Oaxaca city is a great place.  It’s the first large city I have visited where I would consider coming back to relax, write, code, make art, or just waste time.  The downtown area is quaint, well kept, has a feel of a colonial town, and a prolific art scene.  What’s more, you can hear live music in the evenings floating it’s way through the streets while you sample restaurants which still incorporate traditional flavors.  The food of Oaxaca is unique.  Grasshoppers, moles, mezcal, and thick hot chocolate from a bowl are native to this area.  I have been getting more and more tired of the usual Mexican grease and Oaxaca afforded me a selection of alternatives other than just the usual sandwich.

Monte Alban is a short drive from the City, on a hill overlooking the Valle Centrales.  The complex is large, in my opinion, but a little produced in places.  I could see fiberglass poking through on some of the rock relief carvings.  Either some of the sights are reproduced or these people were way ahead of their time.

Leaving Oaxaca City, the road became wide; an anomaly in Mexico. A shoulder popped up and I even saw some racer-type cyclists out enjoying the less confrontational construction of the highway. We were able to see some more ruins in Mixtla and take a bumpy truckride into the mountains to see a mineral-fall, or a waterfall-like structure made of minerals.

The road then rolled downward towards the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, a very flat, hot, extremely windy area which few gringos stop to visit.  At one small town, a schoolboy noticed me and shouted for his friends to come join him.  He ran to meet them as they rounded the corner, then doubled back towards me to arrive just before them.  He bowed with an outstretched hand in my direction as if to say: “As promised, I give you … the gringo.”  Moments later, while having lunch another man stopped his tractor outside and beckoned for me to come chat with him.  Dirty, teeth missing, one eye, and very friendly, he had to stop to say hello and practice his English.  Being a gringo in Mexico can mean you are a spectacle of sorts in some areas, but the jovial nature of the culture ensures this is never threatening.

Another section of the Ithsmus brought winds that often topple high trucks.  I rode through them for a few hours, able to keep the bike pointed in a generally straight line despite having no shoulder and heavy traffic.  When I saw the windfarm in the distance I knew I wouldn’t get a break.  Eventually the gusts became too great, catching the surfaces of the front pannier and causing my wheel to inexplicably skid sideways toward the steep ditches.  Having left early in the morning I walked the remaining distance; a difficult task in and of itself in such winds.

We entered Chiapas just as the remnants of Tropical Storm Arthur passed through the area.  Ushering in what would be a very hot, wet next two months through Central America.  In the town of Tuxtla I became solo again, my friend Amy finishing her vacation.  The road led upward into the pines of the higher elevations, juxtaposed next to banana plants and rolling green farmlands.  Small valleys and passes nearing 7000′ screamed by in miniature.  Eventually, I dropped into the central depression and headed across to the border.  I found Chiapas to be one of the most scenic, picturesque, kind, and generally best, states of Mexico I visited.  I reminisce and smile about my cautiousness about riding through this area before I arrived.  I had heard reports of cyclists having issues, the local uprising of years gone past, and general distrust of the region from many people to the north.  I found none of this, other than a few dissenting t-shirts.  I am always careful by my own subjective standards nonetheless.

Mexico is a beautiful country, but I feel only saw a glimpse of what it has to offer. Baja I remember with fondness, already romanced to be larger than reality itself. Aging like the warmth of the Anejos of Jalisco. The magic I found in those lands will linger forever, and that is a great part of the fun. The mainland might as well have been another country altogether. Different in culture and landscape, but those same genuine Mexican smiles persisted. Several times a day I would here a whistle, a honk, a yell, all so that I would glance in the direction of the producer to receive a smile, a wave, or a peace sign.  In an America where some try to pretend that we are all alone, even when surrounded, we could learn a lot from the friendliness of Mexico.  I regret not seeing more of it, but I am sure I will be back and that there are plenty more sights to come.

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Mazatlan to Oaxaca


After crossing over from La Paz, we spent little time in Mazatlan before continuing on. The town, although interesting, was much larger than any other previously seen in Mexico. Small towns in mainland Mexico are the size of large towns in Baja. The traffic is generally heavier and less flexible. I often find myself comparing the mainland to Baja. These two areas are distinct to me; certainly different chapters. One difference between Baja and the mainland is that you can ride your bike on the toll road. Occasionally, I saw signs saying it was prohibited but never had a problem at the toll booths. The toll roads are greatly preferred due to their width and general lack of traffic, and the surface tends to be better. The roads here also contain new carrion. Bats, tarantulas, armadillos, and many snakes; none suitable for photographic preservation. Sorry kiddos.

Southward, the desert vegetation and scenery persisted. Occasionally we got a small climb or a glimpse of an iguana’s tail as it scurried up and embankment as we approached. Finally near the town of Tepic we found some real hills. The road here also narrowed to a harrowing width and the mainland traffic being less eager to cooperate made for a challenging section. We chose to ride from Tepic to Puerto Vallarta rather than going through Guadalarjara. This is the shorter route and avoids climbing into the mountains. We later found out from another cyclist that this route is not recommended due to the congestion and the serpentine roads. We climbed up from Tepic to, I believe, around 4,000ft. From here we had an excellent downhill to near sea level, 23km. I of course took the opportunity to go as fast as possible, leaning into the curves, gripping my brakes for dear life as corners approached, and attempting to catch up with or sometimes pass other vehicles which I came across. At one point I was riding behind a pickup truck at around 60km / hr when he came to a rather abrupt stop. I barely missed hitting his bumper as passed I him on the right, braking just short of a bus in front of him and keeping my wheels on the little pavement between him and the ditch. A line of cars was stopped to allow an ambulance carrying injured persons from a previous car accident to pass. Closer toward Puerto Vallarta, highway 200 becomes especially narrow and congested. I would suggest that any other cyclist riding this section take the route through Guaralarjara instead.

