I underestimated the desert in Baja California.
The last two years has been spent for the most part, solitary and on my bike. There have been periods with friends, times to productively challenge the rambling thought processes which come about in 8 hours on a bike, and more than enough time to truly acknowledge how different landscapes can be.
The mountains in Patagonia were jagged and dramatic, but they were overshadowed by the passes north of Mendoza, which seem to change constantly but never on cue as snow melt makes way for summit season. The climates in their foothills each side of the range made for perfect places to grow grapes and drink wine, and the altiplano on entrance to Bolivia offered the first truly challenging experience of the adventure.
Between Mendoza and the Bolivian plains I rode my bike through 1600km of desert which seemed to change just about every day – dry red ranges were broken intermittently with desert oases where life popped up for a brief visit. My idea of dry was reestablished time and time again until I reached the altiplano and asked myself, ‘how strong are these people to live here in this vast, cold, and dry place?’
I spent a hot and sweaty night trying to sleep in Colombia’s strange Desierto de la Tatacoa and as quickly as I arrived I was high in the mountains once again and dreaming pleasantly having forgotten about the mess of damp clothing I’d become in the desert.
I suppose that might have been the point that I realised how diverse these deserts could be – certainly the dry desert in Northern Argentina couldn’t be compared to Tatacoa, and coming from a country of, predominantly, very different desert – I guess I should have acknowledged sooner just what strange and different worlds they can be.
The contrast after crossing the Sea of Cortez couldn’t have been more stark – I anxiously waited the big rig’s escape from the ship and then rigged my bike up to head North for the last stretch in Latin America. I paused briefly to suck down some fish tacos to celebrate the commencement of the Baja Peninsula, loaded up on coffee and vegetables and then rode a wonky and sleepy line North of La Paz until a pleasant little bay opened up to the East. After little searching I found a hidden spot out of the wind and alternately dozed and swam as the lights of La Paz across the bay lit up the sky.
I woke the following morning in a sweat and realised my first mistake in this strange new place – thinking it was possible to have a late snooze and still expect fresh riding weather. I wouldn’t make the same mistake again, though I later realised that unless you wanted to start before sunrise, Baja is just a hot hot part of the world.
The Southern end of Baja California, for the most part, is a bit of a tourist wonderland. Hoards of vacationers head down to Cabo San Lucas to soak it all up and they’re inter spliced with zoned out Californian surfers often making the most of their money south of the border through the summer – a hard attitude to fault. For a few days I was searching for stimulation, with a few odd days climbing over a relatively monotonous landscape before switching back over to the Sea of Cortez.
On the way back across the peninsula it registered for the first time just how unique this place was. Breaking away from the Pacific in Baja South I was greeted openly by red rock canyons and cacti springing up over a pocked landscape like pimples. I veered off route to sample some of the place away from the blacktop and was rewarded with two days without seeing a car and a lot of loud swearing and pushing through sandy stretches. Just when I thought I would expire in this place a large snake made its way across my path a few metres ahead to remind that there was in fact, life there.
I popped out of the sandpit near Loreto and made my way into town to find a place to camp. I quickly found a south bound english cyclist who had made his way from Alaska in just 8 weeks. We traded route advice but mostly I ignored it guessing that if he had come through in 8 weeks it was likely that he’d only seen a fraction of what I wanted to. I woke up with sand in every crevice on the beach next to a vagabond Chileno who was hitching and smoking his way somewhere North and we swam as the sun came up.
The Sea of Cortez side of Baja is steamy hot, and for the next few days I rode through 48 degree afternoon heat and collected all the hospitality that comes when it looks like you really need a glass of cold water. I camped in coves in abandoned fishing shacks and on basketball courts which had indoor soccer games running until midnight. Somehow the lethargy that came with this erratic lifestyle was taking my mind off the heat and my general hygiene. Arriving in Santa Rosalia I spent a few hours in the main square drinking coffee and then set about asking at the municipio if I might sleep in their basketball colosseum. While I never saw the president of Santa Rosalia, I trust that my image was conveyed to him, because shortly afterwards, the town engineer appeared with a signed and stamped letter of introduction to the owner of a ritzy hotel explaining that the town would be picking up the bill for me. Not one to complain I loaded up on tacos and slept in a blissfully air conditioned room for the night.
I skipped town late the following day and climbed steeply through more canyons as I realised why this pass was called ‘La Cuesta del Infierno’. I arrived in the oasis of San Ignacio and quickly found Othon’s Casa del Cyclista to roll my mat out and take a day off. I explored the quaint little town and went out the lake nearby to see if any lost whales were passing late in the season to no avail.
When I left San Ignacio I was kitted up for a few days out in the desert, I hadn’t passed a cyclist for a while and my map showed a 500km stretch of road with limited services. For the most part this ended up not being a problem, but on two occasions I wished I had more food after arriving at roadside restaurants to men living without their wives to tell me they didn’t know how to cook. I settled for coca cola and potato chips each time and pushed onwards.
I managed a full week camping out in the desert and rolled into El Rosario looking haggard after 125km into a headwind. Sitting on top of a baseball dugout I thought to myself, ‘this is why I’m riding, the satisfaction at the end of each day’, when a woman named Irma approached and asked where I was sleeping. I pointed out to a dark and dusty corner of the diamond where no-one would see me and she asked if I’d like to camp at her place instead. I agreed and she pointed up the road and round a corner to show me where to meet her when I was finished eating. As it turns out she takes in just about every cyclist she sees on the road and she gave me a nice shady spot to out my tent for the night. We shared coffee and she offered a place to wash, followed by eggs and tortillas in the morning before I left. I’ve heard mixed reviews about the hospitality in Baja California, perhaps because the culture is a little closer to US culture on approach to border, but none of that registered to me. My time on the peninsula will be remembered as full of friendly people happy to share their time and food with me, quite a number of free beers and soft drinks, and a number of couch offers for when I arrived in Los Angeles.
Approaching the border the run of hospitality kept pace with a beach camp opening their showers for me and a young feller buying my lunch and coffee as I got closer to Tijuana. I passed out my last days in Latin America curled up on a couch at a warm showers host and meditated near the border wall with the USA. My last pesos were spent on tacos near the border and I made sure to add every bit of hot sauce available (to some regret), to wind out the last of the clock.
The border crossing was somewhat bureaucratic and formulaic with an overly polite border agent trying to mask his concern about my entry and walking me about a mile back and forth through different buildings to get stamps and I imagine hoping someone else might find a reason to turn me away, but I’m squeaky clean.
Only as I walked into the USA did I realise how nostalgic and sentimental I would become about Latin America. The place where I saw the biggest landscapes of my life, where I took quinoa soup with Quechua families with little more than their adobe hut and Llama herd, where I learned another language, and where continually I was reminded of the naivety of thinking you can see everything.