“Way down here you need a reason to move, feel a fool running your stateside games, lose your load, leave your mind behind…”
Seven days in Baja and I finally understand James Taylor’s music.
Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitude
When Abhi and I started this journey, muling MotoQuest's Beemers down the Baja peninsula, I wasn’t sure what to expect. In the United States, it seems the only time Mexico garners headlines (other than the recent debates surrounding border fortification) is when reporters want to discuss the escalating murder rate, drug wars, and kidnapped tourists.
While I understand that it's important to be cautious when traveling in unfamiliar territory, especially abroad, we were quickly learning that the reality of life in Mexico was quite different from the kind of unpleasant events that usually make the news. By the time we reached the 28th parallel dividing Baja California and Baja California Sur, my attitude, as well as my playlist, had changed drastically.
Up at dawn on the fourth day of our trip, we left the small fishing village of Bahia de los Angeles behind. By the time we reached the border crossing, shortly before 11 a.m., I was singing along to a song called “Mexico” by The Refreshments and the chorus seemed comically appropriate:
“The good guys and the bad guys, well they never work past noon around here, they sit side by side in the cantinas, talk to señoritas, and drink warm beer.”
The border guard was too busy flirting with a young woman wearing a tank top that left little to the imagination to even notice us as we slipped into Baja California Sur. It was almost anticlimatic, considering all of the trouble we went through to secure our visas.
Canadian expatriates in San Ignacio
After a quick breakfast of deviled crab meat omelets in Guerrero Negro, we made our way from the Pacific Ocean back across the peninsula toward the Gulf of California. Crisscrossing the peninsula had become a regular routine for us as we attempted to see as much of the country as possible with our truncated timeline.
Traveling from the west coast, the village of San Ignacio appears out of nowhere on Mexican Highway 1. One minute you’re rolling across the desert counting cactus for fun and the next a military officer at a checkpoint is giving you directions to a shady grove of ancient palm trees.
On the map, this looks like just another unassuming, sleepy desert town. The reality has more in common with a tropical rainforest. The dark shade of leafy palms enveloped us as we rode deeper into town, pulling up at the Ignacio Springs Bed and Breakfast.
Owned by Terry and Gary Marcer, an expatriate Canadian couple, the bed and breakfast consists of a series of Mongolian-style yurts nestled amongst 300-year-old palm trees. There is an outdoor kitchen and refrigerators stocked with bottles of beer, water, and soda. Grabbing a few bottles from the fridge, Abhi put our names on the “beverage trust board." We’d settle up with the Marcers before we left.
I could feel time begin to slow down as we sat, chatting with other guests, watching the blue-green water roll by. I made a mental checkmark in my head, vowing to return when I had enough time to properly get lost in frozen rum drinks and cold beer. I always assumed an oasis was just something made up in Hollywood to sell tickets and dreams. I was wrong.
The ghosts of Mulegé
The land mass of Baja California Sur shifts east into Mountain Time, which means sunset along the eastern coast of the peninsula occurs around 6 p.m. in February. Reaching Santa Rosalía around 5 p.m., we discussed stopping for the night, knowing we had about an hour before we would find ourselves riding in the dark.
Santa Rosalía had a very industrial way about it and we didn’t get a good feeling. Weighing our options, we decided to continue on our way to the next dot on our map, a small village named Mulegé.
Neither of us knew exactly what to expect. Abhi said he thought there was a hotel there, but no one we talked to seemed to be able to confirm this. We knew if there was no hotel waiting for us, we would have to turn around and backtrack the 62 kilometers back to Santa Rosalía in the dark. We soldiered on, flying blind.
As it turned out, Mulegé is a small fishing village acting as a refuge for American expatriates and ex-Baja racers. We found a hotel on the main street with a variety of dual-sport and adventure bikes in the parking lot. Before long, we were surrounded by like-minded riders sharing cold beers and route advice.
We got a brief history of the town and a suggestion to find a bar called Scotty’s. Apparently, this was the spot where the ex-fast guys can be found telling tall tales of past glories lost to time and the Mexican sand.
