“Stop here. Here, come up here. To the line. What is your business in Mexico, and where are you going?” says the border guard. He frowns and crosses his arms.
I push my bike into Los Algodones, totally overwhelmed. The buildings are painted bright purple, dentist and optometrist’s offices jammed on top of one another, every place has its own big speaker that pumps out clashing horn melodies. Guys stand in front of the dentist offices and yell “Hey, amigo, need a tooth cleaned? Come! Best price!” White-haired Americans and Canadians flit around nervously in shoals, looking for cheap drugs.
“Uh, San Felipe.”
“Where in San Felipe?”
“Uh…” I freeze up, can’t remember the name of the hotel. Lobster something. Spanish red lobster. No cheesy buns. I look at Colleen. Help me.
“The Langosta Roja,” she says. The border guy nods, turns, and motions for us to follow him.
“Habla Espanol?” one of the other border guards said, arms crossed.
“Un poco.” They shake their heads and laugh at me. “But I’m trying to learn!” They laugh again.
I follow Colleen and another border guy over to the office where we fill out our FMMs, 180 day tourist permits.
“So where will you go after San Felipe?” asks the border guy. He leans back in his office chair. Now that we’re inside, he drops the macho act and is warm and friendly.
“We were thinking about going to La Paz, then getting the ferry.”
“On bicycle? All the way to La Paz? I don’t believe it. And where do you sleep?”
He takes his glasses off, and shakes his head, then slides our permits across the counter. “Ok amigos. You can go. On bicycle, I still don’t believe it. We don’t get people crossing on bicycles here, motorcycle sometimes, but not bicycles. Enjoy Mexico.”
We ride away from town. In three blocks, no more dentists, and it’s all farmland.
Before crossing the border, on the Camino Diablo form Ajo to Yuma.
I stop pedaling, and my bike rolls to a stop in about three inches. I knew this route would be sandy, but this is like riding on the beach. Scott Morris made it sound like such a nice idea. I wait for Colleen to catch up.
She’s worked. “This is horrible,” she says.
“Want me to send Scott Morris an email if we ever get out of here, and tell him he’s a peckerhead?”
“Peckerhead? Are you a five-year-old?” I’m a little hurt, I thought it was a good insult (although Scott Morris definitely isn’t actually a peckerhead, but that may have my sentiment at the time.) There’s rattling a little ways off, and a big engine whines. We jump off the road as a border patrol truck rallies past and dusts us. Those guys.
After another few hours, we roll into Papago Well and set up camp. The well is full of water, but the nozzle is covered in bees. I think I’ll wait until the bees go to bed.
When I head over to the well later, there’s a border patrol truck parked. The patroller gets out of the truck, all body-armored up, handcuffs jangling.
“How’s it going, como estas?” he says. He looks kinda jumpy.
I walk a little closer. “It’s good. How are you?”
“Fine fine. Did you hit the emergency button?”
“Nope, I didn’t.”
“Ok, well the button was pressed a little while back. So it wasn’t you?”
“Nope, wasn’t me.”
“Ok, you have a nice day now.” He seems relieved, and jumps back in his truck. That’s it? He doesn’t have to stick around try to figure out who hit the button? He drives away. Apparently not. I fill up our water. Wonder where the button presser went.
The next morning, I’m about to pull down my pants to take my morning constitutional, when a border patrol helicopter buzzes our campsite. I wave. No peace or privacy in the lonely lonesome desert. But at least we’re all safe and secure from immigrating families and the people trying to import the Devil’s Lettuce.
Later that day, we make it to Thule Well, where there’s a casita. Sweet, we’ll do some bikeshacking.
Which is great until two in the morning, when a border patrol truck rolls up blasting pop music, and switches on his six-million-lumen spotlight, which is so bright that it almost catches the inside of the cabin on fire.
I burrow into my sleeping bag until he goes away. I think that I might rather my taxes go towards streamlining the immigration and work permit process, than pay for a small army to bother me while I’m trying to enjoy a wildlife preserve.
The next morning, the wind is rocking the shutters of the casita. We make some salty coffee (the water from Thule Well tastes one step away from seawater), then head out. The wind picks up all day, until it’s sandblasting our faces at almost 40 miles an hour. Dust blots out the sun. We’re making about four miles an hour on a flat sandy road. Colleen rolls up, real slowly.
“Sure you don’t want me to tell Scott Morris he’s a peckerhead?”
She glares. I’m glad her pocket knife isn’t easy to get to.
After a day in Yuma, and after crossing the border, we ride to the Hotel Celeste on the outskirts of Mexicali.
“Uh, a room a night need I?” I ask, in terrible Spanish. The lady at the desk stares at me. “Accept card?”
“No, no tarjetas.”
“Oh, where kilometers to the boat?” I ask, mixing up barco and banco. She stares at me again, then says something real fast. I look back dumbly. Didn’t catch a word.
“At the gas station, there’s an ATM,” Colleen says. Oh.
“Oh, gracias, uh…” I make some hand motions to indicate we’ll be right back.
The next morning we leave early, ride out of the busy Mexicali Valley, and onto Carretera 5 through salt flats by the delta of the Colorado. It’s a long, flat ride down to San Felipe, but the wind is calm.
In San Felipe, the first town on the Sea of Cortez, it really feels like we’re in Baja. We spend a couple days eating fish tacos by the beach, then pack up and head south again past the skeletons of hotel and condo projects that must have run out of money.
