Unsure what to expect and with nerves running riot, I started down the passageway marked ‘Pedestrian Border Crossing’. Sandwiched between a McDonalds and a convenience store it was hard to believe this led to another country, somehow I’d envisaged something more significant. Following behind a Mexican chap wheeling a cart full of new socks, I watched as the succession of guards each helped themselves to a pair, prompting me to wonder whether I’d be expected to make a similar donation. Fortunately though, no one took the slightest notice of me, to the extent whereby I slipped through the whole thing without a word being spoken or even a casual flash of my passport. Before I knew it I’d emerged onto a bustling street, slightly unsure whether I was actually now in Mexico or just some sort of no-man’s-land. An obligatory Mariachi band playing round the corner provided all the confirmation I needed though – I was in!
I doubt there’s any other border in the world that provides such instant contrast. Like stepping through the wardrobe into Narnia, Mexico hits you like a slap in the face, instantly overwhelming the senses with the alluring smell of street food, clamoring of roadside vendors and overall chaos. The relaxed San Diego suburb I’d left only an hour or so ago suddenly seemed like a world away.
Following a fairly hasty departure from the boisterous border city of Tijuana my plan was simple; blast 900 miles or so down the Baja Peninsula ready to meet a friend from home in the city of La Paz. Navigationally this promised to be a fairly straightforward exercise as there’s only road heading down it. The challenges would instead come from the large expanses of uninhabited desert, frustratingly hilly terrain and crazy winds.
Relatively isolated from the mainland and largely ignored by Spanish conquistadors, the Baja remains fairly undeveloped and it wasn’t long before dusty towns with wild-eyed dogs gave way to cacti strewn wilderness. Having been fed no end of scare stories I have to admit I was initially quite on edge. On my second day a motorbike zoomed past me on a remote climb, before screeching to a halt and heading straight back towards me. “Bloody hell, here we go” I thought to myself, whilst nervously reaching for my bear spray. My panic however, was of course completely unjustified – as opposed to a machete wielding bandito the raised visor revealed a smiley chap simply asking whether I’d like a push up the hill!
Countless other friendly encounters followed; from the guy who handed me a cold drink out of his car window on a particularly sweaty climb, to the row of construction workers who ‘high fived’ me as I cycled past. Whilst solo travel in Mexico undoubtedly presents some genuine dangers it didn’t take long to realise that the vast majority of people are incredibly welcoming. I’d often find myself being invited to camp outside someone’s house or café, spending the evening trying to converse in my woefully inadequate Spanish. Frustratingly these little exchanges generally fizzled out beyond the basic questions, and even then I’m often met with blank looks – never a good sign. Gaily reciting away to my audio tutorials is one thing but trying to communicate with a real life Mexican is proving a whole different story!
Despite these interesting little encounters and the excitement of being in a new country, the grueling schedule of long days required to make it to La Paz in time meant the rollercoaster of emotions was even more pronounced than usual. Some days really were tough; you pitch camp exhausted, dehydrated, soaked in sweaty grime and wearing the same dirty clothes you have been for the past week. Then, just when you’re about to collapse into your sleeping bag you realise that, in the darkness, you’ve pitched on a load thorns and your Thermarest has punctured in about five places. You then look across to the bike and notice the front tyre has suffered a similar fate. It’s times like these you just want to have a little cry and you start questioning why on earth you’re not just sat on the beach sipping a Margarita like all the other tourists.
Conversely however, there are times when everything seems to come together in perfect harmony; being pushed along by a rare tail wind with barely a pedal stroke required, whilst gazing at the spectacular desert landscape as it turns golden in the late afternoon sun. With no one for miles around only the whirring of the freehub breaks the silence and I’m instantly reminded why bike travel is so rewarding. Romanticism aside though, the real reason of course for adopting pedal power is the license to eat obscene amounts of food, which, in the case of Mexican cuisine, makes it especially worthwhile. Sampling the cheap delights of street vendors down the length of the Baja has been a real highlight, with my taco count already well into triple figures and proving a worthy substitute for Pop Tarts.
A further, subtler product of life on the road is how in tune you become with good old Mother Nature. Desert nights are generally spent gazing at the star filled sky, watching the moon slowly track its course, with the day’s cycling governed simply by the rise and fall of the sun. Apparently I entered a different time zone some way down the peninsula, but these things are of little relevance. Big days mean starting at dawn, whether you chose to call it 6 or 7am, if I’m to avoid riding after dark – something I’m constantly warned not to do in Latin America.
That being said, things don’t always go to plan and brutal headwinds, combined with a string of punctures, meant I was caught out on one desert crossing, having to ride through the eerie darkness to reach the next village. Cursing myself for not stocking up on water so that I could’ve wild camped, my attention was soon diverted when a huge truck, the only traffic for ages, started following behind me, seemingly refusing to overtake. Initially confused, I eventually realised that, in another bizarre show of goodwill, he was lighting up the road ahead for me. This continued for over 20km until we finally reached the village, and with a honk from him and thumbs up from me we parted ways. Incredible.
After nine long, sweaty days of riding, the desert had certainly taken its toll and that familiar ‘burn out’ phase was starting to kick in by the time I reached the coast at Bahia de Conception. The turquoise waters and white sandy beaches were a very welcome sight and it seemed like the perfect place to take a day off. What’s more, almost rubbing my eyes in disbelief as if looking at a mirage, I ran into a huge group of other cyclists who were also camping there. It’s exciting enough when I meet one other, let alone ten! Much like migrating wildebeest this collection of fellow nomads was following the strength in numbers approach and they’d banded together for the ride down the Baja. Relishing the chance to converse in something other than broken Spanish there was so much to discuss…. Where is everyone going? Where did you start? I see you’ve brought a sitar with you?! What’s your taco count at…?
I ended up hanging out with these guys on an isolated stretch of beach for two days, before dragging myself back onto the bike for the final push to La Paz. Joined by four of the gang who were also pushed for time, it made a welcome change from riding solo. Unrelenting winds made for some tough days and it was great to be able to ‘share the suffering’; drafting behind one another and having a good old communal moan. As a added benefit, motels suddenly became affordable, with the five of us piling into a single room to enjoy a rare shower.
I arrived in La Paz just before my friend James flew in from the UK, and for the next three weeks the bike would take a back seat. It was great to see a familiar face (even if it was at 1am) and after catching up we were soon busily preparing for the next adventure – an eight day kayak trip circumnavigating the island of Espirito Santos. Whilst intended to be more ‘beach chilling’ than hardcore paddling it required packing enough supplies to be self sufficient for the whole duration, including all drinking water. With some mild exaggeration of prior experience I’d managed to convince an outfitters to rent us a double sea kayak, which we stuffed to the gunnels and then set off in search of island paradise. After some pretty hairy first days, prompting both of us to question what the hell we’d signed up for, the winds thankfully settled and we were able to cruise from one small, deserted beach to the next, jumping out for the odd snorkel with a friendly sea lion colony. Standard stuff really.
Now safely back in La Paz the plan is to take a boat over to the mainland and head up to the Copper Canyon for a hiking trip. Shortly after which I’ll reunite with ‘The Beast’ and continue cracking on with the ride south. The Baja has been a great introduction to Mexico, but by all accounts the mainland will be the real test. On the upside though, tacos are apparently even cheaper over there – if only they did one with turkey and stuffing….