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The Mexico Motorcycle Trip

Baja and Mainland Mexico - 1997

This is the story of our motorcycle adventure in Mexico during the 1997 Christmas break.  We had an incredible vacation, and my intent here is to share the high points with my friends.  

This is actually the first travel report I ever posted on the Internet, and I did so about 10 years ago.  At the time, I scanned the prints with a cheap scanner to get the photos in a digital form I could post.  Recently, I had the negatives professionally scanned, and not surprisingly, the image quality is quite a bit higher.  I revised this trip report to include the updated scans as well as a few more photos.

The two adventurers: that's me on the left, and John on the right.  It stopped raining just long enough to take this picture on the first stop of our trip at La Bufadora.

We spent our first day getting soaked by the tail end of the El Nino storms.

What Was It Like?

First, answers to the obvious questions about the equipment and the trip:

The Photography Equipment.  For you photography fanatics, all shots were made with my Minolta X-700 and Fuji film (mostly 100 and 200 ASA).  I used three lenses (the standard Minolta 50mm 1.7, a Vivitar 28mm 2.8, and an older all-metal Sigma 70-210).  I did not use any filters for most of the shots, and most shots were made in either the program or aperture mode.

The Motorcycles.  For you motorcycle fanatics, John rides an 1100cc Yamaha Virago, and I ride a Harley Heritage Softail.  If you have to know, the Yamaha is a much faster and much smoother motorcycle, and I would have preferred to be on it rather than the Harley.  Wherever we stopped, though, you can guess which bike drew the crowds.



The Travel Itinerary.  Simply stated, there was no itinerary.  We had a rough idea when the La Paz to Mazatlan ferry ran, but that was about it.  We basically didn't care how much or how little we covered each day.  We ended up covering about 3,200 miles in 12 days.  Most days consisted of about 250 miles on the road.  Neither bike ever went down (knock wood).  The only close call we had was when I stupidly pulled out in front of a car in La Paz.  Fortunately, the driver was more on the ball than I was, and he screeched to a halt before turning me into a hood ornament.  You can't say anything bad about Mexican drivers as far as I am concerned.

The Food.  For you food lovers, the food was incredible and we never got sick.  I believe the food in the Baja and in Guadalajara was the best I have ever had in my life.

The Hospitality.  We had no problems of any kind in Mexico. The Mexican people treated us like kings, and made us feel very welcome.  A big part of that was probably due to the fact that for most of our trip we went where few tourists go.  I think the people we met were impressed with how beautiful we found their country.

Enough background information...let's get on the road!

Buzzing the Baja!
The first day we blew through Tijuana and rode through the rain to Ensenada. Our first real stop was at La Bufadora (way outside of town to the southwest). La Bufadora, I'm told, means "the blowhole" in Spanish. It is a natural opening in the rocks, and when the waves from the Pacific come crashing in, it shoots a spray about 150 feet in the air. It rained almost our entire first day, so the extra La Bufadora spray didn't bother us at all. We were already soaked. No doubt about it, we were a couple of crazy gringos.
We did about 270 miles down the Baja the first day, and it rained so much we turned in early. We were caught in the tail end of the El Nino rains, and we were soaked to the bone. About 5:00 p.m. I was so cold I was afraid I couldn't ride safely, so Welker and I stopped in this little hotel. I remember feeling the water seeping through my leather jacket and shivering so badly I could hear my teeth clattering even over the Harley's exhaust note. Even while soaked and freezing, I couldn't remember when I had ever felt better or more alive. We opted for a room with a private bathroom in this little Baja Hilton. Our hotel room was $12 that night (we splurged the extra $5 for a private bath). The hotel had an old-fashioned register you had to sign when checking in. I was shivering so badly I couldn't sign my name.

My Harley the next morning, still soaked, with all my gear loaded.  It had stopped raining and we wanted to let the air dry our things.  

Our natural drying approach worked well enough.

Here I am about 100 miles down the road the next morning, after the breeze dried us out a bit.

A typical scene in one of the agricultural towns between the wine country and San Quintin.

 
We stopped in a small town so Welker could buy an o-ring for his Yamaha, and these three kids immediately came over to check out the motorcycles.

When I asked them to tell me their names, they did: Julio, Ignacio, and, of course, Bob.

We weren't the first gringos to pass through these parts…
Whoa....It's Desolate Out Here....
After about the first 300 miles, things really started to get desolate.  We had entered the true Baja...

