Exploring the Dusty Backroads of Baja in a Kawasaki Teryx UTV

As close to the Baja 1000 as I’ll ever get

Just as summer drew to a close, Kawasaki reached out to us with the promise of mescal, Mexican food, and a two-day dirt-road thrash through Baja California, Mexico, in its rowdy Teryx UTV side-by-side. Of course, we obliged. One border crossing later, we snaked our way through Mexico’s outlaw country, arriving in Ensenada, the foothills of the Baja 1000. Here, we convened at Horsepower Ranch, meeting the other participants in the inaugural Legends Rally.

The side-by-side obsessives over at UTVUnderground conceived the Legends rally as an entrance into the beauty and brutality of Baja without the need to arrange an itinerary of your own. Pay the flat fee, haul your UTV down to the border, and join the convoy of other rally participants as they make their way to Ensenada. All skill levels were welcome and in attendance, including Baja-blooded professionals who live and breathe the desert dust.

After arriving at Horsepower Ranch, we surveyed our rally-mates, lined up neatly in front of our rooms and on-site cantina. Our two Teryx UTVs would be riding among a fleet of Polaris RZRs. In a sense, these RZRs appear purpose-built for the Mexican desert with long suspension travel, knobby tires, and lightweight construction. Don’t count the Teryx out, though. The Teryx cuts the middle ground, with enough utility to serve as a ranch workhorse but enough capability to romp around your local dune park or muddy backroad.

Kawasaki doesn’t release power figures for the mid-mounted, 783-cc V-twin, but after easily running up to 50 mph on soft silt, our derriere-dyno estimates an output around the high 80 mark. For our skill level, it was plenty, and we had no issue keeping pace with the faster, heavier rigs.

But first, we had to adjust to the dust. A light ochre powder coats everything, seeping into your pores and caking your hair to the point of saturation. Once you scrape the grit from your eyes, you must acclimate to the natural apprehension of your environment. It’s far too easy to fall into a semi-trance, concentrating more on rounding a tight, bush-lined trail corner quickly than remembering that a farm truck could materialize around the bend.

These were not empty roads; four or five times, a tired pickup truck would emerge from the dust. Much like portions of the Baja 1000, we cut a path through local farm paths, necessitating a light foot when passing by a halcyon farmhouse. You can’t tackle Baja blind; the network of tight offroad paths more closely resemble the Gordian knot than a highway system. Without the rally sign markers, we would have wandered aimlessly.

While similar, conquering the Baja countryside was a different challenge than lapping your local circuit. On track, the variables remain constant; you brake here, you avoid the rough pavement at the chicane, and you develop a mental layout of the course. The trails out of Ensenada were very transitional; one ten-mile stretch was hard-packed dirt, while the next was an undulating gulley of craggy rock. You must remain improvisational to stave-off catastrophe — one errant rock could put an end to the fun.

The actual dynamics are predictably different, as well. The Teryx has a high center of gravity, requiring the driver to shift their bodyweight in tune with the motions of the UTV. The speeds are much lower than you would experience at a track day, but most track days don’t have ravine drop-offs on one side of the course.

In all, the first day of the rally covered around 160 miles. I drove the first half, being careful not to overextend the durability of the Teryx. I’ve never driven off-road with any sort of gusto, so this was a fantastic chance to strengthen a neglected branch of my skillset. Luis Soto, one of the two Kawasaki guys with us, drove the second half. In the hands of an off-road veteran like Soto, the Teryx was impressive. It roared through the arroyos with aplomb, Soto drifting and diving the Teryx with ease.

Toward the final 15 miles of the run, the other Teryx began to stumble. Under power, it would nearly sputter to a halt, and what little power that was available wasn’t consistent. The cause was quickly determined to be a bout of fuel poisoning; at a fuel stop, the second Teryx was given the dregs of gas from the very bottom of a rusty drum.

After the Teryx’ were packed onto the trailer, the bags stored, and the helmets stowed, we made our way to the border crossing in Tijuana, leaving Baja behind with nothing but a cloud of dust.