Taking Wing: Back to Baja

I seldom experience déjà vu in my aerial life, though it lurks around every corner of my ground-bound existence. Enough changes from flight to flight to find something fresh in every airborne encounter, and the shift in perspective makes even old haunts seem entirely foreign when seen from above. But here and now, with the sun glinting just so off the rippled surface of the Sea of Cortez and the dark, jagged spine of the Sierra de San Pedro Mártir looming to the west, I am hit with a powerful sense of having been in this exact spot before. That’s not exactly right, for this is my first time flying Mexico’s Baja Peninsula — but the impression is rooted in reality. I peer under my Piper Pacer’s wing and spy a familiar curve of beach curling around a cerulean bay; two rough dirt airstrips lie just inland. I key the mic. “Hey Brad, you recognize that cove to our right?”

“Sure do, buddy,” comes the voice of Brad Phillips from the red-and-white Cessna 182 following close behind the Pacer. “We spent a lot of time down there in Gonzaga Bay.” Actually, it was only two nights, one at Alfonsina’s Resort and another camping under the beachfront palapas, but it was here that our 2013 dirt-bike trip took a dramatic, if not quite disastrous, turn for the unexpected. Ever since that epic, tumultuous journey, we’ve been promising to return and do Baja right; three years later, we’re back with a pair of airplanes, our wives Dawn and Amber, and mutual friends Eric and Colleen. For the newcomers, the airborne tour is a spectacular introduction to one of the world’s most ruggedly beautiful landscapes. For Brad and me, though, every expansive vista brings back vivid memories of the greatest misbegotten adventure of our long and eventful friendship.

Brad and I go back 15 years to our days as starving CFIs at a chaotic flight school in Southern California. Brad's a born outlaw who practically grew up on two wheels, while I'm a more recent convert to the hooligan cause; we've since done several major motorcycle rides together. Our first planned Baja trip in October 2012 was canceled when Brad (rather typically) managed to cut off part of a finger in a street-bike maintenance mishap. A few months later, I unexpectedly lost my FAA medical, and a Mexican moto-adventure seemed like the perfect use of my newfound free time. I bought a nicely equipped Suzuki DRZ-400 in Los Angeles, and Brad picked up a Honda XR-650R, sight unseen, in San Diego. Despite its Baja-tested reputation for bulletproof reliability, Brad's "Big Red Pig" proved to be a rather fateful selection, one that changed the course of our trip.

On the Rocks

High above Gonzaga Bay on the coastal road from San Felipe, the new pavement abruptly gave way to deep, loose gravel, and Brad gleefully “pinned it to win it,” charging off in a fit of ebullient abandon. Being a novice off-road rider and having suffered a frightening headfirst wipeout into a sandbank earlier that day, I hung back and gingerly negotiated the steep chicanes down an ochre-stained hillside. A few minutes later, I rounded a blind corner to find Brad dismounted, helmetless, and intently listening to the Honda’s engine. As soon as I shut down, I could hear it: a sickening metallic rap that suggested impending internal destruction. Brad hit the kill switch, and we stood around debating various theories until I asked if he’d checked the oil lately. Brad shot me a look that quite rightly suggested the depths of my mechanical ignorance, but nevertheless withdrew the dipstick. It was bone dry. Somehow the Big Red Pig had gone through 2½ quarts of oil in two days with neither of us noticing.

We took a room at Alfonsina's Resort Baja Hotel on the north side of the bay. It was a beautiful setting, but Brad was absolutely sick with worry that he might have scuttled the trip almost before it began. We ate fish tacos on the tiled terrace, talked over our options, and drowned our sorrows in cold Tecate. The next day, Brad hitched a ride back north, he and the BRP sharing a pickup bed with a rather surly mutt while I rode close behind. We eventually found a moto-mechanic, Jaime, in San Felipe and, despite my poor Spanish, managed to convey that the bike had run out of aceite. Jaime listened to the knock and opined that it merely needed a valve adjustment and, despite our skepticism, the BRP ran perfectly after 20 minutes of top-end tweaking. By the time we got back to Gonzaga Bay, though, the knocking was back. While I set up the tents, Brad readjusted the valves, and the Honda again ran fine. Still, as the moon came up over the Sea of Cortez, we worried that we hadn't seen the last of our troubles with the Big Red Pig. We were right.

