I knew there would be tough days on this six month motorcycle trip to Tierra del Fuego. There would be moments when I would question what I was doing and whether Francesca and I would make it to Ushuaia. On the way from San Felipe to Coco’s Corner, we encountered a washout where Highway 5 drops five metres into the river bed. After checking our options we decided to turn around and head for the last hotel we passed at San Luis Gonzaga. It was over 40°C with the intense Baja sun beating down and my body was fully drenched in sweat. Even though my helmet visor was open to let more air through, the inner pads of my helmet were also soaked in perspiration. I was struggling to keep the motorcycle up while moving slowly through the deep sand with both feet on the ground to help paddle and stabilize the bike. This was one of those tough days.
Period Covered: August 27 – September 2, 2013
Locations: San Felipe, San Luis Gonzaga, San Quintin, Guerrero Negro, Loreto, Cabo San Lucas, La Paz (Baja California Sur)
Our first day in Mexico was straightforward enough. The gang (Jeff, Paul and Asli) agreed to meet-up at a gas station close to the border before crossing together. After thanking Mauricio for letting me crash with him for a week, I said goodbye and rode to the meeting point. On my way to the rally point, I saw a car being chased by US Immigration Customs Enforcement on the other side of the highway northbound. Just like out of an episode of COPS! At the recommendation of Danny (a Horizons Unlimited member we met for lunch in San Diego with lots of experience riding in Baja) we took the Otay Mesa crossing into Tijuana instead of San Ysidro.
US to Mexico: Otay Mesa Border Crossing:
As Canadians, Jeff and I didn’t need an entry or exit stamp from the US so we were instructed to ride through the US exit and parked on the right side to get our Mexican Tourist Visa. Asli on the other hand needed an exit stamp from US Immigration but her and Paul only realized that after they had exited the US and so required to line-up on the Mexican side to “re-enter” the US to sort out the exit stamp. Jeff and I went ahead to figure out the Mexican tourist visa purchase process which involved completing a form in the first office (Immigration), then going to bank and cashier office (Banjercito) 100m away to pay and bring back the receipt to obtain our stamped tourist card. It is extremely important to keep the tourist visa payment receipt for exiting Mexico as proof of payment otherwise they might charge you for it again before letting you exit. Even though we did not require a temporary vehicle import permit (TVIP) in Baja until La Paz (before crossing to the mainland) we decided to get it at this border to save us the hassle in the future. Since the Customs at Otay Mesa was not located in the same complex as the Immigration building we had to ride a little bit in Tijuana to find the Customs (Aduana) building and process our TVIP. The directions given to us by the Immigration official who processed our tourist visa was off by two blocks (see Google Map marker here) but we didn’t have to go too far to find it. We made photocopies around the corner, paid the temporary import fee (~$35) and bond of $400 (to be returned on cancellation) before receiving our TVIP certificate and sticker. We were told by the official not to put the sticker on our windshield to prevent it from being stolen but to carry the sticker and certificate with us if we ride.
The border crossing ended up taking two and a half hours which wasn’t too bad overall. We had to ask around a bit to figure out the process but fortunately Paul had decent Spanish and the process wasn’t too surprising. By noon we were headed towards San Felipe via Ensenada. The differences once we crossed the border was remarkable. The roads, the traffic, the people, the business signage, etc. In the daytime, Tijuana didn’t look that bad but was definitely a little bit rundown compared to the US side. We didn’t stay too long and headed south on MX1 towards Ensenada following the coast.
I believed that my Garmin Zumo 220 GPS had Mexican maps loaded as part of North America City Navigator but I was wrong. It only showed major highways but no streets or landmarks so I was dependent on Jeff and Paul for navigation. After filling up for gas in Ensenada, we agreed on taking a quick break for lunch and Jeff suggested heading for the Appleby’s that came up on his GPS on a Point of Interest (POI) search for food. I shared a look with Paul, I think we were thinking something more like a taco stand. However, we agreed to head toward the Appleby’s and maybe we’d find something along the way. We found a cafe and had some inexpensive sandwiches before continuing east on MX3. The landscape here was a mixture of winding roads through hilly terrain or flat stretches with farmlands. It was only 250km between Ensenada and San Felipe but it took us nearly four hours to get there. Slow moving trucks on hilly winding roads slowed us down and the rising temperature gradually made the ride more uncomfortable. I had to really be careful to ensure the creeping drowsiness didn’t cause any accidents. We passed a few police and military checkpoints who were more focused on traffic in the other direction. The temperature rose to the low 30’s as we approached San Felipe and we found an inexpensive hotel with secure parking and air conditioning quickly. We celebrated the end of our first day in Mexico with some delicious tacos washed down by a few bottles of Pacifico cervezas. It started out so well.
