Guerrero Negro – La Paz: To the Bottom of the Baja

Kilometres: 7494
Tommy’s “Taco-ed” Wheels: 2
Crashes: 1

We spent three days in Guerrero Negro in the end, haunting the eateries and internet cafes and returning to the local soccer stadium by night to sleep. A group of seven American cyclists – dubbed the “Seattle Seven” by the rest of us – stuck around for a while too, and by the end we wondered if town hall meetings and local councils had started discussing the smelly band of gringos who appeared to now be living in the stadium.

One night Tommy, Robbie and I ventured out to the edge of a bay to watch the sunset, drink beer and eat dinner in a dusty car park of sorts. As the sun disappeared droves of four-wheel-drives began to arrive, leaving a discrete space between one another. Some played music but we never saw actually saw anyone’s face. Then, at 10:30 they started to leave. By 10:45 only one was left (a late finisher, we presumed) and when it did pull away it was in an almighty hurry. Seems like 10:30 is curfew time for the daughters of Guerrero Negro.

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I’ve noticed a weird malaise that can take hold of the stationary cycle tourist. Upon arrival into town, we undergo a joyful transformation from “cyclist” back into “human,” shrieking in the shower, satiating a deep hunger and (a more modern phenomenon) catching up with family and friends back home. I’ve heard other cyclists refer to that last one as “the grid,” an “us-and-them” sort of term that I’m not overly comfortable with.

However, once our tales have been told over skype and email, the hunger has been vanquished and we’ve forgotten what it was like to be so dirty, we don’t know what to do with ourselves. We laze about internet cafes staring at Facebook feeds, spending too much money on greasy food and sugary sweets. An aimlessness of sorts takes hold and the cycle tourist, by definition an easy-going and happy creature, becomes abrasive. Travelling by bicycle involves a bit of physical effort, sure, but I’m learning that managing the mental side of things is the real trick.

It was a grey, windy day when we rode south from Guerrero Negro and into the Vizcaino Desert, but it felt good to be moving again. Pedalling out of town wearing sunglasses and padded pants, water bags bulging under bungee cords as the townsfolk stare from the footpath, Canned Heat’s “On The Road Again” always seems appropriate.

I don’t care how much of a cliche it is. It’s a bloody good song.

There is a special skill to shitting outdoors and doing so in a desert is another level beyond that. While picking a discrete spot, you do have to take a bit of a look around and make sure you’re OK with it being the last thing you ever see. If I was a predator with a taste for alfresco human, the few moments before one takes an outdoor dump would be the perfect point of weakness to strike. Picking a bathroom in Baja’s desert requires further consideration with regard to proximity to cacti, and with all those dangly bits out in the open it’s essential for the poop-er to have excellent spacial awareness. A moment’s loss of concentration can have ghastly consequences out here.

So once you’ve picked a spot away from prying eyes and reverently absorbed your surroundings for what could be your last moments, it’s simply a matter of squatting and doing the deed. For this I usually take my pants and underwear completely off and hang them from a nearby branch, as I’ve not yet mastered the Middle Eastern-style squat with pants around the ankles. I feel that if I tried it, I’d just ending dropping poop in my pants.

Alternatively if you’re feeling luxurious, you can find two rocks of similar dimensions and place them about 20 centimetres apart, just far enough to rest a cheek on each with a little room in between into which you can deploy the payload. Make sure to bunch your shirt up around your waist and try to avoid peeing on your feet.

For cleaning up, I’ve not mastered wiping while remaining so close to the ground, so I always end up doing so in a semi-crouching, not-quite-standing position with my arse poked right out for maximum access and my elbow high behind, to achieve the right angle. It’s in this dignified pose, naked from the waist down and scrubbing away at my dirty bum, that I usually start to wonder what I’m doing with my life.

One night found Tommy, Robbie and I discussing our methods for the outdoor dump, and the revelation that I hang my pants from a tree during the deed sparked vigourous debate. “I’m worried about you, Quinten Dol,” said Robbie. Tommy had to be stopped from actually taking his pants down to show how he does it.

The Vizcaino Desert is completely unremarkable, except if you were to remark at how big, flat and featureless it is. After a couple of days we reached San Ignacio, which looks like this:

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Never again will I claim “relief” at finding a desert oasis unless I do so astride a bicycle. We knew nothing about San Ignacio before we arrived, and our joy must’ve been a shadow of that of the first Jesuit missionaries who found this little plot of paradise and founded a town there several hundred years ago. We camped beside the river pictured above and washed weeks worth of sand, grease, grime, sweat, exhaust fumes and sunscreen off our bodies and out of our clothes (we hadn’t found showers in Guerrero Negro).

The town itself was the first real old place we’d been to in Mexico, complete with a central plaza full of trees and benches and ringed by old homes, businesses and a mission. It was a hard place to leave, but the beach beckoned.