Soldiers were everywhere due to the problems Mexico had in Chiapas. I asked this fellow at a Mexican Army outpost where the next gas station was (the distances between towns, gas stations, etc. in the Baja are great, and were already running on reserve). He smiled and pointed down the road.

Here's what our FN-equipped friend pointed to....this fellow in a little Toyota truck with a 55 gallon drum of GASOLINA and a hand pump. Capitalism rules!
The Black Warrior...
Down the road a little further, and we spent our second night in Guerrero Negro ("Black Warrior" in Spanish, the name of a ship that sank there more than a hundred years ago). 

Guerrero Negro marks the halfway point down the Baja peninsula. It is about 500 miles south of the U.S. border. I learned that this is the largest salt-producing region in the world. The Mexicans have an interesting way of mining the salt. They repeatedly flood shallow plains with sea water, allow it to evaporate, and then they scrape off the salt. It made for interesting riding conditions through muddy salt flats. The salty mud, we later learned, was not too kind to the chrome plating on our motorcycles.

Just outside of Guerrero Negro, we rode about 25 miles on dirt roads (actually, they were salty mud) through the salt flats to reach Scammon's Lagoon.  I didn't realize the roads would be quite this bad. We were in mud up to the axles, but the motorcycles both pulled through with no problems. We'd pick a rut, stay in it, and slowly rumble through.  In some cases the mud actually rose up over the exhaust pipes. Made the Harley sound kind of strange.

We rode out about 25 miles on muddy, salty dirt roads to Scammon's Lagoon, which is one of the places the California gray whales migrate to each winter.  We arrived a bit early, though, and we couldn't see any whales from the shore.
Here's John playing motocrosser on a fully-loaded 1100 cc road bike.  This rough muddy trail along the vast desert expands extensively and may require vehicles more suited for rugged road conditions.

 

I almost dropped my Harley at one point when the front wheel got crossed up in the sand.
The white color of the mud in the background is actually salt.  This area is one of the largest salt producing regions in the world.  The Mexicans allow the shallow sea plains to flood and evaporate repeatedly, and then they bulldoze up the salt.

I found out later this was really tough on the Harley's chrome.

Taking a photo break.  

Somehow that Cardon cactus managed to grow in this salt-laden soil.

When we returned to the main highway, a Mexican infantry platoon stopped for a break and we chatted for a while.
The Mexican troops were interested in the motorcycles.

Here, the platoon leader is checking out John's Virago.

That's me, with the platoon leader's Rottweiler.
Moving on to San Ignacio...
Shortly after leaving Guerrero Negro, and on the way to San Ignacio, we saw something you don't see everyday where I live - a small herd of wild burros.  There's horse in there, too.
San Ignacio was a little further down the road, about 100 miles past Guerrero Negro.  San Ignacio is one of the most beautiful and interesting towns in the Baja.

Here are some pictures of the working mission in this palm-lined, date-producing village.  The San Ignacio Mission photograph is a classic for anyone traveling through the Baja peninsula.  It is a magnificent old church.

Here's another shot of the San Ignacio Mission.
The San Ignacio Mission's front door.
A shot inside the mission.
Here's another photo inside the mission.
After pulling out of San Ignacio, we stopped at the Pemex to top off the tanks.   This fellow tried to sell us a package of dates.

When the Jesuits built the mission in San Ignacio several hundred years ago, they introduced date farming to the region. It is still there. One of the locals wanted to sell us a package of dates when we stopped to top off the motorcycles.

The Baja peninsula has great riding conditions and even better photo-opportunities. This was really turning out to be a great vacation, and we were only 3 days into it.

The mountains off in the distance appeared shortly after leaving San Ignacio.  These three mountains are known as Las Tres Virgenes, or the Three Virgins.  

One is a dormant volcano.

When we first attempted this trip a a few years earlier, this is the spot where Dick Scott died in a motorcycle accident just below Las Tres Virgenes.

The cross in the center of the picture is a memorial John put up for Dick shortly after the accident.

  We stopped, said a prayer for Dick, and we were on our way.

Just after Guerrero Negro, Mexico Highway 1 (the Transpeninsular Highway) stops following the Pacific coast and cuts across the Baja on a southeasterly angle to head over to the Sea of Cortez. Shortly after leaving the crash site, we rode over small group of mountains and descended to the town of Santa Rosalia on the Sea of Cortez (you can glimpse the Sea of Cortez on the horizon).

