Tecate, Baja California – I am sitting on my motorcycle at the U.S./Tecate border crossing station unable to move. The kickstand bolt has come loose, I cannot park the bike. The first problem of a six day motorcycle trip, and we started less than two hours ago. I pull a Spanish verb out of my memory that I forgot I knew, “esperar”, meaning to wait. I try to explain to the Mexican Customs agent that I can’t go inside yet to buy my visa. My friends are already inside. I push the fully loaded bike over the border. Embarrassed, it is me who has the first problem. I lean the bike against a wall. Searching my saddlebag, half of which is load with tools the other half first aid supplies, leaving the Givi 52-liter top case for my clothes. I tighten the bolt on my Ducati Multistrada with an Allen wrench. Glad I was prepared, I had to be. I’m leading this Baja tour.
The crew, Carry Andrew and Jeff Ortberg.- I had been scouting motorcycle routes in Baja for two months. This was a test run thru a mostly pavement route. I recruited two experienced riders to be my tour test guinea pigs. Carry Andrew, on a 650 Suzuki V-Strom and Jeff Ortberg, on a 1190 KTM Adventurer. I knew Carry, an ex-Pro AMA racer and current professional race tuner, from my novice road racing days. His shop, Hypercycle, sponsored the Superstock 500 class I raced at Willow Springs years ago. Jeff, I had only just met the week before at Beverly Hills Ducati/ KTM while buying parts. A local off road desert racing veteran. Lucky for me both had Baja on their bucket lists and could take the time off on short notice. It is early March, and the weather good. If all goes well, we will see the migrating grey whales and at least one of the old Baja missions on this trip. The destination…Bahia de los Angeles…then the route is open for suggestions.
Foreign motorcycle travel tests being prepared. – There are risks taking trips with people you haven’t ridden with before, personalities are key. Getting along is important, especially in times of crisis. This isn’t my first time leading a motorcycle tour. I really enjoy sharing the roads and places I discover. However, I know if you really want to a test relationship, try traveling 24/7 thru foreign lands where you haven’t been, with foreign languages no one speaks, for extended periods of time, where constant decision making is required. You’ll quickly know if you’re compatible afterwards and most important can work as a team. I find travel easier on motorcycles. A lot of time with a helmet on, your own thoughts, your own music and your own bike.
Experience, conditioning and communication are key. Being a small group, getting along isn’t my biggest concern. However, an accident in the middle of nowhere is, there are many places with no cell reception . Baja is big. There are long stretches without services. The ambulances come from either tip, Ensenada/Tijuana or Cabo San Lucas depending on where it happens, it might be awhile. We came prepared. GPS’s, SpotTrackers, Life360 tracker app on cell phones, Mexican travel insurance and medical emergency airlift insurance. There are enough tools and “know how” to fix most anything short of a catastrophic tire or equipment failure. The goal is simple…keep the bikes upright, come back together, and keep it fun.
El Trailero, Ensenada Taco Shop – First stop San Felipe. – Once across the border, I realize my second mistake. We left much too late to make my planned lunch stop in Ojos Negros. Plan B, a quick stop in Ensenada instead for tacos at El Trailero, a favorite among off-road racers. We must race the sun to San Felipe…the sun wins. Riding at night is something to avoid in Baja. A vast land of free range cattle, horses, small animals, potholes and washouts that can swallow you whole if you aren’t careful. We are.
BajaMar, San Felipe – Arriving well after sunset, we stay at a small ocean front hotel and restaurant, with a locking gate, BajaMar. With the bikes secure next to our rooms we celebrate with our first Baja seafood dinner grilled “pulpo” or octopus and Pimpinos “cucumber” margaritas. Delicious and inexpensive, $8 per person! The next day our pockets loosen for the street vendors during our post breakfast stroll along the boardwalk. First established as a seaside fishing village in the 1920’s, San Felipe is largely unchanged, except now it also doubles as an off-road racing pit stop and has quite a few retired American ex-patriots.
