Baja by Motorcycle | For The Love of Tacos…

This was previously published at the now-extinct Overland Junction website.

I am ill prepared for the cold.

We’ve been riding for what seems like an eternity already and I have forgotten how my hands are supposed to feel. Two numb chunks of ice are wrapped stubbornly around the handlebars of my also stubborn, and also cold, KLR 650. Not long ago the morning’s light emerged to shine on what should be another clear and sunny day in Southern California. But it’s November, it’s early and I’m still swiping at the whiskey tinted cobwebs that loiter in the corners of my brain.

“All will be better,” I think to myself, “when we cross the border and hunt down our first tacos.”

I had hatched a plan, a demand really, to ride my motorcycle through Baja California not long after I first started riding late the year before. I had cultivated fantasies of tacos and tequila, sunset beaches and desert dirt roads. The imagined warmth of those fantasies now lost in the chattering of my teeth inside my helmet as the road climbs higher, the winds fight harder and, in spite of the sun now hung low in the sky, it gets colder.

We skipped breakfast this morning, opting to fortify our traveling souls with hot coffee and high spirits instead of eggs and waffles. I can’t tell if it’s hunger that is creeping through me this early or if it’s just the penetrating cold. The bike heaves to one side as a gust of wind shakes me awake and I can’t help but think, a taco would fix all of this.

It would be dishonest to say my sole purpose in heading to Baja is for the food, for the tacos. I’m on this quest to spend some honest quality time with my motorcycle and my buddy J. I’m here to get a glimpse of a place I’ve never been to before. I’m here to push myself, spending more time on the back of my bike than I ever have. I’m here for the adventure of it. This has all the makings of a perfect trip. Even without the sweet, enticing promise of grungy roadside taco stands and magical warm tortillas wrapped around lyrical symphonies of meat.

My buddy J has been trailing right behind me most of the morning, still waiting for the caffeine to kick in. Having coaxed his motorcycle south along the Eastern Sierra from Northern Nevada the day before he’s already pushed through colder weather than this. His heated jacket and heated grips becoming the focus of much envy. We round another cold granite corner and J’s voice crackles through the headset to inform me we may have a place to stop soon, grab a coffee, manage layers and warm up.

Our stop isn’t much more than a postage stamp of a gas station, but they do have coffee and we manage to park the bikes in a luxuriously sunny spot. While I add another layer of gloves and try to soak up as much of the sun as I can, J works on soaking up as much coffee as he can. We talk of our impending border crossing, we talk of tacos, and we talk about the cold. I feel better knowing I wasn’t the only one feeling the chill of the morning.

Soon we’re off the main highway, lower in elevation and cutting through local twisty roads guiding us toward Tecate. It’s still cold but my KLR has finally warmed up and so have I. Every mile closer to the border is a mile closer to morning tacos, the first Mexican tacos of our trip, the first of many. We dodge through small towns, cut through farmland, the road unwinds itself before us for some time then with a quick left we make a beeline down the hill into Tecate.

Welcome to Tecate

I’ve crossed the border into Mexico many times, but this would be my first on the motorcycle. I’ve read conflicting stories about border crossings on a motorcycle. We brace ourselves for a dramatic song and dance –gesticulations, broken Spanish, shuffling of papers, inspections, questions and wasted time- keeping us from our tacos. In reality, we are the only ones at the border at this quiet hour. Our bikes roll up, a red light and a buzz gets J pulled to the side and I get waved through. I feel a twinge of anxiety as I hear J replying to questions through the headset. Then before I know it, before I can even find a good place to drop my side stand and wait, he’s through.

Now we can find those tacos. Or not.

A block away from the border the entire town is seemingly roped off for construction. The main street into town is completely torn up and not in that fun Mexican oh-look-it’s-a-dirt-road kinda torn up. The road and sidewalks have been ripped from the Earth as if by some act of God and replaced by a sundry of construction equipment. So we ask for broken Spanish directions and get broken English responses that may or may not have been accurate and useful…they were not accurate or useful to us.

We make a half-hearted attempt to locate the immigration office to settle our travel visa. Our two weeks in country and the fact that we are venturing to the southern tip of Baja necessitates paperwork, and fees, just in case a bristly Federale decides he wants to piss in our Cheerios. Tecate loses our business as we decide that Ensenada is not far away and, as the main port city, may or may not be a much easier place to locate the immigration office and our visas. And tacos.

So tacos have to wait, sadly, in spite of our being on the right side of the border. And hungry.

