©By Sam Taylor
“Be at the Bay Bridge Toll Plaza parking lot at 8AM, sharp. We’re picking up the girls in San Diego at 4, and we want to be in Ensenada before dark.”
Thus commanded our Trail Boss, Scott Page, his first instruction for our Bay Area to Baja winter motorcycle vacation. Already, I could tell there was going to be some serious riding ahead.
“Scotty, could we meet at a place that’s a little more likely to have hot coffee? And since we’ve got to be at the San Diego airport at 4, why not leave an hour earlier to get a jump on it…I don’t think we can make San Diego in less than 10 hours”.
I could tell he didn’t want an argument, even though he knew he was right about San Diego (we made it in an easy 9 hours). My point about coffee was valid, though. “Okay”, he said, “clutches out at Emeryville Denny’s at 7AM. Be gassed and ready to ride”
“Naturellement”, I glibly responded, throwing my best French at him, French that would serve me oh-so-well down the length of Baja California, Mexico.
In one sense, we’d planned this trip for over a year. We tried to make it in 2002 but a combination of mishaps had left Scott on his own. In another sense, the trip had been brewing for less than a month. In November, Scott approached Bill Moore, John Simmons, Chris Zwior, and me to see if we were up for some warm weather, cold beer, long days, and Mexican nights. The gods smiled, it all came together, and there we were that cold, dark, day-after-Christmas morning.
Well, not all of us. Scott, Bill, Chris, and I were making the ride to San Diego. Two women friends, Lauren Parkhill and Nell Schwartz, flew down from the Bay Area to save themselves the distance and monotony that Californians know as I-5. John had already been on the road, touring Southern and Coastal California, and would meet us at the airport.
We left the Denny’s at a gentlemanly 7:20. Scott rode his black BMW R1100GS, Bill his yellow R1150GS, Chris his bright green Triumph 955 Tiger, and I my “Aquamint” R1150RT. We had the color, if not the motorcycle, spectrum covered.
I won’t bore you with the details of the ride down 5. It was cold (about 45) and dreary, yet we were excited about everything to come. As we crossed the Altamont pass, we drove by the line of commuters driving into the Bay Area, poor souls. We rode, got gas, ate, got gas (the Panda Express in Grapevine will do that to a guy), and rode some more. I sang Christmas carols in my helmet. Belting out a little “O Come, All Ye Faithful” was somehow inspirational. Sometime around 3 we found ourselves on the San Diego Freeway in heavy traffic.
I had to make two diversions, one to pick up Lauren, who’d arrived early and bussed herself over to Balboa Park. Also, I had neglected to purchase Mexican auto insurance (everyone else had done it ahead of time via fax) because I thought I’d found a good deal waiting for me at the AAA in Chula Vista (AAA in Northern California would not sell Mexican insurance for motorcycles).
I should have known a bad idea when the AAA lady on the phone gave me faulty directions to the office. After messing around several of the interminable traffic lights that make riding in Southern California such a joy, a grouchy Sam found his goal. A nice woman sat me down and had me fill out the form.
I wanted the AAA insurance because, in shopping around, they had quoted a very low deductible should the bike be damaged or stolen. Most Mexican motorcycle policies are for liability only (which you must have, lest you risk spending quality time in a Mexican jail), with comprehensive and collision extra and with a high ($5,000) deductible. The AAA policy’s deductible was quoted at only $200, though the policy was a bit more expensive. I thought it worth the effort.
After I finished the paperwork, another woman waddled over and placed a loose-leaf binder down in front of my saleslady. She beat her forefinger on the line that even I, upside down, could read: “Motorcycles excluded from comprehensive/collision”. Oh.
Not willing to pay more for less, and already feeling unwelcome at the “Auto” Club due to my road garb—a black and orange Aerostich suit—and now even grouchier demeanor, I resigned myself to buying whatever insurance I could find at the border. I made a few more wrong turns, navigated my way to Balboa Park, and found Lauren waiting patiently.
She had toured some of the museums, regretting only not having time to see the “Torture Machines Through The Ages” special display. No loss, I said, you’re about to ride 2900 miles on the back of a motorcycle in a strange country with 5 people you hardly know, wear the same clothes every day, and sleep with a guy who’s going to consume mass quantities of refried beans. Just a hint of terror crossed her face as she donned the spare Aerostich and helmet I’d brought. We ran for the border and our rendezvous with the rest of the gang.
In San Ysidro, I pulled up to a drive-through insurance stand and bought my liability-only policy for $50. I’d just have to be careful. The fellows inside the kiosk were only a little surprised to see us astride the bike as we filled out the paperwork, and we completed our business and moseyed on over to the Burger King, our pre-arranged meeting spot.
Well, San Ysidro, being a border town across from Tijuana, has a great many stores, shops, fast-food outlets, and at least 2 Burger Kings. I think you can see where this is going, so let’s just fast forward to the point when we were all finally assembled. By then, it was getting quite dark, and we crossed into Baja California, Mexico.
As you can tell by my insurance experience, I hadn’t really prepared for this trip at all. Did I have a few pesos in my pocket? No. Did I know any more Spanish than Dos Equis? No. Was I a bit befuddled at my first toll booth stop on Mexico 1D? Oui…no, Ja…no, Si.
Actually, Mexico makes it as easy as can be to pay your $2.05. It’s just that the combination of being in a new country, a long day, darkness, some road construction, and the new weight and responsibility of a passenger combined to befuddle my tiny brain. But since you don’t have to be a genius to travel the roads in Baja, I muddled through. I remembered thinking this about 9 days later when—but I’m getting ahead of myself.
