South from San Felipe, Baja California Nord

Close to champala 4

“we gathered wood for the fire. ocotillo. mesquite. elephant tree. once ablaze we cooked fixings for hearty burritos of rice, beans, tuna, queso fresco, chiles and salsa. i decided it was time to cut some weight and crack open the nice bottle of tequila i had purchased for christmas. carsten and reiner were delighted by my surprise and we stayed up for hours drinking, smoking tobacco, and sharing stories.”

Punta willard 2 1

This is the third post in an ongoing series from writer, rider, musician and photographer Alex Dunn.  The most recent excerpt from travel in Baja can be found here, entitled “Oye Amigo!– Ensenada to San Felipe”. His first post, “Big Dummy”, details his Surly Big Dummy longtail bike and the first leg of his ride from San Francisco to San Diego.  Dig in!

christmas day. i swapped my tires from front to back since the rear had been wearing twice as fast, and did an oil change on the rohloff speedhub for good measure – now it shifts quite smooth. It’s good to be a little fastidious out on the road i suppose. good for a clean conscience at least.

erin and i decided we would head out of san felipe for puertecitos, despite the warnings to avoid drunken christmas drivers. we wagered that most people would actually be drunk and stuffing themselves on holiday feast at home with family, not driving around inebriated on a road to nowhere. we were also starting to get a little restless in the city sand, though very grateful for the chance of repose. so off we went in the late morning, quietly pedaling through the silent, vacant streets. past closed storefronts, the empty beach off the malecon, and out of town. it seems our drunken compatriots of the road were merely figments of a proud boast of communal deprecation. we encountered maybe four or five vehicles the entire 50 miles or so – all seemingly sober and unhurried.

the road was practically ours – mile after mile of smooth pavement like low rolling waves. the hot wind blew so fierce at our backs that pedaling was more of a charade, our bicycles more like giant sails pulling us forward down the highway. we really hadn’t to crank much at all and arrived in puertecitos in about 3 hours, quite impressive for such a heavy vehicle as mine. the sun soon began to touch the top of the dusty hills as we set up the tent beside some palapas in the bay, and after camp was made we rode up over the point to the hot springs. the springs themselves are actually tidal pools that change temperature as the tide comes in and goes out, requiring you to move pools as the water becomes too cold or too hot. we soaked that evening in a long, narrow slit at high tide with a young couple currently touring around baja and some mexican soldiers who had just been monitoring the springs from a house up the hill. tony has been riding his motorcycle around the united states and canada for the past year and now is venturing through mexico and beyond – his girlfriend follows him in her truck, with the comforts of a bed, a kitchen and true companionship. quite a nice set up really. his photos can be seen at http://www.intotheblueagain.com.

rising in the morning to yet another beautiful sunrise, we decided it best to spend the day in puertecitos soaking our tired bones in the thermal pools and relaxing (as if the life we lead is anything but). after a long breakfast of our usual porridge (oats, flaxseed, almonds, cranberries), fresh papaya (cuban), and several cups of coffee, we went back to the pools where we remained until sundown. while soaking i shared beer and conversation with an oceanographer from ensenada named juan. juan was there on a week vacation with his three beautiful children, camping on the beach two kilometers south. he was impressed with my endeavor and with my spanish and offered to get me more beer with his truck. realizing he had finished his last bottle, he drove off to the market and returned with several different mexican beers he wanted me to try. as we lay in the pools with his children, sharing an intercambio of spanish and english he asked what my dinner plans were. i replied that erin and i had no real plans as always, so he invited us to come to his family’s camp where he would cook us hamburguesas, papas fritas, chorizo verde (quite rare actually, compared to red chorizo), chili rellenos, and of course mas cerveza y tequila! certainly we inclined to do so, and once the night fell upon us we rode off to find their camp. the dinner and company were perfect and magical, as we shared food, drinks, laughter and traded more english and spanish.

this experience was just another prime example of the many acts of kindness and hospitality we have experienced in baja thus far. i have been thinking much lately about all the horror stories i’ve heard of kidnappings, thievery, rape, and whatever else a person of high anxiety can imagine. and i’ve realized that they all have been from people who know little to no spanish at all. it is quite practical, almost critical really, to have some sort of grasp of the language that is spoken in the land that you travel. or at least display a desire to learn. if you cannot connect, how do you know whether or not someone is offering you their generosity, or if they have an ulterior motive? it is no wonder that such a barrier only leads to misinterpretation and apprehension. you also may come across as self important and superior, alienating yourself and possibly being taken advantage of. people are people and the beautiful ones exist everywhere – baja is full of them. the world is full of them. common sense and compassion go far.

as our fogata turned to embers and our bellies tiredly full, we said our goodbyes, gave thanks and abrazos and rode back to our camp – no need for lights, for a full moon hanging from the clear black sky is the best lamp of all. before bedding down we stared up at the stars and relished in our great fortune. experiences like these are what sparks a lust for life.

