Baja Uno: DiscoverMoto Rally

I’ve wanted to ride an Asphalt Rats event for years. Mexico is one of our two neighbors and while I’ve done a substantial amount of riding throughout Canada, I’ve done comparatively little in Mexico. The timing just never seemed to work out, until now. With our temporary home base located in San Diego in order to help my mom recover from her transplant, I was finally in a prime jumping off point. With my mom on the very tail end of her intensive recovery period and healthier than any of her doctors had anticipated, I was able to sneak away for a week of adventure. Not one to take the easy way on any task, I rode my FZ1 (amazing, but not rally-ready) from sunny SoCal to snowy SoDak in order to swap out for my FJR (amazing, and always rally-ready). You can read my write up on that frosty ride in the blog post “It’s Been A While…”

Optimal bike procured, I proceeded on to legal requirements. Mexico insurance is a must because most US companies don’t extend coverage into Mexico like they do into Canada. It was cheap and easy to find good coverage for my well-loved motorcycle – $300K Combined Single Limit liability coverage with theft, partial theft, vandalism, fire, uninsured motorist, the works, all for under $225 for six months. Baja California is something of a “free zone” with regards to tourist visas (Forma Migratoria Multiple, or FMM) and vehicle Temporary Import Permits (TIP). If you are only traveling within Baja, you are not required to have a TIP at all and you can get a free seven-day FMM. The free seven-day FMM is actually good beyond Baja, but things are a little fuzzy with regards to Baja travel specifically; you’re supposed to get the FMM stamped on your way in to Mexico, which I did, but there are actually no provisions made for getting it cancelled on the way out if you are exiting Baja traveling by land. It’s a bit unnerving to just wander out, but both Mexican and US immigration authorities, along with countless internet pseudo-authorities, assured me that there was no way to cancel my FMM in Baja even if it was something I insisted upon. The other American riders didn’t bother with the FMM paperwork at all and that was clearly a perfectly acceptable way to go. I will be going back to Mexico in a couple weeks and have opted for the 6-month visa, which only cost about $35US, just so I don’t have to worry about overstaying my legal welcome regardless of where in Mexico our adventures take us.

One of three rally shirts, all equally as cool

The border crossing into Mexico is a snap, as always, and I made my way the short distance to the starting hotel in Mexicali. I always find riding in the border cities to be especially chaotic in a New York City meets Thailand kind of way – tons of motorists, different road configurations, and an extremely lax adherence to road rules. It takes me a few miles of riding to regain my sea legs (or would that be si legs?), then it all becomes part of the fun. The Araiza Calafia Mexicali hotel was lovely and did a great job of playing host to a whole slew of excited riders. The bike demographics were interesting in this event: Almost entirely BMWs with a good showing from Harley, with only one each of Ducati, KTM, Victory and Yamaha. That’s right, I piloted the only Japanese bike in the event. No sweat; I knew she’d be up to the task. Most of the riders were Mexican, with six of us coming down from the United States. Even with my laughable Spanish skills, I quickly felt right at home with the group. The event itself was more of a checkpoint-to-checkpoint rally than a scavenger hunt-style rally. I think there are enough variables with a 1,000-mile day through Mexico to make it a fun challenge even without the bonus hunting element. The route was actually designed by Ioram Abolnik of DiscoverMoto Tours and was being certified at the finish line by Marco and Ellen of the Asphalt Rats and Iron Butt Association: Mexico. Ioram was at the starting line and did an excellent job during the riders meeting of letting us all know what to expect, in both English and Spanish. Road conditions, terrain, weather, animal activity, sections without fuel or cell service – he was extremely knowledgeable about the route and what we would encounter along the way. Ioram would be riding down to La Paz along with the rest of us, and a chase truck would be taking up the rear in case of emergency.