We arrived at Ensenada in about an hour with 660 miles on the clock for the day, happy to see the Villa Marina Hotel and happier to get off the bikes. The group made a mad dash for the 4 rooms we had reserved then a madder dash for the first cantina we could locate.
I may have never tasted a better beer, the first one “on vacation”, the first one in Mexico, the first one after a long hard day. That made three cold Modelos, and each was superb.
Nell surprised us at the cantina by deploying what seemed to me a formidable command of the native tongue. At least she was able to get the goods delivered without creating an international incident. Chris had pretty much gotten “cerveza” down pat, and Scott surprised us with an occasional “muy bueno”, but Nell carried the heavy load in that she could count with numbers and all that. Bless her.
Soon I was digging into the best chile relleno I’d ever had, when we had dinner at a simple little place nearby. Chips and salsa: outstanding, and so much better than the gringo junk served at chains like Chevy’s. Informed that, if we wanted (needed) more cerveza to wash down the burning hot salsa, we’d have to visit the liquor store next-door and brown bag it, Bill, Chris, and I made the 100 yard errand of mercy.
It says something for the employment situation in Ensenada that four separate men assisted us with our purchase of one six pack of Tecate. Such service. We returned to the restaurant triumphant.
After all the frenetic feasting, we were pretty beat, and had another long day ahead of us. The Trail Boss, re-christened El Jefe, reminded us of our 7AM departure time. So it was off to bed, some crazy dreams, and the promise of things to come.
Six o’clock arrived right on time the next morning, and we were on the road by 7:15. After negotiating a little traffic through Ensenada, we hit the open road of Mexico 1 and points south. We passed the turnoff to La Bufadora (“the snorter”) where, years ago, I’d done a little diving and witnessed the milagro of the blowhole formed by Pacific waves and underground caves. In fact, until I looked it up for this article, I thought “La Bufadora” meant “blowhole”. Wrong again, mon ami ,er, amigo.
Proceeding south we launched ourselves over the first of many topes, or speedbumps, that the Mexican version of CalTrans uses to discourage speeding. Proving again and again that I was hopelessly oblivious to roadsigns, I managed to hit nearly every one with a jolting surprise to which I subjected my bike, passenger, and personal huevos.
We passed through the towns of Santo Tomas, San Vicente, and Colonet, eventually stopping at a Pemex for gas about 95 miles south of Ensenada in Camalu. Rule # 3 of travel in Mexico is that there is only one brand of gas station, the government-controlled Pemex. Rule # 2 is that, except in the largest towns, you can have any grade of gas as long as it’s 87 octane (93 being the other choice in the big cities). Rule #1 of travel in Baja is “gas up whenever you can and as often as you can”, or as El Jefe intoned, “the prudent mariner never sets to sea without a full tank”. La Transpeninsualar (Mexico 1) is, after all, a skinny supply line traveled by thirsty American RVs. Even though there are enough gas stations, in theory, to make tankfull to tankfull riding possible, you never know when a station might be closed, out of petrol, or out of power. You never know….
Eventually we came upon El Rosario, at a point where Mexico 1 makes a 90 degree turn to the east, away from the Pacific. Lunchtime. We descended hungrily upon Restaurant El Grullense, a small cafeteria with several interesting-looking dishes in the warmer trays. There was food, too. As it was my first full day in Mexico, I was eating lightly and carefully, so I simply inhaled all the fresh hot tortillas that were coming from the kitchen. Those I washed down with a Coke. It may be urban legend that Coke tastes better south of the border (due to, I’ve heard, less high-fructose corn syrup and more old-fashioned sucrose), or maybe it’s just the returnable bottles that take me back to my youth. I’m here to tell you, however, that I never drink Coke in the US, but in Mexico I couldn’t get enough.
If one had to draw a line across Mexico 1, south of which the motorcycling experience becomes more than just a travel jog, it would be here at El Rosario. The terrain quickly changes from the coastal to the lunar. Huge rocks and boulders are strewn around the countryside, there’s not a settlement for miles, and the road twists and banks (mostly in the right way) between outcroppings. It’s a starkly beautiful, other-worldly ride, and one you can take at interstellar speeds.
We stopped in Catavina for gas, even though we really didn’t need it, or at least so the RT and Tiger riders thought. The GS riders, with their smaller tanks, large riders, and barn-door aftermarket windscreens, always needed gas…as we would later learn the hard way. Soon thereafter we paused for a photo opportunity amidst the boulders. The road then zigs back towards the Pacific, and we pressed on to Guerrero Negro.
Guerrero Negro, at the 28th parallel, marks the point where you cross into the Mexican state of Baja California Sur. True bajacalifornios believe this to be the real Baja. There’s a military checkpoint here, underneath one of the largest (Mexican) flags I’ve ever seen. We were forced to stop and fill out paperwork for a tourist permit.
Technically, the Mexican government allows travel within 100 miles of the border, for 72 hours, without this permit. Here at the state border, they can actually enforce this rule. You do not have to pay for the permit at issuance, but you are required to do so before you leave. The 200 pesos (less than $20 at the exchange rate of $11 to one) may be paid at any Mexican bank during your visit. The bank will stamp the permit, which you will have to produce on your way back home. Of course, none of us were to do this. We found out later what happens….
We also lost an hour as we crossed into Mountain Standard Time, which accelerated the fact that daylight was diminishing as we angled easterly (the Baja peninsula stretches diagonally from northwest to southeast). With about 100 miles to go to our destination, we wicked it up a notch along this road, a desert straightaway.
