Riding the Land of Fire and Water|
Monday, January 10, 2005
|Photo by Nathan Ward
|Brad riding the mule trails
The skinny trail dipped through an arroyo and ground up through a forest of long-armed cardón cactus before dropping fast through the sand and sliding away into the desert. We rode like sweaty hounds, loping along the trail and waving our happy grins into the evening sun. If we looked up we’d have seen the red hills dropping into the green sea, the last sun rays peaking around the peaks or the frigate birds floating on the wind, but we only thought about riding. When darkness fell, we pedaled straight to a café where we took long swigs of cold beer, sucked on limes and tucked into fresh fish covered in sweet brown mole. Isn’t this what life is supposed to be like in Mexico?
The Sierras sweep south out California’s back door into Mexico, past towns like Tecate, Ensenada, Mulugé and Loreto before grinding down near the candy-colored condos of Cabo. This is Baja -- an 800 mile long needle of mountainous land splitting the blue waters of the Pacific Ocean and the serene Sea of Cortez. For the last three decades, Americans have flowed south into this mysterious desert to search out the perfect remote beach, to catch the silver-skinned dorados, to hide from America and look for love in the eyes of a brown-skinned beauty.
Me too. The first time I turned pedals in Baja was a misadventure spawned from too much time watching the snow swirl outside the Colorado windows. An old girlfriend and I had been musing on places where the winter sun shone warm and fish tacos could be had on every street corner. Baja was nearby, foreign and promised adventure. Plus, we figured we would save money and just ride our bikes all the way south from the Mexican border with California.
A week later, after a thick slice of reality-pie, we sat in the scant shade of a scraggly tree as the sun beat down like hell’s furnace. We experienced heat exhaustion, ran out of water, bonked hard enough to dream of licking the sugar coating off the Advil and decided that biking the length of Baja was a stupid idea. We hitched a hasty retreat north in the back of a beat up Ford to find that over sixty heat records had been broken in the US that week. It was hot.
Despite this trial by fire, the desire to mountain bike in Baja stayed with me. Two years later I sat in the little town of Loreto watching the whitecaps blow over the ocean. The mission this time around was just as simple – my compadre Brad and I would pedal from town into the Sierra de la Giganta mountains and ride virgin singletrack -- mule trails winding from rancho to rancho. Simple, no?
Loreto nestles against the ocean beneath a western skyline of jagged desert peaks. It’s a quiet town where dogs sleep in the shade and kids cruise the cobblestone streets in low-slung Chevys. Loreto’s significance in Baja dates back to 1697 when Jesuit explorer Juan María Salvatierra founded the Misíon Nuestra Señora de Loreto and gathered the indigenous peoples to convert them to Catholicism…or else.
Over the years the Jesuits came and went along with other religious explorers, ravaging the native population under the guise of Christianity. Today, Loreto is a hub for outdoor enthusiasts who fly in from Los Angeles or drive the Trans-Peninsular Highway 1 to fish, kayak, snorkel and mountain bike.
Fresh off the plane, we oriented ourselves by sea kayaking, snorkeling and talking with Trudi Angell, the owner of the oldest sea kayaking company in Baja. Trudi came to Baja in 1976 for an outdoor course and never really left, becoming as she described a "Baja bum", traveling and exploring the peninsula.
By 1984, she founded a company, based in Loreto, and started guiding trips throughout Baja. She recently started mountain bike tours and gave us the idea to ride the mountain trails. "You ought to ride the mule trails around Rancho Viejo and San Javier. As far as I know, no one has ever done it," she said. How could we resist?
Baja doses out experiences in extremes and once one leaves the coast and heads inland, the desert and mountains take over with a vengeance. After plates of chorizo and eggs, we started riding with Trudi’s clients toward the Sierra de la Giganta and quickly became reluctant friends with dust and the taste of dried sweat on our lips as we pedaled toward el Rancho Viejo.
The road rose steeply past forests of cardónes and dry washes over stretches of washboard and sections paved with flat rocks. The sun floated overhead heating the ground and dust devils spun crazily up and down the road. We traveled upward past an oasis of palms and a gorge with faint geometric designs on the walls, designs created hundreds of years ago by medicine men in tobacco trances.