On the way to puertecitos 2

Nuge

Puertecitos

Puertecitos springs 2

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Puertecitos to gonzaga

First day dirt from gonzaga 3

Porridge and papaya

First day dirt from gonzaga

First day dirt from gonzaga 2

morning. another perfect sunrise. porridge, fruit, coffee. bliss. will this ever end? just as i was finishing my breakfast a tall german man came strolling down the beach and approached me in such confident gaiety. he introduced himself as carsten and said that he and his best friend reiner had arrived themselves by bicycle the night before. they had started in san diego ten days prior and were headed south for the next two weeks. we talked of our mutual plans while looking at the map and he inquired if we should like to camp with them later that night. of course we welcomed the offer, though they were already prepared to leave and we still needed to wash up, pack, relax a little more.

shortly after, we said goodbye to puertecitos and peddled south again, up ample climbs immediately followed by wonderful descents with immaculate vistas. the wind was calm and the pace was steady over forty five miles of new, open pavement. we passed the german cyclists early on and played leap frog with them throughout the day, as each of us stopped frequently to take in the wide open expanses of the desert foothills falling gently into the sea of cortez. the pavement dropped off five miles before bahia gonzaga, and the sun hung heavy in the west. as we reached the crest of the last hill at punta willard a man in a truck came barreling along the dirt road, sliding to a sudden stop in front of us. he hopped out of the small pickup with his little chihuahua named daisy, yelling buenas tardes bicicleros!  he introduced himself as mario and asked where we were headed, from where we were coming, and related stories of his own adventures as a long distance runner and avid hiker (he claimed to have run the 50 mi from san felipe to bahia gonzaga many times, and to have hiked across the peninsula as well). he spoke little english, but was of course enthused by my grasp of spanish and he was he wildly excited by our bicycle exploits. he was headed to ensenada for four or five days but offered first to lead us a few miles out to his beachfront property where we could stay as long as we wanted and even enjoy his guest house (an airy trailer with no running water and a few broken windows). we abandoned ourselves to his offer and followed him out to the property just as the sun slipped away, trading its attention with the fast rising moon. he was quick to show us around, give hugs and wish us well before he and daisy jumped back into his truck and sped off in haste. mystified and elated by our unexpected gift, we set up camp wearing giant smiles, reiner whistling all the while.

after camp was made we gathered wood for the fire. ocotillo. mesquite. elephant tree. once ablaze we cooked fixings for hearty burritos of rice, beans, tuna, queso fresco, chiles and salsa. i decided it was time to cut some weight and crack open the nice bottle of tequila i had purchased for christmas. carsten and reiner were delighted by my surprise and we stayed up for hours drinking, smoking tobacco, and sharing stories. the two of them had met in boy scouts in germany and have remained best friends ever since. both of them are forty eight years old, but started cycletouring together at the age of twenty eight – for the past twenty years they have cycled in a new part of the world (pakistan, ethiopia, uganda, papua new guinea, iceland…) for their four weeks of winter vacation. i like to think that they have always ridden side by side, just as i would come to find them without fail over the following week.

as we continued to add wood to the fire, we returned to the topic of language as i discussed before. and as we delved deeper, we came to the language of the bicycle. our great benefactor mario was obviously connected to me via our ability to converse in spanish, but he was also linked to all of us through our means of conveyance. he was impressed with our desire to navigate a foreign land by method of such self sufficiency. we are not isolated within fast moving cars, nor reliant on the help of others as backpackers most often are. and though we move about on our own accord, our speed is such that we truly experience the roads, the land, the people that surround us. this is something that carsten and reiner said they have always experienced in every country they have toured. even if they can’t speak the language, people are always kind and generous and widely affected by the nature of the bicycle itself. so i say this – get out of your fast moving cars, strap your backpack to your bicycle, and engage in the land that you travel!

-a

Close to champala 3

Close to champala 2

20 year old trangia  german s

Coco s

Champala

“…as we delved deeper, we came to the language of the bicycle. even if they can’t speak the language, people are always kind and generous and widely affected by the nature of the bicycle itself. so i say this – get out of your fast moving cars, strap your backpack to your bicycle, and engage in the land that you travel!”

Long distance

All words and images: Alex Dunn

Coming soon: A good look at Coco’s Corner. Back to pavement and at long last, a desert oasis.

Oye Amigo!– Ensenada to San Felipe

Cañon la calentura 3

“…made me feel i had finally found what the hell it was i didn’t know i was looking for down in this godforsaken land.”