Destination: San Ignacio. Given the desert conditions, I was anticipating a dry and dusty stay for the night. Was I surprised: The actual town of San Ignacio is about 2 miles off Mexican 1, in the middle of a beautiful oasis complete with lake, date palms, warm summer breezes, and charm. Just before the town plaza is a Hotel La Pinta (part of a chain), laid out hacienda-style, complete with pool, gardens, and the absolute best margarita to be found on our entire trip.
We were a bit fatigued, as it had been a long day (535 miles) after a previous long day. Undaunted, we consumed an appropriate amount of Mexican beverage then strolled into town in search of a restaurant, Rene’s, that had been recommended.
The town of San Ignacio contains the Misión San Ignacio Kadakamán (still working) that dominates the cute little plaza, reminding me of a mini Sonoma, California without the corkscrew shops. In fact, this was one of the first missions (1728) in a chain, the final one of which was built in Sonoma. The missions in Baja—because they were founded earlier and by different religious orders—are much more ornate than their more northern sisters, but the idea was the same: offer the natives protection, work, and community in exchange for their everlasting souls via conversion to Catholicism. Despite the colonialist aspirations and attitudes of the Church and Spain, it was probably a pretty fair deal, all things considered.
Our aims were somewhat less ambitious than the Franciscan padres: we were starving. Rene’s turned out to be an eclectic spot, part palapa hut, part adobe, part dirt floor, part patio, part bar, part kindergarten. It was also sort of part restaurant, and as one of the few choices in town, had seen a busy night. We were presented with a menu, but informed that we could have anything we wanted as long as it was lobster. Due to language difficulties, it took a while for us to realize this fact, until Rene dangled a bug in front of us and asked us to name him. Bill christened the poor beast “Guillermo,” which sealed the creature’s fate. Off went Guillermo to the pot. Bill, on the other hand, went off to the bar.
At 180 pesos, these langosta dinners were a relatively big-ticket meal for our group, accustomed as we were to 20 peso tacos. Still, $18 for a big old lobster? Woo-hoo!
Apparently we nabbed the last seven lobsters, which we were convinced had just been plucked from the sea. Indeed, given the wait endured, Rene must have hustled down the 40-mile dirt road to the ocean to supplement Guillermo with six relatives. No matter, we had nowhere to go and nada to do. Mexico was finally taking control.
With only 160 miles to go the next day, we treated ourselves to a leisurely cup of coffee in town the next morning. Actually, from now on, everything was leisurely, so just assume the adverb. The café we chose (the only one on the plaza), was run by a British Columbian woman who was delighted to see us, once she repaired the coffee machine. We chatted with a Swiss woman who, with friends, was traveling the roads in the cleanest SUV (complete with white-on-red cross) we had ever seen. Of course, she said, they were Swiss. After coffee, a few photos of the mission, and a stop at the local market, we suited up and rode out.
The road to Santa Rosalía was challenging, with wind-swept plains, curvas peligroso, topes, and vados. Vados are washes that make for exciting whoop-dee-doos. Ahead and to the left we passed La Tres Virgenes (the 3 Virgins), supposedly extinct volcanoes rising from the high desert floor. We also passed Un Decapitación de Caballo (a very extinct horse’s head) which Scotty remarked reminded him of Godfather I. It reminded me of yesterday’s lunch.
About 10 miles before Santa Rosalía, at the Cuesta del Infierno, we began a rapid decent from the high desert to the coast of the Sea of Cortez. Also known as the Gulf of California, it was renamed as such in the early 20th century by the Mexican government to dishonor the conquistador. Generally—and more romantically—it is still referred to as the Sea of Cortez.
We rode into the town of Santa Rosalía in search of lunch, being in full “ride to eat” mode by now. Santa Rosalía is a town developed in the late 19th century by French copper miners, and as such has many atypical wooden structures more reminiscent of New Orleans than Monterrey. After cruising the town, we descended upon the little corner Taqueria Pavarotti, operated by a mamacita and her two young daughters. Seven hungry riders pretty much cleaned her out, and we were down to meatless quesadillas before we were done with her. I like to think we made her year and she and her family got a nice post-Christmas bonus.
So we’re booking along at a nice fast clip about 20 miles south of Santa Rosalía. The Trail Jefe is in the lead; I’m following a little too closely. One of the ubiquitous Vado signs whips by on my right but I’m not sure I even noticed it. I should have. For this was not just your average everyday vado, but one with a name: Vado Vidda. Vados that are named, I later discovered, are done so after the storm that wiped them out.
First, to my minor pleasure, I see a trio of motorcyclists in the other lane, headed north. Since these are the first bikers I’d seen in Mexico, and since they’re waving hysterically, I raise my left hand in a comradely salute, simultaneously trying to identify the hardware. Out of the corner of my eye I note Scott’s brake light is shining bright, and has been on for more than the usual amount of time for a straight road. Holy mother of Vados! This one has dirt, sand, boulders, ruts, and a serious drop-off from the pavement to hell. Which, at this point, is about 3 feet away from my front wheel.
I’m on the RT’s servo-assisted brakes like lube on a chain, but it’s too late. Not wanting to hit the sand with a locking front wheel, and with nowhere to go, I sail across the “discontinuity” at a respectable 50 mph. My passenger Lauren gets a thrill as she and the back of the bike try to beat the Spirit rover to Mars. I get a thrill as I countersteer crazily around whatever registered on my adrenaline-fueled senses. Bike slowing. Pavement returning. El Jefe stops ahead on the side of the road, upright but missing a few bottles and jackets, formerly bungeed to the back of his rig.
