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Day 317-321, 24-28 May 2009: hot hilly roads, tropical fruits and friendly Mexicans

September 10, 2009 by  
Filed under Central Mexico, Mexico, North America, Trip reports

After our trip across the Sea of Cortez it was time to cross terra firma again. Only we were still not sure which route to take. It was clear that we would never make it in time to Cancun, to meet our mums, so what to do? Puerto Vallarta malecon

We decided to visit Puerto Vallarta first, as we could not believe that that such a famous place (The Love Boat!) would be nothing more than a collection of ugly resorts and polluted highways.

Our persistence paid off when we cycled over the cobbled streets of old Vallarta and onto the nice Malecon, the boardwalk. There were plenty of people about, artists, friendly beggars, loads of tourists, sand sculptors and even a set of oriental rope artists circling down from their platform.

Puerto Vallarta malecon (2)It was all nice, but it was also getting dark and we had no idea

  1. where to go to, from Vallarta,
  2. where to sleep…
  3. and, most alarming of all: we did not have dinner yet!

As usual the solution to all questions presented itself without too much effort from our side. Just when we were checking our map of Central Mexico, a couple sat down next to us and asked about our bikes and trip.

Our hosts in Puerto VallartaWhen I asked them in return about the different route possibilities – there is no straight way inland, you can go North and then East through Guadalajara, or South along the coast and then North again- they were sure that the coastal route was the best option: flat, narrow but quiet and only a few sections with drug-traffickers and other accompanying bandits. Sweet.

Cool, number 1 solved, and number 2 & 3 followed smoothly when they invited us for dinner and to stay in their house near the Malecon. Mexico is so full of friendly people, it looks like a complete different country than the media makes it out to be. Actually it is. Much, much better, as was and would be proven time and time again.

Day 317, 24 may 09: Puerto Vallarta – Near Tomatlan: 74km. Jungle to desert…

Puerto Vallarta coastlineThe next morning we were treated to nice tropical fruits for breakfast, pineapple and papaya! Real vitamins!

It was early but hot, but the coastal route was quite shady and showed us the hidden gems of the Vallarta Bay: nice beaches, amazing mansions and boutique hotels and lush jungle and fruit trees. 180 degrees difference from the dry desert of Baja California and even the rollercoaster road could not spoil our joy.

Our ride to El TuitoThat is, until the road turned sharply and went both inwards as upwards. The cool sea-breeze dropped and the temperature rose 10+ degrees within minutes, the jungle turned to desert and the road into a narrow steep wall with little space for our bikes. Our map showed that this would continue to 750m (2500ft) up, which did not seem like a great idea for our knees and general life expectancy, so we decided to take a lift, the first of many short ones along the Mexican South Coast.

Our friendly driver dropped us off at the top of the hill in El Tuito, stopping his ramshackle pickup only once on the way up, to buy some soft drinks for us, not accepting our money for it.

After lunch in the pueblito, we got to enjoy a nice downhill through pine forests and then a mix of dried shrubbery and other desert vegetation. We felt back in the Baja, seems that the Vallarta bay had been a one-off paradise. Soon the heat became unbearable, but though the Pacific Ocean should be near, no sign of it was noticeable, definitely no refreshing breeze.

The sun burned without mercy on yours trulies riding the undulating road and we had to stop several times for some shade, as well as to refill our bottles. We ended up just before sunset at a crossing close to the town of Tomatlan.

In Baja, it always cooled down at sunset, but over here, it still seemed to get hotter even. As we needed more water and it cost the same as a huge bag of ice, we solved two problems at once, cycling around the village with a large plastic bag with ice cubes, watched by curious Mexicans.

We found a friendly woman that would let us camp in her garden and even though we only put up our inner tent, it was so hot that we went to bed covered with nothing than our Ortlieb water bags and polarbottle, filled with the melting ice in a futile attempt to cool off…

It was still more than 30 degrees outside; the stupid guard dogs did not know whether to protect or attack us and the man of the house that returned drunk in the dark first fed bananas to the goats, and went back to the bar, only returning a short while later to vomit loudly in his car while abusing his helping wife. Life on a bike, always different, never far from reality.

Day 318/9, 25/6 may 09: Rollercoasting from Tomatlan to San Patricio 77+41km, 1400m up and down.

Camping between the flowersJust when we were mixing our newly discovered freeze dried soy-milk with cereals, a full-size truck pulled up at the gasstation. In the back stood more than 2 dozen kids, ranging in age from 8 to about 17. Innocent and naive as we were, we thought that this might be a poor-man’s version of a school bus, either to take the kids to school or to an excursion, as it was a weekday.

When Ivana asked the kids where they were going, the just replied with slent blank stares and took off again. The attendant explained that they were off to work in the fields, to produce the cheap fruit for export. No education for these and many other kids in Mexico, the only thing they learn is to work, and work hard.

We hit the ‘coastal road’ again but caught exactly one glimpse of the Pacific; most of the time we were just sweating up and down the few dozen smaller and bigger hills. Nothing too serious, just annoying in the sweltering heat.

Again the average temperature was above 31 degrees and we were happy that the friendly gardener that let us camp in his flowery vivero, offered us use of his garden hose and water-tank to freshen up at the end of the day.

An early start gave some refreshment, but after 35km –including already 700m/2300ft up !- it was hotter than ever and we started to curse our friendly Vallarta host that had recommended this ‘flat coastal’ road that was neither, and which we doubted he had ever been on. He definitely never had cycled it in his life.

Time for lunch, and things improved considerably when we stumbled on a nearly-deserted guesthouse, with swimming pool, fruit-dropping mango trees and an internet cafe. Heaven! Of course our lunch lasted longer than planned and we decided to camp here, being offered more mangos than we could eat. Life was not so bad after all.

