“Cabo,” she said.
“WHAT?!” I replied. “Like, Cabo as in Baja? Like, home of the NORRA 500 and 1000 Baja rallies?”
I paused, realizing my excitement might not be shared by my dear wife who had just booked a surprise trip to celebrate our 15-year anniversary. Happy anniversary – Cabo here we come!
As our cattle car with wings made its final descent, I stared out the window at the world below. The crisscrossing dusty roads, lonely rural buildings, rising hills and sandy valley bottoms appeared to run forever. There’s no way I can go home without riding here, I thought.
I have nothing against the excursions run by resorts, but I wasn’t going to get the kind of riding I enjoy from a mainstream organization with large groups or overly restrictive concerns for safety. I wanted the real deal, with a guide who’s got the knowledge and equipment to offer an experience that would feel like I’m at home riding with my buddies.
After a bit of googling, I had come up with a likely contender: bajaride.com. I had reached out to them, and after discussing what type of riding I’ve done and my experience, we had made arrangements for a day trip.
Fab picked me up outside my resort and we headed off to his ranch. In the car, I couldn’t help but notice the large air cast on Fab’s left leg. He explained that he had been struck by a car on his way back from a ride. “But there’s nothing to worry about. Your ride will be very safe,” he assured me. I hoped not TOO safe.
After pulling into his compound, Fab introduced me to Eric, who would be my guide for the day, and showed me the CRF450Xs we would be riding. They were kitted out with large tanks and were clean and well maintained. As he was going over the bike, Eric asked what type of riding I like to do.
“Como se dice ‘full throttle’ en espanol?” I asked.
He grinned. “MUY BUENO!”
As I got my gear on, the anticipation and the temperature were rising. This was going to be a great day.
As Eric and I left the compound, the broad desert valley was level and sandy, and dusty dirt roads seemed to head off in all directions. Eric turned from one to another, picking up speed, as I drafted close to his back tire. Soon I was in the top gear, the wind whipping my jersey and the blat of the engine in my ears. Before long, the sand gave way to small hills with more defined gravel roads. The roads, littered with cow droppings and hedged in by thick dry brush, wound through people’s front yards. Clusters of cattle and an occasional horse eyed us suspiciously as we drove past, no fences to pen any of us in.
We came to a small community made up of a few scattered houses, a desperate-looking soccer field and a small store. Eric bought us a couple bottles of water and some homemade burritos. We had a bit of a break, and Eric chatted with the shopkeeper. Oblivious to their conversation, a wormy-looking dog wetted on a patch of weeds, eyeing my burritos enviously. Off in the distance, the mountains stood blueish and silent.
We left the village through the soccer field, picking up speed and altitude as we headed towards the mountains. Eric seemed to have the sense of direction and velocity of a cruise missile. Small roads and trails forked off occasionally, punctuated by small metal signs, rusty and sandblasted by weather, indicating family ranches.
Higher and higher we went into the rugged sandstone hills, occasionally dropping down into an arroyo, only to climb back out higher than before. Cactuses of all sizes lined the trail, their limbs pointing skywards. Gradually, the vegetation thinned and the terrain became steep and stony, with scrub brush tenaciously clinging to the hillsides. We came to the summit of our ride, and I surveyed the dirt road that snaked its way along the top of the ridge for several miles, with a vertical drop off either side falling hundreds of feet straight down to narrow little canyons below.
We began to descend and the once-arid air became thick with the smell of ocean salt. The narrow double-track opened up into a gravel road, and the Sea of Cortez lay before us, beachfront houses sparsely dotting the shoreline. We raced towards the water, turquoise-green and tranquil. The road led us into Cabo Pulmo, huddled between the gentle waves and the windblown sandstone hills. A small entourage of dogs briefly gave chase as we drove into town.
We parked our bikes at a small seaside cantina. Eric explained that the restaurant wasn’t open yet, but would be in “about 20 minutes.” A small explanation about how time works in Mexico: It’s sort of like dog years, where one human year equals seven dog years, but instead one Mexican minute equals seven Canadian minutes. “Twenty minutes” stretched into over an hour, and as I cooled off in the shade, looking out at the water, I couldn’t imagine anywhere else in the world I’d rather be and hoped that time would stand still.