The other three bikes in our posse had enough time, thanks to our antics, to slow down and approach Vado Vidda with proper respect. Afterwards, they pulled along side and were generous with the kudos, marveling at my skill in keeping the Road Tool vertical. Skill, hell: it was all reaction, with no conscious thought. Good thing the Aerostich washes out easily, too.
On to Mulegé. I’m going to pause right here and state that of all the places we visited, Mulegé was my favorite town. Nestled in a small valley on the Rio Santa Rosalía—there an estuary of the Sea of Cortez—the downtown itself is a small cross-hatch of 3 or 4 streets. Our fearless ride Jefe led us immediately to the Café La Almeja, a quintessential palapa-roofed beach bar located on a sandy beach. A carved wooden sign at the entrance states: “No Bad Days in Mulegé”. Truer words never printed, this is what it’s all about, cold and dismal notreamericanos. Stunning views, cold cerveza, sand, sea, and—did I mention—cold cervezas. Oh, and the very busy bartender/waiter/maître d’ offered free cigarettes to the smokers among us. Why did we leave?
Well, because we had reservations just outside of town at La Serenidad, a sprawling hotel cum restaurant cum landing strip that is apparently a well-known destination for US small-plane pilots. We checked in, took a siesta, played some ping-pong in the large bar, and gradually watched the place fill up with a busload of American tourists. As much as we liked the accommodations, it was jarring to suddenly hear so much English and see so much blue hair. During a card game, we met two young gringo women on vacation from the Mexican mainland (where they taught English to wealthy Mexican 7th graders); they recommended a restaurant in town. We joined forces and resolved to take a cab there to experience a little more authenticity.
Restaurant El Candil was a nice find (though keep in mind what I said about the operative adverb, leisurely). After a sumptuous dinner, a couple of mariachis wandered over to our table. One of them was familiar—our bartender from Café La Almeja apparently had a night job.
After the way he hustled to serve our cervezas that afternoon—not to mention his generosity with the tobacco—how could we wave him off? It turned out he had a wonderful Alto voice that brought the women to tears. It may be trite, schtick, and hokey, but a well-delivered “Guantanamera” has magical effects. It also sends Chris to the bar, as he is not a mariachi kind of guy, or so he claims. But was that he I spied weeping into his Tecate?
After Bill slipped the singers a tip equivalent to the Mexican gross national product—he too was moved—the mariachis went on vacation. Many drinks later, having solved all the problems of the world and made wonderful new friends all around, we packed the women off in the one taxi left on duty while the caballeros decided to duck into a little cantina for a nightcap, awaiting the taxi’s return. The patrons were overjoyed to see us, as they were caballeros too. Gay caballeros. Since none of our group admitted to that persuasion, we beat a hasty retreat, not wanting to leave Mulegé with a bad taste in our mouths. The taxi soon came to our rescue.
Speaking of gay, the two women we had befriended during dinner had not-so-casually informed us of their undying love for one another. Hey, I say, that’s great, it’s a big wide wonderful world. Earlier, Lauren and I had invited them to share our second bed in the hotel in a gesture of pay-it-forward goodwill, knowing they were on a limited budget. Those of you who know me as a very sick individual can imagine what crossed my mind, had I only brought the webcam. Ha, ha, you old rascal.
My pathetic attempts at entertaining the boys with this sophomoric line of humor were repaid, justly, when it turned out that one of the women was the single loudest snorer I have ever heard in my life. And I have roomed with nearly everyone in the Montgomery Street Motorcycle Club—all prodigious woodcutters, they. It was a long, long night for Sammy.
A droopy-lidded crew assembled, slowly, for our 7:30AM departure. I won’t name names here except to say that our passengers seemed to have the worst of it. There wasn’t much sparkle amongst the riders either, as two of us promptly lost the group in downtown Mulegé while looking for the gas station. Now, the only things tricky about Mulegé are the three or four one-way streets, and there are only three or four streets. Yet somehow John and I lost Scott, Bill, and Chris and took a tour of the greater Mulegé metropolitan area.
At some point we stopped and asked directions from an American gent, out walking with his wife, who was helpful in confusing us further. He did point out that there was a Pemex just south of town, on our way, so we decided to get gas there. Just as we got back on the main road we found our wayward buddies. Remember, it’s really hard to get lost for too long traveling down Baja.
After a fillup, we were rewarded with what I think was the single best part of the ride from the point of view of motorcycling. For about 80 miles, Mexico 1 twists and turns through the craggy coastal hills, never far from spectacular views of the Sea of Cortez. This ride is reminiscent of California Highway 1 south of Big Sur, except the water is azure blue, the beaches sandy white, and the traffic nonexistent. Don’t tell anybody about this spot, for I fully intend to return and camp in one of the palapa huts lining the tropical sands, and I want it all to myself.
If you ever tire of the sea views, a glance off to the land side reveals a fascinating saguaro “forest”, much greener than you’d expect from a Roadrunner cartoon, full of blossoming fauna—yet still a desert. Beyond lies a craggy range of mountains supporting a crystal clear sky. Breathtaking.
I couldn’t get enough, but all good things come to an end. We turned into the town of Loreto, the original capital of all Spanish California, now a larger settlement of about 10,000 people earmarked by the Fox government for tourist development. There’s a respectable airstrip there, and the town has a nice, though dilapidated, promenade along the seashore. Frankly, it was hard to appreciate all this as we were hangover hungry. El Trail Jefe knew just what to do, as always, and led us to Café Olé, a great, slow, indoor/outdoor spot that served up the huevos chorizo and fish tacos we so desperately needed.