Puerto Vallarta seemed to be overrun with gringos; it’s usual state I expect. Upon entering town I noticed several young American-looking men; I would guess around 18 years old walking down the sidewalk heading for the beach. Each carried a case of cheap Mexican beer on their shoulder, here for spring break I assume to experience Mexico. Half a kilometer later I saw a young woman, also presumably American, sitting on the side of the road, her head cradled in her hands as if it was made of stone. A large neon colored plastic vessel,  typically filled with a mixture of cheap booze and something fruity, sitting a foot away. Welcome to Puerto Vallarta. I find that I really enjoy the open spaces of Mexico, the mountain vistas, the beach sunsets, but the city is not my favorite. True, it affords easy learning opportunities about the culture and history of the people, but it’s not necessarily for me. Small towns have offered a more interesting cultural education through interpersonal communication than any of the large cities.

Puerto Vallarta marked the beginning of a change in vegetation from desert to a more tropical landscape. Southward, the states rolled by, adding more and more palm trees day by day. This being the end of the dry season, things look a little brown when looking inland from the coast. The greenery is largely limited to the coastline and huge valley’s of banana plantations, a coconut palm planted every 40 feet or so, presumably for shade.

The state of Michoacan is known for it’s beauty and also, as we found out, for it’s beaches. Tearing your Lonely Planet in two to save weight is a great idea, but it can also be a determent if you decide you needed something in the front of the book, such as the holiday calendar. There are two very large holidays in Mexico: Christmas and Semana Santa. Semana Santa is not a week after Christmas celebrating the visit of the jolly old fellow in the red suit; it is easter. Apparently during this week, which is two weeks in reality, everyone gets vacation and heads to the beach. This doubles or triples the hotel rate, packs every palapa in sight with tents, and loads the roads with overloaded minivans filled with Great Grandma to babe. We had a difficult time finding a space to camp or a hotel during this period. Some hotels we came across were charging as much as $80.00 per night. Cabanas were sometimes available; a small structure most would call a “shack” sometimes including a restroom and usually somewhat accessible to the night air and insects.

While in Baja, camping was very easy. One simply had to look for a spot beside the road where you could hide a tent. Here it’s much more populated, much of the territory is farmland, and it’s much much hotter. On the up side the hotels are much cheaper. Sometimes you can find a hotel for as little as $9.00 / night. A general guideline is $25.00 – $30.00 will get you a room you can feel comfortable in. When inspecting a hotel I have learned to look for several amenities.

First, some modicum of security is required. Typically the inspection starts with verifying there is in fact a door to the dwelling, and hopefully a lock. Questions should be asked about obtaining a key (llave) to make sure they are willing to part with it. Large holes through the door which can be used to unlock it from the outside are unacceptable.

Second, a bathroom should be present. Being a gringo in Mexico means you may need to use a restroom quickly, without going down the hall and waiting for your neighbor to finish reading the paper. In addition, the bathroom should be checked for a sewer gas smell. This seems to be a bigger issue on the downstairs rooms than upstairs. The showers are typically cold water only when you want hot, and for some reason only warm when you are dying of heat. One shower, which I dubbed the execution shower, had an inline heater installed in the shower head. Live electrical wires were twisted and quickly taped just inches above the head of the unfortunate bano inmate.

Third, a cursory bug check is made. On one occasion, an ant’s nest decided that wherever they used to live wasn’t as good as the moulding in the bathroom and they moved in. Cleaning up hundreds of ants can be a bit of a chore but it should be noted that liberally squirting a perimeter of jungle juice (98% deet) around their entrance to the domicile is affective in stemming the tide of invaders. The subsequent traffic jam can be cleaned up with a wet towel. In another room a cockroach had taken up residence in the bathroom sink. He would peek his feelers out of the drain while you brushed your teeth; apparently anticipating the minty freshness of a plaque free carapace.

Fourth, if you are in a hot climate AC might be necessary. One day while riding, my key chain thermometer read 102F. Heat exhaustion is a constant concern. I have had countless dehydration headaches and am just hoping my kidneys aren’t picking up rock collecting as a hobby. I recently read some unreferenced articles that stated that you can sweat as much as one liter per hour. They also stated that you can absorb only about one liter per hour. This doesn’t leave much else to help cool off. One day, I felt extremely exhausted from the heat and would have paid just about anything for a hotel with AC. Unfortunately, one was not available. I ended up spending around two hours in the shower cooling off that night. Another method that works well wiping cool water on your appendages occasionally using a wet handkerchief. Keep a pan of fresh water next to the bed so you can refresh your hanky when it gets warm or drys out. May is end of the dry season and the hottest month in some of the southern Mexican states. Riding is really only possible in the morning or the afternoon. On the coast, we typically get up around 5:30AM and ride from 7AM to 12PM at the latest. Anything more than this is really asking for trouble.

Fifth, a downstairs (abajo) room is preferred to upstairs (arriba) because of a lot of heavy (pesado) belongings. I have learned that carrying a fully loaded bicycle up a flight(s) of stairs is possible. It’s fairly easily done by standing on the drive side and picking up the rear of the rig by the non-drive side chainstay, while picking up the front end with your right hand from right side of your handlebar drop. This, surprisingly, does make a difference in keeping your upper body in shape when using only your legs all day and also saves time.

