Vagabond Tales: Racing In The Baja 500 … In A Volvo Station Wagon

One of the world’s most well-known and revered off-road racing events, the Baja 500 runs for approximately 440 miles through the deserts of Mexico’s Baja peninsula. Why it isn’t called the Baja 440 I don’t know, but then again, I just write on these sorts of things, not organize them.

A loop-course beginning and ending in the city of Ensenada, thousands of race participants and accompanying pit crews descend on the peninsula each June for a chance at calling themselves the fastest and dirtiest desert dogs on the entire peninsula. Over the course of the 42-year-old event some really big names with some really big money have gotten involved. Red Bull, Ford, Ducati – those sorts of guys.

The cash prizes can number over $300,000. There have been races with over 100,000 spectators. In case my point isn’t being made – this race is a big freaking deal.

With divisions ranging from motorcycles to trucks to ATV’s, professional teams backed with professional money descend on northern Baja towing trailers full of spare tires and some insanely rugged rides.

Surfers, on the other hand, do not usually drive tricked out off-road vehicles backed by thousands of dollars of corporate sponsorships. They drive whatever they can find. True, a lot of Baja surfers will invest in a sturdy 4×4 desert vehicle that has some high clearance and can power through the infamous Mexican moon dust, but nothing that can plow through 440 miles of dirt road washboard in 12 hours or less.

This is why it was so strange to find myself amongst a thunderous cloud of rally cars racing in the Baja 500 in a Volvo station wagon better suited for suburbia.Fresh off of a surf pilgrimage to southern Baja’s Scorpion Bay, our haggard troupe of Tecate-swilling, wave-hunting twenty-somethings opted to camp out for the night on a stretch of Baja coastline popular with American surfers. Not far from the fabled breaks of Punta Cabra and Punta San Jose, unbeknownst to us this stretch of coastline was also situated on the racecourse of the Baja 500.

And, of course, as it would just so happen, we found ourselves there on race day.

Strapped down with surfboards and sporting a clearance best suited for navigating suburban speedbumps, the silver Volvo station wagon was a far cry from your usual Baja vehicle. Laden with empty beer cans and with windows obscured by clouds of Mexican dirt, I haphazardly navigated the Volvo towards that night’s intended camp spot along the Pacific coast.

Driving due west late in the afternoon into a fiery and exceptionally bright sunset, the fourth-inch cloud of dust which had accumulated on the windshield reduced visibility to virtually zero.

In a move pulled directly out of the pages of “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective,” I strained to keep my right foot on the gas pedal while arching my head and neck out of driver’s side window in an effort to navigate the Volvo sans the use of the windshield. With a top speed of no more than 20 mph, this wasn’t exactly a NASCAR level performance.

Head now arched out the window with the grace of a slightly inebriated ostrich, it was during this time that we first became aware of the crowds of people beginning to populate the rural dirt road.

“Sure are a lot of people randomly standing on the road,” we deftly noticed. “Maybe there is some sort of festival going on.”

Although the Baja 500 draws tens of thousands of spectators and is staffed by hordes of support and pit crews, the rural stretch of road we happened to find ourselves upon wasn’t exactly close to either. Most of the spectators were gathering at the finish line towards Ensenada, and all of the pit crews were waiting at the nearest highway intersection.

Here on this stretch of rural coastline, however, there was only the race course, some local spectators and some unfathomably naive and unlucky surfers who were unknowingly driving down the main thoroughfare of the Baja 500 in an unbelievably pedestrian station wagon.

The scene was officially set for disaster.

As I navigated the Volvo with my head out the window there were an increased number of shouts coming in our direction.

Cuidado!” shouted a Mexican woman in a flowing floral skirt. “Muevate!” demanded another, who simultaneously was operating a tamale stand for hungry residents and spectators.

Still monumentally aloof as to what was happening (having been in Mexico for two weeks and not having seen any pit crews, we were still utterly unaware that the Baja 500 was even happening), it came as a curious surprise as to why the local people were so hellbent on telling us to be careful driving and demanding that we pull off to the side of the road.

Intrigued but undeterred, I continued to navigate the Volvo around the dirt potholes and patches of dry sand with my head craned out the window in the hopes of reaching the campsite before nightfall.

That’s when the first Honda dirt bike came ripping from behind and passed within about three feet from my head.

Before the shock of the near-accident could even be analyzed, a tricked-out dunebuggy swerved around us to the left and enveloped the Volvo in a cloud of dust.

Between the flashing headlights in the rearview mirror and the chaotic screams of the spectators being chanted in our direction, the reality that something was entirely amiss was quickly becoming apparent.

Finally, the absurdity of the situation caught up with us.

“Oh my God,” offered my friend Jason. “We’re on the race course for the Baja 500. We’re in the middle of the race!”

The realization, however, was too little too late.