Day 320, 27 May 2009: San Patricio – Manzanillo 76km, 370m up and down

Coconut and banana treesWe had entered the state of Colima, which we had been dreaming about since we found out that a large part of Mexico’s fruit originates here. We were not disappointed, as the bumpy desert abruptly had given way to fields of coconut palms, mango trees and banana trees, while smaller orchards and roadside stalls offered all kinds of other natural goodies.

Coconut cutter campA few women were chopping enormous piles of brown coconuts in half; they only collected part of the fruit for the cosmetic industry, discarding both the juice as well as the tasty heart, so we filled up our bottles rather than letting the healthy water flow onto the thirsty sand.

Ivana eating coconutsThere were many mango trees with thousands of fruits dropped onto the forest floor. Apparently due to the transportation and export (to the US) hassle and cost, it is too costly to harvest and sell them so they just rot away. Except the ones that fitted in Ivana’s big Ortlieb bag of course :)

Lunch at the beach near Santiago, ColimaAs an added bonus, the road was nearly flat and we not only got to see the ocean, we even got to touch it when stopping for lunch near a nice swimming beach.

What goes up has to come down, even when not literally, and things deteriorated seriously after lunch. Traffic increased to annoying numbers when we approached the busy city of Manzanillo. Lack of signs made us follow a dead end street to the harbour for several km. Noise and exhaust of the buses, cars and freight trains rose to lethal levels and to top it, we got into a huge fight about which route to take. In the end I gave in and up and let Ivana decide, resulting in another detour of several kilometres.

After 75km we were more than exhausted and while still angry we rung the doorbell on a house that had a big gate and a nice garden; both necessary for a safe camp in an urban zone.

Spontaneous CouchSurfing hosts, ManzanilloAn elderly couple opened up and listened to our story. Soon they invited us, not just for dinner, but also to use one of the extra rooms upstairs, so instead of fighting and sweating in our tent, we got a shower, Mexican food and a ventilator to cool us down.

We deserved it.

Day 321, 28 May 09, Manzanillo – Boca de Apisa, 91km

Unused overpassThe fruity flatness continued and though the average temperature was above 31C/ 88F again, it was still a relatively pleasant ride though the field, only interrupted by a few hours of lunch in a truck-stop to avoid the heat and a short visit to the ugly City of Tecoman.

Cattle farmer in Colima state

We were aiming straight for some nasty looking hills, but turned right before reaching them, back to the direction of the Ocean. We did not notice that our total recorded distance had silently increased to a 5-figure number until later that night, 10,000km (6250mi) on the road!

We had been looking forward to camping on the beach, but when we followed the 5km/3mi long turnoff, we discovered that the road literally ended at the ocean, with just a few meters of sand separating us from the big powerful waves.

Fruit stalls along the routeArmed with nothing much more than the knowledge that we had entered drug-trafficking country we were not being overly comfortable with the stares of some local youth and the lack of water and safe places.

So, tired as we were, we headed back up to the main road and asked a farmer if we could pitch a tent on his land, which was situated next to a military checkpoint.

Camp between the ducks and chickens As there were dozens of different feathered friends around, Ivana preferred to camp under the roof. After being chased into our hot tent by a battalion of nasty mosquitoes, we fell into a restless sleep, blissfully unaware of the fact that I would visit 3 different doctors in 3 different hospitals in the next 24 hours…

Kowalski! Status report!

  • Many many MangosMangos eaten: countless
  • Metres climbed in 5 days on the ‘flat coastal road’: 2500+
  • Average temperature during those 5 days: 31C/88F.
  • Km cycled since Prudhoe Bay, Alaska: 10,020!
  • Vertical meters/climbed since PB, AK: 83,460 (52 miles)
  • Santos Travelmaster problems: zero.
  • Knee & back report: positive, taking care and working fine.

Here are the road profiles, for those masochistic enough (or smart enough to cycle this in winter) to take it on:

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Day 297-299, 4-6 May 2009: Baja California Sur, pt3: through the desert to La Paz

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

Note: only a few photos in this report as the scenery was quite boring and often it was too hot to stop for photos, but instead some more stories, hope you like them as well!

We had been advised to take a ride as the last section to La Paz would be ugly and boring. We had cycled over 1100km/700mi in Baja California so far, and still had more than 300km/200mi to go before we could rest in la Paz and think about the crossing to the mainland.

4th May 2009: from the beach to the dust & food confusion: Juncalito – Ciudad Constitucion, 97km (+40km ride)

We said our good byes to Roberta and headed our loaded bikes back onto the main road. We passed the exit to Puerto Escondido this time and continued over relatively flat roads. The walls of the mountain range we had to cross looked down upon us with indifference.

We had read in an old guidebook that the next climb was one of the longest, steepest and most dangerous of the peninsula and had decided we would try to get another ride, as the combination with the heat and lack of sea-wind would be a horrible way to wreck my knees again.

Just at the bottom of the hill we found a new bridge with a nice wide shoulder where we parked our bikes and flashed our thumbs up at the passing pick-up trucks. Soon a nice man stopped in a huge SUV; we loaded the bikes, headed into the air-conditioned cabin and quickly made our way up 40km of steep and narrow ascents, very happy we were not pushing our bikes on the black tarmac.

He was going all the way to Ciudad Constitucion and asked if we wanted to join him to there, but we declined. It is always a hard decision when somebody offers a ride, especially when it is hot, windy and boring, but we have come here to cycle and felt bad enough about the ride so far.

He dropped us at the highest point and as the wind was in our face, we enjoyed the constant downhill towards the city. But soon the road turned horizontal, while the wind picked up in speed and temperature and soon we found ourselves fighting the giant blow-dryer at 10km/6mi per hour, while cursing ourselves for not being in an air-conditioned car when we could have been… We stopped exhausted in Ciudad Insurgentes and treated ourselves to some refreshing liquados.

