Every adventure has a beginning, middle, and an end. Being that our Baja Divide trip qualifies as an adventure, I will set about sharing it in three parts. What you are now reading is the beginning. It’s not always easy to put words down on paper that reflect a trip properly. The content of these blog posts required several weeks of gestation after our return to “normal life.” The goal is to bring our experiences and adventures to life for you and hopefully inspire you to enjoy an adventure of your own (this blog may suggest that very adventure to be the Baja Divide). If this blog post is the first you’ve heard of our trip, might I suggest reading our other two blogs on the Salsa cycles website which explain why we chose the Baja Divide and how we went about preparing.
The first day of a trip can often be a confusing one. So much leads up to that one departure day, and often times the sheer size of an adventure can make you feel as if all the buildup may cause you to implode. The mix of emotions are sure to be diverse – spanning from great concern to pure relaxation. In any event, once your shoe clips into the pedal for the first time and you make that downward motion to propel your bike forward, there’s no doubt that your trip has begun. The day was November 16th of 2017; the time approximately 8 a.m. when we departed from our friend’s home in San Diego, California. To say that our bikes felt a bit encumbered by all of the gear mounded upon them would be an understatement. The GPS pointed the way as we pedaled towards the sunrise and down the paved boulevard. We were still adjusting to the clime as only two days prior we had been at our home in Michigan where winter was settling into its freezing tendencies. Donning only shorts, liners, and a t-shirt, we welcomed the cool breeze of morning knowing that soon enough the sun would climb high into the sky and thrust upon us the full radiance of warmth one can expect in southern California.
It wasn’t long before we encountered some adventurous terrain in the form of singletrack trails and a canyon in need of crossing. Wanting to pedal directly from our friend’s home to join the route, I elected to pick as much off-road terrain as possible in the spirit of the Baja Divide. It was in this greenspace where we enjoyed our first hike-a-bike as well as learned just how fast our loaded rigs gained speed careening down steep grades. I can’t speak for Jenny, but I know for sure this was the moment when I felt it had truly begun, that we were embarked on a fantastic voyage! We meandered through the suburbs of San Diego and outward through many other towns whose names escape me. After several sections of off-road terrain, it was clear that despite their load, our Fargos were sure-footed and nimble. Prior to the trip we had each spent fewer than 300 miles on our bikes, so the first week or so of our trip we spent getting to know our steeds, how they preferred to be loaded, and what their limitations were. The first day of our trip we were transfixed on the route and our goal of getting to the Mexican border town of Tecate before nightfall. The ascent of Otay mountain proved to be a surly one with steep grades and blazing heat. It was at this point that Jenny mentioned her desire to have ridden more and perhaps enjoyed fewer chips and cookies prior to our departure. Perhaps my reply that we had the whole trip to get into shape wasn’t as comforting as I had intended.
As would become the theme for the rest of our trip, we met our goal of arriving in Tecate before dark regardless of how the day had went or the struggles we faced. Truth be told, we both enjoyed that first day quite a bit despite the arduous riding and being exhausted. One question we’ve been asked frequently since we’ve returned is “what were the best tacos?!” and I think we both agree that they were in Tecate. We sampled Suadero, Cabeza, and al pastor varietals with great vigor and elation. It was a day of milestones and we were riding high on a wave of joy for many reasons. Leading up to the trip, we had no idea what pace would be reasonable, how we would feel powering our 60+ pound rigs, and what the terrain would be like. We were allotted 42 days to complete the 1,700-mile journey so it was important to average at least 40 miles per day. The first two weeks of the trip, our focus stayed on that number and banking as many extra miles as we could for the unknown that lay ahead. Covering nearly 60 miles that first day alleviated the concern about our ability to ride the required 40 per day. The sheer fact that our bikes, gear, and setup performed well that first day was a cause for celebration. Prior to this journey, our longest bikepacking trip was five days at best, and while that’s good experience, we still questioned nearly every detail leading up to that first day.
The first week of the route had us pedaling through the mountains as we slowly weaved our way towards the Pacific Ocean. The days were long, and by the time the sun made its way below the horizon, we were fighting to stay awake by the fire. It always takes a while to get your legs underneath you and find your rhythm on these long trips. Each day that passed, we found a slightly better way to load the bikes, clean the drivetrain, and fuel our bodies for the long hours in the saddle. We learned as we went just how much food and water we would need for a day’s ride, and a few times we also learned how much was not enough. It’s hard to conceive finishing such a monumental ride when its only in its infancy and thus we chose to set smaller targets such as major towns where we knew a warm shower and fresh tacos would be awaiting us. One of our early struggles was finding a diverse menu that was both appetizing and nutritious. In many of the smaller villages and towns the selection was extremely limited, so we tried to bulk up on vegetables, fruits, and dairy when it was available. Thankfully the long days gave us plenty of appetite so by the time we sat near the fire for dinner pretty much anything edible sounded fantastic.