As it turned out, Scotty’s was gone. Supposedly Scotty got tired of dealing with drunk Americans and the changing landscape of the village, so he sold the bar to some of his employees a few years prior. The building is still there and currently goes by the name Bar El Candil. The scene was pretty tame (it was a Tuesday night) but we were promised a good time if we came back on Friday night.
Not sure exactly what a “good time” in Mulegé entailed, I checked off another invisible box in my brain, vowing to return to Bar El Candil on a weekend to find out.
The longest day
With a flight looming and the end of the trip on the horizon, we decided to use Wednesday to make some time by covering the 500 kilometers of tarmac between La Paz and Mulegé in one day. This ended up proving to be the best day of street riding of the entire trip.
The Pacific Coast Highway in California has nothing on the stretch of Highway 1 that connects Mulegé to Loreto. The big BMWs made perfect use of the tight twisties and long sweepers. The sprawling landscapes and endless views of clear blue-green water played tug-of-war for our attention against the steep cliffs and random sand traps found in the middle of blind corners. In the end, the latter won out as we decided focusing on the asphalt was the best approach for completing the journey with the bikes intact.
Along this stretch, we stopped to ride across the sand of Playa El Burro and swim in the gulf (it was brisk…). We... errr... I stopped for ice cream in Loreto where Abhi found a large nail in my rear tire. We plugged the tire and continued on our way.
Further down the road, Abhi hit a giant pothole and lost both his side cases while traveling at speeds well above the posted limits. A few more cinchos de plástico to reattach his luggage and we were back on the road.
Exploring a hole in the barbed wire fence lining the highway just large enough for our bikes, we found a dirt trail leading to what must have been a local party spot. The giant cactus wearing a bra was a dead giveaway. It was along this stretch that Abhi found the best souvenir ever: a cow skull (unfortunately Customs wasn’t keen on us bringing this back to the United States).
We reached La Paz just in time to watch the sun set over the water while drinking cold Pacifico and eating Mexican sushi. Sounds weird, right? It was amazing. Edamame sautéed in soy sauce and Mexican peppers, fresh Mexican vegetables in a light tempura batter, and sushi rolls stuffed with locally sourced shellfish. If you’re not a fan of seafood, you might want to reconsider traveling to Baja.
Our final discovery
We abandoned our original plan for reaching Cabo, which consisted of mostly two-lane blacktop, upon reaching Los Barriles. While fueling up in the sunny beachfront town, we met a RevZilla customer named Jeff fueling up his TW200.
We took his suggestion and followed a sandy trail down to the beach while keeping an eye out for a spec-of-dust town called Eureka. There, the road would fork and we would stay to the left, which would lead us to a dusty road made up of dirt and drifting sand. We followed this road, parallel to the beach, until we reached Cabo Pulmo.
Riding into town, our instructions were to stop at the first cantina we found on the right-hand side of the road. It was there, in a nameless beachside hut, we found the best fish tacos in Baja.
With plates of shrimp and fish tacos in front of us, we sat in the shade, enjoying the cool ocean breeze blowing off the water. Temperatures in the south of Baja were roughly 20 to 25 degrees warmer than where we started in Tecate.
The rest of the route into Cabo would prove to be a combination of deep sand whoops and rocky trails. Abhi and I enjoyed our last few hours playing in the Mexican dirt with the large BMWs.
The GS proved to be the perfect mount for traveling long distances over a wide variety of terrain. Terrain which ran the gauntlet from deep sand to pristine blacktop and everything in between. While a smaller dual-sport bike would have been better off-road, we would have quickly gone insane trying to maintain highway speeds on such small bikes. A trip like this exemplifies why larger ADV bikes and adventure riding has become so popular.
All good things must come to an end
We reached our final hotel in San José del Cabo on Thursday night about 18 hours before our flight was set to depart from Cabo San Lucas. Trading our motorcycle gear for bathing suits, we headed to the beachfront bar.
Growing up, I could never figure out why my dad was so into James Taylor’s “Gorilla” album. Back in 1981 Pops was in his early 20s when he and his uncle took a pair of motorcycles from Pennsylvania to Mexico and back. Sitting by the water’s edge, a piña colada in each hand, I watched the sun descend over San José del Cabo. It finally all made sense.