McGyver Contest! – Required bike maintenance delays our start. My kickstand bolt has stretched, it will not stay tight. I apply Threadlocker. Jeff’s Touratech top case bracket broke. The “McGyver” contest starts with everyone breaking out their tools and ideas. Carry wins it with the tie strap/zip-tie combination. However, Jeff wins the worst packer award! We discover he has packed a set of six screw drivers still in the Costco plastic packaging, and an unopened Smashball game? Motorcycle travel should be light and efficient, packing is an art. He wouldn’t have needed the extra Pelican case mounted on top of the Touratech top case if he had been more efficient. His bracket snapped due to his very tall tail case setup effectively acting as an air dam! We all joke and poke fun at each other. So starts the positive bonding that is important when problems are solved, and the solutions work.
Cowpatty’s, Puertocito’s – We leave San Felipe, riding south along the coast, thru the Valle de los Gigantes, a centuries old giant cordon cactus forest. A quick stop at Cowpatty’s, a colorful bar ex-pat filled American owned bar offering beer and hotdogs. We blaze on along the new black asphalt highway, serenaded by the azure blue Cortez sea. It is about 80F and a perfectly relaxing ride to the Puertecitos, gassing up at the last Pemex station. Shortly after the pavement ends. We stop to let some air out of our tires.
Face your fears! It was time to face my fear which had grown bigger daily in my head. Twenty miles of off-road riding on my 2009 Ducati Multistrada, a heavy bike for the dirt and granite rock I was going to have to ride over. I had over-nighted crash bars from Strada -Avventurosa, and installed wide dirt pegs just before the trip in anticipation of dropping the bike. I am 5’5″, 125lbs. Touching ground toes only is not a problem on pavement, but dirt is a different story. I didn’t learn to ride in the dirt, and still learning. Luckily, with the weight of my gear I am able now to get the balls of my feet on the ground. The extra 50 pounds also slows down the rebound on my rear suspension making it easier to manage harsh bumps. This helps my confidence.
The first ten miles are easy. Hard pack washboard road and just slight sand. I had driven it weeks ago with my truck no sweat. Relaxed, I smile as we see our first “boojum” plant, or “cirrios” in Spanish, meaning “carrots”. They look like something from a Dr. Seuss children’s book. We stop halfway at Coco’s Corner to say “hello” to Coco. Famous for tending this remote dirt road desert corner for 35+ years, he is 79, a strong and stout man. He claims you can see his corner from outer space. Despite that he lost his legs knees down from diabetes some years ago, he gets around very well. Custom leather pads made by American off-road friends to walk on, he drives an ATV and a truck! I quickly introduce the guys, giving Coco a care package I brought. We take pictures of his off-road mecca. Filled with strange statues, signs, the infamous ceiling underwear collection, quirky art, we buy some beer and sign his book. Temperature dropping and the light fading fast, another race against the sun. I am anxious about the next ten miles, for these are unknown to me.
Tire test time! – My tires are a concern, labeled dual sport, The ContiAttacks are really made mostly for pavement. The sun sets as we start the next 10 miles, as do the terrain changes. Switchbacks, up and down hills, hard pack with large boulders the size of tool boxes half buried in the turns, you see much too late with the sun in your eyes. Then a change up, loose gravel and rocks, with more up and down turns. At last the final stretch, it straightens, but now the sand! Nervous, my visor has fogged from all my heavy breathing. My sunglasses don’t help either, but I’m too scared to slow down and take them off. I try to ride steadily, for Ducati Multistradas are known for low end rpm jerkiness, especially if you have changed to an aftermarket exhaust system and have not dyno-tuned the bike and smoothed out the ECU mapping. I try to stay at the happy spot, 5000 rpm, hard to do in low gears. At times I am unable to see due to dust and flashing light and dark shadows. Wishing this part over and done, I pray for the hard feel of asphalt under my pearly white Italian steed’s traction loving street tires.
Give me pavement! – Rushing, I almost run into Carry, who decides to stop in the middle of the path. I swerve and drop into deep sand. “Not now!” I yell in my helmet, I’ve almost made it. Floating left then right, fishtailing on the sand, trying to control the bike, and keep the speed constant. The Conti Attack Trails are really not made for this stuff. Carry’s also suffering, his VStrom has on Michelin Annakee’s. I see his feet come off the pegs at one point! Jeff rips past us confidently, playfully rooster tailing us, he’s got Kenda’s with knobbies! We all manage to get to the pavement safely. “Yessss!” I yell. Saying ”thanks” to all the gods I had ever heard of. I am relieved, and exhale deeply. Riding away, I relax, self congratulating with, “See, it wasn’t that bad. You could do it. Another fear faced. Bahia de Los Angeles here we come!”