We hit the road at 2am on Saturday morning, which set us up to be out of Mexicali, through our checkpoint in Tijuana, and on a beeline away from the border and into more rural parts of the coast before crazy traffic started building. My GPS supposedly did not include Mexico maps and had not been impressively functional during recent trips to Tijuana, but I was surprised to find it was totally functional throughout most of the trip. I had planned on routing using my phone and Google Maps, and had downloaded the relevant map sectors so they would be available offline. Even having taken those steps, there were a few sections which were devoid of cell service for long enough that it would scramble my route if anything needed to be recalculated. It wasn’t a huge deal since these sections didn’t require any sort of complicated riding directions (“Stay on Mexico 1 for 665km”) but it was good to have my GPS operational in those areas, just in case. Getting out of Mexicali, I hit the first couple turns as dictated by Google, then stuck tight to a group of Mexican riders who seemed to know what they were doing. Google is great, but there is just no replacement for local knowledge. With the usual excitement and fanfare of the start of a rally, we bombed our way out of town and each settled into our own pace. Once out of the buzz of Mexicali, the next order of business was to summit La Rumerosa. There was some light rain and there had been talk of snowy conditions over this rugged mountain a few weeks back, but luckily the temps were in the mid-40sF and the rain wasn’t heavy enough to be a nuisance. It was a wonderfully twisty ride on a well maintained toll road, and with the traffic at that hour being very light we were able to maintain a brisk pace. I bunched up with other riders a few times at toll booths and inspection stations, so obviously we weren’t too far apart from each other, but for the most part I was happily enjoying having the road to myself.

Once we hit Tecate and Tijuana, I made more of an effort to stick with some Mexican riders once again as we navigated the busier roads. Again, with the adherence to road rules being somewhat… “fluid”… I felt comfortable sticking with riders who were well versed in the local road rules. When I’ve ridden in Mexico in the past, it was as a solo tourist who stuck strictly to the posted rules of the road so as not to draw undue attention to myself. During a rally, however, I tend to give myself a bit more leeway to ride like the locals. Not just with our riders but with traffic in general, I found red lights to be more like… loose suggestions of caution. Stop signs were barely a rolling pause to check for cross traffic. Turn signals were not really a thing, as any and all lanes were free for the taking at any given time. Where turn signals were regularly used was to signal to a vehicle behind you (ie, antsy motorcyclists) that the road ahead was clear to pass, regardless of whether or not you were in a passing zone. I actually rather enjoyed it, once I got into the swing of things. How many times have we sat endlessly at a red light that refused to change for motorcycles? Sat twiddling our thumbs behind a big rig going 1/3 the speed limit up a hill when we totally had the line of sight and power to zip by? I found it to be an unexpectedly courteous, mellow way of interacting with other road users. The only time things got a little hairy was when someone threw up that left hand turn signal and it wasn’t actually clear whether they were signaling for you to pass or they were the one-in-a-thousand drivers actually signaling their intention to turn. Out in the country it generally wasn’t a problem since there was really nowhere TO turn. But it happened to me twice – once was in town with a car turning left, once in the country with a big rig signaling his intention to pass the rig in front of him. Luckily for me, I’m still leery enough with the system that I didn’t get bit. However, there was one rider who was involved in a rather serious accident on his was to the starting line in exactly this scenario. It’s not a perfect system, but I like it none the less.

The Tijuana checkpoint was an OXXO (basically like a 7-11) near the northern tip of Mexico Highway 1. Water procured, receipt in hand, odo picture snapped, ride log filled out, back on the road. Being the first checkpoint there were quite a few riders and a lot of general excitement, but it would be a good haul before Checkpoint #2 and riders would do a good job of relaxing into their own speed and enjoying the ride. I had made my way through the beach communities of Rosarito and Ensenada and into the interior of Baja by the time the sun began to creep up. I didn’t have any twinge of safety concerns riding through the night; there were plenty of well-lit 24-hour gas stations along this portion of the route, very few animals in the road aside from the odd coyote here and there, and all the people I dealt with were very pleasant. I found the gas situation to be interesting and different from the last time I traveled down into Baja; I didn’t find any pay-at-the-pump, but instead almost every station had attendants who would assist you with your fill and run your card on a handheld card reader. You could also pay cash to the attendant, which was often the faster option as the more rural stations seemed to be a bit hit-and-miss with regards to the speed and functionality of the handheld readers. It was actually really nice, and it meant I didn’t ever have to go into a station unless I really needed to. Just for your information, since I didn’t know and had to ask: We are not expected to tip the gas attendant. There were a couple times when the attendant rounded off my cash change to the tune of maybe 3.5 pesos (about $0.17US) but they would also round up my change when I only had large bills. As with so many things in Mexico, it seemed to be handled with a very easy going attitude.

