Mexico – A very Baja Christmas
Heading for the Mexican border at Tecate my mind was full of images and stories from numerous cycling blogs of previous rides down the Baja peninsula. Enticed by sundrenched photos of Baja Christmases past, we’d planned a well deserved break, imagining our tent pitched on an idyllic beach, overlooking a calm azure sea, with a taco stand and source of cold beer nearby. The reality was somewhat different, with the weather pattern for a big chunk of our ride on Baja more like heavy cloud with a chance of rain, strong winds tending to blow from whichever direction we happened to be headed, and maximum temperatures of around 18C. Fortunately, despite the sometimes inclement weather, there was much to enjoy along the way, and an abundance of other cyclists to share it with. We also gained a new appreciation for fish tacos, tequila and cacti; and have improved our Spanish language skills beyond the ‘dos cervesas por favor’ level. All good really.
Within hours of entering the country we encountered the renowned Mexican hospitality. After failing to find the promised campground on the outskirts of Tecate, we wandered into what we thought was a vineyard/winery that might allow us to camp. It turned out to be some kind of catholic school recreation centre, but nonetheless we were made welcome, and offered use of an old classroom for the night.
Having spent the last month or so struggling to stay warm, we decided to head across the peninsula in search of milder temperatures on the Sea of Cortez. Once we’d climbed away from the city of Ensenada the road was quiet and dotted with little communities where we could top up with water and supplies.
One of the first things we noticed were the roadside shrines, ranging from the simple and unadorned, to big elaborate constructions. More disturbing was the number of memorials spaced along the roads at regular intervals – possibly related to some interesting interpretations of ‘safe overtaking distance’ and ‘roadworthy’ that we saw as we headed across the peninsula. Another Baja feature was the turkey vultures, often seen perched upon the giant cardon cacti beside the road. They seemed to be watching us closely, possibly sensing that we were close to collapse and might offer a potential meal in the not-too-distant future.
The road south along the Sea of Cortez is gradually being sealed, with only a short section of gravel remaining. It’s currently a perfect cycling route with great views, plenty of wild camping and virtually no traffic. Leaving San Felipe late in the day we rode into an area of giant cardon cacti, and found a perfect campsite just behind some sand dunes with a monster cactus looming over us.
Its proximity to major US population centres, and reputation for mild winters, beautiful deserted beaches, cheap living and lack of regulation, mean that Baja is a permanent or seasonal home to large numbers of Americans. For some, the attraction seems to be a ‘happy hour’ that commences with a breakfast beer and continues unabated throughout the day, supplemented with occasional joints should reality start to intrude. Others are just fine with the natural high that comes from a beachside lifestyle that includes fishing, swimming, paddling, diving, cycling and so on. We were happy to meet several long term Baja aficionados who made us welcome in their ‘campos’ – beach sites where they lease land and have set up vans, shelters and sheds.
We’d met several other cyclists as we headed south and we all converged one night at Coco’s Corner. Coco is a legend in these parts, having arrived at his remote location some 27 years ago and lived here alone ever since (he’s also a double amputee). These days his home most closely resembles an outback hotel, liberally draped in ladies underwear, old photographs, and assorted mementos from visitors from around the world. Having a beer, signing the visitors book and staying overnight in one of the old campers that adorn the site is a rite of passage for passing cyclists – thanks again for your hospitality Coco!
After turning on to the main highway for the first time we immediately made a dash for the back route back out to the coast at Bahia de los Angeles. This took us via the mission at San Borja through a Dr Seuss-like landscape of bizarre cacti, including the boojum or cirios, which are aptly described as ‘like an upside-down parsnip with a weird tuft on top’.
The mission at San Borja is one of numerous Spanish missions scattered down Baja. These date back to Jesuit settlement from the late 1600s to mid 1700s. The San Borja site was abandoned in 1818 and the surviving structures are currently being cared for by an 8th generation family living at this remote location. The freshwater spring here supports an oasis of palms and shady trees and provides a (much appreciated) reliable water source.
We planned to meet our friend Tim at Bahia de los Angeles. Having hosted us through the ‘Warm Showers’ network back in California, Tim also invited us to stay at his Baja getaway. We beat him there, and were very grateful to be able to shelter in his trailer as several days of strong winds threatened to flatten our tent. A few days off the bike, numerous fish tacos and some time to sit quietly and watch the aquatic parade of pelicans, sea lions & dolphins, and we were good to go. Thanks Tim!
Heavy rain accompanied our departure from Bahia de los Angeles, making us think that the desert had probably received its annual rainfall in less than 24 hours. We decided to make a run for the oasis village of San Ignacio for Christmas, planning to meet up with a few other cyclists there. Then, having missed seeing whale sharks at Bahia de Los Angeles (too late), and grey whales at Gueros Negros (too wet/windy), we headed to the Laguna San Ignacio on the Pacific coast …. this time it was too early for grey whales this far south.
The bleak weather returned as we crossed back to the Sea of Cortez, passing some pretty bays framed by offshore islands. This section of the coast is great riding with a series of climbs and fun descents – this culminated in a steep climb inland out to the mission at San Javier, followed by a short cut through a scenic river valley and back out to the highway at Ciudad Insurgentes.
The sun finally upon us, we headed into La Paz, focused now on the ferry crossing to the mainland at Mazatlan and our route into the Sierra Madre Occidental mountain range….
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Rubber side down
Ed & Gaye