Biking the Baja Peninsula: “The Baja Boys” Return 38 Years Later
By Dennis Lid
Back in 1971 it was a lot easier – the trip, that is. Tom Cullen was a good deal younger then, and it was the first time that he made a motorcycle trip down the Baja Peninsula with a friend named Gailerd Smith. Tom was 38 years old; Gailerd was 40. The two were hard-working businessmen looking for an escape. Their motive for going on the odyssey to Baja by motorcycle was simply to unwind, and the dirt-bike trip provided a means of stress relief.
The two middle-aged businessmen would have no need of a physician with the therapy this adventure would provide. Eleven days under a cloudless blue sky beneath the Mexican sun running across the desert terrain on their off-road dirt bikes was just the right tonic for the stress relief desired.
Add to all of this the pleasure of dallying with the delightfully laid-back Mexican people in the mystique of their own country and culture on a motorcycle adventure and the package was complete. What more could they possibly want?
The answer to that question for Tom Cullen was a second journey down the Baja Peninsula 38 years later. He made that second trip during 2009 with another old friend, Julius Domotor, and two younger fellows – his son, Chris Cullen, and buddy Jeff Sewell. These four constituted Team Baja. This, then, is the story of Team Baja’s ‘09 trek with flashbacks to Tom’s first trip in ‘71 and the effect of the passing years on his second sojourn.
The second trip to Baja had pretty much the same purpose as the first – to unwind and have fun. Team Baja’s younger members actually started their trek in San Francisco, California, then linked up with the two more mature members in Indio and proceeded across the Mexican border at East Calexico on April 5. The team of four then acquired visitors’ permits, circumvented the city of Mexicali and spent the rest of the day on a long, straight and boring ride to San Filipe along Mexico Highway 5.
At the end of the day, Team Baja arrived at their first night’s accommodations – Hacienda Don Jesus in San Filipe. They topped-off their gas tanks with 91-octane Pemex premium and enjoyed dinner at a local restaurant called the Malecon. Their first day’s mileage from Indio was 246.2. All went well on this first leg of the trip, even with the dull, straight line of desert travel with knobby tires on a hard-surfaced road. The next day’s travel would be more interesting and enjoyable, as it was to follow the Baja seacoast.
The first journey in 1971 took 11 days and covered about 850 miles down the Baja Peninsula; the second trip during 2009 ran for 14 days and traversed about 1,714 total miles. The greater duration and distance are probably directly attributable to the influence of the younger men of the team. Their “gusto” and energy were the primary driving forces that pushed the limits of the team’s endurance to the edge.
It took a toll in the form of wear-and-tear on the entire team though – especially on the more mature members. Tom’s experience on the first trip tempered Team Baja’s exploits on the second trek somewhat, but not completely. He knew where the pitfalls were and what to be wary of during the second trip.
Improved technology in the form of a Spot Fix device, providing general location and e-mail capability, and a GPS instrument, which determines ones exact location, helped preclude communication and navigation problems. But even Tom’s experience, lessons learned from the first trip and new technology could not prevent some of the mishaps that were to occur on this second trip.
A local bank visit to exchange American dollars for Mexican pesos started the next day’s activities. After that and some breakfast, Team Baja headed south through the mountains and along the coast of the Sea of Cortez taking note of the beautiful vistas, numerous camps on shore and the islands offshore.
They stopped at the Valle de Gigantes south of Puertocitos, where the hard-top road ends and the dirt track begins, to view the world’s largest cacti called “Cordon” of the “Suhuaro” flora family. This diversion and others along the way helped satisfy the teams desire to learn about desert life, history, resources and culture in Baja. That desire and the need to know what is on the other side of the hill or at the end of the road inspired Team Baja as much as did the quest for cross-cultural people experiences and an interest in leisure time with good friends. These, after all, are the characteristics of any worthy “Baja Aficionado.”
After traveling about 100 miles for the day, the team arrived at Bahia Gonzaga along the Sea of Cortez coast, filled up with 11 liters of gasoline at a cost of seven dollars worth of Pesos for each bike and rolled into a place called Alfonsinas for their second night’s stay. They rented the last two rooms available at this modest inn. Tom and Chris Cullen occupied one room and the two snorers, Jeff and Julius, slept in the other room.
After a hearty meal at which the team members enjoyed their time with a couple of dirt bikers whom they previously encountered and nicknamed Beemer and Lymie, they “hit the sack” for a good night’s sleep.
Team Baja started the next morning, April 7, with breakfast and a continuation of their southern journey moving inland away from the Sea of Cortez toward Coco’s Corner, some 27 miles distant. Coco is a celebrity of sorts to motorcyclists and other tourists traveling the Baja Peninsula. He sells beer, soft drinks and snacks at his small shack, speaks English and loves to tell stories. Coco is legless; he lost both of his limbs during the course of his life. Yet he remains a man of good humor and disposition.
