Archive for September, 2009

Central Baja

Sunset in Catavina in Central Baja

Yesterday I rode from El Rosario to Catavina in the middle of the Baja peninsula. In the morning there is still fog, as El Rosario is situated close to the Pacific Coast. I head out early (6:45am) to take advantage of the cool morning air.

Leaving El Rosario in the cool of the morning fog

But once the fog burns off (9am) it gets hot as there is no escaping the sun all day. In the beginning the road climbs up to a plateau of about 500m, so the first 40km and 3h are very slow going and strenuous.

Climbing up the road from El Rosario

The landscape is very barren, just a few cactus trees and bushes. But it has its own rugged beauty, and there is little traffic in this section, so relatively safe to ride on.

The desert road from El Rosario to Catavina

Unfortunately there is also a lot of trash beside the road; people seem to just dispose of trash by dropping it beside the road and then the wind distributes some of it across the landscape. This is definitely a less attractive side of Mexico, but not unexpected: Most poor countries don’t bother with protecting the environment, it’s almost like a luxury they can’t afford.

It was a long day (total 7h, 125km, 1500m elevation gain). And it was hot, as expected, with temperatures sitting at or near 38C / 100F for several hours during the day! I had started with 4l of water, and drank fresh coke at the little restaurants along the way. By the end of the day I had drunk 10l of fluids – I don’t recall ever drinking this much to stay hydrated. Upon arrival in Catavina I set up my tent at a desert RV park.

My tent at desert RV park in catavina

Accomodations are simple, facilities almost non-existing (no electricity, but candle light; no running water, instead big barrels with standing water, small buckets for “showers” and to induce toilet flushing…). But the restaurant across the street has good food – and there I meet Bill, Nina and Hendrick who are touring the Baja on motorcycles and we have a nice chat over dinner.

It gets cool at night, with a near full moon. Once I woke up around 4am and saw a brilliant night sky with the milky way. The desert sky with its super dry air is famous for its sunset colors and the stars at night.

Today I first needed to deal with some bike repairs (my shifter cable snapped again, despite being replaced in Santa Cruz not too long ago). Not the best place for this problem to develop; with some improvisation I was able to rig a temproary fix which should last until Guerrero Negro where there is a bike shop…

Add comment September 30th, 2009

Mama Espinoza

Today I only had a short half-day ride of 60km. I started at 8am near San Quintin and was finished by 11am. It was a cool and easy ride in the morning, except perhaps the last 10km, where a 300m high mesa needed to be crossed. Hot on the uphill, fairly steep near the top, then a military checkpoint – not sure why in the middle of nowhere they would have a checkpoint – and then a steep and fast descent. But this post is not about the bike…

Famous Mama Espinoza Restaurant in El Rosario

Once in El Rosario I stop at Mama Espinoza’s place. Every travel guide will tell you that it is here that the Lobster Burrito was invented, that this was the first checkpoint of the Baja 1000 off-road race (from Ensenada to La Paz) ever since it started back in 1969, that many famous politicians and movie stars like Steve McQueen stopped here and signed the guest book – so it’s a place with some history. I had also heard about Do?a Anita Grosso de Espinoza from the missionary Peggy (where I stayed two nights ago). Apparently Mama Espinoza was also very active in charitable causes, which is why I wanted to relay my project to her and hear her own stories.

The folks running her restaurant now arranged for a meeting with Mama Espinoza in her living room, which was most pleasant as she speaks English fluently.

With Mama Espinoza in her living room

She was pleased to see a project for a charitable cause and wished me good luck on my journey. As for her own charitable work, she recounted the following story (which I reprint here from a copy of an article in the Baja Times, August 1/15, 2006):

One day in November of 1961 a small plane was caught in a dust storm and forced to land on an airstrip near the town. One of the passengers on board was ill and in need of medical attention but the local hospitals had been shut down. It was Anita’s ability to speak English that got her involved with the group and she and her husband helped them find shelter, medicine and fuel for their plane. The group thanked them for their help and promised to return at Christmas time. True to their word, nine planes came back to El Rosario loaded with medicines, food and presents for the townspeople.
One of the people who returned was a man named Dr. Dale Hoyt. He noticed that many people in the town were in need of medical attention and Anita and Heraclio’s place became a temporary doctor’s office while he saw anyone that wanted to come in. Dr. Hoyt made several return visits and soon other doctors began to follow suit. They earned the name “The Flying Samaritans” for their work. Throughout their time bringing free medical aid to the people of El Rosario, it was Anita who cooked for them and gave them a place to stay in her home.

