BMWs in Baja

Copyright © 1994, by Noemi Berry

This is a writeup of an 8-day motorcycle trip my boyfriend Doug and I took to the Baja California peninsula of Mexico in May of 1994. We had talked about doing a trip south of the border for some time. He's planning on a year-long trip to South America in the fall of '95, so it seemed appropriate to explore our neighboring country. I was about to start a new job and wanted to get a trip in. Nearby Baja, where neither of us had been beyond Tijuana, seemed an obvious choice. Doug took his '91 BMW R100GS/PD and I took my '83 BMW R65LS.

We made it a camping and cooking trip, partly to reduce costs; and partly because I hate Mexican food in restaurants here. This worked out well, since in Baja you greatly increase your choices of destinations if you're willing to camp and venture away from the one paved road. On motorcycles you are forced to pack light, but with two bikes and two people who can share lots of things you don't need to overeconomize.

Noemi — November 30th, 1994

The trip itself:
Mountain View, CA -> King City, CA
King City, CA -> San Diego, CA
San Diego -> San Felipe
San Felipe -> Papa Fernandez
Papa Fernandez -> Bahia De Los Angeles
Bahia De Los Angeles -> Mulege
Mulege -> Mulege
Mulege -> Bahia de la Concepcion -> Mulege
Mulege -> Mountain View

Other information:

Getting along in Baja

Friday, May 13

Mountain View CA -> King City, CA

To get a head start on the ride to San Diego, we left Mountain View at 7pm the night before our official departure date. Three hours of squaring off our brand new tires on US 101 took us to the King City fairgrounds campsite. Late, dark, tired, cold....camping was hard-core.

The dark concealed a soft sandy spot in our grassy campsite, one of which grabbed my front wheel while I was trying to park. A grand save put my guard down, and I dropped the bike. Some start!

The camp fees were $8.50 per bike, but $7.50 for the second if the two riders share an address! With lowered eyes, the hostess explained this archaic fee policy: "I see you only have one tent and it's none of my business if you're not married....but if you share an address it's $16.00."

Saturday, May 14

King City CA -> San Diego CA

Saturday AM was chilly and foggy, and we made what would become our regular breakfast of hot cereal with raisins and dried blueberries. That damp morning, the mush was comforting.

Hwy 101 south took us to Atascadero to CA Hwy 58 to Soda Lake Road, a dirt road so straight and so featureless it might as well be paved. Just to say I've done it, I took the bike up to 80mph on the unpaved surface, but you can easily cruise along the straights at 70.

Southern California is a weird place. On Cerro Noroeste Road east to I5 we passed through a ski village that might as well have been in Vermont; and a small town sporting a Confederate flag. The fun ended at I5: traffic and earthquake-related construction had us lane-splitting for miles, and later detoured us off the main highway.

In Downey, we came across the original McDonald's, which had recently made the news since McDonald's wanted to close the unprofitable site, but the city declared it a historical landmark and wouldn't let them destroy the building. Well, Paris has L'Arc de Triomphe, London has Big Ben, and L.A. has the original McDonald's.

In San Diego, we took what would be our last hot showers for a week at the house of Doug's college roommate Olev, and his wife Michelle. By good fortune, our host's neighbor Tom was building a house south of San Felipe on the Baja peninsula's east coast, and was able to give us some critical pointers about roads, places to go, conduct, etc.

Tom advised us that "The Zone," the tourist zone, the northernmost part of the peninsula, is where the ripoffs occur. South of there he said we had little to worry about in terms of security, and this proved to be the case. He assured us that a road south of San Felipe, paved to Puertecitos and graded dirt after that, was quite passable by motorcycles, and a beautiful trip. That cemented our plan of attack: aim for San Felipe tomorrow, then take the dirt road south to where it intersects again with Hwy 1.

Until 1973, getting to the end of the Baja peninsula by land was a true off-road adventure. To promote economic development, the government built a single paved road that leads from Tijuana all the way to Cabo San Lucas at the southern tip. It is on this road, Mexico Hwy 1, on which the Cabo 1000 motorcycle road race is run. Though this two-laner is no Interstate, it is easily passable by any vehicle, including RVs, as indicated by the many "RV Parks" along the way. It is the main trucking route and the lifeline for the southern towns.

Mexico Hwy 3 branches off from Hwy 1 in Ensenada southeast to San Felipe, and is one of the few paved sideroads in Baja. There are two ways to get from San Felipe back to Mexico Hwy 1: take Mexico Hwy 3, or head south to Puertecitos, where the road turns to dirt. This road is due to be paved someday, but we weren't going to wait for that.

Sunday, May 15

San Diego -> San Felipe

After a nice visit, hospitality, horse-talk and motorcycle talk with our gracious hosts Olev and Michelle, we departed San Diego raingeared against the drizzle. Before crossing the border, we found signs for Mexican insurance along the highway, and stopped to purchase some. I'm told you can buy the insurance in Mexico, but I'm glad we got it done in the US, because once we crossed the border, we could head straight south and get out of The Zone without even getting off the highway.

Good thing, since as soon as you're in another country, something as simple as getting off the highway isn't so simple anymore.


At first, I was overwhelmed and fascinated by how fast the surroundings changed and how strange it was not to be able to read the road signs. I was amazed by the shabby dwellings in Tijuana. These tiny shacks built from a random arrangement of discarded plywood boards, sometimes with only three walls, quickly became a familar sight throughout Baja. All my international travel had been in Europe and Canada, and this trip into what is still largely a third-world country was very eye-opening.

Tom had recommended that we spend the $6 toll for the four-lane divided highway Mexico Hwy 1D south to Ensenada, saving hours travelling through the many small towns along Nex Hwy 1 between Tijuana and Ensenada. The toll booth ground was covered grease and oil as thick as tar, which I avoided while Doug fumbled with his first look at the strange currency. I never ended up buying pesos, and it turned out to be a lot easier to have just one of us deal with the currency. Especially for me, since that task fell to him.

At the end of the "freeway" in Ensenada, we followed signs to San Felipe, leading us right through city streets and traffic. There we experienced the famous grapefruit-sized rows of metal balls for speedbumps, which, like any uneven surface, are best tackled with some speed. We followed signs to Hwy 3 that pointed us down sidestreets, and it is easy to lose faith that they will really take you to a highway. It seemed we hit a red light at every possible light, and the blocks were short. Traffic, crowds, noise, slums, pollution, get me out of here!

Finally we found Hwy 3 to San Felipe, and right away found ourselves in relative isolation on a road that gently wound its way through low mountains and desert. So far, so good. Mexican billboards are painted rocks along the side of the road, it seemed. We saw many California license plates on Mex Hwy 1D, but all the cars we passed on the way to San Felipe bore Mexican plates.

The guidebooks we'd read all warned about gas availability and suggested that you keep your at least tank half full at all times. In retrospect, this is somewhat conservative. The smaller towns may run out of gas, but trucks rely on gas along the main Mex Hwy 1 and in larger towns, so the chances are good. However, motorcycles with a limited range have to be more cautious and their trip will be more controlled by location of gas stations. Both our motorcycles have a range of over 200 miles, and Doug's is closer to 300 miles, so we were OK for gas.

