I would be totally remiss in my discussion of Baja’s narrow roads and traffic by not singling out the particular graciousness of commercial truck drivers. As a group, almost all went out of their way to provide us encouragement in the form of huge smiles, a quick honk of the horn or bleat of the jake-brake followed by a thumbs up, a flashing of the “peace sign” and occasionally even blown kisses (the latter thrown mostly in Sheila’s direction). These same drivers skillfully directed their multi-ton rolling machines with precision and grace and regularly elevated safety and conscientiousness above any real or perceived scheduling demand or loss of momentum. From their seats-on-high they professionally monitored real time traffic conditions and thought little of throttling way back to prevent dangerous situations. Of course, the narrowness of most of Baja’s paved roads and the general lack of shoulders demands this kind of attentiveness. But neither of us had ever encountered such safe and courteous truck drivers.
Tour Buses & Motorcoaches
I don’t know why this is, but we did regularly have to watch out for the big tour buses. For some reason, they rarely swung wide enough around us, preferring instead to barely cross the yellow line as they passed. We learnedto expect this behavior and simply implemented our “take the lane” technique to counteract it. Sometime this proved tricky since many of the big buses were very quiet and difficult to hear approaching, that is until they were on almost on top of us.
The most obvious logistical problem with cycling in Baja has to be an almost universal lack of water. However, with some careful planning and the willingness to carry extra water containers, this problem can be effectively managed. For instance, we never left a water source without knowing where our next source would be. As it was, water was never far from our minds. This is not to say that our planning was perfect but the couple of times we misjudged our water situation never resulted in our situation being elevated to the ‘danger’ zone. In fact, we had to rely only once on water offered to us by a caring driver and this came at his doing, not ours. It was, however, perfectly timed. And after this relative ‘close call’, we never again passed a source of water without taking far more than we thought we’d need.
This is the trick. You will always need more than you think. And who cares if you take on more than you’ll use? You can always make use of ‘extra’ water. To vaguely paraphrase an old aviation saying regarding jet fuel, the only time you can have too much water in Baja is when you’re in your hotel room (and even then you end up drinking or using it for cooking anyway). We made full use of our ten water bottles (shared between us) and our two 10 liter water bags. You can’t be too safe when it comes to water in a desert!
Terrrain. Distances & Road Surfaces
Advice from People Who Don’t Ride Bicycles
The point of this section can be best understood with a couple of statements:
First, unless you’ve personally ridden a heavy loaded touring bicycle along a sandy Baja road you are not qualified to make claims as to the quality of the road surface between, say, Bahia de Gonzaga (Gonzaga Bay) and Chapala.
Second, if you’ve never ridden a bicycle as an adult, you are also not qualified to relay information about any terrain that the road ahead may or may not traverse or impart any information about the distance between any two points.
It’s nothing personal, but non-cyclists are notoriously ill-equipped to estimate these kinds of things. Driving in a vehicle, a person has a different (and more generous) interpretation of the road, their fuel and engines effortlessly carrying them up and over land in record speeds. Because of this, drivers don’t truly understand the grade or conditions of the road and if they were to try traversing just one mile of road on a bicycle they’d quickly understand what I mean. It’s like the time a fellow camper (himself driving an RV) told us there was no climbing south of Puerticitos on Highway 5(!)
A Cyclist’s View
Allow me, from a cyclist’s point of view, to pass along what I now know about Baja’s roads. Baja offers up big climbs, steep drops, flat plateaus, stints of gentle descents & calm rises, gnarly switchbacks and less-abrupt winding turns, plus rollers and the occasional mind-numbing straightaway. These conditions and endless combinations of each are separated by vast areas of open space and undeveloped land. Baja is dry, very dry. The absence of open water (and the mind games this can play on the sweaty and tired cyclist) and the general dearth of humanity probably serves to accentuate the distances between towns and communities.
One great tool we availed ourselves of is free digital routing software provided by BikeRouteToaster. Planning general routes first using Google maps “Get Directions” software, Sheila would then plot a route we liked into BikeRouteToaster. In turn, it would provide an estimated time to complete the route (based upon data you input about your riding speed on flats and hills) and an elevation profile that you could save to your online account. This gave us the opportunity to enter several routes for comparison. In the end, once we decided on a final route we could upload the track(s) into our handheld Garmin GPS unit. Because BikeRouteToaster is an online tool, requiring an internet connection, Sheila also snipped .jpg images of the BikeRouteToaster elevation profiles for routes and put them on her computer or Kindle so that we could easily take a peek at the upcoming ride’s profile when we needed to. This came in very handy for knowing what was in store on any given day and, more often than not, contributed to the overall success of our ride.
Locals (and this goes for folks all over the world) are notoriously bad at estimating distances between two points. Weregularly took with a grain of salt any local lore about the distance to the next mercado (store), climb or descent or restaurant. In practice, rarely are people’s guesses accurate. I don’t know why this is - I just know it’s universal.