We saw a rainbow out over the water, which we took as a good sign.  You can just make it out between the motorcycles.

We didn't spend any time in Santa Rosalia on this trip, which was unfortunate because it is a beautiful and historic town.  I cover it on some of my later trips in Mexico.  Santa Rosalia is definitely worth a stop.
Muleje
Muleje was the next stop on our trip.  It was an interesting little town.  We stayed at La Hacienda, and the hotel manager let us park the bikes in the courtyard.

I'm looking a little tired in this photo, I guess.  I sure wasn't bored, though.  This was a great ride.

 

The food in Muleje was incredible (as it was almost everywhere in Baja).  There's a little restaurant called Danny's that had seafood that was beyond description.  Ever try shrimp tacos in Muleje?  Take it from me, you don't know what life is all about until you've had shrimp tacos with a Tecate at Danny's.

Mulege is one of Baja's oases.  There's a river in Mulege called the Rio Santa Rosalia.  A signed warned people not to swim or drink in this little creek. My Spanish was good enough to figure out what "Peligro - Cholera" meant.

Mulege also raises dates.  Here we are, standing on a hill in Mulege, above the date groves.
John makes a friend in Muleje.

The mission in Muleje.

A crypt in the Muleje mission cemetery.
One of these days I am going to get some better photos of Mexico's sanitation department.

Yep, vultures.

Here's a shot stretching the capabilities of that old Sigma 70-210 to the max.  These guys were perched on tree in Mulege, but you see them all over Mexico.
The Sea of Cortez and Beyond...
On the Transpeninsular Highway south of Mulege.  That's the Sea of Cortez's Conception Bay. We spotted an RV park (the only one we had seen).  The scenery in this area was some of the best in the Baja, and that's saying something (it was all beautiful; this area was exceptionally so).
Shortly after this shot, we passed two guys struggling up the hills on bicycles.   Check out Pete and Charlie below, who caught up to us a half hour later when we stopped to watch a whale.  Pete and Charlie were traveling from British Columbia to Tierra del Fuego (the southernmost tip of South America) on bicycles!
We didn't know what the concrete marker represented when we stopped, and we didn't stop to examine it.  We had traveled about 20 or 30 miles south of Mulege on Highway 1 along the Sea of Cortez, and we pulled over because we saw a whale swimming about 200 yards off shore.  We watched the whale for a while, and then we examined the concrete marker.  Were we ever surprised!  We were on the Tropic of Cancer!
After leaving Pete and Charlie, we turned inland (to the west) on a dirt road, and traveled 49 miles over three hours without seeing another human being, automobile, utility line, or any indication of anyone ever having been there, except for the dirt road we were traveling on. Desolate doesn't begin to describe it.
Taking a break in the middle of nowhere.
My 900-lb dual-sport.
Yep, there wasn't much out here.
We saw one small ranchita on this 49-mile stretch of dirt road with a few goats.  We didn't see any people.
A scene overlooking one of the valleys on this portion of the ride.
Here's a closeup of that mesa you can see in the distance in the above photo.

It's a mini Devil's Tower.

La Paz
Our next stop was La Paz. It was okay, but not great. La Paz is a larger town (one of the largest in the Baja peninsula), and for Americans, it is a machine designed to separate you from your money. We spent 2 nights there, with one day being devoted to riding the extra 100 miles to get down to Cabo San Lucas (the southernmost tip of the Baja peninsula). Both Welker and I were anxious to continue our journey, and not to stay in La Paz.
Here's another little church we saw in the jungle on the way down to Cabo from La Paz.
Looping through Cabo San Lucas...
This is it....the end of the line in Cabo San Lucas.  It was a pretty area, but it was another tourist trap. We only spent a few hours in Cabo. We had been spoiled by the real Baja.

The tip of the Cape, the southernmost point of the Baja peninsula.

On the way back from Cabo to La Paz, we stopped for a quick bite to eat in Todos Santos, another small town.  Here's John after another satisfying Baja meal.  

As you can see, this is tough work. 

Hey, somebody's got to do it!

Crossing the Sea of Cortez

We took the ferry from Piche Lingua (just outside of La Paz) the next day. Getting on board was an all-day affair. After being bounced from window to window at the ferry office, I finally told a guy we weren't going to pay anybody any bribes to get on the boat.

