Originally written in February, 2003
In October of 2000, I went to Del Mar to photograph some motorcycle races. In March of 2001, Randall and I took a week off and spent it riding around San Diego County. In April of 2002 I went to Baja for the first time with Tom Grenon from Victoria, BC. All these vacations had two things in common; I stayed with my friends Mark and Ellen in Escondido, and my wife Debb stayed home. I’m no weatherman, but it was becoming obvious that if Debb were not a part of my next winter vacation, the forecast would be for massive cold fronts in Puget Sound this winter with increasing frost at night. So in February of 2003, Debb and I headed south for the warm sun and dry roads of Baja California.
We suited up and headed south and east to the border crossing at Tecate. There are basically four places to cross into Baja, Tijuana, Otay Lakes, Tecate and Mexicali. Of these, I prefer Tecate, mostly because it’s such an enjoyable ride to get there. Unlike Tijuana, there aren’t long lines of vendors to harass you or long lines of cars to wait behind. You just drive across the border and there you are in the middle of Tecate.
The highway is well marked for Ensenada, so one left turn and one right turn and you are on your way. There was some construction just under an overpass that was barely marked, but I spotted it at the last second and we got our first taste of off-roading as we bounced across 200 yards of ruts and gravel. Off we go.
Highway 3 from Tecate to Ensenada probably won’t make the 10 Best list for scenic roads in Baja, but it does have its appeal. It winds around and up and down through enough changing scenery that it is an enjoyable ride. There isn’t much traffic, so the newcomer can get acquainted with how roads are done in Baja, spend some time guessing what the strange roadside signs mean, and learn to spot “topas” and “vados” in time to adjust their speed.
Our destination was San Quintin, pronounced ‘san ka-teen’. I knew where I had stayed there the year before, and since it was getting later than I had planned, I wanted to go to a place I knew. When you live as close to the North Pole as I do, you forget how fast the sun sets in southern latitudes. We rolled in just after dark and I found the place without incident. For the life of me, I can’t remember the name of the motel.
It was our first night in Mexico, so why not splurge? I paid the extra 20 pesos and got the room with a TV. Nothing’s too good for Debb, after all. 20 pesos misspent, as it turned out, as there was only one snowy channel available anyway. That was all the splurging I got to do that night. San Quintin is amazingly inexpensive. After we unloaded our gear and oiled the chains and washed our faces, we headed out into the evening. Remembering from my previous trip, I knew just where I wanted to eat and where we could get a cold beer. I walked into the Tecate store and grabbed a cold one. “Quattro”, the lady behind the counter said. That’s about 37 cents at current exchange rates. Is this a great country, or what?
Dinner was equally thrifty. We had half a dozen pork and beef tacos and a delicious cold drink that reminded me of Thai ice tea. It was quite sweet, but with some other flavor in it I didn’t recognize. We sat there enjoying the simple commerce of a sidewalk food vendor in a busy farming town. A man and his teenage son (they eat as much there as here), a lady and her young infant and a family group of about 6 or 7 all came and went while we ate. It was a treat to eavesdrop and yet seem to be invisible. We weren’t snubbed or anything, just part of the busy sidewalk evening. I don’t think we spent $5 for all of dinner and we were stuffed.
When you are in San Quintin in the morning, headed south and looking for breakfast, all roads lead to El Rosario and Mama Espinoza’s for breakfast. The food is excellent if maybe a bit expensive, but Mama understands her business very well. Nowhere in Baja will you find better looking waitresses. In fact, in most of Baja you won’t find waitresses at all, as waiting tables is apparently a man’s job. But you will find them here and it’s a treat. Inside, the walls are covered with signed posters and photos of Baja 1000 racers and just like anywhere racers eat and drink, a bright smile and well filled Levi’s will keep the cash register humming. Yes, breakfast was excellent and Debb says we can visit again.
