There is an innate response from people when you tell them you are doing something unusual, fun, different, or interesting after about age 35. Each year I do a trip for my birthday and each year the jokes fly… Even in my mid-20’s when I bought an old corvette people loved to throw ‘midlife crisis‘ about in conversation, jokingly of course. Naturally, when I hatched the plan for my 40th birthday trip (supposedly a real milestone) the jokes came at an unprecedented frequency. I did not mind (as my mind and body seem to be separate entities ‘we think we are 25!’) So cheers to doing things out of the norm and many more crises to come….
This trip was intended to be done with buddies but life happens and the high cost of forcing intersecting lines across the globe can be hard to arrange. One cannot wait for those with differing responsibilities & priorities so I decided to sally forth on a solo adventure.Onward dusty pachyderm!!!
New rear tire, required. New, smaller, saddlebags were sourced with the assistance of friends of B-outside (many thanks to the supporters of BOUTSIDE!!!) were affixed to the bike and some last minute fabrication completed to save them from the heat of the exhaust. Thank goodness I test fit gear! (A lesson likely learned the hard way over and over.) It took some time to get them adjusted right but they survived the trip with daily on and off, and bumpy Mexican roads/trails without issue. Huge improvement over the stock bags. (gear review to come)
Friday afternoon, in the height of traffic hours, I hit the road South out of San Diego. Short trip to Rosarito with a stop in San Ysidro for gas and ATM which turned out to be a absolute shit show. San Ysidro was gridlocked, forward, backward, left and right…every block. Had I already crossed into Tijuana? Evidently, I was not the only one with the ideal of crossing into Mexico at the worst possible time …in the history of time. Weaving through lanes, along shoulders, dodging nuns with goats, and between the parked cars. A bike was the best solution to, what I can only imagine would have been an hour or more, sitting and merging. Only 5 minutes of suffering traffic for me this time and I was on the corta (short way / toll road). Minutes after that I was on the coast, Pacific to the right and mountains to the left, and the road mostly to myself. Warm air passing though my helmet with an occasional cool breeze off the ocean.
Why does it feel so different only a few minutes away from home? Same ocean, same mountain range. I can see this part of the coast from my patio! I chalk this up to ‘trip start excitement’. The excitement leading up to the trip peaked then settled into a relaxing reality. The days ahead to be filled with nothing but wherever the wind took me. My only plan was to ride all the way down…. Todos de Baja!
This day was to be a short one. My Mexican family (dear friends) wanted to visit with me and had offered me lodging. For many years they have lived in the US and Mexico. Often commuting back and forth for work. Years of hard work, sound investments, family support, and good karma allowed them to live the American dream; retirement in Mexico. HA! Well Juan still works hard but only because he is passionate about what he does with cross boarder health and clinics. Who could ask for anything more! A job you are passionate about where you make a real difference in two communities everyday. I have been talking to him about trips since and might work out future Baja trips together.
For those that know me…. I am known to eat tacos, so I stopped for a taco … because tacos! I ordered my tacos only to learn immediately afterwards that Thelma had made a special dish for me based on a past conversation.Mexican style ham and beans. It is a family dish (my gringo family) that I still enjoy with corn bread. Not wanting to miss out on a new rendition of this staple creator of tail wind… I dutifully (pun) had ‘second dinner‘. Mexican style puerco y frijoles served like a soup. It is very similar to my family dish but served with tortillas, salsa, and guacamole rather than corn bread. The broth was rich. The ham was tender. The beans had rich flavor (Que Rico!)! Juan and I sipped beers at the kitchen table and talked about the world, life, work, family, and my trip.
What was my plan: My response to Juan was unclear but I was trying not to lead on that I had no clue. I listed a couple places I had hoped to see. He sensed vagueness in my answer and suggested sites that he knew were along the way. We talked till it got late while looking up sites on my phone and making zero notes. Eventually, the excitement of the day settled into exhaustion and I started to fade. Off to bed, where I went out like a light.
The grey sky peaked from behind the slatted blinds when I rolled over. Roosters crowed outside a couple blocks away. It was too early to pop up, drink too much coffee, and start running around the house prepping so I read a book for a while. Then continued to research ‘things to do in Baja‘, and started my trip notes. After more than an hour I heard stirring downstairs. Thelma and the girls were off to the vineyards in Ensenada. Juan had been my guide through the Ensenada wine country once before…(*note to self…weekend refresher trip to Ensenada vineyards*). This is the point I feel obligated to leave you hanging on the vineyards. That should be another post. 😉 The ladies gave me hugs then hustled out the door. We pour coffee then heat up leftover ham, beans, and rice with tortillas for breakfast. The tender pork chunks, beans and rice make for a hearty breakfast. I would skip lunch…no way I could make room. I love to cook so take on the duty of heating up breakfast.
