BAJA CALIFORNIA, MEXICO, 9th – 18th December 2018
I think it was faith that in the end made us stay four days in Mulegé (and not just us being lazy). Because it was on the fourth day that we met no less than five other cyclists. First we spotted a couple walking in the street with unmistakably sharp tan lines on their thighs. We went to talk with them and after a few awkward seconds where the cyclists thought that two strangers had just followed them down the street to say ‘hello’ until they learned that we were indeed not strangers but fellow cyclists, after a few of these awkward seconds, we learned that they were Vincent and Sonia, a French couple on a cycle tour from Vancouver to the end of Baja and as they were planning to continue cycling the next day, we thought it likely we would meet again (because now with other cyclists on the road we felt motivated to do the same ourselves).
Then a little later outside our favorite orange supermarket were three touring bikes and when the owners appeared with their shopping we moved in for another conversation beyond a few more awkward seconds of explaining that we were cyclists too. The three guys, Tom from Philadelphia, Nathan from Switzerland and Ciaran from Ireland, were on their separate cycle tours from North America and south and had met each other along the way. They now formed a solid triple, but they were about to split up temporarily with Ciaran going on a bus to La Paz as the spokes on his rear wheel kept breaking and they didn’t have a way to get the cassette off so they could change them. It seemed then to be everyone’s luck that Chris was carrying a cassette remover tool and knew how to use it. After a successful operation Ciaran once again had a wheel without broken spokes so he could keep cycling and we had three new friends. We went to dinner with them and by coincidence Vincent and Sonia also joined our table for a mighty cyclists feast on tacos.
There was no more “Should we stay another day?” the next morning. We got our things packed and returned to the road where we had arranged to meet with Tom, Nathan and Ciaran at a beach for lunch some 25 kilometres away. The French couple were not so interested in cycling together and we didn’t know when and where they had gone.
It was a great feeling to be back on the bikes again, my legs felt so good and it was good to be moving again along the coastline of the Sea of Cortez that grew more and more beautiful. As we descended down a little hill the most magnificent bay of blue water dotted with little rocky islands and a long strip of white sandy beach appeared and I was happy to find that this was our meeting point with the guys. Unfortunately, I had a rather close call with a truck as I was stopped by the side of the road to cross it to get down to the beach. The truck came up behind me, not slowing down a beat and seemingly moving out towards me even though there was enough space in the road itself. I just stood there and saw it coming towards me, but had no time to react and a crash barrier blocked my way away anyway, and before I could think it thundered past me within a metre or so. I was shocked and for a few minutes the beach and the beauty and the nice people who curiously approached us and finding out we had made it to the beach before our friends who we thought were so fast – it all didn’t mean anything. I was just shaking and angry and sad, I didn’t know if it was all my own fault stopping by the road like that, I didn’t know if the driver just hadn’t seen me or if he actually had been hostile towards me. All I knew was that death had been too close to bear.
However, the shock faded and I could enjoy the little paradise. The water was clear and still and a perfect blue and when our friends arrived a little later we went swimming and playing catch. I retreated from the water before the guys and just enjoyed watching them play, knowing how much Chris enjoyed to have someone to hang out with. There was even a dog (owned by one of the many white North Americans who lived part time in their RV’s around Baja’s many paradises) who wanted to play too. It wanted the ball so badly and without any human intelligence to try and trick it from the guys it just kept following the ball as they threw it to each other in an innocent, instinctive desire to play. It was just lovely.
“Are we really leaving?” I couldn’t help thinking out loud as we got ready to continue after having had lunch in the restaurant. Somehow I found it silly we had stayed four days in Mulegé without finding this pearl of a place and then leave it so soon. I knew places like this don’t come around very often when you’re cycle touring because it was the first time in my career. So I only accepted to get back on the road because our plan was to cycle only eight kilometers before camping on another beach that an American man had recommended. It was a short ride, but incredibly scenic with the road hugging the rocky coastline curving up and down like a rollercoaster from one little beach to the next. And our beach for the night was yet another lovely one. We found a palapa, which is a little shelter of palm leaves, to camp by and Chris quickly got us all engaged in another epic game of Eureka Ball with a new rule allowing five players to play on a thee-man pitch with players swapping if the ball got through someone legs. It was the longest game in the history of Eureka Ball and it was great fun. Again for more details on the action and result you must consult Chris’ blog.
