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La Paz, Baja California Sur, Mexico - June 1, 2003

Chapter 8 - Baja California and beach living

I left the campsite at Organ Pipe National Monument very early for the border a few minutes away. Sonoyta is a very small border and the place on the US side is even smaller with just a few buildings. I had checked in my guide book that there are insurance agencies on both sides of the border and thought it would be easier to do that on the mexican side. That was a mistake as I was about to learn. When I arrived at the border, I was immediately struck by the nervous border guards who kept their hands on their pistol holsters. Another thing that amazed me was that they didn't ask for any ID and would have just waved me through if I hadn't asked the questions what to do to drive through the mainland of Mexico. So, I parked my bike and walked to the first office, Mexican immigration.

The office had a single wooden counter and a lonely typewriter. It seemed reminiscent of a scene from the 70s in Portugal. At this office you get your tourist card, which is necessary to go to the mainland in Mexico. After filling in the form, I was sent to the bank across the street to pay for the visa. Talk about efficiency, but I guess they have this procedure to avoid corruption within their office. After paying the $21 dollar fee, it was back to immigration to get the final stamp on the tourist card. Well, this wasn't too difficult. Just about 15 minutes. The next thing was to get my vehicle permit, which you
The US-Mexican border at Sonoyta.
get at the Banjexercito, another bank, which also acts as a governmental office for vehicle permits. But before that, I needed copies of my documents, even though they have a copying machine at the bank. The clerk took my papers, typed my information into the computer (so why do they need copies again?), charged my credit card (another $24.20) and handed me the shiny cool sticker that said Importacion Temporal. Now I was all set to go into Mexico. Wait a minute, I was already in Mexico. And I stillneeded insurance, so I went to one office. Or what looked like an office, the size of a washroom. There, the guy refused to insure a motorcycle. Oh well, this is not a good start. I proceeded to the next office, where a young girl also refused to insure a bike and pretty didn't know squat about much else. At the last office, they also refused, so now what? Back to the States? That would be another hassle, so I said the heck with insurance. I'll try to get one in San Luis Rio Colorado, which is also a border town, but a lot bigger. I figured it should be easy there. In the meantime, my backup plan was to show my current canadian insurance, which is still valid until the end of July. If I tell them it's good for Mexico, I think they'll believe me. I hope so and pray I won't get into an accident. I can always play the innocent tourist who should have known better.

I left San Luis Rio Colorado, or SLRC for short, south to San Felipe. The road goes along the eastern coast of Baja California after crossing the river delta of the Rio Colorado (the same river as in the States). The area is a fertile agricultural area and I did see water when I crossed the river, close to its mouth. The roads were a maze and the GPS helped me in finding my way, but it kept falling off, because of the bad condition of some of the roads. In some places, the asphalt was gone and only a sandy track existed! The GPS was attached by Velcro to the dashboard and a piece of string just in case it falls off. The string always worked.

I had to get used to the stupid stop signs that seem to crop up from nowhere. And then you have to assume it's a 4-way stop, because there is no sign telling you. I wish there was a traffic standard for the world.

After the Colorado river delta, Baja California is pretty much a desert. There is a flat expanse of dried mud, seemingly vegetation-free mountain ranges and dry soil and sand with the usual suspects growing around: cacti and plants that are efficient in water usage and storage. San Felipe is the next major town, about two hours south of SLRC. When I arrived it was Memorial Day weekend in the States, so I had the impression that that I was back in LA, only it was worse. There were ATVs everywhere. The town isn't really much to look at, but I had no choice but to stay there for one night. I went to a camp on the beach and to get there, there was a dirt road that had a lot of sand in the end. Of course, I dumped the bike not once, but twice in one minute. I didn't take a picture, as I was too worried about the battery. With reason, as later I found that it had almost no water and I had to top it up. The first time, I was able to lift the bike. The second time I didn't worry, because I heard someone coming and the guy helped. The campsite was a total dump and the guy in charge got $10 for it. Everyone was quite loud and I was glad to leave the next day, which proved to be a very expensive day.

I started the day early to beat the heat, but by 7am it was already boiling hot. First I went back into the town of San Felipe in Baja California to get some laundry done and possibly check my e-mail. After I did the laundry, I noticed that I couldn't find my GPS. I stopped somewhere in the shade and checked all possible places. Nowhere could I find the small GPS unit that I became to trust so many times. I knew I had it sometime before I reached my last campsite, but couldn't remember if I actually still had the GPS at the campsite. I decided to go back and see if I had dropped it there. This would not be an easy task as I had no intention of dropping the bike again in the sandy stretch that led to the campsite.

