April 2017:  Baja

It took three days to drive from Seattle to Lake Elsinore, covering a distance about the same as I will cover over the following 5 weeks as I bike down to San Jose del Cabo at the tip of the Baja peninsula.

My first day on the bike I cover about 60 miles and get to my aunt and cousin in Encinitas.  I spend a day with my cousin, and on my second morning on the road, set out for Tijuana.  At about 4pm, I’m crossing the border, walking my bike in a river of pedestrians going through the checkpoints.   Biking away from the border is hectic and confusing, but eventually I get my bearings and bike about an hour more to the beaches.  When I get to the hostel at which I’d expected to stay I learn that there is a running water outage for Tijuana and all of the Northwest Baja coast, and as a result, they are not taking any guests.  They allow me use of their WiFi with which I insta-book a dormitory bed in an AirBnB that’s in the process of building out a hostel.  The owner of that place has set up a pump to use water from the swimming pool to use for showering and toilets, so all is well.  I tool around town, then get some well earned sleep.

The next day I bike about 60 more kilometers to Ensenada and book 2 nights at an AirBnB which I assume is the dorm room of a college student who is living with her boyfriend.  It’s a tiny but complete apartment, with hot plate, fridge, microwave, and TV all packed in a room that is about 8ft by 20ft.  On my off day I cycle around town, checking out the regional history museum, the tourist strip (ugh), attempt to see some local beaches, and then the art museum, where I meet Jorge who runs the coffee shop and is planning a 4 day cycle trip via backcountry from La Paz to Ensenada.  He and I end up talking for about an hour about all aspects of bike touring and what I should expect in Baja.  It will be his first extended ride, so I’m able to return the favor of tips on Baja by giving him tips on cycle touring in general.

The next day I’m heading South with no particular destination in mind when I stop in to a roadside cafe and notice another touring rig out front.  Inside, I meet Hartley, a Canadian who has cycled down from his home in Victoria, BC over the last 3 months.  We chat for about an hour and then decide to proceed together.  Other than a friend that joined him for the first couple of weeks, he hasn’t met any other touring cyclists traveling in the same direction, making me his first road-found cycle-mate.

He’s half my age, but has already figured out and thought about a lot of the things that I think are the most important things that I’ve figured out and thought about so far in my life.  We share philosophies on life, travel, and politics, from interpersonal to global.  This is his first bike tour, and so with the many months of touring experience and many more years of living that I have, I have things that I’m able to teach him.  But it quickly becomes clear that he has many things to teach me as well, and it takes some humility for me to embrace that.

In actual fact, Hartley has been instrumental in making this trip what I hoped it would be, and spared it from being quite bad in some key respects, if not somewhat of a disaster.

For one, I did not pack enough warm things to weather the nights here.  With all my clothes on, in my bivvy and my $25 sleeping bag ordered off of Amazon just before I left (not wanting to repeat the mistake of lugging my bulkier sleeping bag through tropical weather), I am barely non-hypothermic at night when the moisture condenses on everything and the cold desert winds blow relentlessly.  Last year, it was a couple of months later when I was this far South.  Whoops.  I suffered through 2 nights before accepting Hartley’s offer to share his tent.  With me inside cheap sleeping bag, inside bivvy, inside tent, I’m comfortable at night.

Second, Hartley, like previous cycle-mates Terry and Carolyn, is a fine road chef.  In fact, he’s an exceptional road chef.  He’s on a shoestring budget (~$5/day?) whereas I’m OK up to $30/day, so I gladly pay for the food that he prepares.  He tells me that he would be happy to split the cost of food and that he’s happy to have someone else to cook for since he enjoys it and it motivates him to prepare a wider variety of fare.

In two weeks, I’ve spent less than $300, including 2 nights paying for accommodation in hotels, and paying for most of the food that Hartley cooks at camp in exchange for him cooking it.  Food is the main expense, and we eat a lot of it, but it is cheap.  In contrast, my rent alone in Seattle, quite inexpensive by Seattle standards, would amount to $400 for those 2 weeks.  So I’m actually saving a bit of money by living on the road.

We’re in Guerrero Negro today, having just spent our second night in a hotel ($22).  We’ve seen and done a whole lot since I last worked on this post, and I’m not inclined to do a play-by-play, but here are some highlights:

  • Riding on hard-pack beach at low-tide, with no guarantee we wouldn’t have to double back on all of it.  When the sand grains got too course, and the pack too soft, we were lucky to find a route off the beach to keep all but the last 500 meters of our southward progress..

  • Insanely beautiful camping spots.  In one of the most spectacular spots, we were greeted by a farmer who was just leaving after having checked on his cows.

