Back From Baja (Longish Trip Report)
On both this and other rider forums, I have noticed a variety of posts expressing both interest and concern over travel in Mexico. While I understand that travel in the interior may be quite different than travel on the Baja, perhaps the following information from my just completed trip down the Baja will be instructive.
It was with more than a taste of timid trepidation that I set out from Las Vegas intending to travel the Baja. It was pretty much a spur of the moment decision -- if I had planned in advance, it probably would never have happened. Like all of us, I’ve heard the tales of terror about travel in Mexico – drug lords, banditos and corrupt police. I decided it was time to find out for myself. My intention was to cross the border reasonably early in the day and make it to Ensenada for the first night, a Friday. My plan was to proceed from there on Saturday morning, get as far a I could Saturday and arrive in Cabo San Lucas by Sunday evening.
The border crossing at Tijuana went without incident and I was waived right through. Here, however, is where I made my first mistake. If you plan to travel beyond the “tourist zone” you will need a tourist card (FMM). The FMM costs $260 pesos (about $21.00). The line at the Tijuana immigration office looked like it might take an hour or more and, after all, (or so I had read on the Internet), the tourist zone extended to Ensenada and an FMM could be obtained there.
My first stop (and the only one I had actually planned in advance) was lunch at Caesar’s in Tijuana; the birthplace of the Caesar Salad. I had the address programed in my GPS and was directed right to the door on Revolucion Avenue without incident. (It was to one of the few times for the remainder of the trip when the GPS proved of much value.) The Caesar Salad prepared tableside lived up to all billings. The rest of the meal was equally tasty.
After my scheduled stop at Caesar’s in Tijuana, I had no specific plans, no itinerary and no reservations. My criteria were limited to safety (not traveling after dark) reasonably good roads (i.e. you don’t need a GSA), and clean lodging with safe, secure motorcycle parking. My sole objective for Friday was to get to Ensenada, visit the Immigration Office and obtain my FMM to allow travel out of the “tourist zone” south toward Cabo.
Fortified with a great meal, I headed south on Highway 1 toward Ensenada. Signage out of Tijuana was easy to follow and the only choice along the way was whether to take Highway 1 Libre (free) or 1 Cuota (toll) all the way to Ensenada. After paying my toll of $2.45 US (they accept US Dollars and the toll is posted in both Pesos and Dollars), I headed south but soon decided to leave the toll road in favor of the Libre route to experience a bit more local flavor. Both the Cuota and Libre routes were in great condition and the signage was clear; but most of all the ocean views were spectacular.
Shortly before arriving in Ensenada, I spotted a promising prospect for the first night’s lodging—Punta Morro Resort. Unfortunately, they were fully booked. However, the restaurant looked inviting so I decided to have a quick snack before heading on into Ensenada. (Ride to Eat Eat to Ride) The live abalone was the best I’ve ever experienced (and I am absolutely an abalone aficionado). As an added bonus the $200 Pesos ($15.00) charge made them the cheapest abalone I’ve ever enjoyed – about a 10th the cost my last abalone at Dal Rae in Pico Rivera, California.
From Punta Morro to the Migracion Office was a short trip and the location of the office just off the main highway was clearly marked. The office was easy to find but the locked metal gate across the entry made it equally easy to determine it was cerrada! A bit of inquiry (¿Habla Ingles?) disclosed that office hours were at best “unreliable” but almost certainly they would not open before (hopefully) sometime Monday morning (or at such time as the spirit moved someone with a key to unlock the gate or whenever a cruise ship was disembarking -- which ever came first). Further inquiry provided a variety of opinions—“Do not go further south Senor, you will be subject to detencion!” to “No problemo Amigo, no one will ask for the card.” I elected not to risk “detencion” and remained in Ensenada until Monday. It proved to be a rewarding decision (although after securing the FMM, not once was I asked to show it.)
My stay in Ensenada (actually, Ensenada De Todas Santos) turned out to be exceptionally enjoyable. I easily found four lodging options that met my criteria; El Cid, Hotel Cortez, Mission Saint Isabel and Casa Natalie. I chose El Cid, which has a gated interior court yard for secure parking and a rate of $50.00 Dollars for a very nice courtyard room with a king size bed. El Cid is adjacent to El Rey Sol, the oldest French Restaurant in Mexico. El Rae’s reputation and culinary awards turned out to be well deserved. Again, an outstanding tableside prepared Caesar Salad, baby clams steamed in butter, fresh red snapper sautéed in a wine-laced red sauce with capers and the piece de resistance -- Bananas Foster flamed tableside. The wine captain’s suggestion of a bottle of 2007 Monte Xanic Cabernet Sauvignon produced locally in the Valle de Guadalupe proved delicious. The check was presented in both Pesos and Dollars with a gratifyingly reasonable total of $96.50 for two.
