San Diego – Guerrero Negro: Welcome to Mexico!

Kilometres: 6620
Tacos eaten: About 6620
Towns named “Rosarito”: 2
New countries: 1

Well, I found Bobby B. Black aka Roberto Negro outside an apartment I was couchsurfing at one afternoon, fresh and stoked from riding over two days down from LAX to San Diego. How very strange to see him in the Americas once again.

San Diego was a nice enough town, a bit spread out for cycling but Ocean Beach in particular seemed like a really cool place. Walker and his daughters came down one evening from Jacumba one evening and took me out there, as well as Mount Helix Park with it’s amphitheatre and views over the city and down to the Mexican border.

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Mount Helix

Once Robbie arrived we didn’t delay too long before hitting the road, riding as far south as we could without actually going to Mexico.

Border Fields State Park is a weird place. On the American side an empty marshland stretches to the beach, with just a few hiking trails and a ranch or two, with two border fences following a ridge of hills above. On the other side, Tijuana is jammed up against the wall, buildings poking over the side. We found a spot to camp behind some bushes, planning to cross over early and get away from Tijuana.

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No swimming into the U.S.

Well, it turns out the Border Fields is a very tactical state park, a veritable no-man’s land between Tijuana and San Diego. Right on sunset a border patrol helicopter began circling us, and any doubt over whether they were looking at us or not evaporated when the spotlight blasted in our eyes. We waved. An officer stepped out of the bushes to tell us “you’re not allowed to camp here”.

“You know that’s Mexico over there?” he huffed, thrusting a finger at Mexico.

We pointed out that the sun had just set. Was he really going to send us out to look for a new campsite in the dark? He considered this for a moment as the helicopter thwupped overhead.

“We’ll be gone in the morning,” I tried.

“I’m going to ask my boss. If I don’t come back, you can assume you can stay.” He reappeared seconds later. “I hate to ask you this but I am a border patrol officer after all. Can I see your passports?”

The helicopter returned three more times as we sat cooking and chatting in the darkness. We imagined ourselves as a heat signal on radar screens, commanders being briefed about our presence and orders being given. A camera on the officer’s uniform would’ve registered our passport details and our social media would’ve been scrutinised, along with our browsing history. Our school principals would be interviewed and a PowerPoint prepared about our family, friends and “associates”. We joked aloud about Guatemalan families and cocaine hiding in our panniers, to see if microphones had been placed around us. It was a very weird night.

We disappeared the next morning and after relatively few border shenanigans, burst into sunlight in the middle of swirling Tijuana, the United States already a memory lodged in the past. We rode into whirling traffic on potholed roads, and I thought “so this is how it is from now on”. The air was hotter and stank of exhaust fumes. Rubbish and the wails of ranchero singers tumbled about the streets.

A ten kilometre climb took us out of the city before descending to the coastal town of Rosarito, a stretch of hotels along the beach that looks a bit like a faded Mexican Surfer’s Paradise. Rosarito and Tijuana are the northernmost cities of the Baja California Peninsula, an arid stretch of desert ringed by beaches and cliffs as long as the American state of California, with a fraction of the population. It’s famous for fish tacos, apparently, so we pulled over for a sample to celebrate a new country. Fried fish or prawns come in little corn tacos topped with a little salad and mayonnaise. There were at least seven different types of hot sauce on offer, all of them subtly different and varying degrees of delicious. Beer complemented the food nicely, as did the sun dappling through the trees while moustachioed men in cowboy hats sat across the bar from us. I think we’re going to like Mexico.

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In Ensenada we warmshowered with Jorge, a 19-year-old civil engineering student who, to the bemusement of his parents, has started hosting travelling cyclists in the family home. As luck would have it, our stay coincided with Mexican Christmas, which takes place on the evening of December 24th. Around 9pm Jorge whisked us up to his grandmother’s place and the table groaned under piles of prawns cooked in mole, shredded turkey in creamy sauce, fruit salad with marshmallows (yum!), piles of tamales and a whole bunch of other stuff. Strange new flavours abounded, all of them delicious.

