Baja and the Home Stretch

Riding my motorcycle onto the ferry to Baja was a bittersweet moment for me.  On one hand, I was very much looking forward to being in Baja.  On the other hand, being on the peninsula meant that I was on the final leg of my trip.  After six months of travel, I was approaching a doorway that would lead me back into the “real world.”  That place where I would return to a normal life, complete with office job, sensible clothing, a nice apartment and a regular schedule that provided approximately three weeks of vacation time per year.  After the amazing time I had over the previous six months, this was a very tough thing for me to think about.

The ferry ride to La Paz was scheduled to take 17 hours.  The boat was primarily, or, aside me and another motorcyclist, completely full of commercial truck drivers.  I get the impression that the other ferry is more passenger friendly.  Accommodations on my boat were limited to a cafeteria and an air conditioned movie lounge.  That was about it.  I spent most of my time on the ferry’s deck, first watching mainland Mexico slip away, followed by open ocean and a great sunset.  Shortly after getting onto the boat, I met Marco, an Italian guy who was also on a motorbike.  Marco had owned and operated a pizza restaurant in Oaxaca for a number of years, had recently sold it and was on his way north.

As dinner time approached, the cafeteria served up an unpleasant meal of tortillas, chicken, rice, beans and grease.  It was awful.  With the greasy meal behind me, I really wanted a beer, but the ferry did not sell them and I had none.  I talked with Marco, read a book for a bit, then, as dark approached, thought about sleeping arrangements.  Most of the drivers slept in the air conditioned movie lounge.  It was noisy, smelled bad and the seats were similar to what you would find in a bus.  I started thinking about the nice hammock I had been carrying since Panama.  The boat had railings everywhere and I am a fairly creative chap.  So, I rigged my hammock in the darkest corner of the deck I could find.  The Mexican truck drivers were quite impressed and I’m sure I was the most comfortable guy on the boat.  I had a great view of a big thunderstorm off in the distance until I finally fell asleep.

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I woke up to a nice sunrise and the sight of a handful of islands in the distance.  A barely edible breakfast was being cooked and I was hungry.  Eggs, rice and more tortillas.  It was slightly better than the dinner, but really still quite terrible.  After swilling down some bad coffee, I went back to the deck and watched the desert shoreline pass by.  It was a very different place from the lush and humid coast I had left behind in Mazatlan.  Baja’s coastline looked very desolate, devoid of life and inhospitable.

Marco, the motorcyclist I met on the ferry had a friend in the town of Todos Santos, which was about an hour away from where we landed.  He invited me to tag along.  After getting off the boat and going through a military checkpoint, we made the short drive to La Paz.  I only saw a small part of the city, but there seemed to be a night and day difference from any other place I had been in Mexico.  Much of the city was very newly constructed, with buildings that looked like they would be at home in Orange County.  It was clear that much of the place was built for tourists, with most recent construction seeming to be hotels, condos or restaurants.  It seemed to be a nice place, but given our timing, Baja was scorching hot and dry as a blast furnace.  After a good breakfast in town, with a wonderful cup of quality coffee, we were on our way.  The ride was nice, the roads were very new and traffic was light.  Just a short distance from La Paz and we were in the desert with not a whole lot around us.  After an hour or so, we made it to Todos Santos.  Once we got to the small town, Marco called his friend and got directions.  After a short ride through a residential area down a mostly dirt road we made it to Franco’s house.  The place was a fairly new construction and of a style I liked a lot.  It was a two story house, primarily constructed out of concrete, with bedrooms upstairs.  The ground floor was mostly open, with a polished concrete floor and a kitchen area.  Concrete had been used to form part of the counter tops.  Although it wasn’t a large place, it felt spacious and well constructed.  I think the open design helped with ventilation and the concrete construction insulated well against the heat.  I really appreciated the very durable design and wonder why we don’t use concrete for more home construction in the US?

After a cold beverage, we headed back into town and found ourselves a place to stay.  Since neither Marco or I had really slept well the night before, having a room with a decent bed and air conditioning was fantastic.  After checking in, we headed to the beach.  It seems like the place has some pretty great surfing beaches, but while I was there, the waves were lousy.  In any case, it was fun to be out in the sun and not riding the bike.  After the beach, we went to a very Mexican style outdoor eatery.  The place consisted of a cooking area made out of cement, of course, and the dining area, which was a gravel plot covered by a tent.  The cook had a supply of various recently caught seafood and I was able to try some great ceviche and camarones del diablo.  Fantastic and very fresh food.  After eating our fill, it was back to the air conditioned hotel for a shower and a well deserved nap.  As evening approached and the temperatures dropped to a very comfortable level, we headed back to Franco’s house for a very nice pasta meal.  Its funny to think that after all of the great scenery I have passed on this trip, many of my best memories revolve around meals.  I guess its a very important part of each day and something that’s fun to share with new people.

