Although we'd been jawing about our trip to Baja for months, we met for our departure breakfast with absolutely no plan, unless you count raw intention, which was to ride all the way to Cabo San Lucas at the southernmost tip of Mexico's rural Peninsula. Operation Seat-o'-The-Pants #137: Ride deep into an unfamiliar foreign country to rate the touring performance of motorcycles. We're a fun group, obviously, the kind that drives Urban Legends and party jokes. "Did you hear the one about the three motojournalists who went to Mexico without a map?"
The Three Amigos consisted of me, "The One Who Pays The Check;" my trusted compadre, Andy Cherney, who knew just enough Spanish to keep us out of jail; and our esteemed guest tester, former Motorcyclist Magazine executive editor, Marc Cook, a.k.a. "The Voice Of Reason."
Well, actually, we did have a map. But beyond that, only our ambition, a shared lust for adventure and an infinite appetite for fish tacos and frijoles guided us. And we also had three luxurious touring cruisers to test -- BMW's new R1200CL, Harley's time-proven Electra Glide, and Yamaha's Royal Star Venture. You can read about which was our favorite two-wheeled traveling companion in our 2004 Touring Cruiser Comparison Test.
It is Motorcycle Cruiser's style to not have a plan -- to let our stories unfold on the fly -- but we are not short on common sense. After loading up on bottled water and octane boost, we crossed into Mexico at the small Tecate gate to avoid the depressing squall that plagues the Tijuana crossing. This route to touristy Ensenada, where we would pick up Mexico's Highway 1, was also more circuitous and scenic, both on the U.S. side and in Mexico. Once across the border, however, the simple joys of racing down a clean, windy ribbon of asphalt were doused. The rules had changed abruptly. We could smell it in the trash that lined the roads, in the clouds of diesel fumes and the burning tires. We could see it in children as they strolled casually past rotting carcasses of road-kill cows and hear it in the bark of mange-ridden dogs who ran at us in the street. Our senses came alight with a new intensity and a profound level of concentration that would color our entire journey.
We had all been as far south as Ensenada, a Pacific port city that remains a popular shopping and party spot for American visitors despite its dingy, desperate atmosphere. We crept through the city streets in quiet disregard, finally popping out the southern end to find our hearts beating a little faster...a little more freely. Hola, unknown.
The Baja Peninsula is the longest land arm of its type in the world and Mexico's last frontier, all but forgotten in its isolation from mainland industry and politics. Before the mid 1970s there was no paved highway to span its length, just a network of goat paths suturing one section of inhospitable desert to the next. The goats are still there, along with feral horses, donkeys and wisps of bovine that vaguely resemble cows. Since there is so little edible foliage in Baja, the animals line the highway like stones line a path. Reason being, the pavement crown produces enough runoff to grow a tiny strip of greenery on each side. It's a bad arrangement for everyone, of course, except for the country's enormous population of vultures. You wouldn't believe how many of these unsightly birds we saw mooching eyeballs for lunch.
Our first night out we lodged at the small, but well-appointed, Estero Beach Resort, just south of Ensenada on the Bay of Todos Santos. In January the climate in Baja is just perfect for riding, with very little rain and average daytime temps in the 70s and 80s (compared to 110-plus in summer). Oddly, the resort was like a ghost town, leaving us with the lion's share of spicy chorizo for breakfast. Why anyone would choose crowds and sweltering heat over this peaceful sense of isolation (and discount rates) was beyond us. On our way out of town we made the obligatory stop at La Bufadora, an impressive oceanic geyser and the last tourist snare for almost 1000 lonely miles.
We knew we were looking at a fuel deficit in this section. Gas stations in mid-Baja are few and cannot be relied upon to be open or stocked. Local entrepreneurs cash in on the deficiency by selling gas to the hapless from plastic milk jugs. (At first we thought they were selling apple juice. Duh.) We were carrying a few extra gallons of premium unleaded we'd brought from The States as a backup and filled up the bikes at every Pemex station we passed that day. Pemex is government owned and therefore all that's shaking in Baja. Locating these hidden stations in the unmapped villages feels a little like capturing energy cells in a computer game. Toward the end of the day we rather unwisely missed one and were left out after dark, on reserve, and forever from the nearest anywhere. This far out our meager backup ration could mean nothing. The miles ticked by as loudly as clock strokes while our high beams cut through a dark soup of desert night and shining animal eyes. Finally, just as our nervousness was nearing a crescendo, we saw a couple of boys selling fuel from the back of their truck. They named the price, but we got the deal.
At the end of the second day out, The Amigos were pretty well spent, partly from the intense focus required by the riding conditions and also from the sheer volume of miles we covered. I'm not sure what the guys had expected, but I was surprised to find Baja so mountainous and its highway so twisty. The terrain is amazingly diverse and geologically quite beautiful. There is barrenness to the landscape that is strangely echoed in the villages. The hills seem to want trees the same way the churches need bells. So many beginnings have been abandoned here. You see it in the half-built businesses and half-painted murals that dominate most towns. Stores that are actually open seem to teeter on the brink of ruin. Beer is the mainstay. It's all very Mad Max, especially when you add the burned-out cars and pickup truck fueling docks. We speculated about the abandoned growth spurts the way one speculates about tree rings. Completion of the transpeninsular highway in the 1970s? Inflated hopes for the NAFTA Agreement of the '90s?