It was a pleasure for Team Baja to pass the time in enjoyable conversation with him. The team took a group photo with Coco to preserve this pleasant memory and motored on further south. Then it happened.
Lost in the Desert
One of the most fearful incidents encountered by Team Baja occurred on the leg of the journey from Coco’s Corner heading toward Bahia Los Angeles on the Sea of Cortez. Back in ‘71 on Tom Cullen’s first Baja bike trip, one of the dangers he encountered was that of getting lost out in the remote desert. There are a myriad of indistinct roads, really just dry washes, leading in all directions in certain parts of the Baja desert. They are roads in name only. It is easy to lose one’s way in these areas.
Additionally, some of these sections are fraught with soft sand spots and deep marsh-water crossings. Tom had cautioned his team members about such dangerous areas during this current 2009 motorcycle trip… but to no avail.
The Calamajue Canyon southeast of Coco’s Corner was one of those dangerous sections. It was rough terrain heading toward Bahia De Los Angeles. While Tom was relieving himself from a sudden attack of Montezuma’s Revenge, the rest of Team Baja decided to press on to the canyon and let Tom catch up with them down the road.
They missed the turnoff to the Calamajue Canyon losing themselves and traveling some 27 miles out of their way toward the Sea of Cortez. Meanwhile, Tom pursued them, made the correct turn into the canyon, and got himself into a mess with deep-water marshes, water crossings and sand pits. He relentlessly pressed on to Highway 1, then all the way to the junction leading to Bahia De Los Angeles before realizing he must be ahead of his teammates. He then turned back north to finally intercept them coming south toward him eight miles later. It was a case of lost and found for both elements of Team Baja and the end of their worst fears of being lost and separated.
In the midst of all this chaos, Tom passed a group of four stranded Mexican women on Highway 1 whose car had stalled. He rendered what help he could but was unable to solve the problem. Tom was able to notify a tow truck crew down the road which went to the rescue as he proceeded down the road toward Bahia De Los Angeles.
Once again, as on his first trip in ’71, Tom became aware of another of the dangers that can befall travelers – the danger of being stranded. During his 1971 trip, Tom happened by a disabled cargo truck with drivers who had been waiting roadside for 17 days for repair parts to arrive. There they sat for all those days patiently waiting. Meanwhile, they had already transshipped their cargo via another passing truck, which was empty, and stopped to help.
This is how the people of Baja helped one another out of desperate situations. It is a procedure that our present world might well emulate. It is also a tribute to the honesty and good intentions of the folks who live and work in Baja, and the occasional Good Samaritan who wanders through their territory
Team Baja was once again a single entity and none the worse for wear. The team continued its journey south after tanking up with gas at the junction and arrived 41 miles later at the day’s destination – Guillermo’s Restaurant and Inn at Bahia De Los Angeles. There the Baja Boys indulged themselves with cocktails, a bountiful dinner, and convivial conversation with a Gringo who was sailing the Sea of Cortez and offered them a cruise on his sailboat. They respectfully declined the boat trip due to high winds the next morning and continued with their trek south.
Off they went, that morning of April 8, to the location of one of their fondest memories and best impressions of the whole trip. They traveled 95 miles on a mountainous dirt road with beautiful vistas all around. Their only significant stop was at a fishing camp named San Rafael – a place with more dogs than people.
An unusual event happened along the way, though, where Chris got stuck in a ditch off the side of the road. The team had to backtrack to find him. There was no problem other than a physical one of helping him out of the ditch to get back underway. Even the younger members of the team were finding the trip to be rather arduous at times. Just think of how Tom and Julius must have felt as the older members of the team.
Finally Team Baja arrived at San Fransisquito and its scenic bay on the Sea of Cortez. Few people lived in this fish camp. The place where they stayed was a humble one consisting of “palapas” with tarps for windows. Yet, it was an attractive and inviting location on the seashore and was memorable indeed. It was peaceful, tranquil, serene… and the food was delicious.
When darkness ended the day, Team Baja slept fitfully until the next morning greeted them with clear skies and sunshine. On a clipboard attached to the kitchen wall was the group billing for the team. It included lodging, food, beverage and fuel costs for all.
The bill was paid and our Four Musketeers headed across the Baja Peninsula toward the Pacific Coast for a place called Guerrero Negro. Their route took them through winding hills and arroyos, a variety of desert growth and huge rock formations through the abandoned mining town of Pozo Aleman, then El Arco and, after a 25-mile stretch along a tedious gravel road, to Highway 1. The team arrived at Guerrero Negro after a short stint north on the paved highway.