The next morning I woke up and had breakfast with Marco and Franco.  Then, I headed out solo on a long ride north to the town of Lareto, which was about 250 miles away.  The ride started out quite nice.  It was a fun twisty road through some very scenic  mountainous desert terrain.  The altitude got higher and the temperature dropped significantly.  The road gained altitude and turned towards the interior of Baja and the ride quickly became very boring.  Flat boring dirt scenery for a long time after that.  Then, once again, I got closer to the shoreline and I was rewarded with some magical views.  Some of the Baja shoreline is simply incredible.  I got into Loreto and found a hotel that was listed in my guidebook and checked in.  Again, it was a simple place that really wasn’t that great, but it was about 100′ outside and the place had air conditioning.  I wanted to go diving, so I spent the afternoon finding a dive shop and arranging a trip for the next day.  Then, I watched with sadness as a very large fire started in the thick dry palm trees of an abandoned lot.  The fire grew alarmingly large and put off a huge plume of smoke.  It got pretty close to several houses and the dive shop I had just arranged a trip through.  The local fire crew was incompetent at best.  At one point, while backing up, the fire truck ran over its own hose, causing a big mess.  Finally, the big fire truck from the airport arrived and properly fixed the problem.  That evening, after the fire I did some exploring, ate a lot and enjoyed a carnival that was in town.  I really liked the place.  Loreto has a lot of history as it was founded in 1697.  The surrounding area seems very remote and the Sea of Cortez is mind blowing.

The next day I woke up early for breakfast then made my way to the scuba shop.  The owner and our dive master was a very nice local guy.  The other three divers were folks a bit older than me, from the states.  One had a house in Loreto.  We left the marina and motored for about 45 minutes to a group of islands off the coast.  Our first dive was spectacular.  I done something like fifty dives and really haven’t ever seen so much sea life before.  We dove a rock wall that hit a maximum depth of about 80 feet.  The fish were absolutely thick.  They were decent sized and simply everywhere.  We saw eels, fish of all shapes and sizes and perhaps the most amazing thing I ever have seen underwater, a school of several hundred barracuda quickly passing by.  I was in awe of the sleek no-nonsense fish as they shimmered by, one after another, after another.  It was like a long parade of glittering torpedos

The next dive was equally spectacular as we were followed the whole time by an extended sea lion family.  They were very large, but never threatening.  They seemed to be quite intelligent and much more agile in the water than a scuba diver could ever hope to be.  It was a lot of fun to have the big animal come close underwater to study this odd creature that moved slowly and blew lots of bubbles.

After the dives, we took a leisurely route back to shore.  We passed a couple of island beaches that were simply amazing.   Pure white sand flowing into a cobalt blue sea, with interesting rays swimming all around us.  I’d really love to go back there one day and camp out on the islands.

After the dive, I ate lunch and then headed back to my hotel.  I stripped the cases and unnecessary weight off the bike and headed south.   There is an old, well preserved mission in a tiny settlement called San Javier.  Founded in 1699, this mission is the best-preserved in Baja and is still in use today.  Its located in an oasis, deep in the Sierra De La Giganta, inland on about 30 miles of fantastic dirt road from Loreto.  A small community of about 300, live, work and worship with very little consciousness of the outside world.  It was one of the most tranquil and peaceful places I had visited on my trip.  I would like to go back some day soon and camp out there for a day or two.

With diving, my mission fix and a few good meals out of the way, the next day I left for Bahai de Los Angeles, which was about 400 miles away.  The roads were reasonably good and often times quite boring.  The temps were scorching and I spent a lot of time focusing on making sure I had enough gas and planning my next stop.  For lunch, I stopped in the very pleasant town of San Ignacio, which also has a nice historical mission building.  I had a good meal, a couple coca-colas and headed back to the road.

After what seemed to be an eternity, I turned east off Highway 1 and made my way to the coast.  I found a few hotels that would have been ok, but since I had time, decided to keep looking.  A bit north of town, I found a fun place, ran by an American and full of a fun crowd.  Once I settled in, the guy managing the place set me up with a kayak, fishing rod and bait.  I seriously caught a fish with every single cast.  The setting was incredible, with an amazing sea view, desert mountains in the distance and the very colorful desert sunset.

That night, I enjoyed a great meal and a few beverages with the crew.  I had originally planned to leave in the morning, but in the end, decided to enjoy the beach for one more day.  In hindsight I wish I had gone out diving with two of the other guests as they were able to snorkel with whale sharks.  I’d really love to go back one day and do that myself.

