Last week I was hanging out with Ryan Millen talking about his upcoming Baja 1000 race. We were reminiscing about previous trips south of the border and how we both missed the endless dirt roads, fantastic food, and the Baja experience. Ryan made a comment about how we should go down there that weekend because he needed to do a scouting run for an upcoming Baja Banditios trip. That was all he needed to say. I cleared my schedule and two days later we were headed to Mexico.
The basic plan was to trailer his Polaris down to Tecate, then head south in the RZR from there. Ryan had some routes he wanted to test out as well as check the road conditions. Things can quickly change in Baja between race seasons, recent storms, and the general unpredictability of it all. After wrapping things up on Friday, I headed south in unusually bad Southern California rush hour traffic. I finally made it to Ryan’s house a couple of hours behind schedule. Typically this wouldn’t be an issue as we’re officially “on vacation” at this point, but we had to make the Mexican border before it closed.
We crossed over into Tecate with only a few minutes to spare. We can all agree that border towns, especially at night, are nobody’s idea of a good time. We quickly gassed up at the local PEMEX and made a beeline out-of-town. The plan was to stay in a cabin at Rancho Ojai, a rustic campground just east of town. However, when we arrived at the front gate, the security guard said the office was closed for the night and if we wanted to stay, it was camping only. I can camp with the best of them – when I’ve packed the proper gear. Neither one of us had brought anything more than a sleeping bag and a change of clothes since we knew we were traveling light in the RZR. After reviewing the game plan for the next day and a tallboy Modelo, Ryan cozied up on the hard ground while I opted for the front seat of the truck. Lulled to sleep by the neighboring campers with an eclectic mix of Metallica, Journey, and mariachi music; I think the DJ might have had a bit too much tequila that night. Even with the occasional howl of the coyotes and the security guard taking a hot lap in his golf cart every hour, I slept great and was excited for the next day.
Daybreak came early and we started getting ready for the real adventure. You’d be hard pressed to find many places we’re you can set out on a 300+ mile journey in a UTV that includes both dirt roads and highways. We pulled the RZR off the trailer, packed up our gear, checked in at the office, and said goodbye to Rancho Ojai. The first leg of the trip would take us down the Compadre Trail to Ojos Negros. It’s a long stretch of dirt road that winds through farms, ranches, and a couple small communities (think three or four houses together). The road varies from nice and grated smooth dirt to moderately washed out with pockets of sand and gravel. While it could be slow going for your typically 4×4 or pickup truck, the RZR made short work of it! We hit 60+ mph on some of the straightaways and even caught a little air from time to time.
If you’ve ever been to Ojos Negros, you know there isn’t really much there. We took a couple of laps around the main square looking for something to eat, but since it was early the town was just waking up and most of the businesses hadn’t even opened for the day yet. We agreed to push on and eat later when we got to our next stop. Ryan decided it would be a good idea to top off the tank so we headed to the PEMEX on the highway. I use the term highway loosely. If you haven’t been to Baja, a highway can consist of a paved road with one lane heading each direction. In order to get to the PEMEX you have to pass through the military checkpoint. We exchanged pleasantries with the guard who asked if we were there to recreate the Baja 1000 experience. We told him our route, everyone smiled, and we proceeded down the road to get gas. The funny thing about this particular PEMEX is that you have to go back through the same military check point in the opposite direction to get on the road heading south.
With Ojos Negros behind us, we blasted south towards Tres Hermanos. If you’ve ever watched any Baja 1000 coverage or been down to the race, you know about “the jump” south of Ojos. After the road takes a wicked right turn that seems like it’s almost doubling back on itself, there is a perfect hill to send your UTV, dirt bike, trophy truck, or passenger car into orbit. Ryan gave me the heads up, powered down, and we had liftoff. The Polaris landed smoothly, much smoother than I had anticipated, and I had a smile on my face so wide that it would have stretched all the way from the Pacific to the Sea of Cortez. The road we were on is by far some of the best off-road driving in Baja. Frequently used in the 1000 race, it mixes straight sections with wide banking turn and deep whoops with pockets of sand and loose gravel. If you love to drive fast in the dirt, it’s something you need to experience for yourself!
After miles and miles of backroads, we made our way out to Highway 1 near Uruapan. From there we headed south to Santo Tomas. We topped off the fuel in the RZR at the PEMEX and decided to grab a bite to eat at the restaurant attached to the gas station. The place was empty and I think we were the first customers of the day. At this point I has pretty hungry and just about everything looked great on the menu. I opted for the fish tacos, a cold beer, and washed it down with an ice-cold Mexican Coke. From the fresh tortillas they made just for our meal to the incredible guacamole that had hints of lime and onion, the food was incredible. At that moment, I was in heaven. I felt a thousand miles away from home and didn’t have a care in the world. Well, I take that back. I was ready to hit the coast and feel the sea breeze on my face. After settling up the bill and slapping a couple of MOTUS stickers on the stickered up window, we jumped back in the RZR and continued on.
Just south of Santo Tomas we turned west on a dirt road that took us out to the coast. As we zigzagged between ranches and wide open land, you could feel the temperature drop a few degrees and the cool breeze kick up. The air smelled fresh and had that crispness you only get when you’re near the water. It’s amazing traveling in an open air vehicle, much like a motorcycle, as the olfactory senses are in overdrive while you’re traveling. It just isn’t the same experience when you’re in a truck or a car.
We finally crested a hill and you could see the Pacific off in the distance. When the dirt road finally made it to the coast, we passed a small dirt road that went down to the beach. Ryan and I both looked at each other, smiled, and instantly knew what the other one was thinking: it was time to turn the RZR loose in the sand! We quickly cut across the soft, loose sand and made it to the hard packed sand next to the water. Ryan punched it and we flew down the beach. The waves were crashing just feet from the Polaris, the breeze was in full effect, and it was incredible!
