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Legends of Baja

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Sitting in the dark, smoky lounge at Mike’s Sky Ranch, surrounded by hundreds of posters, stickers, photographs and pieces of memorabilia from the off-roaders that have been here before us is as close to a Baja Zen moment as you can get.

We took a diverse collection of dual sport machines on our Baja journey to put them all to the test.
This article and many more like it are featured in Issue Two 2010 of MotoUSA Magazine. This coffee table quality publication features timeless articles that focus on the best destinations and the rides from around the world is brought to you by the editors of Motorcycle-USA.com. Get your complimentary copy with every order from the exclusive distributor Motorcycle-Superstore. (While supplies last!)
Add into the equation that we were swilling margaritas with a racing legend and the trip just became that much better. Six members of the MotoUSA family listening intently as Danny LaPorte strung a yarn about one of his epic battles in World MX with Georges Jobé and his infamous race with Bob Hannah and Broc Glover.

In that era, many of us were just getting into motorcycles and he was an integral part of putting the US motocross scene on the map, so we were hanging on his every word. This was the end of our first night in Mexico, but we already had more fun in the past 12 hours than we had all year.

Earlier that day we assembled our motley crew on the US side of the border, packed our bags and headed for the Baja border town of Tecate, where our journey would begin. We had a diverse collection of dual sport machines at our disposal including a pair of Kawasaki KLX250S, a Yamaha WR250X and a couple of heavyweights in the BMW F800GS and Kawasaki KLR650. Our guides, Bill Berroth of Motonation, Donny Emler Sr., owner of FMF, Bill’s buddy and infamous Mexican land-magnate Gordie and the three-time Baja 1000-winning LaPorte, were eager to shed some light on the allure of riding Baja to a group who had yet to experience it.

Our destination on day one was the aforementioned Mike’s Sky Rancho with a short stop at Rancho El Compadre, and our only run-in with the Mexican law enforcement along the way. We eased through Tecate and into the boondocks without any trouble. Our first taste of Baja desert was a collection of long dirt roads replete with a lot of deep sand
Once we arrived at Mikes Sky Ranch  it was time for a little bench racing. And whats bench racing without a little liquid courage to get the ball rolling.
Once we arrived at Mike's Sky Ranch, it was time for a little bench racing. And what's bench racing without a little liquid courage to get the ball rolling.
whoops. We explored single track through the dense brush and even had time to take in a few sights along the way. Then, as we rounded a berm, full-stick, kicking roost, we found ourselves face-to-face with a pair of armed militia. My heart sank as we all slid to a stop in a disorderly fashion, expecting the worst and hoping for less. Behind them was a platoon of Federales patrolling the cartel-infested region. The majority of them were young, toting machine guns in ski-masks and desert-camo fatigues. It turned out this group was under the charge of a motorcycle fan and they were keen for some interaction that didn’t involve gun fire, so we took the opportunity to show off our bikes and talk about the upcoming Baja 1000.

After making nice with the Captain we discovered one fellow was actually a Mexican-American from our home state of Oregon serving as an interpreter. He was cool and played liaison between the brass and us gringos as we took pictures and bench-raced with them for over an hour. Knowing the smugglers were out there was disconcerting, but making a connection with the men trying to protect us from them had me looking at this intimidating force in a much different light.

Between Rancho El Compadre and Mike’s is a diverse collection of roads and trails that wander through the San Quintin Valley, some of which have been used as Baja race courses. These roads are often rugged, dirty and difficult to navigate. That’s where Bill and his boys came in handy.
MotoUSAs Greg gets suckered into jumping into the pool. Too bad for him  it was mas frio!
Too many margaritas and one of us was foolish enough to take the challenge...Can you say, "Mucho Merma!"
Berroth’s intimate knowledge of the territory was reassuring while looking out over the barren landscape with no idea what direction we were heading. If you plan to visit Baja, we recommend you take a guided tour first. If you insist on tackling it alone, bring a GPS and a map. You’re going to need them.

