Workin’ for the Weekend
Moto Escape to Baja
Words and Photos by Frenchie
Work’s been a grind lately and the weather just keeps getting hotter. I’m sitting on the 405 in dead stopped traffic. GET ME TO MEXICO!!!! All I can think about is riding my dirt bike with my buddies and having a cold beer as I watch the Pacific Ocean crash into the cliffs of Baja. My old man, who’s now 64 years old, has been exploring Baja by dirt bike for 50 years. Whether he can make it or not, he’s always my first invite and is just as excited as I am. This time he couldn’t make the trip, but he always has tips and secret trails to tell me about. Every time I talk Baja with my old man I’m just blown away with how much gnarlier things were back in the day.
I couldn’t imagine exploring back in those days, riding old bikes without cell phones and not knowing where the next gas station would be. Even to this day, some villages don’t have a gas station and the ones that do sure as hell aren’t marked on a map! Back in the day they would have to knock on ranchers doors in hopes of buying fuel.
Rule #1 – NEVER pass gas in Baja.
We arrived at the Mexican border and unloaded. Before we knew it we were all set to fire up the motos and tear down the road. The plan was to head south and stay the night at the El Palomar motel in Santo Thomas. El Palomar motel is off Highway 1 and about 30 minutes south of Ensenada. We crossed the border and took the tarmac headed to Rancho Santa Veronica for our first beer. Rancho Santa Veronica has villas, a pool, restaurant and has become a huge starting point for the off-road community.
Hitting the tarmac in Baja is always an uneasy feeling. The semi trucks drive faster than the borracho ranchers in their 4-banger pick up trucks that leak engine oil all over the tarmac. Don’t forget the oncoming traffic merging into your lane to dodge potholes – lots going on.
Rule # 2 – ALWAYS be on your toes.
After rehydrating at Rancho Santa Veronica we jumped on a dirt road that would lead us to Ojos Negros. Only a few minutes down the dirt road and the ground turned bright mustard yellow. The El Nino Winter had blessed us with a blanket of yellow wildflowers. I locked up my brakes, peeled off the fire road and started doing donuts and wheelies through the yellow wildflowers as I laughed in disbelief. From that moment on I knew we were going to see a Baja we’d never seen before.
Back on the bike and back on the fire road, we headed south, bound for Ojos Negros. The goal was to find some al pastor tacos and gasolina. The fire road we hopped on cuts through a valley just below Constitution National Park Pine Forest. A 5th gear wide-open fire road that can have drastic consequences thanks to deep ruts crossing the road. Been there, done that ¬– broken helmet and split radiator.
Rule #15 – DO NOT get hurt in Baja.
We pulled into the sleepy pueblo of Ojos Negros. Al pastor tacos and some more cold beers hit the spot. We fueled up the bikes and jumped on a famous dirt road headed to Urapan. It could be the best dirt road EVER. Imagine a wide fire road in great condition with sweeping dusty turns, big rollers all with a slight downhill pitch. Its soooo good. I’m talking 4th gear corners, inside foot out, skimming off the top of the road and you look back there’s a giant cloud of dust! This road is often used for off-road races down in Mexico. About an hour and a half after leaving Ojos Negros we were at the top of a peak looking down on what my old man calls, Beer Mountain. Beer Mountain is pretty gnarly no matter which way you’re headed. On Saturday we all successfully made it down but it still put up a fight. I would compare the descent of Beer Mountain to a nasty, rocky, chunky, downhill track with rain ruts that could swallow a dirtbike. On Sunday the mountain would live up to its gnarly reputation when we tried to climb back, but we’ll save that for later.
We got into Santo Thomas and stopped at the El Palomar motel and grabbed our room key. El Palomar sits right off Highway 1 and is known for having people always lounging outside on tree stumps, sipping margaritas and watching cars drive too fast as they hit the legendary speed bump on the highway. As of 2017 the speed bump has been removed and replaced with new asphalt, which is a shame because it was a landmark. I remember growing up as a little kid sleeping at El Palomar and in the middle of the night hearing semi trucks jamming on their brakes slamming into the speed bump. I’ve been staying here for a long time. There are pictures of my old man hanging up all over the El Palomar restaurant from the 80’s and 90’s when they would ride and party there all the time. A lot of these places, like El Palomar, are like a time capsule. They show a glimpse of the previous generation that was out exploring the unknowns of Baja.
Since we made good time and had a few hours of daylight left, we decided to take an extra credit route behind El Palomar that I got a tip about. We shoved as many beers in our backpacks as we could, gassed up our bikes and headed West of Highway 1 toward the ocean.
We rode about 25 miles from the El Palomar to the coast and ran right into the Punta San Jose lighthouse, which is a popular cove for surfers. It had been a pretty long day in the sun at this point so we parked the bikes, hung our feet off the cliff side, cracked open a couple beers, lemon sardines, sipped some tequila and watched the surfers ride some long rolling waves. Life was feeling pretty good at that point but we couldn’t rest too long, because the sun was starting to creep down and we had to head back to El Palomar. I was told about a road that would lead us to an old adobe house in the middle of the mountain range on our way back to the motel. We quickly packed up and hustled to make it before dark.
We struggled to find the road and we never tracked down that adobe house, but we came upon a few other incredible moments. As we left the ocean headed east for Palomar, we decided to explore some mountains. As we started climbing up we soon found ourselves on old, overgrown double track roads. MY FAVORITE! As soon as we hooked up to this overgrown double-track we were all high fiving in excitement! We buzzed up to the top of the mountain range and dropped down the other side. It was a gift from the trail gods. Our double-track trail now had walls of bright yellow wildflowers that towered above our heads. We all stopped again and stared at another Baja beauty.
