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Driving: Baja Behind the Wheel

I have a confession to make. When it comes to cars, I'm like a 50-year-old man in a midlife crisis. Don't talk to me about safety. Don't talk to me about practical. When I'm hunting for a set of wheels, I want something with sex appeal. Yep, I'm the girl you hate. The one who's applying lipstick at every light, bumping to hip-hop tunes, waving at cute guys. So when the opportunity arose to take the new Mitsubishi Eclipse Spyder for a spin in Baja, I was totally game. The car was happening: silver, sporty, sleek. I had a wardrobe to match and CD's hot enough to make the pavement sizzle.

The only problem was that the drive itself consisted of long stretches of desert, without a single cute guy in sight. This provoked a philosophical dilemma, akin to the question of whether or not a tree falling in a forest with no one around to hear it makes a sound: Namely, if I'm a total babe in a cute car with nobody but cacti to flirt with, am I still a total babe?I decided it was worth the trip just to find out.

First, I needed a partner in crime. The schedule I had in mind went like this: wake up, loll about in pool until noon, break the speed laws in six Mexican counties, and pray that I don't get arrested. What I needed for the trip was a homegirl, someone to play Thelma to my Louise. Someone who'd let me drive, tolerate my singing, and not whine, "But you always get to be Louise!"

The first call I make is to my friend Jennifer. Jen just had a baby, so she has no free time whatsoever. She also lives in California (I'm in New York) so we see each other far too little. I get her answering machine and I leave a message to the effect of, "Got a great assignment. Driving trip in Baja. Babe-mobile convertible. Too bad you have newborn infant. Wanted you to come." Then I go away on a business trip. Checking my voice mail from Spain, I get the following message. "Booked ticket. Will miss the kid, but will get over it. See you in Baja."

Our first stop in Baja is the Las Ventanas al Paraíso resort in San José del Cabo. It has been my dream to stay here ever since reading about it in this magazine three years ago. There has been many a day that visualizing myself floating in the famous rimless pool or dozing in a hammock on its white-sand beach has kept me from going postal when work was hell. We check into the hotel and it is heaven. Our room is huge, with hand-laid mosaic floors, a private pool, and high, beamed ceilings. Jen's happy that they left us a complimentary bottle of smooth tequila in the room. I order up a kiwi margarita from room service. Forget driving Baja; we may never leave the hotel.

The next morning we tear ourselves away from Las Ventanas to take the Spyder for a quick spin around Cabo San Lucas. We attract the requisite amount of attention. Mission accomplished–it is a total babe-mobile. But it's also 100 degrees outside, and the Las Ventanas pool is calling. We go back to the hotel for lunch and a swim. Check-out time is noon, but neither of us wants to leave the beloved pool. So I get out and call my main man, Mañuel, at the front desk. "Can we stay until one p.m.?" He says yes.

An hour later, we're still in the pool. "Call him back," Jen says. "No, I called last time," I say, trying to float backward. "Oh, all right," Jen says. Two seconds later, she returns triumphant. "He said two o'clock is fine!" Then, because Jen and I together are the silliest girls you'll ever meet, we start to do a victory dance in the pool. We get a drink at the swim-up bar. I'm doing the doggie paddle and complaining about my suit not being babe-worthy when I hear this voice say, "No, you're wrong. You look great in that suit. I was just thinking I should get one like it." I turn around and the woman speaking is Brooke Shields. Needless to say, I'm stoked.

At 2:30, we get into the car and start driving toward Cabo San Lucas, land of Sammy Hagar's Cabo Wabo Cantina restaurant and the chaos of countless similarly cheesy restaurants and nightclubs. We stop just long enough to buy Jen a hat and then hit the road again. Our plan is to drive to the capital city of La Paz, spend the night, and the next day drive back to Las Ventanas. It's only a three-hour haul. Route 1 would be faster, but we take the more scenic Route 19, which has intermittent vistas of the ocean.

We're heading first for Todos Santos, an artist community halfway to La Paz, where we'll stop for an early supper. But for the good two hours it takes to get there, the entire world melts away. There's a kind of reassuring sameness about driving through the desert. The Spyder's shaped like a silver bullet and handles the hills like a dream. Although there are stretches of road that just beg for me to rev up to 90 miles per hour, mostly I resist the temptation because the view–and the ride–are too sweet to be rushed. I've always thought of the desert as one brown blur, but Baja is colorful: green cacti, rock formations in shades of brown and black, desert flowers we can't name, vivid altars built to honor those who have died along these roads.

Jen and I are so enamored of the scenery that we keep pulling over to take pictures of each other: She poses with the cacti. I pose with the cacti. She poses with the car. I pose with the car. In between our photo shoots, Jen catches me up on her life, telling me stories about her husband, her baby, her work at the Museum of Contemporary Art. I tell her stories about my travels, my dating life, my new job. Then there's the music. Since she's driving shotgun, Jen is the DJ, and she's burned a special "Baja Mix" CD for our trip. The minute I hear Michael Jackson, I start singing. Jen joins in. "You suck!" she laughs. "You too!" I holler back. It's like the Spyder is our own private karaoke booth. Except it's not. We elicit more than a few stares from other drivers when we start singing Luscious Jackson's "Strongman" at the top of our lungs. Too bad. There's no shame in our game.

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