Guerrero Negro is the Spanish name meaning Black Warrior – a ship that sank in the nearby waters of the Pacific Ocean. The town was a bustling place of 10,000 residents and home to one of the largest salt companies in the world. In spring, migrating whales frequented its lagoons. The Baja Boys lodged at the new Cowboy Hotel, ate at the marvelous Mallarimo Restaurant, the best one in town, then locked up their bikes and got a good night’s sleep.
The morning of April 10 greeted them with some bad news. Julius Domotor’s 250cc Yamaha motorcycle had been stolen during the night along with one of Tom’s saddle bags. This was the biggest disaster that occurred on this trip, whereas the most significant misfortune that happened to Tom on his ‘71 journey was the terrible Sea of Cortez crossing by boat during foul weather. Tom was seasick for the entire 17 hours of that crossing under cramped conditions on a 90-foot boat loaded with cargo and passengers.
The team reported the bike theft to authorities, and Julius packed up his gear and went to Tijuana and the U.S. Border by bus. The rest of the team, now reduced to Three Musketeers, proceeded south to San Ignacio determined to continue with their pre-planned sojourn.
Arriving at destination 106 miles later, the team stayed at La Posada Inn along with two other motorcycle groups, both of which were touring road riders. One of these was coming from Seattle, Washington, and going to Panama; the other group was less ambitious in its journey.
Team Baja explored San Ignacio, sampled its culture, restaurants, and points of interest such as the mission and town plaza. One other such point was a lake that was formed by an underground river which surfaced near the town. An American couple owned an inn on the shores of the lake. The idyllic town and outskirts were full of history, life and personality. Team Baja saturated itself in the joys of the Mexican culture.
The team received word by telephone that the Guerrero Negro Police had recovered Julius’ motorcycle and that he had been notified via a call to the bus driver.
Julius decided to continue on to Tom’s house in Indio and take his car and trailer back to Guerrero Negro. He would pick up his bike and rendezvous with Team Baja on Monday or Tuesday.
Meanwhile the team continued 103 miles on a good hard-top road to Mulege on Saturday, April 11 through the French Boleo Mining Company town of Santa Rosalia. The Baja Boys arrived at the Serinidad Hotel, where the river meets the Sea of Cortez near the airport, booked rooms for two nights and brought their bikes into the courtyard where they could observe them from their rooms.
Before retiring for the night, the boys took a town tour and visited Las Casitas, a hotel/restaurant where Tom had stayed many years ago on his ’71 tour. Mulege had not changed much over those years. It remains a beautiful oasis much like San Ingnacio, and the same as Tom remembered it. Thereafter, the team tanked up the bikes and retreated to the hotel for rest.
The trip was taking its toll on Tom at this point. He spent the day of April 12 napping at the hotel while Chris and Jeff toured south to the Bay of Conception. Late in the day the Three Musketeers got together again and toured the town of Mulege, including the old prison museum, the airport and the Serinidad Hotel for a superb pig-roast dinner.
The airport offered a glimpse of the Mexican military in action thoroughly searching Mexican aircraft for drugs in an attempt to intercept illicit shipments and stop the flow of narcotics to the north.
The dinner at the hotel revived Tom’s old friendship with the Gringo owners, Don Johnson and his wife. The Mariachi band at dinner completed the night’s festivities and ushered in an early retirement for the team in preparation for the next day’s 200-mile journey back to Guerrero Negro to link up with Julius.
Monday, April 13, found the team in a determined effort to drive the distance from Mulege to Guerrero Negro for rendezvous with Julius, the older member, whose stolen bike was recovered. Team Baja was glad to be reunited temporarily at the Cowboy Hotel in Guerrero Negro. They swapped stories of what transpired during each other’s absence, then enjoyed supper at the Mallorimo Restaurant and made plans for the following day.
The zest and vigor of youth triumphing over the fatigue and exhaustion of age marked the next day’s activities. Chris and Jeff drove their bikes the 150 miles north to Catavina; Tom and Julius, with their bikes in the trailer, drove there in the car. It was like a day of rest for the team elders.
Tom off-loaded his bike and booked rooms for the Three Musketeers at the Desert Inn Hotel while Julius, his bike, and trailer headed north to Tijuana, the border and home. Julius’ trek to Baja was finished. Time, age and a bad case of hemorrhoids took their toll.
After bidding farewell to Julius, Tom took it easy the rest of the day. He visited a ranch in Santa Inez where he and his wife had stayed in their motor home on a previous trip. He met an ATV-mounted Gringo named Ralph who owned some property nearby and had welding equipment, motorcycle parts and tires available. Tom took note for possible future use, if not for him, then for his son and the younger riders.