Alto. Tope. Alto. Right turn. Watch out for that truck. Alto. Tope. Dog on the left. Alto.

We quickly work our way through Tecate. A couple of twists and turns and we are on Route 3 heading earnestly toward Ensenada, still hanging our fortunes on the promise of warm tacos. Route 3, the Ruta del Vino, snakes lazily through the verdant Valle de Guadalupe…Baja California’s northern wine country. Rolling lazily through the countryside on our KLRs heading south it seems every twist in the road reveals another vineyard. Small or large, old or new, we thump past winery after winery and resist the urge to stop at each and every one for a tour and a taste. That will have to wait for another trip.

The occasional familiar waft of coffee or breakfast punches at triggers in my stomach and my brain reminding me that we still haven’t eaten. It has warmed up enough as we enter Ensenada that I am suddenly very aware of all the layers I put on in this morning’s cold. The density of cars on the road, the familiar smell of exhaust and the impatient staccato of honking reminds us that we’re entering a large city. J and I quickly fall into a rhythm of communication allowing us to stick together in the chaotic Mexican traffic. Tope. Alto. Pothole on the left. Red light. The headsets crackle back and forth.

Without knowing our way around the city of Ensenada we decide that our best bet for finding an immigration office is to point our wheels in the general direction of the city’s primary landmark, a gargantuan Mexican flag that whips and curls sluggishly over the bustling city’s port of entry. The Port of Ensenada, located in Bahia de Todos Santos, is an international deepwater port and the second most active port in all of Mexico. It is the main traffic hub for cruise and cargo ships as well as recreational vessels visiting Baja. The port, we gather, should have a place we can pay our fees and collect our visas. Tacos first or tacos later? We discuss this with strategic seriousness, weighing our options.

And the tacos will wait. Again.

Rarely does bureaucracy trump food in my daily life, so foregoing our lunch to fill out paperwork seems like misplaced priorities. But the uncertainty of where, and how, we’ll secure our visas means we need to handle it now, rather than later. Besides, it’s a scientific fact that tacos taste better when you’re not distracted by obligations and time schedules.

The tiny immigration office is a mix of locals securing paperwork and a motley crew of gringos looking to start, continue or end their own personal adventures. We bring another layer of entertainment to the circus sporting our riding gear and helmets. Another scraggly and disheveled gringo-pirate of Baja shuffles back and forth from window to window trying to nail down his own stack of paperwork related to bringing his boat into port. We look fresh, bright eyed and bushy-tailed by comparison.

The dance begins, we get in line. One window to show our passports and insurance, then there are forms. We step away to decipher the Spanish and fill in the blanks. Name, date, country of origin. Is the passport ID the same as the passport number? What did you put down for “destination”? Then back to the window, did we fill it out right? Another window, and another line, to pay our fees. Dollars or pesos? What’s the exchange rate, how good is our math? Dollars in, pesos out. Did we get the right change? Does it matter? Then back in line for the window to show our receipt, the forms are inspected again. Does everything match? Is the date right? Did you pay the right fee?

There are questions internally, misinformation or misinterpretation, a manager is called in. At least I think he’s a manager. My Spanish is still rusty, I pick up bits and pieces, are they really talking about the form or is this a social call? What bar are you going to after work? Who got drunk last night? Can I go yet?

“Es bien? Necesita mas informacion?”

Oops, I’ve interrupted them. Did I sound impatient? I just want some tacos.

“Su nombre es David?”

“Si.”

More chatter, business this time, they point and scratch their heads and then someone steps in with some authority and scribbles on my form. Stamp. Stamp. The paper is shoved back at me.

“Es bien?”

“Si.”

Saddle up!

We’re back on the bikes and the headset crackles with more excitement. We look to get past the main part of town, let traffic settle a little and then we’re scouring the route for roadside tacos. A juice stand, ice cream, fresh fruit. Still in the city, there are more sit-down restaurants than roadside taco stands. We waiver, maybe we stop at a restaurant, get a big meal. No. We are purists today, we will only accept street tacos.

There is a freshness and honesty to street tacos. Generally cooked on a griddle or grill right in front of you, made to order, simple and clean –meat on tortilla. Corn or flour. Toppings are ala cart. How do you dress your taco? Red or green salsa, guacamole, pico de gallo? Maybe sliced radish or pickled onions? Are those fresh roasted jalapenos? Yes, please!

What kind of tacos are we looking for? Do we have a preference? Carne asada would be nice, carnitas might be better. It is Ensenada, should we be looking for seafood? Pescado, camarones, langosta? We quickly decide it doesn’t matter but seafood ends up low on the list. We look, we call out options on the headset, we have options.