But who really knows, man? We were merely professional salsa-testing motorcycle riders who were looking for the first warm tortilla. That night, we found it in the unremarkable town of Guerrero Negro where we ate and slept and wished it didn't cost $5 a minute to call home.
The next day was a favorite. We discovered some real treasures in the Peninsula's southern state, Baja Sur, beginning with an unplanned breakfast stop in historic San Ignacio, where date palms grow as thick as prairie grass and an unlikely lagoon oozes mist like steam from a witch's cauldron. After being stunned by the town's huge 18th-century church, built by Baja's first settlers, Jesuit missionaries, we happened into a little coffee shop and devoured stuffed dates and homemade bread and jam. Our lunch break found us in another palm-laden oasis, colorful Muleg, filling up on fish tacos before the highway swept us down through fields of towering cactus to the edge of an emerald-green and azure Sea of Cortez.
You shouldn't ride through Baja if you feel a strong attachment to things like toilet paper and hot water. Clean freaks should just stay home. The Amigos were ripening, a condition accelerated by a sultry tropical humidity that would turn to heavy rain by the end of the day. Of course there had been no way to check the weather, so we were unaware of a tropical storm to the south, spinning wet tendrils our way. When we pulled into La Paz we as were wet as fish. A local laughed at us, saying southern Baja has 360 sunny days a year...weren't we lucky, or something like that. The language thing was completely up to Cherney. Cook and I could say things like cerveza and chipotle, but when it came to chatting it up with the gas station attendants or assuring machinegun-equipped boys at the military check points, Cherney was the hombre. We'd push him in front of us like a couple of geeky preteens afraid to talk to the cheerleaders.
"I feel like Mexican" became a favorite line at meal time. The food in Baja was terrific, and in La Paz we found the best shrimp fajitas imaginable at La Panga. In fact, we ate them two nights in a row since we'd decided to drop anchor at this port, as cruise ships often do. We found our favorite hotel here, too, Los Arcos, which was luxurious, reasonably priced and overflowing with perfect tropical ambiance. From La Paz we spent two exciting days exploring Los Cabos (The Capes), including its two famous getaway destinations, Cabo San Lucas and San Jose Del Cabo. But our favorite finds in this region were the more real-world towns, such as Todos Santos, an artist enclave and home to the Hotel California, purported to be inspiration for the Eagles song (we don't think so), and San Antonio with its jewel-like red and white church appearing like a perfect ghost at nightfall.
We didn't do tequila shots at Cabo Wabo or buy T-shirts at the Hard Rock Caf. Come on. We didn't even take a water taxi out to Baja's famous rock arch at Land's End so we could say we were there. That's touristy crap. We were living in another world, and Cabo was nothing more than culture shock. We did stop and strip for a little dip in the Sea of Cortez along Los Cabos' white sandy beach, though, which felt true to our gritty rough-rider theme (er, except maybe for that cabana boy serving us sodas). Initially, in our non-planning, we had discussed taking the ferry from La Paz over to Mexico proper for an all-new ride up. But when it was time to head north we all felt that we would rather get to know Baja backward than risk a boring route home on the densely populated mainland. We knew what to expect now and were looking forward to retracing our steps.
We'd been pleasantly surprised by how smooth and clean Baja's Highway 1 had been. Narrow and plagued by animals, perhaps, but still very rideable. We were also impressed by how courteous Mexican drivers are (at least outside city limits). Oncoming vehicles would consistently warn us of errant livestock with hazard lights, and vehicles we were following would clear us to pass with a turn signal. (Even though we continued to select our own passing opportunities, we found these signals were always appropriate.)
The unpaved secondary roads are hellish, however, especially on a heavy cruiser, and we learned straight out of the sand to avoid them. Most of the beaches on the Sea of Cortez side are fully accessible though (hard-packed from all the RV traffic), and a stop to siesta in the shade of a thatched umbrella is a Mexican rite of passage.
On our way north it was easier to see beyond the trash that lines the road -- the discarded goods and animals -- and appreciate Baja for its charmingly unkempt and unpredictable nature. Think of it as a beautiful girl wearing rags...with clots of dirt in her hair...and bad teeth. From the seats of our touring cruisers we soaked up the velvet-green color of sage in January and the white smell of salty sea air while enthusiastically exchanging peace signs with at least 100 children. Even the darker side of Baja -- the vultures hunched like gargoyles on the arms of saguaro cacti and the countless roadside shrines marking untimely human death -- became a part of the brilliance. This certainly wasn't Sheboygan, baby.