We cooked dinner in the palapa all together. The dynamic of the group was great with a lot of laughing and talking and I think a communal feeling began to grow of not wanting to leave each other too soon.
It was magical to sleep in the tent on the beach while the tide moved in to just a few centimeters from our feet and to wake up early and see the light change over the sky and the water. After another morning swim it was time to go, Chris and I gave ourselves a head start to compromise for being slow. The road continued to follow the coast for another 30 kilometres along the beautiful Baja Conception, a deep bay with a rugged mountain coast on the far side, before turning more inland. There were a few climbs and we were not surprisingly overtaken by the three but also not surprisingly did we catch them up in a restaurant where they were stopped for lunch as eating tacos and other meaty Mexican treats was a theme of theirs.
However, Chris and I ended up spending a night by ourselves camping in the desert whereas ‘the boys’, as we had begun to call them, had preferred to cycle all the long way to Loreto driven by the prospect of visiting a brewery and stay in a hotel. It worked out perfectly as Chris and I enjoyed another peaceful night camping in the desert and early the next morning rode the remaining 25 kilometres into the town and found the hungover cyclists having their breakfast in a café. The brewery had been closed, but tequila can always be found in Mexico.
Loreto is one of the many Magical Towns of Mexico, a title given to old and especially pretty towns that then sees a growing number in visitors, which in my opinion is quite likely to change the real Mexican atmosphere into something more like a stage for tourism. At least that’s how it felt in Loreto, so reunited we soon left again to continue our progress south along Route 1. Back in Mulegé Chris and I had arranged to go on a tour swimming with whale sharks in La Paz, the town at the end of our Baja ride, and we had also planned to spend Christmas in a small town over at the mainland. Due to the great feeling in our group we had suggested the boys to join our plans and it seemed like they were in, and I booked them all for the whale shark tour, and we we now riding with motivation and a deadline towards a common goal.
But we didn’t make much progress that day after leaving Loreto around midday, stopping for lunch on another beach, fixing more of Ciaran’s broken spokes and a puncture of mine. By the end of the day we approached the beginning of a long climb but it was too late for most of us to feel confident to make it up, only Tom seemed eager to go on, but agreed to camp with the rest of us. We found a perfect place, a big but hidden clearing in the thorny bushes surrounded by rugged mountains.
Another evening went by with talking and laughing under the stars. It was nice how we all wanted to stick together and therefore adjusted our rhythms and routines to that of the group, and to me and Chris having such company was priceless.
Therefore we pushed ourselves the next day to first deal with the 500 metre climb and then ride a long, long way in a rather vicious sidewind before turning south at around 4.30pm to ride another 25 kilometres, now with the wind at our backs, to the town with a hotel that the boys had set their eyes on. For me it was a rather tough compromise, but riding together had new advantages. At one point when the wind was coming from the side we were all riding together on a long, gradual descent, and to help me keep my speed up Chris rode next to me blocking the wind. I just sat there and effortlessly soared alongside him. Ciaran then came and rode on my other side sheltered by me, playing music from his loudspeakers on his handlebars. Thus the three of us flew along through the barren desert at high speed to the tunes of good, old Coldplay. The music and the team spirit (most of the work being done by Chris though) put a big smile on my face.
After 110 long and windy kilometres we all settled in at a nice hotel as the sun set before eating a lot of pizza for dinner.
We were all tired from the previous long day, so no one was rushing to leave the hotel. This was also because there was a magnificently blue pool and Chris now engaged everyone in battles of Pool Football in the inflatable tubes that certainly had earned their worth by now.
While checking out of the hotel Tom had the good idea of making the girl in the reception check on the ferry that we were all planning to take from La Paz over to Mazatlán on the mainland. We had all assumed we didn’t need to book tickets ahead, but now Tom learned that the ferry for the 18th (the day after the whale shark tour) was fully booked and that there was not another ferry until the 25th because of the holidays. There was another ferry mainly carrying cargo which we had heard other cyclists had been allowed on, but on the phone they told Tom that bicycles were not allowed. Suddenly it now seemed that we might be stuck in La Paz much longer than we had planned, which to me caused some worries, since I had a couple of friends visiting Mexico City between Christmas and New Year that I was hoping to see. Mexico City is, as you probably know, on the mainland and quite a long way from Mazatlan so being stuck in La Paz until after Christmas would be very inconvenient. We still had an optimistic hope that things would work out once we showed up at the port, but nothing was certain and all we could do was to continue towards La Paz which was now only about 200 kilometres away. Our Baja days were coming to an end.
