With three free weeks on his hands, dualsport rider Dan G. Hilton bolts for a ride to Baja where he finds the beer cold, the quiet beaches warm and the solitude perfect for a holiday spent in an aimless ramble. He hadn’t quite counted on leaving something behind though: himself.
Many roads can lead a motorcyclist to Baja, but only a few can bring him back. That’s the curse of this blessed, sun-soaked peninsula. Once you’ve experienced the nights and inhaled the smells, once you’ve listened to the sounds and seen the sights, and once you’ve ridden the roads and explored the trails, a part of you remains. I didn’t know this when I set out from Vancouver on my trusty KLR650, laden with gear and spares, for a sojourn of unplanned duration that would take me into the heart, dust, heat, and humidity of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula. But I soon learned that Baja is more than a fantastic motorcycle travel destination; it’s also a state of mind. Dividing the warm waters of the Gulf of California from the wind and waves of the Pacific, the Baja Peninsula stretches more than 1,700 kilometres along Mexico’s west coast and spans 250 kilometres at its widest point. Baja’s climate, culture, and proximity make it a popular destination for nordamericanos in search of a little RV R&R, while its unpaved roads, endless trails, and adventure racing heritage make it a paradise for dualsport riders in search of a little two-wheeled adventure. Adventure, and possibly escape, is exactly what I had been searching for, so before setting out I decided to leave my route and schedule unplanned.
My only goal was to ride to Baja as quickly as possible, as I wanted my diversions, distractions, and explorations to occur on Baja soil, not North American asphalt. For the journey down, this meant sticking to the dreaded Interstate Five, a daunting proposition with only one cylinder and 649cc. Snaking along the western edge of the United States, the I-5 stretches 2,223 kilometres from the Canada/US border to the US/Mexico border. It is the fastest route south and the least interesting route anywhere. After hundreds of kilometres at the same speed and without so much as a gear change, I found my eyesight blurring and my mind drifting. This freeway extracts a heavy price from those who ride its concrete spine, and the endless traffic, dreary scenery, and choking exhaust fumes ensured I paid that price in full. But it was the accident scenes that left the deepest impressions. Fortunately all roads end, and after three days I pulled off the I-5 in San Ysidro, California and parked my bike at the first gas station I saw. The KLR needed an oil change and a new rear tire, and I needed a break from the killing road. The tire was taken care of at a local Kawasaki dealer, the oil changed in Pep Boys parking lot, and my I-5 night-shakes were calmed with a tall glass of bourbon and an early night at a quiet campsite. The next morning I awoke at sunrise, skipped breakfast, packed up, and made a run for the border after one last stop for fuel and mandatory Mexican insurance.
SOON I SAW THE BORDER AND FELT LIKE A VICTOR AS I RODE INTO Tijuana, but the feeling didn’t last. Unstopped and unregarded, I was invisible in the cacophony of Baja’s most notorious city. Bypassing the toll highway I opted for the more interesting libre route, which winds through some of the most picturesque hills and valleys this side of Napa valley.
An hour into the ride a sense of elation swept over me; every sight, smell, and bump in the road told me this is Mexico; even my bike seemed to thump along more cheerfully. Almost too soon I arrived in the seaside town of Ensenada, my destination for the night. Once a quaint fishing village nestled on the shores of the Pacific, today Ensenada is a vibrant vacation town with more than 250,000 inhabitants. Yet despite its role as territorial capital and its popularity as an American vacation destination, it retains much of its original charm and is a perfect place to climatise. Shortly after arriving, I parked my bike on a side road, shuffled to the nearest open air cantina, dropped myself down and ordered two fish tacos and two ice cold bottles of Coke.
After lunch I paid 190 pesos ($20 CDN) to obtain my tourist card at the Migracion office and then checked in at the first cheap hotel I found. Cleaned up and modestly presentable in dusty riding boots, army shorts, clean white dress shirt, and beige fishing vest (I knew it would come in handy) I headed out to enjoy my first night in Baja. Before I got too far, I was dragged into a tequila bar by a group of friendly Americans deeply concerned about my appearance. They relieved this concern with bouts of hysterical laughter, hearty slaps on my shoulder, and endless rounds of tequila shooters.
The next morning I remembered a sage piece of advice: Tequila on someone else’s tab is only a bad idea the next morning. With pounding head I struggled to stand upright and pack my gear. Forgetting the rules, I drank water from the tap and ate breakfast at a nearby street stand selling spicy raw clams. I felt blessed as my hangover slowly gave way to sunshine and anticipation. Still, I was pensive as the clams and spice churned in my stomach.
That day I left the Pacific behind and crossed the peninsula on Highway Three to San Felipe, a quaint vacation town nestled beautifully in the armpit of Cortez’s Gulf of California. Highway Three winds 260 kilometres into the hills above Ensenada and cuts through the Valle de la Trinidad, eventually joining Highway Five on Baja’s east coast. At a sane pace the ride takes about four hours, at my pace much longer as I had previously dismissed warnings about this route being more demanding than it seemed.
Three hours into the ride, I realized that one small bottle of water and a half tank of gas might not be enough. That I realized this as I was roasting in the sun with a stalled bike, a very dry mouth, and more than 40 kilometres to go only made things worse. But in typical Baja fashion, things worked out. The KLR sputtered to life and I made it to Hernando’s Hideaway (as I call it now), an abandoned gas station occupied by Hernando and his chickens. Smiling widely through several teeth, Hernando tipped his straw hat, produced a siphon hose from his torn overalls, and began walking over to his old Ford pickup before I could even say Ola.
