It took 3 weeks to cycle down the length of Baja California. The 1500km long peninsula that is attached to the US state of California but belongs to Mexico. The reality is, it’s a cultural mix of both. A huge desert playground for grown-up Americans who like beaches, bars and roaring around on quad bikes.
A new country, a new language. I was forced into a rapid recall of my faded and far-from-fluent Spanish before we had even entered the country. Told by the immigration officer to pay the visa fee at the HSBC bank opposite, we dutifully entered the kiosk-sized counter. ‘Sorry, the bank is closed. Come back tomorrow,’ the cashier says. But we want to go to Mexico today. ‘Sorry, you can go to Mexico tomorrow’. This surely cannot be true. Borders don’t close on Sundays because the bank is shut. Especially not major US-Mexico ones. After extensive further questioning, it becomes apparent that we can cross the border and pay the fee at any bank in Mexico, at any time before we leave. For a moment I thought I was back in Africa. You have to ask the right question to get the right answer… we go back to the immigration official, who in the meantime has realised it is Sunday and proceeds to tell us what we have just discovered, stamps our passports and wishes is well on our journey.
As we cycle through Mexicali’s bustling streets, it is clear we have left the US. Street stalls and corner shops, covered markets and colourful buildings. Rougher round the edges, but this place at least has character. Smells of tacos on the street and that dusty musty aroma of a city lived in. The problem with US towns is they look so alike. Built on a grid system with malls and shopping complexes, Walmart and Kmart, Best Buy and drive-thru’s, McDonalds and Starbucks, cars jamming up the roads and crammed in the carparks. Red lights, Stop signs, one way only, drive through, buy here, don’t stop. So tedious and sterile.
Still, Mexico’s border towns have a dangerous reputation and Mexicali is no exception. While the current government continues it’s war against the drugs cartels, we figured we’d shoot straight on through this town rather than risk getting caught up in a shoot-out. I can’t say I sensed any danger, but a city after dark can be a very different place than when seen from the saddle at midday.
Besides, we wanted to camp out under the stars. So we pedalled on, out of town and south towards San Felipe.
San Felipe, a modest town on the coast, with restaurants lining the malecon, looking out into the Sea of Cortez past the small fishing boats on the beach and fishermen repairing nets or idly sitting wrapped up in big jackets, for although we were quite warm having only recently come south, it is winter here and the wind is quite cold.
Sipping a cool Corona and eating fish tacos. By the sea, it felt like I was on holiday. Not the kind of action-packed holiday I am prone to, but the relaxing get-away-from-it-all get a suntan read books and eat well type most people consider to be a vacation.
Further down the coast, Puertecitos was not the holiday destination of choice. Considering the exquisite location in a small sandy bay, it was a shithole. Practically deserted. With a silent down-beaten dog and ragged weather-beaten flags. The only thing with life, the wind whipping across this sad-looking shambles. We stocked up with supplies from the shack-cum-store and went on our way towards the dirt roads.
Dirt roads I’d been looking forward to for weeks…. How quickly opinions can change.
A few hours of shaking rattling and bumping along the hideous washboard sands and I was wishing once again for the smooth effortless tarmac. But the tarmac road didn’t weave through rocky hills and cacti gardens.
Didn’t wind through the rich brown mountains overlooking the azure Sea of Cortez lapping peacefully at the shore.
It didn’t pass Jim’s Shrine of empty liquor bottles and cheap bras, or Coco’s corner with it’s fencing lined with empty beers cans rattling in the wind like flags in a second-hand car dealer forecourt.
We’d been told of the legless man living in this corner of desert some days prior, one place we may be able to get water. It was hard to imagine anyone living at the empty spot on the map they pointed to. But a man without legs; that sure sounded like a hard life. Really? But ok, if you say so. As we got nearer, we were told of the legless man who lived out in the desert, but don’t expect to get water there. Beer yes, but probably not water. I was beginning to think that my leg was being pulled about a man with no legs. Or perhaps there was a man who lived there, a drunk. Legless in the inebriated sense. Coco’s was deserted when we arrived, except for a fridge stocked with beer and the empty rattlers… It was a local joke then. So imagine my surprise when a red truck pulled up and out jumped a big short guy, walking on the stumps of his thighs. Only then did I see the artificial legs hanging from the roof among other memorabilia. In a whirlwind he had sold us two beers (no, he didn’t have water), asked us to sign the guest book, was back in the truck and off again.
It was a relief to reach the main road again… until the first lorry came thundering close by… and the second… The Baja highway was built in the 60’s and it is barely wide enough for two modern trucks to pass each other now. There is no hard shoulder. Instead the road drops sharply off the embankment. It is not wide enough for two trucks passing when there is a cyclist on the road too. Except some of the truckers don’t seem to realise this. The Baja highway is definitely the most dangerous road I have cycled on. Worse even than Nigeria which takes some doing! Much of the highway has been resurfaced in recent years, ‘for better living’ for Mexico’s people according to the government sponsored billboards. But the regular crosses, wreaths and memorials with statues of the Virgin Mary, marking fatal accidents suggest that the country’s safety campaign is somewhere flawed. ‘For better living and faster dying’, would be a more apt slogan, if an unlikely election clincher. A good road will never equate to better drivers, just faster bad ones.
Unfortunately the dirt roads had taken their toll on me. And my gear. I had little energy or enthusiasm for the beautiful surroundings. Of giant cardon cacti standing gnarled but tall and boojum trees rising as tentacles from the earth, of squat spiky red spheres and a mess of cholla cacti growing haphazardly like discarded bundles of wool, only you wouldn’t want to wear a knitted cholla cardigan. Instead I pedalled sullenly on and left Lars to soak it in. To go to bed exhausted and wake up to a fifth flat tyre of the week and a broken front rack should be enough to dispel any thoughts that cycle-touring is all one big holiday. But it’s not work either (in the paid sense at least) and you can’t call in sick. So I set to repairing the puncture and duct-taping the rack.
The first break of the day was a characterless cross-roads with gasoline for sale from the back of a truck, a car mechanic’s with a heap of rusting car wrecks and spare parts, and a cafe run by a dull young woman with clearly no ambition in life to do anything other than sell coffee without milk to the occasional traveller who makes the mistake of stopping here . ‘Is there a shop here?’, we ask. – Yes, she says immediately. ‘Oh ok… where?’ – Next door, came the reply. Now of course I had seen the small excuse of a shop next door already and had also seen it was locked with a closed sign on the door. ‘Oh ok… but isn’t it closed?’ – Yes. Hmmm… I’m clearly not asking the right questions here. ‘Is there a shop that is open here?’ – No… Sigh. Nothing about this day was going to be easy. For a brief moment I thought I was back in West Africa.
If my enthusiasm could have waned further, it would have been when it started to rain one evening. It was grey and dull and cold the next day and I was sure glad to be checking into a cheap hotel in the grim sounding Guerrero Negro… it’s amazing what a lazy day off can do for the battered soul. Especially when it is soothed with cold beer in 1.2L bottles and caressed with unlimited chocolate supplies and compulsive television viewing of the trashiest kind and a wi-fi connection for obsessive surfing! We stayed a second day… because it was still raining we convinced ourselves.