It was difficult leaving the comfort of Brenna and Devon’s last week, but we had been looking forward to camping in Big Sur. Our GPS led us astray and we missed the exit in Oakland that would take us back to the scenic Highway 1 and we were left to battle traffic on the sterile highway through San Jose. The long lines of stop and go traffic were demoralizing at first, until we decided to try our hand at lane-splitting. The practice of riding between lanes of traffic on the white lines is common in this part of the world, and seeing a few bikes pass us by, we decided that we wouldn’t sit around all day waiting for the traffic – we would take the matter into our own hands. Despite our wide luggage and inexperience, we made it without incident…. Although there were a few close calls, of course!
Much of the day was spent in mist and gloom, with an almost ghostly feel to the road untouched by sunlight. Ongoing wildfires in the area have been devastating and it was sobering to see the temporary firefighter camps on the side of the road. As the afternoon went on, State parks came and went, closed indefinitely due to the fires. ‘But Big Sur should be fine, right?’ Well, not exactly. Some private campsites were open but full – after all it was Saturday and there was a shortage of camping due to the closures! So now we had passed Big Sur, and had no idea what lay ahead of us. We did take the time to stop in San Simeon to have a look at the amusing collection of Elephant Seals, all piled on top of each other sleeping on the beach, blowing sand into the air with each exhale from their long snouts.
We finally found a reasonably affordable motel in Cayucos, pulling up in the dark and missing our chance to order a much-needed meal at a local restaurant so we settled for chips and kit kat bars from the corner store… definitely missing Brenna and Devon’s!
The following day we would continue south with the hopes of getting through Los Angeles, which is known for its terrible traffic. On the way we passed by the beautiful Lake Chachumo which is nestled in the desert landscape surrounded by hills of orange and brown dotted with short stubby shrubs. It is also a valuable source of water and we saw helicopters swoop down to fill their buckets. We soon saw why. Stopping at a vista point overlooking the Los Padres National Forest we saw big flames roar atop a distant hill, while thick clouds of smoke emerged from other hills that occupied the stunning view.
Our approach to L.A. took us through Malibu where the beaches had more people than sand and money was stacked in house-shaped piles on the hills. College tuitions rolled down the streets in the form of Porsches, Lamborghinis and Ferraris. We did some more lane-splitting, careful now not to scratch wing mirrors worth more than our bikes and continued riding the white lines on and off through L.A., at times riding in between two sets of double-yellow lines separating the two carpool lanes from the other six lanes of traffic. Overall our trip through the city went very smoothly, and we made it to Orange County just in time to meet with Manali, a Kubicki family friend, and her husband Ash for a brief dinner. Manali has worked for Dom and Tym’s father’s land surveying firm in Mississauga for a few years, managing to balance school and work full time. She spoke highly of her time there, and is excited to finish school and move down to L.A. to live with her husband. It was great to reconnect with her and to finally meet Ash.
After supper it was a short ride through cookie-cutter suburbs with terraced roofs and perfectly shaped hedges to Casper’s Wilderness Park that felt surprisingly remote given its proximity to such a massive metropolis. That evening, a scorpion skittering through the site was enough to convince Dom to set up his tent as he had been planning on sleeping under the stars.
The next day we made it to our campsite outside San Diego really early, giving us some time to run some errands before crossing into Mexico. We got some Spanish phrasebooks, some cash, and a few other odds and ends before putting our heads down and preparing for the next border crossing.
In the morning we got to the little U.S. border town of San Ysidro, got our Mexican motorcycle insurance and topped up on gas. The road turned in towards gates at the border crossing and we followed the line of ‘Nothing to Declare’. We could have gone straight in to Tijuana without stopping had we not stopped ourselves knowing we needed some documentation for our bikes. It was our first test of Spanish and a slight test of patience as we bounced back and forth between two offices but the whole process took less than an hour. We were in Mexico!
There were a couple of rules we had heard about riding in Mexico. Don’t ride in the dark and stick together. As for the Baja, we had read it is best to travel quite far south the first day, and so we had booked a motel in El Rosario – a rare moment of foresight for us! First we needed to leave Tijuana and as we rode parallel to the border, the tall barbed wire fence stared at us menacingly from the right, while fragile homes seemingly banged together with scrap material stuck to our left. The roads were in very good shape and we made good time, stopping only to pay a few tolls.
The road became a highway and took us through a cool city called Ensenada that was bustling with people on the dusty streets. Vendors walked through lines of cars stopped at streetlights and there was a fair amount of prosperity, from our Canadian perspective, but also many homes that appeared to be crumbling away under the weight of poverty and neglect.
The roadsides grew more deserted as we travelled south into the desert, and we went through little towns, which usually consisted of a farm at either end, and a single sandy street framed by concrete and plywood homes covered in dust. The farms varied between small family owned setups and large industrial operations, but seeing the sombreros bob up and down between the lines of crops was quintessentially Mexican and a delight to see. As the workday ended, hundreds of farm workers could be seen piling on to big school busses that would take them towards their home from the big farms, while workers from the smaller farms walked or rode bicycles along the dirt streets.