I stopped just before the sand and walked a few hundred metres in the sun to the campsite, but no sign of the GPS. Not even when I asked if someone had seen it. Well, I figured that I either lost the unit on the way or it was stolen while I was in my tent. I'm inclined to think the latter. By the way, all the people at this campsite where from the States. No Mexicans.

The road south of San Felipe follows the coastline for much of the way, but turns bad very quickly. First it's a few potholes, then giant craters across the whole road. It's tough going, specially in the heat. While taking a picture, I met Cliff who was on a Honda 650R. This bike is a lot better for the road I was on. He was travelling with Dave on another Honda, Mari on a Quad and Cliff's wife in a pickup truck. They were heading to Baía San Luís Gonzaga and I thought I could join them. I soon fell back and when I reached Puertecitos, where the road became really bad, I felt it was a better idea to just stay there and not try to do an unknown dirt road late in the afternoon. Lessons from Utah.

This proved a wise decision, as Puertecitos is a lot nicer than San Felipe.
My campsite in front of the beach in Puertecitos, Baja California, Mexico.
Puertecitos has a distinct frontier kind of feeling. Many of the lone buildings seem to be built from improvised materials. There is usually a rusted car wreck beside each house. Add to this the lack of any green vegetation and it looks rather desolate. There is one major supermarket the size of a living room, one water filtration shop (they are all over Mexico and sell filtered water) and a new and unoccupied Pemex gas station. In Mexico, gas is only sold officially at the state-owned Pemex stations. It appears that the company built these stations along this road and there was another empty one further south in anticipation of paving the road all the way to the main highway. But like many things in Mexico, the road has yet to be paved and the gas stations remain empty. This one in Puertecitos was no exception and apparently there was no other place to get gas, so I had to trust that my bike would make it all the way to the highway and the next station on the map about 200km away.

I camped right on the beach and it was reasonably quiet and empty, with the exception of one or two ATVs every few minutes. There is a restaurant, but I never saw anyone inside or anybody cooking anything. The place is carefully maintained, and the owner is a lady who looks completely misplaced in that dusty desert environment. She walks around in high heels, nice dresses and lots of jewellery. She was also the only person that told me that the road south was even worse and had lots of sand. The other three opinions I got said it was no problem and one guy even said I could do it in an hour. But they were all men. Now I know I should have listened the the woman.

I stayed for almost two days at Puertecitos, hanging out on the beach, reading my guidebook and updating my website a bit. Though this was a more difficult task, because the electricity was only on from 7pm until 10pm. Then the generator was shut down and all was dark and quiet. It was quite interesting seeing most of the little town completely dark and the clear night sky above. This was the first time I saw the Andromeda galaxy, which appears like a huge oval shaped blotch above the Milky Way. It is quite a sight. To see it you have to adapt your eyes to complete darkness for an hour or more. The best is to sleep and get up at 1am or so. And you have to live below a certain northern latitude.

I left Puertecitos very early in the morning to beat the heat and thought I would get to the main road in maybe 3 hours, almost 140km away. Well, I was about to get a taste of Baja roads. It's no wonder the Baja ralley uses this road.

At first the road is kind of rocky with no sand and almost no washboard. It wasn't too bad, but not exactly very easy. Specially, because the road kept winding up and down the mountain and in places, the abyss was just a misstep away.
The dirt road south of Puertecitos. At this stage it's mostly rocks.
I felt the bike quite bouncy and so I stopped to release the tire pressure and fumble with the preload adjustment to the rear suspension. I put it somewhere in the middle. I really don't understand how this preload thing works, but the handling improved on the rocky part of the road.

There was some traffic going north but almost noone going my direction. Most of the cars were american SUVs or pickup trucks. While standing sort of in the middle of the road, one of the SUVs stopped (a rare occurance) and asked if everything was all right. Well, the guy was very helpful, because he told me I could get gas at the supermarket in front of the abandoned Pemex station. Without that extra gas, I would have probably been stranded somewhere on that road.

The dirt road goes along the coast for a while, but then turns a bit inland and it's at this point that it flattens out and becomes a giant washboard. It was so bad that I couldn't go faster than about 20 km/h, staying mostly in first or second gear. Beside the main road there is a track, but it looked too sandy for my taste, so I tried to navigate the washboard as best I could. This meant going very close to the edges, which added the potential of hitting some misplaced rocks. Just a few minutes into this washboard stuff, I noticed the right side of the windshield bouncing. Obviously, I had lost all three screws that hold it into place. This wasn't good. I did not want to loose the windshield, specially now that it had the official mexican import sticker. So, I attached a piece of string to hold it in place. It was the only solution I could think of and it worked.

