Baja Races and The End in Latin America

We took the ferry from Topolobampo near Los Mochis to La Paz on the Baja Peninsular. It was a big modern ship and we had a smooth uneventful overnight voyage across the Sea of Cortez, trying to sleep in one of those uncomfortable airplane type recliner seats that permits adopting a comfy position for a duration of, oh, about 5 minutes before pins and needles, excruciating back pain, loss of control of one or more limbs sets in. Then around 5-ish in the morning the sleepy Mexicans around us started to waken, heralded by a heavy bout of throat clearing and expectorating into a huge general propose litter bin which now became a giant spittoon for the entire lounge. There was a weedy little runt of a guy in the seat in front of us, no more than 5 foot 2, up and down like a jack in the box to the spittoon. He was a veritable tardus of phlegm spitting up around ten times more grockles than his scrawny chicken-hawk body could ever have possibly contained. It was like he was trying to spit himself inside out. Each time we tried to close off our ears as he summonsed the phlegm from deep down in his chest, gathered the assembled grockle at the back of his throat, rolled it around a few times on the back of his tongue and then thwopped it into the bin with the corresponding rustle of plastic or paper as it hit its target. This dawn chorus had us up and out on deck a little earlier than we would have liked but at least we got to see a fantastic blood-orange sunrise and great views of the Baja coast as the ship entered harbour. Friendly Mexican soldiers waved us past all the queuing traffic, had a quick smiley chat and sent us on wishing us well for the rest of our trip. There was a hint of sadness entering the trip now. We knew that once we left La Paz we were heading North towards the US and the end of the trip for 2005. We started to count down the days till we would arrive in Phoenix, leave the bikes at our friend Simon’s house and fly home for Xmas and winter. We anticipated a dry dusty ride, maybe a thousand miles up the cactus-strewn desert of the Baja, but we were to be pleasantly surprised at some of the scenery and places to be encountered along the way. Starting with La Paz, a little jewel of a city with a beautiful palm lined Malecon (sea front or promenade) that we found hard to leave. Breakfast in one of the sea front cafés looking out over the Sea of Cortez watching sailboats coming and going, whilst overhead Pelicans and Frigate birds patrolled the beach. La Paz is one of those nodal points where travellers concentrate, coming and going for the ferry crossing and we met Petra and Frank, 2 Germans on an 1150GS headed south (if you can read German, check their trip out on www.transamericana.de) and Lana – a young Canadian lass on a Yellow 650 GS like our own, also headed south. An evening of beer and Fish Tacos followed as we swapped tales from the road on a pavement café to the accompaniment of the Mariachi players next door.

Fish Tacos. Truly one of the greatest, tastiest and loveliest culinary finds of the entire trip and a speciality of Baja where fresh seafood is so abundant and so good. I now have a sticker on my bike declaring my love for the things! Easy to make at home too. Simply take a nice slice or 2 of good white fish and fry it in a light batter (or if you can’t be bothered, buy some fish goujons from the nearest supermarket). Serve rolled in a hot tortilla with a filling of salad, salsa, tartare sauce etc as required to your individual taste. They are delicious and we proceeded to eat our way up the Baja Peninsular practically living on the things.

