FOR the past six months countless well meaning Americans had warned us against cycling to Mexico.
And they weren’t without reason.
In 2017 alone almost 30,000 people were murdered as a result of suspected drug cartel violence. To coincide with those grizzly statistics US State Dept travel advisories had placed five Mexican states on the Do Not Travel list (including Guerrero, Michoacan, Colima, Sinaloa and Tamaulipas). And to top it all off some particularly harrowing stories had emerged in the past year including the gruesome murders of two bike travellers in Chiapas – a southern state bordering Guatemala.
For some, travelling to Mexico was about as dangerous as a casual weekend jaunt to Yemen. We were aware of the dangers (how could you not be) but at the same time we personally knew dozens of cyclists who had pedalled the colourful nation and reported nothing but fabulous people, fantastic food and phenomenal scenery.
As we sat under a shady tree in San Diego’s KOA campground our friend Didier (raised in the States to a Mexican mum and Belgian dad) drove home the point.
The cyclist and climber had both lived and travelled in Mexico (cycling from Europe to India and Thailand and then from Argentina to back home) and warned that the dangers in Central and even South America were very very real.
“In Mexico, Central America and even Colombia, Ecuador and Peru you’ll hear constant stories of muggings, armed hold ups and violence but unlike most travel warnings they didn’t just happen to a friend of a friend of a friend… they happened to people you know personally,” he said.
“I’m telling you… it’s sketchy down there.”
As we cleaned up our bikes, replaced the pump on our stove and prepared to farewell the first world as we knew it, it was hard not to feel a knot of fear tighten in our guts.
Was it the long list of horror stories that made our intestines shrivel with apprehension? Or perhaps it was the fact we’d been in the pampered first world for so long now – enjoying pristine tap water, free refills and manicured highways – that caused a feeling of unease.
But as we glanced around the Disney-esque camp ground with its two swimming pools and posh RVs I felt relief to be leaving.
I’d both loved and loathed the USA. I’d fallen head over heels with the mountains, fresh air and wide open spaces. I’d loved the kind-hearted and fabulous people we’d met and the sheer scope of landscapes that ranged from high desert to tundra.
At the same time I’d felt strangely suffocated. America to me had felt anything but the land of hopes and dreams. I’d met people so stifled by fear they carried a loaded gun on them at all times and believed at any moment the government could and would overthrow them. I’d met families with good jobs who were a month away from poverty at any given time because of the incredible cost of health insurance and the overwhelming urge to keep up with the Joneses and have a nice car, a nice house and impressive hobbies.
All in all I’d never seen so many homeless and so many mentally ill people and I’d never met (in my entire life) so many terribly afraid people. That said I’d also met some of the most generous, open-minded souls of our entire trip and this bizarre contrast left me feeling as though the States, if anything, was a country of extremes.
It would be naive bordering on stupid to say Australia didn’t share many of the same contrasts but all in all one four letter word seemed to separate the “Land of the Free” with every other we’d ever cycled through.
Don’t get me wrong, we met countless Americans who hated them. But we also met a bucket load that seemed to worship them.
Like most countries, I knew I’d end up looking back on the States fondly (no doubt when I was doubled over a putrid loo with gastro in some Central American backwater) but nevertheless it was time to go.
And so we loaded up our bikes, popped the world’s largest international land border into Google Maps (San Ysidro) and pedalled south with Nami, Yuna and a young Canadian bloke who was cycling the Baja in tow.
The ride to Mexico was roughly 20km and as we neared the border and looked out to the mass of chaos that was Tijuana I said a private goodbye to the English speaking world and the land of $1 million RVs, wide roads, bicycle lanes and drive through pharmacies.
The border was ridiculously easy and after pushing our bikes into the pedestrian lane we joined the short “extranajeros” queue, paid the equivalent of about $40 AUD and were stamped into Mexico for six months.
Two minutes later we were breathing the gritty, smoky air of Tijuana and wondering where the bloody hell we’d just walked into.
Sick-looking dogs and humans rummaged through the dirt right next to the border, a toothless old man was hawking tamales from a grimy trailer and mounds of stinking rubbish rotted away next to the bustling main road.
The culture shock was so strong it felt like a leaden coat and we set off uneasily on our bikes in the wrong direction before realising our mistake and pedalling red faced back in the other.
A friendly looking bloke hawking religion at the crossing had suggested we take the main road directly along the border to the coast before hanging a left and cycling straight for Rosarito but what he’d forgotten to mention was the road was a shoulder-less and terrifying deathtrap filled with kamikaze drivers.
A sign rather optimistically announced the speed limit as 60km per hour but a torrent of cars, buses, pick ups and trucks whizzed by at break neck speeds as we crawled out of the city on what was clearly hell’s highway.
