Cycling the Baja Divide; The Good and the Bad
An honest account of cycling this famous bikepacking route.
While I write this I am sitting in my parents travel trailer in the outskirts of La Paz on a bright, sunny day. My parents drove down from New Mexico to visit me periodically while I was cycling the Baja Divide. For them to go out of their way to see me while in such a remote area is a blessing I am very thankful of. I completed the route shy of a week ago and have been rambling around the La Paz area doing interesting things with my parents. This break before going into mainland Mexico via Mazatlan has given me ample time to ponder this trip I just endured and to evaluate the journey so far with a certain distance between me and the Baja Divide. There were lots of aspects of riding this particularly famous route that left me in awe, and other aspects that had me cursing to the wind for multiple days at a time.
Let's start with the route itself;
This route lived up to the hype in that it is a perfect example of sustainable travel traversing a unique landscape in its entirety. From the first day in Tecate until the last day riding into the outskirts of La Paz, there has been a mélange of beautiful sights and different climates with their own unique flora and fauna. Starting in Tecate I was absolutely surprised how verdant and green the route had been. There were fields of grass and blooming wildflowers that I had no idea could exist in the fabled Baja California Peninsula. When one thinks of this land images of desert coastlines with sand dunes tend to come to mind. This was very true further south, however the northern expenses were very Mediterranean in their climate. I was plagued/blessed with lots of small rainstorms punctuating my riding in the northern sections thereby accentuating the already green landscape and only strengthening its verde spirit. Once I had reached the coast in Ensenada (yes, not on the official Baja Divide route), I could have been convinced that I was in Italy or Greece due to the lush green plants all around me, only to be brought back to reality by the quaint Mexican architecture and culture once in the towns. Being from New Mexico, it was an absolute delight to be drenched in a verdant green landscape so different from the place I call home.
The green density didn't last forever. Once I left the pacific coast moving in the direction of the Sea of Cortez, the environment started to get more arid and the flora more militant in their spikiness. Being a desert person all of my life I am well accustomed to traversing harsh, dry landscapes full of uncuddly plants. This was no exception, however it seemed like all of the plants were gigantic versions of the flora back home with the uncanny characteristic of being even more hostile. The Cholla in the Baja deserts were even spikier than back home and somehow always landed right where I was taking a step. The Cardon cactus and Cirios plants are two of the species found here that have no parallels in New Mexico. These Cardon cactus tower like sentinels watching over the sandy expanses of the desert, almost like a golem resting before being called to action. The Cirios is the more surreal variety, resembling a narrow Christmas tree with a lit candle on top, still growing to extraordinary lengths. The second I pedaled through the Valle de los Cirios I knew that this place was one of the most remarkable landscapes on earth and it truly lived up to the hype. This region of Baja made the entire trip worth it.
It is often said that there isn’t much wildlife to see while riding this particular route. I personally didn’t find that to be true. Almost every day of riding I encountered many creatures I have never seen before. Although many of these creatures were no bigger than my palm, the diversity in their appearance and local environment were very interesting to witness. I did see the usual characters that people see, such as: burros, vultures, coyotes, deer, and village dogs. What I particularly “enjoyed” seeing were the creepy crawlies! One night outside of Loreto my campsite was visited by a small band of jumping crickets and a lone rattlesnake. This rattlesnake wasn’t my favorite animal to see just before going to bed, but did make for a unique sight. What's curious about this snake is that it was seen in an area with ancient cave drawings, the most famous of which is a large red snake! Another night my campsite was visited by countless earwigs and wolf spiders. One of the wolf spiders was carrying its offspring. I threw some sand at it so it would leave me alone and it seemed like dust started coming off of it. I shine my light to get a better look and I notice hundreds of tiny spiders rushing off of the mama spider. It definitely made my skin crawl a bit. My favorite campsite intruders were about 10 hermit crabs scurrying around the rocks while I was camped right next to the ocean. I never imagined that I would see hermit crabs in the wild but here they were! These beautiful creatures were very skittish but allowed me to capture some great images of them. They look remarkably like real life Pokémon. While I was taking pictures of these humble crabs, I also noticed a quintessential bark scorpion crawling around. This scorpion had no fear of me so I decided crawling around these rocks wearing sandals was not the best idea anymore. Long story short, this land has a diverse amount of creepy crawlies that are actually very fascinating to see in their natural environments. One just needs thick skin to appreciate them!
One of the most interesting characteristics of the Baja Peninsula is that it has the Pacific Ocean on the west and the Sea of Cortez on the east, thereby huge bodies of water are always just a couple of days riding away. Prior to seeing the coast in Ensenada for the first time, I hadn't seen the ocean in about four years. The only exception was a small stop in San Diego while driving to Tecate to start this route. The coastlines of Baja are very diverse and it seems like every couple of miles or so the scenery miraculously changes and the beaches have different personalities. The coasts in the northern section were full of very rough water with the land abruptly dropping into the ocean in a dynamic fashion. The coastlines on the Sea of Cortez side were much more gentle and had a much more pleasant atmosphere. These coastlines were also dotted with arid islands just far enough to not be able to swim to. Being able to admire the immensity of the ocean is a very meditative thing to do. I spent shy of 24 hours just gazing at the churning abyss and listening to the sounds of the water talking. This is an experience that just doesn't exist while living in a landlocked place hundreds of miles away from the ocean. I made sure to take advantage of it while I could.