Cycling out of the town we were caught up by Vincent and Sonia, and Sonia quickly placed herself beside me, so we two girls could chat, which was really nice for once. Suddenly a new cyclist also appeared in our group and I was curious to find out about him as he was loaded heavily like us, even heavier I believe, and had a saddle with a back rest and two handlebars. It was quite a set up. Stopped for a little break that turned into a longer farce because Ciaran’s bike, which he leaned on a foldable walking stick, fell and knocked over Nathan’s bike so his mud guard got bent and eventual had to be taken off, during all this I got time to say hello to Jon, a softspoken young guy from Wisconsin, at the very beginning of a several year long ride around the world. He seemed happy to tag along with our group and just before darkfall we all (except from the French who had taken off ahead to do their own thing once again) arrived at a little restaurant that let cyclists camp behind the house. Another evening in good company now also with Jon was spent in the restaurant and a rather noisy night behind the restaurant where roosters, dogs and trucks kept sounding all night long.
Into the sunrise Chris and I cycled the next morning, once again to get a head start on the faster cyclists. We were again aiming for a long day of a 100 kilometres to get us within reach of La Paz the following day, but with rolling hills and no help from the wind what so ever, it felt like it was going to be a long, hard day where I counted every kilometer as they slowly ticked by on my cycle computer. Riding like this, always trying to keep up with the faster ones and with a scheduled deadline ahead, was beginning to take its toll on me and made the final of our Baja ride a tough one. That was probably also due to the less fortunate wind conditions, the fewer cactuses along the road and the increasing amount of traffic on the still narrow, old road. Anyway, on we went for another day and Chris and I were soon caught up by Jon who also had departed early due to his slower pace while the boys had breakfast in the restaurant. And it was not until half way through the day that we got caught up, or actually Tom had overtaken us as we were stopped for an ice cream-break in a shop, but when we then caught him up it was still another while before Ciaran and Nathan appeared. I had found a piece of red tinsel by the road which added some Christmas energy to my day and we now rode on all together in to the last big hills before La Paz.
But it was Friday afternoon, the worst time to be out on the Mexican roads, the wind was a tough head wind and none of us, except from Tom, really wanted to cycle anymore. Thanks to Nathan, who went up ahead to call back Tom who had gone ahead, we all got off the road to camp one last time in the desert of Baja California. We had gotten so used to just push off the road and into the sand and bushes, so used to the tall, crooked cactuses and all the other weird plants, so used to the stars coming out, to follow the moon cycle and to sleep peacefully with the sound of the road at a safe distance. So used to all this that it was only now that it was the last night that I really appreciated like I had at the beginning a month ago. Baja California was a special place with the magical desert, comforting oasis’s and the beautiful ocean surrounding it, and I felt once again so lucky to have spent time here on my bike.
On the last morning I was struggling to keep up with everyone as the hills kept coming, the wind still blew against us and my knees protested over the many demands I had put on them recently. It had been great, and eventually it had also been hard to make it to the end of Baja in a group where compromises had pushed my limits. I longed for the rest that was the promise of La Paz (means ‘peace’) and that kept me going at last. Finally we ended up in a very cheap guest house in the middle of the little, busy city but unfortunately it was anything but peaceful with noise and cigarette smoke travelling straight into our room through the open wooden shatters that made it up for windows and the sight of the beds made us put up our tents on top of them to avoid possible bed bugs. But we went out with our friends, again united with Vincent and Sonia, to have a beer and play games before strolling along the malecon by the dark ocean and celebrate our Baja achievement.
After a day off running errands and resting as well as we could in our tent-bed, it was the day for the long planned whale shark tour. Equipped with wet suits, fins and snorkels we were taken out into the bay outside the city to an area where the big fish feed daily this time of year. I was happy to know that there are strict regulations regarding how many boats and how many swimmers can be in the water at a time, but it still felt rather intruding to see 6-7 boats circling around one animal with groups of six swimmers constantly jumping in to swim along it for 10 minutes before the next group was in. No matter the regulations made by us humans this surely was more stressful and disturbing to the sharks than if we could just leave the to themselves. But so many people come to Baja California, so many people wish to see the whale sharks as this is a quite rare possibility (and we were no exception), and the people and the city of La Paz is blooming of the tourism industry. They also know that it is necessary to protect that natural environment that attracts the tourists and therefore a boat with officials kept a close eye on the activities around the sharks and made sure no one was breaking the rules.
