When I first arrived in Mexico I was desperate to see a ‘cartoon cactus’. You know the one, just like you see in the Looney Tunes cartoons of Road Runner and Speedy Gonzales? My hunt for this seemingly rare type of cactus proved rather fruitless. Despite this, I was not disappointed.
In the center of the Baja Peninsula lies the Valle de los Cirios, or the Valley of the Candles. It is a protected natural area that covers roughly one third of the peninsula, separating Baja California and Baja California Sur. It is flanked by water on both sides – The Sea of Cortez on the east and the vast Pacific Ocean on the west. I can’t say for sure where the name comes from, but I have a theory. The cactuses look like enormous candles. Some are comprised of only one large spine, reaching way up into the sky on a lonely mission to reach the sun. Others can be likened to a candelabra, many spines branching out from the base horizontally before turning skywards. None were a replica of my cartoon fantasy, but they surpassed anything I expected. We stopped several times to marvel at their size, taking many pictures with either ourselves or the car as reference point for perspective. As we explored the spiky terrain (rather cautiously as flip-flops were not the most appropriate choice of footwear), we only became more amazed. The variety of cactuses is extraordinary. Some sported flat-shaped pads the size of dinner plates, some were small and bulbous and almost soft looking. There were even a few with small purple flowers.
The road through The Valley of the Candles is around 185 miles, a little longer between fuel stops. If you are planning to drive, take note of the warning signs regarding the lack of fuel. We did notice a few roadside stalls selling fuel out of jerry cans, and whilst the quality is probably safe enough it isn’t cheap. The locals are more than aware of the situation that tourists might find themselves in and price this fuel accordingly – a large ‘desperation tax’ included. Fortunately, with good fuel carrying capabilities, we had no need to worry.
It is possible to drive the long distance all in one day, but as we left San Quintin around midday we decided to camp out. You would probably be safe enough to camp out amongst the cactuses, just watch out for pumas, deer, and coyotes. We chose the safe option and camped in an ‘RV Park’ in San Antonio de las Minas. I use the term ‘RV Park’ loosely. It looks like something that once was an RV park. Despite there being no facilities and costing the tourist price of $10US, we were comfortable and worry free. Both sunset and sunrise were spectacular. The golden glow of the large plants was truly magical.
An early departure meant that we were able to drive the immense desert in a comfortable temperature – air conditioning in our vehicle consists of opening the window! The road wound around some the most stark yet beautiful landscape I have ever seen. The long journey was never dull as seemingly every corner (not that there were that many of them) came with a new view. The road itself is paved but narrow. Two lanes are clearly marked, but with no shoulder room you are left to breathe in and hope for the best when a large truck comes bombing towards you. There are even sections where the road just drops away and all you can do is hope that no other vehicle comes toward you. Fortunately, this is not an incredibly busy road despite it being the only road in the north-south direction. Traffic is constant but not overwhelming.
The drive through The Valley of the Candles highlights the roughness that is the Baja. The view out the window is a large expanse of wilderness and some of the most unique combinations of vegetation. I can only imagine what one would find should they head off the beaten track, down one of the winding dirt roads towards the ocean. If you have the ability to carry large amounts of fuel (or willing to pay the locals), your exploration opportunities are endless!