This is about the experience of the landscape of Baja California and aspects of life cycling through it.
1) Everything is prickly
There are spines of all different types and forms from big to small, from hard and brittle to soft and flexible . Some plants look armoured like a medieval knight while others have small, hairlike spines that are nearly invisible and hard to get out. Even grasses have detachable parts that manage to work their way into our clothing to prickle you!
2) Prickly means less things are poisionous
I love exploring what edible wild plants I can find and bought the thick textbook like “Baja Plant Field Guide” with me. Reading through the book, I found that very few plants were poisonous. This did not mean that everything was edible or tasty but rather that it would not kill you to try it. Perhaps it is because most things are prickly so the plants did not need to protect itself with poison. We tried prickly pear cactus fruit through we were never able to avoid all of its small hair-like spines. We fell in love with amazing pitayas of the galloping cactus, which had large, visible spikes and tasted like a kiwiberry. We tried the peppery flowers of on an agave stalk.
3) The ocean breaks all of these rules
Pufferfish, for example, break al of these rules. They are pickly AND poisonous. However, breaking rules means we can also break rules too and pufferfish can be prepared in a way that is edible. Apparently, I am an “experienced cook” since I prepared and cooked one variety of smooth skinned pufferfish we unknowningly speared fished in Bahia Concepcion without harming us! Either that or beginner’s luck…
4) Goodbye racoons! Hello bugs!
Racoons plagued us on the Pacific Coast route through Washington, Oregon and California. However, in the dry and harsh deserts of the Baja without state parks that concentrated campers for an all-you-can-eat buffet for scavengers like racoons, medium to larger animals were farther in between. It was just harder to find food and water to survive. It was only in one spot on our entire Baja journey that we heard racoons existed and was a problem. Racoons apparently live in the mangroves behind a popular RV campground in Playa Santispac in Bahia Concepcion. When we were wild camping in the desert, we sometimes heard coyotes but never saw one. Apparently, they are quite shy and rarely approach people. Without bears and racoons, our food practices changed. At first, we had wondered how to hang out food in the desert without trees but we ended up just hanging our food panniers on our bikes at night and they were fine. Our threats were mainly mice and ants. Instead of worrying about racoons, we instead worried about scorpions, spiders and ants so we became really careful about picking up our panniers after a night or two sitting on the ground. Bryan actually found a small scorpion under one of his panniers after a night in the desert! We stored our riding shoes inside our panniers at night to avoid creepy crawlies and made sure our tent was always zipped up. Not worrying about racoons and bears also meant that we could eat in our tent. We resisted for a long time, eventhough we met a lot of the other cyclists who ate in their tent, until we were rained in one morning. Then, it was amazing to eat our trailmix breakfast in bed. What a wild experience!
5) Who let the dogs out? Woof woof!
Though we didn’t worry have to worry about racoons sneaking out at night to steal our food, we did have another animal on our mind. Dogs loved to chase us on our bikes. Sometimes, they would even hear us from behind their house and come out running and barking away. Everyone seemed to have a dog or two at their house or ranch to guard their property. Even the smallest dog, a little fluffy lapdog or a yappy chichuhua, would take their job very serious. Actually, it was especially these little dogs that would come out in a fury of fur and teeth, barking away as they chased us. However, with these little dogs, they barely came up to the height of our pedals and we quickly outrode them. Us cyclists had many different theories about the dogs. Someone suggested that our chains make an especially annoying noise that only dogs can hear. Another suggested that they’re herding dogs and we’re a strange creature getting away. Sometimes, I feel that they just like to run after and chase things for fun. Of course, there are often guard dogs as well, though they don’t seem to chase the cars that drive by (but they do chase motorbikes!). Cyclists have different strategies to deal with dogs including carrying a stick and the opposite of the spectrum, carrying dog treats, some pedal faster while others slow down, some tell them “No! Go home” and the stern voice carries meaning beyond the language itself and someone even spoke German to dogs. I often pedalled faster if I saw a dog chasing me because I knew my bike easily outpaced the dogs and they don’t usually run farther than their house. However, if I was about to pass a dog, I would pedal slowly and often, they wouldn’t even move to look up from where they are lounging in the sun. The dogs sound ferocious but if you stop to pet them, most of them are actually bundles of love. They jump and lick and just want a bit of your attention and love.
6) The wild camping bonanza south of Ensenada
Different cyclists had different strategies for finding a place to stay the night while travelling through Baja California. Hotels, couchsurfing and warmshowers hosts, staying with firefighters, asking to camp on people’s properties and wild camping are all options. Except for staying with firefighters, which we only heard from other cyclists later in the trip, we used all of the above options. The most common option for us and really my favorite is wild camping in the desert and on an isolated beach. After Ensenada, the population drops and a lot of the landscape is open desert – perfect for finding a random camp among the cactuses to spend the night!
7) Same same but different names
Names repeat. We stopped at Rosarito the first day in Mexico. El Rosario marked our entrance to the Central Desert. We then passed a turnoff to Santa Rosalilita on our way to another town named Rosarito after the Central Desert. This Rosarito is just under 300km to Santa Rosalia on the Sea of Cortez. Figures in Mexican history are repeated as city names and street names in almost every city, such as Vicente Guerro and Lazaro Cardenas.
