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Day 268-274, 5-10 April 09. Into Mexico, a different world

April 19, 2009 by  
Filed under Baja California, Mexico, North America, Trip reports

5th April: Point Loma, San Diego – Tijuana, Mexico

Ivana, Mexico onlyIt took only a few hours to get through San Diego, over some bike paths and then into San Isidrio, the border town. We had been warned that we should not try to use the pedestrian crossing at the border, having read horror stories about crunched bikes and bags.

So we were happy to see a sign that basically said: Bikepath to Mexico, not for pedestrians. That sounded like a plan, but alas, the short path ended up in front of the pedestrian turnstiles. Se we headed back up the ‘one-way’ short path and decided to take the final 100m of the busy Highway 5 instead. We cycled over some empty lanes and waited until we were stopped by either a human or physical barrier.

Dead-end bikepath to Mexico100 meter later, we saw only Spanish signs and saw people walking everywhere. Apparently we had entered Mexico, through a one way border: no luggage check, no passport check, no questions, no sign ‘You are Leaving the US, please call again’ nor ‘Welcome to Mexico’!

This was not only very weird, but also posed two practical problems:

  1. We had to leave the white slip of our temporary visa at US customs, to prove we had left within the allowed time.
  2. We needed to get a Mexican tourist cad, kind of like a visa, which would allow us to stay for 180 days and go further South than Ensenada (100km South, the furthest most US citizens go and where this card is not needed).

You would think that there would be more people crossing the border with a visa, but apparently not. After asking several people, we were told to cross the Mexican side of the Highway on a footbridge, follow the stream of Mexicans trying to get into the US.

Waiting for the US border, TijuanaAnd lo and behold, just before the border entering the US again there was one young guy looking cool in a US uniform on the other side of a big gate. I handed him our passports, he ripped out the 2 small pieces of paper and added them to a larger pile already in his other hand. That was it. No exit stamp, no receipt, just a guy collection visa papers and who knows where they end up. Guess we will find out whenever we want to enter the US again.

Next problem to solve was to find the place to buy our tourist card. We crossed the highway again, noting the hundreds of waiting cars, seemingly not having moved an inch since we crossed the bridge before. Guess that entering the US is a whole lot harder than leaving it.

The funny (as in funny, interesting, not funny, haha) thing was that last night we watched ‘The Day after Tomorrow’, the apocalytic movie about the freezing effect of Global warming. In it, the US basically freezes overnight and the Mexicans have to close he border as everybody tries to flee South. Only after relieving Mexico from all debt, the US citizens are let in (meanwhile, many already cross illegally..).

We were told to go back on the highway, to we cycled back, against traffic to the ‘border’ and only about 50m before we were about to cycle back in the US (without being checked?). The last of a series of small offices contained a bored man who, after repeatedly asking, was going to sell us our ‘card’, which was basically a receipt. They had put the standard ‘90’ days, but some penstrokes of the official quickly turned this into 180 days.

It had taken us 1.5 hours to arrange these things that in any other border would have taken 2 minutes and 5 meters of travelling, and we made it just in time to the local McDonalds. Not that we were planning to eat there. We had stayed clear of all fastfood (besides Subways) during our 6 months in the US, and after seeing ‘SuperSize Me’ a few days ago at Martin’s place we were very happy we did!

Tijuana, MexicoNo, we had arranged to meet our new hosts here. CouchSurfing knows no borders and we were picked up by two young guys in a car, who guided us through some busy and some not so busy but very steep streets to their house on top of a hill. 5 more flights of stairs and we were in the room, looking out over the odd bordertown.

From the room you could see the border. Not physically, but the line and difference between the houses on both sides is clearly visible (tip: check Google Earth, you will be amazed).

A few days in Tijuana, an over-feared and underrated city

We stayed a few days with Paul (pronounced Pah-ool here) and ‘Chino’. It gave us the time to see a bit of the city that is feared so much in all US media, (even South Park calls it ‘hell’ ;-)).

It is all exaggerated, which is doing the Mexican economy a lot of harm. There is a drug war going on with quite some murders, but unless you are a heavy user, dealer or police officer, you will not be involved. Yes, we saw some police lights and heard some sirens in the night, but not more than in any US city of this size (1.5 million people). We never felt unsafe, even in darker areas, at night, in the suburbs, on the beach. Nowhere.