  • Trying to bike 100 miles on sandy washboard road with what we hoped would be enough water to get us through, to find out it was not.  While we would almost definitely have been fine accepting gifts of water and/or rides from the 4-6 vehicles that pass per day, we opted to double back and accept defeat rather than rely on the help of passers by.  We did accept 4 cold liters from a family of self-described campensinos (peasants) who passed us going into the desert, asking if we had seen their cows, and who we asked how far until the next water.  When they returned with the cows in the back of the truck, and we were still sprawled out under the same meager shade of a thorny tree, he gave us water and told us about his friend that died of dehydration a ways back the way we’d come.  I told him that I had noticed the memorial.  

  • Stopping to pick up strawberries being thrown over a canvas fence by giggling workers who then gave us a couple of large cartons, branded Driscoli, and told us to andale (get going).

  • Peeling shrimp Hartley had picked up in town, at dusk on a beach bluff, in one of the few times I’ve gotten involved in the food preparation.

  • Frying fish that we had talked some sports fishing dudes out of, in the middle of the road, the evening before we aborted our ill-fated attempt to shortcut through the desert.

  • Frying road-killed rattlesnake on the side of the road.

  • Marveling at Hartley’s immodesty.  A little ways down the road after we were denied being sold water or anything to drink at a family run restaurant, I suggested that it might have something to do with the fact that he had sauntered in wearing not very concealing boxer briefs.  He countered that the “fat poppa” had been wearing basically the same thing, and tried out some hypothetical spanish language insults.  At that moment I was pushing my bike up a sandy embankment back onto the road, and laughed so hard I literally pulled something in my mid-section.

  • Convincing Hartley to collect roadside flip-flops as alternatives to his shoes, which are too hot and getting him down.  He ends up with a pink one for one foot and a baby blue one for the other.  The style is impeccable, but they prove to be impractical for cycling over distance.  Yesterday, after going on a mission (in our largest town since meeting) to find some sandals, he’s found some for about $3.  He also got a badly creaking bottom bracket repaired for $1.50.

  • The safety.  The roads here are narrow, but the motorists are almost invariably happy to slow down as needed to let oncoming traffic pass in order to give us a very wide berth.  I “take” the lane if/as needed, and Hartley has his road noodle.  Ever since we’ve been sticking mostly to the highway (El Rosario onwards), the traffic is very sparse.  Typically 5-10 minute pockets of no cars between clusters of vehicles.  When cars pass, they often have occupants beaming with smiles and waves.

  • Getting off road.  Particularly before branching away from the Pacific coast at El Rosario, we pushed the limits of what our loaded bikes with 700cc x 40mm wheels can get through.  For 4 or 5 days we were riding along the Pacific coast, along cliffs and through dunes, going 5-10K back to highway-side towns to resupply on food and water.  We still look for “short”cut opportunities to get off road, but Hartley’s racks are starting to break, and our bodies have reached their limit of bumpy washboard.  We’re resolved, in future trips, to slim down our gear and beef up our wheels and racks (which will entail getting frames that can accommodate).

  • Slowing down.  Left to my own devices, I tend to feel a need to go as hard as I can.  Hartley does not.  I mean, when we’re going, he’s at least as fast as I am, carrying about 20-30lbs more on his bike.  But when we take breaks, he helps me keep check on my inclination to make them as short as possible.  We’ve actually made a point of getting going earlier in the day so that we can take longer mid-day breaks to wait out more of the high heat.  We haven’t managed to get going that much earlier, but we are doing better at waiting out the heat.  The proprietors of the only roadside stop in 30 miles in either direction don’t seem to find it at all out of the ordinary when we hang out there for 3 hours.

  • Eating well.  Honestly, a lot of the food in Mexico is not that healthy.  There’s no shortage of it, which is good, but a lot of it is high in sugars and fats.  Every few days we’ll indulge in a bakery binge, but Hartley and I are on the same page when it comes to health consciousness, so with food we get to prepare ourselves, we’re eating better than we likely would if depending on ready-to-eat and restaurant-prepared foods…as I would be were I on my own.

  • Riding hard.  We’ve had good luck with the winds, and several 100km+ days, despite 3+ hour mid-day siestas and carrying 10+ liters of water.  He’s a stronger rider than I am, but I’m the only one of us that ever points it out.

That’s everything that comes to mind at the moment.  Hartley and I will be parting ways when we get to La Paz in 7-10 days, from where he’ll take a ferry to the mainland, and I’ll hightail it to get to San Jose del Cabo in time for my flight to Detroit on May 9.  Meeting him by chance at the roadside cafe was clearly a defining event for my tour.  For his, it will be just a few weeks out of 6 months on the road (he’s going for another 2-3 months…until the money runs out).

I’ve only included a main image for this post because the wordpress app never fails to do something terrible when I try to include more images, but for anybody that’s reading this and hasn’t seen them already, I post images publicly (which I hope means you don’t need to have an account) at http://facebook.com/je.calvert .  Update, the wordpress app failed to upload even the single image (falsely reporting success).  I know the problem is not the internet here.  Meh, wp.  Meh.

Thanks for reading!!!


Author: jeremycalvert

Temporarily retired mathematician and software engineer currently tooling around on a bicycle.

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