They say not to ride your motorcycle after dark in Baja. It’s good advice if you want to avoid crashing into a burro, a cow, a car without lights, or a kid on a bike.
My riding partner, Dave Creech, and I like to avoid crashing and we had every intention of finding a motel and parking the bikes long before sunset. Then dinner and beers a few minutes later and a short walk away.
But 40 miles of dirt road to get a private tour of a 300 year-old mission from a girl who was born there had delayed our arrival in Bahia de Los Angeles. In 1500 miles of travel, we’d had no problem rolling into just about any little town in Baja, finding an acceptable motel for a few dollars, with tacos and cervezas right nearby. Tonight would be the outlier on the scatterplot.
We spent the next hour or so riding up and down the main street of Bahia de LA to find that motel rooms were in short supply due to some sort of “government meeting” that was expected to bring throngs of overnight visitors to the sleepy little fishing village on the Sea of Cortez. Then we rode the dirt side streets, dodging territorial dogs in the darkness, to find more of the same. We did find a few rooms available but the rates were twice or more what we had grown accustomed to spending. After mentally recalibrating our room-rate meter we would gladly have spent the extra money. Except we hadn’t brought enough cash with us this day.
Bahia de Los Angeles has no mobile-phone service, none of the businesses accept credit cards, and there is no bank. So we couldn’t Google around to find a room, an ATM, or a way to avoid spending all of our cash before leaving town the next morning. Besides a place to stay, we also needed to buy enough fuel to get us the 185 miles north to the next Pemex station on Mex 1, in El Rosario. We knew we would pass a couple of guys selling gas from barrels on the side of the road, but they don’t take credit cards either.
We did eventually find a decent motel just outside of town that we could afford with a few pesos left over for something to eat, two tanks of gas, and even a couple of beers. We had earned those.
We rode out the next morning without the benefit of breakfast—or even coffee—into the twisty roads, emptiness, and the giant cardón cactus of the Vizcaíno Desert. Somewhere around Chapala, we pulled off on the side of the road to get a break from the cold wind, stretch our legs, and eat the last of the tortillas we had watched three friendly and entertaining ladies make two days earlier in San Ignacio. Pannier tortillas. Adventure tortillas.
We passed the wide spot in the road where a bus driver used a red shop towel to wave us down on our southbound leg, a week earlier. Most of the men from the bus were gathered around the driver, all of them trying to explain to us what help they needed. We spoke only a few words of Spanish and understood fewer still. The women and children from the bus stayed to themselves, wandering around in the scrub brush, looking at rocks? other peoples’ debris? who knew what? to keep themselves occupied until, eventually, the bus would be working again and they could get to wherever they were going. No one spoke any English. And no one seemed to be panicking or even moderately agitated.
The bus driver held an empty plastic soda bottle and pointed to the fuel tanks on our motorcycles. He seemed to be asking us for a few ounces of gasoline. We knew that we must be seriously misinterpreting what he was trying to say. His bus runs on diesel fuel. How would gasoline help, and even if it did, what good would a soda bottle’s worth do? Clearly, we did not understand the problem or how we might be able to help.
The engine cover at the rear of the bus was propped open. The bus driver and the other men clearly understood that we did not understand what they needed. I pointed to the rear of the bus and the driver, several of the other men, and I walked to it then peered into the engine compartment. I know next to nothing about diesel engines and even less about busses. There were a few tools scattered around and it was clear that the driver had been working on the engine for some time. Whatever parts he had removed and cleaned or adjusted were now back in their places on the big diesel motor, with the exception of a large black plastic tube that I recognized as some component of the air intake system.
I shrugged my shoulders in an exaggerated manner to show that I still didn’t understand the problem. The driver shrugged his shoulders in response to show that he knew I was not a diesel mechanic. Then he pointed to a place where it looked like the air intake tube might mount, gestured with the plastic soda bottle as if pouring fuel into the motor, pointed to a big pulley on the engine, made a mechanical noise with his mouth that sounded surprisingly like a diesel engine starting, and waved his finger at the pulley as if it were rotating. He was telling me that he planned to use a few ounces of gasoline to re-start his diesel engine after completing whatever repairs it had needed that day on the side of the road in the middle of the Vizcaíno Desert.
We walked back to the bikes and I explained to Dave that our bus driver friend was correct. All he needed from us was a soda bottle’s worth of the gasoline from our motorcycle fuel tanks. And we weren’t sure we could give it to him.
