Baja Enlightenment: Riding Mexico’s Lower California Peninsula

Playa Santispac in Bahía Concepción is a popular campsite on the Sea of Cortez, south of Mulegé, complete with two beach-front restaurants. (Photos by the author)
Playa Santispac in Bahía Concepción is a popular campsite on the Sea of Cortez, south of Mulegé, complete with two beach-front restaurants. (Photos by the author)

Our experience begins at the Tecate border crossing, a 45-minute ride east of San Diego. One by one we pull our motorcycles up to the border station, watch the light blink green—not red—then cautiously inch into Mexican territory. There’s a sense something is wrong. No official approaches to ask where we are going. No one stamps our passports. No one waves us forward and, thankfully, no one packing an AK-47 chases us down.

Welcome to Baja, gringo. Let the adventure begin.

Seconds later we are motoring through the hometown of Tecate beer, inhaling the dust and intoxicating aroma of meat on charcoal, and heading for Highway 3 en route to coastal Ensenada and points south on the ride of a lifetime. You hear a lot about Mexico these days—much of it bad. Drug cartels, mass murders and rampant corruption. It makes you think twice about attempting a 932-mile ride through the Baja desert to La Paz on the Sea of Cortez, officially the Gulf of California.

The author enjoys a home-cooked fish lunch with the Valdovina family in Mulegé.
The author enjoys a home-cooked fish lunch with the Valdovina family in Mulegé.

As our initial border experience would portend, Baja would be full of surprises but none of the horror stories we’d come to anticipate—well, almost none. Instead, it offered friendly inhabitants, contrasting landscapes, a sense of safety and road conditions far better than expected.

We are from the Vancouver area of British Columbia, chasing my long-held dream of riding Baja for my 60th birthday. I ride a 2005 883cc Harley Sportster; Gerald Brulotte a 2002 Road King; his son, Jesse, a 2007 Electra Glide salvaged from a fire sale; and Murray Comley, a 1995 BMW R1100GS purchased without so much as a test drive a week before the trip.

Highway 3 offers a smooth introduction to the ride, a road in excellent shape that wends through Baja’s wine country. I know what you’re thinking: Mexican wine? Truth is, Baja’s developing Valle de Guadalupe region is home to about 50 wineries with some respectable offerings, though it’s not yet Mexico’s answer to the Napa Valley.

At the bustling city of Ensenada on the Pacific Ocean, Highway 3 merges with Highway 1, the main thoroughfare running down the spine of the Baja peninsula. We are happy to leave the traffic behind and burn southward along a route that loosely parallels the Pacific Ocean and provides an introduction to Mexican driving. It is common for motor vehicles to pull out into oncoming traffic to pass, so be ready to slow down and pull over, often easier said than done on a road network with no shoulders. On the other hand, Mexicans are quick to pull over and let motorcyclists pass, often using their left turn signal to indicate conditions are safe.

Highway 1 winds through a scenic desert canyon on Mexico's Baja peninsula, west of Santa Rosalía on the Sea of Cortez.
Highway 1 winds through a scenic desert canyon on Mexico’s Baja peninsula, west of Santa Rosalía on the Sea of Cortez.

Travelers of all stripes are forced to brave the ubiquitous speed bumps, or topes, that mine the towns and
highway corners. Fiercely strong winds can also sweep across the exposed terrain.

South of Colonet at San Telmo de Abajo, consider a 62-mile side trip east on a twisting paved highway through mountains rising beyond 9,800 feet through Sierra de San Pedro Mártir National Park. Feel the desert heat give way to the coolness of a ponderosa pine forest, stand outside an observatory and look eastward to the Sea of Cortez and westward to the Pacific. Ice and snow are possible on the road in winter, and camping is permitted.

Roadside entrepreneurs at Cataviña sell gasoline in the Baja "gas gap."
Roadside entrepreneurs at Cataviña sell gasoline in the Baja “gas gap.”

