Matt and Jenny continue their bikepacking trip down the Baja Divide Route, on board Salsa Fargo bicycles.
Welcome to the “middle” of our Baja Divide trip! This blog post starts up where the “beginning” left off. As a bit of a recap, the first blog post covers the initial 11 days of our trip from San Diego all the way to the Mex 1 town of Cataviña some 460 miles later. We certainly experienced many lessons during that first week and a half, and I think you’ll notice a change in tone as you read the “middle” portion of our journey.
Still feeling groggy from running my battery down too low, I was slow to rouse myself and investigate what the morning had to offer on day twelve. Jenny was sporting her usual enthusiasm, urging me to come “check it out” and see what nature had graced us with outside of the community center. I peered out the door-less portal of the building and thought for sure we were inside a cloud. A fog so dense that anything moving through it would be covered in moisture that had rolled in off the ocean. I was glad we had the shelter of the community center to keep us dry.
Feeling a bit wobbly as I emerged from the building, I took in a deep breath of the moisture-laden air and my lungs fully expanded for what seemed to be the first time this entire trip. The mind is a mysterious thing. How could I go from feeling so low the day before to waking up and feeling elated the next? I suppose some things are better left alone, and I was grateful to feel well and ready to pedal onward. After a quick breakfast and packing up camp, we rolled into the clouds that surrounded us with much excitement. The dense moist air had never felt so good on our dry lungs and skin. My wool shirt became heavy with water and I had to remove my glasses and we made our way towards the mighty Pacific Ocean. I spotted a beautiful spider web off the side of the road made golden by the sun’s rays piercing through the clouds, and we took several photos and smiled with the hand we had been dealt.
On day twelve we would not be thwarted in any way shape or form. The day was meant to be ours, and we were not oblivious to our good fortune. I felt as if the entire tide had turned in our favor, and perhaps for the first time on the trip, the miles came easy. We came quickly around sweeping bends and were graced with views of the coastline below us. In no time, we were upon the small fishing village of San Jose Del Faro, known for its lobster fishing this time of year. Alas, 10 a.m. was a bit too early for tequila and lobster. We had timed that poorly, and instead we passed onward to our own alcove overlooking the ocean for cookies and a beverage. After our prior experience, I was sure to hydrate well and often, and the views afforded us made stopping for a rest that much more appetizing. Whereas the day before the journey to El Cardon had seemed an impossible 65-mile trek, today it was well within reach. With the wind at our backs, we had a spirited pace and only stopped to enjoy the scenery, not because we desperately needed the rest. Our confidence was high with an ample store of water, and we drank our fill knowing that we would find more in the next day or so. A small hand-made sign pointed the way to the El Cardon camping spot, and we careened down the steep road to a beautiful beach surrounded by dunes. There were several vehicles present and all had surf boards atop them. We made haste to find a spot for our tent and relieved ourselves of our steeds in favor of inspecting the beach. Not long after arriving we were greeted by a friendly group of surfers with a prime spot to share. As we set up our tent, one of their crew came with an offering of cold cervezas and the promise of more if we should be interested in joining them. A dip in the ocean followed by a sunset viewing from atop the dune would serve as the icing on our cake day of riding. The evening hours were spent getting to know our new friends, eating their delicious food, and imbibing in their cold beverages. And so was the first day of the “middle” of our journey.
