About a day’s ride south of San Diego my chain went slack. Foolishly, I hadn’t packed my chain-tightening tool. Limping and scraping into El Rosario at dusk, I checked in at one of the town’s two motels and went looking for el mecánico. There’s always a mechanic in these little towns and they always have the right tools, especially along the route of the famous Baja 1000 off-road race. Even if I couldn’t find the mechanic, I knew I’d be able to count on the owner of at least one of the dozen or so bikes parked outside of the motel. A few steps later I spotted them at Mama Espinoza’s. I grinned when I recognized my friend Joe. It’s a small world along Highway 1. We had a great dinner and my 10 newest best friends formed an enthusiastic pit crew to tighten the chain.
Experienced motorcycle travelers will tell you that you’re never alone when you ride and that’s especially true in Baja now that major improvements have been made to stretches of Transpeninsular Highway (Mexico Highway 1). Though a few areas of potholes remain, it’s mostly smooth blacktop from one end to the other, that is, if you don’t count the vados (where you may be riding through a small stream if it’s rained in the mountains) and topes (speed bumps at the beginning of every town).
Highway 5 along the Sea of Cortez is also paved until you turn inland after Gonzaga Bay. From there the road is graded dirt for about 20 miles past the legendary Coco’s Corner before it joins Highway 1.
What kind of bike do you need to tour Baja? Ride anything you can. Trailer your dirt bike to the border. Superslab your big adventure bike, your low-slung cruiser, a dual-sport or even one of the big scooters. You don’t need reservations, just the right paperwork, protective gear, and an attitude to match the latitude.
You never know when you’ll need your paperwork, but when you do, you really do! Be sure to have all the following in order:
- Your driver’s license with the M1 endorsement
- An international driver’s license (optional)
- Passport or passport card.
- Your vehicle registration or paperwork from the rental company that allows you to ride it in Baja.
- FMM tourist permit from Discover Baja (the only place that offers them in advance).
- Vehicle liability insurance from Discover Baja is much more comprehensive than anything you can get at the border.
- Travel and medical evacuation insurance (see this post)
I see too many bikers riding in inadequate gear: t-shirts, jeans, and the tiny and largely ineffectual “brain-bucket” helmets. It’s smarter to gear up from head to toe, not only in case of an accident but to protect yourself from the elements. Here’s a list:
- A mesh jacket and pants protects you from the rays of the Baja sun and prevents dehydration but allows air to flow through to keep you cool(er). Brands I like include Olympia Moto Sports’ Airglide, Firstgear Mesh Tek, and Fieldsheer High Temp, but there are lots of others. They all include padding at shoulders, elbow, back, hip, and knee, but I switch them out for 3DO pads, which are more protective in case of a crash.
- A wicking base layer will keep you cool under your protective layer. These are available from motorcycle gear manufacturers but base layers from bicycle, climbing and other sport-specific companies work just as well.
- Cooling vests and neck wraps really work and can make all the difference in the enjoyment of your ride.
- A good pair of riding gloves can ensure that your grip is solid on the bars and prevents sunburn on the tops of your hands. Many of the manufacturers I’ve already mentioned make ventilated gloves, with the addition of Held, whose “Airstream” model is very comfortable for hot-weather riding. A model like this with a gauntlet will protect your wrists from sunburn and road rash.
- For riders who don’t want to look “all adventured up,” you’ll be well protected (though perhaps not quite as well ventilated) in motorcycle jeans (Harley, Rokker, AGV, Scorpion, Dainese, Klim, RevIt, among many other brands), as long as you add the removable knee and hip pads. You can also buy armored shorts and kneepads to wear under your favorite jeans or cargo pants.
- An alternative to a motorcycle jacket is a stretchy armored shirt to wear over a wicking base layer and under a long-sleeved cotton shirt. You might also consider motocross gear like upper body armor harness, elbow and kneepads.
- In Mexico, you’re required by law to wear a helmet. A full-face helmet protects your head and jaw in an accident, works better than sunscreen, wind-proofs your head, and is quieter and less fatiguing than a beanie or a half-helmet. Consider a dual-sport or “adventure” helmet with a bill that will shade your eyes.