A day trip from La Paz took us on a 200-mile southern loop around Cabo San Lucas, a horrid, overdeveloped tourist blight on the coast that seemed to offer no temptation to stick around unless you fancy squandering ridiculous amounts of money on things that are at least half price just up the road. Fortunately the roads north had more to offer and we spent a delightful 2 nights at the lovely little mission town of Loreto, just chilling out and watching the amazing spectacle of the Pelicans feeding in the harbour at dusk, thrashing the water into a frothy brew by the dive-bombing antics of hundreds of these ungainly pterodactyls as they fished for their supper. Some fantastic twisty mountain roads lead us to our next stop on the road north through Baja; Punta Chivato, where our good friend Dennis Carl had built a house and was living in this little paradise by the sea. Punta Chivato is a community of mainly retired and wealthy Americans who have chosen to live in this remote but beautiful, tranquil location reached by a sandy dirt road from the main highway. We had a peaceful 4 day stop here chewing the fat with Big Dennis, who we’d met at the Jardin de Americas Spanish school in Panajachel in Guatemala last year, enjoying his gourmet food and excellent hospitality. We went kayak fishing in the bay off Punta Chivato where we saw Porpoises and more sea bird displays. We mooched around the nearby palm oasis haven of Mulege, where we woofed more fish tacos and strolled pleasant streets. On our last evening Dennis took us to Ray’s Place, a small seafood shack at Playa Santipac on the La Paz side of Mulege and another of the culinary highlights of our entire Pan-American trip. The restaurant is actually on the beach itself with a scrunchy seashell floor. Ray explained each item on his small but delectable menu of the freshest seafood imaginable straight from the Sea of Cortez. We started on a round of Margheritas with a bowl of Ceviche for our starter. The main course was shrimp lightly fried in a coconut tempura batter with a coating of coconut slivers. Then for desert we had a rice pudding soaked in Kahlua. Each mouthful was an indescribable taste sensation and quite simply, if you are riding in Baja, Rays Place at Playa Santispac is not to be missed!

We said a sad farewell to Dennis and rode north on to Ensenada, our last stop in Baja, in Mexico and in fact in Latin America! There seemed to be some sort of party going on and a lack of available hotel rooms informed us that our arrival had coincided with the Baja 1000 Races. Fortune shone for us and we found a room in a seafront establishment right in the centre of the action as hundreds of bikes, dune buggies and desert racers assembled for the 30 hour, 1000km (hence the name) endurance scramble across the desert wastelands of northern Baja. The morning after our arrival found another pair of 650GS parked beside us. They bore Colorado plates and belonged to Tom and Lynne Gefre (www.strollsouth.com) a lovely couple who had reached the same decisions about life as we had, sold up and bought the pair of 650’s to set off on a stroll south in much the same manner that we were rambling north i.e. with no real fixed agenda other than a vague sense of heading in one direction and taking the road and each day as they found it. A memorable dinner evening ensued swapping once again hints and tips from the road whilst demolishing a load of Italian food and several bottles of plonk in a rather salubrious restaurant run by a lady from Liverpool.

Next day was the pre-race inspection for all the vehicles due to run in the Baja 1000. We sent hours wandering the sort of semi-official paddock area watching crews making last minute adjustments to vehicles prior to scrutineering for the race, with everything from privateers on XR650 Hondas up through home-made VW Beetle Buggies to incredibly expensive looking Hummvees. There were crowds of around 100,000 people in Ensenada for the race ending a real party buzz to this lively city. We took time off to wander around the fish market where we drooled at the exotic fish catches on display and lunched at the market cafés, home and centrepiece of the universe, at least as far as Fish Tacos are concerned! Dining here is such a colourful spectacle as there is free entertainment in the form of watching the dozens of little café owners trawl for business as they try to engage passers-by to come and eat at their particular establishment – all of them shouting and bawling their own praise to attract the business. It’s almost impossible to choose between them as they all serve utterly excellent food on tables laden with freshly prepared salsas, salads and condiments with which to smother your fish taco.