According to her own words Mama Espinoza was born in 1907, which makes her 102 years old – a living legend indeed. The article states that she had a total of fifteen (!) children, some of them still living in El Rosario, others having left the Baja and “spread out into the world”.

Mama Espinoza passed word that I could set up my tent on her property. She thanked me for my charitable initiative and wished me good luck and safe travels. “Vaya con dios!”

Painting of Mama Espinoza

P.S.: In the restaurant is a portrait painting of Mama Espinoza which is featured here. A good portion of the proceeds from buying this print go to “The Flying Samaritans”.

Add comment September 28th, 2009

Baja California – the heat is on

Yesterday was my first impression of the central Baja. Near the Ocean it gets foggy at night, just like in OR and CA. However, it burns off very quickly after sunrise and then it’s just dry and sunny during the day. And once you get away from the Ocean it gets really hot.

After an easy, flat warm-up ride for the first 10km or so I had breakfast at a small grocery store. That was a 2000 cal breakfast with an entire pack of cereal, 2l of milk and some generously sweetened coffee.

The 2000 calories bicycle breakfast

After that the road started to climb into the hills. The next section to Las Ca?adas is just terrible: it’s dusty, smoky (from forest fires in the hills which almost make the mountains look like volcanoes), uphill through towns with lots of traffic – not fun. Then to make things worse, there was road construction for about 5km. All the traffic snarled through small gravel and mud tracks which had been watered down to contain the dust. I tried riding on the track under construction away from the traffic, which worked in places. The road was extremely bumpy and it was slow going; for the last 9km I needed a full hour!

Talk about these car wrecks collecting dust along the road under construction

Then continuing South to San Vicente I encountered some serious hills (up to 500m, more mountains than hills actually) and very hot conditions. Upon descending into the basin of Santo Tomas – a wine growing region – the hot air blowing in my face on the downhill felt like a giant hairdryer. My thermometer read 37C (99F) and there was no shade anywhere – just brutal. I can’t ride in this heat; have to find some shade and wait out the worst of the heat. I stop in the shade but there is hardly any relief from the heat. I open the towel & tent (which I packed wet in the morning fog) and spread it out in the full sun – it is dry as a bone within minutes.
After a while I continue just 2km or so to the ‘El Palomar’ restaurant in Santo Tomas, where I stop for a cold coke. There are 4 Baja Rally vehicles at this place, apparently run by some commercial tour operator. There are Baja 1000 rally stickers all over the place. I leave a brochure of my project with the hostess and she hangs it up in her place right away.

Climbing hills in the hot midday - Baja near San Vicente

Now there is a real mountain pass of almost 500m to traverse. In this heat it’s not very efficient, as much of the energy goes into cooling rather than climbing. Slowly but steadily I gain the pass. No big downhill though, rather continue on a sloped plateau. I get closer to San Vicente, but it’s getting too hot for me. So I stop at a little place that sells cheese (and sodas), sit in the shade, drink and actually sleep a little bit. I probably spend 1.5h here before I resume at 4pm.

Riding in the late afternoon is much cooler

The best time to ride is early morning or late afternoon. However, once the sun sets it gets dark very quickly and you don’t want to ride on the Mex 1 highway in the dark. It’s dangerous enough to ride on it during the day. Between San Vicente and Colonet (35 km) I had to make an emergency exit from the road no less than 4 times as trucks were approaching and wouldn’t slow down despite oncoming traffic. They just honk as if to say “You better get out of the way because I’m not stopping…” That was dangerous and scary. Hopefully it doesn’t stay like that and the traffic will diminuish.

When I got close to the little town of Colonet I stopped at a small house with a sign that they rent rooms. I inquired about camping, but they really wanted to rent a room instead. Also, their backyard wasn’t particular pleasant or safe as they had no fence around their property. (Those encounters show me how much I still have to learn to make myself understood in Spanish. But with each day it should get better.) I continued to the next place with a hotel sign. Again, no camping there, but they suggested I ask at their neighbors, which had several Christian signs on it. It was the residence of Pastor Obregon, his wife Shirley and Missionary Peggy from Canada. They were kind enough to let me put up my tent in their backyard, which was away from the road and safe behind a fence and locked gates.

