Baja California

Posted by Gordon Dunlop on March 15, 2016

Back in 1998 at the age of 15, I bought the album ‘Bring it on’ by the English band, Gomez. It remains one of my favourite albums and track number 5, Tijuana Lady, one of my favourite songs. Listening to the band’s lead singer, Ben Ottewell’s haunting, gravelly voice depicting a tale of “chasing the Tijuana Lady all round old Mexico” had the teenage romantic in me conjuring an image of a postcard perfect, Pacific coast town full of beautiful Mexican girls. Sadly Tijuana is anything but! The myth had long since been dispelled after hearing stories of a town overrun by drug dealers, people traffickers and drunken American teenagers. Never one to right a place off before having experienced it for myself, I still harboured hope for Tijuana. As we neared the border, we caught a first glimpse of Tijuana and, although not the one I had in my head at the age of 15, the city still evoked a powerful image in my mind. A sprawling mass of ramshackle houses perched on a hillside overlooking the 20 foot high security fence, the flat fields of Imperial Beach, leading all the way to the glistening skyscrapers of San Diego, California. The setting struck me as serving both as an incentive and, perhaps, as an unattainable dream for many of the would-be migrants who populate that hillside. It was a poignant moment though I was soon brought back to reality with the hustle and bustle that surrounds one of the world’s most notorious borders. Thankfully this crossing proved far less eventful than our previous crossing from Canada to the US and we strolled through customs and into the hive of activity that was Tijuana. Apparently the city has come a long way in cleaning up its act and is working towards rebuilding its reputation. The shouts of the street vendors, the crazed weaving of taxis and motos and the smell of sizzling street food left us in no doubt we had now made the transition to Latin America! The chaotic Tijuana traffic and the difficulty in getting to the southbound highway, from the border crossing, led us to take the executive decision to load our bikes on a bus and clear the first 100km past Tijuana and onto the southbound highway. Highway 1 would lead us the 1000 miles down the length of the Baja California peninsula, to the city of La Paz, from where we were due to fly to Toronto, for our Operation Groundswell training retreat, on January 27th. We crossed into Mexico on January 18th – 142 day since setting off from Anchorage – and so the race was on! Our first taste of riding in Mexico was through the town of Ensenada and the bumpy roads and questionable traffic ‘laws’ certainly heightened our levels of concentration! Mexico riding, a different vibe and roadside graves! An early morning start from the outskirts of Ensenada took us to the Canon Buenavista which certainly lived up to its name. The beautiful mountain scenery provided a stunning start to our first full day of riding in Mexico. As well as the scenery, the morning was notable for both the heat and the Mexican drivers. I have to admit to being a little nervous about riding in Mexico given my past experiences with Latin American drivers, however, almost all were extremely courteous and accommodating. Cars, trucks and buses would give us plenty of passing space and would patiently wait behind us, as we neared bends or the top of a hill, before overtaking. Nevertheless, my fears weren’t completely unfounded as the sheer quantity of ornate shrines, to deceased drivers, would attest! After an enchilada pit-stop in dusty San Vicente, we continued south towards Vicente Guerrero and our intended camp for the night. As we rode past the farms and haciendas, the lively towns with their brightly coloured chicken buses and the intrigued, yet disbelieving, looks we encountered from the locals, it really felt as if we were beginning a whole new adventure. As we looked at each other – with clothes, gear and bikes covered in sand and dust – we both agreed that this was the image we had in our minds when first dreaming about cycling the length of the Americas. We reached Vicente Guerrero before nightfall and stopped at a local bike shop we’d been advised of through Warm Showers. The friendly owner, Salvador, gave us some great advice for cycling ‘Baja’ and in particular for the 4/5 days of “pure desert with few amenities” which lay ahead of us! After a pleasant night spent at a campsite run by Salvador’s friends, we left Vicente Guerrero and were met with busy, dusty roads through San Quintin and the surrounding countryside. Then began our first real taste of tough climbs in Baja. We had some really tough ascents which were exacerbated by the searing heat and the lack of shoulder on the road. We’d stop frequently to allow the trucks to pass us on the climbs but these breaks really served as a chance to rehydrate and wipe away the sweat! We were rewarded with what was probably the most fun I’ve had on a downhill to date. The long, steep, yet straight descent towards the town of El Rosarito was great fun and I must have clocked up my fastest speed of the whole trip! We were rewarded yet further by the best tacos we’ve had to date. Tacos El Poblano in El Rosarito – well worth a stop if you’re passing through! After polishing off a mountain of tacos and stocking up on groceries, ahead of our four days of desert riding, we got back on the road in the hope of reaching the ranch at Descanso before nightfall. Helpful locals and an aptly named rest place We managed to get another 90 minutes of cycling in before darkness began to fall, though, we were still over 20km from Descanso and so we began looking for safe place to camp. There was nothing suitable appearing and the sky was getting increasingly dark so we flagged down a truck thinking we could get a ride to Descanso. As it stopped, we realised that the back was completely full of workers and their gear. We were resigned to waiting for another truck, however, the cheery workers were having none of it! They happily manoeuvred all their gear to allow me, both our bikes and all our gear into the back of the truck. It seemed an impossible jigsaw puzzle to get everything in but these guys were clearly pros! As it transpired, the workers and their gear were actually dropped off at a junction (they still had a 60km drive to work!) while the driver, Fermin, drove us the 20km to Descanso to then return and pick up the workers. We were blown away by their kindness and their refusal to accept any money for the ride. These guys were just happy to help a couple of stranded gringos! We reached the ranch at Descanso (Rest!) and slept well in the knowledge that the kindness we’d encountered through Canada and the US, was continuing with us through Mexico!