Baja: The Adventure of La Tortuga y Amigos

Posted by Justin Lewis on Saturday, June 13, 2015


This post is quite different than the usual write-up of our weekend missions into the Rockies or desert of Utah. I am head south, way south.

What started as a half-brained idea over a few beers transpired into a magical journey down the Baja peninsula. Mitch and I had owned and operated our bikes for slightly shy of a year by the time we departed. The learning curve wasn’t without a few crashes and hesitations. Shortly after purchase Mitch jacked up his hand ruining his golf career for the summer. In my one year of bike ownership I had made it without any crashes luckily, but for those of you that know me I’ve had my history of crashes. Most remarkably a battle to the death head-on with our primate ancestors in Thailand resulting in one shattered radius, five screws and a metal plate.

Even with our previous track record Jeff, who has ridden some sort of bike since he was a little kid, jumped at the opportunity to join this adventure. After spit-balling a few ideas of routes such as Utah/CO, the PCH, etc. we mutually settled on Baja. It had the exotic allure of a 2nd world country riddled with miles of open desert roads, fish tacos, and beachside camping.

Despite our friends and families concerns of drug cartel issues we had done our homework and to us it seemed like a perfectly viable option. We had purchased maps and books and spent the winter months building out and getting the bikes ready for an overland adventure. The lineup was as follows:

  • Jeff: 2015 Triumph Scrambler aka Mr. Pickles
  • Justin: 2006 Yamaha XT 225 aka MonkeySlayer (who was renamed during the trip as La Tortuga)
  • Mitch: 2007 Kawasaki KLR 650 aka TBD as she likes to remain mysterious

The Border Crossing:

We had a total of 15 days from the close of business on Friday till our return at work. In order to gain optimal taco eating time we decided to trailer the bikes to the border, which we did in one 19 hour day after countless gas fill-ups. We spent the night in Calexico, as we arrived around midnight. The following day we made a visit to Wal-Mart to stock-up on last minute supplies prior to searching for a place to park the truck and trailer. We checked the main places we’d read about online (AA Parking), which were at max capacity. From there we headed to U-Park, which looked like a junk yard of disassembled cars, trucks, and semi-trucks. Slightly sketched-out we were assured by the owner that it would be safe (FYI it was $7 per day). Truck parked, gear loaded, and suited up we were off for the border town of Mexicali.

The crossing was too simple. We drove directly into Mexico without even being stopped or questioned, which in theory sounds great, however we needed to get our tourist cards as we would be in Baja for an extended period of time and travel outside the tourist zone. After wondering the dusty sweltering side streets we stumbled upon the “tourist police office”, where none of the police actual spoke English. Something tells me not many tourists are vacationing in this shitty inland border town. A quick phone call and 10 minutes later an english speaking cop appeared, who insisted it wasn’t necessary to obtain the card. We insisted and he decided to take us to the immigration office. Not even 45 minutes into Mexico here we were 3 gringos with Colorado plates zipping though Mexicali behind a police dodge pickup, sirens blaring and all. We arrived right back at the border crossing. We stopped into the unmarked office and sure enough we had our cards within 20 minutes after a few hilarious conversations with the customs agent about all the “beautify babies” we will see down the beaches of the Sea of Cortez.

The Ride:

Being a surfer at heart going down the Pacific coast would have been optimal as there are countless coves, points, and beach breaks to explore. However, given the cold water temperatures, my lack of attaching a surfboard to my bike, and the fact that my two comrades hadn’t the faintest clue how to surf we decided to stick to the warmer and clearer Sea of Cortez coast. We left Mexicali fairly late in the day so our first goal was to make it to San Felipe, which was approx. 2 hrs south on Hwy 5. We strolled into town around 6:30pm and after exploring around the town we settled at Pete’s Camp. Pete’s Camp is a pretty big establishment with palapas lining the beach for rent. There is also quite a big expat community. We quickly setup camp under the setting sun before retreating to the bar for our first Mexican round of tacos and Pacificos’, which was followed by some of Papa’s special tequila shots. The patrons at the bar were an odd eclectic mixture of retires and expats that seemed like they were escape the ideology of “American life”. About what I expected.

We learned on our first morning in Mexico that sleeping past 7am was going to be a challenge. Facing east the sun rose harshly over the Sea of Cortez by 5:45am. We washed the first day of grime off with a quick swim accompanied by a few breakfast burritos and a game of Frisbee prior to our departure towards Gonzaga Bay. The drive out of San Felipe gave us our first real treat of the turquoise water.