However, utterly wet behind the ears, we heeded the suggestion of filling up when half full, and stopped a dilapidated gas station at Heroes de la Independence along Hwy 3, about halfway to San Felipe. There was no Magna Sin gas ("92" octane), just Nova (leaded 80 octane). A kid pumped it out of a red pump, which we'd read was designated only for diesel. After some frantic sign language and hurried consultations with the phrase book, we determined that the red diesel pump indeed contained the Nova and not diesel. Now that we're more experienced with Baja, we would have waited until San Felipe, where we'd very likely find a Pemex station with Magna Sin. Which we did, and filled up again.

San Felipe looked like an interesting town, with new-looking squarish arches in a traffic circle as you enter town. Tom had told us it was a real fun party town, and advised us that Tony's has the best fish tacos (the closest thing to Baja-local food) in the area. Since it was getting late, we skipped San Felipe and headed straight south to Laguna Percebu, a beach camp Tom had recommended.

The road from San Felipe had sign after sign for beaches, camping, RV parks, lots for lease or sale etc (all in English), advertising showers, water, flush toilets, even golf and tennis. Many of the signs were little more than a piece of wood with crude hand-painted letters and an arrow. Laguna Percebu looked on the map to be more isolated from other camps, and we found the unpaved road (all the sideroads are) without much trouble.

As we neared the camp, the road quickly turned to a thin layer of beach sand. Before I knew it, a near-miss recovery from a rear-end slide sent me into a tire track of sand that grabbed my front wheel and had me down in a flash. Unhurt but discouraged, I "walked" the bike to what appeared to be the last available campsite on the beach.

Campsites on this beach were designated by rows of four posts and a top frame with no roof, obviously intended for a tarp. This camp had flush toilets and showers, though "shower" means it's an overhead faucet from which water trickles when a chain is pulled. The deluxe version was in the men's shower, where a rock wrapped by a wire could be hooked on the chain to provide a continuous flow of water and two free hands. Still not in Mexico mode, I figured I'd take a shower later, before going to bed. Of course, it never occurred to me that the shower building might not have lights. That was the night I learned to shower by Maglite.

All the other campers were American, and it seemed like one big party. We cooked our pasta dinner with country music blaring in the background and listening to American voices all around us, wondering where Mexico was.

Lots of people were curious to fascinated-to-horrified by our motorcycles, and thought we were either adventurous or crazy to bring bikes down there. We asked about the dirt road we were planning on taking, and got answers that ranged from, "my neighbor does it in his van towing a boat," to "turn around NOW and go back on the paved road, you don't want to take that road."

Most people there had sport-utility vehicles, which they'd take 4-wheeling on the beach, or use to carry surfboards, kayaks, and windsurfers, and dogs. We spent a lot of time posing for interested passersby and chatting with American neighbors attracted by the motorcycles. Not one word of Spanish! It wasn't quite the balmy tropical escape I'd envisioned.

Monday, May 16

San Felipe -> Papa Fernandez

We were awakened in the middle of the night by a coyote peering into the tent, which Doug shooed away. By 7AM, the tent was too hot to stay in. I stepped out in shorts and Tevas, greatly relieved to skip my usual morning camping ritual of shivering in my sleeping bag and trying to dress without touching myself with my icy fingers. Great! Like a reptile, I belong in this climate.

By 8AM, Doug was already spreading on the SPF 15 against the strong sun. Somehow our oatmeal and cream of wheat breakfasts had lost their appeal, and Doug commented that he would have preferred a beer.

The tide had receded beyond where we could see, and after breakfast we took a long walk on the beach before facing the rigors ahead, beachcombing and looking at marine life, including a close view of a flock of pelicans.

Today we would take the dirt road south of Puertecitos back to Hwy 1 and then possibly stop early in Bahia De Los Angeles. So we thought!

As we packed up, my apprehension about our upcoming 90 miles of unknown dirt road increased. Not to mention getting out of camp on the sandy road! I told myself again and again that if I felt the bike losing control in the least to give it throttle, since speed would be my only ally in sand. Sit back, keep a steady throttle, don't hang tight on the handlebars, look where you're going, and keep your speed up.

Right. Convince myself to go *faster* toward a hazard.

Leaving camp, I made it to within 20 meters of the end of the sandy part of the road. Something grabbed my front wheel after a slight rear-end slide recovery, and slammed me down instantly.

This one hurt. Yesterday's was just discouraging. I couldn't believe how fast I went down, and this time I was going at least 20mph. Even in sand, it's no fun to fall that hard. I decided to amend my gas-it sand strategy for BMWs. It seemed only to hurt more when I fell.

Doug (who had no problems with the sand) rode my bike off the sand for me, then spent a few minutes consoling me and assured me that if I wasn't comfortable doing the dirt, we didn't have to. I'd already fallen three times on this trip and we hadn't even gotten to the hard stuff yet! This was vacation, it shouldn't be stressful, he reasoned gently.

But chickening out was even more stressful; I'd be depressed all week. An ego thing, I guess. The feeling of accomplishment of surviving the unknown hardships ahead is the high that motorcyclists and other adventurers live for.

If I survived them.

We dodged potholes for 50 miles on the "pavement" toward Puertecitos. The road had many "vados": big dips of dry river crossings, sometimes paved with concrete or asphalt, or just plain dirt. My apprehension for the upcoming dirt road in Puertecitos was growing like a raging cyclone. In Puertecitos, we stopped at a store for a drink and a break. I tried to contain my boiling fear, not wanting to let on to Doug how frantically afraid I was feeling.

This town was obviously very poor, and most of the dwellings were open shacks with the requisite dead rusted car out front, often upside-down like a rotting fish. The store was a small building with no electricity, but oddly with a phone line strung outside. It was small and dark and there were lots of flies inside. We bought drinks and a ripe avocado to supplement lunch.

It was hard to believe the road immediately out of Puertecitos was really a road: it was narrow, rocky, hilly and very rough. My worst fears confirmed, seeing it for real was still better than fearing it, since now I could *do* something -- tackle it. Still, I was relieved when it didn't stay that drastic for long. Soon it turned to stretches of manageable dirt and washboard, with lots of small loose rocks. Constantly concerned it would turn worse, after a few miles I started to relax nonetheless, enough to start ignoring the little rocks. Doug toddled along behind in no apparent fear or hurry while I made my way with reserve and tension.

This road used to be called the Seven Sisters because of seven treacherous rocky grades. The road has since been graded, and is reported to be far more passable than before it was graded. We could see the old road and it was hard to believe anything had ever passed over it. I'd venture that an ordinary passenger car could poke through at maybe 10mph in parts; but a 4WD vehicle with a skilled driver can go more like 30. A dirt bike with a halfway decent rider can go a good deal faster.

A terrified novice on a loaded-down BMW street bike is in the 10mph category.