With local Mexicans screaming and the sound of mufflers resonating through the air the lead pack of trucks, motorcycles, dune buggies and ATV’s all started to swarm around our vehicle. There is big money in this race, and these racers would be damned if a poorly situated surfer’s station wagon would get in the way of their race progress.

With hearts racing and clouds of dust swirling amidst the vehicle, the option of pulling off on the side of the road had long since disappeared. Stopping entirely would likewise be a poor decision as it would make us a sitting duck for a rear-end, high-speed crash.

“Go!” the drunken passengers in the backseat would scream. “Drive! Drive! Holy…”

The off-road vehicles enveloped us with a vengeance as my foot depressed the Volvo to as fast as it could handle. Forward was seemingly our only option and there was literally no turning back.

The next seven to ten minutes were spent with me driving with my head out the side of a Volvo unable to see if there were little children crossing the road in front of us and getting honked at and flashed at by professional off-road drivers while hoping that we didn’t simply slam into the side of a hugely lifted truck.

With the red and orange sun slowly dipping below the Pacific horizon, the only thing left to do was simply hold on and pray.

Ten months later we would crash the Volvo into a stationary rock in southern Baja and be stranded in the middle of the desert with no cash, too many beers, and be forced to pay off both mechanics and the local military with old copies of nudist magazines.

That, however, is a different Vagabond Tale for a decidedly different time…

Want more travel stories? Read the rest of the “Vagabond Tales over here.

Finding the Holy Spirit in Baja: A park is born

Roughly twenty miles off the coast from the Baja town of La Paz lies a desert island no more than ten miles long and four miles wide. For centuries the locals have fished the bountiful waters surrounding Isla Espiritu Santo, or Island of the Holy Spirit. Scores of grouper, snapper, and a variety of fish in the jack family are snagged by locals and visitors daily. However, in recent years, tourists have been flocking to the island not just to fish but to kayak, snorkel, and photograph the diverse array of wildlife that it contains. Up until 2003, there was little regulation for any of the activities taking place on Espiritu Santo and it’s surrounding islands and islets. The tourists that visit, and those that fish the waters, are still trying to come to grips with the island’s new found fame.

According to The Nature Conservancy the island was purchased from the Ejido Bonfil community and then turned over to Mexico. It was designated as a protected area in 1978; the Mexican government acquired the island in 2003. Although all the islands making up this archipelago are now a national park, management resources are scarce.

Spending a week camped out in a sandy bay, I had the opportunity to meet someone with a passion for what happens to this beautiful place, a local guide named Miguel. According to him, as of last year, only two rangers were patrolling the coastline of this 23,383 acre island. As we paddled together throughout the week, I learned more on why the island is struggling.

Large scale commercial fishing is not allowed. Long netting, a form of dredging, is now strictly prohibited as well. Local fishermen have had a tough time coping with the new regulations being passed down to them. As hard as it may be to believe many of these people have no experience with a fishing pole and are using the arduous method of hand-lining to maintain a living. Hand-lining involves dropping a baited hook overboard and pulling a fish in on the line with no rod or reel. After trying this method I can vouch that hand-lining is a tough chore on the hands to say the least.

According to Miguel, the lack of information from authorities initially led to misunderstandings. The fishing community was not exactly pleased with the changes being made when the island went under the wing of the government. Rules included restrictions on certain popular species such as parrot fish. Although dropping explosives in the water or “dynamiting” is outlawed and a thing of the past, fishermen can still be found pushing the limits of the law. Fish are encircled by boats to create a bait ball which makes them easier targets.
Fishermen are allowed to stay overnight on the island in designated spots called “fisherman shacks.” They can use nets to catch bait fish only. Since most fishing boats are equipped with nets and regulation is slim, it is uncertain how many stick to the strictly “bait only” rule for netting.

Although fishing regulations were the main management issue at first, the new threat to Espirtu’s land and waters is unchecked tourism. On Los Islotes, an islet resting just off the rocky shores of Isla Partida, Espiritu’s northern neighbor, the sea lions sun bathe most of the day, awaiting their nocturnal hunt. Snorkeling with these graceful swimmers is a treat for visitors. These dog-like sea mammals dart in and out of underwater grottos, play with starfish and shells, and encircle the odd looking human insurgents to get a better look. While visiting this islet, our snorkel group was not alone. Another tourist boat anchored nearby and within minutes a few of the passengers were on the shore, ignoring the rule that tourists must stay 50 feet away at all times.
In summer, when La Paz receives its annual influx of Mexican and European tourists, the island’s shores become overrun. “There have been times when it was so crowded we couldn’t find a place to anchor when we pulled up to see the sea lions,” Miguel told me. Despite these growing pains park attendance continues to soar, and for good reason. The island’s shores are home to one of the most biologically diverse bodies of water on our planet.

Next: Darwin would be proud (Part 2)