story and photography by Rich Cox
[This Edelweiss Bike Travel Baja motorcycle tour was originally published in the April 2007 issue of Rider magazine]
Mexico’s Baja California cape is 800 miles long, the fourth longest peninsula in the world. Known as La Frontera (The Frontier), it’s a sparsely populated wilderness, startling in its immensity and featuring an amazing variety of terrain: turquoise blue water along the Bay of Cortez, three majestic mountain ranges that ramble through the mainly uninhabited Desierto Central region, and vast desert scenery pockmarked with ancient volcanoes, home to 70 percent of all cactus species found throughout the world.
It all sat virtually undiscovered until 1952 when the United States installed a radar station at San Felipe and built a highway (now Route 5) reaching there from Mexicali; this was the first paved road into Baja and the first tourist link to the Sea of Cortez beaches. Then came the Baja 1000 offroad race in 1967, which further helped bring Baja into the American consciousness. But it was the completion of Mexico Route 1, known as the Transpeninsular Highway—1,060 miles of asphalt starting in Tijuana and zigzagging down to Cabo San Lucas—in 1973 that really began the era of tourism in Baja.
This is not the first time Edelweiss Bike Travel has offered Baja motorcycle tours. They tried back in the mid ’90s but abandoned the effort, deeming the area “too dangerous” for public consumption. To this day there are still Americanos who believe centuries-old folklore that Baja is a dangerous place, crawling with marauding banditos, leftist guerillas and corrupt police. True, you can probably still grease the policia’s palm in times of minor trouble, but otherwise the place is pretty tourist friendly nowadays. Last year, Edelweiss Bike Travel re-entered the Baja motorcycle tour game offering back-to-back tours in November, December and February; in each case one tour travels the length of the peninsula from San Diego to Cabo San Lucas, the second tour does it in reverse. Baja is one of four tours labeled “Adventure Tour” in the Edelweiss catalog, meaning you are going to experience a new culture and unique landscapes, have the “opportunity” to go bushwhacking and get filthy dirty doing it—maybe even get a little bruised up or get a bout of Montezuma’s revenge. Personally, I like a bit of risk in my adventures—makes me feel alive.
This particular tour, which started in San Diego, had nine participants hailing from all parts of the United States, even one from distant British Columbia. I’m sure Baja was particularly enticing to our East Coast participants, since temperatures during our December tour date were a pleasant 60-70 degrees in the northern and central regions, jumping into the high 80s down in Cabo San Lucas.
Our tour guide on this run was Steve Phillips, a man well-suited for the job. He’s a retired customs inspector who speaks fluent Spanish. He’s also a hardened offroad veteran of Baja, having previously raced the Baja 1000 several times in a car. Edelweiss is serious about safety, and Steve and his assistant Hector were well prepared to keep the visiting gringos out of harm’s way. They had Mexican cell phones for communications, a large diesel truck/trailer combo for hauling luggage and disabled bikes, and even carried a full medical kit and backboard.
Would-be explorers are offered a choice of three BMWs—the F650GS Dakar, R1200GS or R1200RT—for the adventure. Choosing the right one for a satisfying experience comes down to two factors: how adventurous you think you are, and your “real” offroad ability. Make no mistake—without ever putting a tire in the dirt, you could run two-up on a R1200GS all the way to Cabo and have a pretty entertaining adventure. But if you’re offroad savvy and really want to “experience” Baja and the freedom of exploring all its nooks and crannies, then the F650GS Dakar is the bike of choice (solo of course).
Come Sunday morning, with driver’s licenses and passports ready (the only real requirements for entering Baja), our group breezed through the Tijuana border crossing with hardly a glance from the attending agents. On the reverse side though, getting back into the United States looked like a nightmare, with lines of cars extending for miles. It gave me a warm feeling knowing I would be closing this one out on a high note, sucking a margarita poolside in Cabo before flying home from there.
The short, 140-mile ride from Tijuana to Ensenada is a rather lackluster beginning, as the landscape is dotted with half-finished condos and timeshares long ago abandoned. As we rolled into Ensenada (starting gate of the Baja 1000 and party central), I noticed a few ATVs and dirt bikes running through the dusty streets, and that at least half the cars in town are stripped of license plates. It makes you realize this is still the Wild West. To offroaders and weekend revelers, that’s Baja’s beauty! Being first timers to Ensenada, we naturally took in two of its cherished attractions: a trip to the blowhole known as La Bufadora, followed by a fun-filled night of blaring Mariachis and tequila shooting at legendary Hussong’s Cantina.
