Baja by Bike: A 1,000-Mile Ride Down Mexico 1

<i> Ellman is the co-author of "Bicycling Mexico" (Hunter Publishing, 1990) and is at work on a guide to mountain biking in Baja California</i>

Mullet leaped in the dark shallows of Bahia Concepcion. Bioluminescent plankton glimmered in the wake of each splashing fish. Christian and I were sprawled in the sand. We slurped down hand-dug clams and the last of the Pacifico beer, savoring the sweet payoff to having cycled half the length of the Baja Peninsula.

Campers, fishermen and off-road enthusiasts have long enjoyed the peninsula’s pleasures. Since 1973 and the completion of Mexico 1, the only highway to run Baja’s length, cyclists have been able to do so too. Bounded by the Pacific on the west and the Gulf of California on the east, the peninsula is about 800 miles of grim mountains, remarkable deserts and a virtually unspoiled coastline.

I’d met Christian at El Rosario, after three days and 200 miles of cycling alone through the peninsula’s relatively populous northern quarter. The three days had resolved my biggest worries about cycling in Baja: Yes, Mexico 1 is narrow and lacks a shoulder, but the absence of traffic means it’s perfectly safe. Water and food, another concern, were readily available.

Christian, a geophysicist from West Germany, appeared very self-reliant. His mountain of gear that included stove, shortwave radio, bongos and snorkeling gear was intended to carry him to Chile. His curious riding shorts, which billowed out like culottes, were tailored for ventilation, a clever innovation for Baja’s desert heat.


Beyond El Rosario, Mexico 1 entered the first and most intimidating of them, the Great Central Desert, where summer temperatures often hit 110. Believing in safety in numbers, Christian and I teamed up. He tried to hide his disdain for my fractured Spanish while I tried to ignore that I was pedaling with a guy wearing what looked like a skirt.

At dawn we set off for Catavina, 76 miles into the desert’s heart. We carried a gallon of water each (bought at a general store) to get us through the day.

Beyond the “Rio” El Rosario, a wide dry gulch in autumn, we entered an empire of stone and thorns. Tiers of cactus and rubble-strewn arroyos ran for miles beneath clear blue skies. After four hours and 42 miles we reached a cafe and guzzled bright red Mexican sodas. With the morning still cool, we set our sights on San Agustin, the only other town on that day’s agenda.

Baja’s roadside services are few and far between. Thirty-mile intervals of vacant road, no problem for motorized tourists, force cyclist to plan. Towns with cafes and simple restaurants appear only two or three times daily, and the trucker’s cafes and gas stations between them are gustatory gambles.

The fare at most of them is simple: fresh seafood and cold beer when you’re lucky, prepackaged junk food and warm cola when you’re not.

Neither choice was available in San Agustin. An abandoned trailer park, a deserted highway construction camp and one ransacked Pemex station were all we found. We napped behind the broken gas pumps, the first shade we’d seen in miles.

Beyond “town” the terrain became rougher. Arroyos deepened, the cacti grew more outlandish. Clumps of cholla grew in thickets, giant cardon cacti stood like trees. We saw squat five-foot “elephant” trees with gray wrinkled trunks, as well as cirio trees. The latter botanical oddities, sometimes called “boojums” after a character in Lewis Carroll’s “Hunting of the Snark,” are a Baja trademark. Cirio carcasses constitute the desert’s only source of timber, so they rarely reach their full 60-foot height. Cut and dried, they make the distinctive cylindrical beams that support many Baja dwellings.

The strange flora and pastel colored scenery diverted attention from an increasingly difficult task. Short steep hills detained us and made us use all 18 gears.

Bicycling Baja requires endurance more than strength. Top speed on a fully loaded touring bike is about 10 m.p.h., and rest stops slow the pace. Toss in lunch, time to explore a Dominican mission that the guidebooks overlooked, and you’re down to 7 m.p.h. Add a long midday break to avoid the peak heat, and pedaling the 80 or so miles that separate Baja’s most convenient stopovers becomes a dawn-to-dusk affair.

Twilight overtook us. Christian flicked on his generator and maintained his steady pace. With no illumination on my bike I raced ahead to Catavina.

There, at the La Pinta Hotel, RV motorists who had passed us earlier bought us drinks in the air-conditioned bar. Perhaps they expected tales of banditos and federales ; all we had were mundane ones of heat and dust. Our fame lasted about 15 minutes. No one offered a second round.

We took up the desk clerk’s suggestion and decided to camp in an arroyo up the road. We spread our bags beneath tall palm trees silhouetted against the sparkling sky. The cool desert night and the sound of running water lulled us to sleep.

Dawn showed that the water was a tiny creek, an unlikely bet to survive the blazing sun. But its fragile appearance was illusory. Nearby a frog chirped. Indian pictographs, evidence of aborigines’ 10,000-plus-year history, adorned a cave wall. A pipeline carried water to the La Pinta Hotel.

Two walls of an adobe ruin stood on the bank. The last courses of sunbaked bricks were slowly crumbling, a symbol of four centuries of mixed success in settling the peninsula.