Scott’s passenger Nell was fatigued, and avoided more than a sip of Coke. She then spread out her riding gear and took a deep and refreshing nap right there on the cobblestone street, under the bikes. She continues to recommend this kind of massage-as-you-snooze treatment as an enormous restorative.
We didn’t have time to tour Loreto, a shame, I thought. I vowed to return. At this point, my passenger, Lauren, vowed to get off the bike as soon as possible. As usual, I was in charge of long-range planning and she of short-term necessities. This is why we get along.
Unfortunately for her, we had a 300-mile day ahead of us, and due to the (that adverb again) leisurely service at the Café Ole, we were well into the afternoon already. Time to push.
The road out of Loreto was almost as good as the one in, and we were soon twisting our way back over to the Pacific coast. After cresting the backbone of Baja, the roads straightened completely and we all became a bit woozy. The towns of Ciudad Insurgentes and the much larger Ciudad Constitucion provided gas stops and not much more. We then angled back towards the Sea of Cortez and the city of La Paz.
La Paz is a big place (population 180,000) with enough of an outskirt to rate a bypass highway. Consequently we didn’t see much of La Paz other than row upon row of rather institutional looking concrete houses, all with plastic 50-gallon water barrels lashed to their roofs. Interesting, if not attractive.
Evening approached as we turned towards Todos Santos and our last 50 miles of the day. For some of us at least. We pulled into Todos at about 7, with no reservations and no idea of where to stay. Somehow, Scott and I had gotten ahead of Chris and John, so el Trail Jefe, Nell, and I went looking for accommodations. Lauren volunteered to stay put to watch for the others and sample all the food stands lining the street.
Scotty had seen a sign for some hotel just out of town. I gamely followed him down a series of dirt and sand roads until we came upon the Hotel Alegría, a beautiful resort, even in the darkness. No room at the inn, alas, and in fact the proprietor worriedly told us the entire town was full.
Never one to say die, the Trail Jefe spun out of there like a Sonora duststorm. I, on the other hand, had to turn around in the sand and also spun out of there—but just enough later to lose him completely. Actually, I lost me completely—I hadn’t really paid attention on the way down and now was presented with a myriad of turns, all on narrow sand roads, all in darkness. There I was alone, with my short term brains, Lauren, back in town waiting for the others and noshing on tacos.
Then I got caught in a traffic jam. Two cars had approached each other on the one lane road, shoulders overgrown with tropical stuff, and couldn’t negotiate a backup. I couldn’t help but notice the California plates. After five or ten minutes, I literally dusted the stupid gringos in a mad dash for freedom and somehow found my way back to town. By now, Bill was there. He and Lauren had bought a six-pack of Modelo and were waiting for Chris and John. I love these folks.
Scott and Nell were combing the town for lodging. Lauren was feasting on banana-leaf-wrapped Tamales. An Oaxacan family, on their way to Cabo where the big bucks are, had realized a business opportunity when they saw it and set up a stand just for her. Another family’s Christmas bonus made.
Then, John and Chris showed up. Apparently, back at a gas stop in La Paz, John had heard that we had 100 miles to go when in fact we had just 50. As it got darker, he had stopped to change faceshields and glasses, and Chris had waited for him. Thinking he had farther to go than he did, he had blown right through Todos Santos and was halfway to Cabo San Lucas before reality struck. Oh well, he reasoned, they had a nice little tour.
One creates one’s own luck. Thanks to the tight lodging situation, we had to split up and take several rooms in several different hotels. One of them was a suite at the Hotel Todos Santos, that, although relatively expensive ($135), was perfect for a couple of tired road warriors like Lauren and me. As soon as we saw it, we made the decision to splurge and stay 2 nights at this wonderful place. The others had, all along, planned to be in Cabo the next night while Lauren and I had desired to avoid the big resort town, so this was perfect for us. We weren’t quite ready to say goodbye to our traveling companions, though, and promised to meet everyone at the Hotel California for dinner.
The Hotel California is sort of the main fixture in town, and they would like you to think it is the place from the eponymous Eagles song and album of the 1970s. There is great debate whether it is or isn’t (it isn’t). My final interpretation is while the picture on the album’s cover may be of the state asylum in Camarillo, California, the spirit of the song lies in Todos Santos. That’s what I want to believe, and I’m sticking to it.
Even though the prices were a bit high, and the service a bit…leisurely, we were all so glad to be there after our long day’s adventures that we, once again, somehow, managed to have a great time. It was John’s birthday, so a celebration was in order. A few margaritas here, a few beers there, a little champagne left over from a wedding party thrown in, and we rallied nicely.
I got up early the next morning, one, because I had slept so well in our palace, and, two, because I wanted to experience Todos Santos during all the daylight I could get. I promptly met Chris and John, on their way out of town, for my first breakfast of the day. They were headed to Cabo for the next 2 nights, where Chris had planned to meet his girlfriend Casey. She and a friend of hers had chosen the better part of valor and had flown to Cabo from San Francisco. Hey, whatever works. My only regret was that I never got to even say hola—so hola, Casey.
After a grueling cup of coffee, I went to breakfast number two to meet Scott, Nell, Bill, and Lauren. Here at the Caffé Todos Santos Scott had promised the world’s best sticky buns, but I spied a healthy-looking granola that turned out to be exotic (a hint of bitter chocolate and lots of dried mangos) and refreshing. We bade goodbye to our friends and promised to hook up on the flip side—wherever that was to be.
I won’t dwell on our free day in Todos other than to say it was great to have that day and spend it in such a nice little town. Todos Santos, about 10 years ago, had a population of 500. Now it’s closer to 5,000. But the town has retained its charm and hides its gringos well.