The road from Ensenada to Lazaro Cardenas is less than inspiring, meandering through numerous little roadside towns choked with traffic and dust. It is around El Socorro that my two offroad compadres and volunteer photo models, Joel and Wiley, were getting anxious to explore. We spied a beautiful range of sand dunes in the distance along the water’s edge and bolted for it. It’s here we were introduced to the 650’s limitations, as it’s tall and heavy and a handful in sand (or on any loose surface, really). Both guys eventually got pitched into the sand, but still came up smiling. Not to worry, they both purchased the extra damage insurance, something I recommend to anyone who plans to adventure off the beaten path.
Assimilation in Baja is relatively easy. English is spoken widely in the major coastal tourist towns, and U.S. dollars and credit cards are readily accepted. However, plunging deeper into the bowels of Baja where the Mexicano culture remains undiluted, Spanish is the language and cash (pesos) the required currency for the most part. There are certainly some dangers remaining for travelers in Baja, one being a legal system that operates under the Napoleonic code, and presumes the accused guilty until proven innocent. For motorcyclists, simply traveling Route 1 requires extra care. Ninety percent of the highway is on an elevated foundation. It’s narrow, there are few turnarounds and turnouts, and even a moderate-speed departure from the road is likely going to hurt. Riding at night is an absolute no-no; too many trucks ignore the centerlines and too many range critters hang by the road.
At El Rosario, the highway climbs and winds eastward into the vastness of central Baja. It’s here the road and topography really start to get interesting and this tour starts gaining momentum. The fast, winding highway across the Mesa La Sepultura is like being on the barren moon. Farther down the road, with the warm sun slowly fading away, we dropped into the spectacular Catavina boulder field, home to a dazzling array of cactus and boulders the size of houses. Pulling into the La Pinta Hotel nestled amongst the cactus, the vastness of it all hit me: I was really in the middle of nowhere and loving it. So vast, in fact, that we needed to get a splash-and-go of gas from a private vendor (a beat-up Datsun loaded with five-gallon containers) to ensure we made it to the next stop.
Venturing southward became a seesaw of highs and lows, both scenically and mentally. Day 4, Catavina to San Ignacio (240 miles), is an extraordinarily long, rather unremarkable slice of Baja, and for me, was made 50 miles longer when I joined in early that morning with four others on the optional offroad ride to San Borja mission. It’s truly an adventurous and invigorating ride through the picturesque desert…that is until one of our gang took a spill, tweaking his ankle like a pretzel. Most of the morning had passed before we got him securely on his way to an emergency room in Guerrero Negro, requiring us to blitzkrieg to San Ignacio in order to arrive before dark. Ricardo’s Hotel in San Ignacio is a major stop on the Baja 1000 prerunning tour and a real slice of rural Baja; room keys are passed from behind a dimly lit bar, and upon entering my spacious room—nearly devoid of furniture—I switched on the lone, bare ceiling light and sent crawling creatures scurrying everywhere for cover. I was too tired to be concerned on this night.
Without question, my favorite part of Baja lies south of San Ignacio, along the Sea of Cortez near the hidden refuges of Mulege and Loreto. There’s a wonderful set of twisties (called Hell’s Descent) that plunge down into Santa Rosalia, where we were treated to spectacular views of the coastline. Below Mulege, the bluish-green water and creamy white beaches of Baja Concepción were just too enticing, so a group of us rode out onto a beckoning sandbar, romping in the soft sand until nearly exhausted. Our lodging that night—the Oasis Hotel in the sport-fishing town of Loreto—is expansive and sits right on the sand, looking out through dancing palm trees that were being whipped into a frenzy by howling wind. It was an extraordinary day. I would like to have stayed there for at least another week.
Forfeiting a well-deserved morning off on Day 6, Loreto to La Paz (225 miles), Joel and I were up at 6 a.m. to run the second optional offroad excursion to the San Javier Mission just outside of Loreto. Actually a part of last year’s Baja 1000 race course, the 25 miles of rock-strewn fire road climb steeply into the Sierra Giganta mountains, through jagged canyons, around daunting cliffs and numerous water crossings. It’s an eye-opening sample of how incredibly challenging the entire Baja 1000 race must be, and incredibly Joel’s bike picked up the one lone nail out there and a rear flat on the way out. Needless to say, our guardian angel Steve was kept very busy on this trip bailing us out of trouble.