On the trail, the smaller bikes were gobbling it up, providing a thrill-per-mile ride. Those on the heavyweights were facing a different monster, with the big bikes a handful in the sand whoops and hillclimbs. The skid plates and frames took a beating, but, for the most part, the bikes and riders held up fine.

It was near dusk when we arrived at Mike’s Sky Rancho. Located in the tallest mountain range in Baja, the accommodations are a welcome sight after trudging through rocks, sand, silt and dust. Originally a hunting resort founded in the ‘60s by the late Mike Leon, the ranch has since become an attraction for off-road aficionados willing to make the pilgrimage. Leon embraced the off-road culture, competing in and winning car classes during the Baja 1000, and his legacy is wrapped in the memorabilia of all who stay here, which gives this place a mystical appeal.

Tired and dirty, one by one we maneuvered our motorcycles to the parking area along the pool. First, LaPorte found that you can’t squeeze a 40-inch-wide F800 with saddlebags
Our journey wasnt without heart stopping moments like this one where we came face-to-face with these armed Federales. Hutch doesnt look like hes sure of their intentions.
It never hurts to be nice to the Federales while in Baja, especially the masked, gun-totting ones.
through a 39-inch opening and then the KLR behind him got real squirrelly on the sidewalk.

When the third bike nearly took a digger in the same spot we realized there was oil everywhere on the ground. It turns out the drain plug had fallen out of the big Kawi and spewed all over the steps. We all started pointing fingers and blaming each other for not tightening the plug as our trip began taking a turn for the worse. It was like Lord of the Flies and we hadn’t even drawn any blood yet. While we scrambled to locate a replacement plug, Joe Wallace and photographer Kevin Wing headed back to search the road for the missing bolt. Many of us scoffed at their effort as they rode off. About the time we were contemplating filling the hole with JB-Weld our pals Wing and Wallace returned with good news. Our eagle-eyed shooter found the plug by following the oil trail to its origin. Half the head was sheared off which led us to assume it had taken a hit and loosened up at some point. Regardless of how or why, we were back in business before you could say “uno mas cervesa,” and ready to revel in Mike’s nostalgic cantina.

That brings us back to the beginning of this story. There we were, swilling tequila and beer while sharing stories with a racing legend. Once everyone was good and liquored up the machismo games began. One rider volunteered to jump in the frigid pool, but he got out as quick as he got in. It looked like a bad idea when he stripped to his skivvies, but watching him shoot out of the water like a dolphin at Sea World, whimpering and shivering, was absolutely priceless. The rest of us were content to rack up shots and tell lies to prove our mettle. A couple hours and many drinks later the generators went off and left us to enjoy the silence of this desert paradise.

There’s no cell phone or TV and when the power is off the night takes a turn for the better. Perched high in the hills of San Pedro Martir, Mike’s view of the heavens is amazing as the dark sky showcases million of stars shimmering
The road heading out the back of Mikes is rocky and rutted and a lot more fun when riding a smaller and lighter bike. It also provides spectacular views of the valley.
The road heading out the back of Mike's is rocky and rutted and a lot more fun when riding a smaller and lighter bike. It also provides spectacular views of the valley.
overhead. It’s humbling really, and it’s a view far too few people have witnessed in their lives. So, with the vision of Greg’s pasty-white ass and Danny’s tales etched firmly in our psyche we hit the hay for some well-deserved shut eye.
The next day we faced the toughest terrain challenges yet, starting with the long, rutted, rocky hillclimb on the backside of Mike’s. It’s not a big deal on an XR650, but it’s a test on the bigger bikes in our group.

LaPorte led the way on the BMW and made it look easy as he darted through the rocks and over the ruts before stopping at the top. It took a little finesse to get the F800GS up the hill but it was easier than anticipated. The rest of the group eventually made it too and before long were rewarded with a stunning view of the desert looking out to the coast. Ominous rocks and spiky green shrubs speckled the brown landscape, with our little dirt road barely distinguishable as it snaked down through the valley below. Views like this are why people ride Baja.