Mexico’s Highway One runs nearly 1000 miles from Tijuana, at the border with the US, to Los Cabos at the tip of the Baja peninsula. The longest stretch without seeing a gas station is the 225 miles between El Rosario and Guerrero Negro.
Coincidentally, that distance is also just about the safe fuel range of the Kawasaki KLR650 motorcycles we were riding on this trip. That’s when they are in good running order, not overloaded, and not being ridden for hours into strong desert headwinds while simultaneously climbing from sea level into the mountains. That last bit is what we had seen for most of the day. We had been concerned about having enough fuel to ride this stretch of road with any kind of margin for error in case things went poorly for us.
We had already passed through Cataviña, where there is almost always a local guy selling gasoline out of plastic containers to travelers who are not sure their vehicles can get them to the next Pemex station. Travelers like us. We had stopped at his roadside stand and bought five liters of fuel. That should have been enough to give us about 50 miles of additional range and alleviate the stress of not knowing if we would make it to the gas station in Guerrero Negro. It would have been if we had bought five liters for each bike. But I was tired, a little dehydrated, and really not at the top of my game. So I allowed myself to get caught up in the confusion of trying to mentally convert liters to gallons, dollars to pesos, and Spanish to English, all while trying to avoid paying an exorbitant price for fuel of unknown quality. I screwed up badly on the quantity part of the deal and we ended up buying a total of five liters of fuel for the two bikes. Which we didn’t figure out until we were many miles down the road. Actually, right before we happened upon the bus load of local folks that only needed a soda bottle’s worth of our dubious fuel supply to get back to their own travels. So instead of a comfortable extra 50 miles of fuel range we only had perhaps 25 miles. Which might or might not be enough.
And these folks needed some of our gasoline.
We decided to give it to them and take our chances later on down the road.
Five minutes later we were reattaching the fuel line to the underside of the gas tank on Dave’s bike. I had cleverly managed to remember that the extra-sturdy hose clamps on my motorcycle made it much more difficult to remove and reattach my own fuel lines. And that if we ran short of fuel it would be on Dave’s bike first while mine would still be good for another ten miles or so. The bus driver trotted to the back of his bus quickly so as to avoid the gasoline melting through the plastic soda bottle before he could pour it into the motor. As we finished our work and put our own tools away we heard the bus engine start up, making almost exactly the same noise the driver had used to help me understand how we could help.
We shook hands all around, said adios, and rode south toward Guerrero Negro. Long before we got there, we pulled off on the side of the road. There was a guy selling gasoline out of the back of a pickup, where we didn’t expect to find one. He filled our tanks, took our money, and we rolled past the Pemex station on the outskirts of Guerrero Negro without even stopping.
Headed back north from Bahia de Los Angeles a week later we again passed both of the roadside pickup-truck-cash-only fuel stations. This time we were sure we could make it to the next gas station in El Rosario. Our only real worry was whether or not that station took credit cards. If not, it would be another nerve-wracking ride further into San Quintín, where we knew we could find a bank, an ATM, or a gas station that didn’t require cash. And although the roadside tortilla breakfast was delicious, it was less than fulfilling. We were tired, hungry, and caffeine-deprived when we rolled through El Rosario.
There was a big fiesta in the streets as we rode through town. A holiday celebrating Dia de la Revolucion, we learned later. Music, flags, stands selling things, kids in their school uniforms, the smells of food cooking. Mexicans love a good street party. We approached a Policia Federale patrol car with its red and blue lights flashing, the officer standing nearby. He smiled and waved us ahead. He was only there to slow traffic to protect all the people walking on the roadside. Some of them waved at us. We stood up on the foot pegs and waved back.
And in a moment we had arrived at the Pemex station. “¿Credito?” Dave asked the curvy young gas pump attendant in the green Pemex coveralls and bright pink lipstick.
“Si, credito.” She had said the magic words and suddenly, everything was good again. I asked her, in English, about the big street fiesta we had just ridden through. She said something in Spanish that I didn’t literally understand but took to mean that if we were better informed we would know this was such an important holiday and we wouldn’t embarrass ourselves by asking about it. Then I attempted a weak joke saying we thought the fiesta might be to celebrate our arrival and death-defying transit of the Vizcaíno Desert. “No,” she said, very matter of factly. And then “Es todo bien,” with a big smile.
“Yes,” I agreed. It’s all good.
Photos courtesy of David Creech.