Despite all these concerns, the minutes I got to swim alongside the big, grey, whitespotted animal as it moved through the water filtering it for food with its mouth wide open, was absolute bliss and happiness. I have done a good bit of diving before and I simply just love to be in the water, to find the speed in the fins and the calm rhythm of breathing and to just open my eyes and marvel at the underwater world. It blows my mind to get these glimpses of what is actually happening in this part of the world that is so hard for us to reach and to really understand. And to be close up with such a huge, mysterious animal as a whale shark was humbling and peaceful. It made me forget everything else.
As soon as we were back on land we rushed back to the bikes to cycle the 20 kilometres to the ferry port. At 5pm one of the cargo ferries were departing and we were going to try our luck to get on it. If we didn’t succeed it was likely that we would be stuck in La Paz for over a week. And our hopes faded when the woman at the ticket office very firmly insisted that bikes were not allowed, because we wouldn’t have a place to sleep, and even though we pleaded that it didn’t matter and questioned how it was then allowed for motorcycles to come aboard, the answer was ‘No’. ‘No’. ‘No’. But we didn’t want to leave the office, didn’t want to accept the rejection, didn’t want to return to La Paz for another noisy week. And then some great luck came our way as a young guy who worked in the port led us to the ticket office of the other ferry for passengers, the one we knew was completely sold out, and the woman there suddenly found that is somehow was possible for us to get on the ferry the next day. We held our breath until the payment had gone through, nervous some message in the system or some other lady in the office would object and say, that really there was no more room. But no one said ‘No’ and a Christmas miracle had happened.
We now had 24 hours to pass and instead of cycling the 20 kilometres back to the buzz and noise of La Paz we cycled another 7 kilometres away from the city to a beach, PLaya Balandra, we had been told of. It was a beautiful place in a large, secluded bay area with several white beaches lining it and on the main one we could camp. Understandably there were many other people when we got there with it being such a beautiful place, but as the day came to an end most of them left and there were only a few campers in RV’s and tents. We got a volleyball court set up using Jon’s climbing rope (some of the equipment that he carries with him in hope of climbing rocks and mountains along the way) tied to two palapas and got sweaty and sandy going for the ball, but then we could just wash it off in the shallow water while a beautiful sunset played for our eyes. It was so peaceful and a perfect way to end our time at Baja California.
The next day we had the luxury of having nothing to do and not even any wifi to distract and keep us busy, just the beach and the beautiful bay. I got up early to watch the day arrive and was entertained by a big number of pelicans fishing. They would suddenly get on their wings and race to an area with fish and then drop like missiles into the water head first and then make a clumsy twist around their head and pop up some times with a fish in the bag of their beak. It was an entertaining show. When the sun came up Chris and I rented a kayak and once again went exploring on the water. It bay was shallow and the water clear so we could easily see a great variety of fish as they moved about in big schools or swiftly swam along the bottom. We also kept an eye on the birds above the surface, knowing that they would be were the fish were. But doing so I suddenly saw a little lump coming up of the water for a few seconds. It was a the head of a turtle, I was 95% sure, but I couldn’t share it with Chris as it was already under water again and could be anywhere. We decided to just sit still in the kayak and wait and see if we were lucky, and suddenly it was there, a dark shadow in the water growing into the clear figure of a big sea turtle swimming right under our boat. It was a fantastic moment.
The rest of the day Chris busied himself and the boys with a variety of games, while I enjoyed reading my book in the shade of a palapa and eventually also gave in to play Sea Football in the tubes once more. One of the other games had been a sand-building competition where each participant had 30 minutes to form an animal of sand. The bison, lizard, crocodile and whale shark were all great pieces of creativity and skill and I found it hard to choose a winner. When people later walked by they would stop and marvel at them, but we all knew that by night the tide would come and take them to the sea.
By mid afternoon it was time to return to the ferry port and from the deck we waved goodbye to Baja California and another chapter of our journey and our lives.
Loreto – Ciudad Contitucion – La Paz
Distance cycled: 538 kilometres