The next morning I left while the temperatures were still cool.  My goal was meeting up with my friend Johnston at a place called Mikes Sky Ranch.  Little did I know this would turn into a very long and miserable day.  After a lot of hot weather riding, some windy, dusty agriculture land miles and one nasty semi-truck accident, I made it to the small town of San Telmo.  Its here that my crappy GPS map and less than adequate trip planning got me into a bit of trouble.  I really didn’t research the route to the Ranch and figured I’d just find it.  The place was on my GPS after all.  Well, my first attempt ended with me declaring defeat from the middle of an enormous chile pepper farm, which clearly wasn’t on the correct path.  I was close, something like ten miles from the place, but after talking to a local, he suggested a different route.  I went back to San Telmo and chatted with some local motorcyclists.  They recommended that I headed up the observatory road and at a certain point, branch off on a secondary road to the ranch.  Good I though, I have actually been up the road to the Observatory before on a climbing trip to Baja’s Pico del Diablo.  I remembered it as a nice area.  About 45 minutes later I was well into the mountains and turned off at the appropriate point.  I was now less than 10 miles from the ranch.  Great I thought.  I’m a little late, but soon Johnston and I would be enjoying a beer or more and sitting in the pool.

Well, things sort of went rapidly down hill from there.  The first half of the distance went fine.  It started as  a good gravel road, that morphed into an ok dirt road, then a rough track.  When my GPS said I had about five miles to go, things really when to shit.  At this point, the road was pretty much completely washed out.  What I had to work with was a rutted up and extremely rocky wash that looked like a dry river channel.  The first problem is my skill level.  I simply don’t have a lot of off road motorcycle experience and this sort of severe terrain was too much.  Hoping that the road would get better as I approached the ranch, I pressed on.  I was now realizing why my GPS had directed me on the much longer paved route which included going up to Ensenada and then back south to the ranch.  I shortly found that the road really didn’t get any better.  In fact it got worse.  On a dirt bike, I think I would have done pretty well on the route, but my 450 pound bike, with heavy luggage and a very worn rear tire caused me a  lot of trouble.  Before I made it to the ranch, I managed to drop the bike no less than ten times.  I got to the point on this nightmare trail that to make the bike handle a bit better, I took the luggage off, walked it up ahead, then went back for my motorcycle.  This helped, but it was killing me.  I spent something like four hours getting through this last five mile bit of road.   All the while, I was sweating profusely and even worse, I somehow lost my second liter of water that I always carried with me.  With temps around 102′, I was seriously close to giving up and walking the rest of the way.  Picking up the bike so many times had worn me out.  I was really facing exhaustion.  At one point, to get my heart rate back to where it belonged, I laid down under a shade bush.  But, finally, when I seriously though it was time to give up and walk the rest of the way, if I could, the trail got just a bit smoother.  It mellowed out enough that I could put the luggage back on the bike (the right rack was now beat to hell) and ride the last half mile.  This, on my second to the last day of the trip, was by far the hardest terrain I traveled.

Once I made it to the Ranch, I was in a bit of a state of shock.  I was soaked with sweat, alarmingly dehydrated, shaking hands with a friend I hadn’t seen in about seven months and confirming to some surprised dirt bike riders that yes, I did come down that route.  About a liter of water later and after a switch into shorts and flip-flops, I was feeling much better.  I explained to Johnston why I was so late.  The off road bikers were amused by the story.  We had a few beers, then figured out a way to zip tie, tape and strap my pannier rack into a good enough condition to get me home.  I couldn’t really believe it to be honest that the next day my trip would be over.  I really wasn’t ready to be done.  Then, I pretty much passed out from the long and incredibly stressful day, thankful for the cold mountain air.

The next day I woke up and felt like I had been hit by a truck.  After a bunch of water and coffee, we made our way north.  First, we passed through a lengthy section of sandy and washed out roads.  But, before long, we were on pavement heading towards Ensenada.  About an hour and a half of windy mountain roads, we began the downhill ride into the city.  We stopped for gas and some fresh fruit juice.  It felt like a Mexican city.  Like a latin city.  Somehow, I detected a common theme in the cities from Argentina to here.  I guess influence from a common Spanish past, the language, the small tiendas, the town square, the religion and stuff like that.  This would be the last time on my trip I felt that common theme.

From Ensenada, we made our way north to the U.S. border.  I had been through this area a few times before, so it was all fairly familiar.  We stopped for one last taco meal.  Then, Rosarito, Tijauana and bam, I was at the border.  Aside from about an hour spent running in circles, looking for the Banjercito to cancel my temporary import permit and get my $400 deposit back, the border was without drama.  Sure, we broke some laws when we rode around some cones and one security guard, then down the ambulance only lane, but hey, this is how stuff is done south of the border.  As we crept towards the border check point, I was really hit by an emotional feeling, trying to comprehend what I had just done.  I was proud, sad, thankful, and wondering what next.

Then, seconds later, I was in Chula Vista, on the familiar 8 freeway, struggling to keep up with American drivers would could care less about what I had just accomplished.  It was a tough homecoming.

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