A healthy dose of anxiety, excitement and anticipation accompanied us across the border between the US and Mexico.  With an ongoing  violent drug war between the government and the cartels, so many people felt compelled to tell how dangerous Mexico was.  However, we refused to write the whole place off based on the unlikely event of us two cyclists being caught up in the drugs furore, and gringo paranoia about one particularly dangerous border town (Tijuana).

That said, we took advice from a Baja cycling guru (thanks Bob!); someone who had been here recently, ridden the roads and could tell us what to expect.  With Bob’s advice, we changed our border crossing plans at the last minute from Tijuana to Tecate, paid for our tourist cards with some trepidation and wondered what Mexico might hold for us.  In the first three weeks, it’s been a dizzying mixture of sights, sounds and experiences, but so far so good.  In fact, so far, so fantastic!

Delighted that our change of border crossing meant an amazing journey into Baja California through mountains and wine country, we had the best introduction to a land steeped in history, culture, beauty and hospitality.  Now we’re here, we’re playing it safe and being careful about our camping spots and our riding, but overall my first impressions of Mexicans and Mexico are of a vibrant, warm and stimulating place…I am hungry for more.

 

Roads

We were spoilt, coming through the border at Tecate and onto quiet roads and then dirt track.  Joining busy and narrow Highway 1 after more than a week of wilderness riding was a bit of an unpleasant shock but we’re gradually adjusting.

 

Time for a map change as we leave the US and venture into Mexico. The cycle mirror – geeky as it looks – has been really useful on Highway 1 where we have to pull off the road into the ditch whenever two big vehicles are crossing as there’s literally no room for us on the road itself….

…like this!

Stopping by the side of the road to fix a puncture has quickly become part of the routine. Broken glass, cacti thorns and tyre debris all cause problems, even for our sturdy tyres. I seem to have had all the bad luck so far: current score is Bedders 5, Jams 0!

As we headed east for Gonzaga Bay, the pavement ended and 60km of dirt began. Sand, gravel, rocks and awesome scenery made for an exciting detour to a beautiful bay….and the bikes survived!

On the dirt track, we often had the whole place to ourselves….

Cacti

The desert really delivers when it comes to cacti; they’re everywhere.  All shapes and sizes and all covered in long spiky thorns just waiting to jab you in the bum, or puncture a tyre.

Spiky ones…

…fuzzy ones…

…and ones that a whole lot taller than we ever expected!

Food

For two people so preoccupied with finding the next meal, we’ve been notably lax in finding the famous “best fish taco in the world” that Baja boasts.  We’re hoping to find great seafood when we rejoin the Sea of Cortez as we head further south.  In the meantime, we’ve found plenty of other tasty treats.

We weren’t expecting a lunchtime stop at a tiny shop shack to provide such a tasty dessert but this was amazing. Fresh fruit, local soft cheese, local honey and nuts and seeds for the top…sooo good!

After 4 months on cheese and tomato sandwiches, we have been delighted to change our routine, to cheese and tomato tortillas. Same ingredients, different wrapping. But with local avocados and by the side of the road after a long morning’s ride, boy do they taste good.

The usual porridge and jam sandwich is replaced by a sumptuous slice of delicious chocolate and caramel cheesecake. Thanks to Cristina at Punta Prieta, we enjoyed a decadent breakfast treat!

Before leaving the US, James had attempted to mentally prepare me for the likelihood of little access to bread and cakes. Having been to Mexico before, he remembered only a world of tortillas and rice. Thankfully he couldn’t have been more wrong, with most small towns having at least one Panaderia churning out hundreds of delicious sweet treats and soft bread rolls…naturally, it’s only polite to indulge.

People

As with the US, we’ve been bowled over by hospitality, warmth, generosity and good humour almost as soon as we arrived.  James’ fluent Spanish has come in very handy, helping us to meet with local Mexicans and secure friendly places to camp.  We’ve also met some US ex pats living down here who have been only too eager to help out some fellow gringos…even if they do think we’re crazy for cycling!

We met with Bob before leaving San Diego and spent a couple of invaluable hours poring over maps of Baja while he dispensed plenty of great advice. Thanks Bob, you’re our Baja Guru!

A day’s ride out of Tecate and looking for somewhere to camp, we stop when Luis waves at us from his ranch. James goes down to say hello and Luis offers us a soft grassy place to pitch the tent and sits out under amazing stars to talk to us about Mexico. His friend Roberto joins us in the morning for coffee and more chat.

Passing us twice on the road during the day, Rene stopped her car and asked us to join her at her house is San Felipe. Cue an amazing barbeque feast and lots of talk about the dirt road ahead to Gonzaga Bay…she said we’d never make it….