I just didn't have my dirt legs today, though this was easy going for Doug. Partly his brain wasn't strangled by fear, incompetence, and fear of incompetence; and partly he could sit most of the way on his well-suspended GS. I was spending a fair amount of time standing on the pegs, finding in time that committing myself to this posture helped ebb the crippling fear. No doubt a better rider could have taken my R65 through more easily than I did, and later I decided part of the problem was going too slowly. I'd say a nervous woman on a street bike with a patient companion is a bare minimum configuration for that road.

Washouts at river crossings changed the terrain from loose and hilly to contoured dirt, bumps and larger rocks, and resembled a short obstacle course. On one of these, I chickened out, lost speed, then got off the bike and tried to walk it through under engine power, but dropped it and Doug had to ride it out for me. From there, it only got worse, and there were more and more rocky sections and steep uphills.

It didn't help that on larger bumps, there a was a disconcerting clanking sound coming from the front end. At times I'd feel the front suspension hitting something solid, then hear a gut-wrenching >clank<. I had no choice but to ignore it.

On a dip before an uphill, I went to the far outside to avoid a gravel pit, got too slow in 2nd gear, stalled, and dropped the bike. As Doug and I were picking it up, a movement caught our eyes and we turned our heads just in time to see his GS toppling over!

We immediately abandoned the R65 rescue mission and rushed over to pick up the GS. It seemed its sidestand chose that particular moment to give in to metal fatigue, having bent like a paper clip. Doug bent the sidestand back into place but didn't trust it to hold the bike anymore and did the rest of the trip using just the centerstand. On this terrain, this was at the very least a huge nuisance.

Not 50 meters later, the top of that same hill was a right-hand curve with the best path being the outside though lots of large, loose rocks. Again I stopped (stupid!), tried to walk the bike through, and dropped it, and Doug performed the now-familiar ritual of picking it up and riding it out for me.

We were making very poor progress.

Doug offered that maybe we should turn back. We hadn't even gone 1/4 of the way and already I'd had lots of trouble, plus my forks were making lots of noise, and my confidence was low from that morning's sand crash. The falls so far were harmless drops, but they drained my confidence and strength nonetheless. I was riding poorly and it was starting to become possible we might not make it out of there that day.

We decided to defer the turn-back decision while having lunch. Fortuitously, 3 American dual-sport riders happened along, one of them doing a fantastic slide'n'roost in the loose rocks where I'd last dropped it. We flagged them down and asked how the rest of the road was, and they said we were through the roughest part, and it got easier about a mile down. Yay!

Typical of dual-sport riders, they shook their heads about taking BMWs on roads like this, and added, "she's hurtin' if she's doing this on that bike!" They eyed Doug suspiciously and asked why he didn't let me ride his much more dirt-worthy motorcycle (too tall).

These guys were in search of gas; Puertecitos was out. We told them that if they were in Gonzaga Bay about 30 miles down the road when we got there and hadn't found gas we'd give them some. "Just look for the buzzards circling!" called the leader as they tore off.

A van came along from the direction in which we were heading, driven by an older fellow who lived in Bahia de Los Angeles, who recommended we visit there. He was on his way to Puertecitos to get his boat, which he'd tow back over the same road with his van. "This 'ere road is lak I5 compared ter how it yoosed ter be!" he drawled. He told us the rest of the road was better, past the next arroyo -- lots of "warsh"board though.

And this proved to be true, it did straighten out and did get easier. The corner where we'd stopped was by far the worst one, though anyone on a dual-sport bike would barely have noticed it.

The terrain turned into some very pretty but severe desert, and the few low arroyos gave us nice views of blue water. Since lunch and the encouraging news that we were through the worst of it, I wasn't constantly riding in fear anymore and was starting to have fun. Oh yeah, fun, isn't that what this is all about?! :-)

On the long stretches of deep washboard with loose rock scattered over it, I found that I could search for a speed at which my suspension reaction would match the frequency of the washboard, and I could mostly just sail on top. Once I got comfortable with feeling in control with the bike moving around a lot underneath, it was actually easier to keep a speed of at least 25mph.

Parts of the road were completely washed out and had some interesting detours that wound over and around rocks and brush. We'd read that this road had been damaged severely by floods a few years back, and this must have been what the books meant. In places, these detours were very narrow and with sharp rises and sandy areas that had me disbelieving that a car, let alone the van, got through. Through these I tried going very slowly and steadily in 2nd gear, feathering the clutch, maintaining a dead-steady speed, with my left leg dangling, ready to dab. The sand was coarse and this strategy gave me lots of control and actually worked quite well.

By now, if I saw something I wasn't sure of, I'd stop and ask Doug to ride my bike through for me. It proved to be much less tiring for both of us for him to take over instead of risking another exhausting drop. The day had long since shifted from adventure to survival, and I had no pride left anyway.

At times the washboard got deep enough that the only choice with my ever-clanking front end was to putt over it at 5mph. This washboard was deep and rough enough to make us consider riding along the smooth, but sandy, parallel road. I tried this once with my unperfected new sand strategy, but a deep section got me. When Doug rode my bike out (*again*), he yelled, "hey! what's with these forks?!" Compressing the front end yielded a mere 2" of travel. Something was hitting hard inside. Ouch! No wonder it was clanking so much. It wasn't always like that though, which is why I hadn't noticed it. But now I knew my grumbling about the front suspension had been for real.

We came across one washout that was nothing more than a deep sand pit. Frustrated that I had to rely so heavily on Doug, I stubbornly tackled it myself, planning to walk the bike through. But I had chosen the worst spot in which to make a stand of self-sufficiency. I completely underestimated the sand -- it was way too deep and I immediately lost momentum, and the rear wheel just spun itself in. Again, it turned out to be much greater effort for both of us to push the bike out than if I'd just let Doug ride/paddle it through the deep washout in the first place. He'd already put on quite a show getting his GS through, when long legs and a well-placed rock turned what could have been a nasty slide-out into a spectacular roost-n-save. Doug's 34" inseam (and easygoing nature) was a real help on this trip.

It's amazing how a day like this changes your perspective. The loose rocks and gravel that had scared me earlier were now a *relief* compared to sand. Standing up on the pegs and blurring my vision to the washboard and small rocks was pounded in as almost habit now. I determined decided to conquer sand someday. (Note: sand still wins most battles, but I haven't given up.)

At 4:30 we reached the first sign of civilization we'd seen since Puertecitos, the town of Papa Fernandez that Tom had recommended to us, and our original early-lunch destination. This tiny fish camp town had a restaurant and a few buildings. Pulling into town, I could feel every little bump I rolled over now. It seemed my forks were now stuck in that state of almost no travel.

We bought Cokes and gladly decided to check out the camping, since we'd had a tiring and trying day. The proprietor of the restaurant pointed over a hill, indicating the location of campsite, so we went on foot to check it out.

The top of that hill was like a portal to Paradise. We looked down upon an area with two shelters and a picnic table, with no one in sight. Over a small dune behind the campsite was the beach. It turned out we had the whole lovely little cove completely to ourselves.

