculously colourful, with cacti covered in red and yellow blooms, and carpets of vivid pink flowers. In a few weeks it would all be burnt off in the 45-degree heat of a Mexican summer.

Here, the road is much better than farther north; it is straight, and in good condition. We clocked more than 100 miles without passing a single vehicle, and were making good time in the race south. We took the spur east to Bahia de Los Angeles, a little village on the peninsula's east coast that was apparently something of a beauty spot. A night there, we planned, then back to the highway.

But as we crested the hill, and saw the Sea of Cortes spread before us, dotted with islands, we knew we wouldn't be driving any further south.

LA Bay, as everyone calls it, is at first glance an unprepossessing collection of single-storey houses and motels in various states of disrepair. Although there is little man-made to please the eye, the setting is mind-blowing. A bay of darkest blue water, set off by multi-layered and multicoloured mountains, a string of islands and golden beaches. And we seemed to be the only tourists in town. We found somewhere to stay - clean and spacious and just 25 bucks a night, and set out to explore. LA has a scruffy but lovely little museum (full of rocks, fossils and cowboy paraphernalia, with a huge whale skeleton outside); there are two shops, three restaurants, a couple of hotels, and that's all.

As the days passed, it seemed as if we had been there for months. We got to know Guillermo, the big cheese in town. A ranchero and owner of the biggest of the three restaurants, he was a mine of local knowledge. He fixed us up with a boat and driver for the day. We knew the deep Sea of Cortes was full of exotic fauna, with dolphins, manta rays, blue whales and even the rare whale shark, the world's largest fish, and we were keen to get out and see some of it close up. We visited three of the islands (all deserted), and swam the tidal race into a turquoise lagoon. No whales, but plenty of dolphins, sea lions and shoals of Technicolor fish to keep us happy.

In the evenings, we ate at the restaurant over the road before the power went off at 9pm, devouring huge plates of mouth-wateringly fresh sea bass and yellowtail, smothered in garlic. We did once climb a hill behind the town looking for minerals - the place was once home to a mini gold rush - but that was about it as far as strenuous activity went. Just a week after arriving, and it was time to go, but as we watched the full moon rise over the Punta Herradura for the last time, we promised ourselves we would be back.

Making for Mexico

Getting there: Michael Hanlon paid pounds 321, inc taxes, for a British Airways return flight from Gatwick to San Diego, through Flightbookers (0171-757 2000). Merida is most easily reached via Miami, or on the new BA flight to Cancn, where you transfer to a bus for a five-hour haul. Mexico City is served non-stop by BA and one-stop by many other airlines; a specialist such as Journey Latin America (0181-747 3108) or South American Experience (0171-976 5511) can advise.

Simon Calder spent an inordinate amount of time and money reaching Puerto Vallarta; he travelled from Gatwick to Amsterdam on BA (0345 222111), from there to Chicago on KLM (0990 074074) and onwards via Guadalajara on Mexicana. You can make the journey much more cheaply and easily on one of many charter flights, mainly from Manchester and Gatwick, direct to Puerto Vallarta. Charters are mostly sold as part of package holidays, by operators such as First Choice (0161-745 7000), Airtours (0541 500479) and Thomson (0990 502580). Some flights may have space for "seat only" customers; expect to pay around pounds 350 return to Puerto Vallarta. From the airport you can get to the city centre in about three minutes by bus. From the west bank of the river, head inland and upwards.

Red tape: Visitors require a tourist card, issued free by the airline when you embark, or at the frontier if you enter by land.

More information: Mexican Ministry of Tourism, 60 Trafalgar Square, London WC2N 5DS (0171-734 1058). Note that this office takes a long siesta, closing each day from 1.30pm to 3pm.

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