Maybe no Pemex station in Baja has more of a reputation than the one in El Rosario. There are lots of stories on various Baja web sites chronicling all the ways the unwary tourists have been separated from their pesos at this place. Of all the Pemex stations we stopped at, it is certainly the most unusual to use. Most Pemex stations have one or two attendants stationed right at each pump. There is generally no such thing as Self-Serve in Baja, but for motorcyclists they usually just hand you the nozzle, and then take your money and make change right on the spot. By the way, Pemex is strictly a cash business, no credit cards accepted. We found they take dollars as well as pesos, and the exchange rate was clearly posted and always pretty close to the bank rate.
Things are a little different at the station in El Rosario. Here you have to pay first, and this is a rather unsettling process your first time. You walk over to a window, which is completely covered in iron bars, except for a small six-inch square down at waist level. You lean down to look inside, wanting to reassure yourself this isn’t some big joke on the silly tourist and you’re about to shove your hand into a big cactus or a box of live snakes, much to the delight of some unseen audience. What do you see? Nothing. You are standing in bright sunshine and its dark inside, so you can make out just the barest glimpse of a person, his head level with the window. You hand him a large peso note and say “Dos” for the pump number. The bill disappears and you hope you haven’t given 200 pesos to a complete stranger and that the gas pump will actually start.
After you fill up, you return to the dark window and say “Dos” again, and to your great relief a hand appears with your change. Its all very above board and perfectly honest, but somehow unsettling to those of us used to well-lit stations and pay-at-the-pump transactions.
At El Rosario the highway turns sharply inland and gets much more fun. The road is in good condition, traffic thins considerably, and you are climbing into the mountains that anchor the center of the Baja Peninsula. By now you have gotten used to the fact that Baja roads are a bit different than roads back home. The first thing you noticed, of course, is there are no shoulders. When they built the road, they built just a road. There are no shoulders, no turnouts, no rest areas, and rarely a passing lane. But the road they did build is a nice one, with much of it in good condition and well marked. Occasionally, you come upon a stretch that you hope is nearing the top of their to-do list, but they are rare.
Without a GPS, you might not even realize how high the road climbs, but you are climbing and the GPS reading topped out around 3000 feet or so. We are almost as high as Snoqualmie Pass, and not a tree in sight. We’re not in Washington State anymore! And then you come upon a sight that really tells you you aren’t in Washington.
There have been cactus scattered here and there along the highway, but suddenly, as far as you can see, the landscape is covered in cactus and rocks. There is a bewildering variety of cactus and huge rock formations that go on to the horizon. It is the first really different kind of scenery you encounter going down Highway 1 and it is quite a sight.
There are numerous opportunities for the adventure-bike rider to get off the road and ride right out into it, so we did. In fact, I think I pulled off at the same place as on my last trip. This was a good spot for sightseeing. There was a huge variety of cactus and interesting rock formations all in an easy ride from the highway. I could spend a week in this area taking pictures and looking at all the strange and wonderful shapes the cactus make. It’s very cool.
The weather was turning a bit cool too, so we continued south with no particular destination in mind other than a nice motel, a cold beer and a hot taco. It is a long stretch between Catavina and Guerrero Negro with only one or two places for gas. This is about the only place on Highway 1 that a 200-mile range comes in handy. We continued south and back down toward sea level, enjoying whatever views came our way.
Somewhere south of Catavina is a natural formation of rocks that is quite striking. It looks as if some monstrous dump truck backed up and dropped several loads of huge boulders out in the desert. Everything about it looks perfectly ordinary except for the scale of this giant pile of rocks. Just a wild guess, but I bet it covers several hundreds of acres. The road never presents a really good opportunity for a photo, so I am determined to go back and take the time to find a good spot and photograph this big pile of rocks. I was thinking as we rode along that the landscape here is full of rocks of all shapes and sizes and maybe whomever had built this landscape had some rocks left over and just left them there, rather than go to the trouble of re-stocking.
