2005 Volvo XC70 in Baja California
Click image to enlarge

“Dos cervezas, por favor.”

It’s Spanish for “please slake my thirst,” or so a mischievous colleague told me en route to a recent Mexican assignment arranged by Volvo.

Turns out it really means, “Give me two beers,” but I continued to use it as an all-purpose greeting. It helped make friends, and the local beer (Sol, Corona, Bohemia, Tecate) was mighty fine.

After landing at tiny San Francisquito, Mexico in an equally diminutive airplane, the border guard seemed singularly uninterested in our motley group with its cameras, loud shirts, shorts and limited language skills.

That’s probably because we looked stupid decked out in summer clothes when it was barely above 10-degrees there, and he had a huge sub-machine gun with which he probably could have blown our Beechcraft King-Air 200 (with the chrome package) right out of the sky.

Sizing up the guard out of the corner of my eye, the same thought occurred to me that I had when first seeing Tie Domi in civilian clothes.

“I could probably take him. He’s little.”

Energized by this thought, I marched into the airport terminal and asked the first uniformed customs official I saw to slake my thirst.

Fortunately, Eduardo (the customs official whose name was helpfully sewn onto his jacket) must have been a beer drinker. Laughing along with my unintended joke, he casually processed my immigration papers and I was in.

2005 Volvo XC70 in Baja California

2005 Volvo XC70 in Baja California

2005 Volvo XC70 in Baja California
Click image to enlarge

Then it emerged that one of our group had forgotten his passport on the plane. All eyes fell on him, then on Eduardo, as really, these days you don’t want to mess around with people at borders, in uniforms, with big guns.

“Don’t worry about it!” said a smiling Eduardo, as he smashed his jumbo-sized rubber stamp into the required customs document.
“Welcome to Mexico!”

Or at least, welcome to Baja, California, Mexico, which is, you should know, not the California people are dreaming about in the middle of a Canadian winter. Or the Mexico, for that matter.

Baja, California, Mexico is a peninsula that dangles superfluously down the country’s west coast like an extra finger. Separated from “the mainland” by the Sea of Cortez (or Gulf of California, depending on where you live), it’s basically a desert populated by charming, friendly people who liberally use it as a dump.

There’s not much else going on besides fishing, farming, fixing cars and waving at tourists.

Paul Williams
Paul Williams. Click image to enlarge

But this I was to learn later. In the meantime, our group was in Mexico to put the new Volvo XC70 “Cross Country” through its paces by driving a dozen of them on part of the same route as the famed Baja 1000 endurance race.

The effervescent and wacky Bryon Farnsworth, two-time winner of the Baja 1000 (once on a motorcycle) was to lead the Canadian convoy, and it was a good thing, because without him we wouldn’t have made it out of the hotel bar.

Suffice it to say, the Volvos performed admirably in a landscape that looks something like the surface of Mars, decorated with giant cacti. I dare say you couldn’t find anything less Swedish.

For us drivers, the real adventure was discovering this remote place, so far off the beaten tourist track. Believe me, it’s not Cancun.

Local residents
Local residents. Click image to enlarge

The local food consisted of fish or chicken tacos, complemented by tubs of guacamole into which you plunge hugely addictive but suspiciously transparent nachos (best described as oil held together with corn fibres). The water is not potable — don’t go there. Salads, likewise, don’t go there (could be washed in the water, you see).

There’s no fast food. No smiling Colonel Sanders, no orange-haired clowns, no pony-tailed Wendys, no noise, and even though it was cool when we were there, thankfully no snow. There are few TVs, there’s usually no cell phone signal, and alarmingly, no easily accessible Internet.

In other words, techno-culture shock.

Baja California

2005 Volvo XC70 in Baja California

2005 Volvo XC70 in Baja California
Click image to enlarge

Inland there’s nothing but desert. The honking great cacti are the only vegetation that can survive the region’s brutally hot summers, and while there are paved roads, the Swedes wanted us to have a closer relationship with the land so we left the asphalt pretty quick. The route degenerated from paths to tracks to rocky trails, then to dry riverbeds and finally into vast stretches of sand all the way to the horizon.

And there’s dust, clouds of it (it doesn’t rain much), so we were pleased to be in the climate-controlled, particle-filtered cabins of the Volvos as we traversed the expanse like Captain Archer in the Starship Enterprise.

Littered everywhere were the inverted hulks of cars and trucks. There were so many that I developed a theory to explain their ubiquity, which goes as follows: Initially vehicles are abandoned where they break down, with the owner giving the car one last kick, throwing his arms up, and walking away in disgust.

Then people come along and scavenge what they can from inside the car and under the hood. Later, more people come and jack the car up onto blocks so they can get at the wheels and brakes. Finally, gutted, the vehicles are flipped onto their roofs so the last tasty bits can be picked from the cars’ nether regions.

That’s why they’re all upside-down.

Baja California

Baja California
Click image to enlarge

Anyway, there are thousands of abandoned vehicles like this dotting the landscape, along with countless fridges, stoves, beds, oil drums, boats, and a veritable kaleidoscope of industrial and consumer debris. It’s a giant midden, actually, that will puzzle and fascinate future generations of archaeologists for sure.

The Volvos bashed and crashed their way through the broken landscape, their fancy new vehicle stability control system doing an admirable job of keeping the XC70s from joining their deceased brethren. We drove through sand and mud, over pointed rocks, and fair-sized boulders. It didn’t seem to matter as we just motored on (the Pirelli Scorpion R/T tires were surely a big help).

At one point, our guide told us we’d be passing a military checkpoint, and to make sure we don’t try to photograph the soldiers. Sure enough, a group of uniformed and well-armed teenagers was leaning against an armoured military vehicle just down the road, having a smoke. We waved, they smiled, nobody got shot.

2005 Volvo XC70 in Baja California

2005 Volvo XC70 in Baja California

2005 Volvo XC70 in Baja California
Click image to enlarge

This isn’t sounding like a holiday destination, is it? But don’t forget, we were there testing Volvos in the desert, and having a pretty good time, I should say. The Swedes wanted remote, and they found it.

The coast, however, was another story. The beaches are beautiful and sublime, especially south of Mulegé along Bahia Conceptión, and further south at the shores of Loreto Bay National Marine Park. We were told that many people simply find a nice place to build a thatched hut, then move in and watch glorious sunsets over the calm, blue ocean for months at a time.

Some Canadians drive their RV’s down in November and park them on the beach until April. You can do that, too. True, there’s not much happening, but it’s cheap to live there, and mucho exotic (yes, I picked up a word or two of Spanish). For entertainment you can go to the local bar and be entertained by groups of old men playing big guitars, or by young dancers in traditional costume while the fans circle lazily above.

And you can eat and talk, swim and sunbathe. The pace is slow, the place is beautiful and secluded, the people are friendly, and one’s thirst is always slaked.

It’s actually a little bit of paradise down there.

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