After paying the friendly proprietor $5 for camping, he showed us where the water was -- in big open barrels from which you scoop the water with a coffee tin. "Town" also had the one bano, a hillclimb away from the campsite. I told the guy in sign language that we'd be back for dinner.

But first, we had an appointment with the beach.

It was a rare experience to have the entire beach to ourselves, and we took advantage of the privacy to skinnydip. The water was too cold for more than a quick run, but the air and wind were warm. I walked along beach, feeling sun and wind against my skin, completely free of normal life. Such a relief after such a difficult day! Doug was also in good spirits and we really enjoyed our little haven.

Doug had brought a showerhead that turns a waterbag into a shower, but we'd lost one waterbag and the showerhead on the road today. We hung up another water bag and managed to take two showers under its meager 3 gallons, holding the valve open for a pitiful stream of water. One's standards really change when travelling: this makeshift shower felt fantastic.

We set up camp and walked back over the hill into town to the deserted restaurant. Presently two girls walked across town and into the restaurant and stood at a counter waiting for us to translate the menu. My first experience with a real Mexican restaurant! The rice was good, and a meat burrito was OK, not hot or heavy, and it was a nice break not to cook. The evening was topped off with stargazing on what seemed to be our very own beach, put there just for us, as a reward for surviving the day. Now *this* is vacation.

Tuesday May 17

Papa Fernandez -> Bahia De Los Angeles

The morning brought promise of a hot day and again the stifling tent forced an early rise. Doug carefully packed a water bag with purified water using three bungee nets, since one had proved insufficient yesterday. This warm morning, the breakfasts of oatmeal and cream of wheat was downright gross. I forced it down anyway; I'd need all my strength today.

On this trip, I learned that food boredom, something I'd read about in expeditions, is not to be taken lightly. If something isn't palatable then eating becomes unpleasant and you may not eat well enough. It's one thing to skip breakfast on a morning when you drive to work, but another when you spend the whole day riding a loaded-down motorcycle over rough roads. Everything tasted weird with the purified water too.

I regretted leaving the lovely Papa Fernandez, but actually looked forward to the challenges of the road ahead. Those challenges didn't wait long: leaving the campsite, I plowed right into a deep sandy section and dropped the bike again. So far that's three campsites in a row in which I'd dropped the bike getting in or out, and in once case, *both* in and out!

Undeterred, I set out to the road with determination. My forks seemed to have fixed themselves overnight, but occasionally I'd hear that dreadful clanking again. Oh, for a good front suspension!

But this day I wasn't scared and was ready to experiment with all of yesterday's lessons. The road also got easier and easier. Or did it? On one straight stretch I went up to 50mph and it felt like I was flying. I never would have done that yesterday. Was the road easier now or did it just look different to me? We stopped for pictures of ourselves riding in a long canyon -- you spend so much time riding that you want pictures of it even though they make boring pictures. It was very hot and our purified water tasted terrible, but we never got sick from food or water on the trip.

We stopped at a town -- building? called Las Arrastras. Incredibly, it was on the map, but it was nothing more than a few shack dwellings with a windmill to power a refrigerator. The cold Mirinda soda I got there was worth gold to me. Mexico, like Europe, has these nice carbonated beverages with a citrus flavoring that are much lighter and less sugary than 7-up or Sprite and I really wish you could get stuff like that in the US. The closest I've found in the USA is the occasional Orangina.

Las Arrastras marked the last 10 miles before reaching the pavement. By now the road was just washboard covered with a layer of small, loose rocks and seemed easy. I was enjoying myself and riding orders of magnitude better than I had yesterday. It was tempting to plan more dirt roads, but with our limited time and my front suspension in a highly questionable state, we decided against it. When we hooked up with Mexico Hwy 1, I thought I'd be relieved, but actually I deeply regretted that that part of the adventure was over and that we had to join the rest of civilization. Still, we'd seen a part of Baja that most visitors don't ever see.

At the first gas stop on the highway, just 20 miles south of where we'd joined Hwy 1, Doug discovered oil all over my rear wheel.

It was no mere dribble; it looked like my final drive had upchucked all its oil through the breather bolt. I checked the final drive oil level and it was low enough not to be able to tell how much was in there. Just what we need, an oil mystery!

We decided to clean it off and check it in 10 miles, and did, and it had leaked no more oil, and didn't for the rest of the trip. The only thing I can think of is that it got too hot in the desert or the road was too rough or something.

Next stop: Bahia de Los Angeles.

The road that takes you to Bahia de L.A. is a paved side road off Mexico Hwy 1, *also* called Mexico Hwy 1. The view from atop the mountain before reaching the bay is lovely, and we stopped to take pictures of the blue water with islands on the backdrop of sandy-colored desert. Very little green in this picture.

Bahia de L.A. had more civilization than we'd seen for a while, including several grocery stores, lots of RV parks and a few motels. Doug saw a hand-painted signs for "Campo Gecko" 6 miles out of town, and suggested we stop at a store and stock up before heading to camp.

No sooner we'd turned off the bikes, an American walked up to us, as usual attracted by the motorcycles. The fellow was a writer named Tom who was renting a mobile home and living down here for a few months while he was writing a play. He said he also had a BMW GS but had been hearing noises in his transmission and asked if we could look at it. Sure. Sucker! :-)

We looked, heard the noise but didn't know what it was. Doug and Tom agreed that the amount of warranty work they've had done on their '91 GSs was disturbing. I mused that of all the problems I've had on my bike, most were problems I caused myself (like crashing it), and almost none were unusual failures and none were truly serious or costly. In fact, the weirdest things in the 30K miles I've ridden it had happened on this trip: the forks, and the final drive oil spitting itself out.

While chatting with the distraught GS owner, who pulled into town but the 3 dual-sport riders we'd met yesterday! They'd just arrived, apparently having taken the long way in. They said they'd wondered if that crazy couple on the BMW street bikes had made it out (when you're sitting on a Suzuki DR350, a BMW GS is a street bike). They were looking for a motel, food and showers, and admitted that their sleeping backs strapped to their bikes were only for show, and they had no intention of camping.

Tom highly recommended Campo Gecko, where we were headed anyway. We bought "groceries" (drinks, vegetables, and a gallon of precious water), and rode to camp. Normally I'm strictly a cookies-and-cake person, but here in the desert, a carrot was a real treat.

The road to Gecko was wide and a little rough, and to protect our food I kept the speed down at 20mph. I was disturbed to see a huge garbage pile right next to the road, which apparently served as the town's de facto dump. And the unsightly mess smelled. Trash in Mexico is something of a shock compared to the USA. I know it's a poor country, but I must admit I've never understood what socioeconomic status has to do with putting garbage in a can instead of out a car window.

The entrance to the camp was marked with a blue Interstate I5 sign and a green sign saying FREEWAY ENTRANCE !! Obviously this camp had been visited by an American joker.

This camp was also all Americans, with separate campsites of crude stone cabins and palapas (a shelter made from bamboo, cactus strips or grass) on the beach. Sand isn't a nemesis reserved for motorcycles: apparently our neighbors had dug out a badly placed car today. The beach here was lovely, quiet and with a fantastic perspective on the bay.