Fortunately the road had made a 90 degree turn when reaching the city and the last part the wind came from the side and even from the back and we were in Ciudad Constitucion quickly. Traffic was very busy between the cities but the road wide and we had no problem. What turned out to be more difficult was finding a place to sleep in the city. We asked several people with gardens and even the Police for a place to pitch our tent, but all turned us down. It was already close to dusk when we left the city, trying to find a place outside of town.

Only a few minutes outside the city limits I noticed a great garden. The house was deserted, but a little ahead were some people underneath a row of fruit trees. Sure, it was ok to camp and if we needed some sweet grapefruits? They were intrigued by our trip, or tent and our stove, but when Ivana started to cook our daily pasta meal, problems began.

Antonio and Sarah, Ciudad Constitucion Sarah, the mother of the bunch, looked at our meal and then at us and back at the spaghetti again.

Que es eso, sopa?’, ‘What is this, soup’?’

‘Pasta! We eat if every night, good energy and tasty!’

‘Hmm. But how are you going to eat it?’, she replied.

We looked at eachother. ‘Well, we have a very nice tomato sauce today!’

Sarah looked perplexed.

Y como lo va a comer?’, ‘How are you going to eat it?’ she repeated, this time a bit louder.

As my Spanish is not so good, I was not sure if I had understood her correctly, but Ivana’s face looked just as puzzled as I felt. Ivana tried a different answer.

‘Well, we have a fork and a spoon, Harry has a foldable plate and I eat from the pot, look.’ and she showed Sarah our limited but useful cutlery and cooking gear.

No, that was clearly not the right answer, either. Sarah called her son.

‘Antonio!!! Come here. Go to the tortilleria and get the gringos some tortillas!’.

A few minutes Antonio came back –on his bike!- with a full kilo of hot tortillas. Sarah handed them over and said that at least we now had something to eat our soup with. She also served us delicious fresh and sweet juice, but clearly was still shaken from the thought that somebody would even think about having dinner without tortillas…

5th May 2009: 110km through the desert, from Ciudad Constitucion to El Cien.

Early next morning we shared or peanut butter sandwiches with Sarah and her kids and took off. The road was still flat, the wind was still good and we had a good average on the first 55km. Then slowly we headed more inland again to cross the peninsula for the last time and things turned bad again.

The hills started to come and together with the road, the temperature rose with every pedal stroke and soon crossed the 35 degrees (95F) mark again. It was time to stop for lunch, but there was no shade anywhere and the few restaurants were all closed or demolished.

Finally, after 80km of cycling, I stumbled into a small loncheria and ordered a cool refresco under the hot tin roof. A few other customers did not believe that I cycled Baja California, let alone from Alaska and looked at me as if I were a Martian. soon Ivana arrived as well and slowly they got convinced I was not 100% insane after all, though at the same time they realized what we had done, they clearly did think we were mad as a rusty doornail.

In the back room was an old abuela, sitting in a rocking chair, watching TV, shouting orders to various grandchildren running about. ‘Change the TV channel! Get me a drink! Stop shouting!’. While we were dozing off with our heads on the table, we suddenly heard her shout again.

Siesta, km 128‘Braulio! Get some colchonetas for the Gringos!’.

And lo and behold, the little guy named Braulio arrived moments later with 2 large blue plastic-covered foam mattresses for us to sleep siesta on! We thankfully rested our tired bodies under the watching eye of yet another Virgen de la Guadelupe, and various other items that might need to be returned to the Museum of Bad Taste soon…

When the temperature had dropped slightly, we hit the dusty road again and rollercoastered to ‘El Cien’, (‘The Hundred’), simply named after the 100 km sign, indicating the remaining distance to La Paz. We got another tempting offer to hop in a car and arrive in La Paz that same night, but declined. We refilled our water bottles in a restaurant and made camp behind a deserted house, watching the stars fall and the police check random vehicles.

6th May 2009: back to sea through hills, heat and a tornadito: El Cien – La Paz, 105km, 750m up, 850m down

Today we planned to finish our trilogy of 100km days and get all the way to La Paz.  The good thing about the desert is that it actually cools down considerably at night and when we left at sunrise, the air was fresh. We even encountered some fog on our way, but soon it was just down to the sun, the hills and us again. There was not a flat bit, all either up or down, but definitely more up, both in time as in distance.

deserted restaurantAlso here the few buildings and towns on the map were physically or functionally not there and after 50km we were longing for some shade and a drink. It took us another 2 hours and dozens of hot hills before we stumbled in a small shack where they had a working and filled refrigerator. Another guest showed us the centipede he just caught: huge and poisonous, it just fit in a plastic 600ml Coke bottle.

They mentioned that there were bigger restaurants just a mile up the road and so we continued a few minutes and stopped for siesta. We had some ramen noodle soups left and cooked ourselves some lunch when Ivana said that a tornado was coming. I thought she was listening to the loud radio that I had completely blocked out and asked her where and when.

‘There!’ she said and pointed behind me. A thin but high dust-devil slowly crossed the road and came towards the shop next door, selling 2nd hand goods. It looked like just another collection of twirling dust, but once it hit the neighbours’ shack, several large metal pieces of roof came off and flew several meters through the air. After it passed, Ivana went to check, but apparently nobody got hurt. The little boy from the shop came in as well, almost falling over from laughter and joy. He could hardly speak, but pointed up in the sky behind him and managed to utter a few words in Spanish, roughly translated as’ The dog was flying!’ before he fell over laughing again. Life in the desert…

Ivana rollercoasting into La Paz (2)Ivana rollercoasting into La PazOnly when we walked a few meters outside, we noticed that we were on the summit of a hill, not far from La Paz.

It was basically one 20km long downhill to the city’s edge. We enjoyed the nice slope, only interrupted by some low-grade rollers and before long, we reached the coast and after cycling some very busy roads entered the charming center of La Paz. We bumped into the French in their RV again and then went to find a WiFi spot to check if any of our CouchSurfing requests had been answered…

Coming up soon: heaven in La Paz, new oil, free ferry and cruising The Net

Kowalski! Status report!