Leaving Ensenada was a sad day. A 70-mile run took us through the shanty slums of Tijuana to the US border as we said farewell to Mexico and Latin America. The 2-lane highway became a 4 lane traffic jam swelling to 8 lanes as we were funnelled into the largest and most chaotic border crossing ever. “Where do we cancel the Mexican Permisos for our bikes?” we asked one US official. “Oh they do that up ahead”. Lying git. We found out later that you need to go round to the Mexican side of the crossing to do this, when all the road signs are directing you only to the US Border crossing and by the time you are there it’s too late. I attempted going back to do this on foot after we had crossed with the bikes only to be told that it is impossible to cancel the permisos without the bikes present themselves! So here we were leaving Mexico with uncancelled bike permisos just like when we left last September! The US Border at Tijuana contains the biggest collection of little Hitlers ever assembled in one place. The guys at the checkpoints were OK and directed us to a secondary customs post to obtain Visas under the Visa Waiver Program. We were fingerprinted and photographed and then had to pay $6 for this privilege. Payable at the cashier’s window. There was a queue, mostly Mexicans, so I had to wait, whilst Mags stood over with the bikes. Same cubicle, different window but the cashier had gone to the bathroom so we had to wait 20 minutes. Meanwhile we could see dozens of other officials hanging around, looking cool in their black uniforms with their fully loaded utility belts and Ray-Bans and generally doing bugger all. One of them sauntered over to us. “Stand in line”. We were in line, albeit a higgledy-piggledy line as people sought the cooler shade to wait in for the absent cashier. “No a straight line”. We shuffled and straightened out a bit but not enough for the US OberBorderfuhrer who then proceeded to direct everyone to their spot on the line, like we were primary school children. “You stand here, you here like that, you there, that’s better, – See now were getting us a straight line!” He was such a patronising slob and I felt like saying, why don’t one of you lazy good-for-nothing idlers just go and do the cashiers job, take my lousy $12, then there wouldn’t be a queue. Eventually a chunky cashier returned and we were all processed. I returned to find Mags in an equal state of fume – another OberBorderfuhrer made her move both our bikes about 10-feet from their clearly marked parking spot for no other reason than to make the place look tidier! Regarding the permisos, a week or so later we dipped back into Mexico near Yuma at a less busy frontier and cancelled them.

And so we bade farewell to Mexico. Mexico was fantastic although our stay here was totally disrupted by last year’s emergency return home and then having to clear out to Texas on this trip. We missed vast chunks of southern Mexico – Oaxaca, Chiapas and the old silver cities around the capital, but we simply hadn’t the time to do it all. What we did see was immensely enjoyable and I’m sure if we lived in the USA we’d spend most of our vacation time here. The Mexican people were friendly and helpful, from our good friend Joaquin who looked after the bikes when we had to abandon everything last year, through the customs officials who guided us through the permiso procedures to the ordinary folk we met every day in hotels, restaurants, markets and on the streets of this colourful and vibrant country. It was even sadder as we knew that once we crossed the US border we would no longer require our Spanish as we left Latin America behind us. Latin America was raw and untreated, at times a little rough round the edges, but immensely enjoyable for all that and we loved every minute of our year spent travelling there. There was an ever-so-strong compulsion at this point to forget Alaska and simply turn the bikes round and head off south again back to those warmer sunny climes with the fantastic, healthy food to meet more of the Latino people in those fantastic places we’d grown to love.

What we didn’t know as we rode north away from the border was that some compensation for our loss lay ahead in San Diego in the form of a great campsite, a great city and a wonderful reception from our fellow campsite guests for our first ever Thanksgiving. The KOA campsite at Chula Vista, San Diego is one of the best we’ve stayed in anywhere. It has a swimming pool, laundry, games room, outdoor kitchen area with electric hobs and a big gas BBQ, and a grocery store and gift shop. There’s wireless Internet too all over the site. We paid a few dollars more for a little wooden bunkhouse (it’s chill in the evenings now) and settled in to explore the delights of San Diego. We had a chilled out day at the Zoo – supposedly the best in the world – and a definite place to unwind on a none too crowded weekday visit. At first we though it would be disappointing. Usually at zoos, you can rely on the animals to get up to disgusting, embarrassing behaviour that throws unsuspecting parents into turmoil as they try to explain to their kids why that animal is ‘playing with itself’, eating its own snot or shit or trying to ‘do something’ with ‘its thing’ to another animal. Nope not at San Diego. The animals were all behaving splendidly – the Polar Bears were playing with a ball in their pool (apparently they only do this in California), the Alaskan Brown Bear was sunning himself in his private little Jacuzzi and the Tigers were striding confidently and beautifully in their lovely little bamboo world enclosure. Yes, they have happy animals here at San Diego in spacious just-like-home enclosures with bars and netting all kept to a minimum. By midday though, most of the animals were asleep hiding under bushes away from our gawking eyes, making me wish I’d brought a very long car aerial to prod them into some sort of activity. Then around 4-ish, siesta ended and the animals came back to life and the good old zebras made our day! One of the many zoo tour buses was passing their open enclosure when we heard lots of kids sniggering and pointing as the tour guide tried desperately to distract their attention by switching commentary to some gazelles doing nothing near as interesting as what was going on, on the other side of the road. There he was – a young male, centre stage, with his rear legs splayed and fifth leg fully extended. It did indeed look like a fifth leg almost touching the ground in a splendid display of male prowess!