We found some of those gringos down at “Shut Up Franks”, a locals' bar with zero atmosphere other than the locals themselves. Here one is likely to find the grizzled Hemingway-esque sport fisherman, who has been living or coming to Baja for years. A gruff but honorable group. “Shut Up Franks” is so-named because, originally, Frank and a partner owned the joint but—though friends for years—they split up after one month in business together. Let that be a lesson to us all.
It was tough to leave the lovely Hotel Todos Santos, but Lauren and I had contracted Road Fever, that peculiar disease where you never feel quite right unless you’re traveling. This disease is only exacerbated by riding a motorcycle. We were highly symptomatic.
As it was December 31st, I was a little apprehensive about finding a place that evening, especially given our experience two nights before. But you know, we had to ride, and damn the torpedoes and all that.
So we started the trip back to Mexico 1, breaking one of my cardinal riding rules never to backtrack—as if we had a choice. Around La Paz, back to Ciudads Constitucion and Insurgentes, we landed for the evening in Loreto.
Actually, we arrived at about 1:30 that afternoon, proving that 2 can ride faster than 7. It’s not the riding, of course, as none of our friends is slow. I can, however, ride further, with confidence in my gas capacity, on the RT than our buddies could on their GSs.
Lauren and I had decided to make the drone back up as briskly as possible, with only a stop at a military checkpoint, one gas-up, and a quick taquería break along the side of the road in Ciudad Constitucion. We made quick work of a little rain we hit, the RT being nonpareil in the area of wind and weather protection. So there we were in Loreto, with time to check out a couple of cheap hotels before picking the Hotel Junipero—perfectly adequate—at $35 per night.
A nice thing about the Junipero is it is adjacent to the Misión Nuestra Señora de Loreto, the original mission in all the Californias and the jumping-off point for Franciscan Father Junipero Serra back in the late 18th century. Serra was to found the California missions in Alto, (r what would in 1848 become US) California. Like its sister mission in San Ignacio, this one was nicely restored and a working church, with—as we found out later—a working bell. Happy New Year!
We got to know Loreto better this time, though the streets were fairly empty as the locals saved their energies for the evening’s festivities. As is our custom, Lauren and I ate and drank our way through most of what was open that day, retiring early (10pm) with the intent to wake up at midnight to see what was happening. We would have just powered through the evening, but even by 10PM nothing was going on.
So when we awoke the next morning (the bells barely bothered us), the party clearly had started and ended. We were later to find out that in the local custom it is considered rude or at least embarrassing to be 1) on time for a social engagement or 2) the first to arrive. Consequently no one shows to a party until everyone does. If midnight weren’t so crucial to a New Year’s Eve, the party probably wouldn’t have started until 2AM.
But start it did, and the remnants lay about the street. Speaking of remnants, I had a message on my cell-phone from Scotty saying Bill had left Cabo a day early and was riding north, so we had an eye open for his big yellow GS. Since we never saw him, we rode on to Mulegé.
I had really been charmed by Mulegé and wanted to spend some time “downtown”, so after a reprise in reverse of that great 80 mile stretch of Mexico 1, we booked ourselves into the Las Casitas Hotel at a very reasonable $30. God, I love Mexico. As we were unpacking the RT, who should pull up but Bill.
It turned out that Bill, too, had stayed in Loreto the night before, having had a bit of a mechanical adventure on the way up from Cabo. He had pulled over to take a few pictures out in the middle of some saguaro forest, and when he got back on the GS, it wouldn’t start.
After unsuccessfully trying to flag down what few passing motorists there were (he decided to shave every day from then on), he messed around with his fuse box and somewhat miraculously found a blown fuse—the main computer/engine fuse. Odd, that. He replaced it with a spare (wrong amperage, but it was all that was in his toolkit), and continued his ride, too late to continue past Loreto.
When he arrived in Mulegé the next day, he had every intention of pushing on, but we twisted his arm—not that hard—and convinced him to stay the night. This turned out to be a Good Thing.
We sort of went our separate ways the rest of the day. I say “sort of” because Mulegé isn’t big enough not to run into the same people over and over again. To that point, both Bill and I ended up, independently, meeting Elden Carl.
Remember that guy who gave John and me directions to the gas station when we were leaving Mulegé 4 days back? That was Elden. Elden, it turns out, is a—if not the— ranking authority on Kawasaki KLR650s. He knows everything about them, has torn down and rebuilt almost every one of them, and has 175,000 miles on his personal KLR. He and his wife Pauline live near San Diego and often RV it down to Baja, specifically Mulegé, for vacations and a little dirt riding.
When he’s there, Elden is sort of the gringo Mayor of Mulegé, holding court at Las Equipales, a nice second story restaurant in town. While I was chatting with him, for example, a British KLR rider named Mel, who had left London back in September with no plans to return, ever, passed through and stopped for an audience. Another KLR rider, Curt, was there doing same.
Anyway, Bill, Lauren, and I had dinner there that night, again seeing Elden and his entourage. We called it an early evening, not realizing our hotel’s bar was bent on celebrating January 1st with vigor. I drifted off to the dulcet tones of Mexican music and lots of whoops and hollers.
Bill had a bit of the homing pigeon in him the next morning and left before Lauren and I arose. We had said our goodbyes the night before, not knowing precisely how far we intended to go or where our next stop would be.
One thing I had to do was stop back in San Ignacio to look for a set of keys I had lost somewhere on the trip. It was kind of fun exercising my increasing Spanish vocabulary, stopping at all the hotels we had stopped at on the way down. Fun for me, that is; I suspect various hotel managers in Baja are still wondering about the gringo who had lost his battleship.