We spend about a month cycling from Tijuana – La Paz, stopping in several places along the way. We took some rides (probably about 100km together) and cycled about 1430km (900mi). After the flat tire on the first stretch we had zero flats, nor any other problems with our bikes.

My knees held out well, not getting better, nor worse, but I had very few problems with my back. Ivana had gotten sick from eating bad food, but that passed in a few days time. All in all a hard but satisfying experience, that we would not have liked to miss out on… More reflections later, for now here are the trip sections as described above:

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Day 292-297, 29 April – 4 May 2009: Baja California Sur, pt2: Hot roads, Bahia Concepcion, hidden gems and cruisers

August 16, 2009 by  
Filed under Baja California, Mexico, North America, Trip reports

29 April 2009: Mulege – Buenaventura beach, 43km, 500m up and down

Beaches at Bahia ConstitucionOnce we managed to leave Mulege, we quickly started climbing, cutting off a rough piece of coastline. The moment the sea-breeze was out of our face, the heat took its place and we had to stop often to drink and recuperate.

The reward was the first view of Bahia Concepcion, breeding place of whales and lined with small beaches, sometimes accompanied by hotels or loncherias, but just as often completely empty.

Beaches at Bahia Constitucion (2)We had enough of the heat after 43km and entered a restaurant in Buenaventura Beach for our siesta. They had Wi-Fi, so as always we stayed too long, and decided to camp out on the beach.

We were accompanied by a French couple, that we had met a few times before. They were living & teaching on Martinique, but had bought a large campervan and, together with their 3 kids, were slowly heading South.

In fact, as we had seen them several times, they appeared to go the same speed as us, enjoying all the small places on the way, instead of rushing through them as most other Baja visitors do on their way to Cabo San Lucas.

Campsite Buenaventura Beach, Bahia ConstitucionFishing dogs at Bahia Constitucion

Rodolphos family, Buenaventura beach Buenaventura beach, Bahia Constitucion

30th April 2009: Buenaventura beach – Bahia Concepcion South, 20 km, 150 m up/down

El Requeson Beach, Bahia ConcepcionWe stuck around the restaurant all day, reading stories online about this strange swine-flu disease that was bothering the rest of Mexico, but Baja was still ‘clear’.

Before we were really packed, it was already to hot to start cycling and therefore we went swimming instead, checking out the small stingrays and fishes near the beach.

Only 2 hours before dusk it started to get bearable and we started cycling after all. Google Earth had been friendly enough to warn us for some big climbs coming up once we would leave the Bay, so we thought it best to save that for the cool of the early morning and went looking for a place to pitch our tent.

beach camp, bahia ConstitucionWe happily cruised over the empty road while in the distance a large group of dolphins passed by, heading North.

At the most Southern point of the Bay, we found the remains of an old RV park and though there was nothing usable left, the dirt access road was smooth and led straight to the beach, where we pitched our tent.

We watched the sunset with our bowls of pasta in our hand while a few wandering cows passed. Queen’s Day (In the Netherlands); It cannot get much better than this.

1st May 2009: Bahia Concepcion – Juncalito, 106km, 918m up/down, average temperature: 30,2C/86F…

Blooming cactiThough we did not leave at sunrise as planned –there is something unnatural about waking up in the dark, even when it is the International Day of Labour- we managed to get up the steep first hills before the heat caught up with us. The road was windy and therefore dangerous, as trucks could not see us from far. So we walked and pushed our bikes on the steepest bits, so we could get out of the way quickly when needed, while saving our knees.

Vultures, trash and cactiThe day seemed to progress nicely when we were treated by a nice slow downhill the next 20km, but then it turned into a hellish experience. No shade for a rest, the hot headwind slowed us to a halt, while small hills were followed by a 13km constant climb with the temperature cheerfully climbing to above 35C/95F as well. It cannot get much worse than this.

All the places that were marked on the map were either no longer there or closed and/or decaying, so no refrescos could be bought. We had both run out of water and stopped a passing ambulance for some water (we got about half a litre), to prevent further rehydration.

Ivana in downtown LoretoFinally, after 65km (40mi) and almost 6 hours on the road we could start the downhill towards Loreto, a dusty town with a friendly old centre, including one more mission. Mission, Loreto

What was more important was the water filtering shop in the beginning of town (the friendly owner donated 2 litres of cool water, where can I sent the recommendations for sainthood?), an overpriced supermarket and the juice bar in downtown selling fresh OJ by the litre and a nearby hose to wash the salt of our faces.

Once our body temperature had lowered enough to approach that of the air surrounding it, we headed out for  our last section towards a small town named Juncalito. We passed some ugly new housing projects, with unnaturally green lawns and fake ponds. Meanwhile the temperature finally dropped a bit. Even with the cool morning and the freshening evening we clocked an average temperature of 30,2C/86F, during the 12 hours we had spend on & around our bikes; too much for comfort and we were ready for some rest.

It took 2 small but nasty hills before we reached the house of Roberta, a WarmShowers host in Juncalito. She lives with Smooch the cat in this small town, off the grid, but powered by solar panels and the caring of the neighbours, who immediately came out to greet us and to hand us all kinds of vegetables.

Roberta had even prepared a wonderful dinner for us; we felt we rolled from a hellish nightmare of a day into a cyclist’s dream and soon after our feast we started a well-earned rest…

2-4 May 2009: In Juncalito: sea critters & festive cruisers.

Ivana sea-kayaking near JuncalitoWe stayed 3 days in Juncalito as there were too many fun things to do to rush and we enjoyed Roberta’s company.

One of her neighbours borrowed us 2 kayaks for a few hours, so we could circle a nearby island to check out the pelicans, crabs and fish. We will need to cross the high mountains in the back soon, but for now we enjoyed being at sea-level.