First Stop for Tacos in Ensenada

Parking becomes the deciding factor. We cruise through a busy intersection and see a taco stand with easy parking a few paces away. We swing the bikes to the side of the road and park against the curb, hop off the bikes and try our best not to sprint to the taco stand. Tacos el Chente! Bienvenidos Amigos!  Luck is on our side, as it proves to be throughout the trip, and this particular taco stand is everything we could have asked for. His specialty is al pastor, by far my favorite.

Tacos al Chente

Tacos al pastor are special. Thin slices of sweet and spicy marinated pork are stacked with onion and pineapple on a vertical rotisserie called a trompo and slowly flame-roasted, shawarma style, until skillfully carved off and served in a warm, soft flour tortilla with finely chopped onions and cilantro. Arab and Lebanese immigrants filtering into Northern Mexico in the late 19th and early 20th centuries introduced this style of cooking. It has since become an iconic part of Mexico’s flavorful food culture.

There is an especially high concentration of Lebanese immigrants in Northern Baja, so it is fitting that tacos al pastor be our culinary introduction to this part of Mexico. Our new friend deftly carves sweet juicy meat off the spit and finishes it on a hot griddle. We wait patiently, sipping on glass bottles of Mexican Coca-cola and testing the structural integrity of the ubiquitous red plastic patio chairs.

Al Pastor Tacos in Baja

 

I have just enough time to make sure my cell phone is working on this side of the border before our plates are ready. Dos tacos al pastor and a fresh, fire-roasted jalapeño served on parchment paper over old plastic plates wrapped in a thin plastic sleeve. It is my happy place. I’ve been waiting for this moment all morning, or all year depending on how you look at it.

Our ride through Baja was a long time in the making. It’s difficult for some of us to take two weeks out of our busy schedules, even harder to convince others to go with us. But I did it, and now a good friend and I are riding our motorcycles…in Baja…for two weeks. And even if we don’t know where we’ll be sleeping tonight, at least we have tacos.

sunset in Baja

Gear Review | Mosko Moto Scout 25L Pannier Kit

When I got my KLR I immediately wanted the classic hard metal panniers…you know, the RTW traveler type with stickers from all the awesome places you may or may not have been. The kind that say, “I might be traveling internationally by motorcycle…or maybe I’m homeless.” You know the ones. They’re big, clunky and are supposed to let everyone know “I DO ADVENTURY THINGS”.

I got the panniers and I liked them. They are very big, way more room than I ever really needed. They are also loud and rattle more than my poor old KLR on fresh washboards. But at least I looked “adventury”. Right?

HUCalifornia2015-57

I had gotten used to the rattle and clank of my old Happy Trails metal panniers. Every trip with those metal cans on my trusty KLR was a vibrating, rattling, noisy, lovely ride. I had tried a few soft bags but they hung poorly on the bike and flopped in the wind. Nothing really felt secure or rugged enough to take a beating. The more time I spent on dirt, the more I wanted soft luggage. But I just couldn’t find something that felt right on the bike. When I finally got to see Mosko Moto luggage up close and see it on a bike, I knew I wanted to give them a try. Then I managed to get a set of the Scout 25L Panniers from Mosko Moto.

The quality and sturdiness of these bags, the construction and materials, is absolutely top notch. I’ve spent a lot of time running whitewater in boats that constantly took a beating against rocks, sand, and regular abuse for decades that don’t feel as bomb-proof as these panniers. That’s how I see these bags. The kind of bags that can take unreasonable amounts of daily abuse for decades and keep on going. These feel like the kind of panniers you can spend years with before they just start to feel good and broken in. I’ll be putting them in my will…so, get on my good side and they might be yours someday.

mosko moto scout panniers

The Mosko Moto mounting system is flawless. Adjustability, flexibility, and insane sturdiness. When these bags are mounted they are truly a part of the bike. They mount securely in place and lock down easily and do NOT move once on the bike. I actually had one of my metal panniers rattle loose and come off the bike while riding in Baja…the Mosko Moto bags would NEVER do that no matter where I take them. Pretty sure the bike would rattle to pieces before the bags come off.