Naturally, as is the ebb and flow of the Baja Divide, there was a toll to pay for such a luxurious day. That toll would be the 20-some-odd-miles of wash-boarded road to the small oceanside settlement of Santa Rosalillita. The last few miles into town were paved and glorious indeed. Not sure of our next move, we elected to stock up on goods and fluid at the small store in town as well as gorge ourselves a bit before departing. It was quite possible to make it to the next point on the route of Rosarito, but we would not be fooled twice. The route was back to its old tricks, and we plodded along, but at least we were in plain view of the ocean and had the time to enjoy a sit wherever we pleased. Having pondered much of what was available to think about, we had recently begun allowing ourselves to enjoy some music as we rode and typically reserved it for dawdling sections or ones of particular note. The trip guide informed us that the road up from the ocean to Mex 1 was merely a rugged jeep track so in went the earbuds. I found that having some upbeat music with a good cadence did wonders for riding the chunky and slow terrain that was omnipresent. I queued up the Lonerism album by Tame Impala and set about picking my way through the chunky rocks in the midday sun. Something had most certainly changed in our demeanor and even this rugged terrain evoked a smirk on our faces as we chugged along steadily. Sweat poured down on the toptube and Garmin, but it felt good to churn the pedals. Popping out onto Mex 1 and pavement, we cruised on into Rosarito in the late afternoon. It felt great to have another day of covering good ground and feeling well. We checked into some basic roadside lodging and hit the restaurant next door for some hot food. We were looking forward to the next leg as we would be traversing the peninsula over to the Sea of Cortez which we had yet to lay eyes on!
Awaking early, we eagerly packed our gear and elected on another quick meal at the restaurant to fuel up for what could be a long day. It would be a slow upward grind to the Mision San Franciso de Borja up in the mountains. The terrain changed not so subtly along the way from low desert cacti and shrubs to towering Cardon cacti and Cirios trees. It was crazy to think that in two days or so, we would be traversing the whole peninsula from the Pacific Ocean to the Sea of Cortez, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The pedal upward was enjoyable if not slow. We approached the Spanish mission site around the heat of the day, and we promptly located a palapa in the plaza under which to park and relax. A nice gentleman approached us – the property owner – and had a seat to enjoy some idle conversation. He kindly offered to give us a tour of the mission, and we couldn’t say no. Although we were on a trek to get to the southern end of the peninsula, we still wanted to allot ourselves the time to take in history and meet new people. It was great to tour around the old structure and hear the stories from this gentleman’s perspective. He had grown up there and spent nearly his whole life in the area and the mission. It was worthwhile to take a few hours out of our day to learn about the area and our guide. He kindly took us to his spring and let us fill up with ice cold water before waving goodbye. We climbed more before we were granted a descent towards the ocean. It’s thrilling to crest the highest point in a day and know that it was “all downhill from here.” The daylight had grown long as did the shadows while we wound a serpentine path through the mountainous desert. It looked like we would make it to the next stop; Bahia de Los Angeles!
The guide designed by Lael and Nick has a couple of pages boiled down to mileage, location, services, and mileage in between. These two pages were the most heavily consulted, and the locations are either in a normal font or bold for large towns/oases. It’s always a bit exciting when you’re approaching a location listed in bold as there is almost certainly going to be a restaurant and somewhere to lay your head. Bahia de Los Angeles was one of those locations, and it was also exciting because it marked being over 1/3 of the way into our journey! Cresting the last roller on the small paved highway into town, we caught breathtaking views of the Sea of Cortez at dusk. We were giddy, stoked, jazzed, excited, and any other term you can conjure up. Rolling into town, we wandered the area as was typical in search of somewhere to eat and rest. As we stood in the street mulling over our options, I spied a curious sight heading down the road; a fully decked out off-road bicycle complete with friendly rider! It had become a game since before we even started to see who was on the route, where they were, and whether or not we might cross paths with them. This was our first encounter with another Baja Divide rider, and it was one of the two Italians known on Instagram as @becycling! We exchanged greetings finally meeting Daniele who was in search of some repair items for his bike. He was kind and shared the information on the area which helped us make some quick decisions. We bid him adieu and figured we’d cross paths again shortly. Following some hand-painted signs, we found a great place to rent for the evening and unloaded ourselves of the gear. Casually strolling down the hillside, the energy between us was noticeable. I had yet to put my finger on the change in our demeanor. As we ordered food at a roadside stand and sat down on a small table overlooking the ocean it hit us all at once, we had finally hit our stride! I suppose after the ups and downs of the first week we were reluctant to admit it, but things were going great and, we were on a roll. We celebrated with shrimp tacos and soaked in the good vibes of the town. It felt great to truly feel in tune with the ride and have our legs beneath us – things were going well, and we were stoked! After assessing our schedule, we elected that this would be the perfect time to soak in the good fortune and take a rest day just kicking around the beach and giving our bodies a well-deserved break. It would be our first full day off the route.