Campo Gecko also had a shower with a pump mechanism like those found on boats, and, incredibly, two flush toilets. However, one of the toilet stalls had no door. Instead you pull a large piece of blue corrugated plastic roofing in front. That's what I love about travelling -- you can't expect things to be the way you are used to them; you can make no assumptions. Like doors on bathrooms. And this is definitely a BYOTP country.

Again, our American neighbors were fascinated by our motorcycles. We'd seen one Harley rider and our three friends on the dual-sport bikes, but no one else camping on bikes, so we were something of an anomaly. One guy asked us what we thought of the road to get to the camp. Puzzled, we asked, "Which road?" "The one from town into camp here, with the I5 sign on it!" Wow, he meant that relatively smooth 6-mile stretch? "Um, fine." That road seemed like nothing now. "Can you go as fast as 20 on that road?!"

Another neighbor also asked us first thing what we thought of the road. I guess we were out of touch of what that would feel like in an ordinary car -- most crept along at 5mph and seemed to find the 6 miles an adventure.

This neighbor was a minister from Portland Oregon who was here with his family for a three-week vacation. They thought it was a great place to just let the kids do whatever they wanted without worrying them. Out of earshot of his wife, he admitted to deep envy that we were here together on motorcycles. He said he'd love a bike but didn't want to be disowned by his family. We were to hear this a lot, actually. Many couples (well, the men) thought it was great thing to do together.

The minister watched with interest while Doug and I did a repair on a leaky fuel petcock on my bike. I'd serviced the petcock and checked the fuel filters before leaving for Baja, but didn't screw it on far enough to the gas tank to withstand all the rattling. Somewhere today my neutral switch had stopped working, so the bike always thought it was in gear (only annoying at starts). Both turn signals drooped, vibrated out from their usual perch.

When we unpacked our camping gear, we found that anything that had been on luggage racks had tiny holes pounded into it from all the washboard. Vibration damage showed all over the outer bags for our camping gear. One of the campstove fuel bottles had been dented against a luggage rack and cracked, letting all the fuel escape. Everything else that didn't have a soft inside (like Thermarests) and was strapped down had tiny holes all over it. Vibration caused by far more damage to our gear and bikes than anything else.

While Doug took a shower, I enjoyed a lovely twilight with the sun inventing new colors against the mountainous islands and turning the water a dark slate blue instead of the near-royal it had been. We cooked a vegan feast of couscous and black beans for dinner and went to sleep with little worry about what tomorrow would bring.

Wednesday, May 18

Bahia De Los Angeles -> Mulege

We got a late start again due to talking to neighbors and posing. One girl said she and her boyfriend were here "just killing time" before they both started summer jobs (in Canada and Peru, respectively). I was very envious of their abundance of free time that they had to "kill" it here.

Determined to get out of one campsite without a fall, I walked the bike through the perilous parts of sand, and made it out without incident. Finally! We had an easy 250 mile paved blast ahead of us today.

Along Mexico Hwy 1, we stopped in Guerrero Negro for groceries at a genuine Super Mercado (supermarket). We continued on to San Ignacio for lunch and to visit the mission, which we'd read was the most ornate of the missions in Baja. We were now ordinary run-of-the-mill tourists.

San Ignacio appears out of barren desert as a tropical oasis, surrounded by a forest of date palms planted by missionaries centuries ago. The road into the town itself was lined with a very new sidewalk with street lamps that ended in the palm forest, a walkway to nowhere.

No sooner than we'd parked along the town square than a group of kids came running over to inspect our motorcycles. One of them, Ramon, begged me for my Casio watch strapped to my tankbag. I considered it, since its battery was dead anyway, but I would actually like to own that watch and not spend $40 on another one so I didn't give it to him. I guiltily remembered Tom's advice to be giving of yourself in Mexico, since people love it and give back to you in one way or another. Later I found the strap undone but the honest kid didn't take it. We sat in the town square and had lunch supplemented by avocado, carrots and apple, occasionally interrupted by Ramon's frustrated begging for the watch. For peeling and cutting fruit, Doug's Leatherman tool proved to be invaluable.

We explored the mission, first putting on long pants in deference to local custom (no shorts in churches) despite the heat. It was small and of simple architecture, but well-tended and charming. An open stone staircase led up to the belfry, and we reflected that in the USA, liability concerns would have made this off limits. Not in Mexico. Out here in the desert, you have to take care of yourself.

I'd learned from European travel that churches and castles usually have the most concentrated items of interest; rich in architecture, art and history. The money is always spent by the local important figures in religion, royalty and government across all cultures. This mission was nothing fancy but reverberated with history.

We packed up and were back on the road at about 3PM, surprised at the unexpectedly rapid passage of time. Our destination was a beach on Bahia de la Concepcion, about about 20km south of the town Mulege.

Mex Hwy 1 wound its way through more desert, occasionally crossing a short mountain range and providing us with some curves to play on, and at the top of the mountain giving us immense views of desert expanse with mesas in the distance. Entertaining, at the very least. Trucks indicated for us to pass by putting on their left turn signal, though it took us a while to catch on to this courtesy.

Along a flat area, we came across what looked like a checkpoint. Two young federales (uniformed military men) had a car pulled over and waved us over as well. Now what?

No checkpoint -- these two were on a Honda Hawk motorcycle with a very flat, and very hot, rear tire. They were looking for a pump so they could ride to the next town, and also asked for "camera". Our dictionary didn't have "camera," or any Spanish equivalent, apparently, since they couldn't find the word either. For all we knew they wanted their picture taken.

Doug had a gadget that plugs into a spark plug hole on one end and pumps up a tire using engine compression. The tube had rotated inside the tire, and the valve stem had almost receded beyond the rim, so we had to re-position the valve stem by moving the tube relative to the rim. Also, the Hawk had to be moved closer to my motorcycle, which would donate the engine compression. Miraculously, all these operations were carried out cooperatively with no common languge!

The tire wouldn't hold any air at all. Just as we were ready to give up, a truck pulled over, and we recognized it as one who had honked and given us a thumbs-up when we passed it in some mountains earlier. The truck driver spoke English and was able to translate "camera" to "tube" for us, and explained that these were tubeless tires with a tube inside. His on-board compressor didn't help their tire either, so the Doug, the federales and the trucker hauled the bike up between the cab and the trailer and chained it down. After much hand-shaking and smiling they were off. During these operations, one of the federales kept staring at me, and I couldn't decide if he was offended that I was taking pictures or was bewildered by seeing a woman on a motorcycle. In any case, we hoped we did what we could to improve international relations.

The incident made us late for Bahia de la Concepcion though. We got gas and water at a new, large Pemex station just south of Mulege along Hwy 1, and then went on to Playa Santispac. This was a wide, deep beach with palapas lined up alone the shore, some with motor homes that were obviously settled there. The beach also had two restaurants, a motorhome that served as the entrance, pay showers, and pit toilets.

