Mexico: November Sun – Cycling in Baja California

The Decision: Vancouver – San Diego

September was already rainy, October wasn’t much better. The famous “Mamas and the Papas” song “California Dreamin’ ” kept on going through my mind. The skies were indeed gray and the leaves were brown. As November was getting closer, “November Rain” by “Guns N’ Roses” was now stuck in my head. I had just submitted my thesis and the question “what to do now?” was looming from every direction. This time the band “Queen” had the answer, “I want to ride my bicycle”. Combining “California Dreaming”, “November Rain” and “Bicycle” resulted in a November cycle touring trip in Baja California, Mexico, which is even better than the American California.

Riding along in Baja California

We “planned” the trip in about 10 days because that’s all the time we had. The “plan”, however, was relatively simple. We’d fly into San Diego with our bikes, cross the border to Tijuana, ride south and three weeks later we’d fly home from Los Cabos which is at the Southern end of Baja California. In those 10 days we read some trip reports of people who made this journey and we tried to get into better shape. That included quite a few bike rides with loaded bikes, mostly in the rain…

We caught an early morning flight to San Diego. Once there, Gili spent about 3 hours putting the bikes back together.  As we left the airport we noticed how hot it was, probably around 30°c. It felt great to ride out from the airport, something I’ve never done before. There was a bike route all the way to downtown which was only 6 km away.

Landing in San Diego airport and putting our bikes back together. 3 hours later we were ready to go...

We met up with Gili’s family and spent a pleasant evening with them. They were concerned about our trip, since Mexico and specifically Tijuana had been in the news lately in events related to drug violence. It was our third time in Mexico in the past two years, and before every visit there was some sort of travel warning. Every time we went and had a great time. It’s not that bad things can’t happen to tourists there, but it’s quite rare. Of all the places I have traveled to, Mexico is one of the few I felt really safe in. It’s always a good idea to be cautious, but I wouldn’t stay home either.

Gili's family in San Diego who hosted us for the night. Saul, Cindy, Daniela and Mark

The next day we rode to the border on the convenient bike route that took us almost all the way to Tijuana. The ride was smooth, except for one flat tire. However, when we got closer to the border it became more confusing. Eventually with the help of a woman from the border patrol, we made our way to the “Border Village”. This is the busiest border crossing in the world, but for pedestrians (and cyclists) there were no line ups and we crossed easily to the other side. By the time we got to Tijuana we were both starving and thirsty. A few burritos and fresh pineapple juice (on the house) did the trick.

Cacti Paradise: El Rosario – Santa Rosalia

We decided to skip the first 370 km of the Trans Peninsula highway as we wanted to avoid heavy traffic and we had heard the south is much nicer. We caught two buses from Tijuana to the small village of El Rosario. There was no problem to put the bikes in the baggage compartment of the bus. The next morning it was time to start riding and it was HOT. Not only that, it was also hilly and windy. We made slow progress that day.

It was hot. Very hot...

At around 2pm we started to get concerned, we hadn’t taken any food with us for lunch as we assumed we’d find something on the way and our water was starting to run out… We started fantasizing about a coke and that’s not good, since we really dislike coke. About an hour later, in the distance, we saw the sign – it was blue and had a picture of a knife and fork, then on the left hand side of the road there was a “loncheria”, which is a small eatery. I drank two fantas, which I don’t even like, but it was so good, and then we were ready to eat too. After our late lunch the road straightened out and there were even some downhill sections. We stopped for the night near an impressive cactus a few hundred meters off the road. The first day was tough, but satisfying.

Desert camping

Over the next few days our progress was much better. It was mostly desert scenery with impressive cacti on both sides of the road and in some sections there were also huge boulders. Now we also found food for lunch easily. It seemed like a place to eat always appeared just at the right time. On our fourth day we crossed from North Baja California to South Baja California and also passed through the not so impressive town of Guerrero Negro, the largest settlement we had passed so far. After 140 km we decided it was time to stop for the day. We spent that night in an abandoned village near the house of one of the only two families who still lived there. Everything around was broken and neglected and we weren’t quite sure what had happened there.

Boojum trees. Grow only in Baja California

On the fifth day we arrived to San Ignacio, which is a small oasis in the middle of the desert. We first saw the lush green settlement from above and it was a sharp contrast to the brown desert. We were ready for a day off and it seemed that “sleepy” San Ignacio would be the perfect place. We camped near the oasis, swam, ate lots of tacos and worked on the bikes. Gili was also busy climbing the many palm trees and eating lots of dates.

There were many dates in San Ignacio

The Coastline: Santa Rosalia – Ligui

We left San Ignacio and knew we’d reach the ocean that day, but we didn’t quite believe it till we saw it. When the Sea of Cortez was finally visible in the distance, we stopped to admire it. It was unbelievably blue, but still a good few hundred meters below us. By now we had finally installed the mirrors we brought on our bikes. They didn’t quite fit so we improvised something. It made a huge difference to the quality of the ride as we could now also see the big trucks that were coming from behind us.