It was a great trip and a welcome change from the bike, finally some upper body exercise…

Crabs on small island near Juncalito

Fishies, JuncalitoHarry sea-kayaking near JuncalitoSea stars, Juncalito

Festive Cruisers

Loretofest, Puerto EscondidoIt also turned out to be the time for the “Loretofest”, a yearly gathering of cruisers, i.e. people living and travelling on their boats. Most cruisers seemed to be in their fifties, but there were also younger and older ones as well as kids travelling.

Loretofest party, Puerto EscondidoThey had all come to Puerto Escondido (“Hidden Port”, 5km from Juncalito), to meet up and celebrate their lifestyle together, while raining funds for the less fortunate local youth.

Ivana and I entered a bubblegum-blowing contest on the 50’s night, enjoyed the cooking of the cruisers at the tasty potlatch and caught up on some work using the harbour office’s Wi-Fi. It was interesting to see this totally different subculture, that actually had quite a lot in common with us BikeTravellers, living and travelling outside the lines…

We were happy we had found Roberta’s little piece of paradise to rest, but we had to leave her, Smooch and the dozens of hummingbirds circling her balcony, to get on the road again. One more long stretch separated us from La Paz, gateway to mainland Mexico!

Smooch the cat, JuncalitoHummingbird, Juncalito (2)

Hummingbird, Juncalito (3)Hummingbird, Juncalito

Kowalski! Status report!

Total km: 9225. Knees and back were ok, though slightly overcooked. I pushed the bike when it got too steep and that seems to help prevent further injuries. So far no more flat tires in Baja California (after the one the first day in the North), so that is above expectation. Bikes are doing well, but they are looking forward to the 2nd oil change in La Paz…

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Day 286-291, 23-28 April 2009: Baja California Sur, pt1: Across Baja, records, annoyances & Oases

August 10, 2009 by  
Filed under Baja California, Mexico, North America, Trip reports

Better late than never...Finally, we have time to sit down and write some more trip reports… As the sign on the right says: better late than never, right? :)

We have been enjoying Mexico a lot, we will try to get you updated on this wonderful country, filled with friendly people.

So what happened? The last report ended just above the 28th Parallel, which separates Baja California Norte from BC Sur (South). Different name, still a desert :)

We stayed 2 nights in a roadside motel, as Ivana was not feeling much better. Coincidentally, we started to hear the first stories about some strange flu that was spreading in the mainland, just after we had booked flights for our mums, who are coming to visit us in East Mexico, the end of June. Maybe that is why the hotel staff looked so suspiciously at Ivana? And why was the biggest Mexican flag we had ever seen suddenly gone from the state-crossing? It was time to move on and for once (!) the fabled Baja wind was in our back:

26 April 2009: 28th Parallel – San Ignacio, 159,25km!

Oasis San IgnacioYes! We beat our previous distance record and by a large margin, 40km more! After a quick stop in Guerrero Negro, we zoomed through the boring desert. We were too late for the famous whale season, so we had to make do with a cheeky coyote instead. A quick lunch in a most depressing dust-covered town called Vizcaino and then back on the pedals.

‘Come on Ivana, we still have 50km to go!’

‘But I thought you said we would do 100 today?’

‘Nope, I said 140!’. Lost in translation again, and a soft grumble was my reward.

It turned out that our map had an unmarked section (distance-wise), so that is why we found ourselves still on the bike after 130km. We decided we might as well enjoy the wind and continue to San Ignacio, a well-known oasis in the middle of the desert.

San Ignacio squareUs in San IgnacioWe made it just before dark and marvelled at the strange sight of fresh water (the first non-sea water we say since leaving Ensenada) and palm trees. After a quick tour around the charming plaza and an inventory of too expensive hotels and campsites, we made our camp on on a deserted property nearby only used for alcohol-consumption by some friendly locals.

The next morning we found the place that our fellow biketravellers had been writing about: Casa Leree, a small and homely B&B near the plaza. Owner Jane, who is working on chronicling a photographic history of San Ignacio, offered us to stay for a few hours so we could work a bit using her Wifi, and even gave us some snacks for the road.

San Ignacio mission Ivana, San Ignacio

25 April 2009: San Ignacio – Santa Rosalia, 81km, 830m up, 888m down

The next day was one of those annoying days. Annoying because we had to start with a steep uphill, forcing us to push our bikes in the first kilometers. It seemed to improve a bit with some nice downhills, but then it got very annoying using a gazillion ‘vado’s, small ‘rollercoasters’. Up. And. Down. Rinse and repeat.

It was followed by some extremely annoying stretch: a fierce headwind on a gentle but constant and 25 km long slope. Uphill that is. It made me check my back wheel and tire every few minutes as it felt I was rolling two flats, but alas, it was just lack of horizontality, strength and freshness, both inside as well as outside my tired body. The desert did not seem to end and the only positive point in the heat was that the really big hill, Volcano Tres Virgenes, was clearly to steep to climb, so somewhere on it’s flanks must be a downhill hidden somewhere.

Volcanoe Las Tres VirgenesIt did come, but the full speed drop was too steep and curvy for comfort, only brief and followed by yet another slow climb in even harder wind, while the only shade offered was some itchy and prickly bush on the side of the road.

The only entertainment was a vulture eating a very flat 5-foot snake off the road, but the rare but aggressive traffic that day made me focus on my handlebars rather than my camera. We managed to get some water off a nice old guy who lived alone in a house. There was a sign with some cutlery on the road, but he looked as if he had never seen it before and food was not to be found.

Ok, we were getting really close to  Santa Rosalia no and still had several hundred meters to descend, (it was rather safe to assume that the seaport of the town was actually at sea-level). A series of warning signs about the upcoming drop convinced me that I should wait for Ivana and while I posted next to the road, a huge and fast caravan of policecars and SUV’s rushed by at an insane speed. Some buses and pick-up trucks that apparently either got sucked into their slipstream or just hypnotized by the flashing police lights followed, all about 25cm apart and like a suicidal metal conga line of madness they dropped down the steep road together.