Morning was getting away from us so I eventually ‘motivated the gear onto the bike’. Mi Mexicano Familia is always difficult to leave but the trip has to continue or else I may just sit in the kitchen eating and drinking for the next two weeks. Juan and his father (mid-nineties but still active and independent) bid me farewell and safe travels.
I filled up my fuel bottles and topped off the tank at the Fed sponsored gas station, Pemex (the first of many). For those who have never been to Mexico… standard procedure is for the attendant to fill your tank and take your payment. The bike is no mystery to Pemex attendants but my MSR fuel bottles seem too confusing for the gal so I take over. I meter the flow with short bursts of fuel but still manage to splash. The attendant springs around the corner and returns with a rag. No big deal. I have a feeling that this same infraction at home might have elicited HAZMAT response teams from 3 counties.
On the road out of Rosarito there were a couple of toll stations. Extremely easy to make it past these. They are about $0.85 or if you hand them a dollar they hand you back some peso coins. They do accept US dollar in most places in North Baja. So if you don’t have time to find a bank it’ll be okay.
Back on the road my mind does gymnastics with my Spanish lessons playing in the helmet (Scala 9 headset). Having the opportunity to immerse in the language I had decided to download a bunch of Spanish lessons for the long stretches. With the helmet mic turned down, so it would not attempt to dial people from my phone contacts, I listen and repeat while dodging potholes and speed bumps (tope – pronounced ‘toe-pay‘ I think). To the right I recognize a roadside pop up vendor stop where there is a great look out over Ensenada. This stop was entirely for candy and picture. It was my birthday after all!!
Before entering Ensenada there is a roadside Vista which looks down the coast. It looks a lot like the North Central Coast of California….Big Sur. The vending area at the rest stop sells piles of homemade candy. Marzipan, chili mango, dulce de leche…YUM! Seeing all the candy and colors is a little bit overwhelming. I am fine with heights but the candy blows my mind so much I get a little bit of vertigo. Weeeeeee! When dizzy one should do the following: I walk over to the edge of a large cliff to look at vistas until you feel better. From the elevated vantage point you can see kelp beds, circles in the water which I’m told are tuna pens (farm raised tuna?), and in the distance Ensenada. I nibbled on a piece of marzipan while talking on the phone and sending a few texts then jumped back on the road. The waves smashed the coast to my right and I could see why California surfers like this spot so much. As I pulled into town my parents call to wish me happy birthday.
Back to Mexican Highway 1 and turned the fat grey bike South again. The road would alternate from wide open space and fast-moving highway to small town with people crossing the street in front of you, large trucks belching noxious fumes, and traffic backups. In the middle of the highway the omnipresent tope(!). Small at first and then evolving into mounding tope which could high center a pachyderm.
A public service announcement from Boutside.
THE MORE YOU KNOW!!! (TOPE EDITION)
Sometimes you will be warned. Sometimes you will not. Warnings may take the form of a sign, paint lines, vehicles making lound smashing sounds in front of you as they violently bounce into the air, or small bumps in the road similar to in the United States when a turn is coming. You feel/hear that ‘Dunt Dunt, Dunt Dunt‘, before you get to a very sharp turn on a road. Other times the tope is painted and looks like a line in across the road but no preceding warnings. Keep your eyes up though because occasionally no warning at all. There you are cruising down the road singing your favorite Ricky Martin song and BOOM! Tope. If you refuse to slow down for these tope you will likely be buying shocks or worse. On a motorcycle the tenancy is for the front shock to take the bump and rear to launch you over the handlebars with a fancy new kinked spine. Regardless of what you are driving it’s uncomfortable to hit these at speed. For more information and the deeper meaning of the infamous Mexican tope check this article out from the NY times.
Soldiers patrolled in trucks along the highway. I was sure to give them a wave every time and occasionally received a response. Some folks might be put off by this military presence but after dealing with foreign militaries for so many years I am not so easily scared by the presence. In fact most people are oblivious to the presence in everyday life at home. Living in San Diego for so many years the public gets used to seeing military vehicles on the road. Why is it that we would be more afraid of a foreign military patrolling their lands than we would our military patrolling our lands? The soldiers waved back and occasionally smiled… pleased that I acknowledged them. Is it possible that not many people try to interact with them? Shame… Another military check point. I stopped and killed the engine. ‘Hola! Buenos Dias!‘ I yell from inside the helmet over my Rickie Martin playlist (ha, not really). ‘Hola. Donde Va?‘ He asks me where I am going. I tell him it is my 40th birthday vacation and I am riding to Cabo. He raises an eyebrow and wishes me safe travels then waives me through. Not unlike any agricultural or immigration checkpoint along the southern routes of the United States. The intent is to keep Narcos and unsavory types out. Somehow I always sneak through.