Buzzed on nature’s blessings, tequila and beers, we knew we’d better get back on the gas. The sun was going down fast and we still had a ways to go. We bombed down the mountain but the sun was going down quicker than we could ride. We hopped on another dirt road and took it all the way to El Palomar just in time to catch some dinner and margaritas.
Sunday’s plan: breakfast at 8:00 a.m. and kickstands up immediately after we shoved our faces. We loaded up our packs in preparation of the day and our rest point at the top of Beer Mountain. We rode for almost two hours before we got to the base of Beer Mountain before I turned around and said, “Alright fuckers…I’ll see you at the top! I’ll have a cold beer waiting for you!” I fought my way up this long, gnarly, rutted, rocky and all around shitty-ass climb. After a good battle, which I won, I sat down and waited for my compadres. A few minutes later the next rider crested the peak. We started drinking our beers and waited for our third partner. Sean is an experienced rider so the hill climb shouldn’t have been a problem for him, but a few minutes went by, and we were starting to get uncomfortable. We didn’t hear his bike and we were pretty much done with our beers. “It shouldn’t have taken this long, I think something is up” I said. We packed our gear and headed down to go find Sean. Eventually he came into sight, standing next to his bike at the base of climb with a really bummed out look on his face. “I’m fine! I’m fine! Sean yelled. “BUT, we have a big problem” he continued.
About 100 hundred feet into the climb Sean slid into a deep rut. A sharp rock caught the side of his DRZ400’s engine case and sheared off a bolt, resulting in a total loss of engine oil. “FUCK! What do we do know,” I thought? After brainstorming a bit we decided that towing him out of the valley and back to El Palomar was our best bet. As we left El Palomar that morning I remember seeing a JB Weld kit at a local store. “We’ll go back to the hotel, plug the hole with a bolt and some JB Weld, pour some oil in the engine and head home!” I confidently proclaimed.
Three hours later we finally made it back to the El Palomar. I ran in and bought the JB Weld kit and grabbed a spare bolt out of my pack. As I look down at my JB Weld kit I noticed that one of the mixing tubes was missing! The kit only had the hardening compound and was missing the mixing compound. Son of a bitch! What a typical Baja thing to do. If you spend enough time down here, you’ll learn that nothing goes wasted, which is both good and bad. Right now, it was bad.
We hooked the tow strap back up to busted DRZ and I towed him from El Palomar Santo Thomas north to Ensenada to an Autozone to get some more JB Weld and oil. By 3:00 p.m. we had the DRZ laying on the sidewalk plugging the hole, waiting for the JB Weld to cure. The time was ticking and we weren’t anywhere near the border. The JB Weld finally cured so we dropped oil in the case and the bike started right up. We got back on the road and headed to the border. Sean and I rode side by side through the streets of Ensenada and within minutes we had a problem. Sean put a conservative amount of JB Weld on the plug and the vibration of the engine broke the JB Weld seal. Oil was now running down the side of his swing arm. We pulled over at a gas station, bought some more beers and tipped the DRZ back on its side. We cleaned her up again and applied a generous amount of JB Weld this time and waited for it to cure. More is always better when it comes to this type of JB Weld application. After our second roadside JB weld repair we hit Highway 3 from downtown Ensenada. The route leads right to the Tecate border. We must have crossed the border around 7 p.m. and it made for a hell of a day. We were stoked to have made it to the truck, stoked to be back in the USA and thankful because it could have been so much worse. Lots of things can happen south of the border and its best to come prepared.
All in all, we had a great weekend and anytime you can ride back out of Baja with yourself and your bike in one piece, it’s a success. Sometimes adversity makes for the best stories and memories, once you’re back home in the garage or couch that is. We certainly had some laughs, good food and great riding down south. Baja never disappoints.
Baja Tips From the Wolf Pack
Recommended Checklist – JB Weld, Zip ties, spare bolts, duct tape, tools, tubes, patch kit, tow rope and tequila. Don’t forget a robust first aid kit. Consider some first aid training ‘cuz a great kit is only as good as the person administering the aid. This isn’t the place for the “if I don’t bring it I won’t need it” mentality. Prepare for the worst and hope for the best!
Navigation in Baja can be a challenge. A map from AAA is a good start but things still get tricky. I’m pretty sure I have never seen a street sign in Baja. The only things marked are: highways, cities, towns, and villages. Trying to hook up with specific unmarked dirt roads can get difficult.
Before the trip I bought a Trail Tech Voyager GPS for my 450, and it works really well. I can pre-program routes, save routes and add way points as I’m riding to go explore later. The Trail Tech Voyager also provides speed, map, zoom in/out, a compass and engine temp.
Got any tips for good local food, hotels, campgrounds, streams or swimming holes?
Research and locate your gas stations and pack food just in case the villages you pass don’t have little taco stands opened up. Most of the locals are very welcoming. Don’t be too afraid to knock on someone’s door. More often than not you’ll wind up with a fantastic homemade meal. Baja is an adventure and some people are secretive when it comes to sharing badass singletracks, swimming holes, surf spots, bays and beaches. Be polite, leave places cleaner than you found them and be aware.
What did you learn this trip?
Everyone comes home from Baja with different appreciation, stories and lessons depending on the trip. I always return to the United States with appreciation for the country I live in. Baja is poor, the people don’t have much at all, yet they are so nice and welcoming. This trip reminded me that anything can happen in Baja and that I, as a group leader, should be better prepared for potential problems.
What did you wish you knew before going there?
That I would need JB Weld!
If you could give anyone else a tip before going what would it be?
NEVER pass gas in Baja. That’s the golden rule. If you come up on a PEMEX station, top off because you don’t know where the next gas station may be. If you are on a dirt road that has a gate that you need to pass through, be sure you close the gate behind you (cattle and livestock could get out). Be respectful, be polite.