When I entered Mexico, it certainly wasn’t what I expected. I was prepared to be questioned by an immigration officer just like every other border crossing in the world. I thought they were going to ask why I was coming to Mexico and how long I was staying and question why I was carrying so much gear on my bike. I’d really been stressing this part of the journey and had been psyching myself up to get completely harassed and interrogated. The border crossing from Yuma to Algodones is simply a concrete arch….on the other side is Mexico. I rode through the arch and I was in Mexico. There was no immigration official, no barrier arm, no photo of my license plate…. I didn’t even stop! I saw a line of cars on the other side getting screened by US officials, but the Mexico side is wide open. A pretty good indication of the social divide.
The traffic in Mexico definitely takes some getting used to. HA! Speed limit signs seem to be posted merely as ornaments. There are no shoulders on the highways. Drunk driving is not only tolerated but if you even suggest that maybe you should take a taxi, people look at you like you’re an alien. And when it comes to motorcycles, there is no respect for lanes. Other vehicles will come over and take the rest of the available space in my lane which, compared to what we are accustomed too, is a serious piss off! This all adds weight to the rule, “Don’t travel in Mexico at night”. Drunken speedsters that don’t stay in their own lane….not commiserate with safe riding. The other thing which stands out are the superfluous stop signs which read “Alto.” Stop signs are everywhere and many don’t seem necessary at all. I’ve seen stop signs in the middle of a block with no intersecting street. I’ve seen signs posted on the far side of intersecting streets. And many are completely obscured by trees or buildings so that only the locals know they are there. But then trying to figure out if locals will stop is a game in itself. I’ve come up with two plausible explanations for this: 1) only half of Mexicans stop at stop signs or 2) all Mexicans stop at only half of stop signs. I’ve been to a fair few countries now and I would classify the driving here as some of the worst I’ve ever seen. Not to mention the parking jobs. People tend to pull their vehicles into curb spaces front in, leaving the back end sticking out into the street. Another unnecessary obstacle to navigate. Then there’s the dead dogs everywhere. I have seen an appalling amount of road kill here especially out on the highways and the carcasses are always dogs. And not always wild dogs either, I keep seeing breeds of domesticated dogs too. Hell I saw a dead schnauzer in the middle of the road way up in the mountains (which I have to admit was slightly comical.) The only real answer to driving or riding here is to watch your own back. Obey the rules only if you’re not going to put yourself in danger. And,, most importantly, exercise caution without any hesitation, which sounds like a contradiction but is absolutely necessary to operate a vehicle here. The one positive is the highways themselves are actually in really good condition for the most part. Felipe Calderon made it a goal to improve Mexico’s highway system during his 6 year tenure as Mexico’s president.
Ensenada was a cool place. Definitely Mexico! It was not as Americanized as I would have thought being so close to the border, but lots of infrastructure and obviously lots of money. I met many people who had moved from Mexico City looking for a safer, less crowded existence. I did see a Starbucks near the Malecon which was furnished identically to any of the 28 Starbucks in Kitsilano. My first Couchsurfing host, Karloz, lives in a brand new community on the very northern outskirts of town. Unfortunately the place doesn’t show up on either Google Maps or my GPS. Thus it was a bit of an adventure trying to locate my first night in Mexico remembering very little Spanish from my three weeks in Cuba 4 years ago. But once I figured out the right region, my tactic of stopping every block and asking, “Donde esta Los Encinos?” worked fairly well. People were extremely friendly and gave me great directions. It still took me a good 2 hours to find the house which after 6 hours of riding wasn’t super enjoyable. Karloz was a nice guy with very rudimentary English so it was an adventure trying to communicate. We went downtown my second night with a couple of his girlfriends to have drinks. It turns out that the Baja 1000, one of the toughest off-road races in the world was getting ready to start in a couple days and there was a big party in the downtown plaza. The race includes a number of classes from dirt bikes, dune buggies, souped-up VW beetles to these modified hummer-like vehicles called truggies. I had a great time talking to the different pit crews and racers and getting the low down on the race.
My back tire was pretty bald and had been since Utah really. I wanted to replace it in Phoenix but ran out of time (read “woke up with a hangover and had Bloody Marias for breakfast”) and when I got to Yuma it was already Sunday and most of the bike shops were closed. I didn’t want to burn another night in Yuma, mostly because my Canadian insurance had one day left and I didn’t want any trouble at the border. (Joke!) So I gambled that I would be able to find a tire in Ensenada. I was even more confident after discovering that the big race was on and there were heaps of both race bike and bikes ridden in by fans. Unfortunately after spending 2 days riding around searching llanteras (tire shops) and bike shops, I couldn’t locate a proper tire. I found a place that had one 17” tire but it was 10mm skinnier that I wanted and was only an 80/20 on-road/off-road tire. If I was going to be riding down the Baja peninsula I wanted something a bit knobbier. Plus the guy wanted $200US just for the tire not including insulation. It was a Bridgestone and when I looked it up on-line, I saw that the same tire retailed in the states for $82. I had Karloz print out a copy of the website order, but when I took it to show the guy at the shop, he wasn’t interested in negotiating in the slightest. Supply and demand. I guess if you have potentially the only 17” motorcycle tire in the state, you can hold out for $200.
