Into the Baja…

Before I returned to university in the late ’90s, I was a carpentry contractor in the wonderful mountain town of Canmore, Alberta. One of the people I worked with was a French carpenter, Jean Daniel (JD) Recompsat.

When I moved to Calgary to study, we fell out of touch. When he rode the Great Divide a couple of years ago, we began to communicate, sproradically, on Facebook. We were both planning to start the Baja Divide at about the same time last year: November, 2018.

My trip fell apart early on, on the Great Divide, and JD’s Baja Divide was a little delayed. But I saw a post from him on FB while I was hanging out in Joshua Tree; he planned to fly into San Diego on Monday 17th December.

I had planned to be in the Baja before that, to ensure a relaxed drive down to Loreto in time to meet my wife’s flight on the 22nd. But I could probably delay a little and pick JD up at the airport and drive him to Tecate, just across the Mexican border. (The Baja Divide starts in San Diego, by the airport, and rides to Tecate on Day 1. But, recently, someone on that section of the route was robbed of his bike and bikepacking gear so JD wanted to start in Tecate and avoid this ‘sketchy’ day.)

JD’s flight was an hour late but I didn’t know that; the arrivals page on the web still had it arriving on time so I kept circling the arrivals lane of the airport for a while. When he came out, we just put his bike box in the back of the truck and aimed for a bicycle shop he had been recommended. The shop was busy so JD set to assembling his bike in the parking lot while we waited for the mechanics to have time to set up his tubeless tyres with new sealant. 

My truck, JD's bike.
My truck, JD’s bike.

The sun was getting low in the sky so we found a couple of rooms in San Diego. (Surprisingly comfortable considering some negative online reviews. I’d stay there again if I could remember what it is called!) JD was up early, doing some more packing (bags, mainly), we made a quick detour to REI to pick up some water bottles and arrived at Tecate, the Mexican border town, a little after noon.

The border was fully automated: we pulled into an area with a barrier and a camera; waited a while; barrier opened; and we were in Mexico. Almost as easy as crossing a border in Europe. (Pre-Brexit, that is.) We parked up and JD went back to Immigration to get a tourist permit while I guarded the truck (JD’s bike was hanging over the tailgate). Then I went for my tourist permit and found an ATM for some pesos and a hotel that looked fine for JD. Then JD went for his pesos and arranged accommodation at Hotel Tecate.

About 3:00pm: “Time for breakfast?” asked JD. Afraid not, I had to get a few miles in before dark to ensure my timely arrival in Loreto. JD and I said our goodbyes; it had been a busy 24 hours or so but we were both happy to be reacquainted.

A couple of hours later, as the sky darkened, I arrived in Ensenada. provided me with somewhere to sleep – if a little tricky to find – a luxurious house in a depressed neighbourhood. My phone wasn’t working as a phone in Mexico but data was and Whatsapp came to the rescue. With help from Google maps. How did we ever manage before?

Martin opened the steel security gates and led me to the first floor of a large house. The bedroom was clean and comfortable, and the whole floor was mine: kitchen, bathroom (complete with lit candle to help me if I was stumbling around in the night), living area with a 60″ (I estimate) flat-screen TV, counter with laptop plugged in for my use. However, I was ready for sleep so I snacked on some food I had with me and Whatsapp-ed Martin to tell him I no longer needed access to my truck and he could let his dogs out for the night. (Note to self: Don’t wander out to the truck in the night…)

First stop in the morning was at the AT&T office in Ensenada since I might not be able to find one further south. Despite the usual language issues (basically, my non-existent Spanish), someone played with my phone but had no more luck than I had had. So he called AT&T support and an English-speaking voice led me through a series of manoeuvres which produced no tangible results so I went in search of breakfast. (Phone service arrived unannounced a few hours later.) Googling “nearby breakfast” resulted in directions to a ‘hole-in-the-wall’ establishment: half kitchen and half dining area with a few tables. A young woman was eating at one table. At another, a large commanding woman, flourishing a phone in one hand and a iPad in the other, asked if wanted huevos rancheros. Why not?

Huevos Rancheros

I continued driving down Mex 1, the main (and often only) highway down through the Baja. The scenery was varied and the driving fairly standard for a two-lane highway. I was quite content to drive at around 90-100 km/h (where it was generally posted with an 80 limit) but the average speed for the locals was closer to 120. They were polite, though, and generally waited for a safe place to pass (even if it meant crossing a solid white line). I reached Vicente Guerrero as the sun set, found a clean, reasonable motel and settled in for the night.

There was a bit of excitement when, the following day, I either hit a rock or there was a pothole at the side of the road. They was a clatter from the front end of the truck and I stopped quickly. The front tyre was flat.