One morning, feeling sluggish as usual, I left a little after Amy. I packed up my belongings; each fitting into it’s prescribed location like a nicely played game of tetris but luckily without anything disappearing. I rode lazily away from the beach hotel, watching the sunrise colors fade from the sky into the dull blue of day. I came upon Amy on the side of the road with a couple of bystanders lingering about. She had a gash in her elbow, a scraped knee, and a large patch of road rash on her shoulder. Her hip was badly bruised from a fall to the pavement and her bike lay next to the road, a bit twisted and scraped. Some dogs looked toward her from a field nearby. A large group of them, numbering around ten, had seen her ride by and given chase. Now, any cyclist on tour has had to deal with dogs but seldom a pack of them. They had run along side, threatening to nip at heel and leg until one of them decided he was going to bite some piece of her front bag. He lunged at the front wheel, washing out the front tire and causing the incident. The dogs instantly scattered as some locals came running, one of them throwing rocks at these roving canines in disgust of their actions.

Dogs are easily the cause of more scares on the bike than any other single category. My brain by now should be pickled with adrenaline from numerous daily occurrences. The tear off after you, baring teeth and nipping at heels. I have found that most dogs can run only ~18MPH so if you are on the flat you can use the flight response to get away from them. If you spit in their face it will cause them to stutter, a water bottle emptied on their head while make them stop, and yelling will do absolutely nothing. They will give chase as if you are a demon sent from the underworld to destroy all life on Earth. If you are on foot, they usually couldn’t care less. If you have time to dismount they will be disarmed; generally looking astounded as if you have transformed into an entirely different creature. It’s interesting that if you have a rock and make a throwing motion or pick up a stick they take notice; as if these actions are not unknown to them. I typically do nothing other than wait for them to get within range of a kick to the face. These creatures are let to roam in Mexico. They will wait by your dinner table for scraps and sometimes defend their territory even if you are sans bicycle. I must admit I am developing an unhealthy disdain for them. Most of these dogs have and have never had an owner. They procreate wildly and subside on the refuse of man. These vermin are the rats of Mexico and I often wonder about their usefulness to the food chain and their evolutionary significance. That’s probably enough said about that without having to moderate the impending comments.

Amy’s bike was easily mended with supplies on hand, some adjustments and everything was back to normal. The body on the other hand took a little more time. We took a camioneta, a pickup with benches in the back, to the town of Marquelia. We stayed there for a while, letting injuries heal to the point where she could walk again and eventually ride. A hip injury of this type can be very painful and take quite a while to mend. I didn’t mention it at the time, to protect myself from the excitable, but I also had a similar accident where I injured my hip. I had the same matching scuff on the knee, the gash on the elbow, and a tear in the shoulder of my jacket where I would have had road rash. It was during the first week in southern Washington, and luckily I had a week and a half off after that. It has been around five months since that day and it still hurts to the touch.

I spent my time exploring the town, making friends, eating way too many pastries, and sampled an iguana tamale. I later found out iguana is being over hunted and might not be environmentally conscious to eat. One restaurant owner, Claudia, asked me one day to write down some translations for some items she cooked. I talked with her a little bit and decided to make her a menu instead with both English and Spanish. I had some extra time so I printed up a few, and ended up getting some free meals out of the deal. Another restaurant owner I had become acquainted with saw me in the internet cafe printing out the newly minted gastronomicon for Claudia’s restaurant, Leche y Miel, and asked me to simply write down the translations for his menu as well. I was happy to. I dealt with some printer issues in the internet cafe and got to know the owner a little. She was excited to learn that I had some computer skills and asked if I could teach her and her husband how to use their scanner and edit images. I obliged; it was the least I could do after “borrowing” WiFi for three weeks by writing down the WEP key from the sticker on their wireless router. The first document they wanted to edit was some sort of birth certificate. I gave instructions in Spanish as I showed them how to scan documents, edit out numbers, and cut and paste new digits from the same document to avoid background discrepancies. The next document they needed edited was a driver’s license. This was a little more difficult as the background contained a watermark that had to be reconstructed pixel by pixel before pasting the new digits. Not too complicated, and I hope the notes they took allowed them to continue whatever business they are in. Apparently a lot of people need those two documents edited for some reason. I didn’t ask why but I suspected some sort of voter fraud and or traffic violation avoidance. Who am I to judge?

The coast of Mexico is a different experience from the inland sections of Baja or the coast of the US. Although varied in some ways I actually found that eventually I got a little bored of the picturesque honey colored sand beaches with the quintessential topical aqua blue water. I’m sure some of you coming out of the Seattle winter could slap me for that statement but it’s true. So, we decided to do some more tourist activities and to turn inland to see some ruins. Touring Baja, I really felt that I got to know the landscape, the people to an extent, and the area. I didn’t feel the same about mainland Mexico and for this reason have decided to spend some extra time touring around Oaxaca and Chiapas before heading into Guatemala. The previous plan touring Yucatan is out due to time constraints.

We were able to visit a sea turtle sanctuary to watch baby turtles dig their way out of the sand. These organizations collect eggs from the beach to raise them in a sheltered environment before releasing them into the surf. They were kind enough to allow us to release a few into the ocean, little leathery creatures pre-programmed for getting into the water and swimming away. These little tortugas made their way into the waves, being pushed back up the beach countless times before finally being washed into the whitewater.

Another attraction was a crocodile reserve. Crocodiles are raised in a sheltered environment to keep predators from destroying them at a young age. Unfortunately the tour was not in English but we were able to get within inches of the crocs, just on the other side of a chain link fence. Had I decided I no longer wanted some of my fingers, I’m sure I could have easily left some there. The tour was given by a young boy. Several others were about cleaning the grounds, no adults in sight.