To say that the route was rugged and strenuous would be an understatement. We were used to riding rugged terrain from our summer travels to the mountains but did so on unloaded full suspension mountain bikes. Riding our rigid and fully loaded bikes through similar terrain was a totally different endeavor. Throw in some sand and extreme heat for good measure and you’re looking at a certified epic experience. On day five we had our first coastal riding experience riding from Santo Tomas to Colonet. After four days of hard and dusty riding it was a welcome sight to see the mighty Pacific crashing into the rustic coastline. Much of the coast was unencumbered with structures and other man-made objects allowing us to take in the simple beauty of the rocky shore and sea mist. The moist air was very welcome indeed having ingested large amounts of desert dust over the previous days. I had brought a sinus and chest congestion along with me from Michigan that was further aggravated by the extremely dry and dusty air in the desert. Taking in deep breaths of the salt water mist renewed my spirits along with the sights and sounds. As we rolled into a small fishing town named Erendira, we stopped along the cliffs to listen to the sea churning medium sized rocks. With each wave crashing and receding you could hear the stones rolling back and forth. This was the experience we had come looking for and we both smiled as we excitedly approached town and the tacos that lay within.
Arriving in Colonet just prior to the sunset, we found ourselves in search of a warm shower to wash away several days’ worth of dust. With little to no cell service, the majority of the time we were reliant on the guide for information unless we were fortunate to find Wi-Fi. This makes locating hotels a bit of a challenge as the signage in most of the towns isn’t always the greatest. Wandering up and down the small Mex 1 town, we inquired at a few local establishments where we might find a good place to stay. Acting on a hot tip, we went south to find that the hotel was unoccupied, and the doors locked. Thankfully their Wi-Fi was unlocked, and we conducted a quick google search to find Hotel Escondido (translates to hidden hotel in English). Another few miles back to where we had originally joined the highway, and we found a small sign pointing the way up a hill into a neighborhood. I share this story because it’s just one example of a common circumstance where we found ourselves tracking down a hotel, grocery store, or ATM. Not always an easy task to stay patient after an eight-hour day in the saddle but the warm shower, cold Tecate, and The Simpsons in Spanish more than made up for the trouble. We were very fortunate to have my wife’s Spanish speaking skills along for the adventure, and although it’s not necessary to speak the language, it sure does make the trip that much easier.
The route wanders back into the mountains from Colonet in a southeastern direction towards a couple of family-owned ranches known as great places to stay. This stretch would be our first legitimate arroyo encounter as the roads leading into the mountains travel along sandy tracks for many miles before finally ascending into firm terrain. Being equipped with 3” tubeless tires on wide rims afforded us the luxury of being able to run low air pressure and keep moving through the sandy gravel of the arroyo. This portion of the trip was where we encountered the highest temperatures of the entire journey and we regularly saw triple digits on the thermometer. There would be no relief from the heat for another week. Higher up into the climb we came across some surface water which felt great on the feet as we carried the bikes across and stopped in the shade for a rest. To make the hard days more pleasant, we would take several rest breaks in shaded areas and have light snacks as it was difficult to eat a proper meal in the daytime heat. Due to our differing strength and pace, we often found ourselves riding apart which was healthy for us since the rest of the day we spent in close contact. When we would regroup for snack time we could share our stories of what we had seen, random thoughts that popped into our heads, or discuss plans for the day. We didn’t have a schedule laying out every nights’ stop so it became a daily conversation based on how we felt and what our goals were. We didn’t want to go into the trip with every detail planned out since we knew two things; the best laid plans are often laid to waste, and the best adventures have as little planned as possible.
Arriving at Rancho El Coyote after a full day of riding was pure bliss. The small working ranch sits neatly among rock outcroppings high in the mountains and is a veritable oasis among the parched landscape. The man running the ranch was very welcoming, and promptly handed us ice cold sodas as we stopped into the lodge to claim a camping spot. It’s amazing how simple things like having a picnic table to lay your gear out on and running water to drink can really raise the stoke! Part of the journey was getting to know people along the route and socialize with natural born residents as well as expats. We enjoyed great conversation over machaca burritos before retiring to our camp for the evening. People along the remote stretches of the Baja Divide route were generally kind and accommodating. It was refreshing to travel through an area where general concern and care is expressed towards others on a regular basis, but I suppose this is due in part to the fact that life in the desert isn’t easy. The ride from Rancho El Coyote to Vincente Guerrero was not any easier than the prior day, but the scenery made up for the hike a bike as was generally the case. The long descent back out of the mountains to Mex 1 was thrilling and satisfied my mountain biking thirst. It was exciting to roll into town as not only had we covered 300 miles of the route, but it was one of our goal towns that we were aiming for. After stocking upon pesos at an ATM and tacos de pescado across the street, we ventured down the highway to find FASS bikes and the proprietor Salvador who had become quite famous on the route. We were warmly greeted upon our arrival and Salvador was quick to ask if we were in any need of assistance. Thankfully our gear was solid, so our visit mostly concerned discussion about the route, info on the terrain ahead, where to eat, and a recommended re-route to avoid unnecessary arroyo crossings. If you find yourself riding the Baja Divide you must stop by and say hello at the very least!