A rest day can be a strange thing when you’ve been moving every day for two weeks. The ritual of packing up in the morning and hitting the road was delayed for the future. We had no goal destination or oasis in mind for a midday snack. Just the two of us, wandering around a foreign town amiably. Naturally, we hit the beach on fully unloaded bikes and pedaled along the ocean. Out on a point in the bay, there was an amazing array of seashells and remnants of crustaceans. Like kids, we squatted down to check out each new shape and color, and if it were interesting enough, we would run over and consult each other. We took photos, we dug holes, we waded in, and relaxed. It’s a strange concept to know you’ve traveled over 1,000 kilometers only by your own power to somewhere so remote, and it’s a concept we embraced. I suppose I’ve dawdled enough, but it’s tough because there’s so much that happened and so much I want to tell you about. If you want to know everything, then find me to grab some beers.
Onward and forward to the next destination. The next section was rumored to have sand; big surprise. The leg from Bahia to Vizcaino is 140 miles and what I’d describe as mildly remote. There are ranches and some houses, but generally, it’s not a busy stretch. The Italians had leap frogged us and were somewhere ahead. It was a fun game to look at tracks in the sand and try to figure out who it was, and we had come to know the track of the BeCycling duo. A quick visit to Poncho at San Rafael filled our minds with stories and our bellies with his leftovers. It was time for a few nights of desert camping, and we were excited to be back out under the stars after two nights indoors. We made a long push that day, and anyone that’s been bike or backpacking will understand this feeling. It’s that feeling when you don’t exactly know where you’re gonna camp, and the sun is getting low. That feeling when every spot you look at just isn’t quite right. You’re ready to be done, but you’re being a bit fussy about finding just the right campfire spot, or rock to sit on, or wood to burn. Then, finally, you step off the trail a bit and find the perfect one. I both love and loathe that feeling. Well, we found our spot beneath a giant Cardon cactus with great sitting rocks and even a large boulder bar for making backcountry margaritas. It was a glorious evening.
Picking up the pace – don’t fall asleep yet por favor – we fought the sand, but the sand didn’t win. Miles and miles of sand, only interrupted by one super steep mountain pass road that they paved so it wouldn’t wash away. The tracks were still there. At Rancho Piedra Blanca we finally reunited with the BeCycling crew. It was a blazing hot day, and we sat idly under a thatch roof, finally all four of us meeting in person. We felt like our trip of 1,800+ miles was big, but these fine folks were on a whole other trek. Having crossed several continents already, they were en route to South America. You should google BeCycling and look them up on Instagram, Daniele takes some amazing photos. In any event, we parted ways as our paces differed and we knew at some point we’d see them again. Not far ahead we were faced with a route decision; take the “official” route and potentially face tens of miles of deep sand or take a secondary route and cruise the highway into town. We had yet to make any serious compromises on the official route and feeling good, we elected to face the unknown. Long story short, it wasn’t that bad. I think when you get this idea in your head of just how bad it might be, and it’s even just one notch easier, it’s a huge mental win. We enjoyed yet another fine backcountry campsite and awoke to a mysterious fog. The town of Vizcaino lay ahead, and it was an important milestone as it’s the halfway between the start and the southern town of San Jose del Cabo. The stoke was real.
Vizcaino is a vibrant Mex 1 town with all the services one could ask for. Showing up to town early, we had tacos and ceviche for brunch which hit the spot. It was time for some WiFi so that we could check-in back home, post some Instagrams, and see what was up. Glad we grabbed some internet because we had a message from BeCycling that they had also rolled into town. We made plans to join them for dinner and set about sampling the local cuisine for the remainder of the day. It’s an amazing experience to make friends from abroad while traveling abroad. We were lucky to share a meal and stories together, as well as celebrate Simona’s birthday! Hearts and stomachs full, we retired for the evening to discuss the next leg of the trip. The section between Vizcaino and San Ignacio has a fair bit of riding on Mex 1 as there simply aren’t any great routes through the surrounding desert. We dutifully followed the route and enjoyed the quick miles on the not-so-busy highway. Alas, all good things must come to an end, and we turned off the highway onto some soft and rugged roads. The next turn was even less inviting with yet deeper sand. Just when we thought we’d seen the worst of it, the silty sand began. Sand is one thing, but this powdery sand of the devil is just wrong. When you step on it, you’re immediately enveloped in a cloud like Pigpen from the cartoon Peanuts. It coats the drivetrain and makes some of the worst creaks and groans imaginable. But we were loyalists so onward we trekked. The heat and sand walking wouldn’t have been the end of the world, but when the flies showed up it was sort of the last straw. We found shade beneath a Cardon and consulted the route and GPS. We were approaching a paved road where we could bail out to the highway. This was good news.