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San Ignacio’s mission on the central plaza

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These candles are littered around every roadside shrine in this country.

One notable campsite was at Rancho Las Virgenes, where a farmer named Joaquin let us sleep on his porch under the shadow of a volcano. His wife made us tacos and coffee and in the morning we rode out as he and his workers branded cattle in the yards.

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There was a short climb eastward from Joaquin’s ranch before the road pitched into a piece of road they call “El Infierno”. Numerous motorists warned us about the dangers of this descent to the coast, but by now I’ve been travelling long enough to expect loads of fun when a driver starts waxing a dangerous downhill run. And so it was, with the glassy Sea of Cortez – such an exotic name – rushing up at us as we screamed off the plateau. Highway One’s first look at this sea, however, is not pretty. Rubbish chokes the beaches and the highway turns to a potholed mess lined with decaying factories.

Things brightened considerably just up the road in Santa Rosalia, where we happened upon this:

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It is impossible to understate just how good the fish and prawn tacos are around here. There is a bit of a process that follows from when an order leaves your mouth to when the taco enters it, which I’ll try to outline here:

1. “De maiz o de harina?” – “Corn or flour tortilla?” – is the first question you’ll be asked when you order your “taco de pescado” or “taco de camaron”. I find corn tortillas tastier and apparently they’re healthier, if that’s your thing, but flour tortillas have the advantage of being bigger. Which is important.

2. Take a seat and have a sip or two from the beer you ordered with your food. This particular stall in Santa Rosalia had a jukebox attached, and at one point the señora waddled out to pick a song. After a moment’s consideration, her eyes glazed over and her hips started dipping and revolving to a bassline, seemingly independent of the rest of her body. Tommy and I nodded along and the señora smiled. You’ll find cumbia music doing special things to people everywhere between Quito and Tijuana. Being the diligent journalist that I am, I’ve managed to find the very song for you lucky folks:

3. When the taco comes it is still very much a blank canvas, two or three pieces of fish fried in fluffy batter perched on an open tortilla. The taco is your canvas and the quality of a taqueria depends heavily on the palette it provides: chopped onion, tomato and cilantro, corn and nopal cactus in creamy sauce, blended guacamole, with sides of marinated chilies for spice and sliced cucumber to cool things down.

4. The novice can fall prey to his or her own excitement and overfill the taco, which means things are going to get sloppy very quickly. However, when the fish is fried right and the salads are good – which they always are – it’s impossible to make a bad taco. I keep waiting to be disappointed by a fish or prawn taco, or carne asada out on desert ranches, but it just doesn’t happen.

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Santa Rosalia

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Robbie’s birthday coincided with our arrival at the coast, and we stopped in a fishing village called San Bruno to camp in an abandoned building and try our hand at deep frying. Homemade churros and corn chips (for nachos) are, I am pleased to report, definitely worth the effort.

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San Bruno, as seen from our living room

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Robbie thinks about being 28.

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Primitive cyclist art.

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“No necesito mucho aire, que no peso much.” – “I don’t need too much air, I don’t weigh much.”

South of Mulege we entered the Bay of Conception, which is formed by a mountainous finger of land that juts northward and parallels the coast for 20 kilometres or so. We slowed right down here and can you really blame us?

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Had this one to ourselves.

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Breakfast at El Coyote

At El Coyote we took up residence on the sand and every night our campfire would attract everyone from Canadian and American retirees (they call themselves “snowbirds”) to surfers to hippies living in vans to roadtripping girls who, to everyone’s excitement, enjoyed doing yoga on the beach in their birthday suits. Each day we’d walk to the local store for food and beer, where old Señora Bertha would remind us that we were indeed in Mexico. Between all the snowbirds, roadtrippers and cyclists sprawled on the sand, it’s easy to forget sometimes.

One morning we spotted a fin slicing by offshore, our first glimpse of a whale shark.

So you see that dark island above Tommy’s head in the last photo? Well, on our second day at El Coyote Tommy decided he wanted to swim to it. Robbie and I accompanied him for the first 300 metres or so, before growing tired and returning to the beach. After 30 minutes, the speck of white that betrayed his freestyle strokes disappeared, and we couldn’t find him through the binoculars. Suddenly we were scared, and I borrowed a surfboard from some Californian surfer to paddle out and find him. I saw no sign off him and started wondering about Tommy’s mum’s reaction to the news. “Tommy never even learned how to swim! How could you just let him try to swim to some island?” or something along those lines.

Well, it turns out that it’s about two long kilometres out to the island, and Tommy seemed surprised to see me as I collapsed at his feet on a little beach of shells. I lay shivering in the sun and unable to move for a good twenty minutes while the bloke I was ostensibly there to “rescue” sat serenely working on his tan. I don’t even know CPR, for chrissake. It’s a good job that Tommy’s a gun swimmer as I might’ve needed his help if the island was any further out.

