BAJA CALIFORNIA, MEXICO, 26th November – 8th December 2018
“It is a sh!thole” Eric said (I’m taking you back again to the little shack of a restaurant by the route 1 where we met Eric on a Baja roadtrip with his son Jackson).
“A sh!ithole?” I repeated a little surprised about the use of such language from the otherwise very positive and well-behaved American.
“You didn’t hear me say that” Eric said to Jackson, and then repeated to me: “It is a real sh!ithole.”
Eric was talking about the next bigger town, Guerrero Negro, that Chris and I were aiming for as a place to stay a couple of nights in a hotel some hundred kilometers down the road. We had not had a shower for many days, so instead Eric suggested we’d take our time to stop in San Ignacio, the oasis town another 150 kilometres past the so-called sh!thole. We carried these words with us, building our desert fantasies about what was waiting ahead. However, later I encountered my map and could see that there supposedly were several pizzarias in Guerrero Negro, and after having eaten nothing but various versions of tortillas (corn or flour pancakes) with beans, cheese and avocado for days, we decided that it couldn’t be so bad that we were not going to go at least for a pizza there.
These fantasies pulled us forward while our eyes constantly searched the road behind us for the silhouette of a cyclist. And the next morning when we sat by the road for a little snack break, we finally saw the first one. A dark little figure appearing in the distance that soon took the shape of a touring cyclist. We ran excitedly down to the road to meet Nick, a British man well beyond his youth who had begun his ride in Alaska and was hoping to make it all the way to Ushuaia, but pointing at his greying hair considering that maybe he was getting too old for it. I was sure he could do it. He was a real Brit using all kinds of funny words that don’t really exist in real English like the rest of the world speak and he was speaking rather casually about his toilet preferences in his sophisticated British accent. I loved it. Nick cycled faster than us (of course), spurred on by the promise of a hotel in Guerrero Negro (although Chris told him it was a real sh!thole), but we were lucky to catch him up in a colourful little restaurant 35 kilometres further along the road. Here we continued swapping stories and experiences from the road while eating cheap, but delicious bean sandwiches, just like we had dreamed about doing. Then Nick’s wife called and we heard him tell her about us and also that he now didn’t know how long he would stay in Guerrero Negro as it apparantly was a real sh!thole. I started to feel a solid and possibly unfair rumour was spreading beyond control about Guerrero Negro. Also I was really stunned by how many times English-speaking gentlemen had used the word ‘sh!thole’ in the last 24 hours.
We didn’t see Nick again. He pressed on to a hotel by the main road outside Guerrero Negro and quickly cycled on the next day, possibly bypassing the sh!thole altogether. We on the other hand didn’t get much further than the little cafe town that day. There was such a nice little colourful park by a yellow church where it was good to just sit for a bit and observe Mexican village life. It was peaceful, not much was going on. Until the bell rang in the school across the street and a joyous cheer rose over the roof. The children ran out into the freedom of the rest of the day and to their parents who had gathered outside waiting to bring them home. Witnessing these little moments of everyday life that seems so alike, so universal all over the world despite all cultural and political circumstances gave me that good feeling that the world overall is a good place.
We arrived in Guerrero Negro by midday the next day. I could see nothing sh!thole’ish about it. It looked like a very ordinary Mexican town, meant in the best of ways, full of colourful houses, colourful shops and restaurants, taco street stalls with people having their lunch and a good selection of hotels too. We had planned to spend that night in a hotel and so we could have the rest of the day off and we soon checked into a very cheap one in the middle of the town. We walked around the town a good bit to find the pizza places and do some shopping and I really thought it was a shame that Eric and we had spread such a badmouthed rumour about Guerrero Negro so that Nick had bypassed it, as it was exactly such an ordinary place that were on the top of my wish list of travelling experiences. I was not after the highlights and tourist attractions, but the real world and here it was.