A stout airplane is best for exploring Baja’s remote terrain and rustic airstrips. Courtesy Sam Weigel

The Baja Mystique

This time, our choice of mounts is much better considered. Dawn and I are flying our 1953 Piper Pacer, a tail-dragging natural for Baja's dirt strips that was conveniently located in Phoenix following a round-robin tour of the eastern United States. Brad's airplane was a bit harder to procure. When I told him about our Baja plans, there was absolutely no question that he and Amber would somehow join us; the only problem was that Brad doesn't own a small airplane and, in fact, hadn't so much as touched one since our flight-instructing days. Rental airplanes that can be taken into Mexico are rare, but then we found First Flight Corp. at San Diego's Brown Field. First Flight's Cessna 182 is a tough old Baja veteran with enough load-carrying capacity that Brad was able to invite Eric and Colleen. Brad flew down to San Diego and got checked out; apparently, a couple hundred hours spent flying skydivers in ratty old 182s had stuck with him.

The six of us met up this morning in San Felipe, where we cleared Mexican customs and immigration. After takeoff, we joined up in loose formation so Dawn could nab some spectacular air-to-air shots against the serrated coastline. Now past Gonzaga Bay, the rough dirt road southward has turned inland. “Hey, there’s Calamajue Wash,” Brad radios, and I spy a green furrow in the hills 15 miles to the west. “Man, you must have fallen a dozen times getting out of there.” At least. The previous crash near San Felipe was my first experience with the difficult conditions that make the Baja 1000 Race the stuff of off-road legends. Calamajue Wash began as a fun ride splashing through a little stream at the bottom of a gorgeous valley, but then it degenerated into miles of deep, loose, disheartening silt. I fell time after time, growing ever more exhausted, dejected and slow. But I had to keep going; there was no other choice. We were literally in the middle of nowhere.

The defining characteristic of Baja isn’t necessarily the rough terrain or harsh desert climate; it’s the lack of people. Most of the 700 miles between Ensenada and La Paz are sparsely populated, with few towns of any size, and those mostly lie along the Transpeninsular Highway’s asphalt ribbon of civilization. Venture a few miles in any direction, and you’re pretty well on your own. This is indeed a great deal of Baja’s appeal to pilots, yachtsmen and off-road adventurers. Most of Baja’s gems are reachable to only those with specialized equipment and knowledge, advance preparation, and an adventurous spirit. All these requirements guarantee that you’ll never find yourself in a crowd. Even more so, they mean that the hardy souls you do meet along the way, locals and gringos alike, are some of the kindest, friendliest and most generous people you’ll ever encounter anywhere.

Finding an open airstrip in Baja might not be as easy as you'd think. Courtesy Sam Weigel

Paradise Found, Paradise Lost

There are areas of Baja that are too remote and too rugged to reach even by dirt bike, like the roadless section beyond the aptly named Punta Final. Flying over this area is really interesting because, where I assumed there would be utter desolation, there are still shepherds’ huts, beach camps, and even occasional fishing villages tucked into protected coves. A half-hour later, the coastline flattens out, and the hardscrabble outpost of Bahía de Los Angeles appears along its namesake bay. Southeast of town, a faint dirt track meanders southeast into the desert; this was where I finally figured out how to ride Baja silt. Near the road’s end is Playa San Rafael, a beautiful wide bay that is home to one wiry, sun-weathered man who has lived there in isolation for nearly 40 years. When Brad and I rode up to his tin-and-plywood beach shack, Francisco promptly emerged to offer us miraculously ice-cold Pacifico beers. We spent the next hour deep in conversation, never mind that neither of us speaks much of the other’s language. “I am rich because I have so many friends from all around the world,” Francisco said as he affectionately showed us well-worn Polaroids of intrepid well-wishers from across the decades.