That night we make it to Puertocitos, and camp in a palapa by the beach. I thought that 5 would turn to dirt a few miles outside of town, but apparently they’ve been working to get the whole thing paved. We ride the road to Gonzaga Bay, then follow a moto route over the Sierra San Fransquito towards Coco’s Corner. It pours all night.
Next morning, it’s still pouring. We roll up to Coco’s place, totally soaked.
“Hey bicyclists. Two bicyclists! Come in, come in, please,” Coco yells. There are a couple other bike tourists already sitting on his porch. “Bring the bikes inside! Warm up, have coffee. Dry your things. Please.” When he says please, it’s an order.
We roll the bikes up and lean them on the porch. Bras and panties flap in the wind on the ceiling of the porch, beer can wind chimes tink along the ocotillo fence. I’d read about Coco’s Corner in some moto trip reports- the guy is legendary in the Baja race and adventure motorcycle scene.
Coco is almost 80, and a double amputee who gets around on his stumps wearing leather knee pads. He lives alone, off the grid 20 miles from his closest neighbor (via gnarly dirt road), in a place that’s too dry to even sink a well for water. He’s the man.
After he decided that he liked this spot in the desert 26 years ago, he claimed his little ranch and set up topes (speed bumps) in the middle of the dirt highway, and has been funneling people into his place since. He has a row of campers, and lets people stay the night for free- although you’d be nice to buy some beer from him.
Since we’re soaked, it’s still raining, and I like beer, it’s a pretty easy decision. We hang up our stuff and hang out.
The other riders are a German couple, on the seventh month of a tour from Whistler to Argentina. A couple hours later, three more riders roll in- an Irishman bound for Argentina, a guy from Seattle looking for an ex-pat community to retire in, and a Mexican dude on a short tour of the peninsula.
“Seven bicyclists, one day!” Coco yells. “Never, this don’t happen before.” He’s stoked.
Then he asks me to go light his garbage on fire. I’m stoked. It’s been years since I’ve gotten to torch a big pile of plastic.
Before we leave the next morning, I ask if he’s glad that they’re paving the road.
“No, I don’t want a highway,” he says firmly. That’s the way everybody I’ve asked has felt. Most people seem to live out here because it’s out of the way. Quiet, remote, desert and mountains running into the sea- it’s awesome.
I imagine that this part of Baja is a little like the way the mountain towns in Colorado were 30 or 40 years ago, before all the pavement, money, and gated communities went in. A place a person could catch a break. But people who attach a negative connotation to progress are in the minority, so on the world goes.
A few miles out of Coco’s, I start wishing for some progress. Because we aren’t going anywhere. I stop wishing and start cursing.
After I spend a few minutes screaming and waving a middle finger at the sky, accusing it of incest, licking a female dog’s happy place, and engaging in intercourse through the wrong hole (wrong para mi- para ti, maybe it’s right), I feel refreshed.
“Ok, lets get off the road, clean the bikes, and ride through the sand,” I say to Colleen. We shuffle through the mud, dig the bikes out with some rocks, then set off through the salt brush. We make it to pavement an hour later, the sun comes out, there’s a loncheria that serves chorizo and eggs, and everything’s great again.
I wonder how the other riders from Coco’s made out- the Germans were on hybrids that must have weighed more than a hundred pounds (they had a steel french press, two pounds of brown sugar, a tea kettle, and so on), two of the other guys were on road bikes, and the last was on 29-inch slicks.
We’re in Bahia Los Angeles now, waiting out some more rain at the hostel. Hopefully it’ll clear out by tomorrow, and we’ll be able to head for San Francisquito.
The Los Algodones border crossing, at the corner of Arizona, California, and Mexico, is the quietest crossing in California. Pretty good way to go from Arizona. You can totally skirt Mexicali (which sounds like it might not be such a nice place), and it’s about a day’s ride to get out of the Mexicali Valley where the farms stop, the desert starts, and the camping is quiet and easy.
Baja is rad, full of nice people, has great food, and is super affordable. We can get coffee, three breakfasts (two for me and one for Colleen) for a little more than 200 pesos- about 12 dollars. A mid-level hotel room in Baja seems to go for about 500 pesos- 29 dollars. Three tacos with rice and beans are usually 80 pesos- 4.50 dollars. I’ve heard that mainland Mexico is a little less expensive. Hardly anybody takes credit cards in the smaller towns.
Since I’m a cheapskate, and I didn’t want to pay for the E32 Baja Maps for my Garmin, I found some free Openstreet Mexico maps. They’re actually pretty good, and have shown almost all the roads we’ve ridden. I also downloaded some tracks from the Adventure Rider moto forums, since those guys ride all over the place down here.
Aside from the rain, we haven’t seen any surface water in Baja yet, which makes it hard to stay out for more than a couple days between resupplies. We carry about five liters of water each.
Every time we’ve left pavement, it’s been deep sand. I wouldn’t want to try to bikepack down here with less than a three-inch tire, and a fat bike would be better most of the time.
I’m really happy that I decided to single speed this trip- it’s funner. Mi amigo Dahn Pahrs gave me a 23 tooth cog before we left Pittsburgh, so I’m on a 34×23. Lowest gear I’ve ever used, and I dig it. I can spin along all day at 12 miles an hour, and stay on top of the gear through sand or up steep climbs.
And Colleen has been really happy to have gears, and to be on smaller 27.5+ wheels. At 5’2”, the smaller wheel size is a lot easier for her to handle.