Driving: Baja Behind the Wheel

Driving: Baja Behind the Wheel

Catherine Ledner
Catherine Ledner
Two old friends kick up some Baja dust in the new Mitsubishi Eclipse Spyder

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.


At this point it's 5 p.m. and we're starving. We head to Café Sante Fe, the Spago of Todos Santos, which has a beautiful garden of hibiscus, bougainvillea, and papaya trees. I'm a little disappointed to learn that the menu is Italian instead of Mexican, but the pasta is delicious, the bread is fresh, and I'm in love with the portraits of Frida Kahlo that the owner has commissioned from local artists. An hour later we set out to tour the town's galleries, of which there are many, including the renowned Galería Todos Santos and Galería Santa Fe. But as we stroll down the cobblestoned streets, my urge to shop begins to battle with my need for speed. How badly do I want a gilded Virgin of Guadalupe or a Frida-portrait mirror?"What do you want to do?" I ask Jen. She gives a sheepish grin. "I really just want to get back to the car." Minutes later, we've got the top down and Madonna pumping. We sing "Ray of Light" all the way out of Todos Santos.

An hour or so later, in the middle of nowhere, we spy a girl who seems about 13 years old standing by the roadside. She's holding a baby and looks helpless. We drive past her, but then Jen and I fall silent. I know Jen is thinking about her baby back home. I wonder if the girl has been abandoned by a husband or boyfriend. Neither of us has ever picked up a hitchhiker, but we agree we've got to offer her a lift. The cynical New Yorker in me wonders if she might be a decoy. What if there are bandits behind those cacti?Less worried about my life than the value of the Spyder, I flip a U-turn. "Are you okay?" I ask the girl in Spanish. "Do you need a ride?" Now she's the one who looks suspicious. "No, thank you," she says. "I'm waiting for the bus." We leave reluctantly, but hopeful that she'll make it safely to her destination.

In La Paz, we pull into the Posada Santa Fe, a bed-and-breakfast on the waterfront. Southern Baja, from Las Ventanas's high-end corredor to the party-hearty flavor of Cabo San Lucas, is unmistakably touristy; La Paz feels more like a real Mexican city. In fact, you can pass hours without seeing a gringo–to my mind, a good thing. We have a lovely dinner at El Zarape, which specializes in seafood, and then go for a walk along the waterfront. Everywhere we turn there are children, families, and couples. Unlike in downtown Cabo San Lucas, where you can't walk two blocks without someone handing you a flier for a restaurant or hotel or disco, no one in La Paz tries to sell us anything. We stare out at the ocean, eating ice cream cones bought from a local vendor.

New York feels a million miles away.

The next day, the drive back to Los Cabos is just as thrilling. We sing along to Mary J. Blige and Aretha Franklin, eat shrimp tacos until we're about to bust. I drive Jen to the airport, where she goes over her life plan for me and reassures me that children and wedded bliss are in my future. In the meantime, she says, I must do my best to seduce one of the guys we met at Las Ventanas. "Do it for me," she says, mischievously. "I'm married. I can't."

Before heading back to the hotel, I take the Spyder out for one more spin. Finally, I give in to my impulse to race the sporty model. The car surges to 80 mph with no hesitation. I inch up to 89, with the full view of the ocean to my left and the desert to my right. In less than a day, I'll be home and back at work. But for the next few hours, the Spyder is mine. Like someone sitting through a favorite movie twice, I'm tempted to gun it up to La Paz one more time. Anything to keep on driving.

THE FACTS
Las Ventanas al Paraíso Km 19.5, Hwy. 1, San José del Cabo; 888/525-0483 or 52-114/40300, fax 52-114/40301; doubles from $325. The area's most exclusive resort.

Posada Santa Fe 440 Paseo Alvaro Obregòn, La Paz; phone and fax 52-112/55871; rooms from $85. Simple rooms on the waterfront of La Paz.

Café Santa Fe 4 Calle Centenario, Todos Santos; 52-114/50340; dinner for two $33. Italian dishes at the most popular restaurant in Todos Santos.

El Zarape 3450 Avda. México, La Paz; 52-112/22520; dinner for two $17. Central and southern Mexican fare.

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