Most of the campsites were taken, but four palapas stood alone with no occupants. We asked two American passersby (by now we knew that a beach with lots of occupants will be mostly Americans, Mexicans don't camp) why, and they said those palapas gets the maximum noise from one of the restaurant's generators. Indeed, the noise was obnoxious.

But, they said, that morning someone had vacated a single palapa off on its own around the bend, with little walls and right along the water. They said it was the nicest palapa on the beach.

Though the sun had set and we only had minutes of twilight left, right away we could see that we'd found our home for the next two days. The campsite was private, right along the water, and had some rare trees around it for privacy.

When I first walked into the palapa, someone came out of nowhere and then came right toward me into the palapa! Doug also suddenly realized there were two shapes instead of one in the palapa. Before I knew it, the guy swooped in and grabbed some bags that were lying in there, and without breaking stride, walked away. We figured he must have been a transient who'd been planning to stow away there that night without paying if no one showed up.

After setting up camp and marvelling at our good fortune, we went to Ana's for dinner, one of the restaurants recommended by other people on the beach as well as someone in the Pemex station in Mulege. At that hour all they had were burritos carnes (meat) and frijoles (beans) so we ordered one of each. I was prepared to barely tolerate it, but the burritos carnes were absolutely wonderful. No heavy cheese, no spices, but very flavorful, with a side of delicious mexican rice. This place also had the light carbonated drinks, brand Vita and Zim. Those burritos carnes will go down in my memory as a really outstanding taste experience!

Ana's also served as a social center; it had a small "library" of books in English (two shelves worth) and was decorated with shells. It also had a small bakery where we could get bread and cakes. What good fortune. This wonderful place would be our southernmost point, and we'd spend a welcome rest day seeing things instead of travelling.

Thursday May 19

Mulege -> Mulege

In the morning we saw that our palapa was like something out of Gilligan's Island. Someone had constructed a back wall and low side walls and a cute cactus garden. Later we found out that the man who made these improvements had lived here for 4 months. There were trees all around us, and the water was maybe 5 meters from the palapa, though it was clear the tide didn't rise into the palapa.

This was a rest and hang-out day, so we spent the morning walking in the water, seeing how far we could venture out before it got deep -- pretty far, the bay was very shallow for about 50 meters, with white sand underneath, then the water turned a rich blue where it got deep. Numerous sailboats were anchored in the middle of the bay.

While we were exploring the water, an American couple happened by and made the now-familiar astounded comments about our being here on motorcycles. The man commented that it takes him 3 hours longer to drive somewhere with his wife, so he couldn't imagine (he said to Doug while I was in the water) what it was like *riding* with me! He was surprised to learn that I had my own motorcycle, and even more surprised that it was a BMW. "But you're such a tiny thing!"

We had a lazy lunch at Ana's, and enjoyed some sort of sweet bread from her limited but delicious bakery, then suited up and rode into Mulege. Of course we had to do this the back way out, which involved a short stretch of road -- nay, path, that was "paved" almost entirely in egg-shaped, apple-sized loose rocks and dotted with large jagged half-buried rocks. I couldn't believe that I was able to ride this with relatively little fear, when two days ago I would likely have turned back. It kept me alert, but I was grateful it wasn't sand. At least rock, even loose rock, has traction.

This path took us to a neighboring beach where we found more palapas, but no showers or water; though their roofless pit toilets surrounded by straw modesty shelters had the luxury of toilet seats. Our pit toilet had no seat (just a hole cut out of plywood) but it did have a roof made out of the hood of car!

A few Mexican familes were living on this beach, one in a 3-sided shelter that was barely bigger than our palapa, one out of a beached boat, and one person in a very faded and wind-torn tent, with a small rusty barbeque nearby as a kitchen. I wondered where they got their clothes and schooling, let alone food and water. This cove was apparently rich in scallops, and we saw snorkelers and fishermen. The road from this beach to Hwy 1 was covered with seashell bits! Easier to ride than gravel, actually.

In Mulege, we visited its unspectacular mission, also being toured by a group of Europeans in four rented 4x4s. It was funny to see the women in makeup and pumps, they looked so out of place! For once, dusty in my hiking boots, jeans, tank top and helmethead, I was in better fashion than these nicely turned out ladies.

We visited Mulege's prison, which is now a museum, but didn't know that it its hours were only 9-1. Later we were told it was pretty interesting and worth regretting that we'd missed. We rode out to the beach along a river lined with dying palms, and hiked up to a lighthouse to get a panoramic view of the beach, river and town. When we got back to town, we indulged in some homemade ice cream (risky, but we didn't get sick) and snapped a photo of an official TelMex (telephone company) car -- a Volkswagen bug.

As we returned to Playa Santispac from Mulege, we ran into another American couple just arriving, who'd been on the same road we had south of San Felipe, in a Geo Metro car!! They'd lost their muffler in the deepest sand wash that I'd gotten stuck in. They described it as quite an experience and the lady said she never knew how good a driver her husband until then. He must have been: it wouldn't take much to strand a Geo Metro on that road.

In full vacation mode, we sat in our camp chairs and just looked at the bay changing colors as the sun set. No movie could have entranced us more! Time was measured by daylight and when we felt like eating, not by clocks.

That night we made a feast with potatoes, onions and carrots in gravy over couscous. It's hard to believe these ordinary staples could be such a treat, but it was great to have something with crunch. Camp food suitable for motorcycle travel is usually mushy and you really want to exercise your teeth after a few days of gooey beans.

Tomorrow was Friday. We absolutely had to be back in the Real World by Sunday afternoon at the latest, since Doug had to fly out Sunday night for a business trip. That left Friday, Saturday and Sunday morning to get home, and we were now 600 miles south of the border, and 1100 miles from home.

But we didn't want to leave!!

There was still so much left to do. We were just getting the hang of it here! I loved our little palapa and took childish delight in decorating it with shells.

We'd seen people out on the bay in kayaks the previous day. One of the palapas on the beach was permanently rented by an American couple from which they were running a kayak tour business. With trepidation, we decided to spend an extra day south of the border, and spend it on a kayak tour of the bay. Saturday we'd have to do a major crank to get home. Our rationalization was that there was no way the ride home was going to be fun anyway, so there seemed to be no sense in dragging it out over two and a half days. This would essentially be a one-way trip.

Friday May 20

Mulege -> Bahia de la Concepcion -> Mulege

Friday morning at 8am we caught the kayak tour of 8 or so Americas just about to leave. Talk about prompt, we thought you were supposed to arrive at 8! This seemed unlike laid-back "manana" Mexico. The cost was $35 each, plus $5 to rent snorkeling equipment, and accounted for the bulk of our amazingly low expenses on this trip. The kayaks were really "surf skis", which are easier to get in and out of than true kayaks. Becky, our tour guide, loaded one cooler on her kayak and one on Doug's, since he is an experienced sea kayaker, then gave us some basic instruction. With straw hats and strings to hold sunglasses, we were ready.