You notice that you are in a poor country, but what we did see were a lot of happy people, cheering us on on our bikes, asking questions.

Ivana in San SombreroHarry in San SombreroWe were so surprised to hear that many US citizens, even those living in San Diego never had visited Mexico.

They are living so close that taking one wrong turn basically would get them across the fictitious line!

I would invite everybody to enjoy the proximity of such a great and different place instead of getting scared by the remnants of the fear–economy…

Peppers in Tijuana, Mexico It is actually quite nice place, relaxed with many things to see and do. Ivana, Mexico and Harry

And I do not mean the popular red light district that seems to attract the most Americans, but the Museum of Modern Art complex we visited (with a nice cinematic photo exhibition), many great taquerias (taco shops) and a nice central market with delicious food, snacks and other stuff.

Catrina Taqueria, TijuanaOur new friends had just opened a tacoshop themselves, close to the market. They hade some special flavours including a great ‘Chile relleno’ (slightly spicy pepper stuffed with cheese).

Paul had two passports and works as a teacher on the US side. As he has a small motorcycle, he can avoid the waiting lines at the border and can go to work in the US in only 15 minutes…

In the evening they took us to have a tea and see the beaches and the border. It was sad to hear that until recently there were ‘border-dinners, where Mexicans that had been allowed into the US, would come to the North side of the border, to see, touch and eat with their relatives and loved ones South of the border. The new fence, planned all the way to Texas makes it impossible.

US border, Tijuana beachWe could see the fireworks of the San Diego aquarium from our side of the fence. A small boy walked up to it, while on the other side a patrol car was waiting silently.

Just a few miles away, but worlds apart. Again we felt thankful for the liberties we both enjoy, something that the many people that can but never do travel abroad never seem to realize.

9th April 2009: Tijuana – Primo Tapia, hill, fall, flat, toll. 42km.

After they guided us to the start of the Highway, we said goodbye to the guys and started climbing up the 250m (800ft) high hill. It was steep and hot and there was much traffic, but they kept a safe distance. What cycles up must freewheel down, so we enjoyed a nice downhill into Puerto de Rosarito, the tourist place at the beach, lined with new condos and junk food places.

We only stopped to eat our peanut butter sandwiches and then headed onto the toll road. There are 2 roads from Rosarito, the toll road (‘Cuota’) and the free road (‘Libre’). The toll road already starts near Tijuana, but they will not allow cyclists there and taking it would mean many extra miles anyway.

Just past Rosarito we could enter the toll-road without problems. I was slowing down near an exit for Ivana to catch up with me when two cars passed really close without signalling their exit. There was a very small but vertical ramp along the road which kept me from being able to move out of the way.

I managed to keep my balance for a second, but then tumbled over the ramp, down the slope behind it. Kowalski followed a second later, also doing a nice tumble, coming to a halt next to me. My arms were bleeding a bit and I had itchy, pointy things sticking in me all over my body.

Harry's second flat tire, Baja CaliforniaAfter Ivana caught up (“did you fall?” Duh..) and helped me get the bike back on the road we continued up a small hill, but soon I noticed that the going was tough and saw my that my front tire was almost empty.

So on the shoulder of the Toll-Road, I fixed my 2nd flat tire in over 8000km. Yet another staple. Of the 5 flat tires we have had between us, 3 were caused by staples, one by a nail and one by a sharp piece of rock.

We approached the toll booths and were going to pass one lane with a giant red ‘X’ on top, but the attendant/guard came running towards us, rifle loosely over his shoulder. He pointed us towards the sidewalk and asked if we could walk there and then ride again once passed. They do not mind that cyclists use the road, but do not want to get in trouble as all lanes are monitored by video.

Cycling without panniers is not allowed on the toll roadIt was a pleasant ride, sunny but not too hot, and the traffic was not too bad. we passed many areas in development, the Fox studios (where Titanic and Pirates of the Caribbean were filmed, the pirate ship was still there) and a giant Jesus statue looking out over the houses of the new rich.