There’s no airstrip at Playa San Rafael, so a return visit to Francisco’s ramshackle paradise is sadly not in the cards. The Mexican government’s uneven clampdown on the traficantes makes off-airport beach landings a bad idea in Baja these days. Worse, neglect and red tape has decimated the number of legitimate airstrips in Baja that are open and legal for GA pilots to use. One of the theoretically closed airports, Punta San Francisquito, appears a couple of miles south of Playa San Rafael. PSF used to be a long-cherished fly-in destination until an earthquake destroyed the little beachfront resort in 2011. More recently, the airstrip’s license lapsed without renewal. We can see the strip is in good condition and appears to have been used quite recently. There doesn’t appear to be military around, or anyone else for that matter. We decide to go for it, land on the packed dirt runway, and taxi to a silty parking area. Once our engines are shut down, the wind and the crashing waves are the only sounds for miles. We walk down the deserted beach; there’s no sign of activity at the half-repaired resort. This is a really lovely spot, and the loss of its use for pilots feels like a storied bit of Old Baja slipping away with the shifting sand.

­The Hotel Serenidad is one of Baja’s oldest and most beloved fly-in destinations. Its scenic entrance is just a few steps from the well-maintained dirt strip. Courtesy Sam Weigel

An Old-School Oasis

The good news is there’s still plenty of Old Baja left to be had. Take Mulegé (moo-leh-hay), for example. A quiet fishing village spread along a swampy river outlet and wedged against the coastal range, Mulegé offers tired travelers a friendly welcome just as it did when Highway 1 was little more than a dusty path through the wilderness. South of town, we land at the 3,000-foot El Gallito Airstrip, avoiding a few rocky potholes halfway down the scrub-fringed runway. At the far end of the strip lies Don Johnson’s Hotel Serenidad, a Baja institution for 60 years running (and one of John Wayne’s favorite hangouts). Nose up to the whitewashed stone wall, shut down the engine, and you’re there.

An arch with an open gate welcomes us to Hotel Serenidad’s peaceful, landscaped grounds, where cool stone buildings in the mission style surround a swimming pool shaded by shaggy palm trees. We procure clean, basic rooms for $45 apiece, and then gather around a poolside table to enjoy cold $2 Pacificos as the sun sinks behind the mountains. It’s Saturday night, meaning we’ve arrived just in time for Serenidad’s legendary pig roast, but there are only a few other guests, all fly-in, so the hotel isn’t going whole hog tonight. No matter, pork ribs are on offer, and it’s a wonderful feast served with typical Baja hospitality. After dinner we take a taxi into town. Mulegé has a larger gringo component than most Baja towns, but it is still unmistakably Mexican; even on Saturday night, most of the people on the darkened streets are local families strolling around the quiet plaza. We duck into an atmospheric, mostly empty wooden bar for a few quiet drinks; the total tab for the six of us is $12. Cabo this is not, and thank God for that.

Los Residentes de San Ignacio

I wasn’t happy when the Big Red Pig finally died, but I wasn’t surprised either. Brad was readjusting the valves daily, and clearly something was off internally. I was mostly glad that the top end blew where it did, on Highway 1 just a couple of miles outside San Ignacio. We’d just been riding the sandy trail between Playa San Rafael and El Arco, and while it wasn’t exactly unpopulated — there were a few small ranchos along the way, including the one at which we spent the night — getting a bike out of there would have been a major pain. Instead I simply looped a rope around the BRP’s handlebars and towed Brad down a winding side road through a date-palm oasis, across a reedy stream, and into the quaint historical mission town of San Ignacio. We stopped at the leafy square dominated by an impressive stone church built by Spanish Dominicans in 1786. It was almost siesta time, but a number of men immediately came over to help. Within hours, all 700 of the town’s inhabitants seemed to know who we were: the guys with the broken moto.