At Guerrero Negro, a popular tourist spot in winter when the gray whales arrive, we crossed the 28th parallel and entered the southernmost of the two states that comprise the peninsula, Baja California South. The road forced us inland over the barren Vizcaino Plain. Ninety miles later San Ignacio marked its long-awaited end. The town shimmered in front of us like a mirage, an emerald oasis with groves of date palms planted by Jesuits, and a solid stone cathedral completed by Dominicans in 1786.

For three days we swam in the lagoon and gorged ourselves on fresh dates and guayabas. We sat in the plaza and wrote letters in the cool shade of the laurel trees. Cardon cactus peered down from the stone rim over town, a vivid reminder of the desert beyond.

San Ignacio’s anonymity is preserved by the Gulf of California, 45 miles away. Most Baja tourists, hell-bent for the beach, rarely stop to enjoy this gorgeous little town, our favorite in the whole of Baja.

We left San Ignacio with sticky hands and panniers bulging with freely gathered dates.

Midway between San Ignacio and the Gulf of California, Las Tres Virgenes, three volcanoes last active in 1857, marked the start of mountainous terrain. Soon after that Mexico 1’s steepest grade plummeted to the gulf. Brake pads still smoking, we rolled into Santa Rosalia.

From Santa Rosalia, Mexico 1 runs along the shore, a stretch popular with American and Canadian RV owners who congregate there each winter. Hotels and recreation services are concentrated in Mulege, a riverine oasis part way to Bahia Concepcion, one of the Gulf of California’s most acclaimed bays.

Half a dozen primitive campgrounds are scattered along the bay, and Christian and I headed for Santispac, the largest and most popular. For $5 a night we set up at the end of a long line of RV campers. Housewives from Mulege brought food to the beach to sell, and cold beers were available at U.S. prices.

As we proceeded south the beaches grew increasingly tranquil--Coyote, Posada Concepcion and Los Burros--the scene of our nocturnal luau on the half-shell. Each evening we tried a new clam recipe. By day we cycled the back roads, borrowed windsurfers and explored nameless tiny islands that surfaced when the tide ran out.

Departing Bahia Concepcion was not easy. Mexico 1 climbed through steep rocky headlands. From atop each of them another azure cove beckoned. We dawdled, covering only 25 miles in four days, before turning our sunburned backs on the last secluded inlet.

After 50 miles through a cactus-lined corridor we reached Loreto, where the road brushed the gulf again. The jagged Sierra de la Giganta soared thousands of feet, ending our seaside holiday with a geological exclamation point.

Two days later there was no end in sight. The terrain grew hypnotic and, apparently for some, lethal. Crucifixes stood near the roadside, marking the site where crushed auto chassis lay in a ravine 20 yards below. Beyond that the city of La Paz came into view.

Bad Chinese restaurants and grade B movies were waiting for us there in the capital of Baja California South, heaven-sent pleasures after two days of aerobic purgatory on the Magdalena Plain.

The pavement splits south of La Paz. Mexico 1 and Mexico 19 form a largely seaside loop that connects the two Cabos: Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo. Prevailing northwesterlies dictated a counter-clockwise tack. We pressed south, camped with the watchman of the Punta Lobos fishing cooperative near Todos Santos, then hoisted margaritas in Cabo San Lucas the next day.

Two days later we came full circle back to La Paz. Five hundred years after Cortez sailed into its harbor, La Paz remains Baja’s gateway to Mexico. Ferries leave for Mazatlan, Topolobampo and Puerto Vallarta from Pichilingue, a terminal 10 miles north of town.

Open-air palapas stood near the ferry pier. A jukebox and ranchero musicians wailed inside. Over platters of smoked mullet and oysters we toasted three weeks and 1,000 miles together. Christian’s ferry arrived first. He pushed his bike up the gangway and set sail for Puerto Vallarta, next stop on his journey to Chile.

How to Get the Wheels Turning in Baja

On the road: Mexico 1 is extremely narrow and has no shoulder. Exercise extreme caution and wear a helmet. Consume lots of liquids and avoid overexposure to the sun.

Contacts: First-time cyclists in Baja may prefer the experience of a professionally organized group.

Arrow to the Sun hosts vehicle-supported tours of Mexico 1 and can be contacted at P.O. Box 115, Taylorsville, Calif. 95983; telephone (800) 634-0492.

Baja Expeditions runs vehicle-supported, off-road trips in the Victoria Mountains of Southern Baja. Write to 262 Garnet Ave., Pacific Beach 92109, or call (619) 581-3311.

Each April brings the running of the Rosarito-to-Ensenada 50-Mile Fun Ride, the West Coast’s largest.

Get necessary applications from Bicycling West, P.O. Box 15128, San Diego, Calif. 92115-0128; telephone (619) 583-3001.

More information: The Mexican Government Tourism Office, 10100 Santa Monica Blvd., Suite 224, Los Angeles, telephone (213) 203-8191, provides free maps and information.