On a snorkeling excursion we were fortunate enough to see fisherman pull in a large tuna, see large sailfish jump fully from the water, get within ten feet of a very large whale shark, and see several large sea turtles swimming in the open ocean. Unfortunately, we were not able so snorkel. Each beach we visited was infested with huge clouds of small stinging jellyfish, an artifact of days of onshore winds. At one point the boat stopped to allow us to go “cliff diving”. Apparently six feet is a cliff in Mexico and I declined to swim the 20 yards to the rock. Several German tourists on board literally jumped at the opportunity, each returning covered with painful, red, jelly stings.

The first few days of the route to Oaxaca City led up eastward on highway 175 up over the Sierra Madre mountains. We expected a couple days of climbing to reach the highest point before descending into the Valle Centrales and ultimately arriving at Oaxaca City. What was not expected was encountering most of the 9,000ft climb in a single day. The route from Pochutla afforded amazing views of steep mountain canyons, shrouded in green from redcurrant afternoon storms. The first 4,000ft came in the first 20km, and surprisingly went by without too much trouble.  Ridge after ridge passed by, the road sometimes icing the top precariously before glancing up the side of another canyon. Cycling above 6,000ft was a brutal event. The elevation is really a killer when you are hauling a 100lb bicycle. Around kilometer 35, I stopped for my second lunch. I ate three large quesadillas, a large bowl of beans, and drank a liter of water. A half hour after finishing the meal, I awoke with my head on the lunch table. Luckily I had moved the food out of the way prior to zonking out; thus avoiding any propagation of messy gringo stereotypes. The senora moved around the taqueria as if she had not noticed me slumbering uncontrollably. I paid my bill and headed off. Shortly thereafter I started hearing a frequent thundering from the canyon below. The afternoon clouds were creeping upwards against the mountainside and the thunderclaps seemed to be moving closer towards me than I was climbing away from them. Not fully understanding the dynamics of lightning on a slope with a ledge, the highway, I decided to get as far above them as possible as quickly as possible. Eventually I met clouds from above, strangely dropping straight down across the road; the densest looking fog I’ve ever seen. I was able to see small wisps of it within inches of my face. It moved like stage fog, except holding a wet chill, soaking my already sweaty clothes. My pace slowed as my heart raced and I gave up worrying about electrocution. I was exhausted; just getting back into shape from my time on the bench in Marquelia and this elevation was just too much. I made it to within seven kilometers of the town, an elevation of 7,800ft, 1,200ft short of the 9,000ft climax. I could not go on. Each breath seemed useless, paining my lungs when I breathed deeply. Getting close to dark, I hitched a lift with a van on it’s way to Oaxaca. I think the driver saw the look on my face and was compelled to stop. This was the hardest day of riding I have ever had. When he dropped me off at the top I had nothing left. I wept. It was the best hill of my life.

I spent a couple days recovering from my exhaustion on the ridge top. I took therapeutic four-wheeler excursion; whipping through the high pine forests at 8,000ft; just me and a guide. I think he took me on a special route since I can’t imagine aunties and uncles going up these slopes which I hoped I would not tip over backwards on. Unlike the last time I was on a four-wheeler I avoided breaking any limbs.

Eventually, we headed down into the Valle Centrales towards Oaxaca. The valley floor bottomed out at around 4,500ft. The air here feels like syrup compared to the thin watery gas of the ridge before dropping in. This high plain is a bit lumpy, a pancake just before the bubbles pop and it’s ready to flip. Patchworks of farm after farm, culturing sustenance in the blood orange soil.

I am now in Oaxaca city, in the center of the Valle Centrales.  Having arrived this morning I’m catching up on the blog; yeah, yeah, I know; and considering a mountain bike excursion, a cooking class, and some gallery touring.

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La Paz and The Sea of Cortez


We reached our departure point for mainland Mexico, La Paz, on the 20th of Feb. My friends Steve and Ana were ever so kind to us, putting us up; cooking us many meals; allowing us to lounge around endlessly; and shuttling us back and forth around town to collect various travel accoutrements. Thanks again! I was also looking forward to collecting a pair of Specialized BG Pro cycling shorts from DHL while in town. I had called Mountain View Cycles in Hood River Oregon and talked with Julie a week and a half back. She was able to send me the shorts even though they had not typically mailed merchandise to Mexico in the past. Thanks again Julie, you really saved my butt! For anyone sending clothing to Mexico it should be noted that the customs office will arbitrarily assign duty to the shipment and as far as I can tell there is no appeal process. Shipping to Mexico is very expensive to start with. This single article of clothing cost me $75.00 shipping and an additional $104.00 duty from customs. On top of the price of the shorts, they are quite deluxe, the total comes to over $300.00. My hiney never had it so good. They have performed well so far and if they eliminate some of the, lets say, typical cyclist issues they will have been worth ever penny.

Our main goal while in La Paz was to find a ride across the Sea of Cortez on a sailboat. The ferry was also an option but we figured that a smaller boat would provide more adventure. We spent a couple of mornings milling around the local marina and posted a flyer stating we were looking for passage and could cook, clean, sail, and can fix computers. There were a few other competing individuals that had posted on the bulletin board, one of which had mentioned they had been waiting for a week. We spread the word we were on bikes heading as far as Panama and Antarctica with all whose ears would accommodate. I’m convinced that the story of our perceptibly epic journey gave us a leg up. A few days past and Ana received a call from Gregg, the owner of a ketch; a Morgan 41′, Sweet Dreams, which he was taking across to Mazatlan in the next week or so. We met him almost immediately and headed out into the harbor in his dingy to take a look at the boat. The interior was roomy, the living space extending almost fully to the hull. It boasted a large berth in the back with an accompanying head, and another in the front with yet another head. The kitchen was small but larger than others I have seen in this size of craft. We discussed schedules and agreed to leave in a few days after Gregg returned from a short cruise to the north.