About half an hour outside of Ensenada we took a break under the only shade we could find – that of a big road sign. Just as we were about to leave an SUV rolled up and a guy jumped out of the driver side door. He introduced himself as Scotty, the man behind the Baja Rally, an annual off-roading event that attracts people from across the world. He was extremely friendly and went over our maps with us, telling us the must-see spots in Baja. He took a look at our bikes and assured us we would be just fine. What good luck that he found us! He left us feeling great about the Baja, reiterating time and again how nice the locals were. “Nobody’s going to hurt you here,” he would say, “if anything they will kill you with kindness. And those tough looking guys in the restaurants – they don’t want to rob you. But they might steal your hearts.” He had been coming to the Baja for ten years and had lived here for five. He then assured us that our hotel in El Rosario was the best in town and told us where to eat. We made it to the hotel, clad with beautiful tiles and two comfortable king size beds, and ate at Mama Espinoza’s next door. With Scotty’s recommendation of a nice easy day trip that would ‘be a total failure if we missed’, we decided to leave the bulk of our gear at the hotel the next day, and travel light – enjoying our first day off-roading in the Baja!
The morning arrived, and after a few bike adjustments we were on the trail, expecting to arrive at the halfway point in the loop – Punta San Carlos – at about 11. We would have a snack and a beer there, hop in the Ocean and come home. What could possibly go wrong? Mistake #1: We didn’t bring any food, relying on us reaching Punta San Carlos for our snack. The first stretch was easy enough, taking us through rough sandy roads, the conditions manageable and the bumps easy to avoid. We thought we were making good time, and Scotty’s words were never far from mind, “Just hug the coast, you can’t get lost!” Well Scotty, yes we can.
Every little path we took towards the coast took us down impossibly rough washed out roads, most leading to dead ends. One did take us to a fisherman’s beach access and after a pleasant, though one-sided, conversation we rode along his beach expecting to make it a good distance down the coast on the hard packed sand. The tide interrupted that plan, and we doubled back to our friend the fisherman taking his path back up to the main ‘road’ to continue our futile search for San Carlos. We found more dead ends, got stuck in deep sand, fell off the bikes, and got every bone in our bodies shook out of place and back in again. It was fun – but it was hard. We eventually made it to a crossroads where right would have taken us to San Carlos and left would have led us back towards the highway, but it was 4 o’clock already and our empty stomachs were speaking loud and clear. Turning left we passed through fields of classic desert cacti and as the roads improved slightly so did our speed and we raced the sun home. We saw totally secluded Mexican ranches, passed horses running through the sand, and watched our shadows lengthen as they jumped along the bumpy ground beneath our feet.
We finished off the day with 20 miles on the pavement of Highway 1. What a relief. Gliding over the asphalt after a day on the rough stuff is comparable to few of life’s great pleasures. We were back at Mama Espinoza’s for more great food as soon as the bikes were parked and we sat together reflecting on our first big day in the Baja… If Scotty said that was an easy ride we would have to rethink the rest of our Baja travels.
The next day was easy – we stayed on Highway 1 all day, with only the goal of reaching Guerrero Negro which sits somewhere along the border between Baja California and Baja California Sur. The scenery was beautiful and constantly changing, alternating between combinations of wide open vistas, tabletop hills of orange sand speckled with shrubs and rock, cacti waving at us from the side of the road, massive round boulders, and more. We took a few breaks, lying in the shadows of our bikes on the side of the road. More abandoned buildings came and went, some alone on the roadside while others were grouped together in little ghost towns. Many buildings were old and run-down while some appeared to be new, though unfinished, with paneless windows overlooking nameless streets. Occasionally you could catch a glimpse of movement as a lone inhabitant went about their business, or a dog ran off chasing a rabbit. We arrived in Guerrero Negro through one of many military checkpoints that are supposedly looking for money and weapons heading south and drugs heading north - but they have yet to be too concerned with us and simply wave us through the stop signs.
Friday’s journey began innocently enough as we set out along Highway 1 to San Ignacio. The town is a wonderful oasis of wetland alone in the desert, with a picturesque town square lying in front of an old church shaded by beautiful palm trees. The plan from there was to turn off the main highway on to what the map describes as an ‘Improved Road’ that would take us to San Juanico – recommended by many locals we had spoken to. We expected to be there for lunch, but brought with us a modest snack after our last off-road adventure. After a quick lap of San Ignacio looking for the road, a friendly shopkeeper pointed us down a sandy alley that quickly turned to pavement and we were impressed by the quality of the road. For now! We took advantage while we could, leaning into sweeping corners that meandered through the undulating sandscape. ‘Could this last?’ we wondered, ‘will we be sipping a cold beer on the beach by lunch?’. ‘No’ and ‘no’ were the resounding answers. After 30 miles of pavement the road turned to sand. At first it was fairly hard packed and manageable, and we were able to swivel our heads around to absorb the flatness and emptiness that surrounded us. Among many remarkable sights, there were some purply-red ponds of water that somehow had not evaporated and must have been dyed by whatever minerals had accumulated there. Very cool to see!