Our plan was to loop past Camalu towards the coast before catching the highway to Ensenada. It was a long, grueling ride out of the mountains with miles of silt beds and a freshly burnt landscape to keep things extra dusty for us. The route included a series of seemingly endless roads to nowhere, one of which broke the handlebar on a KLX by hitting a g-out at 60-mph. At the end of the access road from El Coyote we performed improvised field repair on the busted bar and were back underway.
Hey Ken....take that!
Having the opportunity to roost a buddy-in-need...Priceless!

Rocks, dirt, ruts and dust – the cycle would repeat itself time and time again. From El Coyote we hit the pavement to Erendia for our first view of the Pacific Ocean. The dirt byways along the coast dumped us onto a fun road that paralleled the beach. It was a beautiful afternoon with blue sky and a light breeze that helped cool us off as we searched for that perfect photo-op to capture the shoreline beauty.

Finding the perfect view, Mr. Wing took position at the top of a cliff overlooking the beach while we made some tracks in the wet sand below. After making our first pass we found ourselves downwind of a heinous stench emanating from a rotting whale carcass. Its meat was sloughing off the bones and entrails were spilling out like a monstrous plate of putrefied seafood fajita. Definitely something we never want to see, yet alone smell again. Needless to say, we got the hell out of there with minimal emotional damage only to be lured into a predicament of a different sort a few miles down the road.

Bill convinced us to ride down a steep, sandy embankment onto another stretch of beach for some flat-tracking fun. Getting down took some effort because the sandy bank was deep and loose. Meanwhile Danny and Bill sat atop the cliff watching it all unfold. After riding in ignorant bliss for a few minutes we soon learned that the real challenge was getting out. We were like ants in an ant-lion trap. The little bikes like the KLX and WR made it out in a couple attempts, throwing a rooster tail of sand and bouncing off the rev-limiter. It was a different story on the F800. As the last bike out I was faced with a thoroughly rutted, churned-
Small  family run restaurants speckle the roadside throught Baja.
Small, family run restaurants speckle the roadside throught Baja.
up ascent. It took some finesse, a good run and a few precisely timed foot dabs to make a successful departure.

The ride to Santo Tomas from the beach had us passing by a mixture of board shanties and dilapidated houses of small villages. Just like during the Baja racing season, children roam the streets ready to swarm the bikes rolling through town. These kids have been conditioned by years of races being run through their towns to run out of their houses when they hear a motorcycle engine. They always seem excited to see the motorcycles and you better be prepared with lots of “steeckers” if you are going to get through the town unscathed.

Hot showers and more were waiting for us a few hours away at the San Nicolas Hotel in Ensenada. We were determined to make it there after surviving the day two gauntlet. Sure, Highway 1 is paved but anyone who knows it can attest to how treacherous it can be driving, let alone riding. We dodged diesel trucks, car parts and made death-defying passes along the way to the northern promised land.

A hot shower made the whale stench and road grime disappear down the drain in a swirling stream of dark mud. Now squeaky clean and ready to get down and dirty, it was the weekend and cruise ships had the tourist town hopping. Over the next few hours we spent time sampling the goods and establishments that make Ensenada a favorite port of call for a taste of Mexico without making the journey to more distant mainland hot spots
The gas station delivers fuel a bit differently is this area.
The gasoline stations have a unique way of delivering fuel to your motorcycle.
like Mazatlan, Cancun or Mexico City. The night blitzed past in a blur of neon lights, waiters with whistles, honking horns and mariachi music. We made our way to the hotel as dawn approached, with the memories of whale guts and sand traps replaced in our minds with the vision of scandalous chiquitas and abundant margaritas.