We could use the shoulder all the time, passing those strange signs with a cyclist crossed out..

Jesus wathces over the rich folksWe turned off at a small place called Primo Tapia, where a WarmShowers host named El Lobo lives. he greeted us and we had a nice evening with him, discussing life in Mexico and the US and enjoying one of Ivana’s curries…

10th April: Primo Tapia – Ensenada, 60km

Beach candy vendorWe said goodbye to El Lobo and headed back onto the toll road. It was Semana Santa and many Mexicans were on holiday, enjoying eating sweets on the beaches.

Mexican candyThere was one long climb and when I waited for Ivana to come up, she looked worried.

‘My knee is hurting a lot’. her left knee was very painful and she could hardly cycle, even though yesterday, on a similar hill, she had no problems, so maybe she twisted it somehow.

We continued slowly until we reached Ensenada, passing cliffs and hidden beaches. Sometimes we could see the ‘Libre’ road below and were happy that we were not riding on that shoulder-less road.

Ruta libre near Rosarito beaches, MexicoAt the end of the toll-road was another big toll-booth and another armed guard came up to me and started talking in Spanish.

‘Did you get permission to ride the Toll Road?’ he asked.

‘Yes, in Rosarito’, I replied truthfully, and then showed him the scars and dried blood on my arm. ‘Besides, yesterday a car cut me off the free road, so the police told us the toll road was safer and better’, I added less truthfully.

Baja coastline near EnsenadaHe was intrigued and made no problems and told us to be safe. Ivana was going very slow, even though a strong wind was almost pushing us forward. even though we just started cycling Baja California, it might be time to take another break…

Day 212-215, 8-11 Feb 2009: From a mission to a pick-up, elephants & cyclists

February 15, 2009 by  
Filed under California, North America, Trip reports, USA

8 February 2009: Pacific Grove (Monterey) – Gorda. 45 + 60km…

After saying goodbye to Diego, we headed back down the ‘17 Mile Drive’ and ended up in Carmel by the Sea, a nice small town, with much better looking houses than the ‘Drive’. We spent some time exploring the old Mission, one of many that were placed here along the coast.

Carmel Mission Carmel Mission (2)

We had some lunch in the windy Point Lobos reserve. We had been told that this was one of most beautiful points along the coast, but for us it was ‘average’. I guess we have been spoilt rotten the past months 😉

Further South it was more interesting as we entered the Big Sur area. Unfortunately with the rougher coastline, came also more hills.. At least the coves and canyons were bridged here (as opposed to Northern California, where you just go all the way down and then back up again, my knee says thanks..).

California Coast California Coast (2)

Just after crossing a large bridge the road steepened up and did not stop for as far as we could see, so we started to push at least 100m up. Just when I reached the top of the hill, I approached a parked car, where a young man had been enjoying the views from the top.

Ivana on bridge‘Hi there. I am Eric. Do you need a ride?’

Hmm. We just pushed up this hill, so there should be a nice downhill ahead. Still, Ivana was on her way up, it would be dark in 20 minutes and Big Sur village was still 9km away, so we would probably be cycling in the dark. Also my knee had enough of the climbing.

As the road had barely any shoulder, but plenty of steep drop-offs, we accepted Eric’s proposal and put ourselves and our bikes in the back of his truck.

We told him to stop in Big Sur, but while we were expecting a larger village where we could ask for a place to camp, we passed some motels and before we realized it, we had passed Big Sur. Eric said he would continue South and asked if we wanted to join further. I checked the altitude profiles of the next section and saw 4 hills of 300m (1000ft) each with more in between. Ouch.

I was afraid that my knee would not survive. So far we had taken only one ride and that had been for going back on a stretch we had already cycled. We had skipped the major ferries, but now it felt unavoidable. I could be stubborn and cycle but maybe that would mean the end of the trip, just 50km ahead…

We stayed on the truck…

We ended up in a small village –just a roadhouse- called Gorda (‘fat’ in Spanish!) Eric was taking a room in the motel and after asking around we found a place to camp opposite the road on a nice grassy patch in a small forest. Eric, who is a musician on his way from the East coast to LA,  came over for dinner and played and sang some songs for us while we were making pasta in the dark. It was great & ‘gezellig’, but suddenly the rain washed our party away and we went back into our tent while the skies opened up all valves.