…but we did and here we are outside Barney’s! Barney was so generous; when we wearily cycled past looking for a place to camp, he invited us to use his neighbour’s beach house overlooking the beautiful bay. He showed us the collection of dirt buggies that he restores and we shared a beer whilst he dispensed very useful advice about the rest of our journey through Baja.

This man is a legend. 40km from Gonzaga Bay and 20km from the next road, Coco lives on his own surrounded by lots of beer, an impressive ladies’ underwear collection and lots of desert. We turned up expecting to camp and he insisted we drink his beer, sign the guest book, eat his food and sleep in his “guest trailer”. An amazing experience…Google “Coco’s Corner, Baja Mexico” to see more!

Coco sent us on a mission, with a hand drawn map and a package to deliver to Cristina at Punta Prieta. Somehow we managed to find her and she asked us to be the first official guests at her beautiful ranch. With her nephew Fermin and her daughter Ana Cristina, they gave us a wonderfully warm Mexican welcome.

Dogs

Some friendly, some ferocious, Baja is teeming with dogs.  Almost everywhere we’ve stayed has had at least three resident dogs many of whom became firm friends by the end of our stay.  Not so welcome are the dogs protecting properties by the side of the road; they hear a bike coming and sprint out of their gate barking and snapping at our panniers, making for a 10-20 second episode of pure fear as we pedal like crazy to escape.

Our first experience with a Mexican canine welcome committee. This is Palomo at Rancho el Chaco…one of four resident pooches, he invited himself right into the tent which at this point, James is enjoying…when he tried to get back in at 1am, it wasn’t so funny.

Another night spent at a local’s ranch and we were on the road early the next day. Surprisingly, one of the dogs wanted to come along too. She ran behind us for 5 miles! No amount of berating or turning back could dissuade her, she just stopped running when her little legs got too tired…hopefully they had enough stamina left to get her back home…

It’s hard to resist giving in to the local dogs when they look at you like this!

Beaches

Why do people come to Baja?  For the beaches.  On an 800 mile long peninsular, we’re sandwiched between fantastic beaches on the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Sea of Cortez to the east.  We’ve already seen many beautiful sunrises and sunsets, and whiled away plenty of time watching pelicans, osprey, dolphins and hundreds of other seabirds off the coasts.

One of the gorgeous bays at San Felipe where we camped on the beach…until the wind rose to serious gusts and we had to move the tent at 2am to avoid being blown away!

3km down a sand track to a hidden beach at Percebu. We had to push the bikes through heavy sand some of the way but it was worth it.

There are hot springs at the beach at Puerticitos. It’s a very peculiar sensation to lie in roasting hot water bubbling up through volcanic rock, and feel it mingling with chilly salt water coming in from the sea….but highly recommended.

A beautiful view from the terrace of the beach house where Barney invited us to crash in at Gonzaga Bay. An inspiring, gorgeous bay, we can completely understand why Barney’s been here for 35 years.

So now we’re headed further south and to La Paz for Christmas.  You can now track our progress with a map we’ve added.  Just click on the word “Route” at the top of this page.

 

Sarah

 

 

 

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Diary of a desert crossing

December 27th, 2011

The only problem with blogging every few weeks about our trip is that we cherry pick our ‘best bits’; the most scenic views, the prime camping spots, the most interesting people we meet and the tastiest food.

In reality though, our trip (and bike touring in general) is never quite like that. Even in Baja, in between these highlights there are inevitably a few days of repetitive “eat ride sleep”; of uninspiring roads, tired legs and occasional headwinds.

So just to balance things out a little, here’s 24 hours from our recent final Baja leg, from Loreto to La Paz. After a beautiful initial climb away from the coast, we faced a fairly tedious three day trek across the desert to reach La Paz for Christmas Eve.

Thankfully, we were accompanied by our current riding partner Lee, a hairy bundle of fun from Colorado who is always on hand with tortillas, impressions and randomness to put a smile back on your face. One of a cluster of Pan American cyclists we’ve met recently, Lee has been riding with us after Ian – the other half of their 350 South trip – had to return to San Diego with a broken hub.

6am. Alarm. Try and remember where we are. Stick head out of tent – a small cactus grove somewhere in the Baja desert. Grunt a good morning to Lee. Stomach is already growling and demanding attention.

6.30am. Fire up the stove. Lee swears and beats his stove repeatedly on the ground. It finally coughs and splutters into life.

6.45am. Breakfast: an industrial sized portion of porridge, bananas, tortillas with honey and coffee. Gradually progress from grunts to conversation as coffee begins to take effect.

7am. Correct American on pronunciation of ‘banana’. Establish that Bananaman never made it big in the US.

7.30am. Morning dash into the bushes for hole digging routine. Panic that I’m about to re-dig mine or even worse, someone else’s hole from the night before. Squatting in the bushes is like a high risk game of battleships out here.