The wake-up call came too early, but there’s plenty to see between Ensenada and Tecate. On the outskirts of town we ran across some interesting examples of local architecture after shopping and exploring the curios at Puerto Nuevo and listening to a local band working the streets. From there we hit Highway 3 back towards Tecate where we took the scenic route, but not until after we sampled brunch at Restaurant Mustafa in San Antonio de las Minas, easily the most legitimate and tasty food of the entire trip.

Bellies full, we made our way toward Cantamar. It was funny to see the little souvenir guitars poking out of the tops of a few guys’ packs. We connected the dots to the northeast using farm roads wandering through Las Palmas and beyond. It’s a forsaken landscape, one that might be confused for beautiful if you can look beyond the dirt and hardscrabble towns and into the essence of the desert. Decomposed rock formations, gnarled trees and sandy washes are all part of a nigh-uninhabitable environment. Along the way, we chased wild burros and explored some hard-to-find trails in the hills east of Cantamar. Hillclimbs, ditch jumps and some flat tracking fun kept us entertained through this serene and desolate stretch of earth.

It was getting late when the glow of Tecate could be seen in the distance. We had ridden for three days so our final stop in town was a visit to El Chemel, a popular taco shop in downtown Tecate and an excellent place to conclude the trip.
When taken in small doses you can be misled into feeling that a Baja ride is not very challenging. Ride it for extended time periods or at high speeds like racing  and things start to get grueling.
As our Baja adventure wound down to a close, we fondly remember the pain, agony and lifetime of fun we had while here.
With a cold Coke and a fresh taco in our aching hands, we reminisced on the past few days. Donny, Danny and Bill have been here so many times the novelty has worn off, but for the half dozen who had just survived their first visit, this was a moment to remember. A legendary ride that the regulars might take for granted. We visited some historic places and made friends with our idols. Too bad we had to go home so soon.

Baja is a near-perfect blend of treacherous terrain, stunning scenery and hidden dangers. It’s dirty and can exact a toll on your soul if you’re not careful. Yet despite the eminent danger, blisters, bumps and bruises, here we were longing for more. Sure, it may be perilous and sure, it may not be the greatest place to bring the kin-folk, but we would be lying if we didn’t feel Baja is one of the all-time great off-road destinations. Just be careful, stay on course and don’t make a spectacle of yourself in public. The memories and the scars will warrant the cost of admission. Trust us, we have both. 
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Rating the Legends of Baja Adventure
ROADS ****
Dusty and difficult is the name of the game here. The off-road portions were fantastic but the paved portions are dangerous, so mind your step when riding the mean streets of Mexico on a bike.

As long as deserts are your thing then riding Baja is something you must experience once in your lifetime. It’s raw and untamed, dirty and dangerous. That’s exactly what you want to have in an adventure ride.

PEOPLE *****
Everywhere we went, the locals went out of their way to make sure we were taken care of. From gas stations and Federale stops to restaurants and hotels, everyone was friendly and had a great sense of humor.

You can go just about anywhere you want in Baja. Just watch your butt and don’t wander too far off the beaten path or you might find trouble. As it was, the route we took and the places we went were fantastic.

FOOD ***
Although the roadside taco stands and snacks from the Pemex stations probably brought this score down a bit, some of the meals we ate along the way could certainly deserve a higher rank than three. Then again we were probably so hungry we could have eaten whale meat a couple times.

After a couple hundred miles of off-roading, just about any bed feels great. Mike’s Sky Rancho is a “must see” and a great place to trade stories. The San Nicolas in Ensenada is one of the more upscale hotels - the rooms were clean and the service was good.

In a perfect world we would have been on full-blown enduros for this trip but we had over 100 miles of street riding to do in the US in order to get to Baja. So we needed street legal bikes to make the trip happen. As it was, they all worked great.

BMW F800GS: This is an absolute trooper that ruled the paved stretches of road but was also more than capable of going through the same off-road obstacles the little bikes did with a bit more effort. It also proved excellent on the hard-packed dirt roads.