One of the last drivers had motioned to me excitedly, while motioning backwards. I did not see Ivana, so I headed back up the steep hill, but she appeared before i reached the top, totally angry and very shaken. The cars, under leadership of the police, had driven her off the road and almost hit her with their crazy antics. I tried to calm her down as we had a dangerous slope ahead. In fact is was also annoying: I hate it when you spend 25km going uphill and then you lose all height gained on a slope so steep (I guessed 12-14%) and curvy that we need to brake all the way down. The road was lined with crosses for those whose brakes were less strong than ours, maybe Magura should make some brakes for pickups as well…

last dusty slopes towards Santa RosaliaThe annoyance was not over yet as we got another few small but nasty uphills, before we finally could go down to sealevel and cruise along the Sea of Cortez towards the town.

‘A French town’ it was called in many guidebooks. Guess the authors have never been in France. It did have its own charm though, but the problem with all the houses built close together, was that there were no gardens and therefore no camping space. We had cycled all the way to the end (up) until we reached the scrubby neighbourhoods our guidebook had warned us about; plenty of stares but no place for our tent. We asked the Police and Firemen, but they were too busy guarding tonight’s fiesta.

Fiesta in Santa RosaliaThe fiesta turned out to be a very long boring speech by the governor in which he proudly proclaimed that he did had done parts of what he was hired for in the first place. While we ate a large pizza next to the square, with our bikes rolled next to our table on the patio, it seemed that we had located the missing Mexican flag as well, nicely hung behind the politicians.

They were probably the ones arriving late and almost killing Ivana on the way with their escort. The ‘party’ and the day ended with very loud and very annoying music, but even though we pitched our tent just 3 blocks away, in the driveway of the Red Cross, we were off to sleep soon…

26 April 2009: Santa Rosalia – Mulege, 68 km, 500m up and down

Eiffel's Church, Santa RosaliaSome time between the moment we rested our head and the moment the dogs woke us up in the early morning the party had ended and upon closer inspection the town was quite nice.

We found the claim to fame: Eiffel’s church, which was not only special because it was designed by Eiffel, of the Parisian Tower (and Lady Liberty’s frame, how’s that for Freedom Fries!) fame, but also because it is the world’s first know prefab building, packaged in boxes and reassembled here.

main street, Santa RosaliaThe other famous place, the bakery, was less impressive than any random counterpart in France, but still supplied us with enough carbohydrates to head into the dusty desert again.

Panaderia Boleo, Santa RosaliaI actually had a good day on the bike, but Ivana had it tough. More hills, heat, road construction –BC Sur seems richer, they are actually building nice bridges to replace the annoying and dangerous vado’s– and roadside grave markers.

More desert gravesOn top of a hill I saw a naturally flowing valley heading to wards our destination around some steep hills and told Ivana that we were almost there, just 10km more, all downhill.

Ivana and SupaFlyAlas, the awful truth was slightly different from the deducted version. Even though the psychopathic engineers that had decided that the roads better go over those steep hills were the true culprit, I was of course the bad guy, but the mood cleared when we saw the nice oasis of Mulege, another palm tree-covered surprise in the desert.

We had to search all roads in the village before we found the house of Bill, our host for the night, but once we arrived we could enjoy the fact that we had had yet another nice day in Baja, and according to the the stories of travellers before us, the best had just started…

Oasis MulegeWe stayed 3 nights in Mulege, relaxing and eating fish taco’s with Bill. He enjoyed our cooking and we could catch up with some work before heading into the last section of Baja California…

“Mulege is the safest place I have ever been, with regards to crime! There has only been one murder and that was a gringo guy being stabbed with a barbeque fork by his gay lover!” according to Bill.

The biggest danger is coming from the skies and sea though: the hurricanes have hit Mulege hard, with many houses  -including Bill’s former place- being destroyed by Hurricane John in 2006. The water level of the river rose so much it touched the bridge (normally you can drive a big truck underneath) and many people had to run for their lives. Nowadays more big houses are being (re-)built and lots close to the sea and river are being sold to unsuspecting Americans. Though it is a pretty quiet place, you might want to read this post on the famous BajaNomads forum before you decide to invest in ‘this Piece of Paradise”…

here are a few pix from Mulege, let us know if you like them by commenting below!

Restaurant, Mulege Ivana, Bill and Fish tacos, Mulege Mission, Mulege Ivana in Mulege

Soon to come: Baja California Sur, pt 2

Kowalski, status report!

Knees: still ok! They hurt after cycling, but on the road they are quite fine. Santos Bikes are still stringer than the people riding them, they will probably outlive the human race…

Here are two tripsections as described above:

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Day 281-285, 18-22 April09: Trucks, dust, wind, heat: Baja California Norte, Part2

April 30, 2009 by  
Filed under Baja California, Mexico, North America, Trip reports

18-21 April 2009, past San Quintin –Rosarito, via El Rosario, Sonora & the desert..

The roads were dry and empty but the fresh sea wind kept us cool. That is, until we headed inland and up a very steep hill. After some pushing we ended up at another military checkpoint on top of a mesa, before the road dropped quickly into the dusty town of El Rosario.

We bought some yoghurt and even though we had only cycled 50km, we decided to stay the afternoon and work in the Internet cafe. The previous owner was the current pharmacist and he send us to a place on the far side of town to pitch our tent: Baja’s Best.

It is a nice restaurant and B&B, run by ‘Eduardo’, American Edward Lusk, recognizable by the large ‘Starbucks’ sign on the side of the yellow building. Not sure if the coffee is from SB, but according to Ivana (who, unlike me, likes the beanjuice) the freshly made stuff was great.

