Cataviña Desert

Highway 1 near Catavina:
Coming...and going.

The town of Cataviña is barely a wide spot on the Baja Highway, but its importance to Baja travelers far exceeds its size. This spot is wide enough for the only real motel, and the only reliable source of gasoline, for more than a hundred miles, north or south. Unless you happen to be a cactus, a lizard, a rattlesnake, or perhaps a boojum or an elephant tree, that's a most inhospitable hundred miles. And, unless you are carrying extra fuel (not a bad idea), a stop in Cataviña is all but mandatory.

There are other reasons to visit Cataviña. It is surrounded by some fascinating country, the Desierto Central de Baja California, Baja's unique Central Desert. Much of the desert is under legal protection, to preserve its biological treasures. Hundreds of species of cactus live here, many of them found nowhere else.

Boojums (cirios) in bloom.

The desert is also home to many endemic non-cactus species, including two almost identical looking but unrelated versions of the elephant tree, and the cirio, or boojum, Baja's signature contribution to the world of unusual flora.

The boojum looks like nothing else. It is often described as a giant carrot growing upside down, with its root sticking up to fifty feet in the air. It has a trunk and leaves, but no branches until it's at least a hundred years old, when the trunk divides into two or more whip-like tops. A fifty-year-old specimen might be a foot thick at its base, and less than five feet tall. It's one of the slowest growing plants in the world, at the rate of a foot every ten years, which means a mature fifty-footer may be more than 500 years old.

Elephant tree and boojum.

An Arizona botanist, in 1922, applied the name boojum, after the imaginary "boojum" that inhabited "distant shores" in Lewis Carrol's Hunting of the Snark. The early Spaniards called it cirio, or candle, probably because of its resemblance to the handmade tapers that decorated the altars in the Jesuit mission churches.

After plentiful rainfall, the "candle" sprouts a flame of yellow blossoms at its tip, and its trunk is covered with small green leaves. When water is absent, it sheds all its leaves, to preserve moisture within the trunk. The boojum is abundant in this two hundred mile strip of desert, but the only other place it grows is a small patch at the same latitude across the Sea of Cortez, in the State of Sonora.

Mature cardon and friend.

This is fertile ground for the giant cardón, the world's largest cactus, reaching more than sixty feet tall. The cardón is often mistaken for its smaller northern cousin, the saguaro. In Indian lore, the cardón sometimes took on human attributes and moved around the desert at night when people slept.

These giant cacti may have been an inspiration for the ancient cave paintings of giants in the nearby mountains. Unique varieties of barrel cacti, organ pipe (pitahaya), prickly pear (nopal) and cholla also decorate the landscape, along with yuccas, agaves and rare varieties of ocotillo, a thorny Medusa-head vine distantly related to the cirio.

The seeds, roots, fruits and pulps of many of these plants provided food and water for the indigenous people who survived in the desert for thousands of years before the arrival of the first Europeans. Then as now, some of the woody stalks were used as firewood, and for constructing shelter and fences. Young nopal pads, and pitahaya and several other types of cactus fruit are still popular foods in Baja today.

Catavina Boulder Field.

The Cataviña Boulder Field contributes to this strange landscape. Its hills and valleys of smooth, rounded rocks, ranging in size from marbles to boulders the size of buildings, might be mistaken for glacial deposits. In fact, the rocks were shaped by the wind, blowing like airborne sandpaper across the desert for millions of years. Soil is scarce here, and weird vegetation often appears to be growing right out of the rocks.

The Highway south of Cataviña can be a good place to practice negotiations with the Mexican army. Army checkpoints have become permanent fixtures along the highway in recent years. Although guns seem to be of greater concern to Mexican authorities, these checkpoints were initially set up in response to demands made by the U. S. government over the so-called "War on Drugs".

Some U. S. officials seem to have the idea that, even though they can't control the flow of drugs in their own country, the Mexican government should be able to do it for them in Mexico. Ironically, such searches, without warrants or specific cause, would be constitutionally forbidden in the United States. But, in Baja they are a fact of life, and one learns to take them in stride.

Catavina Boulder Field:
Desert vegetation.

Army checkpoints are among the least pleasant experiences you are likely to encounter when driving the Baja Highway, and encounter them you will, typically at least half a dozen times when driving the length of the peninsula, in either direction.

The soldiers carry automatic rifles and sometimes sidearms, although rumor has it that the government is reluctant to issue them ammunition, due to the army's potential as a threat to the established order. They are often poorly equipped and supplied, and camped along the highway in rather primitive conditions.

Most are kids in their late teens. Mexico requires all its young men to serve a year in the military to earn full citizenship rights, including the right to get a passport to travel outside the country. The soldiers are authorized to search any vehicle. They are usually courteous, but not always well trained.

Catavina Boulder Field:
Cardon, boojum and ocotillo.

