Southbound

Southbound

The Mexican state of Baja California, just south of the border with the US, is home to the fabled Baja 1000 race, featuring an ever-changing terrain and shifting landscape on the way down to La Paz

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

Sadly, the story that The Eagles wrote their signature song Hotel California in a hotel of the same name south of the border, near Cabo San Lucas, in the Mexican state of Baja California, rather than on the US West Coast, has now been disproved, not least by the actual hotel itself. However, one undisputable fact is that the last true road race (at one time there were the 1,000 Miglia, Targa Florio and Carrera Panamericana) takes place in Baja California every year at the beginning of November. Participants compete in an array of vehicles, racing one stage of nearly 2,000km from Tijuana to the extreme tip of that narrow peninsula that lies between the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of California.

When you leave San Diego and set off to cross the Mexican border, the world changes in an instant. The cheerful affluence of one of the liveliest cities in the US, where you can sneak off work to ride a wave, quickly fades. The landscape changes. The houses are different. People travel in a different way. Billboards make it clear that everything is cheap compared to the US, and that it can be worth your while to get your car fixed or visit the dentist across the border. Leaving Tijuana, you head south on a road that has been surfaced and resurfaced so many times it has become a sort of elevated highway, compared to the scorched desert land it crosses.

If you’re distracted, or you don’t see the edge of the road, you run the risk not just of going off it, but of suffering a very dangerous rollover. The narrow road is in constant use by trucks travelling at high speeds. When you see them coming in the other direction you ask yourself how you’re going to find room to pass. It’s even worse when you see them in the rear-view mirror. Really. Because the trucks going in your direction are also travelling very fast and not at all friendly if you’re likely to slow them down. What’s more, they have a braking system linked to the transmission that wails like a siren. Is there anyone who doesn’t remember Duel, that famous film by the young Steven Spielberg? Well, that huge truck you’ve got behind you could be ready to ram you if you don’t get a move on…

Put like this and Baja California might not seem very attractive. Wrong. You just need to go in the right frame of mind and enjoy what’s on offer: amazing lobster and shellfish at ridiculously low prices, extraordinary landscapes and wild sea with excellent spots for surfing. Prices are affordable, even if in most hotels you’re generally just looking for a good night’s sleep rather than anything else.

For those who love racing, this last corner of California offers the ultimate dream, the Baja 1000: 1,818km in a single stage on any road you choose, going as fast as possible from Ensenada to La Paz. “Any road you choose” means that a route is supplied, but you’re free to use alternatives if you think they’ll give you an advantage. Obviously, a lot depends on the vehicle. Motorbikes tend to go wherever they see fit, cars generally stick to the road. I use the term “road” loosely; it’s more a case of rocky mule tracks, sections of desert, surfaced roads that rise and buckle in every direction. The most widely used, and most recommended, vehicle is the buggy, in the sense of a racing car mounted on a buggy chassis. When I witnessed the race first hand I understood why. The stresses and strains are incredible and so prolonged that they don’t leave room for any mechanical fragility. It’s the drivers who are fragile; few manage to last the entire race. It’s common to divide the route into two or three sections and change drivers, leaving the onus and honour of glory to the vehicle. When I watched the Baja 1000, I immediately dreamed of a buggy with a Ferrari V8 engine. Magic. It’s a pity that for me it will remain a dream. However, for those reading this, perhaps not. And whoever decides to do it in a Ferrari should let me know. I will guarantee an article in the Magazine and my personal support. For this also is California Dreaming – and what does it matter if it has Mexican plates?

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