Cabo Pulmo was once a small fishing village, it’s life blood the abundance of sea animals that provided the main source of employment and industry through sport and commercial fishing. In 1995, the Mexican government designated the area a protected marine park, making a sanctuary for its coral reefs, 226 species of fish and 154 species of marine invertebrates, as well as the local sea turtles, whales, sharks and colony of sea lions.
Cabo Pulmo is quickly becoming a bucket-list destination for diving and snorkeling due to its clean, healthy reefs and friendly locals. Quick with a smile or an offer to take a picture, everyone in town seems to have a joie de vivre you don’t encounter in the daily grind most of us are accustomed to.
The cantina eventually opened its doors, and as we ordered, a gentle breeze ruffled the table cloth, and the waves beat the rocks on the shore while some kids swam in the surf. Music tumbled out of the speaker in the cantina’s corner, and a few regulars made their way in, offering kisses or throwing high fives to the staff. Someone made a joke I couldn’t interpret, eliciting an eruption of laughter from an adjacent table. As our lunch arrived, I had two very clear thoughts: One, this food looks amazing, and two, what the hell am I doing living where it’s frozen half the year when I could be here?
As we munched on our fish tacos, Eric and I had a few minutes to talk about our different riding experiences, and I was reminded of the incredible connection among riders that allows two total strangers from entirely different backgrounds to hit it off so well. Eric told me about his family, his wife and his two young kids, and how for a number of years he has been supporting his family by trail-guiding full-time.
It was at this point I began to seriously question my own career choices. This guy lives in paradise and gets paid to ride dirt bikes every day? I felt cheated by my high school guidance counselor for never presenting this as an option – if he had I’m certain I would have done a few things differently.
We finished up lunch, settled our tab and got geared up for the ride home. Eric offered two choices: We could take the coast route, which was fast and flat, or we could go back through the mountains. “MOUNTAINS!” I said.
“Bueno,” he replied, and away we went.
As soon as we were out of town, Eric once again resumed his pace, the pace I’d requested, which I like to refer to as “Bank Heist Getaway Driver Speed.”
We retraced our path back up to the top of the mountains, where we stopped for a quick break and a picture, bidding goodbye to the Sea of Cortez. Eric explained that the area, despite looking so barren and desolate, was home to a variety of snakes, spiders, small rodents as well as lynxes and pumas.
Not long after we had begun to descend again, Eric motioned for a turn, and we swung off the track and climbed down into an arroyo. The arroyo snaked left and right, and the sand was as loose and bottomless as a politician’s promises around election time. It felt like riding on meringue. “What would Barry Morris do?” I asked myself, and not finding an immediate answer, I did what I usually do, opened the throttle and gave it another gear.
Left and right, we followed the sandy ribbon, which was scattered with trees and clumps of brush we had to slalom our way around. Through yards with cattle, goats and an occasional rider mounted on horseback, we continued to power the Hondas through the sand. The wash gradually widened until it became a valley, and as we raced along, a low-flying jet buzzed overhead, making its approach for landing. We raced along, dodging the brush and bushes, leaning back heavy on the rear tire, trying to maximize traction.
Looking at my nearly empty fuel tank, I realized my fun had to be drawing to a close, and a brief series of spluttering backfires confirmed my suspicions. I reached down flipped it onto reserve, and after it had cured itself of its coughing fit, I goosed the throttle. Unfortunately, there was no getting away from the fact I was back in the compound’s neighborhood.
I replayed the day in my mind, with the stunning scenery and miles of sandstone hills as we crossed the twelfth-largest peninsula in the world. With the friendly, resolute people, cactus groves and ranchos, all with their roots and boots in the dust, it’s no wonder that the Baja captures so many people’s imaginations. This IS really one of the few remaining places on Earth where you can experience the kind of ultimate freedom that most of us riders dream about. There are no warning signs, fences or posted speed limits. No license plates, safety committees or fun-police. The pipes are loud, the bikes are fast and the trails spiderweb out into the horizon forever. This is Baja, and I can’t wait to go back.
Misguided by his guidance counsellor.