Bouncing down Baja’s Backroads: Part 1

Where I Rode: Bahia de los Angeles —> Bahia San Rafael —> El Arco —> Viscaino




Some long needed rest days in Bahia de los Angeles filled the gas tanks for the stretch that laid ahead of me: a 230km dirt road through unknown terrain, with no confirmed water source along the way. Luckily an ATV rider told me he had ridden the route recently and it was in good condition, whatever that meant for a road so rarely used as this. The only person I’d be sure to find out there would be Francisco, who lived 80km from the Bay of LA in Bahia San Rafael. It was not clear if he’d have extra water or any supplies for sale. So I packed all the liquid I could carry: 11 liters. As for food, I had to stretch what I had since I was out of cash and this town had afforded no cash machine nor credit card use.



While signs of current inhabitants faded away with every kilometer I gained from Bay of LA, there were always random discarded items like this old decorated refrigerator which buffered the solitude.





I believe this sign was prohibiting people from hunting the desert pronghorn, which is still endangered and being repopulated.







80km of sandy bumpy road later, I found Bahia San Rafael. My own silent beach with no signs of anyone for miles. Setting my tent up on a dune, I slept that night to the soothing sounds of the sea. Seagulls laughing through the night. Winds drawing whisps through each tuft of grass. Small waves raking loose rocks back and forth over the shoreline. A nearly full waxing moon overhead.






5km into the following day’s ride, I saw this shrine up on a hill next to a faded road turnoff, now on the South end of Bahia San Rafael. It was the home of Francisco.



Francisco has lived alone on this beach without any transportation for over 30 years. He fishes for meat. People bring him gifts of vegetables, other cheap food, and drinking water. He helps out stranded travelers with flat tires and broken down cars and introduces the occasional tourist to the best fishing spots. He lives entirely on a gift economy, not earning nor spending any money. He never leaves this property. Sometimes he doesn’t see another person for 2-3 months. He told me the last cyclist he’d seen pass through there was 6 years ago. I think you get the point. So of course, I wondered, “Has he gone crazy?”

Not at all. Francisco was kind and interesting and engaged in our conversation as much as any of the unique humans I’ve found doing their own thing against the grain of society. I asked him if he got lonely, and he spoke of how different it is for him be alone vs. lonely. He loves being alone, it doesn’t bother him. He’s happy. Not one word was spoken of wishing life were different in any way.



 A few fishermen would inhabit shacks like this along the bay during good fishing seasons. This one has been abandoned for quite a while.



Climbing up the long valley from Bahia San Rafael towards a high plateau.



Up until this point I’d come to the conclusion that in Baja, sand is at low altitudes and rocky terrain at higher ones. This road disproved my theory. Deep, washboarded, tire-sucking sand for miles upon miles at varying elevations this day. Without a true fat bike, these roads will always win over a standard mountain bike tire. It was slow going. I took lots of deep breaths, and occasionally let out raging screams. This is my new terrain nemesis: washboarded, rutted deep sand while climbing uphill. Torture.



While descending another high pass, the road entered an interesting rocky area. Off the side of the road there appeared to be a long, tall rock wall.



On closer investigation, this was an oddly perfect, naturally occurring rock wall. It didn’t seem to keep anything in or out, and appeared to be a feature of how this particular rock breaks as it is pushed above the surface. Weird.




It had been a HUGE day of sandy challenges. I found an old two-track off of the ‘main’ road, and followed it into the desert to make camp. I deeply hoped it was the specific two-track I’d been told to take. If so, there would be a trail at its end leading to something amazing. But for now, it was dark, and I was toast. I slept well.



Waking up just before sunrise, I packed up my stove and breakfast, the trail began just a few yards from where I’d camped. It wound up the face of a large mesa (flat mountain of rock), and up to what appeared to be a large cave…





 No ordinary cave, this one has protected these petroglyphs for an estimated 6,000 years. Much older than many of the other petroglyphs on the Baja tourist maps, I’m told. The remote location and difficult approach to this cave made it one that was visited quite rarely.




I sat at the mouth of the cave, ancient people surrounding my field of vision as I cooked breakfast and watch the sun’s shadows move across the open desert.

55km more of downwind riding brought quickly me back out onto Mex-1. It was a sharp left turn onto the highway and I quickly realized the strong wind which had propelled me thus far was now a strong cross headwind.I fought my way down the highway for the rest of the day. Sometimes I’ve landed back on pavement after long stretches of rough terrain and deeply enjoyed how smooth and silent it was. Not this time.  There is ZERO shoulder on this narrow road. Lots of large tractor trailers. Lots of fast drivers.

As a quick background, I went to high school in Boston, and learned a lot about riding in traffic. I’d follow my bike messenger friends through treacherous late night rides up one-way streets and shooting through the back alleys of the city.  I was bike commuting over 40 miles a day at the time I left Seattle. I’m no stranger to riding with and around cars. But I had no technique for riding here. I started out trying to ride as close to the road’s edge as possible to leave room for cars to pass. That approach got scratched when I felt the slap of a car’s side view mirror hit my elbow at 50 mph when it tried to pass me at the same moment as a tractor trailer was passing in the opposite direction. Luckily I was not hurt, but I needed a new method for surviving the next 150 miles of this highway that lay between me and my next dirt road adventure. Counterintuitively I decided to shift further into  the lane of traffic when I’d hear a car coming up behind me. The logic was that people wouldn’t try to squeeze by me if there was no possibility of doing that, they’d have to slow down. It’s worked brilliantly so far. I feel much safer. The odd honk of a frustrated driver rattles my eardrums, but I can deal with that for the sake of staying alive.


 Just before the next town, I caught up to Dominic, a german cyclist who I’d last seen outside of San Felipe. He’d had a bunch of his own adventures since our meeting and we decided to find a place to stay together in Viscaino. He’d been offered housing from a local a few towns back, so I tagged along. Dominic and I rolled up to his new friend Razo’s auto repair shop at dusk. Within minutes Razo had a beer in each of our palms and was telling us about the best places to find dinner. One of his auto repair clients offered to take us to the taco shop, and ended up treating both of us to dinner. It never ceases to amaze me how kind people are. Everywhere.



That form kindness seems a bit easier to offer in this particular town, as it showed signs of affluence I’d not yet seen so far in Baja: Mostly nicer, newer cars. Cleaner, bigger stores. And a Zumba fitness studio.


6 tacos later, I was full and ready for bed. Our new friend drove us back to Razo’s shop and we fell asleep in the shop’s courtyard to a chorus of neighborhood dogs, all barking to each other throughout the night. It was a lovely and quiet 3 days, so the contrast of the canine chorus was actually quite amusing. Every time I shifted on my sleeping pad, I’d awaken one of Razo’s dogs which would begin barking anew for a few minutes. Unfortunately I’m not much of a still sleeper, so this sequence repeated itself through most of the night. Coffee was especially helpful the following morning.


2 Responses

  1. Brad
    | Reply

    Man, you’re really killing it over there. Loved the rock painting.

  2. Dana VanVoo
    | Reply

    Wash boarded, rutted deep sand while climbing uphill?? Francisco living peacefully in a beautiful, vast desert and not seeing anyone for three months, Petroglyphs that are approximately 6,000 years old in a very remote area, Getting clipped on a highway at 50mph?? Razo’s dogs!! Scott, you’re not in Oz anymore!! Just when I thought you could not have a more heightened adventure you entered Mexico!! Viva Mexico!!

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