Bahia de Los Angeles – Riding quickly, 60 miles to Bahia de Los Angeles from dusk to dark. Disappointed with myself. I had really wanted the guys to arrive at the bay during daylight to experience the draw of that dramatic deep blue bay. Instead, I am leading them down a very dark road that I know has large washouts as we get closer to town. My stock headlights are horrible, so Jeff’s KTM off-road lights were helpful as he rode behind me and to the left. But it is in the right lane, directly in front of me that I see the bright reflection of eyes, lots of them… a herd of dark brown cows suddenly appears. I swiftly swerve left to miss the lead cow who is also heading left. I check my six with a quick glance to my mirror. I count two headlights, they made it past. Whew! That was so close that I then feel my heart rate increase, the close-call adrenaline rush hits me. We tip-toe the rest of the way thru three off-road detours, and meet up with a local resident, ex-Honda employee, local Baja expert and guide, Scott Neal.
Sunset Dinner at Guillermo’s. A longstanding ocean front restaurant and hotel that offers fishing excursions, we spend the night. Early in the morning, I find Jeff taking pictures of whale shark bones, the bay is famous for them. I watch as the Baja casts it’s spell over him. He expresses that he wants to continue south one more day after Scott mentioned the migrating whales in the nearby bays of San Ignacio and Guerrero Negro. Great! A two-for-one I think, suggesting we go to San Ignacio to see both the old town mission and the whales! Convincing Carry was easy, we kidnap him. Learning our lessons, we gas up and set off much earlier this time.
Play day in San Ignacio– Riding out of the bay we arrive at the Highway 1 junction and meet a large group of dual-sport riders from Oregon. Sharing beer, swapping stickers and stories, we set off to our next stop, Guerrero Negro. A large coastal city, we get gas and pesos at the local BanMex ATM. It is easier and best to shop with pesos it allows better exchange rates. Only few small towns take credit cards, so it is very important to have local currency. We arrive at San Ignacio hours later, a sleepy green palm filled oasis, with an old-town Spanish feel. Lovely with its large shady tree-lined paved plaza, the famous Baja 1000 off-road race goes through here. The Moorish style San Ignacio mission is well preserved, built in 1728, it looms large and the centerpiece of town. Population, 700.
San Ignacio – We eat dinner at Rene’s. It is there we are told again by some Americans, we must see the whales. We find what I name the “Taj Mahal”, it is large, pristine white, and new, it is Hotel Huerta. Arriving early allows us to explore the town, buy Tequila and raise toasts. Later at night, three silhouettes arrive at the end of the long hotel driveway, dirt bike riders with helmet lights on. They were separated from their tour group after deciding to take the “hard” route on their tour. Ten hours lost, a few in the dark, they are seriously frazzled. Turns out they did not know each other before that day…well they do now. A true Baja test! We also greet Malcolm Smith’s son, Alex, and his adventure group as they roll in with their brand new sprinter van and trailer. We grab the best ice cream in town and make arrangements for the whale tour in the morning, with Antonio’s EcoTour $60, including lunch.
Grey whales like to be petted! – It is a 45km paved road, then 15km of off-road hard pack and sand along the ocean to Antonio’s. It is a wonderful ride out to the bay. Wonderfully warm, windless, and gear free, we cruise by cactus beds on our bikes. Getting bold, I try to keep up with Jeff on the KTM on the hard pack, frequently feeling my rear wheel spin. We park and it’s then I notice a deep slice on my rear tire, it requires gluing. Arriving just in time, the panga boat takes us out into the bay. We are warned by the guide should we encounter a “friendly” whale, they are sensitive…no touching their eyes, blow-hole, flippers or tail.
