“WELCOME to the Baja, ain’t she beautiful!”
Waving his arms around like a proud father Bob leaned out of the pricy restaurant and shook our hands before again welcoming us to his little town.
“You’ll just love it here!” He slurred. “You enjoy yourselves now.”
We’d scarcely been back in Mulege for three hours and already a shit-faced, retired American who’d overindulged in 2-4-1 cocktails was waving about his proverbial keys to the city.
Keys he’d apparently earned after buying a timeshare in a “cheap” condo in a gated gringo community that was about as Mexican as Taco Bell.
Don’t get me wrong, every English speaking country has their own version of the “Ugly American Expat” (you can find Australia’s littered throughout South East Asia) but the Bob’s of the Baja were beginning to grate.
Maybe it was the fact they seemed so heavily concentrated (along with their Canadian compadres) throughout the tiny and narrow Mexican peninsula. Maybe it was the fact that at best they were an embarrassing representation of the English speaking tourist and at worst responsible for the slow cultural decimation of the region.
Either way it was high time to leave.
But not without Yohan, Nami and little Yuna.
Despite being accosted by a drunk gringo we were thrilled to be back in Mulege for the long awaited reunion of our favourite Japanese/French cycling family. Following his clavicle surgery, Yohan was still unable to cycle for another week and so we happily wiled away the days in Mulege’s leafy campground, baking bread together on the camp stove, chewing the fat with a host of other cyclists who pedalled through and planning our Baja escape.
Roughly 490km lay between us and our final Baja destination – the seaside city of La Paz – and on a hot and humid “winter’s” day we finally began to again pedal south but this time as a big cycling family.
Revisiting Bahia Concepcion and its pristine beaches was a treat – even if the first campground was packed to the rafters with Bobs. We cycled a slow and hot 36km to El Coyote and an even slower 15km to the second beach – El Requeson – where a Mexican family rained beer, sodas and chips on us.
From the laid back beaches roughly 90km of desert lay between us and the gringo hot spot of Loreto and so we took two days to get there, wild camping overnight in a cactus forest.
Loreto proved to be touristy for a reason. It was charming, colourful and packed with delicious eateries, mobile bakeries and some of the best seafood we’d eaten in our lives. Even better was a campground located in the city that charged just 80 pesos a person while boasting a phenomenally good hot shower, undercover eating area and fairly decent wifi.
We were lethargic enough and enchanted enough to want a day off but when it came time to leave I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I’d slept horribly the past few nights (even the sleepiest of Baja towns seemed to come alive at 2pm with drag racing, car alarms, fireworks and disco music) but it was more than that. I just wasn’t excited about the final 360km. Nami, Yohan and Yuna set off and we promised to catch them but we wound up staying two days more, finally hauling ourselves onto the bike with as much enthusiasm as Garfield on a Monday.
We cycled scarcely 30km, wild camping near a beach, but managed another 90 the next day up a steep climb and through the windy, hot desert to the ranching town of Ciudad Insurgentes.
Getting onto the bike the next day was tough and by late morning we’d reached the last town before La Paz – Ciudad Constitution. We knew buses ran from here to our coastal destination and while a niggling voice at the back of our heads told us to just get on with it we managed to gag it and instead took a bus. We’d managed more than 100km of the Baja and while it was a crying shame to skip the last 240km of dry, dusty desert on a narrow road (read last sentence sarcastically) we just couldn’t bring ourselves to pedal it. We were done.
Back in Prudhoe Bay Alaska we’d vowed to pedal as much of the road south to Argentina as possible but we’d soon come to realise that putting those kinds of pressures and restrictions on ourselves simply wasn’t what our trip was about. It was our time and our money and we wanted to above all enjoy ourselves and enjoy the road we cycled.
We’d continue to pedal the vast majority of the road ahead but we no longer felt the need to cycle for the sake of cycling – especially when the scenic rewards were few, the trucks were many and the heat was cranked to “hell”.
In the end taking the bus was incredibly painless, quick and easy. The bikes were loaded in a few minutes for no extra charge and we arrived in La Paz just three hours later via air-conditioned comfort while looking out smugly at the desolate road whizzing by.
From the bus station it was a couple of easy kilometres to the cheap and cheerful Pension California where we forked out 400 pesos for a shared room with Nami, Yohan and Yuna (who arrived a day later slightly worse for wear having suffered through the final dismal 200km).
They’d sworn loudly at us when we confessed to taking the bus and we all had a good laugh before feeling an overwhelming relief to be done with stage one of our Mexican ride.
La Paz, which means peace, was an easy going and likeable hub filled to the brim with crispy fish taco stands, cosmopolitan cafes and an impressive and glitzy malecon (waterfront).
One couldn’t get this close to the whale shark migration and not see the whale shark migration and so we all booked a tour and spent a couple of hours snorkelling around the giant and placid spotty fish.
It was a brilliant end but it didn’t change our overall impressions of Mexico’s two most tamed states.
The Baja is essentially one long, hot 1300km (if you go the shortest way) stretch of desert on a narrow road that swings back between the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean. Most of the population live in four cities (Tijuana, Mexicali, La Paz and Ensenada) which means there is little in between aside from cactus forests, dusty towns and a handful of “bubble” communities stuffed with Bobs living the “Mexican” dream.
Reflecting back on the past month of cycling I thought long and hard about the peninsula. Would I recommend it to other cyclists? Had it been a beautiful stretch of riding? The answer was probably no. There’d been gorgeous pockets undoubtedly. But they were few and far between. It had been more expensive than we’d realised and the road had been at times, utterly unenjoyable.
That said, it had been a relaxed introduction to Mexico (I guess we can thank the Bobs for that) and I’ve no doubt other cyclists had loved it – especially those that ditched the busy highway 1 and opted for the offload “Baja Divide” route which is better suited to a bike packing set up.
I also had no doubt that part of our ambivalence lay in the fact we’d spent the last four months in the desert and it was well past time for a change.
I wanted mountains. Big, cold, steep, green, gargantuan mountains. I wanted snow and frosty mornings followed by bright days and chilly nights. I wanted to feel the joy of a hot cup of tea and a cosy sleeping bag.
But this desire would come with a price.
It would mean a ferry ride to Mazatlan in Sinaloa, followed by one hell of a steep climb up “the Devil’s Spine” to Durango via the Sierra Madre Occidental. It would mean 7000m of climbing in 300km (the first 6000 would be knocked over in the first 200km.
And it would mean swapping 28 degrees and 90 per cent humidity with highs of 17 and lows of minus five.
Bring it on!