Lost in Baja
By Stephen Clark
There are only a few places on the planet that are defined by motorsports, and Baja California is definitely one of them. Made famous by the Baja 1000 desert race, this Mexican peninsula is a mecca for off-road enthusiasts. Baja has been on my bucket list for years, but living in Idaho the logistics for visiting Mexico always prevented me from making the trip. An opportunity arose this Fall to visit Baja for a week with Simon Cudby following the Baja Rally on a KTM 1090 and Honda Africa Twin; all I needed to do was get myself to Orange County. So excited, I pretty much had flights booked before I hung up the phone with Cudby. Years of dreaming about such a trip and it was finally going to happen.
After flying into California, we spent the morning packing the bikes before departing Orange County about noon. We ripped down I-5 to San Diego and crossed the border in Tijuana; surprisingly the border crossing was completely seamless. We pulled up to a booth and they just waved us through, the sketchiest part of the whole process was not crashing on the metal balls they have embedded into the road. As soon as you cross it’s immediately apparent that you are in a foreign country and it was a strange feeling. I’ve traveled a lot internationally in the past but always flying and in that situation, you have the flight to prepare for the change in culture. Crossing the border into Mexico was just such a sudden change, it’s literally like San Diego is on one side of the street, and the other side of the road is a third world country. From Tijuana, we jumped on the beautiful Highway 1 and followed the coast down through Rosarito to Ensenada.
The purpose of our trip was to follow the almost 1000-mile Baja rally that would support a loop around the top section of the Baja peninsula starting and ending in Ensenada. As one of only a few rallies in North America, the Baja Rally follows a similar format to Dakar and is the ideal race for aspiring Dakar racers and riders looking to try demonstration for the first time. Other than seeing Dakar clips on Red Bull TV this was my first exposure to rally racing, so I had a lot to learn. Navigation plays a huge part in rally racing, and this is all done through the road book. The road book is a handlebar-mounted roll of paper provided by the organizers that tell the riders the distance between the turns and obstacles; they then use this to manually navigate with an odometer to keep track of the distance between corners. And as if it wasn’t hard enough, the prompts are all in French due to all rallies being officiated by the French organization ASO, which interestingly also organizes the Tour De France. The racing itself is as much about going fast as it is about navigating and not getting lost.
There are lots of tricks, and experienced racers will purposely take wrong turns and loop back into the course to throw off following riders or be careful not to roost the turns so they don’t leave any tracks that might help other riders. It’s a challenging sport, and you have to watch the roadbook to keep on track constantly. So bear in mind the next time you see a video of a rally rider, that they are not only hauling ass but also reading a complicated roadbook at the same time. Impressive.
In Ensenada, we met up with the racers and organizers of the Baja Rally as they prepared for the start of the Rally the following day. After introductions and getting a game plan for the following day we headed to bed. The next morning we drove a few miles South of Ensenada to the Las Canadas campground where the riders do a short 15km prologue to establish their start positions for the following day. The riders set off at one-minute intervals, and overall the whole prologue was fairly uneventful. After the prologue, we headed South and stopped off at a small road-side restaurant called Acambaro. Owned by race fans, this place was full of really cool Baja racing memorabilia with tons of racer jerseys and pictures from old events. We even spotted an old photo of Quinn Cody from his Baja days. We enjoyed some killer tacos and a refreshment, then continued our journey south. We needed to be at Mama Espinoza’s in El Rosario by the evening, so we decided to take a bit more time and cut over at Santo Tomas to the coast. It was a beautiful ride but was slightly interrupted by losing a bag off the back of the bike. The rough roads caused the bag to work loose, and it fell off. In the time it took me to go back and find it someone must have picked it up and taken it. As weird as it sounds, after an hour or so of searching it’s the only explanation we could come up with. The bag was full of tools, camera chargers, and all of my shoes, so a stop at a local shoe shop was in order. Thankfully we found one in a small town near San Quentin. We arrived at Mama Espinoza’s just at dusk.
Similar to Acambaro, Mama Espinozas is another legendary Baja racing location and is filled with jerseys and photos. Sitting in a wealth of Baja history we enjoyed some incredible lobster burritos, margaritas and reflected on the day’s riding. The following day’s stage would take us east across the peninsula to the Sea of Cortez side. Along the way we stopped in at another legendary Baja spot, Coco’s Corner. Run by a paraplegic with a huge personality, Coco’s Corner is in the middle of nowhere and a great place to escape the heat of the desert and grab a drink. From Coco’s we headed further east and stopped off in Gonzaga Bay for lunch; Alfonsina’s was without a doubt the coolest place we visited on the trip. Situated right on the beach in an incredibly quiet beautiful bay, Alfonsina’s has a relaxed, mellow vibe accentuated by incredible food and drinks. It was one of those places that was really hard to leave, and my next Baja trip will be planned to spend a few days there. Reluctantly, we had to leave the tranquility of Gonzaga and headed north to San Felipe to join the bivouac.
Coming into the trip, I will admit I was a bit apprehensive and concerned about staying safe in Mexico. You always hear horror stories about the drug cartels, but honestly on our trip we never felt unsafe. I felt more unsafe on an all-inclusive family vacation in Puerta Vallarta than I did in Baja. The locals in Baja were incredibly warm and welcoming.
Due to schedules, we had to be back in California by Saturday, so after watching the start of the Rally on the beach of San Felipe, we headed back towards the US. Through a crazy rain storm, we headed north and crossed the border in Mexicali. Thankfully the border crossing was uneventful, and we navigated the joys of California traffic on interstates back to Orange County. All in all, we traveled about 1000 miles and got a great taste of what Baja has to offer. I will definitely be back.
A big thanks to Baja Rally for having us, Honda and KTM for great bikes, Mosko Moto for the luggage and KLIM for the awesome gear.