Just south of Loreto, the road starts climbing and winding back through the mountain range westward up onto the flats, and it was truly cherished as the last satisfying piece of twisty on this ride. The following 200-mile trek down to La Paz travels straight through rather mundane terrain and became a test of endurance. To this point I had been impressed with the F650GS Dakar; it eats up pavement rather easily (spinning 5,000 rpm at 75 mph), and has plenty of reserve ponies for overtaking the slow, rambling trucks and half-dying smoking cars that are abundant in Baja. But on this particular day, having to forge through a 20-mph crosswind the entire way to La Paz, I was envious of those sporting the longer-legged R1200GS. The port city of La Paz was a welcome sight as I was feeling grungy and worn down to a nub. Our night’s lodging, Hotel Los Arcos, is a modern affair and resides on the main boardwalk overlooking the bay. The night air was warm and balmy, and we were treated to a brilliantly colored sunset that was breathtaking. The boardwalk in La Paz is packed with restaurants and clubs and our group enjoyed a night full of reveling at a delightful open-air Italian restaurant called La Belle Epoque.
The last day’s ride traveled down the west side of the Baja Sur region, the more scenic portion of the peninsula. Todos Santos, one of the greener arroyo settlements of the region, was our lunch stop. Behind all the pastel adobe facades there’s a colony of artists, surfers and organic farmers living in obscurity. Boutiques filled with colorful artistry line the streets, and it was my last chance to purchase that prized authentic gecko or rose-painted sink. We dropped in for lunch at the town’s Hotel California, which it proudly claims is the one in the Eagles’ song of the same name. The track played softly in the background non-stop as our group enjoyed our last lunch together. Of course, the Hotel California in the song is not a place, but merely a metaphor for the hedonism and greed of the West-Coast music industry in the ’70s. The Eagles never visited this one…but who cares?
The final destination and hotel on this adventure, thankfully, is in San Jose del Cabo, not the bustling and tourist-choked Cabo San Lucas, as might be inferred from EBT’s website. Referred to as “the other Cabo,” San Jose del Cabo is a smaller, more traditional Spanish town with a laid-back culture and atmosphere. But there was nothing diminutive about our beachfront hotel, the Royal Solaris Los Cabos; it’s a world-class resort, one of those Disneyland types where a single wristband grants you unlimited access to all the magic kingdom’s amenities. As I pounded margaritas with my compadres, I couldn’t help but reflect on the past six days. It had been a rollercoaster of a ride; one day immense stretches of vast wilderness, the next beautiful coastlines or dramatic mountain ranges. I had learned about the history and culture of Baja; I’d ventured through its graceful colonial towns and visited some of its treasured century-old missions buried deep in the mountains. I’d blasted over its lonesome beaches and watched incredible sunsets drop in its bays. But the best part is that I met a lot of neat, interesting people doing it. And that’s what makes a truly great adventure.
Baja Adventure Details
This is a very ambitious six-day trek through Baja, venturing deep into its interior and hitting all its major (tourist) towns. For the more enthusiastic there are two optional offroad excursions of about 50 miles each that will give you a taste of what the Baja 1000 race participants go through. Like most Edelweiss tours, you can follow the tour guide the entire way, or explore with other tour members at your own pace. Just don’t do it alone.
Whether November, December or February, temperatures are generally perfect for riding (60s-80s), and Baja only gets 12-24 inches of rain per year. The February tour features an optional whale-watching trip—whales likely but not guaranteed, of course. Edelweiss tour prices include bike rental, hotel accommodations (which are mild to wild), breakfast and dinner. Participants buy their own gas, lunches and any drinks. It’s still not advisable for gringos to drink the tap water in Baja, but bottled water is plentiful. So are the nationally owned Pemex gas stations, with just one 200-mile stretch the longest between stations. It’s a cash-only transaction—as always count your change carefully. Basic Internet service is available in the major ports, but hit-and-miss out in the boonies; for cell phones check with your provider as special service is usually required. The only other additional travel expenses included a few road tolls from Tijuana to Ensenada and paying for our “tourist cards” (a $20 exit fee in 2007) before departing Los Cabos.
Edelweiss also offers a two-day extension to the stay at the San Jose Del Cabo hotel. This is a nice option as there are no full rest days on the tour, and speaking for myself, I would like to have had a little more down time. What a ride!
For more information, contact Edelweiss Bike Travel at www.edelweissbike.com.