- Wear polarized sunglasses and/or face shield.
- Motorcycle boots protect your feet, ankles, and shins from bashes and bumps, and in an accident, can prevent a break. (See my review of dual-sport boots.)
- Dehydration is a real danger in sun and wind. A hydration backpack lets you sip water as you ride. I like Geigerrig’s pressurized hydration system.
You can ride any kind of bike in Baja. Cruisers, sport bikes, and big scooters stick to the highways and maintained dirt roads. Adventure motorcyclists, dual-sport and dirt bike riders wander everywhere.
The cast wheels on a cruiser or standard touring bike may crack if it hits an obstacle at speed, like a rock. Spoke wheels are less susceptible to damage from rocks, bumps, and topes seen too late.
If you’re looking for a little adventure but you’re intimidated by the high seat heights of the dual-sport bikes, check out the scramblers made by Triumph and Ducati. They’re easier to ride with shorter suspension and lower seat heights. Actually, any street bike can become a scrambler. Just throw a set of spoke wheels on it, along with dirt-capable tires and high pipes that won’t get flooded or dented on low-lying rocks and water crossings.
Whatever bike you ride, make sure it’s up to the task with a recent tune-up, good battery, brakes and plenty of tire tread, and it doesn’t hurt to carry an extra tube or two. Mechanics in Baja are brilliant, but they can’t always get bike-specific parts.
Know Your Bike
It’s important to know what you and your bike are capable of. On one ride I met three guys who had managed—just barely—to complete a route that looks doable on the map but which is very difficult for all but the smaller dirt bikes. (take a look at the “road” that runs south from Bahia Los Angeles to Punta San Francisquito through El Arco and back to Highway 1.)
Two of the three riders were on big adventure bikes with spoked wheels (a BMW GS1200 and KTM 1190), but the third was on a Ducati Multistrada sport touring bike. The Multistrada is a lovely machine capable of navigating fire roads but it was never built to take on rough trails. The cast aluminum wheel in front was cracked, as was the rider’s collarbone and ankle, not to mention bent handlebars and all the plastic bits on the Ducati’s right side. The other two bikes, outfitted with engine guards and skid plates, fared better physically, but their riders were also lightly injured with sprains and possibly a separated shoulder. All three were exhausted from numerous falls and the strain of riding in sand and navigating boulders, repeatedly falling and picking up the heavy bikes.
If they hadn’t been all geared up in hardcore adventure suits, knee-high boots, gloves, and full-face helmets, packing toolkits and plenty of water, they wouldn’t have faired nearly as well.
Though Baja’s highways are paved, most side roads are dirt, gravel, and sand, with plenty of sharp rocks. Because erosion and weather can change their condition at any moment, it’s good to seek out local advice before setting off. You don’t need much Spanish to ask if the way is passable.
Ask locals at the turnoff, other motorcyclists and owners of 4x4s for advice. Many of these roads were built for access by local fishermen and vaqueros (cowboys), so don’t hesitate to wave them over and ask. You can also stop at any of the fishing camps and ranchitas you pass along the way to fill up on water and information. Yes, the locals are friendly, and many of them have actually ridden “the Baja.”
Back to the three guys in Vizcaino. As I sat on the porch of the gas station sipping a fluorescent orange soda in the shade, I watched the three men inspect their vehicles after their ordeal. The Ducati rider was furious at his friends for dragging him along that trail. Privately, I thought he should have been furious at himself for not having the huevos to ride his own ride…without the broken bike and bones.
Baja is a spectacular place to ride. But be prepared if you’re going off the main roads. And remember, no matter who you ride with, you are the captain of your own ride. So ride your own ride!
You can park your bike inside the motel courtyard in front of your door. Most motels, if not all, employ a security guard. You probably won’t recognize him. He’s just one of those guys who seems to be hanging around doing nothing. But believe me, he knows who belongs where. So far, our touring bikes and our Land Cruiser, loaded up with dirt bikes and other gear (securely tied down with ROK Straps), have remained unmolested.
