They say never to ride a motorcycle through Baja at night. But, following a hurricane that wiped out much of its east coast, sometimes needs must.
The trip computer on my GPS told me that we had less than 45 minutes until the sun set. We had departed Catavina (a desolate town in the middle of what can only be described as a desert oasis) earlier that afternoon. We were looking forward to a few days in yet another isolated area, this time on the eastern side of the Baja peninsula. However, what awaited us was beyond anything we might have imaged. With less than an hour to plan and execute our escape, Kyra, my father and I mulled over our options, stopped for fuel and hit the highway headed inland… again.
We knew there wasn't going to be much in Bahia de Los Angeles: a handful of hotels, maybe a few restaurants, hopefully a gas station and a mini-mart. We had planned for this, having rented a room at an ocean-side villa for two nights before we would ride further south toward Guerrero Negro. The highway south of Catavina was much like what we'd encountered elsewhere: rough, narrow, dotted with potholes and debris. But Highway 12 which takes you east across the peninsula was a different story. The first 64km/h was nothing but fresh blacktop winding its way up and over mountains and running parallel to what appeared to be a dry riverbed. As we approached town, however, the road conditions became increasingly worse. Whole sections of the highway were missing, washed away by a hurricane that had passed through a month prior. Signs directed us around sections that were seemingly impassible, re-routing us onto impromptu gravel roads that had been cut only weeks earlier. We rode through all of this without consideration for what might lie ahead, wholly unaware of the devastation caused by the aforementioned hurricane.
Bahia de Los Angeles is a coastal bay on the Sea of Cortez surrounded by 16 islands. According to the internet, prior to the highway being paved, Bahia de Los Angeles was known as a transit point for drugs making their way into the United States. In 2007, power lines from Guerrero Negro were brought in, ending a reliance on diesel generators. Known for sport fishing and other aquatic activities, the town has fallen upon hard times in the last few years as overfishing and a decline in tourism has made it difficult for residents to support themselves.
As we rode the last few miles into town, fighting severe side winds and hundreds of small insects, both the devastation caused by the hurricane and the decline in the economy became increasingly obvious. Where there were once roads, there was now sand -- lots of it. Structural foundations sans roofs, sides, windows or doors stood as evidence that something serious had happened. A ghost town by most measures. We passed beneath a tall monument, took the third turn in a large roundabout, and followed the GPS toward our villa.
Sand lined the streets, leaving only a small sliver of pavement available to our tires. The homes that had survived the hurricane stood as testament to just how bad it must have been. Cars parked out front sat buried beneath a few feet of sand. Gravel roads that once took residents to their homes were now covered in the same sand we'd soon endure. All of this, by the way, went somewhat unnoticed by the three of us -- confused as to why a town so devastated, or perhaps abandoned, would have been recommended to us by (numerous) people who had passed through this part of Baja. We had no idea the hurricane had made it this far north, nor were we aware of the damage it had done. As we rode through the remnants, the GPS lead us out of what could be considered "downtown" and toward the ocean.
Directing us to what seemed like nothing more than a large stretch of sand with houses in the distance, the GPS was not wrong, merely unaware of what had happened. We took the turn and headed east toward the ocean, riding along a section of sand so deep our bikes bucked and wandered at every opportunity. I can only imagine this was once a gravel road that would have made all of the homes and villas at its end easily accessible. But today, this road was nothing short of a beach two, maybe three, feet deep in some parts. I rode out ahead, my father and Kyra following. The GPS told us to turn right and ride parallel to the ocean for what felt like forever. Another sign -- this one with a big wood fist and finger -- pointed us toward our villa. As we approached, it became apparent that we were the only travellers that had been there for quite some time…
Bugs! That's the word I'll use to describe what happened next. Also, poop. Or perhaps I should say the smell of an overflowing septic system. As soon as we stopped in front of our villa, a swarm of mosquitoes and other small insects engulfed us. An older Mexican man came out from inside one of the rooms, seemingly surprised at our arrival as well as our intention to rent a room. Kyra spoke quickly, wandering into an "office." While we waited, my father and I stepped into the room we were supposed to be renting. Light fixtures dangled from electrical wires. Single beds had been pushed together to make wider sleeping spaces. Worse yet, the smell of an overflowing septic tank overwhelmed our senses. Flies swarmed the attached outdoor "kitchen." Concerned, we went looking for Kyra. We poked our heads in a few other rooms before wandering our way around the property. Posted on the patio near the water (cleaning their M-16's) were ten or twelve members of the Mexican military. Equally as confused at our arrival as the owner of this establishment was, I asked if they'd seen a small woman wander by. Two of them pointed upstairs, one toward the room we'd just walked out of. Figures. Moments later Kyra came 'round the corner, having spent the last ten minutes negotiating with the owner regarding our room. It didn't look good.