On the 26th we said goodbye to Steve and Ana and loaded our bikes onto Sweet Dreams at the fuel dock. After much harranging, reworking, rethinking, and reshuffling, our cromoly horses found a home on the foredeck. Wheels were stashed below with the rest of our gear. I glanced at the trucker as we secured it with rope and strap, somehow expecting an uneasy grimace of a squeaky crank, a vibration of a fender, or an expulsion of grease but none came. I can imagine almost no place more troubling for a bike than a small boat.

The crossing took almost four days. We had fair winds the first day and only a short distance to go. The second brought choppy seas with 5′ swells, unfortunately perpendicular to our direction of travel. The winds picked up in the afternoon, sometimes blowing around 28kts. We made good time, flying the genoa, a reefed mainsail, and the mizzen. Amy and I took two watches, one from 6:30PM – 10:30PM and another from 2:30AM – 6:30AM during the two nights of the crossing. We passed the time by watching the luminous phytoplankton in our wake and keeping an eye out for other vessels. Unfortunately during the second night the wind died and we awoke for our watch to the sound of the motor. A little more wind allowed us to sail during the day but only for a short time before deciding to motor the remainder of the crossing. In the daylight, I passed the time reading Steinbeck’s The Log from the Sea of Cortez; cleaning up the kitchen; doing a little cooking; tidying up lines; and managing the genoa. Gregg, having left California a couple months back, was out cruising indefinitely. He had bought his boat, fixed it up, sold his house, and left to travel the world despite many naysayers.

A few days before La Paz, I met a couple of Alaskan crab fisherman at a tacqueria. We chatted for a while, discussed their profession and I eventually arrived at a question of employment. They said to keep in touch and made some of work. For days I thought about fishing crab in Alaska, somehow the heartiness of the work appealed to me. The idea of freezing my butt off on a boat, reeking of bait and crab, getting little sleep, and working until I can move no more all the while worrying about falling into the icy waters of the Bering Sea appealed to me. I put this idea on my short list of opportunities I seem to be collecting rapidly. After the crossing of the Sea of Cortez I know one thing for sure: I do not want to be a crab fisherman. The rocking of the boat, especially side to side, can become so tiresome I would not care to live that way. It is inescapable, a drain on ones freedom and self direction. It is the resonance of too much bass on the roof of a small car, the smell of the fish factory in Ensenada, and the weariness of hot wind when sweltering in the desert. At some point you just want it to stop. A day trip or two on a sailboat is one thing, but I can’t imagine days on end in the open seas bringing much joy. I assume you eventually get used to it or decide you can’t take anymore and jump overboard in the night.

On the 29th of Feb, we arrived in Mazatlan. We are now headed south towards Oaxaca where we plan to cross over to the Yucatan Peninsula. I had such a good time in Baja I was a little sad to say goodbye. So many great memories, it’s hard not to look back and treasure the wonderful people I met and miss already, the vast jaw-dropping landscapes, and the comfort of the Baja lifestyle.

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Baja Sur


South of Guerrero Negro the road kept much of it’s flat nondescript nature. While traveling for days through the dry, dusty, cacti studded flatlands of central Baja, there is a magic that overcomes you when you drop into San Ignacio. This oasis in the desert, not recognized as such from afar, is nestled in a steep-walled canyon. The river water supplies the area with nourishment for an enormous expanse of date palms. A cool breeze always seemed to flow through this town and shade is plentiful. These palms also provide dates to the local shops which they sell in bulk or use to impregnate tasty baked goods. When eating dates, care should be taken to avoid the hazards beset in the path of the famished traveler. It is probably best to pull the date apart by hand then eat it. This eliminates the possibility of cracking tooth or filling on the pit and also illuminates the interior allowing a complete inspection. If you do happen to eat a worm or two, even with it’s leavings, they don’t taste too bad. They are certainly not any reason to avoid this tasty snack altogether in my experience.

In Santa Rosalia, we stayed at an RV park called “Las Palmas”. There we met a very kind RV’er who was in a caravan with 20 others. I had seen many RVs on the roads but this idea struck terror in my heart. The idea of 21 of these behemoths in a chain caused me to unfairly dub this group The Baja Death Squad. As it turns out, when caravaning in a convoy they communicate together via CB which makes passing vehicles and animals (including cyclists) much safer overall. In general if there is a convoy coming I pull off the road and wait.

My riding style while touring is much different than cycling in Seattle. Back home I am typically the cyclist weaving in traffic, pulling my elbows and hands in to scream down the white or sometimes yellow line between two vehicles, and generally beating traffic whenever possible. Here safety is much more of a concern as the bike is less agile, the winds have a greater surface area to push upon, the roads are much narrower, and the time to a hospital is increased. The topic of the intelligence of my choice to ride Baja, the impact upon the traffic, and my riding style was discussed at length on the Baja Nomads forum some weeks back. I learned about the discussion when there were already five pages of comments and posted some information on my riding style. If you care to read the discussion it can be found here. I mention this with some reticence as this thread has made some of my friends angry. Nonetheless I think it’s part of the story. Be sure to read my post on the fifth page, my username is “ridesouth”, and the reactions after that point. I would like to thank those who stood up for me on the forum and kept a cool head. I would also like to re-iterate that cycling Baja is one of the most amazing things I have ever done.