Usually, searches are minimal. One of the soldiers will ask a few questions. Usually, but not always, he will speak at least a few words of English. If a search follows, it's typically little more than a token look under the seat and above the visors, and maybe a glance inside the glove compartment and down a door panel. Occasionally, he will ask that a piece of luggage be opened for a cursory look.

But, searches can also be very thorough. The soldiers have all the authority, and they have the guns, so there is little choice but to cooperate. They have been told to be nice to the tourists, and inappropriate demands are rare.

A traveler's appearance and conduct can determine whether a search occurs or not. I have rarely been searched when traveling with my wife, driving a shiny car and dressed like a typical tourist. But, traveling alone, wearing a beard and driving an old Volkswagen camper bus, I was searched at nearly every stop.

Boulder Field cardones; Budding cardon;
Cardon in bloom; Cardon sprout.

In the dark desert near Cataviña, I once lost my best flashlight to an army search party. I was alone in the bus, which I had spent a week packing with stuff that my wife was awaiting in San José del Cabo.

It was the first time I had encountered what promised to be a thorough search, and I was in no mood to unpack everything I had so laboriously stuffed into every nook and cranny, only to have to repack it alone on the highway in the middle of the desert with nightfall approaching.

I spoke very little Spanish, and the soldiers spoke even less English. But, they made it clear that they wanted me to open the suitcase stacked on top of the heap in the back of the bus.

The heavy suitcase was packed as full as the bus. I dragged it down onto the road, and popped the latches. The lid flew up by itself from the pressure of the clothes inside, some of which erupted to freedom and scattered along the roadside.

Prickly pear (nopal) cactus; Desert jungle;
Spiny staghorn cholla; Cholla in bloom.

One soldier poked the barrel of his assault rifle at the innocent contents of the suitcase, while another was up front, up to his elbow in the travel bag that contained my smelly socks and unwashed underwear.

In the bottom of that bag were several small packages of prescription medication. I had the prescriptions, but they were in my wife's name, not mine, and she was still six hundred miles away. I had no idea what reaction these drugs might provoke if discovered, which was why I stashed them at the bottom of my dirty underwear.

I'll never know if the soldier felt the packages, but he finally pulled his hand out of the bag without comment. I like to think it was the aroma of my socks that discouraged further investigation, but I doubt it.

Barrel cactus;
Baby organ pipe (pitahaya) cactus.

I told myself the soldiers were just doing their jobs, but I didn't like it a bit. I tried to strike up conversation, to gain sympathy for my plight as a harmless, law-abiding tourist unduly inconvenienced by an unnecessary search, at the same time bowing and scraping enough to avoid any suggestion that I might be questioning the soldiers' authority. I hoped they might, at least, tire of my bad Spanish and decide further searching wasn't worth the annoyance.

The soldier finished rifling my suitcase, and two others were discussing what to open next. By this time I had passed out a few peanuts and Hershey's kisses. That brought enough smiles to remind me how many poor Mexicans lack adequate dental care. Then the soldier in charge approached, and asked me a question in Spanish.

Last stop.

I had been through enough stops by now to recognize the usual questions: "Where did you come from," and "Where are you going," and "Do you have any guns." This didn't sound like any of those familiar queries. He seemed to be asking if I had a lampara.

I had no idea what a lampara was, or why he wanted to know if I had one, but after several rounds of pantomime it occurred to me to pull the flashlight out of my glove compartment. That brought a big gold-toothed smile to his face, and another question: "Cuanto?" I knew that meant, "How much?" Was he inviting a simple business transaction, or hinting that the gift of a flashlight could bring this search to a happy conclusion?

I figured I had nothing to lose but the flashlight, a small price to avoid unpacking the bus. So, I handed him the lampara and, as graciously as I could, said "Para usted." That was as close as I knew how to say I wanted to make it a gift. He thanked me with what seemed an overly formal "Muchas gracias." He kept the flashlight without any further offer to pay for it, and sent me on my way without any further searching.

Downtown Catavina: A La Pinta hotel,
and the only gas for a hundred miles.

The next time I was stopped at the Cataviña checkpoint, it was after dark, near the end of a long day's drive. I recognized the soldier at my window as the same one who had relieved me of my flashlight a year earlier.

He squinted, trying to look inside my unlighted car. It was late, he looked tired, it had been a long day for him, too.

Finally, he asked another unusual question. My Spanish was a little better by now, and I understood him perfectly: "Do you have any batteries?"

I was exhausted from driving all day, but I wasn't that stupid. I'd be damned if I was going to give him my spare batteries, so he could use my own flashlight to search my car in the dark. So I put on my sincerest "I'd like to help, but..." face, and shook my head. "No," I lied. "No batteries, no guns, no drugs."

He looked more tired than suspicious. Then he smiled. "Ah, and no bad women hiding in the back, eh, señor?" His gold tooth flashed as he laughed at his joke, and waved me on.


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