9 February 2009: South of Gorda – San Luis Obispo, 100km

Still we managed to stay dry and the next morning we joined Eric for another small ride over the last hill and then said goodbye. Fortunately the rain decided to stop, while we were organising our bikes.

California Coast South of Big Sur Kowalski at California Coast South of Big Sur

We stopped at a roadhouse for our peanut butter sandwiches and talked with Victor Antonio, who was walking around the US to promote peace through marijuana.

Elephant Seal weanerIvana going South againNot only the sun came out, but it brought its good friend the wind as well which pushed nicely in our back on our way South.

We passed more and more beaches filled with hundreds of elephant seals, some relaxing on the grass and sand, far from the ocean.

We also passed Hearst Castle, made famous in the movie ‘Citizen Kane’.

Though some of the rocks where interestingly white, we actually saw some fresh snow in the hills as well, a rarity in this area.

Elephant SealElephant Seals (2)

Thanks to the wind, we were making good speed and we decided to go all the way to San Luis Obispo. We arrived just before sunset after 100km of cycling and were welcomed by WarmShowers Hosts and fellow biketravellers Matt & Rita, who cooked up a great vegetarian Chilli.

10/11 February 2009: SL Obispo – Buellton via Santa Maria, 67km + 69km

Matt & Ivana on a tandemAfter Ivana has tested the recumbent tandem bike, we headed off. Matt & Rita joined us all the way to took us through some nice back roads to Pismo Beach, where we had lunch together before they headed back.

We continued through nice country roads before we entered the large busy city of Santa Maria. It took us a long time to pas the dozens of traffic lights, while dodging thousands of huge trucks…

It was dark before we made it to Bill Korn’s house, another welcoming host that was a rider himself. he cooked up an Argentinean asado and Ivana felt right at home.

The next morning Bill joined us and showed us some more back roads. It is so nice to stay with local cyclists as they always know the best routes to take and this was no exception. Following some steep hills we ended up the ‘Foxen Canyon Road’.

Ivana on the Foxen Canyon roadBill and Ivana

California fields (2) California fields (3)

Halfway up Bill said goodbye and turned back using another nice route, while continued our ascent. It was actually longer and higher than the route in our guidebook, but we still felt guilty about our ride with Eric the other day, so it was no problem doing the 30 extra km.

Besides, the slope was much more gentle, we hardly noticed that we went up to 400m altitude until the last steep climb. Then after a nice downhill and another steep climb, it was all the way down to the quaint town of Solvang, passing friendly Los Olivos on our way.

Solvang was the base of a Danish community and their Danish and Dutch ancestry is clearly visible in the buildings and local shops. We even found good cheese, dropjes & pepermunt!

Ivana in Solvang World Peace in Solvang

Solvang, Denmark, ehh California Solvang, Denmark, ehh California (2)

The latter we took as a gift to our hosts for the night: Joe and Carol had invited their best friends and cycling partners and together with their housemate we had a really nice dinner. Carol, who is a painter, had cooked for al 7 people and we had a great time.

It is such a pleasure to meet all the nice US citizens on this trip. Most people are very different in background, but they are all very friendly and hospitable.

The next morning we had a great incentive to leave early and arrive in Santa Barbara. Our hotel was waiting. ‘Hotel? How about that budget?’ I hear you say… the next report will clear all mysteries :)

Kowalski! Status report!

The knee works quite well. On the bike it feels good, off the bike it is painful. Guess I just have to keep on cycling!

Our bikes are indestructible as ever. Still we are stuck at a few flat tires for Ivana (I think 3) and only one for me, after a total of 7656km so far!

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Day 152-160, 10-18 Dec 2008: Breaking a knee in steep California: from Red Woods to a Golden Gate…

December 20, 2008 by  
Filed under California, North America, Trip reports, USA

We had camped in the cold Redwoods & enjoyed the rest of the Avenue of the Giants leisurely. After no more than 35km we ended up in Redway, where we called Johnny, our host for the night for directions to his home and he picked us up and took us far into the curvy hills.