San Ignacio isn’t that far from Mulegé (80 miles), so we weren’t necessarily planning to stay there again. As we pulled into the Hotel La Pinta, I began to think plans might change when I saw a big yellow GS, parked, with tools strewn about. Uh-oh.
First, I asked the manager for my battleship. Nada. Then, I asked if he had seen my friend, the owner of that GS. Just then, Bill walked around the corner.
It turned out that he was well past San Ignacio, pressing on to at least Guerrero Negro, when he noticed his alternator light shining more brightly than his headlights. He made the decision to reverse course and head for the nearest sanctuary that he knew, the Hotel La Pinta in San Ignacio. I had already deduced the problem when I saw, next to scattered German allen wrenches, a pile of black spaghetti that used to be Bill’s alternator belt.
We sat and pondered our situation, enjoying the warm sun more than the situation. Bill had a business obligation that required his timely return to the States. Thoughts of leaving the GS behind, flying out of Guerrero Negro, or catching the bus (only 3 days to the border!) were not appealing.
First, he called his home BMW dealer, who pretty much said, yeah, you’ve got a busted alternator belt, we can mail one to you (about a week). Then he called the San Diego dealer who confirmed that FedEx, DHL, and the like do not service most of middle Baja, though if we could find a trusty courier, the bus was an option (this was not going to happen).
As we were talking, we ran across an American couple in an RV who were headed for Mulegé. It dawned on both Bill and I that Elden had offered his assistance, should we need it, as he was coming home in a few days and had a nearly empty trailer (KLRs don’t take up much room. Or have alternator belts, for that matter). First, Bill considered hitching a ride. Then we settled on asking the couple to get a message to Elden, at his hall of audiences (Las Equipales), to look for us on the road or give us a call at the hotel. We figured we could then work something out, perhaps with my riding Bill to Guerrero Negro so he could catch a million dollar flight home, and Elden trailering the GS to the dealer in San Diego. All this over a $10 part.
All this over a $10 part. It rankled me. Surely, there was a better way. Since we had nothing to do, I suggested we examine the problem. When we removed the belt cover, we found a slim remnant of the belt still intact. So, I said, let’s try to refit it. We did so, and it worked. For about 3 minutes. Then it became a slimmer remnant, but still intact enough to indicate its overall size.
One thing I had noticed in Mexico was a plethora of mechanics and auto shops. Nothing specific to motorcycles, mind you, but even San Ignacio (population 800) had at least three of them.
With Bill riding bitch and helmetless, we took the RT in search of a miracle. First stop was a mechanic, who pointed us to auto parts store #1. There, after much Spanglish referring primarily to el bando, we were directed out to the main road. At the Pemex station, we were further directed to Sandy’s.
Sandy’s Auto Parts (a chain, I later realized) had a wall full of automotive fanbelts, of every shape and size—except the peculiar grooved type used by our German marque. To his credit, the senor at the counter went in the back and dug up the exactly-right shaped belt—probably for an old Porsche—but it was about 2 inches too long. Finally, dejected and desperate, we bought a wrong-shaped but right-sized V-belt from the Magical Wall of Belts.
We installed this little gem in about 15 minutes. It didn’t look too good, like it might fly off on thumbing the starter, but we gave it a shot. Much squealing and smoking. The smell of burning rubber was everywhere. But the alternator was spinning, the light was off, and the bike was charging. We revved her up and a bit of rubber flew off from somewhere. We revved her up again and the smoke stopped. We looked at each other and dared think the same thing: is this gonna work?
We buttoned the bike back up and Bill took it for a test ride. The belt squealed like a pig at low revs, but at cruising speed life was beautiful. Our little $3.00 fix was a success!
We were in a celebratory mood (well, we were always in such a mood, but that night even more so). Margaritas (the best, still) all around. More lobster at Rene’s. Lots of self-congratulation. Lots of Zen and the Art.
We left together the next morning, having learned our lesson. Our intention was to head for Ensenada, but because we were two bikes, not five, and because we were going to gain an hour at the state border, we felt it would be an easy day. Our only worry was whether the belt would hold up, but after a quick and hard 2-hour ride to Guerrero Negro, our confidence soared.
At the border, we were stopped and asked for our papers. No, we had not paid our 200 peso tithe to the alter of Mexico, but the nice man in the trailer was happy to take our money and stamp our travel permits. Lauren had even lost her permit, but all she had to do was fill out another one—and pay the man his due, of course.
We gassed up there, at our last opportunity to do so before the long stretch between Guerrero Negro and Catavina. The ride, the opposite of what we had done the week before, looked totally different to my eye. My brain must have been gnawing on this little bit of information as I blew right through Catavina without stopping. Like John when he and Chris overshot Todos Santos, I had miscalculated the mileage and kept waiting for Catavina to appear, not believing that the town I just passed could have been, in fact, Catavina.
About 30 miles later, with Lauren hitting me on the helmet and Bill pulling over, I realized my error. And Bill was out of gas. We had about 50 miles to go to El Rosario, or 30 miles back to Catavina. Bill was bone dry, so at first we tried to siphon some gas from the RT to the GS. But at that point I was pretty low, too, and our siphoning skills were not rewarded with other than a mouthful of gasoline fumes, which cured my smoking habit for the day. We decided to backtrack, me figuratively kicking myself all the way.
Closed. No Gas. Catavina was dry. It’s a small gas station to start with (2 pumps), and the weekend’s “crush” of travel, including all the American RVs headed home after the holidays, had sucked out the last drop. And with the extra 60 miles I had added (the 30 past Catavina times 2), I didn’t think the RT could make El Rosario anymore, either. We were, as they say, screwed.
