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.
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?”
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.
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.
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 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.
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.