He told us how basically everybody in the entire county was somehow involved in the growing of marijuana, either for ‘medical’ or for business reasons, and that even the local radio had special announcements when ‘the helicopter’ would be on patrol.

This got confirmed by Todd, our host for the next night and was amazing to hear as we thought that with the ‘war on drugs’ and all, easy targets (like very citizen in a 50 mile radius) would be focused on first, but apparently it was just part of life here.

We had been told about Todd by our friend Kristen from Vancouver, who had cycled and met him here a few years ago. But before we could sit down at the fire and listen to his stories we had two encounters.

1000 Americans: Dakota & his horsesWhen going slowly uphill I noticed some fresh looking scat on the side of the road. It didn’t really look like Grizzly material and I thought we had left the wildest bear country by now.

Soon I saw more and with the sun in my face, I viewed a dark shape halfway up the hill. Even though I was only going about 8km/hr (5mph), it was the first thing I encountered on a hill that was slower than me and soon I caught up with a strange sight: A large wooden horse cart, pulled by 3 horses -with a 4th on the side- was slowly making its way up the hill, completely blocking one of the two lanes.

An old man with was standing proud. he was not too friendly and didn’t say much, but I found out that his name was Dakota and he had been travelling like this for 25 years, all west of the Mississippi…

Ivana summits Legget HillOur next encounter was with a dreaded place: the Leggett Hill. Actually it was much easier than feared beforehand, steep but constant, narrow, but zero traffic. We did not have to walk and Ivana arrived at the pass as well without much problem.

A Short downhill later we arrived at a level part, called Haley’s Grove, where we spent the night inside a trailer. Read about our chance meeting with Todd here on 1000 Americans.

12-14 Dec: Breaking a knee and viewing a lion between Hales Grove – Jenner, via Mendocino. 74km + 78km + 70km. Plus 3km  up and down..

A long downhill through the woods brought us back to the coast, but there was one more surprise, the Rockport Hill. When going up, my knee started hurting and we both pushed up several parts as it was too steep in places.

Steep roads on the hills of the california Coast. Phot by Ivana

Steep roads on the hills of the california Coast. Photo by Ivana

Back at the California coast, the road kept on oscillating between sea level and a few hundred meters above it for the next days. In 5 days we had climbed more than 5000m, so 1km vertical per day. My knee started hurting more, even on the flatter parts and at the end of the day I could barely walk as my knee would not bend.

Probably the best thing to do would be to rest or see a doctor, but we were on the ‘Lost Coast’, far away from any medical assistance. Besides, we were only a few days from San Francisco, se we decided to continue and seek help there. Also, not only my knee was bad, our multi-charger had broken down and I had no more batteries for my cameras, which made me feel even more handicapped than the fact that I stumbled more than I walked…

We had stayed with Barry in Mendocino, who was about to embark on his own bicycle trip. as happens often with our hosts, he called some friends, Chuck & Maria, to ask them if we could stay with them the next night. Some hours before we arrived, I was waiting on the side of the road for Ivana to catch up so I could point out a large group of deer, when a car pulled over.

Read more

Day 141-146, 29-Nov – 4 Dec 2008: The Oregon Coast in photos

December 8, 2008 by  
Filed under North America, Oregon, Trip reports, USA

It took only a few days of cycling to get down the Oregon Coast from Otis, with an average of 72km (45 Mi) we covered it in 6 days. The area is very impressive, even though it was quite rainy and windy, we enjoyed it a lot. Below is a picture overview of some of the scenery we saw along the way.

We also saw some less pretty things, as explained in my previous ‘trash rant’, but overall it was another highlight.

We camped a few days in the rain but also stayed with some wonderful people: Linda & Gilbert, Terry & Lily, Nicole & ‘Jim-Bob’ Brian on Couchsurfing and Ken Neeley, who celebrated our last night in Oregon with us in the local Pizza Place…

Next stop: California!

(click on the images and a larger version will appear automagically!).

Kowalski! Status report!

After 6300km (almost 4000 miles), our Santos Travelmaster bikes are great as ever. Ivana got another flat tire (her 3rd I think), I am still at one!

My back hurts at times and some of the steeper hills I could feel my knees, but so far, so good…

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Next stop: California!