We ended up being stuck in San Ignacio for six days while we located a shade-tree mechanic and scrounged up used parts to put the Big Red Pig back in working order. It was incredibly frustrating to lose more than half of our two-week ride due to breakdowns. To make matters worse, I came down with a case of Montezuma’s revenge, my first in many trips to Mexico. But in reality, those long lazy days in San Ignacio were some of the best of the trip.

To the Laguna

We got to know quite a few locals, our Spanish got dramatically better, we got invited to several parties, and there was even a hazy midnight burro-riding incident that may have involved tequila. One particularly kind soul, Javier Lopez, took us under his wing and introduced us to his entire extended family. None of this would’ve happened if the Big Red Pig hadn’t left us stranded in a little Mexican village in the middle of the desert, and neither would’ve the real highlight of our stay — an unexpectedly amazing experience and the real reason for our subsequent aerial return to Baja.

I wake to roosters crowing out back, and as my eyes adjust to the still darkness, I swear that I’m back in our white-tiled room at the Motel La Posada in San Ignacio. But then the unmistakable scream of a long-propped Cessna 185 splits the chilly morning air and immediately reorients me to my true time and place: Hotel Serenidad in Mulegé. My Piper Pacer is parked expectantly in the rising sun a two-minute amble down the shady path. Perhaps my half-awake episode of misplaced déjà vu was a propitious one: Today we are flying to Laguna San Ignacio.

Three years ago, on our fifth morning in San Ignacio, Brad and I were awakened early by our friend, the shade-tree mechanic, who had finally obtained a serviceable camshaft, camchain and rocker arms from a friend of a friend up in Guerrero Negro. The Big Red Pig, it seemed, would ride again by day’s end. In the meantime, the prospect of another afternoon spent drinking beers in the shady square beckoned. As we lay in our beds talking it over, Brad suddenly sat up and looked at me. “Sam, why haven’t we gone to see the whales yet? Let’s do that today.”

Why not, indeed? Laguna San Ignacio is one of only three lagoons along Baja’s Pacific coast that serve as winter quarters to the entire population of California gray whales. Their annual roundtrip between the Gulf of Alaska and the laguna of their births is the longest known migration of any mammal. The whales at Laguna San Ignacio are known to be unusually friendly, attracting cetacean enthusiasts from around the world. There wasn’t really time for such diversions in our original itinerary — but now we had nothing but time. So we got on my little Suzuki and rode to the laguna, two up, across 30 bumpy miles of crumbling pavement and another 10 miles of deep, shifty silt. It was the most time Brad’s ever spent on the backseat of a motorcycle. He didn’t complain, but I’m pretty sure he was terrified.

Three years later, it’s a much smoother trip. We take off from Mulegé after a leisurely breakfast, enjoy a short flight over the mirror-smooth Bahía Concepción, land in Loreto for avgas, and then depart to the northwest. We follow a cliff-hugging, gut-twisting roller-coaster road as we climb over the Sierra de la Gigante; this was the route of a final, spectacular ride the day after the Big Red Pig was finally brought back to life. In a wide river valley, I spy the massive stone church we visited at Misión San Javier. Farther west, the mountains give way to gently rolling hills broken by stream-carved canyons and dotted with green oases; it looks like dirt-bike heaven. As we approach the coast, the vegetation becomes increasingly sparse amid stark mesas and wavelike dunes. And then a shimmering village materializes out of nothingness, and behind it, a protected ocean inlet. We fly low over town to summon our ride and land at Laguna San Ignacio’s private dirt strip.