After about a dozen small towns and a couple short mountain pass ‘twisties‘ I rolled into El Rosario. First order of business – scouting for hotels. Not wanting to bite off the next 5 hour section of riding this late in the day meant that this little dinky town was home for the night. Evidently I failed to notice the obvious hotels at the turn in the road (only turn in town; blink and you miss the whole town). I was following a sign for a hotel which was obviously placed by banditos for unsuspecting gringos and turned towards the coast. Down a narrow road a few hundred meters where a young guy in a Toyota Camry nearly wiped me out. He came around the corner at about 60 miles per hour in an area where he probably should have been doing 30 and nearly lost the car sideways right into me. I looked back and he had slowed considerably. Realizing that he was going too fast and maybe sitting in a pile of fresh beans now. The road turned to dirt another 100 meters down the road. I wandered the pachyderm down the dirt road which alternated from loose gravel and two inches deep sand. As I came up on the coast the realization that there was probably no Hotel down there for me sunk in and I turned around back to town. I pulled up to the highway and killed the bike so I could look on my phone for the billboard advertised hotels. Then I realized I was parked right in front of a hotel! Obviously tired, duh… *sigh* … glad I did not push on.
Parked in front of the office, I doff gear, and go inside to ask the lady if they have any availability. No English spoken here… Just as well this trip is for practice anyway. She says the rooms are $40 which sounds high to me then during our transaction she realizes it is only me. And the price dropped to $35. After she ran the card and handed me the receipt I realize she meant 350 pesos or $18.75(!). Score! I asked her where the best restaurant in town is and she points across the parking lot. ‘This is Mama Espinoza’s Motel… That is Mama Espinoza’s restaurant‘. Well that seems easy enough! Bags deposited securely in the room then I proceeded to walk (might have been a bit of waddle) across the parking lot for something to eat. I had skipped lunch so by this point was getting hungry (4 p.m.).
The place is covered in stickers and memorabilia from Baja races. It is an official check point for some of the races and very well known among racers. The older lady hands me a menu and I asked her what does she recommend. She says the lobster burritos are the best and super fresh. I tell her I will have that and a beer. BDAY DINNER!!!! Only minutes later she returns with salsa, lime, and my beer. There is a real nice looking ‘salsa fresca‘ with all the vibrant colors of too many veggies to list here and a smoky, dark, Chipotle salsa. Both are on point for different reasons and I worked hard to kill them both! About 10 minutes later a plate with rice salad and three small burritos arrives. The burritos had been grilled on the outside so I had a nice crisp and were radioactive hot. Instantly I thought, ‘I don’t know… what if they have all sorts of crap in them like rice ….‘ I’m extremely pleased to find a lightly marinated sweet hunks of perfectly cooked Lobster and no burrito fillers! Moist! And so flavorful! Butter and lobster juice dripped on to the plate as I devoured these. I had noticeable slowed down by the time I picked up the third burrito. Not wanting to waste the tasty drippings I mixed the juice with the rice to mop up the plate.
The dinner and two beers cost me only about $25. Just slightly more than my hotel room. Being that I had planned so well in advanced… I did not have cash. No cards taken. I inquire about a bank or ATM. Nope. Ok, this was starting to get uncomfortable. Finally, the lady volunteers that the gas station would run my ATM and give me cash (which they did after some huffing and puffing). To Self— Get cash to carry the rest of the trip, Gringo! To bed with a full belly and tired body. Earned sleep is good sleep.
I left out of El Rosario after a shower (floor was comically slopped to one corner and made a nice pool…hey, 18 bucks!) and a little bit of mapping work to find out where I was going (making use of WiFi). I hit the road at about 10 minutes till 8 and again…. South on Mexican Highway 1.
The morning was overcast and cool. A marine layer hung over the tops of the mountains. No breakfast… planning on getting something on the way. As I round through the mountains South of El Rosario my attention is pulled to the fog which was strange. Thick but patchy and Dr. Seuss like in the desert moonscape. Lifting just off the desert but still hanging on to the tops of the mountains so you could not tell how deep in a valley you really were. I had the road all to myself. Every mile or so noticing the road side markers where people had not made the turn properly and ended their trips in that spot. There are many more of these roadside memorials in Mexico than in the United States. Is it because they are more religious? No policy to clean them up or remove them? Or are the roads really that much more dangerous? As I pondered this I came around the corner in too high of a gear and wandered into the other lane on a blind corner… answering the question. Without coffee or without breakfast …I consciously focused more attention on riding. The crisp air, the fog, and the eerie light of the sun pushing through the clouds all made for nice riding. After about an hour of intense focus on the road, and negotiating so many turns not marked, I decided to stop at a roadside cafe.