As I mentioned earlier, Bahia de Los Angeles sits at the end of a long stretch of highway, otherwise disconnected from the well traveled bits of Baja. Supplies, food, fuel and construction equipment are hard to come by. The wind and rain that wrecked this region made it nearly impossible for people to repair the damage that had been done. Roads ruined. Communication equipment inoperable. Etc. Our decision to depart stemmed from a few facts: food would be hard to find, running water was unlikely and the availability of accommodations free of feces and a foot of sand seemed equally unlikely. But which way would we go? South toward Guerrero Negro -- a larger town where we planned to stay after Bahia -- or back to Catavina to the tiny hotel frequented by Baja 1000 race teams and weary travellers?
Before we rode into Baja, we asked a lot of people about their experiences on the peninsula. One thing resonated amongst all those asked: Whatever you do, don't ride at night! The highways that criss-cross Baja are notoriously dangerous, owned (especially after dark) by the semi-trucks that make their way from Ensenada to La Paz and back. It is not uncommon to enter a blind corner only to find the front-end of a Freightliner coming at you, passing some slow moving Señor in the oncoming lane… uphill… at 113km/h. The decision to ride with a little less than an hour of daylight remaining was a foolish one. But we were out of options. Our villa was a wreck and the owner was entirely unprepared for our arrival. Had we packed camping equipment as per our initial plan, none of this would have been a problem. But we didn't. So an escape was in order.
Our departure from the villa was just as interesting as the ride in. Sand is exciting! Once we hit what little pavement was available, we headed into town to find fuel. A small pickup truck passed us with two kids sitting in the bed wearing Halloween masks. I managed to snap a photo before they disappeared into the distance. At the gas station, another truck, this one loaded with kids in costumes, pulled in. We were soon surrounded by a dozen demons, ghouls and ghosts demanding candy… or cash?! Luckily I had a Werther's Original in the front pocket of my riding coat. Kyra calls me a "geriatric" for eating them, and tells me I'll lose my teeth. But they're a vice. One of many.
After filling our tanks with fuel, we hit the highway headed for Catavina. The next few hours were frightening, to say the least. The side winds we'd encountered on our way into Bahia had increased exponentially and were throwing Kyra across the highway with every gust.
The sun, which would set shortly, sat right in our line of sight making it nearly impossible to see. And once it did set -- leaving us in absolute darkness, the sky sprinkled with but a few stars -- we travelled at 72km/h in as close a formation as we could manage for what seemed like an eternity. Hours passed. The glow from our hotel beckoned us, sitting on the horizon for miles before our arrival. Tequila and two rooms ended our Road Warrior-esque adventure. Our advice: Whatever you do, don't ride at night!
About the Author: Justin W. Coffey is the co-owner of Kook Stack, a multi-platform digital marketing and social media agency, and is the author of the Peanut Butter Coast, a travelogue about surfing and the Pacific Northwest. Justin and his girlfriend Kyra are in the midst of a month long motorcycle trip to Mexico in order to document the 47th annual Baja 1000.
You can learn more about their adventure here: http://www.WESTx1000.com