Back on Highway 1, the true interior desert begins at El Rosario marked by a sign warning that the next gas station is some 300 kilometers distant. We’ve heard reports of freelancers part way through the Baja “gas gap” at the town of Cataviña, but carry a 5-gallon plastic jerry can of fuel, just in case.

The landscape soon opens up to rolling big-sky country imbued with the sense of freedom all motorcyclists crave. Anyone who believes a desert is stark is just not looking. The vista is filled with fascinating cactus species, including cardon, the largest in the world, growing up to 65 feet tall; the Gumby-like saguaro, each exhibiting a distinct personality; the organ pipe, with multiple large stems originating from ground level; and the aptly named barrel.

After about 75 miles, Cataviña rises up from boulder fields within Parque Natural del Desierto Central de Baja California. Sure enough, a couple of entrepreneurs are flogging gasoline—71 pesos per gallon in November 2015—though I cannot speak to the quality.

Livestock are a roadside danger in Baja, especially for motorcyclists riding at night.
Livestock are a roadside danger in Baja, especially for motorcyclists riding at night.

We’d been told not to travel at night due to unfenced livestock and unexpected road conditions, but have little choice given our destination of Bahía de los Ángeles on the Sea of Cortez. About an hour after pulling over to bundle up against chilly evening temperatures, we roar past cattle feeding just inches from the roadside. Goats, horses and burros roam free, too. Later, we hit highway repairs and drum our way across a menacing stretch of washboard gravel.

We find a welcome Pemex station at Bahía de los Ángeles, where spectacular bioluminescence lights up the dark evening waters, outlining the movements of even the smallest fish.

The first gas station on Highway 1 south of El Rosario is at the whistle-stop of Villa Jesús Maria, north of Guerrero Negro, a town known for gray whale watching and a commercial salt works based on evaporation. A ride out to the sand dunes leads to a restaurant—unmarked until you are almost there—and a feed of chocolate clams freshly pulled from the shallows fronting the Pacific.

The highlight of the ride southeast of Guerrero Negro is San Ignacio. This historic town with its 18th-century mission, palm trees and leafy zocalo is a physical and cultural oasis not to be missed. The virtual absence of garbage speaks to the town’s sense of pride. Even the kids remind us: “No basura.” The newer Hotel La Huerta is the place to stay at about 560 pesos for two persons.

The water and beaches of Bahía Concepción on the Sea of Cortez were a highlight of our trip to Baja, Mexico.
The water and beaches of Bahía Concepción on the Sea of Cortez were a highlight of our trip to Baja, Mexico.

San Ignacio is a short ride through a volcanic landscape to the cobalt-blue waters of the Sea of Cortez at Santa Rosalía. Down the road at Mulegé, we befriend the Valdovina fishing family at their simple home and enjoy a luncheon of freshly caught Lisa fish and snapper grilled over an open wood fire with homemade tortillas. It’s the sort of experience great trips are made of.

The white-sand beaches following at Bahía Concepción are achingly beautiful and with enough RV’s around to feel safe. We pay $10 to camp at Playa Santispac, featuring two beachfront restaurants, one of which gives us free wood for a small campfire.

Winds at Playa Santispac blew the author's tent into the Sea of Cortez.
Winds at Playa Santispac blew the author’s tent into the Sea of Cortez.

Watch out for the brisk winds. I pull off my jeans and scramble into the ocean to rescue my floating tent, while a neighbor’s well-trained black Lab paddles out to fetch my tent bag. “This happens about three times a week,” a New Mexico tourist says matter-of-factly.

Loreto lies an hour’s drive south, a town backdropped by Isla Del Carmen and the protected waters of Parque Nacional Bahía de Loreto. Don’t miss the side trip of about 20 miles to the village of San Javier. Challenges include missing chunks of pavement, scattered rock fall, a 100-yard stretch of uphill gravel and slippery vados—low water crossings. The reward is an intimate canyon ride with low-flying turkey vultures, yellow and white butterflies, our first glimpse of flowing water in the desert and an end-of-the-road lunch and beer outside a church dating to the mid-1700s.