A van is already waiting to whisk us to Kuyima Eco-Lodge where we’re greeted by English-speaking guides, shown to our cozy private cabins at the laguna’s edge, and given a tour of the camp’s ultragreen facilities before joining the other guests in the central lodge for an excellent gourmet lunch. Left to our own devices, Brad and I would probably be roughing it in flapping tents out in the blowing sand, but it’s Valentine’s Day and our better halves have rightly insisted on more comfortable accommodations. Fortunately, Kuyima has the space for us for one night; they usually offer four-day, three-night packages, and all the other guests have been here for several days with a number of successful whale-watching expeditions under their belts. The excitement is palpable as we gather outside the lodge and don life jackets for the afternoon session. Dawn smiles and holds my hand as we splash out to the panga. She’s ready to pet a whale.

The author pets a friendly gray whale, one of roughly 300 that migrate to Laguna San Ignacio every winter. Courtesy Sam Weigel

A Baja Whale Tale

Three years ago, our welcome to Laguna San Ignacio wasn’t quite so warm: An aggressive dog chased Brad and me and then bit me on my booted heel as we rode past the airstrip. We stopped at the first whale-tour operator we saw, where the boatman, Valentín, turned out to be one of the guys who had helped us that first day in the square. We shared his 22-foot open fiberglass panga with an elderly couple from eastern Washington who told us their lives’ goal was to travel to Baja and see the California gray whales. “It’s now or never,” the frail man said with shaking hands. His wife tenderly draped a blanket over him as we ventured out into the lagoon. A quarter mile off the bow, an immense silvery form leaped from the water and crashed back down with an enormous splash. We began spotting telltale wispy spouts, first at a distance and then increasingly closer. Whales of all sizes and ages surfaced all around us, the slender curve of their backs barely breaking the waves as their blowholes bellowed before they dived with a graceful sweep of their broad tails. The more curious giants “spy-hopped,” poking their heads straight into the air to better to size up their human visitors.

It was already a much better experience than I had envisioned, but then Valentín got a radio call to go farther out into the lagoon. There we encountered two extraordinarily friendly adult whales, one about 40 feet long and the other slightly smaller. They surfaced and swam nearby, dived underneath the boat, scratched their backs on the keel and rocked our little open panga. And then the larger of the two came right up to the gunwales, lifting her immense head out of the water until her deep black, dinner-plate-size eye met ours. The elderly couple almost fell overboard as they scrambled to plant wet kisses on her blubbery, barnacle-encrusted hide. Brad petted her back and, uncharacteristically, bent down to give her a sloppy kiss of his own. The gentle giant then rolled over, the better for me to scratch under her chin like some shaggy gray dog of the sea. We all oohed and aahed and pattered like children; the old man openly wept as his wife grasped his quivering hand.

This went on for over an hour; these two whales would not leave us alone. They turned us all into, well, blubbering idiots. It’s hard to explain the reaction these majestic creatures seem to incite in all who encounter them. It’s impossible to look into that massive, unblinking eye and not feel a powerful connection. And like most of my favorite Baja memories, I owe it all to my best friend idiotically running his dirt bike out of oil.

Second-Chance Redemption

Not everyone who comes to Laguna San Ignacio gets to touch a whale; anecdotal evidence suggests it happens on perhaps one trip out of four. And it’s probably foolish to expect a repeat of the experience that Brad and I had. But Dawn and Amber have been hearing our Baja whale tale for a good three years, and expectations are impossibly high.

The sun is shining, it’s a beautiful day on the lagoon, and everyone in the panga is laughing, singing and whistling as they splash the water, the better to attract whales.

Naturally, we get skunked. Mind you, we see plenty of whales, possibly more than three years ago, and many venture quite close to the boat. We see a lot of breaching and spy-hopping. We see people in other pangas scratching whales under the chin and kissing their barnacle-encrusted hides, and oohing and aahing. At one point, Dawn, Amber and Colleen are all halfway out of the heeled panga, arms outstretched, literally within inches of touching a whale. But it slides past, dives deep with a flip of its great tail, and doesn’t come back. The mood is subdued on the ride back to Kuyima, though everyone claims they had a wonderful day. “Maybe we’ll get to touch one tomorrow,” Dawn says.

