Cycling Adventures, Baja California: Mexico’s Wild Frontier

Spectacular desert scenery straight from the pages of your favorite Dr. Seuss books.

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By Torrey Pass

While most people ride “the Baja” as part of a longer trip, this unique place is a great stand-alone cycling destination for those in search of a challenge, adventure and a radical break from the familiar.

Baja California is a sparsely-populated peninsula over 745 miles (1,200 kilometers) long that juts into the Pacific Ocean from Mexico’s northwest coast, forming the Sea of Cortez. The area is made up of a number of deserts and is dotted with the occasional oasis. Baja offers a bit of everything: the hopping cities of Ensenada and La Paz are great locales to soak up Mexican culture, while smaller, more laidback towns like Mulege and Loreto are good places to regroup while enjoying some seafood and a cold drink. Sleepy San Ignacio, located smack in the middle of a date palm forest, is quite possibly the greenest place in Baja and a great place for a rest day.

The real draw for cycling Baja is, however, its spectacular desert scenery straight from the pages of your favorite Dr. Seuss books. The boojum trees, found nowhere else on Earth, resemble upturned elephant trunks reaching toward the sky. There are huge tracts of giant 50-foot (15-meter) cacti. Flowering agave stretch to the horizon. The massive, smooth, cream-colored rocks in the northern desert’s boulder fields look as though they were made for children to climb on. We were lucky enough to welcome in 2010 under a full moon in the Valle de los Cirios; think Stonehenge with sand. The boulders and boojums loomed above us, the stark blue light throwing their shadows across the desert. The night’s heavy stillness was broken only by coyotes’ howls that sang and barked our midnight countdown.

This is a great place to ride for those seeking a challenge. In terms of amenities, it’s on par with Canada’s Yukon, minus the water. You’ll see plenty of jerry cans and spare tires strapped to the tops of cars. Villages are often more than a day’s ride apart, so you’ll need to be able to carry a lot of food and H2O, and to top up your stores whenever possible. Even the most traffic-savvy will be unnerved by the ridiculously narrow MEX 1 (Baja’s only road), which looks as though it was designed for go-carts. Don’t worry: traffic thins out south of Ensenada, after which point you’ll often have the road to yourself. As for climate, during the winter months, days are often sweltering hot and nights frosty cool, so pack your long johns and a wool hat, along with your sunscreen. Heat and hurricanes make a summertime trip across Baja inadvisable. Bring patches and a good pump: even using the legendary Schwalbe Marathons, we averaged a flat per day from Ensenada to La Paz. Tire liners, slime and a meaty tread might help your odds.

Wild camping in Baja is easy; in most places you can just pull off the road and pitch your tent out of sight. When pushing your bike through the sand, beware of the cholla cactus, which looks like a little dead tree: it actually jumps at you. There are several “ranchos” along the road (such as Rancho Ybarra, roughly 130 miles (210 kms) south of Ensenada) set up as informal private campgrounds with showers and fire pits. They usually run from 25 to 50 pesos per person per night (about $2-$4 USD). A basic hotel room in most parts of Baja will cost you between 250 and 400 pesos ($20-$35 USD). You’ll find loads of more upscale B&B’s in towns like San Ignacio and Guerrero Negro, where people flock for whale watching tours during calving season (December to March).

If you’re like most people who come to ride the world’s longest peninsula, you’ll fall in love with Baja from your first fish taco. This overlooked cycling destination is certain to feed your thirst for adventure and fill your soul with wonder.

Torrey Pass is based in Montreal, where he teaches English literature. He has been covered in bike grease his entire adult life. He and his wife Lucie are currently on their way from Alaska to Argentina to raise funds for Cyclo Nord-Sud. You can read about their adventures at pedalingsouth.com .

3 Comments

  • Ira Sutherland

    Wonderful imagery to describe the uniqueness of Baja! I did the Baja in Nov 2012 and generally found the roads alright but also ended up with lots of flats and endured some hectic riding. I created an online guide at my blog that may help people out http://bajacyclingguide.blogspot.ca/ with lots of photos and 2 films

  • D

    Awesome trip. Did it in 2008. It was scary as hell due to small roads. I would advise that this trip is not for the faint of heart. the stretch between Ensenada and La Paz is an enormous ride, mainly through the desert, that takes more than just a little planning to ensure safety. It is well worth it though, just a comment here to advise some planning.

    There are many great places to camp, but be weary of travelling alone and know some Spanish, it saved my ass on two occasions! Beaches south of Mulege and Todo Santos are amazing. Surfing on the Pacific is also legendary.

  • charlotte

    I have wanted to do this ride since starting to cycle long distance. However we just got back from checking out the southern portion of the trip by bus and my cycling companion emphatically refuses to consider it further – the traffic is sparse but they are NOT on the lookout for cyclists. Our bus driver was *loco* and it felt as if the bus were up on two wheels for many of those turns. He did not inspire confidence in bus riding or cycling. They have signs urging people on that road to slow down and drive safely every couple kilometers for a reason! I would like to urge the Mexican government to consider a cycle path alongside the highway as part of the current push to develop Baja tourism, this sort of eco-tourism would be very forward thinking of them…

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