With the troops assembled, grandma gave the word around 10:30 and we began our assault. As hungry cyclists who hadn’t eaten all day specifically for the occasion, Robbie, Tommy (a Washingtonian cyclist also staying with Jorge) and I probably drew the most blood but by midnight we too had succumbed to exhaustion. When the clock struck 12 everyone jumped up to hug, kiss and wish each other “Feliz navidad!” We chatted and picked over the substantial remains before grandma broke out the alfoil and assured us we’d be back in the morning for “el recalentado” – literally “the reheated”. Leftovers are as much a part of the Christmas tradition in Mexico as anywhere else.

So the next day the troops were assembled once again and around midday grandma sent in the second wave. By 3pm we were all sprawled in couches surrounding the table, belching, digesting and chatting quietly. Occasionally new family members would appear and grandma would quickly draft them in for recalentado duty. They’d tuck in to a bowl of menudo soup and a pile of romeritos for a half hour or so until they too succumbed and fell into a couch.

I can also report that Ensenada has a pretty decent nightlife, from indie bands thrashing about in divey bars to glitzy karaoke establishments. Judging by all the camera phones that appeared in hands when we got on stage, there is probably a grainy video of Tommy, Robbie and I belting out an intensely sensual version of the Backstreet Boys’ “Everybody” somewhere on YouTube by now.

Highway One stretches all the way down Baja California’s 1600-odd kilometre length and not far south of Ensenada, the population thins right out. Tommy has a theory about a scale that looks something like this:

Cycle tourist————————————————-I—————————————————–Bum

About four months or so ago I started out at the far left of the above scale. By the time Robbie arrived I was somewhere in the middle, but in the Baja Norte’s wilderness we started sliding inexorably towards the right. We camped in an abandoned church surrounded by old bones and a nameless grave on a lonely stretch of coast, which was definitely one of the creepier places I’ve slept.

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Turns out abandoned buildings provide excellent protection from the wind on cold desert nights, so we started doing it more often. I’d considered it a few times in the U.S., but always chickened out for the spookiness. However with friends, that spookiness becomes loads of fun. Several nights later we attacked what was probably once a restaurant, pulling out door frames and roof boards for a fire we lit in one of the roofless back rooms.

“This is probably the most bummy thing I’ve ever done,” said Robbie, who two weeks ago was working as a lawyer in an office for a community legal aid organisation.

One afternoon we took a steep detour to a place called La Lobera, basically a big whole in the rocks on the coast, where sea lions rest on little beach that has formed on the bottom. An old abalone farmer, Hector, let us sleep on his property and provided one of the cooler sleeping spots of this trip.

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La Lobera

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Packing up in the morning. Photo credit to Sr. Negro on this one.

The next morning we found a military checkpoint at the top of a big climb. As usual, the soldiers waved us through and Tommy and I pulled over to wait for Robbie. A khaki military truck crested the hill and one of the soldiers whistled. Suddenly everyone was running out to defensive positions around the barracks, acting like they’d been there all night while cheering amongst themselves. They greeted the truck drivers like heroes and piled in, ready for home.

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Sandy riding on the coast.

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About as close as I’ll get to having a town named after me

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Taco time! Look upon that spread and know the true meaning of jealousy.

Rosario was the last town with water and food available for about 200km, which was as isolated as I’ve been on this trip. Camping in the desert in the States, the horizon was almost always punctuated by glowing points betraying the location of distant towns, while the blinking lights of planes constantly slid by overhead. Not so in Baja. The silence is absolute.

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By day Baja California is like one big cactus garden spread over rolling hills and the occasional proper mountain range.

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Tommy goes down

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Roberto Negro, Caballero de la Carretera

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Our New Year’s Eve campsite

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Meet Robbie’s steed, Oscar.