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Leaving the Bay of Conception

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On the road with Tommy and Ray from Toronto.

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Highway scenery.

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First look at Loreto.IMG_1501

Manny from Loreto’s bike shop works with Tommy’s ancient wheel.

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While his wife casually builds a wheel out front.

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Loreto’s mission, the oldest in the Californias.

From Loreto we left the Sea of Cortez and Highway 1 to go west, straight up the aptly-named Sierra La Giganta towards San Javier. The road was steeper here than anywhere else I’ve been so far, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Steep roads are fine because it feels like you’re actually getting somewhere, and there were views over Loreto and the ocean beyond that got better the higher we climbed.

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Goats replace semi-trailers once you leave Highway 1.

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Sierra La Giganta

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“Do you guys’ nipples sting?”

The reward for all this was a dip in a stream (very rare in Baja California) and an arrival in San Javier, an oasis perched in a nook of the sierra. We slept under the stars beside the church, which was founded in 1699. There were palm trees everywhere and a spring sent water down irrigation ditches into surrounding plots of land. We saw wildflowers for the first time.

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San Javier

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Inside the church.

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300-year-old olive tree out the back.

According to our map, the road continued west from San Javier, down into flatlands on the Pacific side to link with Highway 1. And indeed it did, although a lot of it looked like this:

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The novelty wore off after the second water crossing.

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“Those are some strange horses they’re riding, Ed.”

Riding fully-loaded touring bikes on dirt roads is relatively easy on the legs but your arms get sore from constant steering around sand traps, big rocks and corrugations. The concentration required to navigate all this takes it’s toll. A full day’s ride out of San Javier took us only 40 kilometres down the road and it felt like we’d ridden 140. What’s more, spending all day looking at the three metres in front of you means you miss a lot of the cool scenery around you.

However, roads like this really do get you out in the middle of nowhere. In a day and a half we saw five or six cars and only the occasional ranch.

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Highway 1 doesn’t want us to leave Baja. Robbie had a pretty spectacular-looking fall that may have fractured a rib and, tragically, prevents him from laughing for the time being. Tommy tried to dodge a speed bump and taco-ed his wheel for the second time, but the old thing still wants to keep going nevertheless. Heavy traffic and a headwind characterised our last two days before La Paz, and things took a decidedly Mad Max-ish air once the highway turned to dust in a series of roadworks.

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Ready for the apocalypse.

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So here we are in La Paz, hoping some rich American will offer us a ride on his yacht across to mainland Mexico while we drift from taco stands to internet cafes to bars to the beach and back again. More cyclists arrive every few days and all are hoping to catch a ride to Mazatlan or Puerta Vallarta, and so scruffy gringos on touring bicycles are a relatively common sight around the marinas. Down on the esplanade you’ll find families promenading, teenagers clutching at one another in discrete corners, tourists in loud shirts and snowbirds who seem determined to speak to everyone in halting Spanish, even if the person who’s serving them tacos is replying in English and is actually a Frenchman.

“What can I get you, guys?”
“Dos de pescAHdo, uno de camaron.”
“Ok, take a seat and I’ll let you know when they’re ready.”
“GrAHcias. Oh, y… y… what’s the wifi password?”

The weather is gorgeous, even though the locals find it a little too cold to go swimming at this time of year. I too have been a bit spoilt but Baja’s beaches on the Sea of Cortez.

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Clams don’t get any fresher than this.

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Taking a hike with Eduardo, our warmshowers host.

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With Eduardo, his dad, Julio, and his chihuahuas.

Baja California has treated us extremely well. I’m going to miss the aforementioned seafood, the bright days of riding in the sunshine with views for miles around, the dry air and the relaxed nature of it’s people. We’ve had a lot of fun and seen some beautiful things, but the mainland calls.

Back in El Coyote we inherited a road map of Mexico, and slowly we’re learning the geography of the country before us and the sorts of things we might find alongside those little coloured lines squiggling between named dots. We entered this country through it’s most isolated and sparsely populated region, and ahead lie colonial cities and villages in Guanajuato, indigenous culture and ancient pyramids in Oaxaca and Chiapas, sprawling Mexico City and who knows what else? For now we’re looking forward but before we go, I’m excited to ride to one of the beaches outside La Paz and watch the vultures wheeling about high above or perched on a cacti one last time.

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5 thoughts on “Guerrero Negro – La Paz: To the Bottom of the Baja

  1. A great post. I almost felt like I was riding along with you. I did Baja on a motorcycle in 1975, and it doesn’t look like it has changed much. Hoping to do it again in our van next January.

  2. Pingback: La Paz – Guadalajara: Mainland Meyheeko | The Naked Pun

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