Downtown San Diego wasn’t much, but the palm-lined sea front along Harbor Drive was beautiful indeed with cruise liners, USS Midway (another huge Aircraft Carrier museum ship) and a splendid collection of sailing ships and steam barges that made up the Maritime Museum. Across the bay was Carrier Row, where 2 huge modern nuclear powered US Aircraft Carriers were berthed. We spent a pleasant afternoon dandering along the promenade, past the Midway and around the fish market before wandering into ‘Seaport Village’, a horrid collection of kitschy lapboard tourist shops aimed at the visiting cruise liner market, with names like ‘Just for You’, ‘Le Cadeau’ and one that sold only novelty cat ornaments that had me reaching for the kerosene and matches. We lingered long enough to witness the World’s Most Enormous, In-Store, Private Security Man. America has long been a land fabled for its obese lardy inhabitants but this guy was in a league of his own. We were wandering through a shop full of gingham-quilted, lace-lined nonsense when I heard this guy talking at the counter. I rounded the aisle and there he was, talking to the young lady at the cash desk, blocking out her sun and in fact the whole inside end wall of the shop. He was a big guy with a black store security uniform on but what impressed me most was his utility belt. The Nile River must have been depopulated of crocodiles to get enough leather to make this belt. And the stuff he had on it! Handgun, handcuffs, ammo pouches, radio, mobile phone, notebook case, day-stick, nightstick, lipstick, map case, back-up radio, the lot! Every inch of this wonder belt around his huge girth was festooned with what looked to me to be high tech SWAT security gear. In fact I actually wondered whether he could have had extra normal-sized security men on the belt that could be deployed as an emergency response team. Just flip the little leather flap on the pouch and out tumbles 4 fully armed and equipped riot cops ready to nab that old bag lady shoplifter!

Back at the KOA everyone was getting ready for Thanksgiving, which fell on a Thursday so most folk were having the long weekend off. RV’s were festooned with American flags and pumpkin-themed festive displays. Our bikes had attracted a lot of interest (they’re now covered in stickers from all the places we’ve been) and soon a nearby family invited us to share Thanksgiving dinner with them. Brad Freeburne and his wife Barbie were the central co-ordinators for 3 or 4 trailers in which a delicious and massive feast was prepared. We had Turkey (smoked and cooked on a special Barbeque), roast-pork and a huge ham with all the trimmings and accompaniments to feed around 20 of us. Needless to say it was a delicious feast and the best accompaniment of all was the easy-going and generous hospitality we enjoyed with the Freeburnes to make our first Thanksgiving a truly memorable occasion. Sadly we left San Diego next day on the last leg of our trip that took us in to Phoenix, Arizona where our good friend Simon Reboul lives with his wife Angie and little daughter Melody. We’d arranged to leave the bikes with Simon over Xmas and winter so we spent a little time cleaning them and removing batteries until next April when we will return for the final leg of our trip. Until then… watch this space!

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