As for road surfaces, I’ll start first with a discussion of Baja’s paved roads. These run the full range, from brand-new four-lane superhighways replete with wide shoulders abutting each lane, to crumbling and skinny two-lane thoroughfares hardly appropriate for two way passenger vehicles, let alone dueling tandem tractor-trailer trucks. And, unfortunately, there’s no way to know what to expect. Ongoing road construction and the unforgiving climate make for constant change.
Much is made elsewhere on this site of the notorious “vados” that occasionally punctuate sections of highway in Baja. For cyclists, however, these dry-river crossings pose no threat, aside from their ability to “swallow” from view entire semi-trucks. So as long as you’re on your toes it should be easy to avoid any surprises.
Of more concern, is to be prepared for poorly signed transitions when approaching and departing towns and cities. Offering little warning, skinny roads may abruptly widen or vice versa and speed bumps may rise alarmingly from the road bed. Speaking of bumps, poor placement of thousands of those little on-the-road reflectors made it difficult to ride in the narrow shoulders that sometimes appeared. Rather then placing them directly in line with on the white lines, highway crews adhered them to the right of the line, many times placing them smack in the center of whatever shoulder there was.
In addition, you’ll need to pay particular attention to the sides of the roads. What is or is not adjacent to the right of your lane of traffic probably accounts for most of the stress that accompanies cycling in Baja. You see, in many cases there is no transition at all between the edge of the paved road surface and the lower elevation - and rapidly sloping - roadbed that it lies upon. If it helps, picture a bunch of sand pushed together in an otherwise flat desert to form an elevated six foot tall road bed. Now picture plopped on top of that an eight-or-
so-inch-thick road surface comprised of multiple layers of concrete and asphalt. And now realize that unless this particular section of road you’re imagining has benefited from recent widening efforts, there’s little chance of there being any sort of smooth transition between the elevated road bed and the flat desert below. One wrong handlebar movement and you can easily find yourself diving off the road and into the rocky desert.
Second, I’ll shed some light on Baja’s dirt roads. The only dirt road riding we managed was the leg from Bahia de Gonzaga to Chapala. On its own, this section took us three days to complete and went from poor (mostly loose sand departing the Bay) to improving (once we hit the start of the climb) to even better (as we rode along the plateau) and finally to decent (once we passed Coco’s Corner). For most of it, we struggled with our fair share of loose rocks (pebble to football size) and exposed ledge, the latter particularly in the mountainous section near Coco’s place.
Full disclosure: we actually managed three miles of the leg from the end of the pavement on Highway 5 toward Gonzaga Bay before we gave up (it took us three hours just to do this much) and had to accept a ride the rest of the way. We were conquered by, of all things, the grader. While an improvement for motorists, the grading of Baja’s dirt roads spell certain disaster for cyclists. Simply put, overtime and absent any grading the impassable roads receive enough compaction from automobiles and erosion from wind and rain (when that occurs) as to make them ride-able on two wheels. Grade the same surface, though, and the loss of compaction transforms the road into a sea of un-ride-able sand. We like to say that we would have had an easier time of it had we ridden out to the coast and cycled down the beach.
That said, we encourage folks touring on mountain bikes (or 700c rigs riding a minimum of 2” wide tires) to follow in our wheel tracks. We also suggest trying out the so-called “East Road” that departs from Highway 1 just after the climb, south of the Bahia de Concepcion, and heads over the mountains to connect with the paved road that eventually connects again with Highway 1 at Villa Insurgentes. We did not attempt this section ourselves but feel now that it would have been a worthwhile detour. The only trick would be in picking up enough food and water at one of the few mercados located along the Bay to last the full ride, as there are no sources of either, that we’re aware of, until one arrives into San Isidro, at the earliest.
We camped under the stars more than a dozen times while cycling down Baja. I can say, unequivocally, that never have either of us seen such rewarding darkness nor experienced such absolute quiet as we did in Baja’s outback. I regularly felt as though the Milky Way was going to envelope our tent and that the stillness of sound (if you can imagine such a sense) would prevent me from ever awaking. We regularly looked forward to the nights we camped, particularly those that followed stays in cities and towns. There’s really nothing like pulling off the road into a thicket of otherworldly cacti (minding the thorns of course) and setting up the tent with the feeling that we might be the first people to ever sleep in that particular spot. The cool nights (after warm days) were a welcome relief and the silent sun rises never failed to astonish us. Only a couple of nights did we experience the incessant wind (which keeps you up no matter the quality of your tent) that Baja can be known for. But even these rare instances were easily overshadowed by the experience of waking up to the lapping ocean on the Sea of Cortez only a handful of feet from our tent’s front door and by the light frost that sometimes developed on flat surfaces after the wind stopped late into the night.
The act of camping in the wild near actively used roads is called “wild” or “stealth” camping, and we took advantage of almost every opportunity to do it. Only a few times did we set up in someone’s yard or along a developed beach. We both prefer the solitude that goes along with camping just beyond the reach of prying ears and eyes. That said, there are a couple of things to consider when wild camping in Baja.
Number one has to be snakes. This threat is easily managed by taking care to not set up on or near a telltale snake hole (or any hole for that matter), by keeping your eyes and ears open, and by always using a light when wandering around in the dark. Another threat are spiders and/or scorpions. Sheila, on one moonlit night wild camping, woke to see tarantulas crawling over the outside of our inner tent, but after checking to make sure all zippers were securely in place, fell back to sleep without worry. Quite thankfully, I myself never encountered any bagel-sized arachnids.
To keep big eared little desert mice and other critters out of your food (and from waking you up with their chewing and scurrying about) we successfully utilized a technique common in bear country. First, when in camp, we always removed our food from our food pannier and placed it in special zip-lock bags that are completely odor-proof. Second, we then placed these sealed tactical bags into a tamper-proof stainless steel fine mesh bag. The idea, which works amazingly well, is to prevent furry visitors from smelling food and to prevent them from accessing any food should an odor-proof bag fail. And aside from the one night that I forgot to put away a bag of salt - and awoke to a big eared mouse staring at me from inside the food pannier - this technique worked perfectly.
Probably the worst threat posed by wild camping in Baja is the sharp thorns that materialize just about everywhere. Although we’d read accounts by other cyclists of flat tires, poked holes in tent floors, etc. we were lucky to avoid this kind of fate. It’s not for trying either. We sometimes camped relatively deep in the desert, following dry river beds or disused roads and then deviated into the scrub to locate our perfect tent spot. We were always careful to watch out for thorns - we always swept and manually removed all sharp objects from our tent’s footprint prior to setup for instance - but even so, we are surprised we never endured a flat tire caused by a thorn. We’ll have to chalk up our success in this department to very reliable tires, I guess.
We’d also been warned to be on the lookout for crazed dogs, hell-bent on tasting human thigh bones but most every dog in Baja that we encountered while riding were total pushovers. Sure, they barked like they were in charge, but get near to them and they would quickly let their guard down exposing their real intent with raised ears, lifted tails and smooth fur. Occasionally we would need to shout a strong and demanding command, but the most ominous signs - flattened ears, raised hair on the back and tail tucked between the legs - never presented themselves to us. Looking back, we had far more hair-raising canine experiences in the States. If ever in doubt about a Baja pooch, we simply dismounted so as to place our bike between us and the barking offender. This worked every time. Most of the time, though, Baja’s dogs were just happy to have something to run next to for a little bit that didn’t kick, bite back or run them over.
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