Biking The Baja California Peninsula

Biking The Baja California Peninsula

Read part one of Donna’s two-wheel adventure through Mexico here.

After traipsing across mainland Mexico by motorcycle for two-and-a-half months, our plan was to wind down the trip with a zig-zag route up the Baja peninsula, eventually crossing the U.S. border in Arizona. While we could have re-entered the U.S. through Texas, we were adamant that Baja had to be part of this Mexican whirlwind adventure. When researching this part of the trip, I quickly learned the correct terminology for this 800-mile peninsula because I was confused at first: why does Baja have “California” in its name even though it’s Mexico? Turns out the peninsula is segmented into Baja California North/Norte, or BCN, and Baja California Sur, BCS.

Many travelers consider a trip to Baja as something separate from visiting the rest of Mexico. But it’s actually easy to add on Baja if your Mexican itinerary has you in the western part of the country. If you’re visiting Puerta Vallarta, Sayulita, or any of the coastal towns heading toward Mazatlan, then including Baja can logistically make sense. Even if you’re in the interior, exploring Copper Canyon, Baja is also doable.

The Ferry Adventure

The old saying of “getting there is half the fun” couldn’t be truer when it comes to the ferry ride across the Sea of Cortez, sometimes referred to as the Gulf of California. Crossing this body of water is how you get from mainland Mexico to the Baja peninsula which can also be done in reverse. Baja Ferries is the primary carrier that operates between Mazatlan or Topolobampo (Topo) on the mainland, to La Paz on the peninsula; they transport people, vehicles, and a whole lot of trucks.

This crossing takes some patience to plan for a few reasons. The Baja Ferries website is only in Spanish, schedules can vary, and booking a cabin needs to be done ahead of time. Because we found the website challenging with our un pequneo Spanish, we arrived a few days ahead of our intended departure date to Los Mochis, the larger city adjacent to Topo where the Baja Ferries office is located. We were able to buy the tickets for ourselves and the motorcycle in person, but the bad news: no available cabins. More on this.

With a scheduled midnight departure, the nightly process of loading about 200 tractor trailers, vehicles, passengers, and lastly, our motorcycle, is a well-orchestrated impressive sight to watch from the ship’s deck. Without a cabin, the nine-hour trip meant having an assigned airline-style seat in a communal room with all the passengers. I can pretty much sleep through anything, but this was a challenge even for me. Overnight flights are usually quiet as most people doze, but not on this boat. Expect people talking, video games noises, music playing, and lots of snoring. My advice is to plan farther ahead than we did and secure a cabin. Having said all this, the trip was a real slice of local color and I wouldn’t have traded it for anything. Once docked in La Paz, the entire unloading process was as efficient as the loading and we were off on the motorcycle by about 10 a.m. It so happened this trip fell on my birthday so I have reminded Gary more than once he still owes me a nice night out somewhere.

A Quick Detour South

Though our destination was due north up the peninsula, we turned south out of La Paz to check out Todos Santos on the Pacific side which began our zig-zag route. The 50-mile trip took a tad longer only because we slightly detoured again to the tiny town of El Triunfo. I will drive out of my way for good food and Café El Trifuno restaurant/bakery did not disappoint. After all this was a belated birthday lunch, so if your timing allows, stop in for a bite. We spent two nights in Todos Santos at a lovely small hotel, outside the downtown area, with a host who had plenty of good local suggestions. I’d describe Todos Santos as a dune-like beach town with architecturally interesting homes, not the typical clapboard style you might expect. While exploring, we came upon a sign for the University of Colorado (we live in CO part time) so of course we had to investigate. On this nowhere road is a small campus for U.S. students wanting a study abroad experience, not too far from home. Todos is a bit spread out so there’s various areas to explore many with very sandy roads. This proved a little tricky on the bike, especially as we tried to find a recommended higher-end beach restaurant, The Green Room that ended up having absolutely no signage out front. But what a lovely spot for lunch or dinner…toes in the sand, inches from the water and an inventive food and cocktail menu. Day 2 of an extended birthday lunch.

Perfect Blue Water

We criss-crossed the peninsula again heading for Loreto, a very walkable not-too-touristy town. The expected town square had good quality restaurants arranged around the perimeter and a neighborhood bar, near our Airbnb, that was a total 70’s dance party. Venturing to the outskirts of town to the surrounding mountain areas for a change of scenery was fun, too. Our day trip destination was San Javier Mission, a historical Jesuit church founded in 1699. It sits in a speck of a town, San Javier, with just a handful of outdoor restaurants perfectly positioned for a church view with a mountain backdrop. Make sure you have enough gas for the roundtrip because there’s no fill-ups along the way.