So after one night in the hotel, we were not ready to leave. Instead we found a colourful little restaurant and had another cheap, but delicious bean sandwich while a Mexican soap opera was playing on the tv and we could watch the street outside from our red plastic chairs. This was just great. Suddenly, the normality of the Mexican town picture was disturbed by three white people on bikes cycling down the street. With our mouths full of sandwiches we were too slow to stop them, but I was sure they were cycle tourers although they didn’t have bags on their bikes. What else could they be? There was a restaurant out by the main road that hosted cyclists and my theory was that they were staying out there. Fortunately a fourth cyclist appeared a little later and Chris ran out to talk with him. The French man Harvey confirmed my theory, they were four cyclists camping by the restaurant and taking a day off like us. Instead of spending another night in a hotel we therefore decided to join the group, as this was exactly what we had hoped for. Meeting other cyclists, swap stories with them, cycle with them, talk with someone else than each other, play games with them and perhaps find new companions for our southbound adventure.
So this we did. With the restaurant seeing many cyclists pass by they had generously opened up their back yard for cyclists to camp for free. Here we could have a shower, rest and hang out in the shade and in the evening we could conveniently eat in the restaurant, that didn’t seem to have many other customers. It was a very fine arrangement for everyone and the friendly, young man who welcomed us later cooked up special dinners for us all after the restaurant was closed. It was such a rare pleasure for us to be with other people we could easily talk with and understand – and such nice people they were too. Harvey only had few words in English, but Michel from Montreal also had French as his first language, and the Canadian girls Erica and Christina had learned French well in school. Therefore the conversations danced between English and French around the table as we learned about Michels plans to cycle a two-year Tour de America down to Ushuaia and back up to Canada again, about the Canadian girls’ jobs as cycling guides out of Canmore, the little town Chris and I also had spent the summer in, meaning that we actually had all been in the same place six months earlier. And about Harvey’s many cycle trips around in the world that he did in 3-4months stages in the winter season when he was off from his job as a mountain guide in the Alps. The evening was golden, social moments like these hold so much value to me during this trip.
It came as no surprise that all the other cyclists were faster than us, but because Chris and I were the most experienced desert campers among us (the others mostly camped by people’s houses and in towns) and suggested we’d all camp together out between the cactuses and under the stars, they adjusted their rhythm and we all leap-frogged past each other throughout the day. A mighty tailwind also helped Chris and I to keep a decent speed and the 90 kilometres we rode along a rather monotonous stretch of the desert road didn’t take much effort. So when we all had pushed our bikes through the deep sand and zig-zagged between cactuses to our desert camp site, everyone had plenty of energy for the Eureka Ball tournament that Chris quickly arranged. I love Chris’s endless enthusiasm for playing games, but I must admit I don’t possess the same amount as him, although his often transmits to me and I find more than I thought I had. But what I love even more is to see how it also transmits to others, and how this evening six very adult strangers immediatey threw themselves into his self-invented game with cheers, dives in the sand and shouts of ‘Eureka’ as if everything depended on it. Those smiles and that energy that the game created between us was priceless. (And if you want to know the results and highlights of the tournament you must consult Chris’s other blog).
We didn’t expect that the rapid hares (the other cyclists) would hang around for the two tortoises any longer despite all the fun we had had in the desert as they all wanted to get past San Ignacio that day, whereas we planned another rest day in the oasis (we were getting a hang of those rest days, yes). A puncture on my rear wheel delayed our progress further, however Erica also had some flats, Michel was generally taking his time in the morning and Harvey seemed to try and time his ride with Michel (seemingly enjoying the conversations with the other French speaker), so eventually we again leap-frogged each other for the first half of the day until at last everyone was ahead of us. Now it was just us again and who knew if other cyclists were behind us?
The road was getting busier and it began to get to me, making me stressed and irritated and eager to make it to San Ignacio quickly. Chris and I had originally planned to find a hotel, but as we neared the town a sign to ‘La Casa del Ciclista’ attracted our attention and with our previous great experience with cyclist camping we thought we’d check it out. And to our great surprise all the cyclists except from Harvey were already there, deciding to cut the day short and take advantage of the lovely little place. La Casa del Ciclista was the home of Othon and his wife and son, a lively house where many friends came and went throughout the day. Othon had set up the place with help and inspiration from some French cyclists he had made friends with as they passed through in 2014 and you could feel the touch of people knowing what a cyclist needs. But more than the facilities Othon and his family were simply just good people, making us feel so welcome and at home by their house. Since the moment we entered Mexico I had felt good, and this, I began to undertsand, was because of the Mexicans who are friendly, smiling and respectful in the most genuine way and that goodness just immerses everything.