When we go in for the evening, 3 drunk Mexicans are singing loudly. The youngest one starts messing with the friendly rottweiler Bruno, to the point that Bruno is about to attack. His two friends try to persuade him to stop, even lock him in his car, but somehow he manages to escape and stumble back in again. They are living proof that it is not wise to drive or ride after sunset on the Highway 1…

We camped on a nice patch of grass, a luxury in Baja and when we packed the next morning, Ed’s friend and neighbour Duffy came by. He was intrigued by our trip and bought us a breakfast in the restaurant.

We had been warned about the next section of the road, dangerous for all vehicles and cyclists in particular. Not only was it about 500m up, but the road was narrow, curvy and for some weird reason some curves were grading outwards creating danger for trucks.

As we would spend the next day pushing up most hills we decided to take a ride and got one a minute later, with Angel, a nice guy from La Paz. He mentioned that there had been some car-jacking on this section and that not everybody might stop for hitchhikers.

We quickly passed steep hills and very narrow corners and felt the centrifugal forces resulting from the road-designers’ engineering mistakes from the back of the pick-up.

Ivana in the Catavina desert (4)After about 60km we got out and started cycling and immediately regretted not having stayed on another minute as the road climbed up steeply out of a small valley. But even worse, once we got to the top, we almost got blown off the road.

A gale-force wind was coming from the East and as we were headed SouthEast, it was almost impossible to cycle. The dry dusty storm pushed us all over the place and every truck passing created dangerous vacuums. It took us over an hour on relatively flat ground to cover 10km and we were happy to get some shade and a soda in a small ‘llantera’ one of the many car workshops (‘Body & Pain_’ as I saw once in San Diego ;-)) along the road.

Cactus forest in Catavina, MexicoWe headed up as well now and the speed dropped even lower and we quickly ran out of water as we were basically fighting a life-size blowdryer at full force. In a small restaurant we bought a gallon of water. We had to buy our first plastic container on the trip as there was simply no water to filter around, we were in the middle of the desert.

Another hour later we stopped at a place that was called ‘Sonora’ on the map, which turned out to be exactly one house on the side of the road. We decided to call it a day as we had only done 30km in over 3 hours and were completely exhausted. Santiago, the owner of the ranch and his son Alonso, let us camp outside and we watched the milky way, while the wind stopped exactly at sunset…

Ivana in the Catavina desert (3)The next morning we left early to avoid the wind, but it had gotten up early with us. Still it was not as bad and we made it to Catavina relatively quickly. Catavina, the touristy little town in the middle of the desert of the same name was a depressing place.

At 10 o’ clock in the morning we entered the local abarrotes, the name for the small minimarkets that were to be found in every dusty place in Mexico, selling basic un-necessities and some useful items like water.

Sunset in Baja California, MexicoI saw a large electric waterfilter (‘Reverse OSmosis + UV!’) as asked the woman if we could refill our bottles.

She said the filter was working and the water was safe, but when I checked the back of the machine the electrical cord and plug were tied in a not, covered with years of dust and spiderwebs, so unfortunately we had to purchase another plastic container…

The other clients all bought either beer, or coke and liquor, while the sun was still rising. We bought some refried beans burritos and some quesadillas and watched a half-drunk family get back in their battered old van, 6 people on 3 seats, the rest was on a mattress in the back, sipping litre-bottles of beer.

It was getting hot, so we headed back up the hills. Sometimes the wind was pushing in the back, then either it or we turned a bit and got mummified from the front. Ivana’s thermometer said it was 45 degrees Celsius (113F) and even though I drank more than one litre per hour, I could not pee a drop in a course of 2 days, the water just evaporated from our bodies.

Kowalski in the desert Ivana in the Catavina desert (2)Valle de los Sirios, Baja, Mexico

Still it was a great place, giant cacti between graffiti-covered boulders lined the quiet road and we felt in a different world. The odd cirius trees were growing everywhere as well, simply a single almost-straight trunk, sometimes ending up divided near the top, but generally without any branches.

We had already climbed a lot during the day and as some places on the map were were out of business or simply did not exists, we had not rested during the hottest period. After another steep uphill where I had to again help overheated Ivana push her bike up, we were passed by a pick-up who offered us to take us to the next place. It was only 16km and most of it would be down-hill as we were on the highest point, but Ivana wanted to get out of the sun. The cold beer the guys gave us eased a bit of the pain of 10 minutes of driving down a nice steep slope.

We entered the small ‘Loncheria’ (where you can buy, yes you guessed it, ‘Lonch’) and had a short conversation with the sturdy woman behind the counter.

‘Buenos tardes (Good afternoon)!’ we greeted.

‘?Que queria?’ (What did you want?), was the reply.

We tried again with a greeting but got the same reply. We bought some water and asked if we could pitch our tent somewhere around the place.

‘There is a hotel somewhere.’, she pointed out towards the desert.

‘Where and how far?’ we asked out of politeness, adding that we were on bicycles.

‘There!’ she pointed again into the dust.

After this depressing person and similar place added enough tension between us to cause a short fight about taking rides, we decided to make some extra miles to make up for it and to enjoy the cooler afternoon air.

Desert camping in MexicoWe had seen a small place called ‘El Crucero’ on the map, 29 km away. Even though it was late, we had some great down hills and the wind was suddenly pushing, so we made it just before dark. The only downside was that there was no place to be found anywhere.

As we had to get off the road before dark, we followed a sideroad until we were out of sight and pushed our bikes into the desert. We were warned about the many spikes and cacti that had punctured so many a biketraveller’s tire and camping gear, so we carefully tried to remove the spikes from our path.