Riding across America, my only obstacles were fatigue and, when not riding, constantly itchy and slightly shaky hands due to the handlebar vibrations from long days of riding. The rough road conditions of MX5 south of Puertecitos would present a real challenge. We were packed up and left San Felipe at 9:30 am for the famous Coco’s Corner. Coco is a man in his 70s and a double amputee who sells Coca Cola and Pacifico beer in the middle of nowhere. He is a legend in Baja and most adventure motorcyclists passing through drop by to say hi and sign his guestbook or even stay the night. Even by mid-morning, the 33°C heat meant our shirts were already wet with our own sweat by the time our bikes were packed up and ready to go. I tied down my centre stand to prevent it from getting caught in potholes and springing up to propel me like it did to my friend Tomas when he was doing this stretch of Baja a year ago. Fortunately for us, there were constructions crews paving the highway between San Felipe and the connection with MX1. As a result, we travelled on asphalt for 150 km before seeing the construction crew and hitting dirt, sand and gravel close to Bahia San Luis Gonzaga. Unfortunately for us, due to the planned paving, it seems like there was little maintenance on the remaining dirt road. We should have checked with locals in San Felipe before departing south on MX5 whether the road was good. We realized there might be a problem when we noticed no traffic going the other way and when a pick-up truck pulled up next to me and asked if the road was passable today. When we asked the gas pump attendant at the San Luis Gonzaga PEMEX whether the road was passable ahead they hesitated a bit before saying it is possible on motorcycles. This would be another warning sign. This was my first stretch of offroading on this trip and memories of my crashes on the Trans-Labrador Highway in 2011 made me slow and cautious. The dirt road was challenging with quite a few sandy sections and lots of medium size rocks. It wasn’t easy to find clean tire tracks or smooth gravel to go faster on. The whole group was quite slow but I was falling behind averaging 10 kph. Even Paul, who was very impressively riding two-up with Asli, on the Suzuki V-Strom with street tires was going faster ahead of me. Thankfully, Jeff told Paul to keep me in sight in his mirrors and they stopped a few times to wait for me to catch up. With the intense heat I think we were all happy to take a few breaks for water and snacks.
I pulled up to the group stopped in the middle of the road. Jeff, Paul and Asli were all dismounted and looking ahead. I could see a used tire and some small boulders blocking the road which signifies some type of obstacle ahead. I got off the motorcycle as well and went ahead to see what the others were looking at. When I saw it, I knew it was a showstopper and we would have to turn around. The road was washed out and the broken road dropped 5 metres steeply to the dry riverbed. There seemed to be a steep narrow sandy “path” down with some tire tracks. If we were on lighter enduro dirt bikes we might have considered it but with our heavy bikes and the steepness and looseness of the side path we dismissed it as way too risky. Even if we made it down without major issues, we were unclear if there was a way through the riverbed and up the other end. If we committed to going down, it would be impossible to come back up the steep side path. As a result, we decided to turn back and head for the hotel by the beach which we passed just a short distance back and call it a day rather than head all the way back to San Felipe.
The last stretch of gravel before we made the u-turn wasn’t all that bad since there was a clean track on the right side close to the edge. It didn’t take us too long to get back to the PEMEX where we filled up and turn right for Hotel Alfonsinas. Unfortunately, the 3km stretch from MX5 to the hotel was the toughest due many stretches of deep loose sand. Paul asked Asli to get off his V-Strom a few times so he could navigate through some super loose sections before she got back on. It took me 30 minutes to travel 3km. The heat, near drops on some loose sections, fear of causing more damage to the motorcycle and failure to make Coco’s Corner really dragged me down. As I slowly plowed through the deep sand on the way to the hotel, body drenched in sweat to the point where my helmet inner pads feel wet, I briefly wondered if there would be many tough sections like this on the trip and whether I would be able to make it through all of them.
It’s remarkable what some drinks, food and relaxation can do to one’s mental state. The group went for a swim in the warm waters of the Sea of Cortez after unpacking the bike and we also grabbed a few beers along with dinner. We watched the sun set and the stars come out over the sea as we exchanged stories. By the time I went to bed, I felt much more positive even though we lost 3 days of progress since we would have to go back to San Felipe and Ensenada before going doing MX1 instead of just getting back on the MX1 from MX5 past Coco’s Corner.