I hadn’t been this terrified by traffic since Istanbul, Turkey but with an enormous barrier separating the highway from the city we were committed to riding the death road until we reached the coast.
Two terrifying hours later the ocean appeared and after quickly getting lost in a maze of streets we were rescued by Julian – a local cyclist and all round good guy who insisted on escorting us by bike to Rosarito via the 1D toll road.
The 1D was indeed a dream and we pedalled past quiet beaches and small villages until sprawling Rosarito came into view. We said farewell to our new amigo and headed towards a cheap airbnb feeling exhausted, elated, overwhelmed and quietly stunned.
Every new country tends to require a period of adjustment and so for two days we lounged around Rosarito, alarming locals with our horrific Spanish, eating tacos and meandering through the local supermarkets.
Nami had decided to cycle with us to Ensenada (where she would then set up camp with Yuna and wait for Yohan to return – post-op – from France) and so from Rosarito we eventually continued further south to what is Baja California’s third biggest city – taking two fairly easy and peaceful days to do it.
The heaving port town was full of life, colour and surprisingly good coffee and so for a week we kicked back and relaxed (staying for the first two nights at a Warmshowers house) and the final five or so at an AirBnB. We were loathe to leave Nami and Yuna and so it was easy to keep delaying our departing date. But as bad as we felt for leaving our little cycling family (they would ultimately have to spend another three weeks in Ensenada waiting for Yohan) we had to keep moving. Quite simply, our funds and the delicate timing of future seasons wouldn’t allow it.
A teary farewell, a final luxurious breakfast and a last minute dash to the supermarket meant we didn’t manage to escape the traffic chaos of Ensenada until well after lunch time on a Sunday.
The aim was to make it to Ojos Negroes – a tiny village perched just 44km or so from the city – which would have been a pitiful distance if it weren’t for the 1000 metres of elevation we’d also have to tackle.
Just after 3pm a man pulled over his car and jumped out for a rapid fire chat in Spanish. We stared at him with open mouths before explaining that our Spanish was poor and could he please repeat – more slowly. So he indulged us by saying it again, at the same speed, but louder, while waving his hands wildly for emphasis. Between his frustrated rantings we gathered he was trying to invite us to his house while simultaneously warning us that Mexico was “muy peligroso” (very dangerous). We must have still looked confused because he reached for his pocket knife, flicked it open in his best “Crocodile Dundee” impersonation before waving it madly in our now alarmed looking faces to drive the point home.
Despite his energetic mime efforts we decided to turn down his request for accomodation and keep pedalling.
By time we reached Ojos Negroes it was dusk and our legs felt as though they’d been flogged with a piñata bat for about six hours. We beelined straight to the village hotel where one of the sweetest ladies I’d ever met gave us an enormous room for 300 pesos (roughly $20 AUD).
From Ojos Negroes the road continued gently uphill for another 30km and the next day we pushed out 85km to make it to Lazaro Cardenas – an equally tiny village with the usual smattering of pint-sized grocery stores (called tiendas) rustic restaurants (serving an assortment of meat with beans and tortillas) and dirt roads.
Most restaurants plated up a generous portion of the aforementioned trio for about 60 – 80 pesos (around $4 – $6 AUD) and with the US and its high prices still fresh in our minds we were falling over ourselves to “make it rain” and scoff down as many bean meals and taco plates as possible.
Despite a steady diet of carbs on carbs the final day’s ride to the outskirts of San Felipe was tough. For 122km we battled a relentless head wind and far more uphill than Google Maps promised but the reward was some seriously breathtaking scenes of vast cactus forests and gorgeous desert.
It was on the final 50km that I happened to look down on the road and see something I’d been dreading since first researching Baja California.
It was big, it was hairy and it had far too many legs (eight to be exact) than I was comfortable with.
I let out a large gurgling screech that sounded like a turkey being strangled before realising that the big tarantula was dead. That didn’t stop me cycling like a twitchy meth addict for the rest of the evening.
The following morning we pushed out the final 10km to Gringo-packed San Felipe and as we neared the seaside hub a familiar looking Toyota Hilux overtook us before stopping just ahead. Inside were Laura and Danny – two fantastic Argentinians we’d met more than a year ago in a tiny one-horse jade town in northern British Columbia – Canada.
The couple had driven from Ushuaia to Alaska and were now spending some time moseying about Mexico before embarking on a bike trip of their own and so we spent the day swapping stories and chowing down tacos before deciding to camp together that night at a nearby hotel.
Later that evening, as we relaxed over a cup of tea while being serenaded by the sounds of motorbikes and roosters it seemed as though the States, fearful stories of drug cartels and even San Diego were a thousand light years away.