The first section of the ride was fairly well paved all the way up through to Puertecitos. It meandered through the desert with constant rollercoaster type humps, which were a blast to ride. It was almost like riding a pump track on a mountain bike. The dips after each hump were marked for caution as after rains they can be washed out and flooded. We arrived in the sleeping town of Puertecitos (population of 200) mainly to get gas as this was the first test ride after we had done all the modifications to the bikes and were unsure of our range. Plus we’d heard countless stories of how one should never pass up a gas station in Baja, which made us slightly paranoid. We arrived at the gas station to see it closed. After speaking with a local woman she assured us it would reopen and they were simply closed for lunch between 2-3pm. We snacked and rested. Promptly at 3pm the attendant rolled up on his bicycle, unlocked the gate, and topped us off. Back on Hwy 5 the road climbed through the desert landscape and mountains offering switchbacks and glimpses of the sea. It was stunning and much more enjoyable on the way back two weeks later. Around one switchback my back tire slid on the loose gravel causing me to dump my bike. Unscathed and intact I picked the bike up and continued to climb. Halfway up the apex of the pass the wind began to howl at 40 mph+, which for new riders like Mitch and I, it was a challenge, and significantly worse for me being on the lightest bike which weighed almost half of Jeff’s Triumph. I was being blown all over the place as gusts whipped around the rocks and formations lining the road. It just wasn’t my day and I insisted we pull off and wait out the wind. We sat, ate some tuna, and waited for about an hour. The wind was relentless and never gave up. A quick pep talk and we began the journey down to Gonzaga, which was only a mere 30 KM. I took it slow gripping the bike trying my best to counter-steer against the wind, half leaned over. We passed our first military check point and rolled into camp. There was one other group of campers, Brandon and Patrick from Southern California on their massive KTM 990s, and their neighbor Lenny, who had followed them down in his truck.

Brandon and Patrick were on their way out and had anticipated making it further north but also stopped due to the wind. We spent the evening picking their brain for knowledge of routes and tips as they had been down here over a dozen times, drinking beers, and catching scorpions to fight each other in the ring of death.

The following morning we were off towards the infamous Coco’s Corner and our first section of dirt. The road through Gonzaga was freshly paved and smooth as butter (about 11 miles as of May 2015) before it abruptly dropped off returning back to the primitive dirt, rock, and gravel which used to run all the way up Hwy 5. It has been a slow progress from what we gathered. After another 14 or so miles of fun dirt and rock we arrived at Coco’s Corner. Coco, legless due to diabetes, has been living isolated out here in the desert for decades. His name and legend is well known on the off-roading circuit. His compound is riddled with pictures of racers and their vehicles from the Baja 1000 and 500. Women’s panties draped from the rafters flowing in the wind. We signed the logbook of travelers and order up a few beers. The beers started at around $2.5 a piece, but a few hours and several stories later they had dropped to around $1 as Coco’s shit talking subsided and he warmed up to us.

From Coco’s we headed back onto the dirt road and continued until it linked back up with the paved Hwy 1, making a left turn and headed for the junction toward Bahia de Los Angeles (BOLA). The road in was incredible. Again filled with switchbacks and views of the sea and the varying islands which dotted the coastline. We camped at Daggett’s for the evening, but after our stunning campsite the previous night it just didn’t have the same allure and we decided to only stay the evening. As it was the start of the offseason again we only had one other set of campers. Three retires and their two pups in a recently purchased RV from the 90s, which was acquired for a mere $2,500. They had been down in Baja for several months diving and beachcombing.

From BOLA we headed back up the same route to the Hwy 1 junction. We toyed with the idea of exploring further down the coast to Playa San Francisquito, but after hearing about Lenny’s two flat tires on this dirt section we decided to opt for the safer route. Our goal was to make it to Bahia Concepcion, specifically Mulege. This was to be our longest day of riding so far, about 300 miles. The scenery was every changing. The ride through Guerro Negro was dry, flat, and dusty, while the ride through San Ignacio was a tropical oasis of palm trees and rivers. We continue onwards back down to the coast through intense switchbacks. One was so tight that as I reached it I noticed there was a semi-truck stopped waiting for another to pass. The driver was slowly reversing to allow the other truck to pass with just enough room to squeak by, tires grazing the edge of the tarmac. Heading down the pass we’d reached Santa Rosalia, which seemed like a large town, but was a dump. Lots of construction and building going on, trash lining the beach, it was a shame. The sun was setting and we were at least an hour out from our destination. Not wanting to ride in the dark I suggested we stop for the day, but I was quickly out voted 2-1. We rode on. Sunset to dusk, dusk to dark. Being the runt of the pack and not having my regular glasses on I was quickly left in the dust, which to me was a big “no no” in the dark. I caught up to the guys, throwing off my helmet, and quickly scolding them; “Not cool, not cool at all. At night time we need to ride together. It‘s unacceptable”. We strolled into Playa Santispac in the dark, hungry and weary around 8:30pm or so we thought. There were two restaurants lining the beach. We were greeted with smiling faces deep in margaritas. We sat down and tried to order food, but were informed the kitchen was closed. What we failed to notice was that when we crossed from Baja Norte to Baj Sur at Guerro Negro we had lost an hour. It was 9:30pm. After some deliberation the owner’s husband decide to reopen the kitchen. We told them to make us whatever they felt like. Shrimp tacos it was, and boy did they taste good after the day we had.