The road back to San Felipe wasn’t too bad especially since some rain overnight turned some of the sandy sections into packed dirt making the ride out in the morning much easier. The short offroad section back to paved road went much quicker perhaps due to the lower temperature or being slightly more comfortable with the way the handlebars wander a little on loose gravel. As we approached San Felipe, it started raining really hard. I didn’t have my waterproof liners on and all my vents were open so water seeped in quickly and I was thoroughly drenched. Fortunately, the temperature was warm so I didn’t mind the water too much. We grabbed a pizza for lunch and to hide out from the heavy rain. When it died down we headed to a bank ATM to withdraw some cash and the heavy rains picked up again. There was so much water the streets were getting flooded and rivers were forming, moving rapidly downhill towards the beach. When we went back to the hotel we stayed at two nights ago in San Felipe, the whole parking lot was flooded turning into a brown pool. I spoke with Casey, a 68-year old American who’s been living in Mexico for 25 years, in front of his tattoo and salon shop after changing my headlight bulb. He indicated this was the heaviest rainfall he’s seen in 25 years and we watched some locals take out a canoe and paddle down the flooded street.
We pulled up to San Quintin (pronounced “San Canteen”) looking for a place to stay as the sun was about to set. We stopped to take a look at a hotel just off the main road. Jeff, Paul and Asli went in to check the rooms while I watched the bikes. A group of local cyclists pulled up to our motorcycles admiring them. The lead guy and I started chatting and he asked where we were coming from and where we were going. He then recommended that we go to the Hotel Misión Santa María 20 mins away and off the main highway. When Jeff came out, he indicated the rooms were pretty rough with unclean sheets and the the loud noises from the bar/karaoke could be heard from the room. He also said that it looked like the type of place that could charge by the hour so we should follow the cyclists’ advice and go for the Hotel Misión Santa María. By now it was pitch dark and I was especially cautious. I’d read online and heard enough people advising not to ride at night due to road conditions (hard to see potholes, loose gravel) and security (bandits, animals and livestock). We had no trouble getting to the hotel and we were quite happy with the quality of the rooms (more importantly the AC) and what we paid for it. At dinner, Paul and Asli told us they would split off from us since they intended on doing less distance per day. Riding two-up was not as comfortable for them and they wanted to take it slower and see more towns along the way. They have no set schedule to reach Panama in contrast to Jeff and me so we perfectly understood.
After saying our goodbyes to Paul and Asli, Jeff and I headed off for Guerrero Negro (“Black Warrior” in Spanish) which was 400km south on MX1. Guerrero Negro is known for whale watching (largest concentration of Grey Whales in the world during whale watching season January to April) and large salt works. A U.S. whaling ship named “Black Warrior” grounded near the town in the 1850s and that’s how the town got its name. We passed through the hilly terrain of El Rosario and Cataviña before reaching Guerrero Negro. There were some long stretches without gas stations so we had to fill-up every time we saw a gas station (another rule of riding in Baja). In the Cataviña area, there was millions of boulders and gigantic rock formations making it seem like a giant rock garden.
The cooler microclimate of Guerrero Negro was a nice respite from the Baja heat. However, it didn’t take long for the temperature to rise back up to uncomfortable levels after leaving Guerrero Negro in the morning heading south for Loreto. We reached the eastern coast of Baja California peninsula and saw the Sea of Cortez once again at Santa Rosalia. The Boleo mine which the town was so dependent on had been shutdown for a while before a Canadian company in partnership with a Korean consortium took it over recently to restart development. The town is also famous for the Iglesia Santa Barbara de Santa Rosalía church, supposedly designed by Alexandre Gustave Eiffel who designed and built the Eiffel Tower. The prefabricated iron church was shipped from Europe in sections and then rebuilt in Santa Rosalia in 1897. Jeff and I finally found the church after receiving directions from miners who were quite happy to hear we were Canadian since their mine is currently Canadian operated. We took a look inside and I think we were both underwhelmed by it. After doing some more research online, it seems the church was extensively and crudely modified with stained glass pieces removed which may have contributed to our disappointment. Nevertheless, it was a nice break from speeding through valleys of cacti.
We rode through the oasis town of Mulegé following along the Mulegé River (officially named Río de Santa Rosalía). The river valley was lush green and lined with palm trees. I regretted not stopping to overnight or at least take some pictures but I never found a safe place to stop. Just past Mulegé, we stopped for a cold drink. I rarely drink Coca Cola back home but there’s something very refreshing about drinking a cold bottle of coke while travelling internationally. Maybe it’s because it is actually made with real sugar rather than corn syrup or it’s a nice change from the litres of water we guzzle to stay hydrated.
There were series of beaches and coves not far south of Mulegé along Bahía Concepción. These were the most beautiful sights I had seen in Baja. The water was turquoise blue and there were long stretches of fine white sand. The Mexican Federal Highway MX1 wound along the mountain coast and every time we came around the corner we would see another cove with a stretch of isolated white beach. I saw signs for RV camps, hotels and vacation homes and I’m sure this would’ve been a beautiful spot to spend a few days on the beaches and quiet coves.