Our group paddled out to a rock island behind which there were hundreds of pelicans and their chicks roosting. This was an area you could only see by boat and it was fascinating to see and hear these wonderful birds up close -- the sound of the birds reverberating off the rocks so close to the water made me feel like I was in a jungle. Becky pointed out a blue heron, a snowy egret and an osprey! She had a real fascination with wildlife, particularly birds and fish and told us a lot about their habits and behavior. We happened to be there at a time when the young chicks were hatching, and this was a real treat.

Becky then took our group to a small reef where we "parked" our kayaks and showed us how to snorkel for butter clams. I had only snorkeled in a murky lake in summer camp in Connecticut, so this first ocean excursion was very exciting. I was entranced -- there is so much life underwater, it's like another world! We found a rock with kelp growing around it, and this was the best place to see fish, including yellow striped angel fish.

Becky then led the kayak group to a beach with a very very very hot hot spring, where we snorkeled some more. I was thrilled with all the underwater life, and explored the kelp "chambers," following fish and looking at things stuck to rocks and trying to figure out if they were animal or plant. I stayed in as long as I could stand the cold water. It had been unusually windy and the water was colder than normal, which had forced us to skip a snorkel visit of a shipwreck. When snorkeling got too cold, the group retreated to the hot spring, where people took turns mixing the scalding water with the cold ocean water.

Since the wind was picking up, we paddled back early to Becky's palapa, fighting the wind the whole way back. She then steamed the clams we'd caught, and made a spaghetti lunch with clam marinara sauce. Our fresh clams were great! She then talked to us about the history of Baja, told us about the ancient Indian cave paintings and also about the preservation of the Sea of Cortez, poachers and about changes in the Mexican government that affect Baja. The whole group was transfixed.

The only downside to the day was that three weeks later, my sunburn was still peeling in sheets. I'd already been burnt on the trip, so I'd underestimated how strong the sun would be out on the water.

The kayak experience had been just wonderful, and we thanked Becky and headed back to the palapa to rest and prepare for tomorrow.

After pre-packing and doing basic cleanup and organization, we had our last dinner at Ana's that night and bought another delicious banana (we think) cake for breakfast the next day. I had never seen such a sunset as this one over the bay -- it seemed a whole new spectrum of pastel colors was on display as the soft light made its way down the horizon. The wind had settled and the calm water was a rich array of blues. Doug tried to plan tomorrow's drive, but I just couldn't pull myself away from what seemed like a fantasy until the sun had completely set, and was replaced with a huge sky of stars encircling the bay.

When the sun set, reality set in too. Tomorrow we'd pay for today's fun. We had a day and a half to get back to Mountain View and had to cover over 1000 miles, a border crossing and many possible delays.

Saturday May 21

Mulege -> Mountain View

Saturday morning we were the model of efficiency and reluctantly left Playa de Santispac at 6:30am, with the sun still rising. There was no particular destination, the idea was just to ride north until we couldn't anymore, with the agreement to make infrequent and efficient stops.

We started out 600 miles south of the border, and made excellent time until a gas stop in San Quentin at about 3:00pm. There didn't seem to be any sign of law enforcement, and where we could, we'd go as fast as we could. For me, that meant about 80mph on my loaded-down wobble-boxer. I noticed that we passed as many sport-utility vehicles with California plates, usually headed south, as we did old, rickety, slow-moving Mexican cars filled with an entire family.

Leaving San Quentin, we stopped at the first traffic light we'd seen in a week. After there, town after town slowed us down, and the 200 miles to Ensenada was riddled with stops. In Ensenada we stopped at McDonald's, believe it or not (in search of American-style toilets), then made our way through the Ensenada traffic to the toll road.

In Tijuana, we tried to find the less crowded Otay Mesa border crossing but ended up finding signs to I5 and backtracking to the main border. The line there was mercifully short and delayed us about half an hour. This put us in the USA at 7PM after 600 miles, and we agreed to make it to the Grapevine (about 100 miles north of LA). But just south of L.A, Doug pulled over for fatigue around 8PM and we had dinner. I was still OK for energy and led after that to Grapevine.

By Grapevine we'd gone 800 miles in 18 hours, and it was after midnight. We'd been making good time again, and the prospect of finding a motel (or worse, campsite) and starting tomorrow by riding up arguably the worst stretch of Interstate in the country was much worse than pressing on for the mere 300 miles home. We bolstered each other and agreed to try to make it the whole way.

That horrid 250-mile stretch of I5 without so much as a curve or hill is bad enough in the daytime, but in the middle of the night with no cars around it was monotonous torture. The two or three cars we got to pass were a huge relief for the boredom and fatigue. I tried to entertain myself and Doug by making goofy movements on the bike and switching my position in the lane with my legs stuck out like airplane wings, fretting every time his bike fell back, knowing he was more tired than I was right now. Since we were isolated on this road, we didn't dare give the cops something to do and kept it to about 70mph (with enough traffic, I5 usually moves along at 80), which only aggravated the tedium.

When we finally got off I5 and pulled into a truck stop on Hwy 152, we'd ridden 1000 miles, it was 3:45am and we were exhausted. Doug was deliriously elated to find a self-photo booth in which we bought two Polaroid pictures of us. We looked awful!

The last 100 miles home, my energy plummeted hockey-stick style and now I was more tired than Doug. Alert and conscious mentally, my eyes had had enough and I was starting to hallucinate. This was scary, but I told myself to concentrate and not to react to anything weird I saw, like people jumping out on the road (just a street sign), or a truck up ahead (just a few lights) or the road curving (just the pattern of white marks on the road). I was in no danger of falling asleep, it was way too cold, but I had to talk to myself so as not to believe what my failing eyes told me.

Finally we arrived at Doug's house at 5:15 am and got to bed at 5:30am, exhausted and freezing. We'd ridden 1104 miles in 23 hours, lots of it had been slow going through the denser parts of Baja. People do this for 11 days in a row on the Iron Butt! But it was absolutely worth it for the extra day, and we congratulated each other for breaking our personal distance records.

It wasn't until weeks later that we realized when we'd entered Baja California South, the day we arrived in Mulege, we'd entered a different time zone, and should have set our watches ahead an hour. No wonder everyone in the laid-back Mexico seemed to be so prompt. We'd spent two days an hour behind and didn't know it!


That trip only whetted our appetite for third world travel, and right away we started to plan our next trip to Mexico.

But my poor motorcycle!

My R65 did its best, but it was just not meant for the rough roads. The heavy mufflers stick out from their mounting point on the swingarm, and the metal around the mounting point had separated from the rest of the muffler, creating 3" diameter exhaust leaks in both mufflers. Both turn signals drooped. The luggage rack and right saddlebag mount had broken. The fuel petcock leaked, the neutral switch didn't work, and the final drive had spit out its oil. The forks had re-fixed themselves, but soon after I found that they were suffering from hydraulic lock from a disintegrated rubber washer's bits getting into the holes in the damper rod. Sand was everywhere from the numerous drops.

Doug's bike fared much better, but anything we had that was strapped to a rack was covered with little holes in it from vibration.

The trip prompted me again to get the BMW R80 G/S I'd wanted for some time. In July I got one, and in November Doug bought one too, both of which we'll take on our upcoming trip to Mexico. I'm thrilled with how much better the G/S is off-pavement than the R65 and I think it will make the rough roads a lot easier, though a loaded-down BMW in dirt is no cakewalk.

