Tackling Baja Two-Up

Charles Fleming
by Charles Fleming

Roadside chapels, cacti and Coco's Corner

tackling baja two up

We rode together a lot, as a young couple. But later, when we were married and beginning to build a family, Julie found she wasn’t as interested in motorcycles. As our children grew into adulthood, she became interested again, but with caveats involving comfort: The ride mustn’t be too hot, or too cold, or last more than a couple of hours at a stretch.

So, when she suggested we might use a free week to visit Mexico’s Baja California, on a motorcycle, I was thrilled and delighted. I pulled out the maps and the weather report and started planning.

We left Los Angeles on a Wednesday morning in mid-April, slabbing our way south and east as far as a coffee stop in Temecula. We were loaded like we were crossing Mongolia – clothes enough for ten days, plus the requisite tools, tire repair kits, first aid kits and other emergency supplies – and, in matching REV’IT! riding suits, dressed for moderate temperatures.

Those held, through Temecula, into some altitude around the Cleveland National Forest and the Palomar Observatory, and on to a very good lunch at Farmhouse 78 in Santa Ysabel. We checked in for our overnight stay at the historic Julian Gold Rush Hotel with enough daylight left to allow us a nice stroll around town before dinner and an early bed.

Morning brought rain and cold. We left Julian in a dripping mist, at 38 degrees, offering us a lovely opportunity to use all our extra layers and experience the peculiar pleasure of riding warm and dry in cold, wet weather. We dawdled south, following Highway 79 from the frivolously-named Pinezanita at the top to Oakzanita at the bottom, enjoying glimpses of wild deer and domesticated cows, horses, donkeys, and alpaca. Then we crossed the border at Tecate and treated ourselves to plates of chilaquiles verdes at Restaurant San Marcos El Rio.

Mexico! Baja California! Just to cross the border is to enter another world. By the time we’d left Tecate for the rock-strewn and wildflower-dotted hills leading south to El Valle de Guadalupe, we felt we were really traveling.

tackling baja two up

The Valle has been called Baja California’s Napa and Sonoma, and even the Tuscany of Mexico. The region produces 90% of the country’s wine, from vineyards planted a century ago that have become a massive tourist draw in the last decade. The area is strewn with wineries, some doubling as fine dining restaurants and five-star hostelries.

The area had endured a winter of unseasonal rainfall, and now seemed positively Hibernian in all its grassy-green glory. Olive trees showed fresh fruit, and citrus trees bloomed everywhere. We stayed overnight at a forgettable hotel set in the vineyards, and next morning suited up again for the ride south into coastal Baja, taking Highway 3 and heading for San Felipe.

So far, so good. The temperatures had warmed again, but were not hot, and I was able to stick to my promise of not more than four hours a day in the saddle. But, taken as I was with the scenery, I missed the turnoff for Lazaro Cardenas, which offers the only really proper dining options for roughly 150 miles. Arriving in San Felipe in time for a late lunch – and a very good one, at Taqueria y Mariscos Brenda – I was surprised to learn that my marriage was still intact. Julie had been so enchanted by the scenery and sights, including the many roadside chapels that dot the Baja landscape, that the time had passed quickly.

tackling baja two up

We found the hotel I’d booked, a set of beachfront cabins called Stella Del Mar, and settled in for an afternoon walk on the beach and an evening meal at Mathilde’s, the attached restaurant, where a very qualified four-piece combo was massaging a series of American pop favorites. We left, hurriedly, when “Hotel California” started up.

That was the last blast of U.S. culture we got for the next several days. As we dove deeper into Baja, our experience became much less Southern Californian and much more Northern Mexican.

Below San Felipe, the real beauty of Baja begins. The blue of the Sea of Cortez, the body of water that separates the peninsula from mainland Mexico, contrasts brightly with the sugary sand and the cacti, which in places grow right down to the shoreline. As the highway rolls south, the physical beauty is interrupted less and less often by human efforts to tame it.

tackling baja two up

We stopped at one such effort, the recently-closed Cow Patty. This roadside eyesore, like an outtake from a Mexican “Mad Max,” has been a way station for decades, amusing passersby with its décor and decrepitude. The day we stopped, a local expat was sitting alone in an outdoor courtyard with a beer. People still gather, though Cow Patty is closed. “On Wednesdays we get a real crowd,” he said. “Sometimes six or eight people.”

On south we rode, past a dozen similar sights: An unpaved road, through a pair of once-majestic gates, sometimes bearing faded signs announcing a new RV park, hotel or resort, but leading … nowhere.

“It’s like a graveyard of broken dreams,” Julie said.

By midday we were ready for refreshment, and gasoline – sometimes a rare commodity in Baja. We gassed up at a Pemex station at Bahia de San Luis Gonzaga, then left the highway for a sandy stretch of road leading toward the sea. At the halcyon Alfonsinas Eco-Hotel we sat by the dazzling sea and ate a fine lunch of fish tacos.

Another hour south, we stopped at the legendary Coco’s Corner, whose now-deceased namesake owner had for years welcomed off-roaders, Baja 1000 racers and other wanderers into his desert redoubt. Festooned with women’s undergarments and decorated with autographed pictures and jerseys from famed off-road racers, Coco’s lives on, a year after its founder’s death. A friendly fellow told us that some of the late Coco’s friends and acquaintances were keeping the joint open in his memory.

tackling baja two up

We perked ourselves up with a stop at Restaurante Nueva Chapala, where Highways 1 and 5 intersect, enjoying a strong cup of coffee in the timbered dining room. (Mexico is one of the top ten coffee producers in the world, and the largest supplier of beans to the U.S. So it is not surprising that a good cup of joe can be had almost anywhere, including at the ubiquitous 7/11s and their Mexican equivalent, Oxxo.) Then we turned north toward our stop for the night at Cataviña.

