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Common Tread

Adventures in Baja, part 1: Dirt roads, fish tacos, ocean views and absent bandidos

Mar 28, 2017

“Send lawyers, guns, and money. Dad, get me out of this!”

During the weeks preceding my trip to Mexico, I kept sending my dad links to Warren Zevon’s “Lawyers, Guns, and Money.” I joked with him that, much like the character in the song, I was expecting him to bail me out of trouble if things went awry.

MotoQuest BMW R 1200 GSes in Baja
I would learn that the key to staying out of trouble in Mexico was to just blend in with the locals. Photo by Abhi Eswarappa.

While I spent a lot of time making jokes, the reality of planning this trip meant dealing with folks continually telling us how dangerous Mexico is. They would back their claims with reports stating crime is on the rise and there was a 22 percent spike in murders across Mexico in 2016.

Undeterred, Abhi and I continued with our plan, determined to see for ourselves what it was like south of the border. 

The plan

This story got its start back in November when Abhi from Bike-urious and I were preparing for the L.A.-to-Barstow-to-Vegas trip (we made a video). We were hanging around the Progressive Motorcycle Show in Long Beach, California, with the Ural reps when we bumped into Brenden Anders.

Brenden works at a company called MotoQuest. Known for their guided tours, as well as bike rental options, they help riders plan and execute adventures of all shapes, sizes, and abilities. Abhi introduced us as we discussed our plans for riding a Ural across the desert. Nearly a month would pass before I would hear from Brenden again.

MotoQuest BMW R 1200 GSes in Baja
Our mission was to get these two bikes from Los Angeles to San José del Cabo in seven days. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

Shortly before Christmas, I received an email regarding an idea he wanted to run by us. MotoQuest had just started operating tours spanning the entire Baja peninsula and needed to get a pair of BMW R 1200 GSes down to San José del Cabo for two of their customers to ride north to Los Angeles. He asked if Abhi and I would be interested in making the trek.

Essentially, MotoQuest would supply the bikes in L.A. and we would be responsible for all costs associated with getting them down Baja including fuel, food, lodging, and the return flight back up to Los Angeles (or in my case Philadelphia). We would have seven days to complete the trip. I booked my flight the next day and immediately began compiling songs about bandidos and outlaws for the trip's playlist.

Heading south of the border

As an L.A. resident, Abhi had prior experience riding in Baja and even spoke a bit of Spanish. As I had never set foot in Mexico, and my Spanish was limited to what I recently picked up at the Triumph launch in Spain (mainly how to order cerveza), he was the better traveling companion. 

With our saddlebags packed full of clean underpants and camera equipment, we left Abhi’s apartment shortly after sunrise on a Saturday. We had barely merged onto the 405 when the clutch on my Beemer started slipping pretty heavily under acceleration. Not wanting to spend the entire trip babying the throttle, we limped our way back to MotoQuest’s headquarters in Long Beach to discuss our options. We hadn’t even made it out of Los Angeles County.

Within the hour, they had me on a new bike and we were once again pointed toward the border. I mused about how much easier it is to "repair" a bike you don’t own. When the clutch on my Tiger gave out during the Pine Barrens 500 Rally a few months ago, it cost me an entire day of riding. 

BMW R 1200 GS in Baja Tecate Border
Optimism at its best. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

With Eddie Money’s “Gimme Some Water” cued up, we blasted across the Mexican border at Tecate shortly after 1 p.m. Our plan was to head east for a few miles and pick up the Compadres Trail where it begins in a town called El Hongo (fair warning: I couldn't find this town on Google Maps; rather, we relied on my National Geographic map, which I procured shortly before heading out). If all went right, we would make it back to pavement before dark.

It didn’t.

Our plan was deterred immediately after entering Tecate, as the visa office was closed and we were unable to obtain visas. This poised a problem, as we were warned that Mexican officials were cracking down on undocumented Americans traveling throughout the country (insert ironic joke here). From what we could glean, the punishment varied, depending on the arresting officer, but ranged from a fine to jail time.

Deciding not to risk a night in la prisión, we abandoned our original dirt route and hustled down Highway 3 toward Ensenada. Ensenada is the last major “border” city where we you can procure a visa before disappearing into the dusty heart of Baja.

BMW R 1200 GSes in Baja visas in Ensenada
We finally secured our visas at the Centro Integral de Servicos located near the port in Ensenada. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

We rolled into town shortly before 5 p.m. and found the Centro Integral de Servicos located near the port in Ensenada. The doors were locked so we knocked loudly for what felt like an eternity before retreating to the bikes. With a hint of desperation in the air, I unfolded the map and we searched in vain for an alternative option.

As we were weighing the risks of attempting the trip without visas, a woman popped her head around the corner and asked if we needed help. As it turned out she was alone in the building and had locked the door while she was in the back.

With our visas secured, we spent our first night in Mexico celebrating with tacos de camarones and mucho Pacifico.

In search of dirt and Mike’s Sky Ranch

Our goal was to tackle as much dirt as possible on this trip. As we didn’t have a set route for each day, that meant spending our evenings drinking cerveza and poring over maps in search of the next day’s route.

BMW R 1200 GS in Baja Spurgeon Dunbar and Abhi Eswarappa
Following dirt trails in Mexico is less about using a map and more about looking for landmarks and heading in that direction. Here we saw a tractor-trailer in the distance and knew we were headed toward the highway. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

Sunday marked our first full day in Mexico. South of Ensenada, we found a tiny dirt trail, just below the village of San Vicente, that would eventually dump us out in the town of Lázaro Cárdenas on Highway 3. Rumor has it this stretch of road is occasionally used in sections of the Baja 500 and 1000.

