Baja

This blog entry is specifically for Gerald, an Aussie motorcycle rider I met in Ensenada, who asked for a detailed report of the roads in Baja. We chilled out with the same Couchsurfer host as we acclimatized to life as Mexis and utilized her garage to do some tinkering. Unfortunately Gerald had some pretty serious mechanical issues and it didn’t appear he would be continuing south for some time. He was obviously a bit concerned about attempting the hostile desert terrain on an old bike which was experiencing engine hiccups, so I promised to give him a heads up on the conditions. After learning all about the Baja Mil, I was curious to find out what the race terrain is like. I decided to loosely follow the route down the Baja peninsula to get an idea of the different conditions and length. I left Ensenada and tracked along the highway towards San Felipe, a seaside town on the eastern side of Baja. San Felipe is an extremely out of the way tourist destination for US and Canadian vacationers looking for something out of the ordinary. It is certainly no Cancun. The main drag along the ocean is seriously run down. The hotels and restaurants look like they had their heyday in 1960s. The place had a very edge of the world, kind of wild west, feel to it. After finding a cheap hotel (no Couchsurfers in this neck of the woods) I watched the pescadores come ashore and sipped tequila from one of the beach side restaurants as the sun disappeared behind me. An interesting feeling being on the west coast and not seeing the sun drop into the ocean.

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During the day I had met a young Macedonian traveler who was also on a motorbike. He had seen me scoffing a cheese and tomato sandwich outside an abarrote on the highway and u-turned for a chat. Atop a shiny black Virago and sporting a mean-looking handlebar moustache, he was covered by a red poncho which seemed rather odd in the desert heat. His audacious appearance had me somewhat guarded as he rode up. I was concerned that he might be some crazed territorial Bandido or Solo Angeles gang member. The rider introduced himself as Victor and said he was attending university in Sacramento. It was his last weekend before finals and he had to return to Macedonia as soon as school finished. Instead of studying he wanted to go on an adventure. He bought himself a cool used cruiser and was riding from Sacramento to the middle of nowhere on the Baja Peninsula to see the Valley of the Gigantes, a patch of giant cactuses 20-30 ft tall. He had left on Friday afternoon and had to return on Sunday night for his Monday exams. Understandably, I liked Victor immediately and could relate to his quest. He asked if he could ride with me into San Felipe and I said sure but that he’d better keep up. He did in fact catch up to me as I got bogged down in some sand trying to ride over the dunes next to the highway. This was the first of many lessons demonstrating that dual sports are not dirt bikes.

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It wasn’t much of a coincidence when Victor and I ran into each other later that evening on the main drag of sleepy San Felipe. Being on just a three day outing, he had money to burn and bought us shots of the most expensive tequila in the bar: Don Julio 1942. Smoky and delicious. The shots were about $9 each… a veritable fortune for tequila in Mexico (You can grab one litro bottles of El Jimador Reposado at Costco for under eight bucks!) We met a middle aged lady from Winnipeg and her niece who was in town visiting for a couple weeks. The lady owned a house in San Felipe and had lived there half the year for 16 years, she told us. I was shocked to discover that she was not eloquent enough in Spanish to even order tacos. The bartender spoke English as most hospitality workers do in touristy areas of Baja. I’ve become used to meeting American ex-pats that can’t speak the local language, but to see a long-time Canadian ex-pat that hadn’t bothered to learn even rudimentary Spanish was very disappointing. It seems that Canadians have a bad reputation in Mexico for being insensitive tourists and being extremely stingy. I’ve actually met  a few Mexican people who say they don’t mine Americans but can’t stand Canadians. Wow. I’ve never heard anything like that anywhere in the world. I certainly hope we are not becoming the ugly, disaffected, tourists of our generation.

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Victor said he was getting up the next morning at 6am to hit the Valle de Gigantes and then head back to the Frontera. We bid each other good night and good luck and parted ways. The next morning as I was heading south, we crossed paths, Victoe obviously having had his fill of giant cactuses- and having completed his peculiar mission. We traded the customary motorcycle wave and big smiles. I enjoyed seeing the giant cactuses myself as well as the other desert vegetation. Most of these plants were totally new to me and I was impressed at just how many varying species of cactuses made their home in the Baja. The pavement ran out this day, as I had been advised, and the road became gravel and dirt. There were all these weird little compounds huddled along the coast at intervals along the way. I picked one at random and veered along one of the side roads heading towards the sea. At one of the properties I came across a blue school bus with a Haida fish painted on the back. When I stopped to take a look, I realized the bus had a BC license plate. Considering how chance and out of place this was, I killed the engine and pulled out my camera to take a photo. As I was getting my shot, an old white haired man with red leathery skin emerged from the compound and started walking towards me. I shouted a greeting and he shouted back to invite me in for a drink. Of course I accepted and parked my bike in the limited shade afforded by the ancient school bus. My host’s name was Francois and he was a transplant from Quebec who now lives in New Westminster, BC. He was probably in his 60’s and spent 4-6 months on this compound in the absolute middle of nowhere each year. There was no electricity except from a generator and no running water. Francois had converted the bus into a camper and had built a palapa roof as shelter for an outdoor living space. He had also built a small masonry shitter at on corner of the property. Albeit, a pretty fuckin’ lonely existence, Francois said he loved the stillness and seclusion of the desert. He usually came down with his girlfriend, he told me, but she didn’t want to stay for a whole six months this year, so Francois elected to come down a few months ahead of her. He was a pretty nice guy and, of course, it was difficult to extricate myself after a single Tecate. Francois had a desperate look in his eyes and pretense in his demeanour, revealing that his soul was absolutely screaming for company. It was midday and I wasn’t sure how far I would need to travel still to find a place to crash so I took my leave. Francois was exceedingly nice upon bidding me adieu and invited me to call on him anytime if I should ever find myself passing down this desolate gravel road in the future. I thought a lot about Francois that afternoon and pondered the wealth of alternative lifestyles that people, even my own countrymen, participate in that most of us would never consider and rarely stumble upon.