South of Santa Rosalia we came into Mulege. We expected the day to be flat but I was surprised to find a couple good climbs. I really pushed it that day to see if I could make my legs sore. I sprinted all the way to the top, at the end yelling loudly and breathlessly, “DON’T STOP! KEEP CRANKING! KEEP PUSHING!”, perhaps the hardest I have ever ridden on the trip. I was not going to waste the opportunity to wring out every drop of effort and managed to average 35km/hr that day despite the hills. My legs wined and complained like babies but I ignored them as I have learned to do. I was sure they would be sore that night but a few hours later they were back to normal. After this masochistic triumph I entered the town of Mulege.

A banner hung over the entrance to the town center, something about “Feb. 10th Mulege Pig Races”. I knew it was near the 10th but wasn’t really sure of the date. I’m often proud that I have no clue whatsoever of the day of the week or the date; a sort of tribute to Peter Fonda’s throwing of his watch in the beginning of Easy Rider. As I rode through the narrow streets of Mulege, I came upon a covered area milling with gringos. Coated with salt from my previous exertion, I wheeled my bike inside drawing the attention of many. I had arrived just 10 minutes before the race and had a chance to chat with some American transplants about the area and discuss the contenders. Each pig was rigged with a harness and attached to a line to avoid any lane changing fiascoes. The crowd placed their bets and awaited the start. Three men held the pigs down to eliminate any false starts. The athletes squirmed with anxiety, rearing to speed down the track and snatch their porcine victory. The moment arrived, the announcer counted down, and the shot was fired. The pigs immediately sprang out of their captors loosened hands and … well … they sort of stood there. One of them didn’t move much, the other two seemed to have directional issues. The crowd roared with laughter and cheered for the piggie of their wager while the handlers shouted in the pigs ears. They wiggled the guide lines in an attempt to coax them in the right direction. Eventually one of them got the idea to head for the finish and another followed suit. For one stride during the short walk I thought I saw a burst of speed and four hooves meet air but it was short lived. The announcer bellowed the standings as the event progressed, a talented man who possibly rocked the mic at auctions in a past life. Just when everyone thought a finish was imminent the two lead racers stopped, apparently confused by the shouting at the finish. This lack in judgment gave the trailing pig, “Miss Piggie”, time to slowly lumber up the back stretch and eventually become the unlikely victor. All in all a good showing and fun for all. I’m hoping Miss Piggie was spared from the pig roast because of her determination on the track but somehow I doubt it.

After some grocery gathering and a little exploration of the town, Amy and I got some some directions and headed south. My Spanish has been improving almost every day in Mexico. I’ve been trying to study my books, talk conversationally as much as possible, and not hold back when given the opportunity to learn something new. It’s not surprising that I make some mistakes. While asking for directions at a shop I managed to use the word “cabrillo” when I meant to say “carretera”. When the shopkeeper heard that my friend and I were heading south on bikes to camp for the night and needed to know the best way to get back on the sea bass, he was thoroughly confused. A week later I learned what I had done wrong. Sometimes a little knowledge is a terribly funny thing.

The Sea of Cortez is beautiful place. The shallow water is a mesmerizing turquoise color from a height and shades of dark azure blue further out from shore. Some of you may have noticed quite a few sunset photos in my gallery. I have a bit of a thing for them; they never get old and I want them all. When we arrived on the west coast of Baja I realized that I would not see the magnificent roads of gold in the sky, the times when the horizon ignites in molten flame, or the vast paintbrush strokes of orange; red; and pink that would make Bob Ross weep if he were still with us. So each morning I awoke at 6:30 to see the sunrise instead, that’s right: Dave got up early … and it was worth it. It’s no wonder Castenada called these moments the crack between worlds. When the light becomes perfect for photographs, the eyes have a chance to rest from the weariness of the day or the cold of night, and the whole world around you becomes a piece so magnificent humanity is at a loss.

We spent a couple days relaxing at Bahia Conception, and met some very nice people along the way. One couple from Australia provided us with water, tea, some excellent treats, and great conversation one evening. They had arrived in the area two months before, expecting to stay a few days, and never left. We found a few more of travelers who could not get enough of this spot a little further south. Pete and Sophie and their friends who provided me with a little bit of PT for a slightly swollen hand from a small mishap, some drinks and grapefruits.

When cycling Baja it can be hard to know when you will have enough water for the long stretches and when you will need to stock up. There are many tacquerias along the way, certainly enough to keep a good supply of water on hand. Still, a couple times we managed to run out. We had both read online that one simply needs to wave an empty bottle in the air by the roadside and someone will assist you. This worked to great success. The first time I approached a stopped vehicle, asked them for water and was given two containers of orange juice; half a bottle of water pulled from the hands of a toddler; and seven large oranges. Within 15 minutes I had another gallon of water. This generosity has been shown time and time again in Baja. I have encountered very few people with an unpleasant demeanor or any sort of hostility. Looking back on the last few months I actually have felt safer in Mexico than I ever did traveling in the US.  The difference is not nessecarily that it is or is not safer, but in general the people you encounter are kinder, more giving, and more willing to help.

South of Bahia Conception was the town of Loreto. My companion had an acquaintance living in Loreto Bay who we ended up staying with for two nights. Staying with Collette gave us time to get to know her and her friends, Sharon and Lynn; allowed us to collect more supplies; re-work equipment; and relax. One evening, which happened to be Valentine’s Day, we had the pleasure of meeting some friends of Collette, Sharon, and Lynn; Jose Antonio and Linda. We shared a meal together at Collette’s house and we were all surprised when Jose brought in his keyboard. For the next three hours we listened to the very talented Jose play his keyboard for us. He and Linda sang passionately, stopping frequently to explain the countless Mexican love songs. This gave us a unique look into a small aspect of the Mexican culture. We had a great visit there and made some great friends. Thanks again!