The Sea of Cortez coastline was a blue-water stunner as we meandered the 50+ miles toward Bahia Concepcion. Honestly, this was some of the prettiest, undisturbed ocean landscape we came across on the entire trip. The string of beaches here are set up for folks to camp, literally, at the water’s edge. RV’s or tent camping are both options but depending on the time of year this can be a very hot and buggy proposition. A last-minute decision to stop for a swim and lunch at a beach shack turned into the perfect leisurely afternoon. If camping is not on your agenda, there are plenty of small hotels in the area, if you want a day or two just lolling on an uncrowded beach.

Guide to Baja California Sur, Mexico: Cost of Living, Safety and Retirement Info

The Lazy Leg

The next leg of this 12-day jaunt took us inland right around Baja’s waistline. Biker friends who had previously done this trip recommended we stop in the definitely-off-the-beaten path town of San Ignacio Springs. This is the kind of place you stop for peace and quiet. Nearing the end of our three-month journey, we needed to slow down the pace and found Ignacio Springs Bed and Breakfast to be the ideal restful solution. This yurt resort, situated on a spring-fed river, meant kayaks and waterside lounging were at our fingertips. We are fans of yurt lodging, having used them in Colorado, and these were by far the most nicely appointed. Guests gather at the outdoor bar for cocktails and conversation, the breakfast is to die for and dinners are optional. A recent fire (just after we left) has the lovely Canadian owners in full repair mode and I don’t doubt it will be better than ever.

If you’re into history or anthropology at all, cave paintings/murals are scattered in several locations throughout Baja and this area is one of them. I will use the term “accessible” somewhat loosely to describe our day trip to Rancho Santa Martha (Marta). Lucky for us, the yurt owners are bikers too so Paul led us 25 miles, off-road into the desert, to rendezvous with our mules and our guide. After a few minutes of permit paperwork and a small fee, we started the incline on sturdy mules but the last push to the cave was on foot. And what a sight as you come up to a very clear and full view of artwork on the cave walls and ceiling. There are various versions of the origin of these works but suffice to say their clarity and color were astounding, especially since they are thousands of years old. This type of trip can be arranged through guides in the area who will have the right type of vehicle to navigate the sandy, desert roads. Expect no shade so dress accordingly with a big hat and plenty of water.

The Other Baja: Small Towns Worth the Visit in Baja California Sur

Medical Care and Dune Racing

Just before leaving the yurt property, the owners made a few phone calls on our behalf, resulting in a decision for Gary to get some diagnostic tests done in Ensenada. This south-of-the-border, very Americanized town had not been someplace we intended to go. But with recommendations for English-speaking doctors, we decided to squeeze this in. The entire process of scheduling MRIs and an EKG was a fraction of the US cost and all were coordinated within three days. Try doing that within the U.S. healthcare system. The equipment and the staff were good quality; the orthopedic surgeon and cardiologist promptly met with us to review the test results. And both of those docs answered their cell phones when I called to make the appointments! We took the actual films with us and reports loaded on a flash drive for future reference.

The bonus ended up being that the Baja 500 was taking place while we were in Ensenada. I’m not a racing fan and I had no idea what all the fuss was about, but this was an experience. An eclectic crowd from around the world was gathered with vehicles of all types that would begin and finish in downtown Ensenada after a grueling 500 miles through the Baja terrain. If you’re into racing events, plan your trip for early June and even if you’re not a fan, go anyway. It’s that much fun.

By this time, we had been on the road just about three months and getting weary. Our last stop in Mexico was to be in Baja’s wine country; 75 miles south of the U.S. border and an easy weekend getaway for southern Californians. Often referred to as “the Napa Valley of Baja”, the Valle de Guadalupe area has stellar restaurants, winery tasting rooms, and the adorable B&Bs that go with it. We were headed in that direction with a boutique hotel reservation and somehow (I still can’t explain it) we missed the turn. Mind you we had just navigated almost 10,000 miles so how could this be? Since we were now striking distance from crossing the border and couldn’t bear to backtrack, we sadly made the decision to cancel the room and head home to Colorado. There were still about 1,000 miles to go before sleeping in our own bed so the wineries would have to wait until the next trip.

If I had to replan the entire Mexico trip, I think we might have crossed the border in Baja and made this the first part of the journey before taking the ferry to the mainland. Being tethered to California, it has more of an American feel. Having already experienced the cultural and geographic diversity of mainland Mexico, Baja somehow seemed “less Mexican”. I suppose there’s another way to look at it: it eased our re-entry to life back into the U.S.

Donna Shields, MS, RDN was bit by wanderlust some 30 years ago and is still on the road. With numerous worldwide home exchanges under her belt, she splits her time between Key West and Colorado while not gallivanting elsewhere.

Years as a food and nutrition writer means she’s always sniffing out the good eats and seeking the next hidden gem of a town to visit. Her recent 10,000-mile motorcycle trip through Mexico led to a new travel blog, Open Mind Adventure. She’s out to prove that over 60 doesn’t mean the adventure is over.

Is it Safe to Travel in Mexico?

The Best Places to Live in Mexico as a U.S. Expat

Maps of Mexico: Best Beachside and Mountain Towns