Finally reaching the coast - first glimpse of the Sea of Cortez

The traffic was mostly light, but the big trucks were scary, especially if there was one in each direction… I was especially grateful for the mirrors as we were riding “the downhill from hell” in order to reach the coast, which involved many curves and blind corners. We got closer to the ocean and then finally to the village of Santa Rosalia. In the morning we ate fresh fish tacos for breakfast with the road workers, and checked out the bakery “El Boleo” for delicious fresh baked goods.

Fish tacos, good stuff...

We had a hint from a trip report to check out Playa Escondida (the hidden beach). It was indeed hidden from the road and when we finally reached the place we were amazed. It was such a beautiful beach that we immediately decided to stay an extra day there to laze on the beach. Along the way we stopped at a few other beaches for refreshing swims. On one beach we noticed that almost every car had a British Columbia license plate, and so we named this beach “The Canadian Beach”. The last refreshing swim was at the village of Ligui. We noticed that at the end of the beach a big hotel was being built. Just like the guidebook said “the clock is ticking for Baja California, come to enjoy it now while it lasts…”

Playa Escondida - one of the most amazing beaches we've seen. We took a rest day here and just relaxed on the beach

From Desert to Modernization: Ligui – La-Paz

After the last refreshing swim, we left the ocean for a few days as the road climbed into the mountains. We had heard about this big uphill for days and now it was time to ride it. It wasn’t as bad as I thought, but it sure was strenuous. In the next few days the road flattened and the scenery was a bit less interesting. We passed through two graceless towns but in one of them we found an excellent bakery where we spent an hour buying every fresh item as it came out of the oven.

Cycling along the Sea of Cortez

We spent one night camping in the back yard of a family. Their dog barked the whole night and no one seemed to mind. In the morning we discovered that the barking devil was actually a cute little doggie. We spent a few more nights camping in the desert. On some mornings we woke up to discover that our tires were flat. We finally realized that we shouldn’t be surprised if we ride the bikes so close to thorny cacti, so from that point on we decided to carry the bikes to our camp spot.

Leaving Juncalito - Riding towards Sierra de la Giganta

One day we had lunch in the small village of El Cien, 100 km from La Paz (Cien is 100 in Spanish). The people there warned us that there was nothing for the next 100 km and they were pretty much right. The next day we finally reached the big city of La Paz. It was such a contrast to ride into town after hundreds of kilometers of solid desert. La Paz is a modern city with big malls, many supermarkets, people from all over and lots of good food. We ate excellent fish tacos and jumped into the ocean. Then we found the “La Fuente” ice cream shop. We were thinking about this ice cream for days, since it was a while since we had one. It was made from real fruit and the cone was made of cookies, we were in heaven…

La Fuente "rated as one of the best ice creams in the world" and for a good reason! The cone is made of cookies!

We decided to try “couch surfing” in La Paz. Unfortunately it wasn’t so successful. As we were going to walk into the house of our couch surfing dude, he asked us if we like animals. I thought that if he has a cat or a dog it would be nice, however his animals were snakes, tarantulas and other creatures, and he mentioned that one snake escaped a few months ago and was never found. Yet, that wasn’t the biggest problem, as his house was so dirty one could barely see the floor. The next morning we thanked him and said we prefer to be closer to the centre, which was somewhat true…

We spent another day in La Paz, took a snorkeling tour and swam with cute baby sea lions. It was so much fun to relax in the sun and let someone else do the ride for once. In La Paz it was also time to look for bike boxes, which we found easily, and sent them by bus to San Jose del Cabo, our final destination.

On Isla Santo Espiritu, near La Paz

The Home Stretch: La Paz – San Jose del Cabo

We were left with two days of riding and once again it suddenly got really hot. It took us a while to get out of La Paz and the road signs with the number of kilometers didn’t match our map, which didn’t match the distance table we had, which didn’t match what people said about the distance. It was all very confusing.

Another type of pitaya we bought in the market in La Paz

At dusk we reached the village of San Bartolo. A local guy said we could camp down by the river, pretty much in the middle of the village. The next morning we bought some dried fruit candy, which is the village specialty and continued riding, hoping that we’d make it to San Jose del Cabo that day. We stopped for another refreshing swim in Los Barriles, which unfortunately has been taken over by Americans. Their big villas were very close to the beach and it reminded me of Malibu.

Crossing the tropic of Cancer and the weird monument. Taking advantage of every opportunity of shade as it was very hot

The sun was baking us, shade was rare and also we couldn’t find a lunch stop at the time we wanted it. We crossed the “Tropic of Cancer” which had a monument of a big white concrete ball. We were still not sure how far we were from San Jose. But then sometime in the late afternoon we saw an airplane and that was a good sign, we were getting closer to the airport, apparently. Then we finally reached the outskirts of San Jose and we knew we would probably make it. We entered the San Jose plaza close to dusk. I’m sure no one really noticed us, but for us it was a big moment – the finish line, the end of the journey, the goal we had set ourselves was completed. As I rode towards the Mexican flag, and completed the last few meters of our 1,500 km journey, I felt happy – we made it!

We did it! Made it all the way to San Jose del Cabo - 1,500 km!