The hand-painted sign advertised burritos, coffee, tacos …all gringo friendly words that El Oso liked. The place looked nearly abandoned but I thought I would give it a shot anyway. Urged on by my stomach and coffee withdraws I pulled into the drive way next to the building. There was an elderly man sitting inside a screened porch drinking his coffee (envious). I removed my gear and smiled at him, ‘hola buenos dias‘ he responded in kind. I put away my gear and then I asked him if I could have breakfast. He responded, ‘Si‘! I told him my name and shook his hand he responded his name is Martin. Then hollered for someone in the back. Two young girls, maybe 10 or 11, came out of the kitchen. They rattled off forty-five dishes, like a Tommy-gun with a stuck trigger, I did not catch 90% of them, then I opted for a chorizo burrito. I thought it was strange that they asked me how many. Having forgotten the small burritos the day before, I was pre-coffee…I forgive me, I said, ‘One burrito of course‘! They looked very confused but did not explain rather they dutifully went into the kitchen where I heard them giggling. Could it be the big silly American, probably. (hahaha…) I walked around the store and noticed that there were a million business cards stapled to the wall obviously from better days. Most of them had yellowed. There were some historical artifacts around so I made use of my time and checked them all out. I noticed that the front door was closed and the gate was locked from the inside. I wondered if they were really even open? Well no worries they seem happy enough to let me enter through the kitchen and make me a burrito. Eventually, my burrito came out and it was similar to the ones I had had the night before. Very small, tightly rolled, thumb sized burritos… I laughed and asked for one more. Explaining that burritos in San Diego are ‘Mas Grande‘. Solves the riddle about what they were laughing at. (The Gringo only wanted one burrito, hahaha!) I asked for some coffee as well and the coffee came out fairly quickly. I scarfed down my two tiny chorizo burritos, paid, and talked with Martin for a few minutes. He was a really cool old guy who sits on the back porch drinking coffee all day. I think he used to be a trucker but was also a hunter. We talked about hunting upland bird, deer, and fishing for a few moments then I said goodbye to my new acquaintances.
Onward to Bahia De Los Angeles. The fuel gauge looked dangerously low as I did the math in my head (1.6Km in a mile – I get 170-190 miles per tank – two bars on the gauge are about 40 miles – 90 Km to Bahia divided by 1.6…uh, math, ow!) I need a gas. I would never make it. This was in the area of Baja where it starts to get harder to find fuel. As I pondered when I should use my emergency back up fuel… a roadside sign, Gasolina! I was relieved when I saw the turn off for Coco’s corner where the gasoline hawkers sell gas out of the back of their trucks. After talking to them for a minute they decided not rip me off too bad only charging me slightly above what I was paying at the gas stations in town. These guys have a good racket. Anyone who buys gas from them needs gas because it may be another hundred or more miles before they get the next chance. I took 3 liters poured directly into my tank from well used, dirty, re-purposed milk jugs.
I make the turn East towards Bahia De Los Angeles and realize that this is also Mexican Highway 1. A spur highway but this is going to get confusing quick. As it turns out about three-quarters of the highways in Baja are ‘Mexican Highway 1’ regardless of what direction they go. You may come to a fork in the road of Highway 1 where you can go east or south and all options are Highway 1. I can only imagine that they have saved a ton on signs by using the same name. Google Maps will help you in any case or just pay attention. Sixty kilometers to Bahia De Los Angeles from the main road. The road was in very good condition.
I stopped to take a leak next to one of the Dr. Seuss cacti. It was very quiet… nobody on this route. As I walk back to the bike I think to myself, ‘This would be a bad place for the bike not to start‘. Luckily the Pachyderm starts up as it nearly always does.
That nice highway I just mentioned did not last very long. A lot of construction along my route to the coast. It seems to be more convenient for Mexican construction crews to close the entire road and bulldoze a side road while they make repairs. Detours on to these side roads range from fun exciting place to fishtail and kick out the back end to treacherous for any vehicle at any speed. Large rocks, loose dirt, sand, washboards, big potholes, mixtures of asphalt and dirt have the potential to make detours sketchy. My advice is to enter them slow in first or second gear. When the road looks to be safe the bike wants to go…. I have to hold the bike back. Because I’m alone it is not good to operate at the fringe. Sure I’ll take chances occasionally, shifting to 3rd or fourth gear and kicking a big fish tail across a wash or as I turn back on to the pavement, but my primary mission is to get home in as few pieces as possible. Three or four of these smaller construction zones later and I am rewarded with a vista between the mountains just before winding down the hill into town.
Crystal blue water, desert islands, surrounded by craggy mountains… I see the small dusty town Bahia de Los Angeles (The Bay of Angels). The bay is aptly named. I slowed way down in order to support my mouth gaping gawk.
Here are a few pictures to hold you over till the next post. 🙂 Cheers!