Camping in the backyard of the Obregon family near Colonet

Not only that, but they invited me in for dinner as well. And then they invited me to come along to an evening at a nearby drug rehab facility where they would show a DVD of a Christian concert (which was actually of very good quality). I helped the two elderly ladies to drive there and then setup the DVD player and TV. Before they started the video, Shirley said a prayer and also introduced me to the assembled men. “Este es el hermano Tomas!” And the crowd applauded and cheered. Then I briefed them via an interpreter about my project; I encountered quite a captive audience there: About 100 men which almost looked like prisoners, very poor and some in struggling health and on rehab medication. For these folk the DVD movie on the weekend seems to be the highlight of their week. And Shirley had brought some bulk candy which we handed out to those men after they had some simple soup as their dinner. I also contributed my trail mix and gave that to the men. To be clear, I would also have liked to eat it myself. But seeing those poor people hold out their hands and the joy on their faces about this unexpected treat was an amazing feeling.

Men at Colonet drug rehab station during a Christian DVD concert showing

Such went an unexpected evening with the two missionary women at the drug rehab station! Things like this can’t be planned, they just happen. I am indebted to the Obregon family for taking me in and treating me so nicely. Thank you very much.

Thanking the Obregon family at the morning departure

Add comment September 27th, 2009

Into Mexico

First dinner in Mexico (Rosarito)

Mexico is different! (What an amazing change of scenery since up on Mt. Whitney just a few days ago!) No problem there, but interesting. Here are three little episodes:

The Immigration Run-Around

Yesterday afternoon I crossed the border by bicycle from San Diego to Tijuana. I followed the signs for bikes and pedestrians; then you get to a rotating barrier designed only to let pedestrians pass. Like another rider I finally squeezed through the barrier by separating the trailer, tilting the bike up and moving it through with me (like I have moved with a bike into an elevator) and asking another pedestrian to do the same with the trailer! Then you just walk across a little plaza and get to another barrier. No officials, no border patrol, nobody asking for passport or ID… After the second barrier you’re in Mexico, just like that! I looked for the tourist office, but it was behind the barrier now, so I couldn’t go back in for the tourist card (which you need when you want to stay in Mexico for more than 7 days).
So I asked around and learned that there is a tourist info in the center of Tijuana. So there I went with the bike. Crazy traffic, no shoulders, one needs to assert oneself so the cars don’t squeeze by too close. Once I got there I learned that I would either have to go back and re-enter at the border or I could go to the Immigration office in Ensenada (one day ride to the South). I chose the latter. However, once I get there the next day, I was told: “The Ensenada immigration office is only for people who arrive by ship. Those who arrive by car need to immigrate in Tijuana. But – for a daily fine of 55 pesos ($4) you can immigrate here as well.” Of course I’d rather pay $4 than having to ride back & forth some 160km roundtrip! However, I need to pay the 55 pesos at a bank and come back with a receipt. So I’m off to the town center; the first bank is already closed as it’s past 3pm; the next bank allows me to make the payment. I head back to the immigration office now via a maze of one-way streets. Back with the receipt I get some forms to fill out. Then I need to go to another teller across the hall, where I can pay the 262 pesos visa fee (good for 6 months). Why I couldn’t pay the fine here as well is not clear to me… Then back to the first teller and more forms to fill out. Finally I have my tourist card and stamp in the passport – I’m officially allowed in the country now!

The bike and the toll road

Another experience with the rules in Mexico came when I was directed to the scenic route to Rosarito. I looped around a few km in Tijuana to end up more or less in the same spot, but on the right side of some freeway. There the scenic route starts with a 120m hill up next to the border fence. You see two different worlds on both sides of the fence.

View of border fence in Tijuana (US to the left, Mexico to the right)

Then the road drops steeply and I quickly discover that I can’t just let it roll down at 60-70 km/h on Mexican highways, as there are potholes and steps on the road which are dangerous at high speeds… Then I get to a toll booth (the cuota is a toll road). I had heard that sometimes cyclists are let in, sometimes not; I am not so lucky: They don’t let me pass (as I don’t have insurance?), even after some arguing (which helps sometimes). First they want me to ride back to the last onramp (against the traffic); I convince them that that is too dangerous. Then they have a police officer escort me a little bit through the toll booth and he directs me to exit through a narrow hole in the fence to the village streets. I have to unhook the trailer and then he helps me haul the bike over the fence as it wouldn’t fit through!