Just north of Guerrero Negro you cross the border between Baja California and Baja California Sur. You can see it from miles away, because sitting right on the border is a big military base with a huge flag flying high above a striking looking monument. I’m not sure what the monument is supposed to symbolize, but it looks sort of like a huge tuning fork. I have no idea.
We got a room at the Motel San Ignacio and took care of bike maintenance and then headed for my favorite taco stand. Leonully’s is on your right as you go west into town. Exactly the same people were working there as a year ago, and the food was exactly what I remembered, which is very good. They even have hamburgers and larger meals in addition to tacos in every variety. The Tacos Pescados were even better than I remembered. On our way back to the motel, we bought several bottles of water in anticipation of our first day off the pavement.
I should take a moment here to give you a little background on my wife’s off road riding experience. It won’t take long, so bear with me. None. That’s right, with the exception of a chance couple of miles of gravel here and there, nothing. She’s ridden for several years on a street bike, but she has no experience off the pavement. Which is why we ride KLR’s. If there is a more perfect bike for gravel roads, especially for a newcomer, I can’t think of it. Debb is quite tall, so the seat height of the KLR isn’t an issue.
In anticipation of this first real stretch of gravel, I had tried to think of the most important things I could tell her to give her confidence and make this part of the trip fun. I was looking forward to more Baja back roads and I wanted this to be a success for both of us. So I told her she was on the perfect bike for this road, and that in almost every situation that seemed difficult or tricky the best response was more throttle. And, of course, if the absolute worst happened, I was there and we were only a couple of hours from a phone. If she was nervous, she wasn’t showing it.
The road to Bahia Tortugas is not a difficult one, but it does offer the beginner the challenge of being a couple of hours long. There really isn’t much between the end of the pavement and the town at the end of the road, so I felt this would be some motivation to keep going even if she was having a harder time than we’d hoped. We had tools, water, food, maps, a GPS and all day, so I was confident.
After a leisurely breakfast with a group of dirt bikers from Tacoma, we set off for the day’s adventure. It was a perfect riding day, warm in the sun when you stopped, pleasantly cool when you were moving. We stopped for a break at Viscaino and spoke with some kids we had seen the day before. This happens a lot in Baja. There is really only one way up and down the peninsula.
From Viscaino it’s about 120 miles out to Bahia Tortugas, half of it paved. There is quite a lot of agriculture in this area and so a fair bit of traffic until we got west a ways. This road passes just on the south of the huge salt flats west of Guerrero Negro and you ride right by hundreds of acres of flat white salt. In other areas, the desert was in full bloom and we stopped a couple of times for photos and water. The Viscaino desert is one of those places where you can see for miles from just the most modest of hilltops. It is a classic desert landscape.
At the start of the gravel, I dropped the tire pressure, oiled the chain, and then double-checked anything I could think of. We had some water and off we went.
I needn’t have worried. This road was the perfect initiation to gravel. It started out easy and straight, just the ticket for building some confidence. After an hour or so, there are some slower sections in the hills, and then a long section of ‘moon dust’ that I’m sure made her nervous as the bike wiggled around under her. It was downhill in that stuff, so I don’t care for that too much myself. After that, more easy sections and then as we got nearer the coast, the scenery started to get more rugged and interesting. Bahia Tortugas is not a large town, so one minute you’re out in the hills and the next you’re in town. We did that stretch in about two hours and I don’t know which of us was most happy for her accomplishment. I could tell she was pleased with herself and I was happy it had gone well.
So, as has become our routine, we found a room at the Motel Nancy, lubed the bike chains, and then spent the rest of the afternoon playing tourist. Perfect weather, perfect gravel roads and dramatic scenery were all conspiring to make this yet another wonderful day of vacation. This is an area worthy of more exploration.