This was probably our favorite part of the entire ride. As the road leaves Chapala and leads into the Valle de los Cirios, the roadsides play host to a staggering array of cacti. Soon the prehistoric plants crowd the road, dense as a forest. In addition to the familiar barrel, ocotillo, cholla and standard pancake prickly pear, we saw varieties entirely new to us – some of the 120 varieties native to Baja. The most amazing of them, to me, were the saguaro-like elephant cactus and the boojum (cirio, in Spanish), a tall, spindly, spiky tree straight out of Dr. Seuss.

tackling baja two up

At Cataviña we stayed the night at the charming Hotel Mision Santa Maria, which more or less represents the entire town. We walked in the late afternoon among the cacti, exploring a sand wash oasis where even more new cactus varieties grew, before returning to the hotel for dinner.

The weather had warmed. We were headed for the coast, but the midday high temperature was due to rise into the 90s. So we got saddled up early, enjoying another hour or two of the rolling cactus museum as we left the Valle de los Cirios.

tackling baja two up

As we’d hoped, the weather cooled as the highway dropped down to the Pacific Ocean. At El Rosario, we stopped for gasoline and an excellent lunch at Mama Espinoza. It is famous for its lobster burritos and enchiladas, and like Coco’s is a shrine to Baja off-roaders. We ate well and, fortified, pressed on to our berth for the night at San Quintin, at Mision Santa Maria – sister property to the hotel in Cataviña, and equally charming.

Our target for the next day was Rancho Meling, a revelation to me when I was first introduced to it by my friends Phil Freeman, Brenden Anders and Kevin Hagerty at MotoQuest. The road there was no treat, just a long flat road through dusty towns whose prevailing feature seemed to be the “segunda” stores selling used clothing, appliances, toys, bicycles and car tires. Each of them said “hola” and “adios” to us via the lumpy topes – the Mexican equivalent of speed bumps – at the entrance and exit of each village.

But the destination! Founded as a cattle farm a century ago, this mountain retreat is now a family-run, family-style inn that features good rooms, good meals, hiking trails, horseback rides and more. Taking our time, stopping for coffee and gasoline at La Providencia before turning inland, we made the 100-mile journey last half a day, enjoying the green fields and wildflowers as we climbed up from the coast into the mountains.

tackling baja two up

Prior to my first visit to this 10,000-acre working ranch, I envisioned all of Baja California as low, rugged desert, lined on both sides by low, sandy beaches. But Rancho Meling, at 3,000 feet, is the gateway to the Parque Nacional Sierra De San Pedro Martir, which hosts Baja’s principal observatory near the 10,157-foot peak at Picacho del Diablo.

Julie and I tucked into our room, had a hike and enjoyed a marvelous, solitary meal in the big, wooded Meling dining room, where meals are served family style at long picnic tables. This night, we were the only diners, as we were again the following morning when we were served a hearty breakfast before saddling up and setting out to visit the national park and observatory.

tackling baja two up

I had loved the vineyards and olive groves of El Valle de Guadalupe, and the seaside meal at Alfonsinas, and the 100-mile-long cactus museum of Valle de los Cirios. But, was this the highlight of the entire trip? Maybe, because it was so unexpected. The temperature dropped into the 50s as we climbed, following a windy, well-paved, two-lane road into the mountains. Through oak groves, into pine groves, past fields of massive granite boulders, we saw deer, wild geese and other wonders before paying our entrance fee at that national park gate and then settling in at 8,500 feet for a picnic in a peaceful grassy glade.

This, too, was Baja.

We’d booked two nights at Rancho Meling, and were sorry to leave when our time was up. But we had a few delights yet to come. On the road north, after a pleasant ride back down the curves to the coast, we stopped on the southern outskirts of Ensenada at Estero Beach Hotel for a seafood lunch, sitting all alone in a warm breeze on the sweeping veranda by the water.

For our final night in Baja we’d booked a small hotel, again in the Valle de Guadalupe. This one, called Viña Calabria, was a small but charming vineyard B&B, run by a couple who’d settled in the area determined to grow grapes and bottle wine. My wife, something of a wine fancier, congratulated them on their success as we sat on our porch, enjoying the quiet warmth of the afternoon sun, watching the light fade over the vineyard fields.

tackling baja two up

The following morning, after a sumptuous breakfast of fresh local fruits and other concoctions, Julie and I headed back through Tecate and skipped over the border, retracing our steps, in far warmer weather this time, toward Julian.

This time, rather than Highway 79, we took the Sunrise Highway from Pine Valley through Mt. Laguna. We stopped for lunch at the Pine House Café and Tavern, where we were surrounded by through-hikers making their way up the Pacific Crest Trail. Though we were only two days’ walk from its starting point, some of the hikers already looked fatigued.

Mounting up for the last leg home, I felt grateful that I was making the journey on two wheels, rather than two legs, and was two-up for the ride.

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 1 comment
  • Buzglyd Buzglyd on Jun 08, 2023

    Excellent adventure. I ride the San Diego hills frequently but typically take the car to Mexico.