If you’re camping, the guy who collects your fee (he’ll wander over eventually) acts as security. Many beaches are generally controlled by the ejido communal landholders and any local petty thieves steer clear.
Gas is there when you need it
Gas is supplied by Pemex in Mexico. All stations are full service, though most attendants will let you take the pump.
Generally, gas will find you when you need it. If you see a truck on the roadside with a big sign advertising GAS, it’s probably a good idea to stop and fill up. These entrepreneurs charge about one American dollar more per gallon (25 cents a liter) than at the gas station, which barely covers the cost of their time and transportation.
The longest stretch of highway without gas is a 220 mile stretch on Highway 1 between El Rosario and Villa Jesus Maria (just north of Guerrero Negro). There are always gasolina vendors in Cataviña, a favorite base for dirt bike riders.
If you have a small gas tank or you’re exploring remote trails, then carry a RotopaX or two for peace of mind.
Be ready for tire repairs
Tire repair is the most common roadside fix you’ll make, so practice before you leave. If you think you have a slow leak or just want to air up, stop at one of the plentiful llanteras (tire shops) for assistance. These guys are geniuses at fixing tires and wheels. They may not charge you for their time, but a few pesos for an air up or a patch is rarely refused. A sticker or keychain from your club will bring a big smile!
Don’t ride at night
Riding at night is freaky so don’t do it. There are no street lights and long-haul truckers rule the night, scraping livestock from the road as they go. They’ll politely dim their lights but in the pitch black Baja night any bright light can temporarily blind you, and there is no room for error on these roads with no shoulder.
Even more dangerous are the cattle, wild horses, and goats hanging out on the asphalt, absorbing its heat. (It can be chilly in the desert at night.) Mornings, you’ll see vultures perched on Cordon cactus, waiting for the night’s road kill to ripen.
Notice the roadside shrines for drivers and passengers who have lost their lives. The great majority of these accidents happen at night. So please, stop riding for the day before dusk falls.
Most riders who hesitate to travel Baja fear the borders and security checkpoints. I have been living and riding in Baja for two years now. I’ve traveled alone (solo blonde female here!) and in groups, by motorcycle, in my Toyota Camry, and in a Land Cruiser with a trailer pulling dirt bikes.
Military personnel at security checkpoints are usually pretty chill. These young men, standing in the sun in fatigues over bulletproof vests, come from all over Mexico. They’re looking for drug runners headed north. Usually, they’re bored silly. A smile goes a long way.
The four things they want to know are 1) that you’re on vacation, 2) your nationality, 3) the name of the town where you stayed last night, and 4) the name of the town where you’re headed today.
They may look through your panniers in a cursory check for illegal drugs. Mostly, they’ll enjoy looking at your bikes and your gear and chatting a little.
In short, gone are the days of scary border crossings and roadside shakedowns. Still, don’t get distracted and pay close attention to what they’re doing. And keep your money and other valuables in your pockets and not in your tank bag. Just in case.
Tacos and cervezas and motorcycles don’t mix
Enjoy the shrimp tacos but don’t indulge in cervezas until you’ve parked for the night. The road is good but like I said, there’s no room for error. You’ll need all your faculties to ride safely. Besides, the cops are not as relaxed as they used to be about gringos partying and driving. No breathalyzer test necessary… they’ll use their judgment. Handcuffs out. Party over.
Tacos are made right in front of you, hot, delicious, cheap, and safe. Bottled water is sold everywhere. Use your judgment with the condiments. If it looks fresh, I’ll always eat the guacamole, salsa, lettuce, and radishes, so far with no revenge.
Slow down and enjoy the journey
People just aren’t in as much of a hurry in Baja as they are in the USA, which is why you’re here, anyway, isn’t it?
Delays and even breakdowns can bring experiences and cultural connection that’s more valuable than counting down mileage and reaching your planned destination.
Reservations are rarely necessary so, unless you’re riding in a large group, don’t make them. So what if you don’t reach Cabo. There’s always mañana.
Carla King has been writing about her motorcycle adventure travels since 1995. Read about her misadventures in North America, China, Europe, India, and Africa, and current adventures in Baja at CarlaKing.com.