The ride back out of Bahia Tortugas was uneventful. In fact, a measure of how well Debb was doing is that we covered the 60 miles in one hour and 20 minutes, including a couple of breaks. The section of ‘moon dust’ was much easier uphill, and once back into the straight stretches we zipped along briskly, enjoying the broad views of the desert. When we stopped at the pavement to pump up the tires and lube the chains, Debb said, “This sure isn’t like riding on the Goldwing, is it?” I smiled and thought to myself, “She’s getting it!”
One thought I was struck by as we headed east to join back with Highway 1 is that long stretches of pavement are kind of boring after a couple hours on a nice gravel road. Debb noticed that, too. On pavement, you just move along. On gravel, you ride.
Our destination this day was San Ignacio. On our trip last year, Tom and I discovered the San Ignacio Bed And Breakfast. A Canadian couple, Gary and Terry recently purchased this spot and have built a wonderful oasis for their guests. You stay in beautifully furnished yurts surrounded by palm trees next to the lagoon. The bath and shower facilities are excellent with gorgeous murals drawn by a local artist. You will hardly need any lunch after Gary finishes fixing you a huge Canadian style breakfast in the morning.
When we rolled in last year, I happened to be wearing my Toronto Maple Leafs t-shirt. Gary is a serious fan of hockey so we spent the afternoon talking hockey and drinking beer. With no local phone, no TV and certainly no internet, I told Gary I would tape some games for him so he could keep a bit more current. In fact, I taped all the Stanley Cup playoff games and sent them to him.
We stopped first at Rice and Beans just off the highway near San Ignacio for a quick lunch and some quality time on the best flower covered porch in all of Baja. This is a popular spot for adventure riders from all over, and recently a stopping point for the Baja 1000 race. I doubt you could stay there two days and not see a group of off-road dirt bikers come by. The margaritas are pretty good, too.
We hadn’t told them we were coming, so we had quite a reception when we arrived at the Bed and Breakfast! Fortunately, they had a yurt available so we unpacked and spent the afternoon catching up. They invited us for dinner along with another couple staying there who were most entertaining. He was a hunting guide in a remote Alaskan village, his wife a teacher, both excellent storytellers! Several cigars and a great deal of beer were consumed in a most enjoyable evening with old and new friends.
Being centrally located to so many attractions, San Ignacio would be a great place to spend a few days exploring. There are lots of interesting dirt roads in the area and even whale watching is only an hour away. But Debb and I wanted to get all the way down south, so the next morning after breakfast, we headed out once more. Another perfect riding day took us east past The Three Virgins, a set of three volcanic peaks running north from the highway, and then down Cuesta del Infiernillo (Descent of the Little Hell) to Santa Rosalia and our first look at the Gulf of California.
The Descent of the Little Hell is well named. It is quite narrow and steep. The curves are not only marked with signs but with big white stripes painted across your lane that get closer together as you near the curve. We didn’t really need more incentive to go slow. There was plenty of sand and spilled fluid on the road already, in addition to the acres of paint before every curve. Whee!
We stopped briefly in Santa Rosalia. I needed to use the ATM machine, and I wanted to show Debb the buildings on the hill overlooking the town that were built by the French. They ran a copper mining operation here for some years and there are plenty of buildings and machinery left over from those days. In fact, as you come into town from the north, you pass a big installation of the oversized machinery typical of mining operations. Several folks mentioned that some small part of the mine is now back in operation. Alas, the ferry to the mainland that ran from here has been closed for several years.
We continued south and began to see the little beach colonies that spring up on the coast wherever the beach is accessible to traffic. Sometimes there are long rows of RVs and sometimes a collection of brick houses, but usually a mix of everything, including tents. They tend to be more picturesque from farther away than when you are closer.
We stopped in Mulege (moo-le-hay) and found a room at Hotel Las Casitas. Simple and inexpensive, but situated on a pretty courtyard with bougainvillea and caged birds all around. We shared the place with three other bikers from the Bay Area we had met in Guerrero Negro. Baja travel is always like that.