The exit from the cuota I have to take at toll booth

So there I am on the other side of the fence in the little streets of an unnamed small village. What’s worse, there is no other road on the coast than the cuota, so I would have to ride back almost all the way to Tijuana incl. the hills! I roll into the village center to get a coke and think. Then I see a bike shop across the street. Very friendly people everywhere – and naturally curious about the bike and my journey. I ask them how they ride to Rosarito. Well, the cuota of course! And yes, it’s ok to ride there, they assure me. Just don’t go by the toll booth. Here, follow me and I’ll show you where to get back on at the end of the village, offers one of them and off we go through the village streets. When I get back on the cuota, there are other riders and some even ride on the wrong side of the street against traffic flow. A police car drives by and they don’t care. Yup, that’s Mexico for you!

The low-budget biker / camper

In Rosarito (only about 30km past Tijuana) I found a tourist info center and they directed me to a hostel with a tiny backyard for camping. The guy wants $10 for the night. I said “Oh, that’s a lot of money” – just like I was taught to negotiate – and there it was only $7. Includes hot showers and a safe place away from the street behind a locked fence and gate.

Camping at the hostel in Rosarito

Next morning the ride to Ensenada starts out in fog, but quickly becomes a sunny and pretty hot day, including a 260m hill. As before, lots of sweat, but also nice views from up there and sweet descents down to the water again.

Pacific Coast between Rosarito and Ensenada

In Ensenada I also ask at the visitor center for campgrounds. I ride past the city and to a beach resort area. When I pass through the initial security gates I sense that this is a high-end hotel/resort/RV park (Estero Beach), so probably expensive. $25 / night for tent camping. My trained response: “Oh, that is a lot of money!” Well, that’s the rate, says the young receptionist. I tell him that I haven’t paid this much since I started in Alaska… to no avail. Just as I’m about to leave, his more senior boss comes out and says OK and reduces my rate down to $10 – nice! So I get to stay at a high-end resort place with pool, showers, hot tub, board-walk, restaurants, free wireless Internet everywhere, security guards at the gate etc. Not a bad deal! Typing this Blog over a glass of Sangria and reflecting back on the first 36h in Mexico…

1 comment September 26th, 2009

San Diego

Today I picked up my bike from the San Diego REI store where it underwent a tune-up while I was on the mountain. They re-built the back wheel (all new spokes and nipples), put on a new tire, re-adjusted the shifter cables and flushed the back disc brake. So the bike is in pretty good shape for Mexico now.

I needed to transport the bike with my small (compact class) rental car to the rental place; I wedged it in the trunk with the backseats flipped down and the front tire and pedals of the recumbent were sticking out the back, but it did fit after all. I imagine other drivers on the freeway wondering what kind of bike part was sticking out the back of this little car 😉

Recumbent sticking out of the back of small rental car

Then I rode a short 30 miles from the rental car place at the Carlsbad / Palomar airport South along the Coast. Beautiful scenery and beaches again.

Riding South between Carlsbad and Encinitas

There is only one noteworthy hill (100m) up to Torrey Pines. I remember this place from previous trips many years (actually decades) ago; there is the Glider Port with lots of hanggliding going on above the cliffs (not today, though, no wind). There is the UCSD university campus and the Scripps Institute’s headquarter. It would be nice to live and work and play here… (I remember 20 years ago after my round-the-world-trip saying that the two nicest cities I knew were San Diego and Sydney – no wonder I like it here…)

View to the East (inland) from Torrey Pines

From up there, on my last evening in the US, I witnessed one of the nicest sunsets on this trip.

Sunset at Torrey Pines

I am now in San Diego staying at another rider’s house who I met up in Northern California – he was also doing the Pacific Coast ride and invited me to stay at his place. It is a small beach house right on the Boardwalk and beach. (My last stay at friends in Fallbrook was 20 miles off the Coastal bike path; this one is only 20 feet off the path 🙂 Here is the view out the front porch with my bike.

Bike at San Diego beach after dusk

This is only 25 miles from the border; tomorrow I will enter into Mexico for the next stage of this adventure. Wish me luck!

Add comment September 24th, 2009

Previous Posts


September 2009

Posts by Month

Posts by Category