Altar Dunes and El Gulfo de Santa Clara

Trip Report:  November 4-9, 2000

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Northwestern Sonora in Mexico is one of the largest remaining remote areas south of Canada.  This area is hard core desert, cruel in the summer and unforgiving of mistakes.  Four wheel drive clubs in the southwest have been making crossing of the Altar Dunes from either the Sonoita area or from San Luis del Colorado south of Yuma, AZ. for many years.  This area offers one of the last remaining true adventures within easy driving distance from the US.  I had been dreaming of such a trip for many years, ever since Kathleen and I did the Camino del Diablo back in 1992.  From the Camino, you can see the tops of the largest dunes directly to the south of the trail which runs along the Mexican border of southern Arizona.  The prospect of a big expedition trip, negotiating a path through the dunes in my fully dune-capable, large capacity 1300L Unimog made my anticipation greater.

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The Planned Trip

The planned trip involved getting three Unimogs across the Mexican border, to San Luis del Colorado, Sonora then east along Mex 2 (the main highway) toward a small "truck stop" called Cesar's.  Cesar's is about 17 miles east of San Luis.  From a small dirt road just before Cesar's, we would head south for at least 2 1/2 days.  Then, assuming we are on the right heading, we should be able to see El Gulfo de Santa Clara which was the mid-trip objective.  We would refuel, re-ice and buy camarones (shrimp), almejas (clams) and then find a suitable camping spot on the bluff overlooking the Sea of Cortez and the gulf of Santa Clara.  From there, the plan was to return to the United States via the "paved" road to San Luis.  See the satellite photos and maps lower on this page.

Given the time requirements to make this long crossing, substantial pre-planning was required. To do such a trip required detailed knowledge of what conditions were expected as well as research on issues beyond just road conditions.  To prepare for this trip, I posted requests for information on several jeep and off road news lists.  Several folks kindly responded to my requests and gave me the information I needed to complete the planning.  Special thanks to the Tierra del Sol Fourwheelers in San Diego (who has done this trip for more than ten years) for so graciously providing me detailed information.

To insure the success of a major expedition in a foreign country, it is absolutely essential that the proper team of vehicles and operators was assembled.  Of  key importance was vehicle reliability.  The size of the Altar dunes basically precludes the ability to tow a truck as dead weight.  While theoretically possible, the time required to complete the winching make recovery a practical impossibility.  Therefore, special attention was given to mechanical preparations prior to the trip.  And, in general, this paid off in a relatively trouble-free trip, tire issues notwithstanding.

The Expedition Team

The away team for this expedition consisted of 3 diesel Unimogs and six humans: All drivers had substantial experience in hard-core off roading.  All had completed the Rubicon and all the hardest trails in Moab. Additionally, a pre-run trip to the dunes at Glamis was done to insure that all the equipment was functional and that the mogs and drivers would actually be able to handle the high dunes of the Altar Desert.

 Geography of the Altar Desert

The area traversed is hard core desert; massive dunes that go for hundreds of miles.  This consists of alternating desert scrub (AKA "tundra") and big, razor-back dunes.  Some of the dunes are over 500 feet high and are composed of very soft sand the consistency of flour. Figure 1 shows a satellite photo of the general area.  Figure 2 below shows a zoom of the area of operations for this trip.  True north in these photos is about 30 degrees to the right of the left border.  See maps below for more accurate representation.

In Figure 1, San Diego bay is just below the top edge on the left.  The large lake is the Salton Sea.  Farmed areas are shown in red.  The road in Mexico that parallels the border can be seen.  Refer to the map below for reference.

Figure 1. Satellite Photo of Northern Baja and Northwest Sonora, Mexico.

In Figure 2, the large dunes are evident and can be seen as forming a set that roughly parallel the coast to the south.  The destination was El Gulfo de Santa Clara, and this is due east of the end of the largest "gray colored" island at the mouth of the Colorado River.