The road improved as did our attitudes. Upon meeting the paved road, we paused for a bit, and I employed my famous tactic of informing Jenny it was “up to her.” Ha! What a great way to shirk any form of culpability. We’re still dumb enough I suppose, so onward with the route which immediately deteriorated again to soft silty sand. After one of our longest days on the route, we limped into the small oasis of San Ignacio and located the hostel we had heard about. It was exciting not only to see our BeCycling friends but also new folks traveling various routes down the peninsula. What a day, capped with tacos and animal cuddles. The next leg from San Ignacio to Mulegé is an interesting one. You could easily just ride down Mex 1 in a day or so and roll into the wonderful oasis of this old mission town. The other option is to ride away from it to the Pacific Coast then traverse a storm damaged mountain road all the way back to the Sea of Cortez. The route says the latter is the ideal way, so we followed. We were whisked along a paved road, wind at our backs, to the Pacific Coast. Between the heat, several miles of washboard and suspect tacos the night before, I was feeling less than stellar. Arriving at the coast, I motioned for us to find a shaded spot and have a bit of rest. Crouching beneath an abandoned truck camper, I sipped water and relaxed. Jenny being the ever kind soul she is applied her loving attention to me, and I felt a bit better if only just mentally. This leg of the route is known for extremely minimal resources, and there would be no hotel or bed to recover on. Lucky for me, the rough and sandy roads gave way to salt flats shortly thereafter. These salt flats were wonderful, and some of the smoothest riding the entire trip. As the heat relented and the sunlight softened, I began to recover. Good fortune was certainly on our side as we came across a snack truck in the middle of the salt flats. The driver was stopped having a chat on his phone when we approached. Checking to see if he was ok, he nodded and waved, but this would not be enough to satisfy my wife. You see, Jenny has a love of all snacks salty and Mexican. It was as if she had met a Hollywood crush in person. She fumbled a bit with words and professed her love of Barcel chips. The driver was a clever fellow and could read the way to her heart. Out he climbed and dug into the back of his mobile warehouse. “Would you like jalapeño or sea salt.” Sea Salt it would be, and onward we went. I had witnessed perhaps one of the happiest moments in my wife’s life.
Stealth camping in the salt flats is rad, the stars are dialed, and it’s utterly still at night. A good night’s sleep, tasty food, and ample water had me running on all cylinders again. Our next target was the fishing village of El Datil, and it was a critical one. This would be the last potential resupply for the next 100 miles, and it barely qualified as a village. The one market in town, run out of a woman’s house, had mostly barren shelves, but the proprietor was kind enough to fill our water jugs from her own personal filtered stash. The next section that lay ahead was described as extremely storm damaged, rugged, remote, and hard to navigate in spots. It was foreboding, and the approach wasn’t much easier. On these long and difficult sections, our approach was to tackle as many miles as possible and rest once we hit a town. Making the turn into the canyon, we weren’t even sure if it was a road at all. Rocks upon rocks comprised a meager path, and the GPS showed it crossing the arroyo, but our eyes told us otherwise. After some considerable wandering, we put our faith in the line on the screen and picked our way through the boulder field. I wondered what we had gotten ourselves into. Finally, on the other side, I clambered up the bank to find a two-track that looked as if it were recently used. Goats bounded about leaving their digested food nuggets on the path as they trotted in excitement. Relief poured over us as we navigated up the canyon and came to an actual homestead. We didn’t expect to see anyone let alone a homestead out here. We were warmly greeted by the owners and welcomed into their home for snacks and a drink. The matriarch was clearly an entrepreneur in this forlorn landscape and urged us to tell everyone we knew they could stop here and even camp if they choose. Such kind people in a remote canyon in the Baja Peninsula. We got the beta on an oasis up the canyon where there was surface water complete with palm trees. Pesos and gratitude exchanged, we hurried up the road to find our home for the evening. They were spot on and we enjoyed every minute of that campsite. The water was a windfall, and I carefully filtered then treated it as there were numerous livestock present.