La Casa del Ciclista was an oasis in the oasis itself and we ended up staying there three nights although all the other cyclists left after the first, all of them in a different mode of pressing on. Michel asked me in the morning if we often took rest days like this, and I said usually not so much, but now we had the opportunity we liked it, and he thought it was odd, still being in the beginning of his trip he didn’t like to stop and just do nothing, as he said. But we didn’t feel we were doing nothing, but doing those things cycling all day didn’t allow. Just being in a place (and catching up on things online). We went to the old village that was centred around a big church from the 18th century and a big shaded plaza, and on the way there marveled at the abundant date palms that grew in the oasis. It was such a contrast to the desert of Baja, and if the desert made you want to move, the oasis made us want to stop moving. And it was great to have the freedom and time to follow the demands of the places themselves and let them form the journey.
The day we left San Ignacio a strong wind was blowing against us and the cycling felt so slow after our many days of flying along with the wind at our backs. The road was also ascending very gradually towards the pass of the volcano complex Tres Virgines, which further slowed our pace, but gave us a great view of the volcano. It was just one of those days where the cycling felt somewhat pointless and I was happy to avoid it first by having a lunch break in a restaurant and then by making an early camp in the last desert bushes before the mountain pass with only 30 kilometres on our bicycle computers. The volcano had gradually grown bigger and bigger all day and now we camped with it as an impressive back ground figure I could see out of the tent. When it got covered in the dark of the night the stars came out instead also blinking in through the open tent door. Oh, I felt lucky to be camping in the desert again.
Then the next day our motivation was the exact opposite. We set our eyes at Mulegé, another oasis town by the Sea of Cortez 110 kilometres away, got up before daylight and cycled up past the volcano before decending down to the coast of the Cortez Sea where a helpful tailwind gently pushed us south. We made time for a little stop in the town of Santa Rosalia where the narrow streets were crammed with slow traffic around the pretty little town square. It was another little pearl of a lively Mexican town and certainly no sh!thole at all! The desert and low mountains meeting the calm, blue sea made for a beautiful and flat ride for most of the day. Mulegé however was hidden behind a low mountain range we had to climb to conclude our long day, but even with this little obstacle we had made it early to the little village and could roll slowly through the streets in our search for a hotel while taking in the atmosphere of the laid-back oasis village where the local look and culture mixes with souvenir shops and a couple of bars and restaurants that cater to the foreigners and tourists that live and visit here too.
Chris had dreamt of finding a hotel with a pool (so we could once again bring out our inflatables!) and after searching a little we found a beautiful, old hotel with a peaceful courtyard with a bright blue pool. To our great surprise the price for a room was within what we are able to afford and we checked in and went straight for the pool. It was freezing cold, but we perservered and convinced ourselves that is was refreshing at least for a few minutes. The next couple of days this pool became the scene for some intense matches of pool football and with all the excitement and exercise of the game the water temperature was bearable.
Another nice feature of the hotel was that several other travellers stayed here, so that we enjoyed both an evening out with the travelling friends Lee and Masumi and a day hanging out with the Canadian/Mexican couple Matthew and Crysel as well as another cyclist Andrew. Andrew had followed the Baja Divide on his fat tire bike from San Diego to Mulegé, but had stopped here for a rest that seemed to have captured him completely and he did not plan to get back to the demanding cycle route, because it was just so nice here. And we were soon feeling the same way.
“Should we stay another night?” (now the motto for our journey) I asked already only half through the first rest day. Then in the morning after our second rest day when we were supposed to pack up it was Chris who didn’t feel like leaving. And by the end of our third day, Chris realized there were no less than four English football matches on the following day and we had caught rumours that one of the best Frank Sinatra impersonators would perform in the bar in the evening, so… here we are, still in Mulegé and who knows if we will ever leave?
Guerrero Negro – San Ignacio – Mulegé
Distance cycled: 395