The strategically placed MOLLE webbing allows for nearly infinite customization. Adding extra storage or accessories allows for all sorts of configurations. The top-loading bags also make it easy to access the contents on the go. The 25L bags are the smaller pannier option, but there’s still plenty of room (for most). I did a 500-mile two-up trip with my wife using the 25L panniers and the 30L Duffle and we had plenty of room. On that same trip, we rode almost 150 miles of our return trip in the pouring rain. We were soaked, but everything in our bags was perfectly dry. The waterproof materials and simple roll-top design absolutely work to keep all your stuff dry in ANY weather.

mosko moto scout panniers on KLR

 

Scout 25L Panniers on KLR

I really couldn’t be happier with my Scout Panniers. They are the perfect companion to my KLR and I can’t imagine going back to anything else.

Mosko Moto is one of those companies that is constantly looking at how they can improve their products. They approach each product with a fantastic design aesthetic and a desire to solve problems, create versatility, and build a product that can stand up to the most rigorous use. This is soft luggage, but it is not meant for soft use. This is hardcore motorcycle gear designed and built by hardcore motorcycle riders with extreme travel in mind.

All of that makes the investment well worth it, in my opinion.

Stand Out Gear: Choice gear for moto travel

my gear setup for moto travel

Choice Gear for Motorcycle Travel

Sena Bluetooth Headset

Sena Bluetooth Headset

For the first 6 months or so of riding I liked the “quiet” of being in my helmet without distraction. I approached it sort of like hiking, I don’t like to distract from the sounds of everything around me. Once I started getting longer rides in my thoughts on it started to change and I started looking at headsets. Most of my riding is solo but I also knew that I’d be riding, eventually, with more people. So I started asking around about headsets and communication while riding. There are a few options out there but SENA clearly dominates the market and after getting, and using, the Sena SMH10R I can see why.

The SMH10R is super compact and low profile on the helmet, which I really like. It has very decent battery life, good connectivity via bluetooth and pairs easily with other headsets. During our 2 week ride through Baja, J and I both used our headsets continuously allowing for maximum communication as we traveled. We found it significantly useful in cities dodging traffic or looking for hotels and food as well as hugely beneficial tackling off-road conditions. During the long stretches we played with the Sena’s music sharing capabilities.

On our ride through the varying terrain of Baja we were able to fully test the range and obstacle limitations of the Sena setup. It truly works well in line-of-sight conditions up to about a quarter mile. After that it gets fuzzy. Without line of sight though, the intercom is fairly weak making it a little difficult to communicate in tight curves or rolling hills. In those areas we just learned to stick closer together. All in all, the Sena turned out to be one of the most useful and important pieces of equipment we had on the trip.

Rev’It Riding Gear

I am really a new rider. I rode motorcycles and scooters a decade ago or so, but never really got proper gear back then. This time around I was much more serious about getting outfitted properly but I took my time with it. Initially, I bought what I considered to be the bare minimum: a jacket and a helmet. I later got a pair of riding pants, but it was all fairly haphazard and ill fitting. I ride in Arizona mostly and deal with warm weather more than cold, so when I did start researching and looking for some real riding gear I wanted something designed with good protection and fit, but also good venting. I spent a lot of time shopping around and comparing gear features, prices, sizing, etc.

I picked up the Rev’It Cayenne Pro Jacket first in the hopes that it would fit my needs. I like the styling of the jacket and, being desert adventure designed, it definitely seemed suited to my type of riding. The jacket runs pretty small, so I ordered up a size from what I would normally wear and that worked well. I like the fit of the jacket and it has enough adjustability to dial in the fit really well. The protection the Cayenne Pro series offers is really nice, using their SEEFLEX level 2 CE protection at shoulders and elbows. The chest is fully vented with Schoeller-dynatec mesh panels for maximum breathability.

I liked the jacket enough after putting about 2000 miles on it that I ordered the matching Cayenne Pro pants for my ride through Baja. They didn’t show up until after I had left so I had my wife bring them down so I could swap them out in Cabo halfway through the trip. I was a little worried they be too tight with the European styling and sizing of this brand, but they actually fit really well and I fell in love with them right away. The same mesh panels are on the thighs for venting in warm weather and the knee protection is almost 3/4 shin length SEEFLEX that cups the knee very comfortably at the top. Between the knee armor and the boots, my entire lower leg is well protected. The pants have pockets in all the right spots and nice adjustment at the boot so it can fit snugly.

This was a gamble for me, but it turned out to be a great choice and I really felt comfortable riding in the jacket and pants for hours on end, every day.