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The road conditions began to take a real downward turn as I pushed further south along the coast. The paved sections of road were interrupted every so often by huge unmarked swales. I assume these were made for drainage during the wet season. The fact that they are unmarked means you need to keep a real eye open because tracking across one at 80 or 90 kilometers an hour provides bike and rider with a real jolt. There was one long stretch of highway where a crew was resurfacing the road. Unlike in Canada where at least one lane is kept open for traffic, out here traffic maneouvers around workers and machinery that are scattered over the road. There are no flagmen, just a bunch of barrels letting you know that you’re entering a construction area and you better not let yourself get hit by a grader. One section of new road was raised six inches higher than the existing grade and a desviacion arrow directed me off the road down a super steep sandy embankment, not onto a temporary road even, but just out into the desert. I creeped through the sand amidst thorny cactuses for approximately half an hour only able to get up to 20 kph and really starting to contemplate if I should turn back the way I had come. Way off in the distance, I suddenly saw a car moving along at a pretty good rate of speed and realized that either the road was once again intact or I was experiencing a mirage.

On this day I made it to a small community of compounds called Bahia San Luis Gonzaga. I considered it auspicious that this place had the same name as one of my favourite NCAA basketball teams and decided this was a good place to stop for the night. That and it was the only enclave of humanity that I’d seen for about three hours. I asked at a small tienda if there was a hotel in town and thankfully the men working there said there was and gave me directions. When I got to Alfonsina’s I saw a collection of new looking, well kitted-out dual sports and dune buggies parked outside. I was definitely in the right place, I thought. When I got inside, I came upon a collection of dusty old American gentlemen sitting around a table smoking cigars and drinking whiskey. I shuffled over to them indenturing myself immediately considering my own dusty state and riding apparel. After shooting the shit with this brutish-looking pack in the usual sarcastic, chidingly-abusive manner in which alpha males address one another, I went looking for the owner of the hotel. I was horrified when a burly, shirtless Mexican man I presumed to be Alfonse, informed me that there were no rooms available for the night. The weekend warriors had the hotel completely full up. Of course, this was the only hotel in town and the sun was almost gone, so I saddled up once again and rode off in search of some type of quartering for the night. After riding a further six kilometers along a seriously rutted dirt road, I came upon a palapa roof near the beach which I thought would serve my purpose well. Dragging out my sleeping bag, yoga mat and a half sack of very warm cans of beer from my pannier, I tucked in for the night.

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The last section of road/trail before reconnecting with the highway was particularly brutal. With huge embedded boulders and razor sharp stones jutting out of the ground, this couldn’t even be considered an off-road trail. This was a jeep trail at best and was wreaking havoc for my heavily loaded motorcycle. Small stones kept getting shot up by the front tire and caroming off the engine guard. The sound it made being identical to the pop of a blown tire. I was absolutely terrified of losing a tire. Although I had an extra tube for both front and rear, there was the problem of re-filling a new tube without a compressor. If I did blow a tire, the only thing I could do would be to remove the wheel by the side of the road, put in the new tube and wait until someone else to ride by. I would have to ask them to ride the however many kilometers to a gas station, fill the tire and leave it there until another rider came back in the opposite direction. Since I hadn’t seen anyone else out here all morning, that was a proposition I unquestionably did not want to make. However, despite the logistical fears that I kept having, I was actually enjoying myself immensely. Out in the desert all alone. Just man and machine conquering the elements in one of the most inhospitable climates in the world. This was some extreme shit! The landscape was gorgeous, incredible flowering cactuses, beautiful vistas and I had it all to myself… well except for the seemingly thousands of monarch butterflies everywhere. Apparently there is single spot in Central Mexico where monarch butterflies migrate every year. It is estimated that, in any given year, 60 million to 1 billion monarchs travel as far as 4,000 km to this one particular spot north of Mexico City. The area is now a protected World Heritage Biosphere. The monarch is the only butterfly known to make regular north-south migrations.
I was truly thankful when I came upon Coco’s Corner sometime that afternoon. Coco is a local desert hermit who lives alone at the convergence of two trails between Calamajule and Chapala. He has a small roadside tienda and bar to serve weary travelers who pass through. It is truly an oasis in the desert after many hours of hard riding. He also has some trailers on his lot for those who would be motivated to spend the night out here. Sadly Coco is missing both his legs and must have a real time getting around his sandy compound without assistance. This doesn’t seem to dampen his spirits though, as he is amazingly personable and seems to delight in chatting with passersby. Coco’s Corners is legend among adventure riders the world over and I was stoked to have made it here for the rare honour of patronizing this infamously-remote watering hole. Coco was even hospitable enough to let me get a photo with him as, judging by his wallpaper, many have before me.

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The entire days ride was painfully slow. Due to the tremendously rough terrain, I was barely able to keep an average speed of 30 kph. The blazing 40+ C heat was rapidly sucking my energy making me dizzy and exhausted. My rear tire kept sliding out from under the bike as I hit patches of loose sand and exacting a tremendous amount of strength to stay upright. The stones continued to smack into the aluminum bottom plate sending blasts of terror through me every time. And all the while these goddam orange butterflies, completely oblivious to my suffering, just keep fluttering about without a care in the world.

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