Highway 3  3

hey buddy -

just got into san felipe yesterday (staying at costa azul hotel on the beach for two nights for a much needed descansa and holiday treat), camped last night in a weird rv/camping site called las playas del sol (6 km from town) where a bunch of retired old folks think it would be nice to have a home away from home amongst some nice dirt and propped up mobile homes.  we were recommended to stay there by an elderly couple from victoria, british columbia, and their description was much nicer than actuality.  we stayed under some palapas and had the place to ourselves, and no one was around in the evening to accept our 15 bucks, nor were they there in the morn.  the view was spectacular and the residents were more than nice, but the communal amenities were rather sparse and dirty.  glad it was free.

prior to that we stayed at cayote cal’s for two nights, one night camping and the second inside due to crazy winds that were about to rip my tent in half.  the hostel was great, but the owner rick was a total arrogant ass.  it’s too bad his manager lulu (whom we met just upon departure) wasn’t there while we were, for she would have made the stay infinitely nicer.  rick seemed to be much more impressed by cycles with motors than ones powered by bi-peds, though he doesn’t ride himself for the great fear of falling.

the ride from coyote cal’s along highway 1 to the turnoff for cañón la calentura was made quite difficult and slow by an incredible side wind.  we went two miles past the turnoff before asking a farmer for directions, turned around and went back to the military checkpoint where we had semi-nervously passed the unmarked farm road.  the soldiers laughed but were impressed with our endeavor and happily directed us on our loco path.  after making it about ten miles down the sandy road we dipped off and hid in the bushes of a little slot canyon.  only a few cars passed in the night and we fell asleep under stars and silence.

the next day proved to be one of the more beautiful, yet challenging riding days i’ve ever had – those thirty miles of dirt were even tougher than the ninety mile push from hollywood to laguna beach.  such a beautiful way to travel, biking in solitude and dirt (reminded me of edward abbey’s proclamation to allow only feet, bikes, and hooves as a means of travel through national parks).  we only encountered two trucks passing, and a few men on horseback, nothing more but swirling sand and gusts of wind in the high desert.  the climbs were intense but the views were more than rewarding, made me feel i had finally found what the hell it was i didn’t know i was looking for down in this godforsaken land.

we finally reached the top of the pass and descended into a high, dried up lake bed where we started to run low on water.  close to the top of our last climb a truck came barreling down the road towards us and i stood with hand up, desperate to confirm our proximity to civilization.  the truck stopped and in confusion and awe, the four seemingly sketchy old fellows told me ten to fifteen more kilometers.  i waived them on and we immediately collapsed by the side of the road and stuffed our bellies with all the fats and sugars we had – even took big “nicholas carman” gulps of agave nectar, straight shot of glucose to the blood stream.  drinking the last of our water and high as kites we crested the final hill and could see lázaro cárdenas off in the distance.  the next eight miles or so were beautiful, slowly rolling down the washboard dodging frequent patches of what seemed like quicksand.  as we reached the ranchos outside of valle la trinidad, exhausted and parched, we had to evade quite a few packs of angry guard dogs – which proved rather difficult and frightening as we slid through the wash and repeatedly had to stop to throw rocks to ward them off.

finally, we reached valle la trinidad as the sun set and by luck rolled right into a nice, cheap hotel in the center of the quiet little pueblito of sand.  steaming hot showers, the best tacos of my life, a six pack of dos equis and twelve churros were my ultimate resolve for such a tedious day of pedaling.  the man and woman who ran the taquería asked if we were there just a year or two ago – was that you nick and lael?  I said no but told them of our recent adventure, and the man said we were ambitious fools for having ridden and camped on that road for only outlaws and bandits traveled through there, assaulting anyone else who tried to pass.  in retrospect maybe those men in the truck i stopped where crazy banditos who were too befuddled by my giant dirty bike and self to really think of assaulting me.  or maybe they wouldn’t have deemed any cyclist as worthy prey.  or maybe they were simply old cowboys headed to a dusty ranch and that taco man’s worries only reflected a universal fear that many have of remote places.  i take the latter.

rising early to thaw our milk for the morning’s coffee, we packed up and headed north of town where the sandy road finally met up with the pristine pavement of highway 3.  heading east we stopped at the last outpost for water and tortillas and by chance crossed paths with an ex-military man from fort louis washington passing through with his wife and father.  they had been coming down here for fifteen years, sailed around the entire peninsula and even done a three week cattle run in the area with a mexican cowboy friend of theirs.  he assured us of the safety of the region and insisted that we camp only twenty five miles or so in the valle santa clara on the southeastern foot of the sierra san felipe.  and that we did, after a relaxing, gradual drop down such a grade of road that would make any cyclist blush.  hardly ever needing to pedal, banking through mellow canyon turns and cruising along smooth highway in high gear, shooting off into great expanses of only more sand and cactus scattered in the bright light– this truly was the most beautiful ride so far.