Near the top, our companions climbed into their support truck while Brad and I shifted to our little rings and made grunting comments on how incredibly steep the road had become as it switchbacked across the rocky hillsides. We stopped to rest and treated ourselves to the amazing view unfolding behind us.
If you look at a topographical map of Baja, the land rises quickly from the Sea of Cortez, peaks in a series of rugged mountain ranges and slopes gently down westward until reaching the Pacific Ocean. We looked east down the steep face of the red hills that drop to the slim green plain of Loreto and fade into a deep blue ocean dotted with islands.
At moments like this, the allure and constant pull of Baja becomes clear – the proximity of rugged desert and soft, inviting ocean feels fat with possibility.
At Rancho Viejo the roosters started crowing at 4am just a few feet from my head, shocking me to consciousness. Once awake, the serenity of the high desert morning swept over me – smooth cool air vibrating with birdsong, sunlight streaming over the hillsides warming us as we sat with hands wrapped around hot metal cups of black coffee. Chari, one of the ranch owners, made tortillas. Slap! Slap! Slap! She tossed dough balls from hand to hand and placed them on a hot tin sheet over the fire where they browned in seconds.
Chari set a tall stack of tortillas in the middle of the table along with a bowl of refried beans, eggs and shiny green jalapeños. Rancho Viejo became our base for two days as we did day rides in the area and returned to sleep under the palapas at night. When Trudi’s clients returned to Loreto, Brad and I packed our gear and spun down the road to the village of San Javier, following the migration of the area’s most famous mission.
In 1699, the Jesuit Fancisco María Piccolo founded Baja California’s second mission at Rancho Viejo. They moved to San Javier in 1720 and built Baja’s most striking mission at the foot of a dramatic canyon. As we rounded the corner above the village, the mission towers stood out above the whitewashed buildings and gave the valley a mysterious feel.
The Misión San Francisco Javier stands at the end of a long wide cobblestone street, its walls made of black volcanic rock and surrounded by green fields. San Javier feels quiet and old beneath a canopy of palm trees and the sound of water flowing through a complex aquaduct system created by the Jesuits. It’s easy to imagine that this village has changed little over the years. Children play in the streets, old people gossip in the shade and lizards scamper along the stone walls.
|Photo by Nathan Ward
|Relaxing in hot springs by the sea.
Like many places, the world has almost passed over San Javier. A lovely woman, Rocina, sold us tortillas and coffee and said all the young people left for the cities. "Look around you," she said with a sweep of her arm, "what would anyone do for work here?"
Luckily, we just wanted to ride bikes and set out for a huge canyon at the edge of town where people promised there were mule trails. We found a trail without problem and started riding up it…for about thirty seconds. Behind every beautiful flowering desert plant in Baja is a sea of thorns, espinas. The most delicate looking little poppy presents an arsenal of razor sharp thorns for protection.
We’d ride a short way and stop to pick the thorns from our bleeding skin, victims of teddy bear cholla, chainlink cholla, ocotillo, barrel cactus and countless other spine covered plants. Quickly we abandoned our bicycles and hiked the trail. After serving as our own guinea pigs, we found that mule trails were extremely rough, loose and not very suited to bike riding.
After giving up on mule trails, we adopted a new tactic of riding from oasis to oasis. Leaving San Javier early in the morning, we pedaled south along the main road from the village. The road isn’t paved, in fact it’s a dusty track full of rocks and sand that passes flower-strewn ranchos, dry stream beds and winds into the hills. Our only map was a simple hand-drawn affair so we had only a vague idea where to go. We turned east at la Mesa Santo Domingo and followed a brackish creek high into the Giganta.
Arroyos split the dry mountain landscape, offering water and lush green environments. This backroad cut through an amazing cardón forest thick as pines on the mountains of Colorado. The higher we rode, the more the vegetation exploded into a sea of palm trees where the creek flowed and hundreds of tiny frogs hopped along the shore. In these green areas we came across settlements where ranchers wrestled a living from this difficult land.