Mike's Sky Ranch in Baja Spurgeon Dunbar and Abhi Eswarappa
The road to "Rancho Mike". Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

From Lázaro Cárdenas, it was a short ride on Highway 3 before we stumbled upon a tired looking sign for Mike’s Sky Rancho. The 31-kilometer stretch of road acting as  Mike’s driveway was some of the best off-road riding we encountered the entire trip. Sand washes and high-speed stretches of desert gave way to technical, steep, rocky inclines. All of which culminated in a water crossing and a gentle hill climb before reaching Mike’s.

Spurgeon Dunbar Water Crossing for Mike's Sky Ranch in Baja
What would an adventure article be without at least one good water crossing photo? Riding through the river just before reaching the ranch. Photo by Abhi Eswarappa.

The only way to properly describe the “Rancho” is as a dual-sport rider’s paradise. It’s essentially a motel in the middle of nowhere, accessible only by dirt trails. KTMs lined the pool while dusty riders grilled burgers and laughed over cold beers. We pounded waters and talked with other riders before heading back in the direction we came. Supposedly there is a trail connecting Mike’s to Highway 1, but it was more than we wanted to tackle with our fully loaded GSes, which were wearing street-oriented dancing shoes.

With Billy Gibbons in my helmet, growling his way through "El Diablo," we headed back to the highway. It became clear that the racks securing the hard bags to the BMWs were not up to the off-road riding we intended to tackle. As we weren’t about to change our riding style, we came up with an alternative solution. We rolled into San Felipe for the night with our luggage secured to the bikes with a colorful assortment of zip ties, or as we quickly learned to ask for in Spanish, “cinchos de plástico.”

Abhi Eswarappa Zip Ties in Baja
The SW-Motech racks on the bikes weren't designed for the abuse we had in mind. That's why zip ties were created. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

The road to Bahia de los Angeles

What passes for a highway in Baja would terrify most American travellers. Leaving San Felipe, Highway 5 slowly deteriorates as it unravels along the coast of the Gulf of California.

BMW R 1200 GS in Baja Spurgeon Dunbar
While we expected to find good off-road riding, it was the great sport-touring roads that surprised us the most. Photo by Abhi Eswarappa.

Here is where the large adventure bikes came into their own, fearlessly soaking up the bumps and bruises of the shattered asphalt at highway speeds. You don’t need to have grand off-road ambitions to appreciate longer travel suspension on a trip like this. These big bikes are just as comfortable carving corners and cruising the blacktop at 85 mph as they are ripping down a dirt road.

Alfonsinas in Baja Mexico
Our table at Alfonsinas. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

Abhi told me it was rumored that Alfonsinas in Bahía San Luís Gonzaga had the best fish tacos in all of Baja. The road into town ran alongside an old airstrip. Constructed with a combination of sand, stone, and dust, both the road and airstrip terminated at the water's edge. We ate lunch on the beach, and while I cannot say they were the best fish tacos of the trip, the view didn’t hurt their odds.

Coco's Corner in Baja Abhi Eswarappa
Coco's Corner. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

Much like a Shel Silverstein poem, the blacktop ends 40 kilometers south of Alfonsinas, shortly before reaching Coco’s Corner. I could write an entire article on Coco’s Corner and still not do it justice. I’ve been there, I’ve seen it, and I can’t explain it. Christophe Noel comes close in his post, but honestly, this is one of those places you have to see for yourself.

BMW R 1200 GS in Baja Abhi Eswarappa
This is the last stretch of Highway 5 between Coco's Corner and Highway 1. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

From there the “road” consists of rock and sand and it stays that way until Highway 1. As an American, it’s odd to see an 18-wheeler rolling over rocks and ruts at 10 mph while adventure bikes and dual-sports go bounding by, trying to keep up with UTVs and ATVs. There have been rumors that the Mexican government is going to get around to paving this final remote section of highway sooner than later. All in the name of "progress," I suppose. 

By the time we made it back to the pavement of Highway 1, which snaked its way through the mountains and down to the sleepy fishing village of Bahia de los Angeles, my views of Mexico had changed considerably. There was a certain peace that set in the deeper we traveled down the peninsula.

Spurgeon Dunbar and Abhi Eswarappa in Bahia de los Angeles
Snapping a photo upon a cliff overlooking Bahía de los Ángeles before making our descent into town. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

We got a room at Costa del Sol, wedged between the Sierra La Libertad mountains and the water. The hotel was small, simple, and clean. There was a restaurant and a bar, but if you wanted WiFi you had to walk down the block to the grocery store, where you could buy 30 minutes for 10 pesos (about 50 cents). The same woman who sold us a room served us behind the bar, waited on us at dinner, and prepared the food in the kitchen. We spent the night sharing travel logs with other guests over plates of seafood and countless rounds of beer. It was such a juxtaposition to life in America it's easy to romanticize. That, and I swear the beer tastes better in Mexico.

In spite of the fact that we heard constant warnings about the dangers, even from folks along the way, the people we met were friendly and helpful. Even the policía were great helping us with directions when we got turned around. The trip, which had started with a bandido theme for me, was taking on a whole new reality.

I began to realize that I was going need to revise my playlist before crossing the border into Baja Sur for the second half of our adventure.