Sand Dune Adventures in Mexico
Exploring Mexico’s Gran Desierto de Altar with the Sonora Rally
A gentle breeze drifted through the open screen of my rooftop tent, washing me with a much-needed reprieve from the desert heat. Climbing down the ladder, I fired up the stove and waited for my morning fix of caffeine. I settled into my camp chair with a cuppa joe to witness the eastern horizon transition from inky black to shades of blue and purple. My traveling mates would not be up for another hour, which suited me fine. Tucked into a deep depression, walls of sand towered around me toward each of the cardinal points. Beyond their heights a sand sea stretched north beyond the U.S. border and east to the Sierra Pinacate. This was the Pimería Alta, now known as Gran Desierto de Altar. We were mid-span on a week-long sand dune adventure through one of old Mexico’s last frontiers.
Beginning the Journey
Four days earlier, our group was in San Luis Rio Colorado. We stood out amidst dozens of dirt bikes, quads and UTVs, each with a number placard pasted to the front. The clock was ticking down as competitors hustled to scribble last-minute notes on their roadbook. This would be their bible for the coming days. They would depend on it, and their ability to decipher its code, in one of the most demanding off-road events in North America. It was the beginning of the Yokohama Sonora Rally (SR), a Dakar-style sand dune adventure race crafted to test the mental and physical endurance of all takers.
For my group, however, the task would be much less ominous. Our little posse, the Adventure Raid, consisted of fairly stock rigs and drivers with light to moderate experience driving in sand. Some had never seen a roadbook. Also, we didn’t have helmets or roll cages, or score cards stuck to our hoods.
But that was okay, as the Adventure Raid is about exploration and discovery. No one cared how fast we went…or how slow. Without defined deadlines, we would thread a path south from the border into the Sonora dunes. We’d traverse endless beaches along the Sea of Cortés, and leisurely zigzag our way to the next bivouac.
Footprints in the Old World
Peel back the chronicle of time to the end of the Pleistocene period. About 11,000 years ago, this region would have little semblance the arid desert of today. Glaciers covering the northern latitudes had pushed humankind south. Then, vegetation was more plentiful, and large mammals such as the Cuvieronius, a long-tusked elephant-like critter, wandered the landscape.
The Opata, indigenous tribes during the Clovis period, called this area home for millennia. As hunters and gatherers, they canvassed the coastline and volcanic crags of the Pinacate in search of food. There is much speculation as to who the first European was to set foot in Sonora, but what is undisputed is that their ensuing imprint would change the course of history.
Our little posse, the Adventure Raid, consisted of fairly stock rigs and drivers with light to moderate experience driving in sand.
The Jesuits were missionaries sent by the Spanish Crown to establish settlements. Their task was converting the region’s shamanistic cultures to Christianity. The most notable was Padre Eusebio Francisco Kino, an Italian-born geographer and explorer. Arriving in 1687, he would spend the next two decades building a mission system, thriving cattle industry, and leading expeditions into what is now Arizona and California.
A gifted cartographer, Kino’s hand-drawn maps became the standard of navigation in the region for more than a century. By the time of his death in 1711 he had established a chain of two dozen missions and left an indelible footprint on Pimería Alta.
Sand 101 and Roadbooks
Traditionally, the rally runs between San Luis Rio Colorado and Hermosillo, about 300 miles south of the border. But the world was just breaking through the Covid barrier and organizers decided it was best to reduce the number of big cities and crowds. The result was a loop course with more beach running and heaps of time in the desert on a sand dune adventure trek.
The result was a loop course with more beach running and heaps of time in the desert on a sand dune adventure trek.
Considering a few in our group were self-admitted newbies in the sand, I thought it fitting to spend part of the first day practicing. Stopping in a gentle bowl, I drove horizontally across the face while explaining over the radio key principles like counter steer, fall line, power application, and when to bail out if necessary.
Each took turns, working the hill a little higher with each pass. Voilà, they were pros in no time. We then moved to direct assaults over razorbacks; power needs, the bailout decision, and how to clear the top without lawn-darting their rigs into the next county. They were also keen to use their new tow straps, MaxTrax and winches—each would get a workout in the coming days.
Taking Matters Into Our Own Hands
With Sand 101 diplomas in-hand, we headed to a race waypoint for the afternoon class…roadbooks. Most had attended SR’s navigation training prior to the event. Now, it was time to put their new-found knowledge to the test. In other words, this a real-world scenario would mirror our sand dune adventure. The roadbook is a chronological set of instructions, each of which contains information. Compass direction to the next waypoint, distance from the last, potential hazards and a small diagram showing which direction to go at a fork in the road are the only directions we had to go on.