With time on my hands and still lacking my tourist card, I decided to explore Ensenada in more detail. My GPS failed to recognize most of the destinations I attempted to load into it and when it did recognize them it usually turned out to be incorrect. But No te preocupes (no worries)-- the streets of Ensenada are laid out in an easy to navigate grid pattern and directional signs are more than adequate; although street signs are sparse. La Bufadora (“The Snorter”) is located a short distance out of town and could be visited without leaving the tourist zone (at least that is what I was told). Seawater flows into an underwater cave only to have waves force it from a hole in the top of the cave creating a geyser-like jet of water accompanied by a snorting sound as the water is forced out and up into the air. (Legend has it that long ago during the annual whale migration a baby whale was trapped in the cave and is still crying for its mother.)
Returning to Ensenada with more time to “kill” before the Migracion Office was (perhaps) going to reopen, presented a rewarding opportunity for further exploration. The outdoor fish market offered an amazing array of local seafood and was flanked by stalls and fish carts offering an appealing assortment of fish tacos, ceviche and Jalapenos Relleno con Pescada Ahumado y Queso al Horno (a type of jalapeno “popper” stuffed with cream cheese and shredded smoked fish).
Nearby, a street hawker was corralling gringos with promises of a $5 Peso boat ride around Ensenada Harbor. For a mere $0.38 I purchased a 45 minute cruise around the harbor and experienced a close up view of luxury cruise ships, freighters and cargo liners from ports all over the world (a huge freighter had just arrived from Hamburg, Germany and was unloading containerized freight). A large colony of sea lions sunned along the shore. One of the sea lion bulls took offense at our proximity and barked its rebuke before heading into the water as if to chase us away from his harem.
Forty-five minutes later and back on terra firma, there was still time to check out the shops and art galleries along Paseo Calle Primer and sample some of the best ice cream ever at Paleteria y Neveria—homemade, all natural and delicious; the way ice cream used to be and still should. Down the street the famous Hussong’s Tavern and Papas and Beer catered to the visiting college crowd with beer, French fries and tequila advertised to make you see double and act single. As an aside, the one and only hint of trouble I saw on the entire trip was an American college student who emboldened (or crazed) by one (or several) too many cervezas decided it would be fun to challenge the Polizia Municipale. Obviously poor judgment. To my surprise (and despite him having taken a swing at one of the Polizia) he apparently did not spend the night in one of the notorious Mexican hoosegows. I saw him the next morning sleeping it off on the beach, his backpack for a pillow. He had obviously slept it off on the beach unharmed and with his possessions in tact.
Dinner that evening was at Sano’s Steak House, a short taxi trip from the City Center. The Aquachhile scallop appetizer was followed by a tender, juicy and superb steak Tampiquena with another bottle of local wine, this time a Tempranillo from Santo Tomas which was established in 1888 and is one of the oldest and best wineries on the Baja.
Monday morning dawned with yet another day of utterly perfect weather and ideal temperatures. After a few cups of fantastic coffee that totally shamed anything available at Starbucks (not that hard to do in my opinion), I was ready to tackle the day’s task of securing my tourist card. Arriving back at the Department of Impossible Delays and Eternal Confusion, I was delighted to find the gate unlocked, the door open and no one in line in front of me. The next hour gave testament to Abraham Lincoln’s caution that half of what you read on the Internet turns out to be lies. “Wrong” I was told emphatically (in very good English). “No matter what you read in the guidebook, Ensenada is outside the tourist zone. You are here illegally and subject to immediate arrest! (Pause to give me time to sweat a bit.) “Of course another agent would not do this but for an additional fee of $200 Pesos, I can go ahead and issue your card. After you pay me and complete this form, you will need to go the Department of Snowballs in Hell, pay $260 Pesos and get the form stamped. Then return here and after I ignore you for several minutes while I hunt and peck around on my keyboard (checking to see if there was a warrant out for my arrest or viewing porno—who the hell knows?) I will consider giving you your card instead of throwing your sorry Gringo ass in jail.”
Finally, after my first and only experience on the trip with the time-honored tradition of official La Mordida (“the bite” or bribe) I was finally equipped with my FMM and prepared to explore down Highway 1 on my way to San Quintin (the town in Mexico not the jail in California—thankfully).
My plans, as indefinite as they were, called for me to be 400 miles farther south in Guerro Negro by this time, well on my way toward Cabo. Nonetheless, the drive to San Quintin proved scenic, passing through natural desert landscape and alongside vineyards, the vines heavy with ready to harvest grapes and field after field of obviously high-tech agricultural operations producing strawberries, onions, tomatoes, melons, peppers and mile after mile of enclosed greenhouse operations.