Final Thoughts…
We relaxed the next day. All of a sudden, riding seemed hard. It was surprising because we hadn’t really felt muscle pain until then. We collected our bike boxes, took another dip in the ocean, ate fish and ice cream and packed. The bikes were now inside the cardboard boxes ready to go back to Canada. But were we ready? I wasn’t sure, but there wasn’t much choice anyway. I knew I could have continued cycle touring for a long time. As we boarded the plane we enjoyed a last few minutes of sunshine. The next time we went outside was in Vancouver, and it was -9°c with snow on the ground.
More photos

A video clip from three trips to Mexico:

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12 Responses to Mexico: November Sun – Cycling in Baja California

  1. Richard Ashley says:

    Great Story and photos of your bicycling trip thru Baja. I am considering a trip by bike myself…..SOON!
    Got my Cannondale ready and Panniers loaded.

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  3. Richard Ashley says:

    Looking for all the info I can get about cycling Baja. Drove it years ago before the highway was complete. I want to cycle it now.

    If anyone has info please email me.
    Ric

    • Maya says:

      Hi Ric,
      What kind of information are you looking for? The highway is paved and in good shape. The most important thing is to bring a mirror because there are some big trucks on the road and not a lot of shoulders. Otherwise it’s really awesome. Email us if you need more specific info: goldmaya@gmail.com
      Have fun!

  4. JR and Jude says:

    Hi – great site, your trip descriptions are superb. We are from New Zealand and have cycled the northern Laos route – brilliant – and are now planning a new trip for 2013. Which do you rate as the must do option, if you can only pick one…Mexico or Cuba? We have a couple of weeks in the last two weeks of April (hot I know) before a conference in Cancun and are trying to decide whether to limit ourselves to the Yukatan Peninsula or jump across to Cuba.

    Cheers
    JR

    • Gili says:

      Thanks!

      We’ve been to Laos for a few weeks while on a backpacking trip, but haven’t cycled there. Any recommendations? When you say the northern Laos route, it sounds like this is some type of an established route perhaps? I remember the bus ride to Phongsali, took a whole day to do maybe 300km, that would be an interesting ride…

      Our cycling in Mexico has been limited so far to Baja California. We’ve been to the Yucatan before (backpacking), but not by bicycle. I’d imagine you could easily fill up two weeks cycling there, no problem, and there is lots to see along the coast, ruins, cenotes, etc, and the food is absolutely amazing (always on the cyclist’s mind). One of my favourites was probably Isla Holbox, where we swam with whale sharks and rented some rickety bikes to bike to deserted beaches. Also, in many places, buying fish directly from fishermen on the beach and then either cooking them ourselves our finding someone random (or the fisherman’s family) to cook them for us.

      Cuba has its strengths as well: we stayed and ate almost predominantly in locals’ homes (casas particulares) allowing for plenty of interaction, lots of cultural and political information to digest, empty roads, beautiful beaches and mogotes (the limestone bumps). There is also quite a bit of information on cycle touring in the two guidebooks (check out our feedback), and you can get by very easily without camping gear. Add to that an urgency dictated by the fast changes there, moving towards capitalism at an alarming rate.

      I’m sure you could have an excellent trip in either of those places, it just depends on what you are looking for, or what you feel like doing.

  5. This page was very useful and interesting while I planned my Baja ride. Thanks for posting! Here is an online cycling guide that details pretty much everything a person needs to know about cycling Baja http://bajacyclingguide.blogspot.ca/

  6. Gili says:

    Cool, Ira, I didn’t even know you were off cycle touring in Central America as well, and turns out we were in the same places around the same time, just cycling in the opposite direction! We should meet up sometime to share some stories…

  7. Ella says:

    Wow!!! Sounds like an amazing time. I am biking into Baja in a few days and we started in Vancouver. I was nervous to go into Mexico because of everyone telling us not to, but after reading this you made me feel confident about biking again. Thanks so much for writing this, my mind is at ease again! 3,300 km down and 1,500 to go for us!

    • Gili says:

      Thanks, Ella! Yes, cycling down Baja California was spectacular, I’m sure you’ll have a blast. Look out for the small eateries on the side of the road, we seemed to (almost always) arrive to one just in time for a very tasty lunch and a nice rest in the shade.

  8. Jimmy Barbondy says:

    Great job sounds like you had a great time, planning this trip, soon, I myself have toured in Thailand these past couple of winters I’m sure you’d love it. Q – how many days total and any thoughts on taking the ferry to Mazatlian

    • Gili says:

      We started from San Diego, but took a bus from Tijuana to El Rosario (to bypass a reportedly less interesting and busier section), and then cycled to San Juan del Cabo. So, the trip was almost 1500 km’s in about 18 days, with a few of those days being rest days – we cycled about 100 km a day on average. Ideally one might want a few more days at least, to slow down a bit, depending on your preference. I don’t know much about the ferry to Mazatlan, but if memory serves me right it leaves from La Paz. The last section we rode, from La Paz to San Juan del Cabo was quiet and pleasant, but not doing it would still give you a super nice cycle tour. We have been to Thailand, but as backpackers, not cycle tourists, but I’m pretty sure we’ll be back, sometime, probably on a bike…

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