The ride back to San Javier taught us even more about riding in Baja. After just 37 miles our bikes were dry as a bone and sounded like the metal was grinding away each pedal stroke. The ride completely drained us, even a cloudy cool day. If we attempted this ride on a sunny day, Baja would have undoubtedly taught us a more severe lesson. As Brad clearly pointed out, "Sometimes Baja seems like nothing but dry and dusty roads".
Touring the backroads of Baja with a full trailer or panniers is very possible. However, it will take a toll on body and equipment unless you bite it off in small pieces and keep your distances reasonable.
The next day we packed our gear and pedaled over the "great divide" to the brake-smoking descent back to Loreto. In Loreto we met Fernando, one of Trudi’s guides and a local mountain bike racer, who showed us the singletrack near town. Finally, perfect trails made by mountain bikers that swept along the ridgelines, descended into steep arroyos and took advantage of the landscape there above the sea. It was some of the best singletrack I’ve ridden anywhere and the perfect way to end our trip.
Before heading to Baja I harbored reservations about traveling to a place so close to the U.S., sure that thirty years of American tourism would have created an ugly monster. I was very happy to find that Loreto is nothing like the condo-littered beach party areas of southern Baja, it’s quiet and laid back. Muy tranquilo.
However, despite its tranquilo flavor, an ugly American scene exists at times with guys running around wearing t-shirts that read "Women want me. Fish fear me." Also, while we sat on the steps of our hotel, we witnessed one man screaming at the local Mexicans because he didn’t get a free taco at the hotel’s happy hour. He suggested they’d all listen better when he returned and held a gun to their head. This is obviously not the way we need to be representing our country abroad.
What impressed me about Baja was the unwavering friendliness of the Mexican people everywhere we went, despite the long years of tourism. Everyone we met was open, friendly, giving and laughed loud at all the funny things going on around us. It was refreshing to travel in this atmosphere, especially since I hadn’t expected to find it so close to home.
Nuts and Bolts: Baja
Bicycle Touring in Baja: Baja is divided into two states, Baja California and Baja California Sur. Highway 1 goes all the way from Tijuana to Cabo San Lucas, paved the entire way. Drivers are courteous but there is no shoulder and many big trucks. Dirt roads crisscross the peninsula and are well-suited to mountain bikes, though the roads are rough and steep.
What to Bring: Unless you stay on paved roads, mountain bikes are the best choice. Make sure your equipment is durable and carry the tools/spares to make any sort of repair. Brings lots of lube to keep the drivetrain running smoothly in a sea of dust. We used a 100oz water bladder and two 22oz water bottles each and still ran out of water on some rides. The more water the better.
Tour Baja has both good quality rental bikes and support vehicles with mechanics on their tours.
Dress is casual and the desert nights in the mountains can get chilly.
When to Go: The best months for touring are November through March because it’s cooler. Summer is not the time to go because it is deadly hot, unless you like that sort of thing.
How to Get There: There are daily flights from Los Angeles to Loreto. Most airlines in the US will gouge you for taking your bicycle on board, but the Mexican airlines usually let it pass as just another piece of luggage.
You can also drive there on Highway 1. You must have Mexican Auto Insurance that is usually available at the border – make sure you check beforehand because you’ll pay dearly if you don’t have the correct insurance.
Local Information: Trudi Angell runs bike tours and bike/sea kayak combo tours out of Loreto. She can give you advice on riding and tell you the history and legends of the entire area. Email: email@example.com or Telephone: 800.398.6200.
Health Considerations: If you have any doubt about the water, treat it. There is a water purification station in Loreto to fill your bottles. Drink enough to stay hydrated and consider bringing an electrolyte replacement drink to replenish your body after profuse sweating. If you plan to ride the trails, bring tweezers to pick out thorns and a snake bite kit/compression bandage. Know how to use them.
Visas: US citizens do not need a visa, just a tourist card that you can get when you get there. Bring a copy of a birth certificate and a driver’s license, or a passport for identification.