The remote and rugged canyon between El Datil and Mulege was one of the highlights of the trip. Although extremely difficult, the camping and solitude were hard to beat. The views and ecosystems were amazing, with layers of mountains, oases, and wildlife. This section would also be one of the toughest for Jenny. The terrain was extremely challenging with innumerable water crossings, massive cobblestone fields, and deep sand. The floods that mangle this terrain leave in their wake a most difficult to manage path. I had to call upon all my mountain biking skills to cleanly ride the fields of stone and steep pitches and gave up on trying to stay dry while crossing the water. I was most proud of Jenny during these two days of riding for quietly pushing on despite the pain and struggle. Our feet took a beating from being constantly wet and chafed with sand and rocks. It was now my turn to console and tend to her needs as she had done multiple times for me already. At first, I failed miserably with unsolicited advice for the water crossings and bike riding which she was clearly proficient at. Seeing my error, I quickly turned about and unearthed chocolate from my frame bag as a consolation. A rub on the back and reassurance was all that was truly necessary. The final death throes of the ascent were brutal with steep pitches followed by harrowing descents. When we finally reached the top, it was with great relief. Theoretically, it was “all downhill from there.” Camp was camp, and the rest of the arroyo was not keen on surrendering us to Mulegé without a fight. If you could skip and prance on a bike, I’m sure we would have coasted into town. Just as I witnessed Jenny light up with glee at the sight of the Barcel truck, she witnessed me fill with happiness as we sat down at the counter of Magos Bakery for all things bread.
When you’ve hit your stride, it can be hard to slow your roll. Our pace just came easy, and we loved the rhythm we had found in our daily lives. We once again crossed paths with Daniele and Simona in the old mission town. They encouraged us to stick around an extra day as others would soon be arriving and it would be a good time. Jenny and I consulted one another – we had already dawdled most of a day and wandered about. Surely there was more to see but we had become restless. We just loved the nomadic lifestyle and looked forward to what lay ahead each day. We pressed on. It’s not that we didn’t want to spend time with friends, but, rather, we were compelled to return to the road. After the exhausting push over the mountains to Mulegé, we did decide that the day would be short. We had heard wonderful things about Bahia Concepcion and were keen to see for ourselves. We elected to take the road route as opposed to the boat crossing to the far edge. The winds were far too strong for boats that day, and we liked the idea of finding a nice beach along with a stand serving ceviche, shrimp tacos, and empanadas. It didn’t take long before we found a pleasant stretch of beach named El Coyote with palapas for rent and several nearby food stands. No time was wasted unloading and strutting about the beach. I lazily cruised over to the Mercado and grabbed a six-pack of Tecate to soothe our sore muscles for the day. It was a true beach day complete with great food, lounging, barefoot walks, and a campfire under the stars. The next section promised more rugged canyons, little chance for re-supply, and ample mileage.