Figure 2.  Zoom Photograph of Area of Interest.

Trip Details

Maps of the Area

Two maps of the area are shown below in Figures 3 and 4.  Both are 1:250,000 topographic maps that were imaged with my digital camera and then cropped.  The main parallel lines are on 10 km increments.  Click on the map to get a full resolution view.  This is a 300kb file, so if you have a phone modem, this will take a while to load.

Figure 3.  Map of the Northern Portion of the Trip.

Figure 4. below shows the southern portion of the trip. Click on the map to get a full resolution view.  This is a 300kb file, so if you have a phone modem, this will take a while to load.  The parallel lines are 10km marks, so distances can be estimated from them.

Figure 4.  Map of the Southern Portion of the Trip.

The initial plan for the trip called for travel of about 100 km of open dunes.  Before the trip was over, we did 250 MILES of dunes and traversed the dune field from Cesar's to El Gulfo and back with only a very short portion on paved roads, perhaps 30 miles total.  Total fuel usage for my 1300 was about 50 gallons border to border.

Day by Day Details: descriptions and photos

Day 1: 11/04/2000 Leaving the US for Sonora, MX

Day 2:  11/05/2000 Camp 1 Deep in the Dunes

Day 3: 11/06/2000 Camp 2 Deeper in the Dunes

Day 4: 11/07/2000 Camp 3 Estacion del Torres

Day 5: 11/08/2000 Camp 4 El Gulfo de Santa Clara

Day 6: 11/09/2000 Return to the United States

Conclusion and Traveler's Tips

As expected, there were a number of Mexican road checkpoints.  One was manned by the Mexican Army regulars.  The others were manned by various departments within the Mexican law enforcement community.  There were no problems encountered and all the personnel were amiable.  However, it is a law within Mexico that all vehicles (particularly those owned by foreigners) have liability insurance for their automobiles.  This means that you will have to have valid registration and plates for your vehicle.  Additionally, there are tourist visas that must be obtained at the border.  These not only require check in, but surrender of the documents upon departure from the country. These visa cost 170 peson (about $20).

El Gulfo is a very small town; this is primarily a fishing village, but does cater to tourists, particularly Gringos around Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years.  There is a Pemex station, and it probably has gas.  I say probably, because in Mexico, if the fuel truck does not show up for what ever reason, then there will be no gas.   There is a store and ice is available along with plenty of fresh fish, shrimp, clams and sometimes other shellfish. Water is in short supply, but can be purchased at the town store. There are several RV parks in town and several "hotels".  The quotes are used here since one of the selling features of the hotel is that it has indoor plumbing.

The locals make their living fishing, and good seafood is available at all times.  The best resturant in town is the El Delfin and has excellent food.

Miscellaneous Information

Although our crossing was made in November, it was warm to  hot during the day.  Typically, the evenings can be cold, so come prepared.  Rain is not out of the question and indeed we did have light rain on two days.  Wind is highly likely, so protection from blowing sand, including goggles is a requirement.  And, should the wind come, having a fallback for cooking is a good idea.  High wind and blowing dust will but the chingas to any bbq and will make a task as simple as boiling water a challenge.

Firearms are prohibited in Mexico.  Handguns, in particular, are frowned upon.  If you are caught with one in your posession, you will go directly to jail.  There is a very high likelihood that you will be unable to "buy" your way out of the situation no matter how much money you have with you, so this situation is better avoided.  While lack of a firearm in the wilderness will place you at somewhat of a disadvantage should trouble arise, the penalty for possession is so harsh that it is not worth the risk.  The proposed area of operations is known to be used by drug smugglers.  However, the open desert crossing is not the preferred route, so the chance of encountering anyone is nil.  But, the Mexican Army does patrol both the north end and the sea-side of the desert and if they stop you, they will most likely do a thorough search of the vehicle.  They pose no threat to honest Gringos that do not break the laws of their country.
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