Just at that moment, a truck with a complement of half a dozen marines arrived. And jumped into action. I had come to a stop on a bend, not the best location for a stationary vehicle, but a couple of marines took care of traffic control whilst a third changed the wheel for me. It would have taken me much longer since I hadn’t changed a wheel on this truck before and it wasn’t obvious how to access the spare. Unbeknownst to me, there was a little cap on the rear bumper immediately to the right of the number plate. Behind the cap was a keyhole; my truck key opened up a hole through which a rod could be inserted and rotated, lowering the spare to the ground. My previous truck had a spare, in the same location under the truck bed, that could be accessed directly; maybe this new keyed approach was to prevent theft of the spare?

The damage to the front rim was significant.

I made a gift to the officer in charge, indicating it was for beer for his men’s assistance, and was on the road again in about an hour. Without a functional spare.

I had a ‘low pressure’ warning on the dash which didn’t really surprise me; in the seven years of the truck’s life, I hadn’t added any air – and I don’t recall whether the valve was on the downward, accessible, side of the spare when it could have been checked during regular maintenance. I pulled over at the next ‘Llantera’ sign.

These, generally crudely painted, signs occurred at irregular intervals along the highway and pointed to heaps of tyres, rims, and junked vehicles. More professional signs adorn the windows of rim and tyre shops in cities. Llantera seems to mean tyre-shop in Spanish.

This place, along the highway and far from a city, didn’t appear to be the ideal location in which to live and work. I pulled forward until I could see a man – wanting to keep the truck between me and any protective dogs that might be roaming. There were two men working, in the shade of a corrugated steel roof, beside a mountain of abandoned tires and rims. Neither man appeared to have seen soap and water for a few months. The young one put some air in the tyre, then took a few desultory swings at the ruined rim with a hammer, shrugged, pointed at his partner and indicated that he was homosexual. The man pointed back at his younger companion and indicated that he was ‘loco,’ crazy. It was nice to get back onto the highway, even if my low pressure warning light was still on. (I have since learned that each of the five wheels have pressure sensors in the valve. These are scanned by some magic under the hood of the truck and the low pressure warning, in all likelihood, was due to the damaged rim and its tire which had no pressure at all.)

There were three cycle tourers on the road, each travelling alone. Two were women. I slowed by each and enquired whether they needed any water; the third one did. Conveniently, there was a pull-out where we could both stop safely. Lucy was riding back to her home in Brazil after riding from there to the US. (As far as I can tell from her FB page, Solita a Pedal, she was denied entry to Canada, turned back at the border. Visa issues? Insufficient funds?)

A few kilometres to the north of Guerrero Negro, I noticed some sand dunes to the west, between me and the Pacific. I drove a track towards the dunes and then took my camera for a stroll. Extensive and beautiful. No footprints or human evidence. No indication of how close the see was. Magical. (I hope to revisit with more time to explore, on my way back north but, now, I must continue towards Loreto!)

The only ‘big’ tracks I saw.

How did I get over above this shot to take it? I didn’t. This isn’t looking down, it’s standing in front of the dune. The sand is almost vertical! And what are those tracks in the bottom of the photo?

Guerrero Negro would have made a convenient overnight stop but it would make a long following day to Loreto, and I had a room that Bev and I had reserved for Christmas that I needed to secure. It had been booked for months but without a deposit so I didn’t want to arrive late…

The road turned east, from the Pacific and over to the Sea of Cortes. Long stretches of straight road that would seem interminable on a bicycle. I passed through San Ignacio, a name I remembered from twenty some years ago, an oasis in the middle of the dry peninsula. It was quite dark when the road dropped steeply to San Rosalia on the east side of the Baja. There is a ferry from here, across the Sea of Cortes, to Guaymas on the mainland. I didn’t see much of the town but chanced upon a very nice hotel for $30 just as the highway continued back out into the dark of the desert. I settled in, had a meal and my first margarita of the trip!

In the morning, it was about an hour to Mulege. We had used Mulege for resupply from our camp on the beach in El Requeson (again, twenty years ago) but I didn’t recognise anything. I did enjoy a plate of shrimp tacos for brunch, though. Enjoyed them so much that I had a second plate!

We’d come down on a whim, pulling a travel trailer, hoping to meet and surprise some old friends who spent their winters on the beach at El Requeson. It had a glorious drive then; a wet winter had ensured a beautiful spring of desert flowers. Andrea had just turned three-years-old (in Joshua Tree National Park – although I think it was a National Monument back then) and Nicolas had his first birthday in El Requeson. He learned to walk in the travel trailer that March of 1995. Then, there had been talk that the beach was going to be turned into a big resort. Thankfully, that never happened.

El Requeson

In fact, the beach seemed pretty much as we had left it, all that time ago.

In the mid-afternoon, I arrived in Loreto and was welcomed into Caso Mangos by the lovely Orlando.

The next day, Bev arrived from Calgary :)

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