BEACHY and bright San Felipe proved to be the Tampa, Florida of the Baja. It was filled to the brim with snow-birds (Americans and Canadians escaping winter) gringo expats in varying states of “sh*t-faced” and opportunistic Mexicans keen to flog as many patterned blankets, bejewelled skulls or sombreros as possible.
Mostly, they just sold cheap tequila and cases of Tecate beer along with handy bumper stickers that spruiked “no bad days in San Felipe”. Despite this the town (and the fairly sparsely populated coastline going south) had recently suffered some truly shitty days thanks to a spat of violent hurricanes that destroyed roads, shattered bridges and left a plague of bloody irritating flies.
After stocking up on staples and water (we wouldn’t hit another big town for almost 400km) we pushed out a fast 30km through bland, trash strewn desert until the landscape opened up to reveal some epic cacti forests filled with the classic three-pronged beasts we’d been desperate to get up close and personal with.
We also pedalled past more than a handful of locals towing rustic looking fishing boats which a San Felipe local had told us was used to illegally trawl for totoaba – a fish that’s swim bladder was considered a delicacy in China where it often fetched higher prices than cocaine. Over-fishing resulting in threats of extinction forced the government to ban trawling for totoaba but the lure of big bucks had sparked a big black market trade.
The aim was to push out a pretty easy 85km to Puertacitos but it turned out the hurricane damaged roads were a little worse than we’d anticipated with the final 15km looking almost post apocalyptic. Sunset was creeping over the horizon when we finally reached the ramshackle cafe called the Cow Patty, which the cyclist rumour mill claimed to be a free place to pitch a tent for the night.
The cafe was a mishmash of American and Mexican paraphernalia but if the tiny building was quirky it had nothing on the caretaker. Moody Memo – a pot-bellied recluse – manned the cafe with the charm and warmth of a deeply unhappy billy goat and he responded to most our questions with scowls before telling us he didn’t like people, questions and particularly people asking questions.
After a pretty awkward half hour he did however invite us to camp in the restaurant before warning us we weren’t to disturb him in his van or even be tempted to say goodbye in the morning.
We happily obliged.
A rough sleep was followed by a rough breakfast and an even rougher road that continued on for another hour the next morning as the washed out track dipped and rose along the coast line. Despite the heat and road conditions we managed to push out the 90km to Rancho Grande by mid afternoon – beelining straight for the coastal village’s little supermarket cum liquor store cum water purification centre on the other side of the road.
It was at this store that we met a handful of Americans – first a sweet guy preparing to race the Baja 1000 (an annual motorised race) who insisted on giving us 500 pesos “for our travels” and secondly a sweet couple from Washington who were sailing around the Baja and who would later invite us to come for a ride on their boat.
These spontaneous acts of kindness reminded us of the many generous and wonderful people we’d met throughout the States. Sure, we’d had our highs and lows in the USA, but at the end of the day it had been largely filled with some of the most hospitable and helpful souls we’d ever encountered.
Within minutes of reaching the beach a young and sweet American cyclist called Nash had run out to introduce himself before offering up his palapa to camp in that night.
Not long after setting up the tent a group of boisterous Mexican/Californians treated us to heaped plates of burgers and seafood cocktails. All in all it turned out to be one of those days (and we’ve had many) where the sheer awesomeness of humanity bowls you over and leaves you humbled, content and blissfully happy.
From Rancho Grande the paved road continued on for another 20km before ending abruptly in bloody awful dirt. According to Google Maps there was just one road that would lead us back to Highway 1 but shortly after hitting the gravel the road split into three different directions with numerous tyre marks on each.
Traffic had been light so we used the excuse to hide in some patchy shade and wait for a car to lead the way.
Over the next 15 minutes three cars drove by and each of them took a different road.
In the end we picked the middle one and set off but after 15km we began to wonder if we’d made a mistake. The road was bad – really bad – and the climbs and descents were nothing short of steep and scary. To make matters worse we’d counted on passing by a famous little truck stop (called Coco’s Corner) but it never appeared which meant the cold soda I’d been fantasising about chugging down would remain a fantasy.
By time highway 1 appeared in the distance it was late afternoon and so we dove into some nearby desert and threw up the tent. The saving grace on a tough day had been the scenery – and boy had it been beautiful.
The next morning Scott celebrated his 34th birthday with a bowl of breakfast noodles and we packed up the tent in record time to push out the 100km that lay between us and the dusty village of Rosarito – a one horse shop that definitely didn’t make the Baja travel brochure. That said it did have a pretty grim hotel and a little trucker’s cafe so we put our American patron’s 500 pesos to good use – managing to get a bed, hot shower and two enormous plates of deep fried chicken.
We’d met only a couple of other tourers on the Baja so far and we were nothing short of pumped to bump into Swiss cyclist Dany the following day – who was on a solo tour from Alaska to Panama. The cheerful and chiseled dude was about as stereotypically Swiss as you could get – being fit, tanned and best of all, a ski instructor. He was also equally stoked to meet some fellow cyclists and so we pushed off together towards Mulege, camping for free in the backyard of a restaurant (run by an incredibly drunk chef) at Guerrero Negro and two days later at San Ignancio’s Casa De Ciclistas (house of cyclists).
The desert stretch had proved to be hot and uninspiring on a highway that – while fairly quiet – was utterly terrifying at times thanks to the complete lack of shoulder – particularly when a bus approached from behind and a truck approached from the front. It was the kind of Mexican standoff we were destined to lose and after being driven off the edge of the road on two occasions we learned to monitor the traffic at all times and “take the lane” when we were in danger of being bulldozed.
Four days, 300km and two very stiff necks later we reached laid-back Mulege and decided to appease our exhaustion in the best way possible – with a hotel room and a greasy dinner.
The charming little town sat on a stunning river that flowed gently into the nearby sea and we greedily soaked up the quaint eateries and relaxed vibe while taking short and easy walks around town. One day off turned into two and then three in which time we farewelled Dany, re-discovered the joys of fish tacos and perfected the art of siesta.
While it was easy to blame laid-back Mulege on my lack of motivation the truth was I was beginning to lose my will to pedal the remainder of the Baja. Even though the beautiful beaches of Bahia Concepcion lay just 20km to the south east I wanted to be in La Paz and then Mazatlan and more than anything, I wanted mountains.
With the energy and grace of arthritic sloths we eventually carried on, making it 25km to the first beach – Playa Santispac (where we met two of the most wonderful Americans yet – Heidi and Tom from San Diego) and then 25km to yet another beach, El Requeson.
We’d hoped Bahia Concepcion would reignite our cycling mojo but instead it’s slow-paced beauty reaffirmed our reluctance to move. Shortly after arriving at Requeson we bumped into Aussie/American couple Sean and Nikki who were not only driving their RV down to Panama but happy to enable our procrastination. We hung out for a day with the happy-go-lucky pair and when the opportunity came to drive back to Mulege for a beer run with a young French couple Scott asked to go with them and grab some food. On a whim, he’d taken the phone in the off chance that he’d have a message from Nami, Yohan and little Yuna (the Japanese/French family we’d met in Utah and travelled with until Ensenada). We knew that Yohan had returned from France, where he’d undergone surgery on his snapped clavicle, and we also knew they planned on taking a bus from Ensenada to Mulege as Yohan wasn’t yet able to cycle.
Two hours later, armed with chips, avocados, bread and water, Scott brought the news. He’d bumped into the family just near the market as they’d arrived that very morning.
We wanted nothing more than to see them again but doing so would mean cycling back to Mulege and then spending a week at the campground before Yohan was ready to cycle again. In the end, however, it was a no brainer – we had to go back.