We spent a lazy afternoon walking around the small downtown district and of course, ran into two more people we had met previously in San Ignacio. There is only one highway.
We were walking along and came upon a couple from the States who had managed to lock their only set of keys inside their pickup. The camper on the back was locked up too, so they didn’t have much in the way of car-stealing tools. We were only a block from our room, so I went back and got some tools, a coat hanger and a couple of towels. It seems about every other vacation I end up helping someone get into his car (at least I always hope it’s their car), and I am always amazed at how little the average Joe knows about getting into a car. With a well-formed coat hanger, a large flat screwdriver and a towel we had it open in about 5 minutes. I’m not sure what we would have said if a policeman had wandered down that street just then. Hope to Hell the guy really owned this camper, I guess. Our good deed done for this trip, we settled in around the corner for espresso and a pastry feeling very proud of ourselves. I think junior colleges should offer classes in this area.
How romantic is it to be on vacation in Baja on a warm winter evening? While waiting for our desert, in full view of a room full of strangers, I got up and danced with my wife. Maybe it was the perfect weather, and the perfect scenery, and my favorite riding partner, but whatever it was, I’m sure we need to go back and investigate it some more. Life is good.
There is a great little open-air place in Loreto for breakfast called Café Ole. Fresh squeezed orange juice; good breakfasts and you can eat inside or out. You place your order, pay, and wait for your number to be called. Its not instant service, but who’s in a hurry?
Loreto is a neat little town, but we were headed south. Not without a tiny bit of apprehension on my part because Loreto was as far south as I had been. South of Loreto along the coast may be one of the more scenic highways to ride along I know of, certainly as good as it gets in Baja. On your left is the very blue Gulf of California and on your right is the rugged Sierra de la Gigante mountain range. When you finally do leave the coastline, you head up and over the mountains on a road that must have been built with motorcyclists in mind. The road is good and the scenery is breathtaking as you climb up and away from the sea, twisting tightly back and forth past the rock outcroppings.
Once over the top, the road settles into more gentle sweepers as you drop slowly down to the central plain. There was even less traffic along this stretch, so we enjoyed the unfolding scenery all to ourselves as wound our way through the hills.
There is always the unexpected waiting for you in Baja, and this was true even out here in the middle of nowhere. We came up over a rise to the sight of black smoke streaming up in the distance. Quite a lot of smoke, actually and as we neared, the smoke blew across the roadway momentarily and we had to slow even more. There along the road was a small car fully engulfed in flame. No one around and no other car, just some old beater blazing away, generating clouds of black smoke. We rode through the smoke and continued on our way. We passed no emergency vehicles for the next two hours into town.
We stopped briefly near Cuidad Insurgentes for a break and then turned south toward Cuidad Constitucion, our destination for the evening. Cuidad Constitucion has an unusual main street. The main highway through town is divided into two lanes in each direction. There is a dividing island between the lanes going in the same direction, but not between the center lanes. The center lanes are quite a bit higher than the outside lanes and this makes the intersections a challenging traffic jumble. To add to the fun, there are traffic lights everywhere, but none of them are working. Keep alert riding through here!
We stayed at the Hotel Conchita right on the main street. It is a big block building and the name is painted on the side so it’s easy to spot. There are two narrow steps up from the sidewalk to the lobby. When we asked about securing our bikes, the attendant brought out a welded steel ramp that was made to fit the steps, so we parked right inside in the lobby.
Well, I must be honest here and say that the road between Cuidad Constitucion and La Paz is not all that exciting. It runs chalk line straight for a ways, then turns eastward and is straight some more. Finally it runs over some low hills and gets a few curves, but they never really build into anything and then finally you are near La Paz.
We knew La Paz was not like Cabo San Lucas and we had decided to stay there and spend some time in a real city, rather than a giant tourist resort. One of the guests staying with us in San Ignacio told us La Perla was the best choice for a hotel on the water, so we followed the highway signs to the waterfront and I checked us in for a couple of days. They had us park our bikes underneath the hotel way in the back of an already walled and locked parking lot, so we certainly felt secure leaving them for several days.
