Another excellent places to tour article by Stephen Lord, author of an upcoming bicycle touring book called the Adventure Cycling Handbook.
Most people bike the 1,000 mile Baja peninsula as part of a much longer ride- usually from Alaska down to Central or South America. It’s an easy continuation of the Pacific Coast ride, with tailwinds usually following on the ocean side (nobody does this ride going north), and to continue south from Baja, there are two ferries running across to the mainland from La Paz near the southern tip of the peninsula, either crossing directly to the east to continue down the Mexican coast, or taking the longer ferry trip which lands further south in Mazatlan. The Baja ride is a chance to experience some unique desert scenery, enjoy more of the ocean and cross the peninsula from the Pacific to the Sea of Cortez.
You don’t need a guidebook for the route, as you will most likely choose to take Highway 1 the whole way, and you would be better off camping and enjoying street food, which can be incredibly fresh. A map is necessary to plan for small breaks at small truck stops in the desert sections- they are the tiniest dots on the map, not always towns or villages and may only be single buildings, but they are your lifeline and make good campsites, besides being your only water source in the desert.
You could ride down Baja California in three or four weeks if you took plenty of rest days. English is widely spoken in this part of Mexico. The road is fairly good quality and the sections with potholes are gradually being worked on. Take a sturdy bike, though, as insurance against potholes you don’t see and for those times when you need to load up with several gallons of water, or choose to go off-road for a couple of days. A mountain bike will give you this flexibility and the few bike shops in Baja will have gear that only fits mountain bikes. A mountain bike will serve you well if you are forced off the road by traffic, too. You will not find any fuel other than unleaded gasoline in Baja, though you could probably make a litre of white gas last the whole way if you eat out once or twice a day.
Mexico now charges travelers who go beyond Ensenada $20 for a visa. Outrageous, but it’s reciprocal treatment for Mexicans who go to the USA. Get this right at the entry point in Tijuana. At Guerrero Negro there is now a permanent checkpoint where they will look in your passport to check for this. If you were a visitor to the USA, remember to give back to their Immigration people the US I-94 entry card which is in your passport. They are not expecting people to fly in and ride out of the USA, so you have to take the initiative and find them and do it. If you plan to fly back via the USA, you may have enough unused visa (The USA gives you 3 months) to cover the trip to Cabo San Lucas and whatever you need in the USA after that, in which case, do not return the I-94, keep it. If you want to clarify this, when you first enter the US, ask the INS inspector who stamps you into the USA at the airport what you should do when leaving the country by bike.
Riding down the Pacific Coast of the US, we were often told to “watch out” in Mexico, as if it were a dangerous place. In fact, it’s no more dangerous than the US. There are army checkpoints at various places (they move them) on the road in Baja, and they will likely search your bike at some point, though probably not your clothing. The army say they are there for your protection and Mexicans told us this is true - the road was known for Banditos before the army started to police it. Guns are not allowed in Mexico, which doesn’t mean there are none, of course. The police themselves have greatly improved over the last few years. Previously, they were under the control of the ruling party, the PRI, which governed Baja and the whole of Mexico. In the last few years, the PRI lost control of Baja and then the federal Presidency, and the result has been a campaign to eliminate police corruption and extorting bribes from motorists. The atmosphere is noticeably better than it was a few years ago, and if you do need help, don’t hesitate to ask the police. In fact if they ask for a bribe, you are supposed to report them!
What to Expect
Starting in San Diego, your last campground will be a KOA in Chula Vista just 4 miles north of the Mexican border. In those last 4 miles you can get your affairs in order with food markets, a post office and a bank in quick succession, then ride across the border and immediately you are in Tijuana. Follow signs for Rosario (look out for the word libre indicating the toll-free road and you will avoid the coastal toll-road (no bikes allowed) and wind up a 10km hill, then it’s down to the coast and Highway 1 all the way. In between towns, there is not much traffic, but the road is narrow and the vehicles are often large trucks, buses or motorhomes. They pass bikes with much greater clearance than they give each other, but at times you will have to stop by the side of the road, or jump off it altogether, to avoid a vehicle coming at you, overtaking a line of traffic in its own lane.
The road is beautiful desert scenery almost all the way, especially attractive at first and last light, and more so in the winter, which is the best season due to the hot summers. The Central Desert contains a number of cacti and other plants such as the cirio, or Boojum tree, which are only found in this region, and further on, the Vizcaino Biosphere is known for the Grey Whales congregating near Guerrero Negro every winter (mid-Dec to mid-Feb) to give birth in Scammon’s Lagoon. Sightseeing trips enable tourists to actually touch the whales, who allow the boats to come right up to them. Cave paintings and petroglyphs can be seen on guided trips into the desert. The surf is good too, and the beaches are practically empty. There are small huts and hostels catering to surfers on the Pacific coast which rent boards and serve food. This is a safer and better option to free-camping on the beach.
We found the camping was good all the way, and all but a few campgrounds had hot showers. Hotels and their owners, on the other hand, were generally a bit cheerless, expensive, and with doubtful hot water. In the desert sections, we asked at truck stops, ranches or houses if we could camp on their land, and were never refused. This is the safest way to go, but a lot of bikers like to wild camp in the desert. The cactus and dense vegetation makes it hard to find a site, but gives good camouflage. The golden rule is never to camp where you can be seen from the road. Wild camping requires an extra gallon of water (costs under US$1 in shops, or US$0.20 at water fill-up places) per person per night, but you will find little shacks every 50km or so which are truck stops or rancher’s homes and where you can ask for water. They usually serve food too, and stopping at these places was one of the pleasures of Baja for us, as very few foreigners, and none in cars, seem to notice these tiny rundown-looking shacks, with no menus and no prices shown. Just ask what they have and order from that.
Food is always cheap and can be surprisingly fresh. Baja is known for tacos, and fish tacos especially. Even in the middle of the desert the fish was fresh and one place we stopped at, they even made fresh tortillas from scratch (flat rolled bread, similar to chapattis but made with lard) before they fried the fish. You are never far from a cold beer in Baja either. Cooling is usually from iceboxes rather than fridges, with fresh deliveries of ice daily.
The road is good enough quality, and we only got one puncture, and that was from riding off-road. We were glad we had sun visors, as we rode south all the time, and rear-view mirrors too for sizing up traffic honking at us from behind. We carried a water filter, but that was unnecessary as there was no river water, and tap water tasted brackish even after filtering, whereas plastic gallon jugs of water were easy to find. One caution - strong winds kick up during winter from any direction and can blow hard for a couple of days. Depending on where you are, they can become sandstorms. Best to stay put if you wake up to high winds. Bikers have had success hitching rides in bad weather- drivers take pity in these situations. We were also told that waving an empty water bag by the side of the road, if you have run out, is universally understood and somebody will stop if they can.
Buses run all the way up the peninsula to Tijuana several times a day. The fare is about $50 and the journey takes around 36 hours on fairly sound a/c buses which look like (and no doubt are) retired Greyhound buses from the US. They will take your bike ‘as is’ provided they have room underneath. Shopping for a flight out on the internet will get as good a fare as any, either from Cabo San Lucas or La Paz. The ferries mentioned above run daily, and your fare will be cheaper if you can arrange to be a passenger of another vehicle, say a truck, rather than boarding on your own. At the other end, if you go to Los Mochis, you can connect easily with the Copper Canyon train which runs to the city of Chihuahua.
Submitted by Stephen Lord
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