Forma Boulder Boots

11085202_1455272664764511_757717436_nI love these boots! I was really worried about getting a boot with good protection that wouldn’t kill my feet. Also really wanted a boot that didn’t look like some robo-cop, track-racing, tech-rider. I wanted something that, when the pants are brought down around the boot, looked like normal-ish footwear. The Forma Boulder dual-sport boots are perfect! They felt comfortable pretty much from the first use and broke in even better, they offer great protection and have a no-nonsense styling with a simple full-grain leather finish that weathers beautifully.

I’ve had these boots on in the rain, snow, sand, mud, dust and everything in between and they have kept me dry, warm and safe the entire time. And they’re comfortable enough for regular walking around in. For $250 they are well worth the investment.

Hydroflask

You all know already what a big fan of the Hydroflask I am. It’s no wonder this product is also on my list. Staying hydrated is incredibly important, especially riding in the desert. It’s also really easy to forget to stop and drink often enough on the motorcycle. When I started riding I immediately started looking for a way to strap my Hydroflask to the bike where it would be accessible and out of the way. I found a small cottage company called Blue Ridge Overland Gear that makes an insulated pouch with molle straps for the 40 oz Hydroflask. This allowed me to easily find a place to strap the Hydroflask to the bike and offered quick access whenever I needed it. This was a great addition to the bike setup.

Triple Aught Design Huntsman Henley

A couple months ago the awesome folks at Triple Aught Design reached out to me and offered to shoot me some premium gear. I’ll talk about the infamous Shagmaster and the top-notch Lightspeed Backpack later. For the 2 weeks in Baja I took along the TADgear Huntsman Henley as my main base layer top under all my riding gear. This would be a huge test of the durability and functionality of the MAPP (Merino Advanced Performance Program) fabric they use. When I first got the shirt, it had a little of the typical wool scratchiness, but that quickly went away after the first wash. On the trip, this wool base layer was assaulted daily with hours of sweat, dust, dirt, chaffing and rubbing under riding gear that would send most under garments whimpering in defeat. The Huntsman Henley not only survived the 2 week torture test, but allowed me to survive it as well. It kept my temp regulated in warm and cold weather, didn’t turn south when soaked with sweat, and never really picked up that typical something-died-in-the-men’s-locker-room aroma most base layers get.

The TADgear Huntsman Henley is pricey at $100, but if you need something that can take a beating for days or weeks on end then it’s well worth the investment. It was good enough at it’s job, that I bought a second one.

Green Chile Adventure Gear

Green Chili Gear

Green Chili Gear

I took the hard luggage on this trip into Mexico partially for security reasons and partially for storage. Turns out, I really didn’t need all that much storage (except after visiting the tortilleria in San Ignacio). My usual set up, even with the hard luggage, is to have my daily cloths and toiletries in an easy to grab water-proof bag strapped on top of the seat. I started doing this for smaller rides where I just need the one bag and part of what has made this so convenient and versatile is the Uprising Soft Rack Luggage System from Green Chile Adventure Gear. When I was getting the bike outfitted I reached out to the guys at GCAG and asked if they could whip together a one of their Uprising Kits for me in a custom color. They could, and they did, and it’s awesome.

Give them a look and check out the system. It’s the single most versatile luggage strap system out there and it’s incredibly robust, using the same webbing and cam-straps that outfitters use for whitewater rafting trips. You can, quite literally, strap anything to your bike and make it secure. My rack stays on my bike all the time and has proven useful over and over again.

Gear that I was not happy with…

Scrubba Wash Bag

Sadly, there was one piece of gear that I had high hopes for but was sorely disappointed in. The Scrubba Wash Bag claims to be a travel-friendly way to do your laundry on the road. It is supposed to allow you to keep up with your laundry pretty much anywhere as long as you have a little soap and water. Ideal for a trip like this, right?

In theory, yes. But in reality, the quality just didn’t pan out. The dry bag itself, which is supposed to serve as your washing machine, had construction problems and did not hold water. This was a manufacturers defect due to it just being a poor quality bag. Then the valve, which is supposed to allow you to release air so that you can scrub your clothes in the soapy water, popped off the dry bag the first time I tried to use it leaving me with a gaping hole in the side of the bag. I tried to muscle through it and see if I could at least make the scrubbing surface work. So I took the bag into the shower (where the mess wouldn’t matter) and tried to use the bag’s scrubbing mechanism but the rubber backing meant to give you traction on a surface while you scrub didn’t really give me any traction and the bag just slid around on the floor.

In the end, I found it much more efficient to just wash my dirty socks in the hotel sink instead. The bag still functioned as a bag and I was able to use it to store my dirty laundry on the return trip…otherwise though, it was a bust.