We reveled in the paved miles as the road hugged the water’s edge of Bahia Concepcion. Fueled by empanadas for breakfast, we powered over the short pass and ripped the descent down to the truck stop of El Rosarito. There is little to El Rosarito other than a dining establishment and a working farm. The service was good, and the food was better. Before every long remote push, we gorged ourselves on frijoles, tortillas, ceviche, and huevos to keep the fire burning strong. The rugged terrain ebbed and flowed in difficulty, but we were feeling strong and confident. Backcountry campsite selection became second nature, and we were greeted in this ecosystem by the magnificent Tarantula. We met several large furry friends along the way just ambling down the remote desert roads. The terrain would dive deep into lush canyons with fresh water, date palms, and cool shade. A brief stop in San Jose de Comondu revealed a store without its proprietor. Lucky for us, Jenny is a social creature equipped with great Spanish-speaking skills, so it wasn’t long before a kind inhabitant topped off our water stores for the next leg. More climbs and more descents. Our legs were strong and hardened beneath the sun’s rays. I’ll never forget the sights of these mission country canyons stretching in every direction for an unidentifiable distance. San Javier provided a pleasant oasis for both food and rest. The small town burrowed deep in the mountains was quiet but well kempt. Waking in the early morning, we were greeted by towns folk sweeping the street and attending to morning chores. We had a big push ahead of us if we wanted to get to the next oasis, but we were prepared to sleep in the wilderness. The apple in our eye was the small town of Ley Federal de Aguas, and it lay somewhere over the mountains. The guide noted that there were several water crossings and I knew Jenny wouldn’t be too keen on that detail.
The road leaving San Javier is pleasant enough and follows the valley along a serpentine waterway. These arroyos are interesting because while there is persistent water in many of them, it isn’t always on the surface. We arrived at the turn off for our route into the mountains and said goodbye to the wide and twisting road. The climb up wasn’t all that bad, and we managed the water crossings without getting our feet soaked. The temperature slowly crept up on us throughout the day, and by the time we stopped for lunch, it was taking its toll on us. Hunkered down in a small canyon, I made some noodles and prepared a hearty lunch for the stretch ahead. The road was deteriorating, and I knew we’d need our strength to press on. The next several hours dragged on for an eternity with sandy water crossings followed by piles of river stone. I’d push on then wait a bit for Jenny to rejoin me to be sure we didn’t get too far apart. Although I knew the water crossings and terrain were taking their toll, she didn’t complain that I could hear. My favorite time of day was the last few hours before sunset when the temperatures dropped, and the light softened. We rolled into town just in time for the store to open for the evening, and as happens when you shop for food whilst hungry, we grabbed more than we needed. The proprietor of the water purification center engaged in conversation with us and was very helpful in giving options for where we might stay. She said we could stay in the town square without an issue, and we were too tired to choose otherwise.
We quickly discovered that the town square is the hot spot for the local youth. Not long after setting up camp in the pavilion we noticed groups of kids and teenagers congregating amongst us. Naturally, we were an oddity, and it was only fair that they were curious. All was well until the sunset and the hours ticked by with a group of local teens carrying on loudly into the late hours. I did my best to tune it out, but they came right up to the pavilion and carried on yet louder still. It’s not my home; be patient I tried telling myself. They’ll get tired and go away soon enough. Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore, and I jumped up from my sleeping back and approached the edge of the pavilion. “Can I practice my Spanish with you?” I asked in my broken Spanish. They looked at each other in surprise at this ghostly apparition whom uttered their own language. Cautiously they approached, and I engaged them with the worst Spanish anyone has heard this side of the Rio Grande. My questions were supremely mundane ranging from “What do you do for fun?” to “Do you like basketball?”. It wasn’t long before they were kicking at the ground and dropping like flies. My tactic had worked, I had officially bored them to near death!
The ride into Ciudad Constitucion was a paltry 26 miles and we knocked it out in time to get there for brunch. Here we were, two-thirds of the way to the end of our journey and only 170 miles from the bustling city of La Paz. It was surreal to think we had made it this far, and it was probably the first time where we began talking about the end of the ride, and how long it might take to get to Cabo San Lucas, our end goal. It took us 28 days to pedal to Constitucion, and it was hard to comprehend that in a week we could be standing in Cabo. We ate well that day and celebrated our success of having made it that far. No major mechanicals or issues had befallen us outside of the dehydration scandal and some minor discomforts. Now we were facing the end of the ride, however, and it wasn’t something we could wrap our heads around. This had become our life. We took well to living a nomadic life and actually thrived once acclimated. What would we do when it was all over? How would we feel when there was no more land left to pedal south? Guess you’ll just have to stay tuned for the “end” and third part of this blog series now won’t ya?
TO BE CONCLUDED…STAY TUNED FOR PART THREE…