Are we going to actually touch a whale? Withing ten minutes we arrive in the middle of San Ignacio’s 18 mile long bay. Couplets of mothers and calves floating like logs throughout the bay, the males guard the bay’s entrance to keep out the killer whales. The first two sets of whatles we encounter gently dive down as we approach. But the third set approach us, a mom and calf. They swim gently from one side to the other of the boat, wanting attention. We are encouraged to splash the water lightly with our hand, they will come to you if they want to be petted. They do! We pet them for over almost an hour! At first I am wary, as I have always been told to keep a distance when in a kayak. But that was San Juan Islands and orca whales. These are grey whales and so very gentle. The mother nudges the calf encouragingly with her nose towards our boat. The calf plays, does 360-degree barrel rolls, floats on it’s side, cracks baleen smiles, blows bubbles, purrs and pop ups to get kissed! I am in shock, confused, and delighted, for this is truly a display of intelligence, curiosity, personality. A life changing moment for all of us. We are over-the-moon and emotionally enlightened. The boat ride back was wonderful and we were still riding high on the calm San Ignacio bay, which is a World Heritage site. We are greeted by another group of dirt riders, who rode out just for the view and the amazing fish taco lunch.
Catastrophe strikes! – Riding high from our whale encounter, we saddle and head back home, north up the Highway 1. It is late afternoon, 3pm, we decide to try and cover as much road as possible and ride until tired. Sun sets as we approach Guerrero Negro, or “Black Warrior”, a large coastal town named after an American whaling ship grounded in 1850’s. Home also to the largest salt mine, and the largest grey whale lagoon. It’s about half-way down the Baja Pacific coast line. Just 2.5km south of town, the left side of Carry’s bike explodes and I get bathed in warm light brown oil. We pull off the road. We can’t fix this one, and figure out how to place a call to the Mexican insurance company from our American phones. Jeff rides to town for help. Something hit the underside of the bike and sheared off the lower oil lines, there are four holes in the case. But luck is with us, it was an ideal place to break. Just outside a large town with a hotel that has a pickup truck and we manage to get the last two rooms. I learn that all on the trip should know how to dial the insurance and emergency numbers from our phones, as well as to carry two tie-downs each just in case. A 440 mile tow to Tijuana is arranged by the Mexican insurance company adjuster located in town. A new plan is made, I will meet Carry and his bike in Tijuana with the Sprinter van in two days, he will ride in the tow truck.
Jeff and I set off. I quickly notice Jeff’s Kenda tires are squared off and cupping, slowing him down in the corners. It is important to start a long trip on fresh tires, his were not. We decide to spend the night in El Rosario with dinner at Mama Espinoza’s a popular off-road racing restaurant. Exchanging stories with yet another large group of dirt riders from California. They had a rider break his collar bone on their first day, he now rides along in their chase truck. We exchange stickers and stories once again. Next day we gas up and rendezvous with Carry and the tow truck, an F150, at breakfast in Camalu. Jeff and I waltz thru sweepers with cactus riddled golden boulders bordering the road, we arrive at the Mision in Catavina. Another welcoming oasis. Sipping our last margaritas, and devouring homemade guacamole and chips, Jeff tells me he’s having an epiphany. He spends way too much time riding to work, adding up his commute time he said it equaled 33 weeks a year. The slower motion of time in Baja made him realize he needed a life change. I agreed, living to work is no way to live.
We gas up and make good time to Tijuana. Crossing the border to San Diego at San Ysidro was quick and easy on bikes. I load my bike into the Sprinter van and go back to pick up Carry at the Holiday Inn in Tijuana. We enjoy a our last Mexican cocktail and cross to the U.S. using the Ready Lane, which requires a drivers license with a barcode and current passport. So it appears the test ride was a truly that, a test. A success in that we were prepared for the mishaps, and all made it back. Many lessons were learned… early starts, sump guards, driving lights, fresh dual sport tires, Mexican insurance and a chase vehicle would be all ideal things to have. Overall, our ride covered 1600 miles in six days. Despite the breakdown, Baja cast its magic spell once again on me, and now two more. I didn’t get to share all the stops I wanted with the guys, but we did manage a great loop. Jeff is already planning another trip to go further south. Carry wants to do the off-road version of the ride next. And for me, I’m ready to go again off and on road versions, the Baja spell becoming stronger! Anyone interested in doing a tour just let me know, October – May.
Spellbound in Baja!
Wendia – Helmets n’ Heels