The Coyote B&B in Loreto is the best place to stay in town. Mike and Gus, the owners, are extremely friendly and they have great stories. We were welcomed with free beers and soft drinks (included with the per person accommodation fee) and quickly jumped into the pool to cool down. We were also able to borrow two bicycles for free to go into the town centre for dinner. Loreto was founded by the Spanish in 1697 and served as capital of Las Californias until 1777. There’s a church along the small town square (very typical of colonial towns) and local townspeople were gathered in the square to hear choir groups sing and celebrate the Festival of Virgin Mary.
Jeff and I cycled back to the hostel through the dark quiet streets of Loreto. We were told to be careful and since it was dark and there weren’t many people around I just wanted to get back to the hostel quickly. Three streets before the turnoff for the alley that leads to the rear entrance of the hostel, Jeff took a right turn down a dark gravel road. I continued straight and yelled back at him, “Jeff where are you going?!?” He obviously didn’t hear me because he quickly disappeared in the darkness. Dogs were barking nearby. A car with no functioning headlights drove by slowly and I made eye contact with the driver. My senses were heightened and I was on the lookout for danger. I was now at the turnoff for the alley which led to the rear entrance of the hostel but I was trying to decide if I should go looking in the darkness for Jeff or whether I should stay and hope he finds his way back. I decided to wait a couple of minutes and thankfully he showed up cycling from the other side of the alley. I asked, “Where the heck were you going? Why did you turn on that street back there?” He chuckled and replied he thought that was the turn for the hostel. It took him a few minutes to make a few detours to get back on the proper alley and away from chasing dogs.
We said goodbye to Mike and left Loreto after a fantastic breakfast at the Coyote Village B&B. It was 510km to Cabo San Lucas at the southern tip of the Baja peninsula. We made a stop at the Hotel California in Todos Santos, thought to be the inspiration for the song “Hotel California” by The Eagles. Of course, that was an urban myth and the hotel (although quite nicely renovated and managed by a Canadian couple) was a good stop for coffee before we pushed on to Cabo. I would usually stay away from super touristy resort cities known for their nightlife but we decided to hit Cabo to complete the circle and hit the tip of the peninsula. September was low season so we were able to find a nice inexpensive hotel (Hotel Estancia Real) on Booking.com. Hotel Estancia Real was in a good central location, had secure parking and a swimming pool to cool down. Jeff grabbed an early meal at the McDonald’s so I went out later to check out a bit of the town and grab something to eat. It was quiet on the low season Monday night and many restaurants were closed. I checked out the main strip and grabbed some cheap tacos and a beer while taking a look around. There were a few groups of tourists composed of mainly younger couples and a few middle-aged men with their younger affectionate “girlfriends”. There were lots of bars, restaurants, resorts and hotels. It definitely seemed like a great place to party but just not my style.
The Baja Ferry for Mazatlan on the mainland leaves from La Paz only on certain days. We hoped to catch the one on Tuesday afternoon and planned the last few days (including the detour to Cabo) accordingly. Lots of people warned us about corrupt cops in Cabo shaking tourists down for bribes but we had no problems leaving the city. For a change, we took the eastern route on MX1 north up to La Paz rather than MX19 which we took going down the western coast of Baja to Cabo. There were some sections with quite a few animals on the road or just off to the side where I had to be extra vigilant. The winding roads made it harder to spot animals ahead and I remembered to slow down to have a better chance of avoiding animals. I took a moment to remember Clayton (Ozymandias from ADVrider) whose motorcycle trip from Seattle to Argentina in 2006 was cut short by an accident when a donkey in the middle of the road got startled and jumped in front of his path as he was going around. He was knocked unconscious and became paralyzed from the mid-chest down. Sadly he took his own life in 2007. His ride report Seattle to Argentina on a KLR650 remains active as a living memorial to him and as reminder to us of the fragility of life.
We safely arrived at the Pichilingue ferry terminal (just north of La Paz, BCS) around 1 pm. We hit a bit of traffic on the outskirts of La Paz and there’s nothing more miserable than sitting at a red light wearing full motorcycle gear at 41°C. It took a little bit of time for us to purchase our tickets ($150 for bike and rider) at the ticket office due to our poor Spanish skills but we got it sorted. We then had to clear customs and go through physical inspection of our vehicles before getting it weighed and paying another fee. At the front of the line with all the cars going on the ferry, it would be another hour of waiting in the sun before we were allowed to board and strap down our motorcycles. I grabbed a few items before heading up to the air conditioned lounge where I would overnight.
Baja was fantastic. The people and the atmosphere are so laid-back that you can’t help but relax and take it easy. You can never get enough of fresh Baja tacos and cheap beers. Other than the rough day on MX5 towards Coco’s Corner we did not do a lot of offroading which is the reason many adventure motorcyclists go to Baja. I hope to be back again one day with a lighter motorcycle and a lot more experience riding dirt. That would make it easier for me to enjoy the challenging terrain and discover more of Baja.