So we played tourist for two days, walking around all over the old downtown area, eating in nice restaurants, checking out some museums and taking pictures. La Paz is a popular vacation spot for Mexicans from the mainland. There is a ferry here and so lots of vehicles with strange license plates from all over the country.
Since 9/11, tourism is down in Baja. We saw signs of that all up and down the peninsula. Often we would find ourselves the only customer in a café or all alone in some shop. The coffee shop owner in Mulege told us he had returned to Colorado to work for almost a year to make some money. If you don’t like crowds, this is the time to go.
One of the best parts of Highway 1 is between El Triunfo and the coast at Los Barriles. This is a good motorcycle route across the mountains and down to the sea. One of the reasons it’s so nice is that the long straight stretches surrounding La Paz are pretty boring, but this road is definitely not boring and we enjoyed the ever-changing view as we rode southward. Near the coast you work your way down the hillside next to an enormous wash. It is much bigger than anything we had encountered before. At the bottom you cross it and it is easily a half-mile to the other side. I suppose there is water in there during some rain seasons and it must be a sight to see. All along the southern cape there were large washes, most with bridges over them. Bridges over washes are not a common site in Baja, usually the road just goes down into them.
Turning south toward San Jose Del Cabo and away from the coast again, the traffic begins to build as you get nearer the tourist areas. At Santa Anita the road becomes four-lane and stays that way all the way to Cabo San Lucas. Traffic moves along quite briskly, especially the vans for hire. It was a dramatic change from our more leisurely pace in the mountains and a bit unsettling at first. This is an entirely different Baja than we had been seeing. One resort after another, with beautiful landscaping and big green lawns, stretch all along The Corridor, the area between Cabo and San Jose Del Cabo. There seemed to be a Dunkin Donut and a Subway attached to every Pemex station.
In Cabo San Lucas we stopped for postcards and lunch. After selecting a hand full of cards in a sidewalk stall, we filled them out during lunch at the famous Giggling Marlin restaurant. Like most places that exist solely for the tourists, the food was okay, the signs clever but the service was glacial. The best part was the rooster wandering from table to table munching on tortilla chips. Every now and then he was moved to hop up on an empty table and crow his heart out. He did that right after a group of ladies sat down and they jumped a foot when he let loose.
Postcards posted, we headed north toward Todos Santos. It took me a couple of tries to actually find my way out of Cabo, but eventually we found the highway and tucked in between the trucks. The road soon goes along the coast again, but there really aren’t a lot of enticing views of the sea along this stretch like you might expect.
Situated near the Tropic of Cancer, Todos Santos is noted for its unusually warm climate during the winter months. This was certainly the case when we arrived. We took a long break at the Pemex station to cool off before we went looking for a room. We checked in to the Hotel Guluarte and parked next to a couple of Harleys on the patio by the empty and unkempt pool.
Todos Santos is full of galleries and artist studios. Unfortunately for us, they were all closed by the time we were walking around. But the main attraction for us was the Hotel California, made famous by The Eagles. There is some dispute as to whether this is the place they were singing about or rather a hotel located somewhere in Southern California. In any event, this Hotel California is undergoing a serious renovation. The main desk, the bar and the dining areas, both inside and out are finished and they are breathtaking. In the central courtyard, where I suspect there was a pool at one time, there is a raised platform much like a stage, with columns on the corners and large white curtains hung and tied back, all this surrounding a dining area. On the roof overlooking all this is a metal sculpture representing the Eagles band members, complete with instruments. When the rooms are finished, this will be the place to stay in this town.
We had a beer across the street at the Tequila Sunrise, and when you have one there, be sure and look for our names on the wall. It is a tradition that when you pay your bill they hand you a couple of Magic Markers to sign the building. There are thousands of signatures.
To be continued…