"Oh, okay, then you need to go to that window."

A few minutes later we had our tickets and joined the line to board the "Puerto Vallarta" for the 19-hour ride to Mazatlan on mainland Mexico. 

That green BMW in the photo above belonged to a German guy.  He and his girlfriend were doing the same thing we were.

Here we are getting ready to leave Baja.  See how calm that sea is?  That didn't last long.  I got in my bunk and stayed there until the next morning, trying not to throw up.

 

Mainland Mexico!
We woke up the next morning to find that we were arriving in Mazatlan.

We had a quick breakfast at the Playa Norte in Mazatlan, and then it was onward to points south….

 

Winding our way through one of the many small towns on the road to Puerto Vallarta, a guy popped out and tried to sell me a parrot.  

Do you think I could have carried him on the Harley?

We stopped in Aca Poneta to check out their church.  We were lucky.  We arrived just as a wedding ended.  Not bad shots.  I remember that I used my 28mm Vivitar lens for these shots.  If you look carefully, you can see the rice in the air over the newlyweds in the photo on the right.  These are two of only three shots on this page that I did not have professionally scanned.  I couldn't find the negatives, so I used my original scans from the prints.  You can sure see the difference in quality.
Through the Jungle!

 

This is one of my favorite pictures:  The church in Chapallila, Mexico. 

We saw the twin steeples from the main road and meandered through the village until we found the church. 

I shot this with an older all-metal Sigma 70-210 lens. 

The X-700 Minolta does good work, especially considering it had been bouncing around on the back of a Harley-Davidson for a few thousand miles.

 

A closer shot of the church in Chapallila.
When we parked across from the church (all of the roads in Chapallila were dirt), these two young ladies came out to look at the motorcycles.

Check out the mud caked on the Harley.  My motorcycle had never seen this kind of duty before.  It performed flawlessly.

 

John and I, as you have probably already guessed, like to eat. One day, on the road to Guadalajara, we saw this guy grilling chickens in his front yard.  Goats all over, chickens scratching the ground (apparently unaware of what was happening to their buddies on the grill), and things that would probably not get the establishment an "A" rating from the people who rate restaurants in Los Angeles.  It was generally not an environment conducive to fine dining.  That didn't slow us down, though.

Those chickens sure looked good, though, and we were hungry.  John tried to ask the guy for chicken and beans….

"uh, pollo….."

"uh, pollo con ……."

"uh, pollo con beans…."

The cook took us in with a single look and had but one question (in English, of course):

"For here or to go?"

 

Here's one of the many roadside stands along the road through the jungle (their equivalent of Carl's Jr, I guess) except the food probably has a little lower cholesterol rating. 

The people are very photogenic.

Yep, we were having fun.
This guy let me take his photo, and then asked for some money.  I was glad to give it to him.
When people are killed in automobile accidents in Mexico (and many other countries, for that matter), it is customary to erect a small roadside memorial. Usually, the monuments consist of a small cross and some flowers. The fellow memorialized by this structure must have been one important dude. It's not a church. It was the biggest memorial of its type I ever saw. It had a lot of traffic during the 10 minutes we stopped, but I never did find out who it memorialized.
On the road in mainland Mexico, shot over the Harley windshield. 

The black ridge on the right is a lava field. 

There are active volcanoes in Mexico.

 

Another shot of the lava fields.

"Curva Peligrosa" means "dangerous curve."

We arrived in Puerto Vallarta on Christmas day with no reservations.  

Hey, I never claimed to be the brains in this outfit!

We probably tried 15 or 20 places before we found one with a room for $365 (for one night).  This was it:  The Krystal Palace (or something like that).   Actually, I liked the $15-joints we had been staying better, but, we were beat and as the saying goes, any port in a storm.  Puerto Vallarta seemed like a nice place, and I will probably return there via air sometime with my wife.