South of Loreto there came the last big climb of the Baja. Not all that high, and not all that long, but I certainly relished the grind and enjoyed the day. Switchbacks wound upward and inland back into the desert. Upon reaching the top we camped in the desert and thought about the imminent closing of the Baja chapter and wondered about what lay ahead. The next few days were by and large flat and nondescript. Just before La Paz a few hills popped up to break up the day but nothing comparable to days gone by.

Baja Sur brought a different kind of beauty from Baja Norte. The coastal sections boasting white sand beaches and quintessential tropical scenes. Seafood became more prevalent and it became more difficult to find burritos made with real burro. The people remained just as nice and the roads just as narrow. Some cyclists have said that Baja should be skipped because of the roads. I would say that it would be a tragedy to miss the immeasurable beauty and serenity of this place. When arriving in La Paz, the terminus of the Baja section, I found myself already missing the people I had met along the way and the landscapes I had become so fond of. The US seemed so long ago at that point and Baja all to far away already.

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Baja Norte


South of Ensenada the road rolled through farmlands, coastal areas, and more small towns. I passed a few more military checkpoints uneventfully. I still have yet to be stopped. It became clear one day that they don’t really care about cyclists when I was asked to stop, the soldier’s face became serious, then before I had time to bring my rolling wheels to a halt he laughed and waved me through.

Descending from a 1600′ climb, I met Eric and Joel heading back north towards San Diego. They had more stories of being taken in and fed by expats lazing away their days in Mexico. After this brief reunion I managed to crank out 63 miles and ended up at the Quattro Casas Hostel; seven miles off the beaten path on a dirt road. I was very tired and hadn’t eaten much that day. I was greeted by a young boy named Jesús. He informed me in Spanish that his father was gone for a few days and he had been left in charge. He spoke authoritatively so I went with it. I had the place to myself other than a very large pile of honeybees I could not identify and a centipede so large I first thought it was a rubber toy. Not a bad place to stay but I probably wouldn’t do so again, even at $14 / night. After going to bed I immediately became feverish and chilled; shivering the night away. My illness from San Diego had never quite relinquished it’s hold on me and I let it get a foothold. The next day I laid on the couch in my sleeping bag after sweeping off a pile or two of dead bugs, and watched movie after movie on the TV/VCR while drifting in and out of sleep. That day also brought rain and wind to Baja, and very shortly after I learned that it can really dish it out down here.

I decided I should take it easy for a while and cut my days down to around 30 miles until I felt 100%. I stayed in a hotel the next day and in the evening decided to go out and forage for food rather than cooking. To my surprise I found a cyclist I had run into earlier in the trip was staying in the room right next to mine and was outside cooking. The dinner being made was big enough for two so we traded stories and shared a meal. We decided to go traverse the unknown perils of the desert together for safety sake and have been having fun riding together since.

Continuing southward we eventually turned inland to El Rosario, climbing a few hills and getting some great views and thrilling downhills. This directional shift marked the start of the section known as the Valle de los Cirios, a protected area which would be some of the best riding of my life … so far. To reach the high desert we climbed up steeply at first, yo-yo’ing the day away. I have really learned to relish the climbing. I don’t seem to be able to make my legs sore anymore and they seldom tire unless past the six hour mark. There’s something very visceral and real about a good climb that I enjoy: the stinging sweat in my eyes, the cadence of my heart, the solidity of my upper legs; now petrified tree-trunks from over 80 days of bike travel. The discomfort has become a novelty, and the rest is indulgence of compulsion; I love it. Over the next few days we entered valley after valley, crowned with mountains on all sides. The sprawling valley floors opened up before us; a giant multifaceted pincushion of Cardon Cactus, Cirios, Elephant Trees, and Agave. The road rolled ever upward but more gently than at first; a lazily piled bed sheet cast aside. This terrain made for what was the best cycling of my life … so far. This qualification, “so far”, has firmly planted itself into my daily lexicon. Every time I think I’ve reached the pinnacle something even better makes itself available.

We dry camped four nights in the desert off the road. It can be a bit of a trick to find a good spot where you can’t be seen by passing vehicles. Sometimes the best choice is simply to walk three-quarters of a mile through the cactus until the cars in the distance are miniature. Tire health is a constant concern. Often, we would strip the panniers off and port them separately, carrying the bikes to prevent punctures. Also, when wandering the scrub I’m constantly on the lookout for snakes and scorpions for the kids and for safety; none to report.

Another section of note was the boulder fields of Cataviña. Upon entering this valley, rocks became prevalent, eventually to monumental proportions. A giant eroded game of marbles gone ary. Enormous piles of boulders loomed in the distance while smaller ones, all the makings for a great game of hide and seek, lined the periphery of the road. That night we stayed in an RV Park and met the manager, Lorenzo. He and his wife were very kind to us. We probably talked for an hour or so, allowing me to practice my Spanish which improves day-by-day. We discussed cycling, local flora and fauna, which cactus has water inside in an emergency, and eventually he offered us a place to stay indoors so we didn’t have to put up our tents. Since there was no one else staying at the park that night the bathroom wasn’t such a bad spot to lay out a sleeping bag or two. We selected a location decidedly separate from the urinals. Lorenzo’s wife made a fire for us and heated water which she poured into a bucket, perfect for a very welcomed warm shower to rinse off a few days of salt.

One day the wind became so bad that we were forced off the road. A constant side wind, gusting stronger than the Oregon and California storms I rode through, caused me to list as a pedaled. This technique coupled with strong-arming the handlebars will work until you lean far enough for the front bags to catch the pavement. It feels a lot like you are on a rug which is slowly being pulled out from under you. The wind: a young sibling making threatening faces with each gust, just waiting for an opportune moment to give a good tug and topple you over. We did the valorous thing and exercised discretion.