Along with the similar themes of diversity, the geography of Baja is no different. I had the pleasure of riding through granite mountains, deep cut valleys, the occasional palm oasis, flat expanses of desert, diverse coastlines, and all seemed to have different characteristics. The most remarkable section for me was the stretch between Cuidad Constitucion and La Paz. This section started in the flat desert where every morning a blanket of fog would wet every surface in the whole region. Once I left the lowlands and started to enter the Sierra de la Giganta and its rugged and rocky features on the Westside of the range. The mountains continued to rise over 3000ft above the nearby sea before dropping right into the calm waters of the Sea of Cortez. What really blew me away wasn't necessarily how dramatic this mountain was (it was very dramatic), but the colors that were present in the rocks themselves. I have never seen whole sections of mountain composed of green and pink rocks before. Aside from the surreal flora found in the Valle de los Cirios, these mountains had a very dreamlike appearance unlike anything I had ever seen before. This mountain range made for the perfect backdrop to finish the Baja Divide.
Landscapes are nice and it's great to see interesting plants and animals, however the most amazing aspect of riding the Baja Divide were the amazing people I met along the way. Nearly every 50 miles I would meet an interesting local and get to know a little about their lives and they would learn a little about mine also. If I ever was in a pinch and needed some help there was always someone willing and happy to lend a hand. I was allowed to sleep behind a grocery store outside of Vicente Guerrero by a very nice father and son when I arrived in town too late to find a camping place. I spent a handful of days in Catavina and got to know a family that has been living there for about 50 years. They graciously showed me their house, introduced me to their extended family members, gave me a tour of the area in a way that only the locals could have, and showed me an immense amount of pure kindness. Occasionally I would need water while in a particularly remote section and the locals were always happy to help me out and also cook me a meal if I needed. The second to last day I cycled past a shrimp factory 50 miles north of La Paz. The security guard taught me how they raise shrimps in the desert and invited me inside to have lunch with all of the workers there. While bikepacking around the United States, people rarely showed me any kind of kindness and hardly ever gave any interest to what I was doing. It seems that here in Baja people have a sense of kindness that extends past their personal bubbles. The friends I met while riding this route have shown me the necessity of extending kindness to everyone I encounter on my path, while cycling or simply going about my day. Small acts of kindness and generosity can leave a lasting impact on the people we meet while journeying through life.
While this route did have a tremendous amount of amazing aspects to it, there were other aspects that had me questioning why this was such a popular route.
The most glaring issue I had while cycling this route is how obvious it was that this route, to its core, is designed around motorsports. While I am a big advocate for cycle touring as a mode of sustainable travel, there are limits to what a bicycle can effectively handle. Some of the roads that this route utilized were simply too rough and steep to be ridden with a bike. I am no stranger to hard hike-a-bikes and riding on rough roads, but when it is miles of awful washboard or extremely stony, maybe it should go across another road. This route utilizes huge sections that the Baja 1000 course passes through without any consideration to make it more cycle friendly. If the roads are challenging on a specially built vehicle and motorcycle, but on a bicycle it is damn near unrideable. There are enough adjacent roads and other sections of wilderness that this route could feasibly traverse so the need to ride on destroyed roads seems masochistic and extremely difficult for the simple goal of being hard. I understand that some people like a challenge, however I like to ride my bike and have a good time. There were just so many sections that had me thinking that a normal cycle tour would have been much more enjoyable.
My other issue was not in the route itself but in people's rose-colored descriptions of riding it. While scouring the web trying to find feedback on the route and how people enjoyed it, the overwhelming majority of accounts just say that they had a great time and the route is perfect. Of course, everyone's experience will be different, but I just had a hard time relating to these accounts. Yes, the scenery was spectacular, but this isn’t because of the route. It’s a simple matter of geography. If there were changes to the route to make it more cycle friendly, the landscape would be just as spectacular. My issue is the fact that most accounts gloss over the fact that this route could be seriously improved to make it more enjoyable. Almost every description said that this route is challenging and that's about it. Simply stating that it’s challenging doesn’t help others prepare for the inevitable destroyed roads one will traverse, the awfully steep hike-a-bikes, the roads that are only traversable effectively with a specialized vehicle. By pretending that the route is perfect and was designed to be as brutal as possible without actually stating that creates an unrealistic expectation of what to expect. It also makes it seem like this route couldn’t be improved. I feel there could be huge improvements on nearly every stretch of this route. Maybe creating another Baja Divide that isn’t utilizing a motorsports route could be a fantastic idea. This would take more effort than simply linking the Baja 1000 route and calling it a bikepacking route, but if someone had the motivation to do so, they could create an even more enjoyable route that is actually suitable for bicycles.
Yes, there were lots of amazing aspects about the Baja Divide that made it a worthwhile endeavor. The landscapes and local ecology was spectacular and I met some truly great people every stretch of the way. However, I don't think I would ever ride this route again in its current state. It simply wasn’t a physically enjoyable route and left me feeling rattled down to my bones more often than not. Even with all of my complaining, I am glad I rode this route. It was definitely an accomplishment and I got some great photos from it.
I am gearing up to ride the Trans-Mexico Norte and Sur in a handful of days. After riding through Baja I feel like I can handle anything this route throws against me! One quote has me smiling every time I think about the Trans-Mexico route, “ It’s more of a long-distance touring route with an emphasis on dirt, but not a total obsession for it.” I am very excited for some gentle and scenic touring!
If you've made it this far, thanks! Enjoy the photos. Like always, if you have any questions feel free to send me a message!