 

A courtyard shot of our uber-expensive hotel.
Another photo of the Krystal grounds.
We spent one night in Puerto Vallarta, and then we were on the road again, headed to Guadalajara in the heart of Mexico.  On the way out of Puerto Vallarta we traveled to Tepic through the jungle.  The area was much more interesting as we left the turista traps behind and melted into real Mexico.  The jungle outside of Puerto Vallarta was beautiful, as were the villages and the people in them.  This is the area in which Arnold Schwarzennegger filmed "Predator" and a few years before that Rich and Liz did "Night of the Iguana." These jungles are the real deal.
Guadalajara!
A street through the center of Guadalajara.
I shot this picture on our first night in Guadalajara.  We stayed in El Centro, the historic district in the center of town.  This was an evening puppet show put on by and for the locals.  If you could imagine picking up London and placing it in Mexico, you would have a pretty good idea of what the El Centro district is like.  We knew the town was going to be different when we saw a new Jaguar dealership on the way into town.
T'was the night after Christmas, and Joe and John are settling down into the best French dinner I have ever had. You can notice the sunburn and windburn we both have. 

Seven courses, fine French dining in the middle of Guadalajara, and a really great restaurant. Total cost, with drinks and tip: $27. I hope the tourists never discover this place.

I guess I focused on the wrong spot.  I like the photo, though.

One of the many squares in Guadalajara.  It is a beautiful city.
Huichol Indians in Guadalajara.  These people are direct descendants of the Aztecs.   There are about 18,000 of them.
Modern art in one of the Guadalajara city squares.
John enjoying the art.
These two fellows were rocking out on a xylophone in one of Guadalajara's squares.
A Huichol women selling jewelry in the market square.  

This is one of my favorite pictures.

Huicho l jewelry for sale.
Horse-drawn carts in the El Centro area, catering to tourists.
The El Centro district had one or two churches on every city block.  They were impressive.
Inside one of the many churches.

Guadalajara has magnificent churches.

Another photo showing the stained glass.
This one is a knocker on a church door in Guadalajara.
Mexico takes bank security seriously.  Surprisingly, this fellow had no problem with me taking his picture.

This little guy was taking in the action on a busy Guadalajara street.

 

Refreshments for sale on the street.
If you ever need a sombrero, I know this great shop in Guadalajara….
Two motor cops in Guadalajara. 

I asked the guy on the Harley how he liked his motorcycle. He shrugged his shoulders, uttered an expletive, and then added "but it runs…"

This photo made it into the The Complete Book of Police and Military Motorcycles (see the bottom of this page).

Guadalajara has a massive bazaar in the center of town, all under one roof.  It's comparable to Istanbul's Grand Bazaar.

This fellow is chopping sugar cane.

The bazaar in Guadalajara also has a bird section.  If you are ever in Guadalajara, you have to see this place.
A pretty red parakeet.
A couple of parrots.
This is inside the Governor's mansion in Guadalajara.  It's the capital of the Mexican state of Jalisco.
A sculpture in the Governor's mansion.
Artwork on the ceiling in stairwell in the Governor's mansion.
The Run Home...
After we left Guadalajara, I was anxious to get back to Los Angeles in time for New Year's eve (one night away).  Speed time!

We made it back to LA in two days, running on mainland Mexico's toll roads at 80 and 90 mph all the way.  The Harley and John's Yamaha never missed a beat.   Well, almost.  There was one incident...

Coming out of the jungle, heading north on a Sunday, John and I stopped for a moment when I notice his front tire was low.

Wow, getting a flat in the jungle on a Sunday morning in Mexico...this did not look good.

John examined the tire and he didn't seem too concerned about it.  "I'll just ride for a bit....something will turn up," he said.

Here we were, in a real jungle, on a Sunday morning.  There was nothing around anywhere.  Even if there was, I thought, it would be closed on a Sunday morning.

We rode around the next corner, not even a half mile down the road, and there was a tire shop.  Open.  On a Sunday morning...

John topped off his tire and we never had another problem.
We spent our last night in Mexico in a town called Navajoa, and stopped to fill up the motorcycles as the sun was just starting to come up the next morning.  

There was a Mexican donut shop across the street, and sure enough, there were two Mexican cops enjoying what must be a universal police tradition.  They came over to talk to us.  One guy wanted to sit on the Harley, and I think he really enjoyed it when he did.  

The two Mexican motor cops gave us a police escort out of town, which was a nice way to end our 3,200-mile motorcycle journey through a really beautiful country.  John grabbed this shot with his point&shoot Olympus camera on the road as the sun turned night into day.

Oh, and in case you are wondering...I arrived home safe and sound (and tired and sore) at 11:45 on the 31st of December.  We rode 950 miles in one day, the most I have ever covered in one day on the ground...

It was a whale of an adventure.

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