Since I had been looking forward to Mexico for quite a while, I was very excited when I eventually crossed the border and entered the city of Tijuana on November 29. Janosch, my bike buddy who joined me in San Diego, and I approached the border and soon faced a massive metal wall with revolving gates. For a moment, I wondered whether all of Mexico would be walled like this within in a few months looking at all that recent U.S. politics. I shook the idea off my mind. I still have hope that these kind of barriers will only be found at super busy border crossings such as in Tijuana.
At first, we weren’t sure whether we were at the right crossing for cyclists, and asked some security guards. They confirmed that we simply push our bikes through. We followed their instructions and entered a long walkway that brought us into the Mexican customs hall. After paying our visa fee and passing the luggage screening, we exited the building and there it was: Tijuana, the city which is notorious for its dodgy neighbourhoods and frequency of gang crimes. I cannot confirm any of that, but if only half of what people say is true, this city is not a place where you want to get lost or stuck. Our plan was to get out of the city as soon as possible.
Google Maps quickly navigated us to Highway 1, the main artery leading south. After only 30 mins traffic became lighter and allowed us to relax a bit. We had pre-booked a little hotel room in the town of Rosarito, located 30 km south of the border. When we arrived we were happy that things actually went very smoothly. The successful first day in a new country was celebrated with our first meal ordered in Spanish which turned out to be really delicious.
The plan for the next two weeks was to bike down the Baja California, a peninsula in Northwestern Mexico, that separates the Pacific Ocean from the Gulf of California stretching south from the U.S. border for more than 1,200 km. The Baja California (“Lower California”), also referred to as ‘The Baja’, is one of the driest regions in the world. It is almost entirely covered by desert ecosystems. Nevertheless, it has an excellent reputation as a cycle touring region, especially at this time of the year when temperatures are moderate compared to the insanely fiery weather you face during summer months.
In order to avoid the main traffic and to pass through some very scenic parts of the peninsula, we left the coast in Ensenada on the next day following Highway 3 across the mountains. A 30 km climb from sea level up to about 1,000 m elevation brought us into a very dry but exciting area which reminded me of a geography similar to what I had seen in Death Valley: wide open valleys separated by rugged mountain ranges and scarce vegetation with nothing more than a bit of sagebrush. I totally didn’t expect any cold weather but on that day we got a feel of how cold it can get in deserts once the sun sets. The thermometer dropped from 25 deg C at noon to 5 deg C by the time we got off the bikes. It was a bit of a race against time since we were not in the mood to camp and wanted a roof over our head. Luckily, in one of the small towns we found a basic motel. Such accommodation usually costs about US$20 per night, so when you split the cost, it is the same price as camping in state parks in the U.S.
When we were ready to mount the bikes in the morning, it was 8 deg C. I remember my friend Rik saying: “You have to start cold to avoid sweating too much later on!” And he is right, you don’t need long sleeves or pants as long as you keep your core warm. That’s why I like wearing my windstopper vest. The previous day’s ascent was rewarded with a long downhill and some enormous tailwinds. The wind blew so hard that some relaxed pedalling allowed us to cover the final 50 km in less than 1.5 hours. Afterwards we called it a day and enjoyed a nice seafood meal in San Felipe.
On December 2, we left San Felipe with ongoing tailwinds. We rode through an area where the ocean meets the desert and which is very popular among American and Canadian retirees as a winter domicile. Every now and then, you see houses or some of those large motorhomes located by the sea. In the afternoon, we arrived in Puertecitos, which appeared to be quite a sizeable town on the map. But then we realized that it was pretty much a ghost town. There was a self-service gas station without any other basic facilities and an abandoned resort. We had only two hours of daylight left, I was out of water, and I had another flat tire which totally spoilt my mood to go any further. Luckily, we were able to find an American couple who have spent their winters at this place for the last 22 years. They told us that we could find a little supermarket half a mile up the hill and that we could just camp at the resort. Someone would come later and collect a few pesos. That information made me feel a lot better. Camping is not an issue anywhere but running out of supplies (water, in particular) is the biggest problem you can face in this desert. I kept wondering why that resort was no longer alive, but upon doing some research, all I could find out is that the owner had died a few years ago. Apparently, there are also fewer American tourists traveling down the Baja these days, which is sad considering how beautiful this place is.