Using only a compass and their vehicle’s odometer, our team took turns leading the group through the next page of instructions. When the leader led us awry, they received the customary, “In the back…loser!” and were relegated to tail gunner position. They wouldn’t be back there for long, though, as everyone messed up…including me.
Beaches and Conquistadors
The span between the mouth of the Colorado River and Puerto Peñasco is not to be missed. Descending a two-track to the shoreline, we chased seagulls down empty beaches, heading inland when needed to get around estuarial inlets. Our casual pace allowed for time to dip our toes in the water. Then have a leisurely lunch and take a break from the pace of the sand dune adventure. Looking out at the peaceful blue expanse before us, I couldn’t help but to reflect on the area’s tumultuous centuries before the arrival of Padre Kino.
It is said to be somewhere along this coastline that Nuño Beltrán de Guzmán, a ruthless conquistador with a reputation for brutality toward the indigenous people, set up shop in the 1530s. With little oversite from Spain, Guzmán operated with autonomy and little scrutiny, building armies and armadas, and even pirating the ships of rival conquistadors.
Hernán Cortés discovered the Baja peninsula, and is the man for whom the Spanish named Sea of Cortés. Famously, he lost a ship from his first expedition to Guzmán’s shenanigans. The world, at least Pimería Alta, was a better place when he was imprisoned for his acts against the Opata and later died in poverty.
The span between the mouth of the Colorado River and Puerto Peñasco is not to be missed.
… and Fish Tacos
Guzmán probably didn’t stop in El Golfo Santa Clara for tacos de pescado (fish tacos), but we certainly did. This diminutive fishing village retains the weathered charm of old Mexico. Crusty fishermen drag pangas out of the water with rusty old trucks. Lobster nets form artificial seawalls on the beach, and dogs sleep in the middle of road. It would also be our last fuel stop before a two-day trek through North America’s largest sand sea during the next leg of our sand dune adventure.
Ergs and Federales
Have you ever visited the Grand Canyon and wondered what happened to all that soil? Well, it washed downstream to the Sea of Cortés where it created an extensive eluvial delta. The heavier sediment settled, while much of the lighter material continued its journey east. The prevailing winds before landing at the base of the Sierra Pinacate. At nearly 2,000 square miles in size, it is one of the world’s largest ergs. And, it’s the only active one in North America.
Pulling out from the nightly bivouac, we threaded a single-file path. Like camels across the Sahara, we trekked along a breadcrumb track of waypoints. At more than 300 feet in height, these dunes demand respect and caution. If we’d needed assistance, it would have been many miles away. Self-containment is a prerequisite of joining the Adventure Raid, and we required everyone to bring extra fuel, water and food. We also doubled as a surrogate recovery crew for anyone struggling with their sand dune adventure if needed.
We received the first call on the sat phone from event organizer Darren Skilton. As the backup recovery crew, he tasked us with helping an ambulance that was axle-deep on a sand track. Arriving on-scene, we found a truckload of federales in a pickle as well. If I’ve learned one thing during my travels, it is that you pull out the guys with guns first. We deployed recovery straps and MaxTrax, and our crew got a chance to play with their new toys.
Rolling on Tough Terrain
Navigating big dunes in a stock rig is akin to chasing a marble through a skateboard park. Powering over the top is not an option. So, you stick to the troughs, look for gradual ridge access and take the path of least resistance. Working our way toward a rumored plane crash site, we practiced recovery techniques. As participants pancaked their rigs while trying to clear razorbacks, we realized it might be better than the lawn-dart option.
Señor Julio and Carne Asada
Off the hook for the moment, the setting sun prompted me to turn the wheels toward Briones Cross. There, I found a special surprise: many large crosses placed throughout the dunes. Each night thus far along the sand dune adventure, we had either been camped in a bivouac with the racers or put up in a fancy hotel. But on this night we’d be on our own. Well, kinda.
Members of the San Luis Dune Club greeted us when we got to camp. They had volunteered to prepare a traditional meal of barbequed carne asada, vegetables, fresh tortillas and fixins. The feast was fit for a king. Obviously, we followed it by many salutations with the honorable señor Don Julio. The tranquil evening ended under a canopy of stars.
As the sun crested the horizon the next morning, the team piled out of their tents. Some of them joined me for a cuppa joe. This night we would be back in San Luis for a gala awards banquet catered by celebrity chefs and local vintners. But in the moment, I reflected back on Sonora’s storied narration. I envisioned ancient Opata hunting a Cuvieronius with stone weapons, wooden spears and a gut full of determination. Both man and mammal of the epoch are gone, though. Then, it was time for us to bid adieu to Pimería Alta, the jewel of Mexico.
The Adventure Raid is open to high-clearance four-wheel drive vehicles such as Jeeps, Ford Broncos. and Tacomas. The fee to participate includes most meals, hotel stays and access to all rally activities. For information go to www.sonorarally.com