Next day I decided to head down to the convention center where the race teams were setting up. My timing was great because when I arrived the pre-race parade was in full swing. There were thousands of people lining both sides of the lane. mostly Mexicans. The Baja 1000 is like the super bowl down here. The race teams are comprised of mostly Californians and Mexican’s. All the race vehicles were parked here and there and people were getting pictures taken with the hot Mexicali spokes models in skintight suits. The sponsors must put a lot of money into these events because the vehicles are pretty futuristic and there is tons of advertising. One of the booths I came across was for BF Goodrich. I was feeling pretty lucky but the guy there said they only had tires for big pickups and monster trucks on display. He said the Honda Race team was staying at the hotel across the street and I should see if I could find them to ask about a tire. Sure enough, right outside the front door, I see about half a dozen guys wearing matching Honda shirts. So I mosey over and tell them that I’m looking for a tire. They’re super friendly and gesture over to the equipment truck about 50 feet away. “You better hurry ‘cause the truck is just about to leave.” I figure the equipment truck is going to drop spare parts at points along the track for the racers if needed. There’s a guy at the back of the truck taking inventory so I jog over and I’m like, “Hey Dude, are you with the Honda Race Team. I’m travelling from Canada on my KLR and can’t find a rear tire anywhere in Ensenada. I was wondering if you have a spare by chance. The guy turns around and he’s this really good looking middle aged guy with penetrating eyes. He asks what size tire and I tell him 17”. He says, “We only run 18” tires on our bike. I’m really sorry I can’t help you out”. I reply, “Okay Buddy, no worries. Thanks anyway” and walk back past the first group of pit guys. “Johnny couldn’t help you out?” one of them says. I reply, “No he said he didn’t have the right size.” At this point I start looking around and notice that there are dozens of people kinda surrounding the truck at a safe distance, giggling, and taking pictures. I look up at the side of the truck and it says Johnny Campbell Race Team. I decide I should probably snap a photo too before heading off. As soon as I get back to Karloz’ place, I Google Johnny Campbell and sure enough he’s like the Michael Jordan of the Baja 1000. He’s won it 11 times. I got a bit obsessed with Johnny Campbell that night which Karloz and his friends thought was pretty hilarious. Not having known anything about the Baja 1000 before, I’m now a bit of a junkie!
Don’t believe me? Check out this link to see how extreme this shit is http://www.truechampion.org/
One of the meccanicos I spoke with in Ensenada, Francisco, who was a super nice guy and spoke good English told me I had less than 10% tread left. He was genuinely sorry that he couldn’t find a tire for me after looking on my behalf for 2 days. It appeared that I would have to make a run up to San Diego to get my tire. After a few skype calls (I’m in love with skype BTW… hopefully it will save me from having to buy a cell phone!) I had Southbay Motorsports put a stock KLR rear tire on hold for me. Fortuitously, Southbay was just 3 miles over the border in Chula Vista. I wasn’t completely unhappy about making the trip because it offered me the opportunity to see Tijuana and go through the busiest border crossing in the world. I rode up the beautiful cuota (toll road) along the ocean from Ensenada to Tijuana in about an hour and a half. Tijuana lives up to its billing as a complete zoo. Traffic was even more aggressive and the extreme poverty was visible everywhere. The border crossing was absolutely insane. There are 30 lanes at the US port of entry. The line of cars winds its way across the north part of the city on an elevated overpass. The cars were barely even moving. Some people weren’t even in their cars. There were vendors walking around selling souvenirs, Mexican blankets, food, refrescos. The whole scene looked almost post-apocalyptic. HOWEVER, they have an unwritten rule at the border that motorcycles can lane-split and bypass the border line-up. It was amazing. I saw a few other bikes and just followed their lead. You can literally weave your way through the entire mess and get right to the front of the line. Nobody honks or gives you any shit. Drivers actually make way for you and the vendors help you navigate through the horde. I got through the border in 5 minutes. I would estimate the 4 wheel plus vehicles would be sitting for at least another 3-4 hours. When I got to the immigration guy, I hadn’t him my passport. He glanced at it, saw that I wasn’t Mexican, and waved me through without a word. From what I saw, the truly frightening thing about TJ is the social and racial inequality.