So we had lunch. Amazing what a few quesadillas and a Coke can do for one’s outlook. Fortified, Bill begged some gas off of a guy who had an extra jug in the back of his van. He and his family, Mexican citizens, were headed home to Ensenada. They were saviors. They wouldn’t even hear of taking money; just happy to help. I hope their karma rewards them someday.
Unfortunately, ours didn’t. About 20 miles out of El Rosario, big Bill on his big GS with his big windshield and his tiny tank ran out of gas again. With no alternatives leaping from the desert floor, I pressed into town. There was lots of gas in El Rosario, so I filled the bike and a big Coke bottle, in the process taking a Pemex bath to add to my Pemex breath. Now it was Rescue 911 time for Bill.
Only about 10 miles out of town, though, there—in the distance—traveling at about 50 mph, approached a big yellow GS. Bill had flagged down another good Samaritan—though it wasn’t as easy this time—and had gotten the gallon he needed. We were together again, gassed, and ready to roll.
It was late, and dark, as we approached Ensenada. I have never been so glad as then to have fitted a couple of PIAA 1110x driving lights to the RT as we twisted and dove through the mountains south of the city, on a good road but one devoid of center or fog lines. We went back to the Villa Marina, and ate again at the same little café—too tired to be anything but creatures of habit. A nightcap at the top of the hotel—one of the tallest structures around at 14 stories—was all we needed to ensure a good night’s rest.
So it’s Sunday and we figure that the border crossing at Tijuana is going to be swamped with all the returning tourists. Why not, we reason, cross at Tecate, which is only a mile further from Ensenada and reputedly is a kinder, gentler way to come back into the US. It’s just up Mexico 3.
So I quickly navigate us to 3, the signs for which I had seen on the way out of town the week before. Señor Sam knows Mexico!, I proclaim. It’s a beautiful ride, a great rode, with views of the city and the Pacific behind us. Soon we’re out in the countryside with just a few more miles to go, according to my calculations when…
….I realize that the sun is in the wrong place. It should be behind us, not in front. I sort of scrunch the map on my tankbag—folded as usual exactly in the wrong place—and see, to my horror, that Señor Sam has led us out on the road marked 3 to San Felipe, south, and not on the road marked 3 to Tecate, north. The roadsigns were of no help: Tres is Tres, amigo; you figure out which way you should be going. As I said at the beginning of this saga, you don’t have to be a genius to travel the roads of Baja, and I was definitely not.
Terribly chagrined, I backtrack to Ensenada. At least it was a beautiful ride, I wanly say. Lauren and Bill were kind. We find 3 to the north, and we were soon—2 hours later—on our way out of Baja.
The ride to Tecate was almost as enjoyable as the unplanned and aborted one to San Felipe. Well worth it, we thought, until we reached the “sleepy border town” and realized the line to cross the border wrapped around and around and around….
As we idled away the hour or so in the stop and go line, we saw that a few bikes had muscled and lane split their way to the front. When we had tried that, we were stopped by traffic police. Just bad luck, I guess. Anyway the blessed event finally occurred and we were waved forward across the border back into the good old USofA.
Culture shock. Traffic. Subdivisions. Stop lights. Signs, advertisements, smog. It was a difficult adjustment. Bill and I parted ways at some nameless freeway junction; he headed for home, Lauren and I for Palm Springs to visit our friends Marshall and Sheryl. When we arrived about 5 (dark again), we were delighted to see them, delighted to be off the bikes, delighted to have an American hamburger, but….
The final day was uneventful; all we did was freeway it home to the cold Bay Area. We started hearing from our erstwhile compadres. Nell had decided to fly home from Cabo, having thoroughly enjoyed the experience but willing to say goodbye to motorcycles for a while. Scott, John, and Chris powered home. They had made it to San Ignacio (from Cabo) the day we were learning about KLRs in Mulegé. Their intention had been to make it all the way back to San Francisco the next day (yikes!), but had thrown in the towel in Orange County, after 800 or so miles, when fatigue and darkness slowed them down. A note: the previous year, Scotty had made the run from Guerrero Negro to San Francisco in 18 hours, qualifying him perhaps for some kind of Iron Butt award, the Hotel California (Camarillo asylum version), and this year’s outstanding Trail Jefe.
Bill had pressed on to Harris Ranch, on I-5, after we parted company near Tecate. On the way he managed to run over a 4 by 4 piece of lumber, or some such, and had tweaked his front end enough to call it a day. The night alone at Harris gave him time to ponder the mechanical cloud that had seemed to follow him in the final days. He was philosophical: Sometimes you get the bear, and sometimes the bear gets you.
The important thing, of course, is everyone made it home safely and in good spirits. My battleship—the keys—were there on my desk waiting for me, right where I’d left them. Work resumed, bikes got new tires, and we quickly slid back into our routines.
Yet the routines were now spiced with powerful memories of the trip. It was, to me, the perfect motorcycle ride with just enough adventure and misadventure to keep things entertaining. Warm sun, great roads, friendly people, a simpatico group. What more could anyone ask of a vacation? I’ll be back.
For seasoned Mexico travelers, this will seem callow, but I hope it can be useful to people, like me, who were in serious Baja for the first time. Information was gleaned from facts and opinions I gathered on this maiden voyage and is subject to a feeble memory.
Below is a table of miles ridden on our 11 day trip. A few are longer than they should be due to our various misadventures (days 9 and 10). They apply to only to my bike and its funky odometer.