After we had our fun, we got back on the dirt road and continued south to our final destination for the day: Coyote Cal’s. Coyote Cal’s is a cool little hostel right across the road from the beach. With a full bar, clean beds and hot showers, it’s the perfect place to stay after a long day on the road. Rick and his wife were very friendly and showed us great hospitality. We checked in, got assigned a couple of bunk beds, and headed to the bar.
After relaxing for a bit with an ice-cold bucket of beers, we headed down to the beach. The coastline in Baja is different from any other coast I’ve ever seen. While there are miles and miles of beautiful sandy beaches, the area we were in is best described as where the desert falls off into the ocean. That being said, there is something magical about its rugged beauty. After awhile we headed back to the hostel as I had an important item on my agenda, a nap. I awoke a couple of hours later to the sounds of laughing and people talking. I had left the door to the room open and could hear some new arrivals in the courtyard bar. Having never stayed at a hostel before, I was interested to see what other people we’d meet with while were there. A new group had recently arrived and were getting settled in. They’d been surfing their way up and down the Baja coast. The night before had been a bit windy so they wanted to spend the night out of the elements. We shared some beers, traded adventures stories, and spent the next couple hours hanging out and having a great time.
Later that afternoon, while sitting at the bar with another couple from California that had been down in Baja for the past week, a man walked in wearing riding pants and motorcycle boots. His hair was all over the place and his long beard dusty from whatever ride he had just finished. I asked him if he wanted a beer. He said he did, thanked me, and then I asked him where he was from. “Spain”, he replied. Okay, this just got interesting. I then asked him where he was headed. He said, “Argentina.” Polo, who had just traveled thousands of miles across the United States and Canada, had shipped his Triumph to Miami from Madrid and was on his great adventure to see the world. We invited him to join us and we spent the next couple hours sharing stories, laughing, and looking at the photos he’d taken so far on his trip. It was the perfect ending to an already incredible day.
The next morning we got up early as we had a lot of ground to cover before heading back to Rancho Ojai to get the truck. I wasn’t moving as fast as I’d like to as the buckets of beer and spicy fish tacos had caught up with me sometime in the middle of the night. I was definitely not operating at full capacity, but I had a smile on my face as I knew we had 100+ miles of off-road driving ahead of us through some of the most beautiful scenery in the world. We said goodbye to our new friends we had met the night before, exchanged contact information with Polo, and set off on the next leg of the adventure.
We drove south along the Pacific coast and first twenty to thirty miles of the day were one of my favorite parts of the trip. The view was incredible, the road was fun to drive, and I had this incredible feeling of freedom. There was no one around for miles and miles and we had the entire place to ourselves. As we made our way back inland towards Highway 1 so we could head north, we met what some consider one of the most brutal sections of the Baja 1000 race course. It was washed out, rutted, and with whoops that would swallow a passenger car. You find yourself questioning how anyone could ever consider this a road, yet alone race through it at another faster than 10 miles per hour. One thing is for certain though. Too many beers the night before and big whoops can be uncomfortable. For a solid half hour I felt like someone had jimmied up a lawnmower motor to a rocking chair at it was going at full throttle. As we got closer to Colonet, the road smoothed out and we made up some time. We jumped back on the highway and headed north. After about forty minutes on the highway (keep in mind we’re in a RZR doing 60+ mph and would be arrested within minutes stateside), we headed east down a dirt road to eat lunch at one of Ryan’s favorite tacos shops in all of Mexico – Ernesto’s in Valle de la Trinidad.
The road to Valle de la Trinidad, or “Valley T” as many call it, zig zags through the mountains with a lot of switchbacks and scenic vistas. We stopped at the summit to refill the tank of the RZR using the jerry can we had with us. The view was incredible and it was amazing that for as far as the eye could see in any direction there wasn’t a building, vehicle, or person in sight. One of the things I love most about Baja is because of its remote nature and lack of infrastructure, the skyline isn’t littered with houses, hotels, or golf courses. It’s wild and natural just as it has been for thousands of years. We finished our trek into town and went to Ernesto’s. Sadly, it was closed so we had to find another option. We found a small place named Mi Pueblito. The food was great and it was the perfect place to take a break from the road. Over lunch we reviewed the route back to Tecate, checked in with our families, and started talking about our next Baja adventure because sadly this one was coming to an end.
We had a short drive back to Ojos Negros on the highway, then took the Compadre Trail back to Rancho Ojai. When we arrived at Rancho Ojai, we loaded up the RZR on the trailer, and made a dash for the border before it got too backed up. It was Sunday afternoon after all. To our chagrin, the line was already longer than usual and we knew we were in for a wait. We each took a guess at how long it was going to be given the line of cars in front of us. Ryan said two and a half hours while I guessed three. It ended up being three and half.
While sitting in your car for three and half hours may sound like an eternity, you do get to pass the time with I like to call the “Border Buffet.” Scores of vendors walk up and down the aisles between the cars selling everything from tamales and popsicles to ponchos and sombreros. Ryan went for the chicken tamales while I tried the pork. They were fantastic! We washed them down with a frosty Coke and decided to have some fresh churros for desert. I also picked up some fresh tortillas for the week.
After crossing the border, we made our way back to Ryan’s house. For the rest of the drive we talked about what an awesome trip we just had and started thinking about when we could do it again. While I could have easily stayed for another week down in Baja, it was just the right amount of time to unplug and reboot the system. If you’ve never been to Baja, I highly recommend it. It’s an incredible place that features thousands of miles of back roads, friendly people, and offers the perfect escape from the craziness of our daily lives.