I was excited to make my way to Checkpoint #2 in El Rosario, right on the edge of Baja California Norte and Baja California Sur. I’d never been that far into Baja before, and with the sun coming up I was finally able to enjoy some of the beautiful scenery. It reminded me quite a bit of Central California, with serene twisties interspersed with farm fields, cacti and small communities. This event wasn’t a monotonous grind down the interstate; it was the whole gamut, from flawless high speed toll roads to rural dirt segments and everything in between, which really made the experience far more enjoyable. The rain dried up with the sunrise and the rest of the ride saw clear skies and warm weather. Checkpoint #2: Gas receipt, odo pic snapped, ride log filled out, back on the road. I saw two other riders at this checkpoint, but nothing like the dozen milling about at Checkpoint #1. South from El Rosario, we headed into a long ride with no cell and no fuel. Around the midway point across this dry section, there were enterprising folks set up with truck loads of jerry cans, selling fuel to tourists at a steep premium. Several riders had to utilize this service, to the tune of roughly $25 for two gallons of gas, but luckily with the aux fuel on the FJR I was able to easily make it between checkpoints without stopping. The scenery was stunning, full of desolate beauty similar to what is found in the American deserts: not simply droning along through an empty featureless landscape, but enjoying a varied and spirited ride through the gorgeous vastness of the inner peninsula. Interesting, massive cacti varieties I haven’t seen elsewhere; wildflowers of all different colors sprinkled throughout the rocky terrain; wild burros, free range horses & cattle, and smaller critters to include dogs, bunnies & humans, milling about the road; peak-a-boo views of the Pacific Ocean or the Sea of Cortez here and there between sleepy little towns. My very favorite views were in the areas where an army of giant cacti stood shoulder to shoulder, all the way to the crashing crystal blue waves in an empty yet impossibly gorgeous tropical beach. It seemed so stunningly contradictory, the juxtaposition of these two visuals, I’d almost wonder if it wasn’t photoshopped if I hadn’t been looking at it with my own eyes. For a period of time just after crossing into Baja California Sur I was actually at the very front of the pack. I know for a fact that this was only because many of the Mexican riders stopped for lunch, because I saw them pulled off at a little restaurant near Guerrero Negro. The event wasn’t a race and no distinction was made based on finishing time or order, but that’s ok – I’ll take it where I can get it J

By and large the road conditions were better than expected, especially on the toll roads, but there were also sections that randomly turned to dirt for a bit or had man-eating potholes, but no worse than you find in most areas of the Midwest. The topes were fun too, designed to slow everyone way down before entering a town. You hit a couple dozen speed bumps of increasing frequency until they toss you up onto a massive mountain of a speed bump. Sometimes they were smooth and mellow, no big deal when taken at an appropriate speed; sometimes they were shaped more like a pyramid and you’d be certain, based on the hideous crunch of metal on concrete, that you’d just tacoed your exhaust; sometimes they were just painted lines designed to look like a tope. You never really knew which one you’d get, which is obviously the whole point. Somehow I managed to make it through the ride without puncturing my exhaust or blowing my fork seals, so I consider that a solid win, although I did say some things loudly enough and in such a tone that I’m sure most people understood exactly what I was saying, in intent if not in the actual language.