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“Top of a big hill” face

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Lunchtime!

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Tommy Crisp and his multi-use front panniers/mayonnaise buckets/camping stools

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A rare sighting of yours truly astride Baxter.

Camping is so much easier in Mexico. In the U.S. and Australia there are rules and permits for everything, and people generally seem suspicious of anyone who wants to pitch a tent just about anywhere. Here, sweet señoras, ranchers and policemen simply gesture out back with a smile and, if it’s really cold, will offer you a trailer or something to sleep in instead. People are expected to be responsible for themselves and courteous to those around them. In the States and Australia we’re so afraid of people abusing that responsibility that we make rules to prevent them the opportunity.

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Rancho Chapala

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Rancho Chapala.

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Road like a rollercoaster

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Robbie’s 1000th kilometre!

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Tommy shows off the latest fashion in padded pants

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Desolation coming into Guerrero Negro

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At the border of Baja California Norte and Baja California Sur, about halfway down. 772 kilometres to go.

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So here we are resting up in Guerrero Negro, a friendly enough town where we’ve run into a group of 7 cycle tourists from Seattle heading to Trinidad and Tobago and one Bogotano heading home. We’ve taken over the local soccer field for a campground and scruffy gringos on loaded touring bikes have been a common sight on the town’s main street for a few days now.

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The bike army moves in.

We’re shivering through the nights at present (or at least Robbie is in his $7 Aldi sleeping bag) and drooling over stories of perfect beaches and 30 degree days further south, but for me this is an improvement on the iciness of northern Arizona in December.

It has been great fun riding with Robbie and watching him learn, basically, how to be a dirty cycle tourist. He’s taken the role of “legal advisor” and head chef while I’m the translator. I don’t really talk to Baxter too much anymore, now that I have a real person to throw my ramblings at. Tommy is pretty much the definition of chill, even when his stove isn’t cooperating and a morning wind is throwing sand in his breakfast.

Americans did their very best to scare me away from Mexico, and I was told with unsettling consistency that “they’re going to chop your head off down there!” However, I’ve never felt safer on the road. Truckers wait patiently behind us until it’s absolutely safe to pass and beep encouragingly when they do. We get more friendly beeps and waves in an hour here than a full month’s riding in the States. The food is dangerously cheap and delicious. My only complaint so far is the quantity of rubbish that mars some beautiful stretches of coastline, but you can’t have it all. Every now and then I’ll hear a ranchero singer wail, eat a particularly good taco, watch a señorita sashay down a street or camp behind someone’s house and think “this is how it is from now on”. It’s a pretty exciting thought.

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Moonrise at Guerrero Negro

8 thoughts on “San Diego – Guerrero Negro: Welcome to Mexico!

  1. Hi, Quint,
    I’m Jeanne, aka “Tommy’s mom”. Thanks so much for the detailed description of your adventures. (Your mother should be proud of you.) It’s great to learn how friendly the people have been, which is very consistent with my few travels in Mexico. Hopefully you’ll get warmer weather soon. Keep having fun!

    • Always welcome to join bud, although your coming adventures sound bloody fantastic! I know a lot of people who’d kill for that kind of day job. Will get a chance to reply to your email in the coming days

  2. Hi, I’m the Canadian you met, along with my husband (German) and neighbour (the American who likely told you they’d chop your heads off in Mexico), your first night couch-surfing at a friend’s place in San Diego. Glad to hear Mexico is not what the Americans keep telling me it is. Although the extended-in-law family we have in TIjuana warns us against visiting (fear of kidnapping, corrupt police), arranges to pick us up at the border. But here’s an interesting statistic Americans aren’t quick to share: Chances of getting shot in Chicago are much higher than in Tijuana!

    You’re a solid storyteller. Enjoy the ride and food.

  3. Love your work. I loved your passage on how Mexicans are more caring than Australians and Americans. Love to hear more about this, the loneliness and the dark side of traveling on your own.

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