After the extreme heat of my prolonged ride, I was in dire need of refreshment and hydration: it was time to swim and time to drink, and the vacation town of San Felipe is the ideal place for both. With spring break long over and the off-season well underway, I easily found a beach-front campsite just outside of town and within seconds my bike was parked, my gear off, and my body immersed in the Gulf of California. After two nights, too little sleep, several parties, and far too many cuba libres, I roosted goodbye to San Felipe and continued south along a section of the SCORE Baja 1000 route.
Along the way I stopped at the famous Coco’s corner only to find Coco long gone. Fortunately his cafe was open, so I continued the ongoing battle against heat exhaustion and dehydration with bottled water and icy sodas. After several more hours in the Baja back country, the sun dipped low and I decided to head for the nearest beach to make camp. Struggling for almost two hours with a heavily loaded KLR on sand that is much deeper than it looked, I finally located a firm path leading down to the azure waters and gentle surf of the Gulf. When I got there, only the caress of ocean air and the sound of surf greeted me, as this beach—almost 10 kilometres in length—was mine alone. I set up my tent, prepared a small meal, swam in the ocean, and laid back to watch the evening stars emerge.
FOR ALMOST THREE WEEKS I CONTINUED THIS ESTABLISHED pattern of random exploring and Baja trail riding, doing my best to “suck the marrow” out of the experience. Each day I rode unknown roads and trails, immersed myself in whatever people and places crossed my path, and spent time alone with the road, my bike, and my thoughts. When I tired of solitude I would find company in Baja’s colourful towns and villages, such as the oasis town of San Ignacio, French-colonial Santa Rosalia, the seaside village of San Bruno, and the very Mexican town of Mulege. I met other riders, many of whom vanished from memory as fast as their bikes vanished from sight.
Some however remain to this day, such as the heavyset couple from Canada on a ride to Baja two-up on a dreadfully overburdened KLR, the young man from Germany who had wrapped his entire bike in Duct tape including the engine cases, and the crazy Canuck on a ride to Baja from the Yukon who had been riding shirtless since southern California and was redder than any Baja lobster when I met him. But in the company of strangers, I soon feel the call of the open road and dusty trail. Motorcycling is a wonderfully social activity, but like many pursuits can be diminished if shared too often and with too many. So I would say goodbye more often than hello, and feel relieved to be back in the unknown and riding alone.
Deep into Baja Sur and well into June, the heat and humidity are stifling and just sitting on the bike can be a chore. Everything was sticky, moist, and covered in grime. Fortunately I was near the white sands and palm huts of Bahia de Conception, so I rented a beach front cabana for $10 US and let the days and nights melt away. The bike stayed parked as the mañana attitude took over. On a comfortable afternoon, I decided to go for a ride along a nearby trail. As I pulled over to photograph the sun dancing off the stunningly crystal-blue waters, I glanced up at the northern horizon for the first time since leaving home. In an instant I was transformed, reminded that this was only a vacation and not a permanent escape. This was my turning point, in more ways than one. The next day I packed up, pointed my bike and thoughts north, and began the long ride home. As I rode, I glanced often in the rear view mirror to watch Baja slowly recede into my past. I was in no hurry. After three weeks on two wheels, I had come to understand that from this land there is no return, not philosophically at least. For the rest of my life, whatever roads I travel, whether in my mind or on my bike, they will always lead back to Baja.
When to Ride to Baja:
There’s no bad time to visit Baja, but unless you enjoy extremely high humidity and even higher avoid the Mexican peninsula Baja in the summer. You, your gear, and quite possibly your bike will melt. Spring and autumn are the best times to go: the air is clear, the weather warm, the riding pleasant, and the prices seasonal. Winter is ideal for snowbirds who drive down in huge, asphalt crushing land ships, so Baja’s beaches, campsites, and restaurants can be extremely busy. Another reason to avoid the season: riding to Baja from any part of Canada in winter isn’t a pleasant prospect. D.G.H.
Riding in Baja:
No matter when you visit, it pays to be prepared on any ride to Baja. Baja’s geography and roads are as varied as the people who visit, and it’s not uncommon to ride through cactus-covered foothills, verdant farming valleys, wind-chilled mountains, and subtropical oases in a single afternoon. Driving through much of Mexico today is not unlike driving through Canada or the United States as amenities are increasingly common and increasingly expensive. But Baja is still La Frontiera, and although more roads are paved, more toll gates erected, and more time-shares built every year, much of Baja remains undeveloped. Government-run Pemex gas stations can be found in and around most towns, but they’re not always open or well supplied. Those riding bikes without large tanks (20 litres or more) should plan their route carefully or consider carrying additional gas. On many roads cows, dogs, people, and parked cars are as common as crater-sized potholes, unexpected debris, and huge trucks driving in the wrong lane and at very high speeds. Bring tools, spares, medicine, and a phase book if you don’t speak Spanish. Exercise caution while riding on main roads, always wear your helmet, and avoid riding at night. D.G.H.
SCORE Baja 1000:
Fish tacos, unspoilt beaches, sunshine, and ice cold beer aren’t the only reasons to come to Baja: the SCORE Baja 1000 desert race has been luring moto-adventurers to the peninsula since 1967. Part of the SCORE Desert Series (which includes the Laughlin Desert Challenge, the Baja 250, the Baja 500, the Las Vegas Terrible Cup, and the Las Vegas PRIMM 300) the Baja 1000 stands tall as the one of the world’s premier desert races. If you prefer to experience the quieter side of Baja, make sure your trip doesn’t coincide with any of these events. If it does, you’ll find hotels and campsites full, restaurants packed, streets crowded, and the peninsula alive with the sounds of engines revving, fans screaming, and roost ricocheting. What could be better?
by Dan Hilton Canadian Biker #235