After climbing to around 3000′ we started a long descent which eventually dropped us next to the coast for a day of very flat cycling and eventually led to the city of Guerrero Negro.

The primary attraction of Guerrero Negro is the whale watching. There are also tours of the salt production facilities and some cave paintings. Unfortunately, we were met with rain the morning after our arrival and the whale watching tour was canceled. Determined not to miss this opportunity we stayed another day and were not disappointed. We ended up seeing around 50 gray whales surface for air, some within 30 feet of the boat. We were also lucky enough to see a few whales breaching but only at a great distance. These whales migrate down from the north to mate and calve in the warm buoyant salty waters of Laguna Ojo de Liebre. I took around 60 photos but due to the horrific shutter-lag of my point-and-shoot I only got a couple good ones. Oh, I longed to have my Olympus E-1 with my telephoto lens with me that day.

We are back on the road now, heading for San Ignacio where we hope to see some cave paintings. The terrain is much drier and very flat. Today a single stretch of road went on without a single turn for almost 30 miles. The telephone poles lining the pavement eventually merging with the pinstriped ribbon of road into a silvery mirage infinitely far away. I sprinted to 20mph for miles for fun, longed for the harshness of the mountains, and dreamt of what lay ahead.

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Viva Mexico


I ended up leaving San Diego a day late, feeling a bit under the weather. I considered staying another day but the sting of US hotel prices drove me out. I intended to ride to the border, go into Tijuana, and stay the night there. Fortunately, I got lost trying to get back on the route and ran into two other southbound cyclists: Eric and Joel. They planned on staying on the US side and going over to Ensenada in the morning. They had a route which included a scenic ferry crossing and little traffic. What a find. I joined up with them and continued south for the day; eventually deciding to ride across the border together the following day.

Eric and Joel left from their home of Sonoma a couple weeks ago. They had been kicking out 80 mile days to stay on schedule, they only have about a month before they have to go back to work. And I thought my 65 mile day was tough, sheesh.

So, morning came early, 6AM. This is by far the earliest I’ve woken up on my ride so far. I’m more of a just-before-checkout-time kind of guy. We rode into the border crossing and discovered that there was little to no checking of documents unless you went to the office and explicitly asked for a stamp and a visa. $22.50 later, I’m good to go in Mexico for six months.

I had been looking for information on navigating Tijuana on bikes on the internet but found little. The only thing I did find was mention of bicycles not being allowed on the toll road; and it’s true. Eric also had issues finding any good information. So, we rolled into TJ, asked a cab driver where to go and promptly followed his bad instructions. Long story short, several people told us we could ride next to the toll road, on the toll road, and over the hills through some suburbs. All of these methods turned out to be incorrect. When we did try to enter the toll road we were told we could not and were turned back. Playing the gringo card didn’t work either; the only direction was back the way we came. We eventually got onto Hwy 1 rather than Hwy 1D. I didn’t ever see any indications pointing us towards Hwy 1 and I still have no idea how to get there the correct way. What you don’t want to do is follow any signs that say “Scenic Route”, Hwy 1D, Juarez St, or Cuarto. You want the free road, Hwy 1 (Libre). I believe you need to take a left somewhere in TJ then a right to find it but I really have no idea. We ran into yet another southbound cyclist (Amy) who happened upon the right route simply by taking streets with less traffic. Some people in a forum recommended taking a train from San Diego to Rosarito or Ensenada and now I see why.

After our 16 mile scenic detour through TJ, we finally got on the road towards Ensenada. It was clear we weren’t going to make it another 60 miles that day so we selected a campground about 34 miles south. The road was treacherous: shoulder drop offs of several inches to several feet where there was construction, narrow roads, abrupt potholes as deep as 6 inches, and traffic that barely fit on the road without a bunch of crazy people on bikes on the side. Still, the drivers were very courteous, the view was excellent, and hey; we were in Mexico. What’s not to love about all that? Right Joel? :)

We stopped at one point to check the map to see how much further it was to the campsite only to discover it was just a few blocks behind us. As if this coincidence wasn’t enough; while we were collecting supplies, sharing a few well deserved Modelo’s, and watching the feral cats prowl the area we met John. He had noticed us from across the street where he was waiting for a cab to take him home from the office. John, a sometimes resident of Baja, came over to talk to us about what we were doing and where we were going. Almost immediately he offered to let us stay at his cabin, just 3K back up the road from where we had come. This turned out to be a very cool experience. We were treated to soft beds, running water, hot showers, an amazing sunset, and some great company. The cabin was actually a trailer in a trailer park which was built in the 50′s or 60′s. Each “trailer” had since been modified to the point that it was no longer visible and became unique structures resembling houses. Thanks again John! You can read about our visit on John’s Blog as well.

The next day we awoke, made breakfast on the gas stove; there’s no electricity at the cabin, and took off for Ensenada. The road was much less busy than the previous day’s bustle and all in all in better condition. The route took us up over a 1200′ hill, rolling up and down to get there. We were all pretty tired for some reason that day and took it pretty easy. Fortunately it was all downhill from the top into Ensenada where we had our first tacos. To any cyclists taking this route, you may want to bring a gas mask to ward off the fish factory odors at the outskirts of Ensenada.

We hung out last night together in town and had some good fun. Eric and Joel left this morning to bust out some miles while I stay here for a day or two to update the blog, do some laundry, get my phone sorted out, let some ailments heal, and take care of some other errands. I’ve only been in Mexico for two days now but my overall impressions are: The people are very very kind and helpful, the food is good in my opinion, it’s a little more expensive than I would have guessed, and most important of all: the flavor here is real. I’m definitely looking forward to the rest of Baja.

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