Lessons from a moto-gringa’s first journey through Baja and into Mexico


Wow, so many things…..but let me preface this by saying that I am brand new to Mexico travel (this is my first trip on a bike here but I’d been to two different resorts in Mexico on two trips in the past), and I am by no means a good resource. I’m just giving you my perspective in hopes it might help any rider who may be considering travel to Mexico….but please do some homework. This place is amazingly beautiful and worth the ride – and it’s much easier and more comfortable that you think. And above all, IF I CAN DO IT, YOU CAN DO IT.

Bike Trip Mazatlan 2 022
1. never, Never, NEVER ride after dark. There are just too many things going on in Baja that require you to stack all the odds in your favor…that makes riding at night a game of Russian Roulette.

2. Topes (pronounced toe-pays, and see pic above) are speedbumps that are used to get drivers to slow down or be cautious on the road. You can find them at toll booths, just before sharp curves on roads, as you enter and leave small towns, on main streets in most towns, between some lanes even on highways, etc. Sometimes they are just concrete or asphalt speedbumps like we know them in the U.S. and sometimes they are made of rows of shiny metal domes that stick up off the surface of the road. Some are small and others are large and can make your front wheel wobble a bit as you go over. Just be careful of them.

3. Riding is more work here and you have to be alert. There are virtually no shoulders on any of the roads here. The edges of the road just drop off, sometimes as much as 3-4 feet and if you have a flat, go a little wide on a curve, etc. you could be off in an instant. There are sometimes drainage gutters alongside the roadway that are sloped so those aren’t places to pull over. There are sometimes storm drains big enough to swallow a bike and rider whole, and they aren’t contained within guard rails. I road a section of the highway where a barb-wire fence was literally just 2 feet off to the right side of the highway, and there was no shoulder so I could have ridden into it with a strong gust of wind or a wandering mind. The road surfaces are littered with potholes and different textures and ridges. There is a lot of sand and gravel, and you’re better off if you are comfortable with all of it. Most drivers do not actually stop at stop signs, and will drive in your lane and not watch out for you, so always be on the defensive. I’ve been passed by two cars side-by-side on a two lane road as one car wanted to pass me and started to and another got tired of waiting for them to get past me and passed them while they were passing me. Just be careful and alert. Drivers will invade motorcyclists space and you are thought of in some cases as a low man on the totem pole, but at the same time I’ve had some truckers and vehicles give me extra space and respect. I was reminded by a friend who helped me cross into Mexico that pedestrians have no rights, and I will say that it seems to me that if I don’t look out for myself no one else will, even when just crossing a street. I’ve actually had cars speed up as they come toward me and I have had to jump out of the way or hurry across the street to get out of their path. The laws in Mexico work so that pedestrians are not protected and as such have no rights, so look both ways, several times, and do not dilly dally.
Bike Trip Mazatlan 1 047
4. There are lots of animals on the roads and lurking behind every cactus. Cattle, horses, donkeys, goats, etc. Sometimes the shrubs and trees come right up to the edge of the road so you don’t get much warning when something is grazing just off the road. The cows seem pretty road-wise but young calves were easily spooked and were unpredictable.

5. There are lots of places to get gas, but there is a “gas gap” somewhere on the main highway between Ensenada and Guerrero Negro. I don’t know exactly where because I didn’t come down the west side of the peninsula. I came down the east side. But I hear its about 250 miles between stations, so just be sure to work with it. When you do fuel up, I’ve been told to tip the attendants who pump the gas for you, somewhere around 5-10 pesos each time. Minimum wage in Mexico (it’s different in each state) is somewhere around $7.50/DAY…I hope that puts it in proper perspective for everyone. A tip can go a long way and is likely what the attendants live more than on wages.

6. There are free places to camp, and I felt fairly safe doing it at beaches. There are also cheap places to camp and pay just a bit for so that you have access to bathrooms and showers. Just be sure to take all you brought in with you when you go and no more.

7. The locals will turn on a left turn signal on two-lane roads when they think it’s clear for you to pass them. It’s a courtesy of sorts, but still be careful and use your own judgment. And be careful that when you go to make a left turn drivers may think you mean its ok for them to pass you, so watch out that you don’t get hit from behind while trying to make a left-hand turn. I was told to try and pull into the left lane if you can so they know exactly what you mean. Drivers are very aggressive and drive fast and will come out of nowhere and pass you when you may not have even seen them coming. Just be aware. Also, in many cases if you want to make a left turn, local traffic is set up so that you make a right turn and then get in line to cross the street with a stop light instead of turning left on the road you were riding on. I’ve seen this done in New Jersey in the US too and it took me a minute to catch on.

8. They aren’t kidding about not drinking the water, and a lot of locals don’t do it either, including brushing your teeth. But bottled water is inexpensive and everywhere and a lot of restaurants and other places use purificado water now, and sometimes even for their ice.

9. Learn a few words….please. Seriously, I think it goes a LONG way toward breaking the ice and making a local feel more comfortable with practicing their bad English on me if I am not afraid to practice my bad Spanish on them. And somewhere in the middle we make a conversation. Some basics for travel are smart – like numbers, left and right, please and thank you, where is the bathroom, la cuenta por favor (gets you your ticket after a meal because it’s considered rude to bring it to you until you ask for it), cuanto costa (should be cuanto cuesta, but I hear it in Baja as costa….asks how much something costs and don’t be afraid to have them write it down) and many more. Bargain with prices, it’s part of the local life, but in Baja it’s become less widely done because a lot of things are much more Americanized – including the prices unfortunately.