Checkpoint #3 came late in the afternoon just south of Mulege, BCS. Lots of friends & customers from Kernville talked fondly of visiting Mulege, so I was excited to see it even if it was just a quick trip through. It definitely had an ex-pat/touristy feel, but still in a good small town way as opposed to the gross sanitized feel of the bigger tourist towns. I’ll look forward to giving it a more thorough visit next time through. I had a couple more hours of daylight as I worked my way south before being left to finish up my ride on a deep, moonless night. I was grateful that I didn’t have too much riding to do after sundown, because the dark totally consumed my high-powered LED lights which made it tough to see the copious number of cows & horses milling about the road. By this point I was also confident that my snowy ride to swap out the FZ1 for the FJR had been well worth it; it’s not that the ride couldn’t have been done on the FZ1, but between the aux fuel and aux lights, it was just far more enjoyable on the FJR. The giant windshield and heated gear provisions on the FJR just made it that much more pleasant in the wee hours of the damp and chilly morning. Cows dodged, closed roads circumvented, the bustling city of La Paz navigated, and I was thrilled to find myself at the finish line Araiza Palmera hotel some 18 hours after kickstands up. I arrived to an enthusiastic crowd of spectators and volunteers, which made for a fun finale. It was easy to navigate the final odo check and paperwork confirmation, so it didn’t take long before I was relaxed in with the group of spectators welcoming in the new arrivals. Once again, Araiza was an excellent host to all of group and it was a wonderful place to stay. We gathered up on Sunday afternoon for a general awards ceremony hosted by Iron Butt Association Mexico. After that, we were presented with our finishers certificates, incredible swag, and new Asphalt Rats/IBA Mexico member numbers. I am extremely proud to have earned IBA Mexico Rider number 1000, which I can now display alongside my IBA #376.

I made it! LOL!

I cannot say enough good things about this event. From the time I signed up many weeks before the event, there was an active group chat where we were able to share information, receive updates, and build excitement. This made it especially easy to work with my limited Spanish because I could easily translate anything I didn’t immediately understand, although everything important was also posted in English. This was a lot of fun and was a great way to build camaraderie with fellow riders before we even met. The structure was a perfect balance, in my opinion: Straightforward enough to entice new riders who are perhaps riding in Mexico for the first time, but fun and interesting enough to attract seasoned riders as well. It didn’t require any special bikes (you didn’t need a dual sport to navigate the easy dirt sections, for example) and you didn’t need a rally-prepped bike to finish successfully, although many riders carried at least a small can of spare fuel. The swag is cool almost beyond description. Logo products unique to IBA Mexico, super cool Asphalt Rats and Discovermoto goodies: plate backers, patches, pins, stickers and shirts, all different from the Saddlesore swag we get from the IBA in the US. The after party was the stuff of legend. I showed up at the starting line knowing people only from our online interactions, and I arrived in La Paz with a whole slew of awesome new friends.

After the Sunday afternoon awards ceremony, we had another fun post-ride event: The Asphalt Rats, old and new, rode in the front of the La Paz Carnivale parade. I’ll be honest, I waffled about joining in the ride. I know what parade riding looks like: Do I let my bike grenade from sitting at idle endlessly, or do I kill my battery from turning it off & on every 35 yards? One other rider did end up killing his battery, but that aside, it was SO worth it!!! What an absolute blast!! First, I really loved the town of La Paz. It was big enough, but not too big. It was fun and comfortable without being overly touristy or sanitized. This wasn’t a tourist event, it was a wonderfully vibrant local affair. There were announcer stands every so often throughout the route, and although my Spanish isn’t great I was able to understand them describing our ride and thanking the riders who came all the way down from the United States to join their parade. The children were as joyful as they are anywhere in the world, incredibly enthusiastic about the motorcycles, running out for fistbumps and photo opps whenever the parade stopped its forward progress. There was confetti and loud music and beer in squirt guns, unbelievably good smells and bright colors and cheering crowds. Of an entire amazing week this was absolutely one of the highlights, partly because it’s something I wouldn’t normally seek out to take part in and partly because the atmosphere was so different from the parades I’ve seen outside of possibly New Orleans. The pure joy of the kids, the relaxed atmosphere and blurry lines between the spectators and participants, and the camaraderie of our group all made this a really fun way to cap off the DiscoverMoto rally.

On Monday morning (or, for those of us who found mas cervezas than just the odd squirt gun shot full, Monday afternoon) we all began trickling back out into the world. For a full write up on the rest of my Baja travels, complete with my more standard inane color commentary, walk your way on over to Part Dos of my ride report. For those of you who were just looking for a review of riding a rally in Mexico: DO IT! I had such an absolute blast and will absolutely do it again. In fact, I’m already planning to return to Mexico in just a couple weeks. The Asphalt Rats really know how to put on a top-notch event and take good care of their riders, so head on over to their fun-filled ride calendar and see what calls your name. Hopefully I’ll see you there!

~ Wendy

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