We passed a few small towns, and then the roads really deteriorated. The sand got looser, deeper and sandier and was interrupted only by big rocks that appeared out of nowhere. ‘But this is only temporary, right? We should be back on pavement soon enough.’ The sand didn’t dissipate, though sometimes it disappeared momentarily and we navigated stretches of loose rocks the size of grapefruit trying to maintain a decent speed to keep our balance, which made reading the terrain and anticipating obstacles that much scarier.
It may be a good time now to remind our readers of how little experience we have riding motorcycles, especially off road. Some stretches on the Dalton were difficult and Northern BC and Alaska had their share of challenges, but being alone in the desert was new. Our thermometer reached 49 degrees Celcius, the few locals we did see could not have spoken less English, and we ended up navigating the deep sand for over ten hours.
So here we were: forcing ourselves to think about how much better this is than sitting in an office or a classroom, but still dreaming of beers on the beach. Between the three of us we dumped the bikes and got back on over a dozen times, got stuck and unstuck on many occasions, and felt elation and frustration throughout the day. The most difficult stretches required low speeds which meant no breeze in our jackets, and there was the constant choice between the visor closed which could melt the skin off our faces, or open which ensured a healthy dose of sand in our mouths, noses and eyes.
The struggle continued up and down the deeply rutted ‘road’, along mile-long stretches of potholes and bumps, and did we mention the deep sand? We forced ourselves to stop around 4 o’clock after a series of falls that came in close succession, and looked at the map: another 15 miles to a T-intersection where we would meet a road that connected two towns on the map – San Jose de Gracia and San Juanico. We let ourselves hope that this would be paved and held on to the dream as we continued our journey stopping only to help a fallen member of the team get back on two wheels. During one of several push-starts, an SUV pulled up alongside us and we were able to understand that they were offering us to charge the dead battery at their ranch that was a kilometer away. We politely declined, not having the time for a charge and hoping that it would charge itself once we got going again.
About five minutes later we came to a gate blocking the road. Not knowing the customs in this area, and not wanting to intrude on anyone’s private land we backtracked to an intersection and took the other road that took us right to our new friend’s ranch! They gave us cold water, took a photo with us, and opened up the gate for us with a smile. From what we could understand, they told us the road was bad for another 20km and then it got slightly better.
The journey went on and on and we continued to deal with the same obstacles, more falls, and more push-starts until there, from the top of a rocky hill, we could see the T-intersection. From a distance it looked like it could have been pavement. ‘Was this the end of our short bumpy ride that had so far lasted eight hours?’ Of course not!
Turning right at the T-intersection we considered camping, remembering the rule about riding at nighttime. We estimated about another hour of riding and figured we had time to make it in the dark. The road had improved, but as our speed increased our reaction time to the inevitable obstacles decreased and we had to slow down suddenly to handle the sections of washouts, boulders and sand that were now fewer and further between. The cows along this stretch of road liked to stand right in front of us and their actions were difficult to anticipate. An hour later the sun was down, we were still far from San Juanico, and we were breaking the first rule of riding in Mexico. We tried to maintain a good pace as we peered out over our headlights to look for obstacles and cows obscured by the darkness. Around a bend there was a stretch of streetlights ahead and we wondered if it could be San Juanico. Nope! It was Cadeje, but we were getting close. After another fall, a close call with a pickup drifting around a sandy corner, and a surprising river crossing, we were finally there. Not at one o’clock as we had planned, it was now 9PM, but we were still there. San Juanico! We made it. We found a hotel just closing their doors for the night where a friendly American couple named Mike and Cholie graciously opened their gated courtyard for our bikes, showed us to our little casitas, and told us where to get some grub if we could make it by 9:30. We hadn’t eaten anything all day other than a packet of peanuts and a granola bar so the meal would have been great no matter what, but it was better than great. Not only was the food a delight, but a friendly chica sat nearby and offered to teach us to surf the next day! How could this place get any better? Well the stars were out and there was a slight breeze as we slept so it was truly the perfect end to a long, hard, sandy day.
Saturday we woke up late, had a late breakfast and met our friend Karina. We spent the day surfing, swimming, drinking beer, practicing Spanish and living the dream on a beautiful beach without the buzz of tourists or all-inclusive resorts. Paradise. And then, to top it all off, we were invited to a fiesta last night. We arrived at the town hall around 9, and immediately felt out of place. Everyone was dressed to impress and seated at big tables around the spacious room, and behind the head table was a beautifully decorated display lights and flowers, with the name ‘Constanza’ illuminated behind it. At the head table we could see a baby in a special white gown being held and kissed and passed between the large family. We had crashed a baptism party! Our surf instructor showed up a little after us, and invited to sit down at the only empty table… which was right next to the head table! We felt extremely out of place but eventually more family sat down next to us, fed us tequila and assured us that it was fine for us to be there. The people of San Juanico could not have been friendlier or more welcoming and though we had been told the party would last until 5 AM we headed home around midnight so that we could get back on the surf boards this morning. Life here isn’t too tough and it is a wonderful break from the bikes. If you never see any of us again in Canada, come looking for us in San Juanico.