Our campsite in Playa Santispac was simply too spectacular for one day, so we stayed a second day. We lounged on the beach, took naps in hammocks, did some serious day drinking, and ate a sufficient amount of scallops and ceviche. The evening was ended with a bonfire including a grouping in their 80s diesel conversion van from Florida, Pete also from Florida on his motorcycle, us, and a group from California in their VW Westy.

Sad to leave as Bahia Concepcion was what we dreamt of while planning the trip it was off to places further south. Our goal was an hour south of La Paz, to Los Barriles, which resulted in a long day of riding. The 24 KM ride out of the bay was incredible as the road hugs Bahia Concepcion before ascending inland into the mountains.

It was a solid days riding and after getting lost several times in La Paz looking for the highway out further south to our destination we decided to call it quits and search for a campsite. We consulted our maps and books and decided on Playa Tecolete. We arrived just in time to catch a beautiful sunset. Our first actually.

We were greeted by Jesus, slightly drunk. It was a rather confusing matter. Of course he said we could camp here behind his family’s restaurant. He also said that there were better campsites back the way we came. Unsure as to whether or not he wanted us to stay or go; we simply just decided to stay. It had looked like rain, which is a rarity in the desert. Jesus had insisted us that no rain was coming. Our neighbors for the evening were a Kiwi named Simon who had been traveling with his daughter for a year or so down from British Columbia in an older Toyota Previa and Margo and Tony in their late 80s VW Westy, the Baja Buggy. We sat in the sand, beer in hand, swapping stories for hours. The legend of Margo and Tony’s life as vagabonds was truly inspirational. I could have sat there for hours upon hours.

In the middle of the night we were awoken by intense thunder, lightning, and rain. It was a true thunderstorm. The first one I had seen in quite some time. Despite Jesus’s drunken advice we were smart and had put our rain flies on thanks to Mitch. While a highly inaccurate weather man Jesus was a standup individual. At 2:30am he had come out into the storm to see if we were ok and if we wanted to come inside the restaurant for shelter. We declined. We were dry and warm in our tents.

The following morning it was still slightly rainy, but Margo and Tony had invited us into the Baja Buggy for coffee and tea. For anyone who knows my love for old VWs this was a thrilling moment for me. As the rain subsided the group of us made a break for Jesus’s restaurant enjoying some ceviche, shrimp, and margaritas. I could have stayed here for days swapping stories with our new friends, but the boys were keen on making it to Cabo for the weekend to party. We packed up and headed on southward, which was about a 2 hr ride. It was a familiar and beautiful ride for me as I had surfed the area the previous year. The road hugged the Pacific for a change resulting in a chilly ocean breeze passing through Todos Santos and Pescadero before descending into the sweltering heat of Cabo.

Cabo for me is an interesting place. I much more prefer San Jose Del Cabo and the East Cape, which is where all the surf breaks are located. After driving around for a bit we settled on a hotel and showered up. Our first in 7 days. Having been down here for Hurricane Odile I was highly impressed with the improvement and restoration that has been done. I am not sure how the local’s homes are, but in the tourist corridor you almost couldn’t even tell there was a Category 4 direct hit. We spent the next two days partying and lounging on the beach. It was weird and unfamiliar to see so many gringos after camping in isolation. The prices were almost double to triple for food and drinks with the exception of a few taco stands. It is a shame most people think all of Baja is dangerous. Before heading out of Cabo we charted a boat to do some fishing. We had a few bites from Wahoo and even snagged a Marlin after chasing a pack for 20 minutes. Sadly none were landed.

Having made it to the end of Baja it was now time to turn around and head back north. It had taken us seven days to get to the end and we had spent two days in Cabo. That left us with 4-5 days to get back to the truck. I had wanted to go up the pacific coast and explore Magdalena Bay, Scorpion Bay, etc., but we had spent too much time down south. Heck we had gone further than any of us imagined. Short on time we decided to take the familiar and faster route back up. Nothing real eventful as we rode hard for 4 days to get back to San Felipe where we spent the day getting one last solid beach day before departing the following AM.


Overall it was an incredible journey and a fantastic first motorcycle ride. I would not hesitate to do it again. My only regret was I felt that we moved too fast, which just means there is room for another trip. We had no issues regarding safety or mechanical issues on any of our bikes besides Mitch’s bike overheating in Mexicali while trying to cross back into California. We were pretty prepared with maps and books and had done quite a bit of research. It was simpler then we’d expected and made me long for an adventure further south into Central America.

-Justin (La Tortuga)