8.15am. Early morning stretching regime. Try to avoid yesterday’s mistake of leaning against cactus.

8.30am. Re-trace our steps out of our desert hiding place and back to the main road. Head for Ciudad Insurgentes, one of only two towns we'll see over these four days, and the first bend in the road after 30 miles riding in a straight line.

9.01am. Carefully negotiate bend, thankful we remember how to steer.

9.18am. Bedders and I launch into impromptu singing of “Walking in the Air” in an effort to inject some Christmas spirit into the desert. Lee looks baffled.

9.30am. Bedders smells a bakery ahead and takes to the front to drive an unrelenting pace to Ciudad Constitucion, the second town on route. Head into town for food, water and distraction.

10am. Stop at supermarket to buy 2kg of fresh tortillas. Come out to find Lee cornered by mexican with beer in hand asking him for a tortilla. Explain politely that he has little chance of getting any food from three hungry cyclists. Mexican asks Lee (currently sporting a 6 month beard) if he is a direct descendant of Santa Claus.

11am. Next stop, a fruteria for fruit and veg to stave off the scurvy. Lee buys enough to feed a small Mexican village.

11.30am. Hunt for water. Stumble across a licuado (fresh fruit drink) store run by Benjamin, with a long line up of mouthwatering flavours. Can't resist trying horchata (rice and milk), sandia (watermelon) and cebollada (barley) - all delicious.

11.35am. Benjamin opens a huge jug of purified water and fills our bottles – about 35 litres between the three of us for the next two days.

11.40am. Sarah and I head next door to the panaderia for a sugar hit. Benjamin suddenly comes running in to ask Sarah how much she loves me. She reassures him. He seems pleased.

11.45am. Benjamin gathers us round for a group hug and pep talk, and waves us off.

12.30pm. Finally make it out of Constitucion.

2pm. Stop at the roadside for lunch – tortillas, fresh cheese, avocado, tomato and fruit. Mexican army convoy passes and waves cheerfully over their machine guns. The two old men doze off and dribble into our beards.

3.30pm. Tedious desert road. Lose myself in thoughts of pizza toppings.

5pm. Approaching our 100km target for the day and reach a small village. Church looks like it could be a good camping spot, but decide to push on for a few more km, as desert has been unfenced and so should be easy to sneak into for wild camping.

5.01pm. Desert is now barb-wire fenced on both sides. Legs had thought they were done for the day and no longer work. Road becomes more rolling.

5.45pm. Finally come across a cattle grid leading to a small track into the desert. Wait for a break in the traffic so we can sneak off the road unseen. My water bag falls off the bike, ensuring that every car passing for the next five minutes sees exactly where we’re going. Ride about 1km along track, find a small ravine to hide in and pitch our tents.

6.30pm. Lee aggravates a passing scorpion with a stick. Just a little guy, not one of the larger “deer killers” we’d been hoping to see. Mental note to make sure the tent inner is zipped up tonight and shoes inside.

7pm. Feeding time at the zoo – rice, beans and tortillas, enlivened with the ubiquitous Mexican hot sauce. Wonder if I’ve eaten my own body weight yet in tortillas in Mexico.

7.45pm. Correct American on pronunciation of his own surname, ‘Saville’. Point out it should be as in Jimmy Saville, not as in the Spanish city. Attempt to explain who Jimmy Saville is. American looks nonplussed.

8.30pm. Pick-up truck passes along track – headtorches out and duck down. Pick-up bumps its way past into the distance, presumably out to a ranch in the middle of nowhere.

9pm. Conversation fades, and we finally give in to the inevitable.

9.05pm. Tents reverberate gently to the sounds of three snoring cyclists.

James

 

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Baja Sur – picture gallery

December 31st, 2011

A small selection of photos from the last three weeks of cycling the Baja peninsula.  Amongst other things, the southern section of Baja provided us with plenty of wild desert camping and a dirt road detour to the “garlic capital of Baja”  - where we were five months too early for the new garlic but we did get a look at the leftovers from last year…

We had more beautiful beach camping, particularly at Playa Juncalito where we spent three very relaxed nights and then at Casa de los Sueños outside of Mulegé, a real find through Warmshowers.  Many many thanks to our host there, Fabian, who generously shared a  private beach with beautiful views, kayaks for paddling over to the nearby hot springs and supplies for the road.

Honey tortillas

Sunrise at Juncalito

Bull stops traffic

Early morning catch

Mmmm, breakfast burritos

Swapping the tent for a palapa

Bahia de Concepión

Casa de los Sueños

Mulegé lighthouse

Desert flower

Drying chillies

Last year's garlic

The road runs out...

Downhill to the garlic capital

It might not look steep....

San Ignacio snacking

Vizcaíno desert

Blogging in the desert

Wild camp sunset

Sarah

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