He also met a group of seven Richmond Ramblers dirt bikers who were tanking up from a five-gallon can fuel merchant operating out of a pickup truck. The bikers exchanged notes and experiences on their respective routes, and then went their separate ways. Tom ended up back at the hotel where he met Chris and Jeff returning from their motorcycle visit to Mission San Borja. They all enjoyed cocktails and dinner and retired early.
Wednesday, April 15, brought more bad news with its chill and wind. The weather made the kidney-shaking, 141-mile ride on pavement along Highway 1 through Rosario to San Quintin even more unpleasant. The last stretch from Rosario was slightly better, as it ran along the Pacific coast in sunshine.
Team Baja arrived in San Quintin and arranged an overnight stay at a barely adequate motel, then proceeded to the Old Mill on the bay for lunch. There the team encountered the Richmond Rambler dirt bikers working on a couple of their bikes at another motel.
Jeff and Tom drove their bikes to the local restaurant and found it to be closed. While walking around the establishment, a dog bit Jeff on the ankle. That incident became the subject of great concern to Jeff and the rest of the team. Much attention was spent on the dog bite that evening and part of the next day.
Jeff was concerned about the possibility of getting rabies from the bite. So much so that he had the wound treated by one of the Richmond Ramblers who was a medically trained person. He then called a couple of doctors, one local and one in the States, for medical treatment advice. Jeff also made a visit to a local doctor who dressed the bite again and assured him that no incidence of rabies had ever occurred In San Quintin.
Another call followed to Jeff’s doctor in the States who told Jeff that since there was no puncture wound – only scratches – that there was no danger of contracting rabies. Finally, the following morning the team went to the dog’s owner, who was also the Old Mill restaurant owner, an American veteran and all-around good man, and acquired a copy of the dog’s inoculation papers against rabies. End of problem; Jeff was mollified. Like the ill-fated boat ride on the ’71 bike trip, the dog bite episode on the ‘09 trek concluded without further incident.
Team Baja found itself on the hardtop road to Ensenada on April 18. The team drove the 118 miles in the cold and wind through the inland valleys, the town of Santo Tomas and the surrounding wine country. Ensenada had grown immensely since Tom’s last recollection of it from his first trip. The place also reflected the American presence with Costco, Walmart and other U.S. businesses prevalent throughout the town.
One of Tom’s prophetic observations on the ’71 journey was that Baja was becoming a tourist destination, and that was changing the local people’s way of life for better or worse. Yet, there is no stopping progress and modernization. As the highway works its way to completion from north to south in Baja, so changes life in Baja. The team stayed in excellent accommodations at the San Nicholas Hotel in Ensenada with their bikes caged and locked up for security, had a satisfying dinner and retired for the night.
The Baja Boys final day of travel was April 17. On that day they drove 219 miles to complete their 1,714-mile odyssey through the Baja Peninsula. They took Highway 1 to Highway 3, ten miles north of Ensenada, then drove to Tecate in the wine country of Baja. This area was similar to the Napa Valley in California complete with wineries and free tours.
Upon arrival at Tecate, there was a long line of vehicles waiting to go through the U.S. inspection station at the border. The Baja Boys didn’t have to wait in line because motorcyclists are able to bypass the traffic lineup and move right up to the gate. They were through the passport check, the Custom-dog sniff test, photo recording of license plates and the inspection point in ten minutes.
The Baja Boys were back on U.S. soil, and they were elated. They traveled along U.S. Route 94 to Campo, then switched to S1 north over 5000-foot Mount Laguna through the mountains to the small town of Julian where they stopped for a genuine American hamburger lunch. It was good to be back in familiar territory.
The Three Musketeers split up at this point. Jeff went to Oceanside to visit his folks before returning to San Francisco; Chris and Tom headed for the Salton Sea by way of Borrego Springs and Highway 86. They finally arrived at Indio. It was good to be home.
And so, the 14-day sojourn to Baja and back ended on that 17th day of April 2009. All who took the journey arrived home tired and worn but with many fond memories. The great motorcycle adventure was over.
Would The Baja Boys do it again if time and health permitted? You bet they would. What Tom Cullen noted on his first trip to Baja also applies to the second: “The Baja is one of the greatest challenges left for cyclists.”
Dennis W. Lid served in the U.S. Army Infantry, Airborne and Special Forces worldwide during peace and war for over 20 years. Major Lid retired in 1980. He then worked abroad for the U.S. Department of Defense Civil Service for 19 years as a Management Analyst, a Military Plans Specialist and as an Exercise Plans Specialist. Freelance writing, reading and motorcycling through parts of Asia, Europe and the USA have been the favorite passions of his life. He is previously published in several online and offline publications around the world. Visit his website Lid’s Lair to review the titles of his published works, including excerpts from his book entitled First to Last – The Tale of a Biker.