Hotel California in Vincente Guerrero offers quaint and simple accommodations. After gathering a key, we headed for our room and just as we rounded the corner were greeted by fellow cyclists. This was our first encounter with other touring cyclists in Baja, and the couple from Scotland made for fantastic company. Along the route we would gather more acquaintances that would soon become friends and I suppose that this is one of the magical things that happens on these long trips. We would spend Thanksgiving Day pedaling from Vincente Guerrero to Nueva Odisea and beyond. The route once again arrives at the Pacific Ocean and this time we got to ride the beach for several miles! The wet packed sand made a great riding surface and the sunshine glinting off the water made it a special day for sure. It was like a scene in one of those cheesy movies, pedaling towards flocks of sea birds to have them all erupt in flight as we passed by, fishermen using hand lines off the beach, kids playing at a nearby campground. Returning slightly inland we arrived at Nueva Odisea for what would be our Thanksgiving meal; enchiladas, tacos, beans, and tortillas. The icing on the cake was having just enough cell service to get a phone call out to each of our families. This massive stockpile of morale-boosting experiences would be critical for the difficulties that we would encounter over the next several days.
The guide notes mention that the section after Nueva Odisea is comprised of rough jeep tracks. What we learned afterwards is that these jeep tracks last for over 30 miles and entail many miles of hike-a-bike. Lucky for us we didn’t have enough water to begin with, so several hours in to the ride we were down to a bottle each and rationing in the 100+ degree weather (insert sarcasm). We incorrectly assumed that this 50+ mile stretch would be much likes the others, and as it turned out, it was our most difficult day of riding of the whole trip. The route is an ever-changing creature with tropical storms, dry and rainy seasons, and off-road races that use the same roads. This particular section had been recently used in one of these off-road races and did not particularly benefit from said race. As the French would say, “C’est la vie”. The miles ticked by ever so slowly, and despite the rising concern, it was clutch to play it cool. Any sort of fret or panic wouldn’t make water start bubbling out of the ground and every bit of energy was best not wasted. I wouldn’t say we were delirious, but the Dr. Seuss like landscape with the Cirrios trees and giant Cardon Cacti started to make me wonder if we were indeed awake or not. Never in my life have I seen such a sight as the roadside restaurant in El Sacrificio. Immediately we sat down and began consuming cold water and Coca-Cola. After a quick meal we limped our dehydrated bodies down the road to El Descanso for one last snack and re-supply before heading into the desert to camp. Now, this is where a more learned man would have decided to camp at the truck stop, especially since they offered just that. Nope. We’re still plenty young enough to continue making poor decisions. We did buy lots of water which was good, but even better would have been staying there and consuming liter upon liter and then re-stocking again in the morning.
The next day’s ride towards Catavina would prove to be a difficult one as well. The heat had yet to relent, and the going was slow. We made the turn off-route to San Agustin for lunch and water. Once again, we enjoyed cold sodas, hot food and some sweets to top it all off. The route from here until a small pass wavered between sand and large stone. In any event it was hardly ridable, and we second guessed our decision to stay true to the route versus ride the highway which was still within sight. Upon cresting the small climb, we ate our words though, as the desert opened up into large boulders with every type of cacti imaginable wedged in between. This would also be a common theme in the Baja Divide with brutal terrain breaking down body and spirit only to relent once you had neared a breaking point into some of the most beautiful scenery you could ever imagine. It was a cruel game at times, but we were keen to keep playing along. The descent into Catavina was most enjoyable with sweeping turns and thrilling speed. We rolled into town with the waning sun and once again promptly acquired some cold beverages prior to locating our lodging for the night. We elected to treat ourselves to the nicer option in town after the previous long days in the desert. After enjoying some fine cuisine across the road, we settled into the hotel bar for a few micheladas prior to hitting the hay. What should have been one of the most enjoyable night’s sleep on record was not to be. I awoke far too many times to count either burning up or freezing cold. My head ached so bad it swept down my neck and every muscle in my back was taut as a drum. After thinking long and hard about the possible cause of my malady, I came to realize that I had not urinated in over a day, and that most stops we made I either had a cola or a beer. The severe dehydration from several days before had put me into a debt I had yet to repay. During the early morning hours, I consumed over a gallon of water before even an inkling of having to use the restroom arose. Completely devoid of energy and unable to think straight I told Jenny we would have to sit tight until I could correct the problem. It was probably the least advantageous point in the trip to be in such a situation as the next leg was over 120 miles with zero water.
It wasn’t until after noon that I was able to drag myself out of the room to eat something. We strategized about our next move and elected to carry on just up the road to a community center where we could camp. Leaving the hotel in the midday heat wasn’t exactly ideal but I was hoping the fresh air and scenery would help lift me from my funk more effectively than a dark hotel room. It took most of the afternoon just to cover the 28 miles to our camp for the night. Upon arrival I inflated my sleeping pad and lay prone on the ground only stirring to consume water. Jenny is a kind and patient soul, and she looked after me the rest of the day assuring me I’d feel better. We listed to podcasts in the evening inside of the community center, and I drifted in and out of sleep. My morale was low, but I kept reminding myself it was just a phase, and that soon I would return to my normal self. I was reminded of how wonderful it was to be on this journey with Jenny, and how having the right partner on a trip makes all the difference in the world.
Stay tuned for Part Two…
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