We're planning on leaving December 17 for Mexico, and this time, we're taking three weeks. The destination is the Copper Canyon in Chihuahua, and from there we'll go to Las Mochis on the coast and take a ferry to Baja and ride back up through Baja. We've been taking a Spanish class and so have some basic grammar and perhaps can communicate a little. It'll be easier this time around too since this time we're not going in totally cold.

It will be my longest motorcycle trip to date, and the beginning of what I hope will be real third-world exploration. I'm going to have to learn to write shorter writeups!


You hear stories of people just taking off and tooling down to Mexico spontaneously. Not us. The weeks before the trip were spent in constant preparation: shopping for food and camping gadgets, preparing motorcycles, and getting maps and documents together.

Since you can only carry so much on a motorcycle, we packed light and only with high-versatility items. In that sense, I think we did a good enough job that we were actually fairly well-prepared for a much longer trip. You just have to be prepared to wear the same clothes a LOT.


Doug's motorcycle was a '91 BMW R100GS and mine was an '83 BMW R65LS. Doug's bike had Michelin T66 tires, mine had Metzeler ME33/ME88 street tires. We had everything necessary for tire repair, including an extra tube for my tires and a gizmo that pumps tires up from a spark plug hole.

We carried extra clutch cables, bulbs, diode board, throttle cam, levers, several tow straps, jumper cables, a multimeter, bailing wire, and of course, duct tape. Both our bikes were serviced before the trip (and a lot more afterward).

Both bikes have hard saddlebags and luggage racks; Doug used a Multivario tankbag and I used a small Lockhart Sportsak (I hate big tankbags). Between two sets of saddlebags and two luggage racks to strap stuff onto, we had plenty of room, though of course we filled it.

We'd read again and again that the best way not to get stuck in Mexico is to make sure your bike is running perfectly and that your tires are in good shape. Parts are very difficult to get even if you happen to be somewhere where you can get them. So definitely make sure the bike is working well and you have newish tires.

Next time, I will make sure to service the bike and get tires a week before leaving at the LATEST. Too many things can go wrong when you work on a motorcycle. Newly installed tires go flat, an oil leak appears, you didn't put in the right amount of fork oil. There are enough details to worry about without working on a motorcycle at the last minute.


American insurance is not valid in Mexico, and in case of an accident, we were told the Policia can detain you until you can prove you can cover liability. Though it's not strictly illegal not to have it, stories of police confiscating cars and driving them themselves makes it prudent nonetheless.

It was impossible to buy Mexican insurance for motorcycles beforehand. I'd called around and found plenty of places that would sell it for cars (including AAA, where the nice lady said, "Gee, I never heard of anyone taking motorcycles into Mexico!").

I'm glad we didn't have to deal with finding a place in Tijuana, though I'm told they're easy to find. We'd been told we needed the original title to our motorcycles for the insurance; in fact all they looked at was our registrations. It cost us each $4.25 per day for the insurance. Steep but necessary.


AAA's map of Baja California is excellent and covered everything we needed. An American living in San Felipe told us it had pretty much had every road. Some of the places on the map that were marked were just one building with a place to buy sodas, so it's very detailed. Unfortunately, distances are marked in miles, not kilometers, though all Mexican signs are in kilometers. AAA's Baja guidebook is also very good.

We also used Joe Cummings' Baja Book and found it useful to crosscheck information in both books. No guidebook can possibly be 100% accurate, so for information on quality of roads, we asked along the way and learned to filter the extreme reports.


Along Mexico Hwy 1, there are so many signs in English that it's clear they are trying to attract American tourists. Mexicans are friendly and willing to try to talk to you if you make even a slight effort at speaking Spanish. In areas where no one spoke any English, we eventually found that with a few words we could communicate adequately. It's helpful to have a notebook to write down numbers when buying things. We always had our phrasebook and dictionary and made efforts everywhere to speak in Spanish. In fact if someone spoke English to us, it was sort of disappointing!


If you're willing to camp, you can greatly expanded your options of places to see and stay. There are public and private campsites all over Baja. Generally, the less services, the less American tourists. We paid from $4.00 to $10.00 a night for campsites. If a campsite has flush toilets and showers, you have luxury and probably a lot of neighbors. Be prepared to change your expectations from American and European camping though -- none of the showers or toilets had lights or hot water, for instance, and "shower" can just mean a faucet that's high up and you pull a chain to release the water.

We camped every night and only ate in restaurants 3 times. While cooking is labor-intensive, it also allows you to choose campsites and dinnertime that may not be convenient to restaurants, not to mention it's cheaper. We brought staples of rice, couscous, beans, pasta, dried potatoes and sauce mixes. Food boredom can set in quickly and, is something to be taken seriously, especially if you're going to be working hard the next day and dinner isn't appealing. Buying vegetables along the way supplemented things nicely, and the sauce mixes were great to add crucial flavor. Camp food that suitable to carry on motorcycles usually cooks into something mushy and you can start to miss crunch.

Another consideration for cooking is water availability. We always camped on the beach, so had ocean water for cleaning and boiling pasta. I don't quite know how you'd cook with just water you can carry on motorcycles and still have enough water to get through the next day.


At many stores, you can buy bottled water, and we found this was the best way to get drinking water. Iced-tea mix to flavor the water was a huge plus. The water we got in one town was out of big barrels, and even after boiling it had a horrible taste. We never got sick though. We brought a "dirty" water bag and a "clean" water bag, to transport both unpurified and purified water, plus a third into which we could purify the "dirty" water.


Along the main highway and in big towns, gas wasn't a problem at all. AAA recommends you keep your (car) tank at least half full, though this was conservative. At Pemex stations, super (92 unleaded octane, really more like 87, we were told) was almost always available, and our bikes ran fine on it, including Doug's R100GS which usually prefers "real" 92 octane gas.


Mexicans will almost always take dollars. We were advised to bring a lot of small bills and I really regretted not having a huge stack of 1's and 5's. For camping and other prices that are in whole increments, paying in dollars is easy and sometimes you can get discounts. One campsite preferred $8 instead of the peso equivalent of $10!

Getting along in Baja

We'd heard numerous stories of the dangers of Mexico, and encountered none of them in Baja. Outside of tourist areas, at least in Baja, Mexicans were curious and courteous to us, especially when we showed interest in their lives. Next time I'll bring small gifts, as we were told that Mexicans are very giving if you are too. Books and school supplies for children apparently are excellent gifts. We didn't feel like we were in in any danger, and had no qualms about leaving our motorcycles for a day when we were kayaking. Violent crime in Baja is much lower than in the USA, just keep an eye out for petty theft. You will always hear stories of bandits and robbery, but keep in mind that many Mexicans are afraid to go to New York City. Baja is small enough that a thief who steals a motorcycle will have a hell getting rid of it, especially getting it off the Baja peninsula. Like anywhere, be courteous, unassuming and alert, stay out of the tourist areas, and you'll get along fine.

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