I spent most of that morning riding this aweful washboard with no end in sight. The one hour journey was becoming quickly a full day of the worst riding I had done. To add to my problems, I noticed that some of the bumps would not get absorbed and I could feel it in the handlebars. This wasn't even at any high speed, but at 25 km/h! I don't think this is normal, but I haven't figured out why this is so.

After some five hours I reached the Baía San Luis Gonzaga and the abandoned Pemex station. It's actually a new gas station, but noone is there. They built the stations before the road and now are waiting for the eternelly promised pavement. At the supermarket in front, I met two guys and a girl on 1150 GSs going the same direction as me. They had some trouble on the washboard, with one guy wiping out in the sandy track beside it at 40 mph. I suggested to lower the tire pressure, which they hadn't done. Anyhow, they were in a hurry to get south and left. I had lunch and looking toward the bay, I was the palapas and liked the beach, so I decided to stay.
Camping out on the beach at Baía San Luis Gonzaga

There are several houses on the beach, some of local fishermen and the soldiers that man the checkpoint north of there. Then there are the RVs. The preferred mode of transportation here seems to be the airplane, as several were parked on the beach. There is a small runway connected to the beach. Talk of convenience. I parked under the palapa, setup the tent and spend most afternoon getting in and out of the ocean. The water is quite warm, but a lot colder than the scorching sand. I almost burned my feet in there. I tried to minimize my exposure to the sun but got sunburned anyway. Noone came around to ask for any money for the use of the palapa, so this was a free campnight, which is always nice.

I guess I could have stayed more nights, but I wanted to leave the dirt road behind, so I left the next morning. The road did not improve and the washboard continued. This time I decided to use the side track from time to time. This was ok for most parts, as the sand wasn't too deep. I was able to go almost twice as fast. Almost at the last section of this sandy track I came upon a hill. Going down, the sand was ankle deep and I mostly braked my way down. Then, I kept going for a few metres and suddenly the bike starts to
The bike on the ground after crashing in the sand. Notice that the lights are still on.
wobble. Well, I know what not to do, but I did it anyway. I decelerated and knew I was going down. I crashed o my right side and landed in some cactus field, hitting my head on the sand (with helmet of course).

Well, I hit the kill switch and the first thing I thought was to take a picture. Not like the other time, where I didn't take one. I rapidly took a few shots and then tried to lift the bike up. No way. I couldn't lift it up. I tried the technique Chris Ratay taught me, but it wouldn't work. I removed the big back from the back and tried again. This time it worked, but with a lot of effort. Man, is this thing heavy! My next thought was the battery. Probably it leaked acid all over the place, but it was so damn hot that I wanted to wait for the evening to check. Next time I'd better check right away.

I cleaned myself from the cacti that were attached to my suit and boots and went on my way. The only apparent damage was the front turn signal that almost came off. The road soon improved a bit and I came upon this weird sight. A road sign announcing Topes ahead. Now Topes is a speed bump and to have one in the middle of a dirt road is the strangest thing. It appears that this guy Coco has a place here and wants people to stop by. I was trudging along rather slowly when this shirtless guy comes out running and waving for me to stop and park the bike inside his shed. Well, why not.

The guy who waved is Humberto and he stays with Coco from time to time. That's what I understood. I never saw this Coco fellow. I thought Humberto was
Humberto who lives at Coco's down on the road from Puertecitos.
talking about a monkey and that Coco had a bad leg. Later some guy told me that Coco only had one leg and is a guy. Well, I need to learn some spanish. Humberto is quite a character and he served in the mexican navy and thus travelled everywhere. He had been to Lisbon, Toronto and even Germany. It was interesting listening to some of his insight, though I didn't aggree so much on his opinion that most of the southwest US is actually mexican. It may have been some day, but is hardly now.

He has some cold drinks, but I didn't see how he had any electricity. The place had some interesting decoration, using empty beer cans on strings to create a shiny and noisy effect. I stayed for about an hour and so far this guy was the most colourful mexican character I encountered so far.

From Coco's place to the main highway it's only about an hour and the road is not as bad as before. Once I got to the pavement, I inflated my tires and inspected the screws, so I wouldn't loose any more. By this time, I suspected that I might have a problem with my front forks, but I couldn't see the problem. Later did I notice that the left fork began to leak oil. Maybe the shock compressed to its maximum and blew the seals or something like that. Or maybe it was just the dirst that got through the dust covers. I will know when I get to replace the fork seals somewhere in mainland Mexico.

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