After a lunch consisting of a bottomless shrimp cocktail, I decided not to venture further south. Returning back up Highway 1, I stopped to snap a few pictures at the Santo Tomas Winery only to be interrupted by an armed guard who informed me: “Se prohibe la fotographia”—translation—“it will cost you at least $50 Pesos cash money in my pocket if you want to take pictures.” I promised “no mas fotograhia” and left with the shots I had already snapped.
Returning to Ensenada, I booked another night at El Cid. Still satiated from my bottomless shrimp cocktail I made do with a dinner of a couple of margaritas and a fish taco or two. More Mexican coffee with fresh fruit for breakfast and I was ready to head toward Tecate along Highway 3 following the Rute Del Vino through the beautiful Guadalupe Valley. A stop at the Baja California Wine Museum along the way proved enchanting and informative despite all of the exhibitions being presented only in Spanish. The Museum features displays depicting the history of wine making in the area (starting from the early 1700s) and continuing to date with attention grabbing displays both inside and out along with a collection of wine related art work.
On my last previous trip across the Border, I spent over two hours in line at Tijuana waiting to get back into the U.S. In contrast, the Border Crossing at Tecate proved easy to locate and the crossing took only a few minutes. I will henceforth forevermore re-enter the United States at Tecate. Once back in the good old U.S of A., the road to San Diego along CA 94 (Campo Road) provided the bonus of some great twisties until about 20 miles outside of San Diego where urban sprawl intruded.
One of my objectives on this brief trip was to scout the area and learn the lay of the land to explore the possibility of a more detailed and longer tour down the Baja. While I did not make it all the way to Cabo on this outing (Cabo is a little over 1,000 miles from Tijuana), I did satisfy myself that travel along the Baja is safe, fun and entirely feasible for a BMW bike tour. While I plan for my next trip to be at least 7-10 days, for those already in the Southwest a modest and very easy one day itinerary departing from San Diego would involve crossing the border at Tijuana, travel down Highway 1 (either Libre or Cuota) to Ensenada. After a quick tour around Ensenada take Highway 3 (Ruta de Vino) to Tecate. There is not a lot to see in Tecate and tours of the Brewery are by reservation only. Cross the border at Tecate and follow CA 94 back to San Diego. This trip is a total of only about 220 miles leaving plenty of time for sightseeing and lunch.
While you will not need a passport to enter Mexico and will most likely be waived straight through at the Border, you will need a passport to re-enter the US. The above-described itinerary does not require a tourist card (depending on who you listen to). However, if you obtain a tourist card, inform Mexican Immigration you plan to stay 180 days, which is the maximum time available. If you indicate you will only be in Mexico for four or five days, that is the time your FMM card will be issued for and the cost will be the same.
I fully intend to proceed with plans for a longer sojourn down the Baja before my 180 day tourist card expires. Without the delay of waiting for it, I expect to make it to Cabo San Lucas next time.
My abbreviated trip aside, I picked up a number of valuable pointers which I share herewith:
1. At no time did I feel threatened or in any danger. Of course the only time I was out after dark was on major streets in Ensenada between the hotel and restaurants.
2. Most places take dollars with the one major exception being the Pemex Gas Stations; some of which take only Pesos and most of which do not take either Dollars or credit cards.
3. Pemex stations are adequately plentiful and all of the ones I stopped at had 91 octane (but not necessarily bathrooms, so don’t plan on that).
4. Call your cell phone provider before you leave. My call to AT&T reduced my roaming charges from $1.60 per minute to $0.59. However, free Internet is plentiful along the way and at is available at nearly all hotels and restaurants.
5. The only Spanish you really need to know is Habla Ingles. Within the tourist zone all clerks, waiters, etc. speak adequate English and many are fluent. However, you will receive a better reception if you make an effort to speak a few words of Spanish. At least instead of just launching into English start off with “Buenos Dias, Habla Ingles?” “Gracias” and “Por Favor” will also serve you well. “Agua embotellada, por favor” is an easy to remember phrase that is well worth learning to guard against Montezuma’s Revenge.
6. Believe only about half of what you have read in guidebooks or viewed on the Internet. The trick, of course, is knowing which half to believe. Internet advise seems to fall into three categories: (i) some element of truth but contains information of questionable reliability (ii) might have had some element of truth at one time in the past, but—hey—things change, and (iii) “We’re just making this sh*t up as we go along—have a good trip anyway.”
7. Tourist cards if you are planning to travel outside the tourist zone—see above. However, be warned, the concept of the area included in the tourist zone appears to be somewhat flexible depending on factors I could never figure out but which are perhaps associated with La Mordida. Despite spending two days in Ensenada waiting on the Migracion Office to open for business, once I got the card I was at no time asked for either my passport or my FMM card—despite encountering a number of military checkpoints.