we climbed off our bikes around 2pm and pushed them a quarter mile off the road through sand and mesquite, constantly evading the dreaded jumping cholla cactus – those little buggers gave us such annoyance they even haunted erin in her sleep that night.  we set up camp out of sight of the highway, dug a big fire pit and had infinite mesquite for fuel.  when the sun fell the heat turned immediately to a dry, piercing cold, perfectly illuminated by the extreme clarity of the desert moon.

waking with the coyotes and leaving erin cocooned in her bag i went on a two mile hike by my self through the changing darkness, black to blue, and gathered firewood for sunrise coffee and porridge.  i’m learning how to steal away from my companion for these brief moments of much needed solitude.  when she rose we packed up and continued our glorious decent.  after four days of riding alone on dirt roads and highway, we came to the military checkpoint where highway 3 meets highway 5.  the soldados asked to go through our bags and quickly realized we had nothing but dirty cloths, food and camp gear.  impressed by the preparedness of my surly big dummy bicycle and a gringo’s ability to speak spanish, they happily wished us luck along the way…

–we are gonna stay the next two days in san felipe, maybe leave on christmas but locals are warning us of drunks on the road so maybe we’ll wait till the 26th.  time to switch the tires from front to back – the rear is getting quite warn already and has some little tears from glass probably.  the front still looks brand new.

i’ll send photos tomorrow.

hearts from erin,
me too,

-a

Erendira  south san isidro

Baja California is traversed north to south by the main Transpeninsular Highway, which was unpaved until the mid 1970’s.  Today, it is trafficked by gringo tourists and locals.  Some long-range truck traffic is present, mainly serving the larger cities in the southern cape region such as La Paz and Cabo San Lucas.  South of Ensenada, a short paved road leads from the main highway to the town of San Isidro on the Pacific Coast.  This is a popular surfing hang, and is home to the aforementioned hostel with mixed reviews.

As secondary roads are paved at a rapid rate, now is the time to visit Baja. Plentiful backcountry riding opportunities abound.

San isidro 2

San isidro 4

Returning to the main Transpeninsular Highway, or Carretera 1, a small dirt road crosses a low mountain range to connect with Hwy.  3, which eventually leads toward the Sea of Cortez.  This road can be found amidst farmland south of San Vincente along Hwy 1, and meets Hwy 3 at Lazaro Cardeñas.

First night cañon la calentura

Big man make big bike look little

The road passes through farmland for a few miles, then narrows into the Cañon la Calentura and climbs nearly 1500ft to a pass.  It steadily descends the other side before settling onto an elevated plain near the town of Lazaro Cardeñas.  This is a great road, and a nice introduction to dirt road touring in Baja when approaching from the north.  From pavement to pavement it is a single day’s ride, although camping near the top of the pass is recommended.

Cañon la calentura 4

Camp  SE foot sierra san felipe 2

Highway 3 crosses the peninsula from Ensenada on the Pacific Coast to Hwy 5, near the salty marshes of the northern Gulf (Sea of Cortez).  Hwy 5 connects the California border near Mexicali (and Calexico) with San Felipe, a popular beach town to the south on the Gulf of California.  While San Felipe is a quick trip for many San Diegans and Arizonans, it is much more peaceful than Tijuana, Rosarito and Ensenada on the Pacific Coast.  It is one of many retirement/expatriate communities on the peninsula where Americans and Canadians seemingly outnumber Mexicans in winter.

Erin rides a vintage Specialized Stumpjumper, re-imagined with an more upright position and versatile 26×2.1″ Continental Town and Country tires.  She asked me how she might free some space in her panniers and balance her load toward the front of the bike.  Over the phone, I recommended she strap a drybag to the handlebars.  I was surprised to see it secured above the bars, presumably because it interfered with the exposed brake cable running to her front cantilever brake.  I like to think that it may provide a measure of safety in the event of a collision, like an airbag.

Hwy 3  6

Sunrise SESF 2

Camping along the shallow waters of the northern Gulf near San Felipe.  South of San Felipe, past Puertecitos, the pavement ends once again…

Palapa camping san felipe 4

Palapa camping san felipe 2

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Jumping cholla sunrise

“…and that we did, after a relaxing, gradual drop down such a grade of road that would make any cyclist blush.  hardly ever needing to pedal, banking through mellow canyon turns and cruising along smooth highway in high gear, shooting off into great expanses of only more sand and cactus scattered in the bright light– this truly was the most beautiful ride so far.”  

Hwy 3  4

All images: Alex Dunn