10. Catch sunsets and sunrises as often as you can, especially when there are sporadic clouds in the sky that help reflect and disperse the light so beautifully. Where else in the world can you be so close to the eastern shore and western shore to catch the sun waking up AND ending its day on a water horizon? The mountains, canyons, beaches, rocks and lagoons make for some incredible landscapes.

11. Things to see and do – some I did and others I didn’t know about until it was a little too late…you can check out my blog for details of my trip. Wine country on the northwest side of the peninsula, Salt mine at Guerrero Negro, 3 UNESCO World Heritage sites are here, 2 Pueblos Magicos are here (a list of small villages that are “exceptional” as defined by the Mexico Tourism office), go whale watching in Feb./March and I’ve been told the whale moms will bring their calf up to the small pangas (boats) and let you pet them, surfing culture and places to learn to surf are all over, old missions, great restaurants and bars, all kinds of outdoor activities.
Bike Trip La Paz 036
12. Feed the local dogs when you can and better yet take one home if you can. Beach dogs and Baja dogs are incredible dogs. I’m going to get one as soon as I get a home again. Check out www.bajadogrescue.org for more info.

13. At the risk of sounding like a lecturer, please remember that you are a guest in another country. Please make your own country and citizens proud by respecting the Mexican culture and using your manners. (ie. say please and thank you in their language, smile, share kind words when you can and express your gratitude for English spoken to help you and other things these wonderful people do to help you out because you will find they do it quite often). I almost always nod and say “Hola” or something like that and smile. If someone isn’t a nice person, or something bad happens on your trip, please try to keep it in perspective that it could probably happen anywhere and is only representative of the person you had a bad interaction with, not the whole country.

14. After working in the hospitality industry for 20+ years, I’m also a believer in tipping all the staff who makes my stay more enjoyable, maids, waitstaff, bartenders, etc.

15. I was told, and really appreciated the tip, to cross the border first thing in the morning to allow yourself enough time to fill out paperwork, get over the language barrier, get some cash, etc. and get south of the border at least 50-60 miles if you can. Most of the area around the border isn’t attractive, so you’ll want to get someplace prettier to look at anyway.
Bike Trip La Paz 015
16. Road signs are everywhere and while some have symbols that make sense, most are just words that I decided to translate for myself. Here are some of the more common ones and my take on the meanings, but you should check for yourself and be cautious: Alto – STOP (although you will have guessed this one from the red octagon sign the word is posted on), Disminuye su velocidad = SLOW DOWN, Curva Peligrosa – DANGEROUS CURVE, Tope – SPEEDBUMP, Vado – WATER CROSSING (see photo above – be careful as some have slime on the road although most are dry), Zona de Niebla – FOG AREA, Cruces Escuelar – SCHOOL CROSSING, Cruces Peatones – PEDESTRIAN CROSSING, Guarda su distancia – KEEP YOUR DISTANCE (DO NOT FOLLOW TOO CLOSELY), No maltrate las signales – DO NOT IGNORE SIGNS, Obedezca las senales – OBEY SIGNS, Caseta de Cobro – TOLLBOOTH, Maneje con precaucion – DRIVE CAREFULLY, Proximo retorno – NEXT U-TURN, Poblado proximo – APPROACHING POPULATED AREA, Prohibido el paso a camiones pesados – NO PASSING HEAVY TRUCKS, Conceda a camiones de luces – YIELD TO LIGHT TRUCKS, No pase – NO PASSING, Bienvenidos – WELCOME – Bueno Viaje – SAFE TRAVELS, Use el Cinturon de seguridad – USE YOUR SEATBELT, Solo Carril – ONE LANE, Tramo en reparacion – ROAD CONSTRUCTION (these signs are usually construction orange and easy to spot), Desviacion – DETOUR, No Hay Paso – ROAD CLOSED, Tramo con hielo – ICY ROAD, No rebase con raya continua – DO NOT CROSS THE SOLID LINE, entradas y salinas de camiones – TRUCKS ENTERING AND LEAVING ROAD, Entronque Proximo – JUNCTION APPROACHING

17. Places you might want to go – Tienda – small store, Abarrotes – snack shop, Mini Super – a small grocery with more than just snacks, Super – a more full-size grocery store (and when it says Auto Servicio that means self-serve not that it’s an auto repair shop like I first thought), Birria – sells a spicy Mexican stewed meat and it can be served as tacos or as a plated meal usually so this is another place to eat, Llantera – a tire repair shop, Ferreteria – a hardware store, Taller – a workshop of some kind and the word after will tell you what kind…for example a Taller de neumaticos is also a tire repair shop.

Have fun and enjoy this beautiful country!

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8 comments

  1. Thank you Michelle – I have a lot of Spanish to learn!

  2. Hi Michelle,
    Randy Lamphere from Ronan, MT here. I found your blog in the never ending sporadic search for Squire Lamphere’s father.

    I may have met you in Sturgis in the 80’s at a family reunion. Who’s your dad?

    I’ve read several of your articles and would like to tell you that you do an excellent job! Your trip sounds wonderful and I hope you enjoy every moment of it.

    My email is::randy@bkdoor.com

  3. Hey Michelle. Bruce’s friend Laurie from Winnipeg. Sounds and looks like all is going great on your trip. Good for you. You make it look easy and possible for anyone to go on such an amazing life changing trip. We are still suffering with temps of -20 or so while you are enjoying 70s and 80s. I’m hoping for riding season to start in mid March but its not looking good. Too much snow still around. I guess moving down south is the only way to get longer riding time. Keep up the good work and ride safe.

  4. Thanks so much, Laurie. Wonderful to hear from you. I’ve heard its been a brutal winter in your area and the northern US, and I think of everyone up there all the time. Hoping it warms up soon for you guys so you can get out and enjoy a ride! Take care.

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