South of Loreto, Highway 1 runs through a scenic landscape of canyons, mesas and dry riverbeds en route to Ciudad Insurgentes. Then it turns monotonously flat across desert country southeast toward La Paz, where we we’ve reserved a beachfront home on the Sea of Cortez.

Highway 1 has no shoulders but is in mostly good shape throughout the  Baja desert.
Highway 1 has no shoulders but is in mostly good shape throughout the Baja desert.

That’s also where trouble finds us. Gerald freely rode much of Baja without a helmet, his head wrapped in a bandana like a Steven Van Zandt lookalike. Then a cop pulls him over for riding without a lid, leads him to a side street and shakes him down for $50. “Everybody talks about the drug gangs,” Jesse dryly comments. “It’s the cops that tourists have to worry about.”

Not entirely the case. One day while riding through the desert, I catch up with a police vehicle traveling 110 kmh on an 80-kmh highway. When he puts on his left turn signal for me to pass, I feel I’m being set up for a fall. When he signals a second time, I take a deep breath, motor on past with a smile and a wave…and keep on going out of sight.

Turns out even the expected can prove unexpected in Baja, a land filled with enough sights and experiences to satisfy any motorcyclist’s sense of adventure.

Larry Pynn, Gerald Brulotte, his son Jesse and Murray Comley after breakfast at Bahía de los Ángeles.
Larry Pynn, Gerald Brulotte, his son Jesse and Murray Comley after breakfast at Bahía de los Ángeles.
A stranded mother and daughter give thumbs up after the author provided them with gas, south of Ensenada.
A stranded mother and daughter give thumbs up after the author provided them with gas, south of Ensenada.
Shifter problems demand attention near Ciudad Constitución.
Shifter problems demand attention near Ciudad Constitución.
A fresh harvest of chocolate clams on the beach at Guerrero Negro, on the Pacific Ocean.
A fresh harvest of chocolate clams on the beach at Guerrero Negro, on the Pacific Ocean.
Playa Pichilingue, just north of La Paz, is a great spot for swimming, with some coral for snorkeling.
Playa Pichilingue, just north of La Paz, is a great spot for swimming, with some coral for snorkeling.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Having ridden almost all of Mexico and Baja, much of it off pavement, I have to say I love the place. However, the brief reference to “the ubiquitous topes” doesn’t do justice to the degree of their dangers . . . or ubiquity! Without exaggeration, the during the many kilometers I’ve ridden in Mexico, I’ve crossed thousands of T o P e S, T o P e S and more T o P e S! If anything were to prevent me from riding Mexico again, it would be the f^€}in’ TOPES. I’d rant for hours on this but who would listen and why would it matter? Suffice it to say that they are a menace – especially when entering small isolated villages. Oh well, I’ll be b k for more soon EnOuGh.

  2. Good advice Terry. My rides into Mexico, especially the border crossings, were usually pleasant or unpleasant depending on my degree of preparation. That said, here my spin on expediting the process:
    – There are numerous sites on-line that give great advice but I got the best advice from my Insurance Broker, Motor Mexico: alankohl@motormexico.com. I have no affiliation with Alan or this company, but I can recommend him for outstanding service. Incredible service actually, and I have zero love for insurance companies.
    – Make sure your paper work is complete and well organized. Fumbling with loose papers looks foolish because it is foolish.
    – Entering and departing Baja is much easier than doing the same in Mexico proper.
    – If you’re riding through Mexico to Central America, it’s a different game – do your homework.
    – Lastly, and I learned this the hard way, make border crossings part of the adventure. Why? Because it is . . .

  3. “That’s also where trouble finds us. Gerald freely rode much of Baja without a helmet, his head wrapped in a bandana like a Steven Van Zandt lookalike. Then a cop pulls him over for riding without a lid, leads him to a side street and shakes him down for $50. “Everybody talks about the drug gangs,” Jesse dryly comments. “It’s the cops that tourists have to worry about.”

    Nice work! You don’t wear a helmet, then contribute to Mexico’s slippery slope down corruption avenue?

    Idiots. Grow up for crying out loud.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here