We picked up a few memories we'd reluctantly bypassed on our more harried journey south, including a night's stay in San Ignacio, where we slept in yurts along the lagoon. For real. The round Mongolian-style tents really don't relate to Mexican culture, but we found them totally cool anyway and intensely comfortable, appointed as they were with antiques and fluffy beds. The campground-style B&B called Ignacio Springs is owned by a transplanted Canadian couple, Gary and Terry Marcer, and over an especially delicious North American-style breakfast they told us about the joys of Baja's lazy pace and endless sunshine, about how it feels to paddle a kayak at sunrise and ride a horse to visit ancient cave paintings (Baja is home to Mexico's most important cave art). We were certainly in awe of this lifestyle, but after just six days south of the border we were already missing our own groove too much to ponder the pros for long.
From San Ignacio we rode a double day so we could get all the way home to our beloved plumbing, er, loved ones. Home Sweet Home. A motorcycle ride through Mexico makes it all seem so much richer. Indeed, when we finally crossed back over the border at Tecate, bleary-eyed and stinky but satisfied to the core, we knew exactly how lucky we were to live in America.
In celebration we cranked back the throttle and flew headlong into the knowable. No more military checkpoints. No mapped out gas stops or moonlit cattle slaloms. We were back in the land of the fenced, and the home of super unleaded.
Man, we were full of beans that night. Just as planned.
A motorcycle tour through Baja is a totally doable adventure. Except for one instance where we ran short on fuel (due to a missed stop), we had absolutely nothing worrisome happen. Every mile was an adventure, but one we felt completely in control of. There are many misconceptions about touring Baja -- most of them generated by people who have only visited the border towns where desperation is a theme. The locals, though dirt-poor in most cases, are proud and very sociable. No one begs. Ever. They will try and sell you everything from gum to girls, but if you politely decline they will not insist. The Mexican people loved our motorcycles, and we were almost always greeted with jubilant awe. (They chuckled especially hard over the stereo systems.)
We all had the proper paperwork, although we were never asked for it. We do recommend buying vehicle insurance at the border since your U.S. coverage will have shortcomings. If you are in Mexico for more than 72 hours you are supposed to have a "tourist card" as well, which we each acquired with a fair amount of hassle and $25. No one asked us for these -- in fact the guys at the checkpoints didn't seem to know what they were. If you're taking a ferry, which has strict rules on paperwork, you should probably have this visa. Otherwise, we'd skip it. Obviously you should have complete paperwork on your bike, a motorcycle driver's license and preferably a valid passport.
Unlike tres amigos, you can plan your foray. Our favorite stopovers were the Estero Beach Resort in Ensenada (646/176-6230 ), Ignacio Springs B&B (yurt city) in San Ignacio (011-52-615/154-0333) and the Hotel Los Arcos in La Paz (612/122-2744). In fact, we'd all revisit La Paz just to stay at this hotel again and eat the shrimp fajitas from La Panga at the east marina. With some regret we did not stay in Todos Santos, just north of Cabo San Lucas, but if we did we'd lodge at the Hotel California. You'll find La Pinta hotels in many of the small towns -- a Mexican chain that seemed clean and offered secure parking.
Don't worry about getting lost, it's pretty hard to stray from Highway 1, and don't hesitate to eat the local yummies, even from the roadside stands. We stumbled across some fresh, grilled spiny lobster one morning and ate two kilos for breakfast.
Get your map from AAA since it shows the most recent updates to the fuel situation, but don't count on any stations being open normal hours. Always have a little backup fuel on board. Also be sure to pick up AAA's Mexico TravelBook which has some good tips and interesting facts if not many Baja-specific listings. If you have an emergency, you can contact the Binational Emergency Committee (425/619-5080), a voluntary commission in Chula Vista, California, dedicated to helping travelers in Baja who suffer any difficulties, from illness to legal situations or accidents.
Animals, Animals Everywhere. It's not an ideal travel game. In order to win you must never fully relax or you'll be moovin' in the wrong direction.
Topes means "bumps." You'll find huge speed bumps as you enter and leave towns and slippery bumpettes planted (unwisely) as a warning just before sharp curves.
Fuelish Dreams. Gas is in short supply. Quality gas does not exist. Carry two extra gallons per bike and plenty of additive if your bike needs it.
Cash Out. Before you head deep into Baja make sure you have a stash of cash since there won't be a nearest ATM. Split it into smaller sums you tuck here and there.
Is The Water Safe? Don't drink it from the tap. Anywhere. Most hotels provide bottled water.
Rain Game. It doesn't happen often, but count on two consequences when it does rain in Baja -- slippery roads and possible flooding. Most washes that cross the road are marked with warnings, so if it's been pouring, heed them.
Banditos? Maybe. Even though we sensed no danger, there are still rumors of thievery. Be especially wary of "stranded motorists" or anyone who tries to get you to pull over (one ploy is to signal something is wrong with your machine).
Military Checkpoints. Although intimidating, these were a piece of cake for us. Be nice and speak your best Spanish.
Turn Signals. Since locals use turn signals as a green light to pass, it's wise not to use them when you pass.
The author gets email at Jamie.Elvidge@primedia.com.