8. Military Check Points. If you travel south of Ensenda you will encounter military checkpoints. Manned by impossibly young looking soldiers with M-16s you will be asked to open your side and top cases for inspection and will then be waived through. The soldiers were uniformly polite and at least one in the group always spoke English. With the exception of a couple of apparently semi-permanent locations, the checkpoints seem to move around. You will be warned you are approaching a checkpoint by a sign or sometimes a scarecrow-like dummy tied to a post dressed in military fatigues wearing a black rubber mask with an orange flag tied to his hand.
9. Traffic and Road Signs: Traffic can be a bit of a challenge but good defensive driving skills will keep you out of trouble. Most road signs are easily interpreted but learning some of them in advance is worthwhile. Here are a few:
• No Rebase—No Passing. There will also be a single yellow line on the road (maybe). No passing areas appear to be mere suggestions. However, unless you have a very good line of sight the suggestion should be heeded since the chances are very good that a semi or bus will be ignoring the suggestion and coming at you at a high rate of speed.
• Curva Peligrosa—Dangerous Curve. There are a lot of curves, most are easily navigable, very few have a decreasing radius and the most severe ones are preceded by a series of white diagonal lines painted across the road.
• Si Toma No Maneja—Don’t Drink and Drive—even better advise in Mexico than at home in the US. If caught you will wind up with your vehicle impounded and spend time in a Mexican jail. Good luck. You’re gonna need it.
• Respete Los Limites De Velocidad—Respect Posted Speed Limits. With the exception of “major” urban centers, speed limits, like no passing zones, appear to be mere suggestions. A line of Kenworths hot on your tail will quickly convince you that speeding is not only allowed, it is a preferable alternative to getting a semi up your butt.
• No Tire Basura—Don’t Litter. The language of this sign was not at all intuitive to me since it seemed to have something to do with bus tires. Apparently a large share of the native population is similarly confused since litter along the road is prevalent.
• No Maltrate Las Senales—Don’t’ Mess With The Road Signs. Okay—no problemo.
• Puesto De Control Militar—Military checkpoint. Come to a complete stop after bouncing over several of any of the wide variety of topes (see below). Since the checkpoint locations move around, the topes at checkpoints may be tractor-trailer tires opened up and nailed into the pavement or, more often, a series of 6” diameter ropes stretched across the road – very effective.
• Disminuya Su Velocidad—Slow Down. Obey these signs—You are about to encounter the most effective speed control device known to man—Speed Bumps From Hell, aka “Topes”.
• Zona Urbana—Urban Zone Slow Down. Urban (term used loosely) area ahead, slow down. See also Diminuya Su Velocidad—they mean the same thing and have the same the same tooth rattling, suspension destroying consequences if ignored.
• Cruce De Peatones—Pedestrian Crossing -- or Ceda El Paso Al Peaton—Give Way to Pedestrians. You should understand this to mean that pedestrians are more likely to dart in front of you here than at other locations but just to make it safe for them, you will shortly encounter one or more topes.
• Topes: Topes come in many varieties and sizes and may (or may not) be marked in advance by a warning signs. You should understand these signs to mean: “We seriously, seriously want you drive slow in this area. We really, really mean it and just to show you we definitely mean business we have installed these Speed Bumps From Hell. If you do not think we are serious, please notice the “reparcion de numaticos” (tire repair) shop conveniently located nearby. (PS: the domed topes made of series of metal domes nailed to the road are especially interesting on a motorcycle—not large enough to ride on top of them and not enough space for the tires to pass between.)
• El Cinturon De Seguridad—After struggling to figure out why Roman Centurions would be securing the areas where these signs appeared, I finally figured out that they meant seat belt use was required. (Stupid Gringo).
• Area Descanso—Rest Area – A dirt pull off area where you will not find a restroom or telephone but will find piles of trash. Apparently Area Descanso means the same thing as Depositos De Basura (Deposit Trash Here).
A couple more tips that have nothing to do with road signs per se:
o A truck with its left turn signal on will mean either that it is safe for you to pass OR the truck is about to turn left—you decide.
o If you wish to turn left, do not stop in the lane of traffic with your turn signal on. Pull to the right shoulder with your left turn signal on, wait for traffic to clear in both directions then make your left turn across both lanes.
o Motorcycle helmets are supposedly required, however this law like so many (at least for Mexican Nationals) appears to be honored more in the breach than the observance. I saw very few helmets except for other Gringo turistas.
All in all a great five day trip. While I did not make it to Cabo, I did accomplish my primary objective of exploring, scouting and satisfying myself that it really was safe and enjoyable to travel in Baja California (Mexico). Oh—and finally—don’t forget to get your Mexican motorcycle insurance before you leave. I obtained five days of full coverage on-line from Adventure Mexican Insurance Services; it ran about $65.00 for the five days.
Tienen un gran viaje. (Have a great trip.)
2004 R 1200 C (Fire Starter)
2007 R 1200 RT (Heavy Feather)
2008 Ducati 999 S (Shock and Awe)