Kawasaki KLX250S: We’ve liked this bike for a while now as its combination of off-road ability and near 80mph top speed make it a great all-around motorcycle.

Yamaha WR250X: For the same reason we like the Kawasaki we dig the Yamaha as well. They are two peas in a pod – one costs way more.

Suzuki DR650: One of the most venerable dual sports of all time, this bike went everywhere without complaint and proved to be one of the most durable bikes on the trip.

Kawasaki KLR650: The legend proved to be up to the task once again. As multi-purpose as they come, the only thing that slowed this bike down was the freak drain plug incident.


San Nicolas Hotel - Ensenada 
From the US 011-52-646-176-1901

Mike’s Sky Rancho
Call during the week Mon-Wed. Make sure you have reservations as Mike’s quite often fills up on the weekend and you’ll find yourself riding a long way back for accommodations.
Phone # 011-52-664-68-15514

Baja Bound – Tim Morton
We recommend for your first trip to Baja to go with someone who has a lot of experience. There are numerous places off the beaten path you do NOT want to go - just for your own safety. Baja Bound has been around a long time and Tim Morton knows the trails better than anyone. He has several different packages available and you want to book with him early as his schedule fills up quick. 

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Michael Firstman -Brings Back Memories  December 21, 2009 08:51 AM
Great article. I grew up with all manner of motorcycles, but mostly off-road, and reading your article really brought it all back! Makes me want to drop everything and head south for the border!! Mike Firstman Monterey, CA
John F -Why no individual comparisons of the bikes used?  December 18, 2009 08:02 AM
I was wondering how the Suzuki DR650 in the dirt fared compared to the other, larger dual sport bikes like the BMW 800 and the KLR. The DR650 is signicantly lighter so this should have made it easier to ride in the rough stuff. It is also cheaper than any of the other larger bikes.

The lighter bikes are undoubtedly much easier to ride in the dirt. Unfortunately, their lower highway speeds makes them a real pain if you have any distance to ride to get to the dirt area. The idea of riding a Kawi KLX250S down to Mexico from northern California on Highway 5 or even the slower highway 101 for any extended distance would not be my idea of fun. Trailering or using a pickup truck therefore becomes an expensive necessity. The larger and faster dual sport bikes, despite their added weight do not suffer this problem.
Racer1 -Great write up  December 16, 2009 07:28 PM
I love the Baja - once a year this is my playground. I trailer my XR650 from San Diego (yea, a "pig" by many descriptions, but the perfect Baja bike - solid, torquey, reliable and bulletproof). We stage out of Ensenada and ride from the Pacific Coast, up through the interior - always a stop at Mike's Rancho, great BBQ, beer, relaxation and a chance to meet legends - and down to San Felipe and the craziest whoops I've ever seen! From pine forests, tight trails, dry lake beds, sandy beaches to dunes and river crossings it's my favorite place to play (apart from a race track)! A couple of police stops are expected every trip, but - scary rifles apart - they tend to be helpful, friendly and always interested in the bikes and racing. Thanks for a great write up of one of my favorite places in the world Hutch - great job.
FastNana -Baja  December 16, 2009 07:14 PM
Great story! We have several friends that "do" Baja. We have watched them numerous times and we are lucky enough to hear tales from one of the best, Malcolm Smith! Thansk for the great read, it felt like I was there.
Al -KTm  December 16, 2009 07:11 PM
Where is the KTm in that ride? YOu all rode some pigs down there..
Great story nonetheless.

dog williams -kenneth  December 16, 2009 05:14 PM
nice story kenneth--i could almost taste the tequila on my lips.
Hutchy -Peter...  December 16, 2009 02:37 PM
It's nice to know I finally have a fan! I love that place place...can you tell?

Peter Brock/Racer magazine -Ken Hutchison's legends of Baja  December 16, 2009 05:01 AM
Beautifully written piece Ken....you may have a future as as a motojourno! :0)