Loaded with plenty of food and water, the next day we followed a hilly but scenic coastal road before we reached the end of the paved highway. About 40 km of gravel and sand lay ahead of us. Our average speed dropped down to about 10 km/h. Since there was very little traffic, that stretch really felt off the beaten path and far from civilization. It was exhausting but also fun at the same time. Pretty much half way we arrived at a place called Coco’s Corner. You could call it an outpost at a junction of two dirt roads but basically it is in the middle of nowhere. Coco is now 79 years old and an absolute character. Originally from Tijuana, he decided to settle here about 25 years ago. He makes a living by selling beer, soda and water to passersby: cyclists like us, motorcyclists, and truck drivers, among others. We had lots of fun with him since he knows how to blend his good English with a great sense of humor. Besides Janosch and me, an American guy traveling in his campervan also stayed over night and cooked us a nice risotto in exchange for some cycling stories.
The next day started with two hours of dirt road riding, before we got back on Highway 1. We followed this road all the way down to La Paz over the next few days. Traffic increased a bit but was still absolutely fine. Not to mention, the density of cacti along the road went up making us truly feel that we are in the desert. We passed a few small towns, and due to the lack of any accommodation in Punta Prieta, we asked the owner of a little restaurant whether we could pitch our tents in their backyard. From her very non-hesitant reaction, I could tell that other cyclists had stayed there before. It was a perfect spot. We had toilets, a restaurant for dinner and breakfast, and, believe it or not, wifi to kill the long evening. 🙂
The next few days were filled with rather mundane cycling across flat desert and the occasional rolling hills. After eight continuous days of biking after the border, we took a rest day in Guerrero Negro, a rather sleepy and unspectacular town. We needed some serious cleaning of our gear and ourselves after so many days on dusty roads and less showers than what we would have liked.
On December 8, we arrived in San Ignacio, a small palm oasis town with an almost 300 year old Jesuit Mission (cathedral). It was another one of those towns which used to be a lot more lively in the past but it kept its charms nevertheless.
On the next day, we stayed in a busy mining town called Santa Rosalia which was by far the liveliest place on the Baja since our visit coincided with a big Christmas parade. From there, we followed the shores of the so-called Bahía Concepción, a very scenic bay that features over 50 miles of beaches. Some completely empty and some frequented by Canadian and American winter escapees who hang out there for 4-6 months until the Northern weather becomes milder.
After a day’s bike ride south lies Loreto, which in my opinion, was the most impressive town on the peninsular. It retained an old charming character and boasts quite a few nice restaurants and cafes. Loreto was the first Spanish colonial settlement on the Baja founded by Spanish missionaries in 1697. After its founding, it served as the capital of the province of Las Californias until the capital was moved to Monterrey in the U.S. in 1777. I decided to take a rest day and enjoy this little town for a whole day. Janosch took the opportunity of getting a ride from Hannes and Meriliis, a great Estonian couple we met. They were headed to Todos Santos, a resort town in the South of the Baja. I was not keen on it and biked all the way to La Paz instead.
After my rest day in Loreto, I resumed biking solo. I read that the remaining 360 km to La Paz were rather mundane riding but I felt more comfortable covering the entire Baja by bicycle. For safety reasons, I might have to and probably will skip certain sections in Central America but lack of scenery or tough terrain are no reason to hold me back, at least at this point I see it that way.
These last three stages were rather tough in their own way. The first day involved a lot of climbing. The second was all flat but temperatures hit almost 40 deg C. And the third was a combination of the previous two. The first night I spend at a nice motel in Cuidad Constitution. CNN and wifi included. The second day I ended up camping between the Las Pocitas police station and the police dormitory. Camping can’t get any safer than that. 🙂
On December 15, I finally arrived in La Paz and was totally ready for a few days off. I met Janosch again and also reunited with Rik, my Dutch friend I biked with in Northern Canada five months earlier. La Paz is the capital city of Baja California Sur and an important regional commercial center. Other than exploring the restaurant scene and chilling at Tuly’s house (the most amazing warmshowers host I have experienced so far), I was nothing but lazy but managed to catch up with some reading and cleaning/greasing my bike.
Concluding this first chapter of my Mexican journey, I must say that the Baja California is an amazing place for some stunning but challenging bicycle touring. Most people in the US expressed strong concerns about my plan to ride the Baja, but based on my personal experience, those concerns were unwarranted. Truck drivers in particular were extremely considerate. I never felt unsafe, and of course, I hope it stays that way on my upcoming months (‘knocking on wood’).
On December 20, Rik, Janosch and I took the ferry across the Gulf of California and entered Mainland Mexico in Mazatlan. From there, the next chapter of the journey begins.