8) The one road to rule them all
There is basically one main road in Baja California that is paved, the MEX 1. It zigzags back and forth from the Pacific Ocean to the Sea of Cortez, successfully connecting many of the larger towns and cities of the pennisula on one road. This means that especially in the large center portion of the Baja crossing vast deserts, all of the traffic is on a narrow, two laned highway. At night, large trucks lit up in lights earning our nickname for them, “Christmas tree trucks”, race down the roads. However, the one main route also funnels cyclists and we ended up forming a bike gang with regularly 8 to 15 cyclists! It was a great little community of touring cyclists that developed.
9) Long haul cyclists carry the craziest stuff
Cycling the popular Pacific Coast route through Washington, Oregon and Californa, you see some people touring with very little gear. With a grocery store reliably every day and water avaliable almost everywhere, people don’t have to pack as much. Also, you get some credit card cyclists who stay at hotels and eat out at restaurants. We met people who didn’t travel with a stove, or even a tent. One person we met cycling in Oregon didn’t have any panniers. He only had a handlebar bag and one small bag on his back rack. He didn’t have a tent but rather slept under a lightweight tarp. They tended to look at us in amazement. Why are we carrying so much stuff? In the Baja California, the cyclists here carry more because we have stretches in the desert between towns. We tend to have a pattern of resupplying in town to last 3 or 4 days in the desert and water becomes a larger concern. For one overnight in desert including two days of riding, we survive on one 10L dromadary of water. For two to three overnights in the desert, we need at least 20L of water. Also, cyclists in Baja California tend to carry more tools to be prepared incase anything breaks in the many remote stretches. For long haul cyclists, cycling also becomes a lifestyle to be lived for many months to years and that also impacts packing styles. Bryan and I have a speargun and carry memory foam pillows. One cyclist named Paul started carrying a street cone as a joke. Another cyclist found a big curving goat (or sheep…) horn and thought he might use it as a drinking horn. Rigel and Erin started carrying a large tartantula spider they found in the desert in an old peanut butter jar as a pet. Other cyclists Dave and Uschi have four panniers plus pulling a trailer to carry a palace of a six person tent that I could do jumping jacks in, a sitar and a mandolin. They figured that if they’re living in the tent for two years, they might as well be comfortable and plus it needed to fit the sitar. We had some wonderful nights all our little bike gang chilling out in their giant tent playing a boardgame they brought and some amazing times stargazing in the middle of the desert listening to Dave play the sitar!
10) Pannier after opening
Because we do stretches in the desert between towns, cyclists often have to carry at least a couple days of food with them. We are testing the boundaries of keeping food. We find that cheese keeps remarkably long – even the softer white cheeses that are popular here in Mexico. Even sliced ham, chorizo sausages and other meat will be ok if it is used in the first day or two. You can often extend food life even further by cooking it, then reheating it before eating. “Refridgerate after opening” becomes translated into the cyclist idiom, “Pannier after opening.” In my panniers, I have a collection of old peanut butter jars that I store cut up veggies that make assembling burritos for lunch easy or leftover meals. In towns, we basically survived on delicious fish tacos. Fish tacos with a huge piece of deep fried fish in a flour tortilla is characteristic of Baja California.
11) The perpetual fear of the south
Many people warned us about cycling in Mexico, often of Baja California and Tijuana especially. We would tell people when we were cycling through the USA that we’re cycling from Vancouver to Patagonia and people would say, “Oh through Mexico…?” There seems to be this perpetual fear of the south. In Canada, people warned us about the States. “Everyone has guns you know?” In the States, Mexico was talked about in hush tones. Drug and weapon trafficking was said to dominate everything and the landscape was described almost like a war zone where you could trust no body. What a surprise it was for us then when we crossed in Tijuana and someone on the Playas de Tijuana said, “Here, it is safe…but you have to watch out in Chiapas!” Chiapas is a state in southern Mexico. I wonder if when we get to Chiapas, we will get people warning us of Guatemala and so on?
12) Travel Mexico!
I feel the challenges of cycling in Baja California were mostly environmental – the baking sun and limited access to water at times, strong cross winds that adds another element to balance, spines everywhere threatening our tires, and the risky combination of narrow, shoulderless roads and big trucks. However, people often expressed to us dangers of a more social nature focusing on people, violent thefts, kidnapping and the overarching spectre of the drug trade. While bad situations can occur, as they can anywhere in the world, I found them to be extremely overexaggerated for Mexico. The people I have met while cycling through Baja California have been some of the nicest, most friendly, welcoming and generous people I have ever met. People welcomed us into their homes and invited us, complete strangers, to camp out on their properties. We would wild camp in the desert and drivers would just wave if they saw us when they passed by. Cars and trucks would try to give us as much room as possible on the road. People waved and honked excitedly to cheer us on. Someone even slowed down to hand us each a cold pop as they passed. We felt like rockstars sometimes as people were genuinely so excited to meet us. If I had one recommendation to people after cycling Baja California, it would be travel to Mexico and especially the Baja. It is such an amazing place with friendly people, amazing food, dramatic landscapes and stunning scenery.