The next morning breaks cold and gray, with a biting north wind that heaps the lagoon into angry leaden whitecaps. It does not look like whale-watching weather at all, but Kuyima is still running trips, so after breakfast we agree to take another shot. At the last minute, Brad backs out, fearing he may be coming down with his own case of Montezuma’s revenge (thankfully, he is not). The rest of us pile into the panga and hold on tight as it speeds into the lagoon, slamming over the waves. The weather improves out on the water, but for the first hour the whales continue to be elusive. Suddenly, a mother with a calf surfaces only 50 feet away, and the curious youngster swims directly for Dawn. She reaches down, and the calf lifts his head out of the water to nuzzle her hand. “Oh, he’s so soft!” Dawn exclaims. She has tears in her eyes as the calf slides into the water and circles back toward his watchful mama.

A few minutes later, another juvenile approaches the panga, and this time it is Amber, Colleen and Eric’s turn. The mood is ebullient on our way back to camp, though someone suggests we not tell Brad. Of course, we do within moments of our return. When I ask if he’s really bummed that he missed it, Brad just shrugs and smiles. “It’s cool, I’m happy for them. You and me, man … we had our whale.”

The Baja Peninsula offers ample opportunity for adventures, many accessible only by airplanes or off-road vehicles. On the Pacific side from December to April, visitors can see migrating gray whales up close and even pet their barnacled backs. Courtesy Sam Weigel

Homeward Bound

What else can you do after an experience like that? We have another two days to fly north along Baja’s windswept Pacific coast, but it already feels like we’re homeward bound. We stop for the night in San Quintín, landing at the Campo de Lorenzo airstrip and staying at another Baja landmark, the Old Mill Hotel. Even this, only a couple hours’ drive from San Diego, is a wonderfully laid-back slice of Old Baja. Over dinner we all agree that we’re not quite ready to leave Mexico just yet and decide to spend one last night in Ensenada. It’s a short, beautiful flight up the coast the next morning.

Our aerial tour has proven more successful than the abortive dirt-bike trip; we’ve covered twice the distance in only four days and nearly completed the circuit that Brad and I were forced to cut short. From Loreto, Brad flew north on the airlines, selling the Big Red Pig at the last minute for more than he had into it even after repairs. That’s Brad for you. Meanwhile, I continued southward for another week of breakdown-free riding that included several truly epic, way off-road legs to some truly spectacular places. I enjoyed myself but missed having a friend to share it with. Then I came to land’s end in Cabo San Lucas, and I sold my faithful Suzuki to a gringo planning to do the same ride the other way.

Now another Baja adventure is ending, this time in Ensenada where the dirt-bike trip began. Brad and I had good memories from our last visit, but I don’t think a cruise ship was in town at the time. This time several are, and the place is a zoo. I steer us toward Hussong’s Cantina where at least I know there’s cheap beer, good music, and a decent proportion of local drunks and steely-eyed off-road types to balance out us slack-jawed tourists, but every step of our progress is curtailed by aggressive touts, desperate trinket vendors, and shifty pimps with bored-looking hookers. The fourth or fifth time that a feral-looking kid jumps in my path and mumbles an entreaty to let him get whatever I need, I’ve completely had it and pull up short in a pique.

“Hey Brad!” He turns around with a little grin and a cocked eyebrow. “Don’t you wanna get out of here? Like, just get back in the airplane and fly back south?”

Brad throws his head back and laughs, stamping his foot. “Oh God, man, yes! Let’s go back to Baja!”

Sam Weigel has been an airplane nut since an early age, and when he's not flying the Boeing 737 for work, he enjoys going low and slow in vintage taildraggers. He and his wife live west of Seattle, where they are building an aviation homestead on a private 2,400-foot grass airstrip.

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