Stupid gringo as I am I tried to kick away a small fallen part of a cactus, but it punched right into my hard sole and managed to warp around, into my foot at the same time. I had to ask Ivana to pull it out, which took a lot more effort than getting it in…

We did not need to put the tent-fly, so if we hadn’t been so tired from this hot and hilly day (103km, excluding the 16km ride!) we could have watched the gazillion stars from our matresses…

Joshua Trees in MexicoCactus, Baja, Mexico

We woke up to another hot day. We were sweating at 7 in the morning trying to get our bikes out the minefield of spiky things. Somehow I like the desert, but when all animals, plants and animate objects are apparently only put there to make life harder or even end it prematurely (in the case of some plants and many insects, snakes and spiders), it was good to be on the hot dark road again…

Abarrotes Lupita, Villa Jesus Maria, MexicoWe learned from our mistake and stopped before 11 o’ clock, lounging and lunching on some car seats on the patio of a small Loncheria until it was a bit bearable again. We had gotten a book from our host Gary, back in Oregon, and due to lack of power and Internet (though my solar panel was charging the batteries) I finally had time to start this great travelogue: Chasing Che: A Motorcycle Journey in Search of the Guevara Legend

We spent 4.5 hours in Punta Prieta, waiting for the sun to ease its angle on the Mexican part of the earth’s surface, while fat girls cared for babies with American toys. I managed to make the world a slightly better place by killing about 10 flies in the meantime. Guess that Buddhism, the last religion that had any hopes for me, also has given up by now…

Sharing the road in Baja California Lunch and shade in the heatwave Sunset and cyclistPunta Prieta, Baja California, Mexico

It was still 40km to go to our next destination, Nuevo Rosarito and we rushed through the hills, over smaller and then bigger rollercoasters.

I waited for Ivana besides the road on one of the rare flat parts where you could see half a mile. Ivana was almost next to me, when an oversized SUV with Californian license plates, loaded with beach-stuff and two fat guys approached her with about 70 mile per hour (112km/h), swerving wildly to the left just before hitting her, then wildly back just in front.

All this on a clear road with no other traffic, perfect sight and a maximum speed of 30mph (60km/h). While passing they gestured maniacally with their hands indicating that we were crazy, to which I kindly attended them to the longest of my fingers.

Almost all large Mexican trucks always give plenty of space and wait when it is even a little bit unsafe to pass and then waive or honk friendly when they do, but somehow it is always the typical obese beach-yankee in their useless oversized SUV’s that think that they own the country, that are the biggest danger on the road…

Sunset arrival in RosaritoI was still pissed off when we zoomed down towards Nuevo Rosarito and stopped at the first restaurant we saw.

To celebrate the survival of our first real dessert we ordered some fried fish and camped our tent in the nice backyard, where we even discovered a hot shower!

But the night turned out less pleasant than expected. Not only were big trucks stopping all night long, their stinking diesel engines running stationary for hours before pulling out of the restaurant, but we both woke up feeling sick. I went into the bathroom and threw up my dinner, while Ivana passed it through the natural way, but at an unnatural speed and viscosity.

22 April 2009: with empty stomachs from Rosarito towards the 28th Parallel, 76km

Brave plants in Mexican desertWe felt weak but luckily the road flattened out after some minor climbs and even the road surface that for 10km had resembled something out of a horror movie rather than asphalt returned to Mexican normal.

It was still hot and though close to the sea, the vegetation was mostly limited to thorny things and surprising amounts of a close cousin of the Joshua Tree, but I also discovered some tiny brave berries on the desert floor.

Lunch in Villa Jesus MariaHalfway was a place called Villa Jesus Maria, not much more than a truckstop, where a nice family cut up a delicious fresh fruit mix on the spot. Ivana’s stomach was till upset and she due to her cramps she stuck with safer foods.

Many Vados, zero riversThe next 40 km were almost straight and as the wind changed from coming from the side to slightly from behind, we raced along the empty desert, passing many ‘vado’ signs.

It is hard to believe that these dips in the road have ever seen water, as we had not seen a drop of fresh water since leaving San Diego…

From miles away I could see a shape in the sky, that turned out to be a giant flag, rivalling the one in Ensenada for size, beating it in location: in the middle of nowhere.

The position was not as random as it might have appeared as we were approaching the 28th parallel. Not only a nice circle around the planet, but also the border between two Mexican states: Baja California Norte & Baja California Sur, the latter even being in a different time zone.

Little boy, Villa Jesus Maria, MexicoIt was time to get my Internet fix and as Ivana was still feeling sick we checked in the first motel we saw with ‘Internet’ on the side.

We got half price and awarded ourselves with an easy rest day before turning our clocks one hour ahead to Southern Baja Time. We survived the Northern part of Baja California. Not unscathed though and it is interesting to see what the even larger Southern part will bring…

Day 274-280, 11-17April09: Trucks, dust, wind, heat: Baja California Norte, Part1

April 28, 2009 by  
Filed under Baja California, Mexico, North America, Trip reports

We stayed a few days in Ensenada. Gerardo, who lives in the US, came down for a day, to resupply the local bikeshop (‘TNT’) with new bikes and parts and took us out for breakfast in the centre of Ensenada, where we visited a nice coffeeshop with Wifi. The town was virtually deserted, no tourist in sight.

Ivana’s knee was still hurting a bit, but we enjoyed the little house that Gerardo has opened up for cyclists passing South. We visited his friends Delia & Jose Antonio often and enjoyed just walking around the neighbourhood.

Downtown Ensenada Delia and Jose Antonio

15th April, Ensenada – Santo Thomas, 35 km

Yonke RomeroIt was time to hit the road again and we made our way across busy streets. We noticed a lot of ‘Yonke’ signs and realized that it one more Mexicanisation of an English word, ‘junk’!

After I took a photo of the Romero Yonke, for my friend Romke Jonker :), I turned to take a photo of Ivana approaching and almost shot her being run over by a truck that passed way too close for comfort.

It was going slow, but we were warned…

Ivana and the truck Ivana and the truck (2)Ivana and the truck (3)

On top of a hill we saw our first of several military checkpoints. They check for weapons going South from the USA to Mexico and beyond and drugs going the opposite way, but never once did we have to stop, nor were our passports or bags checked.

Doctor Viridiana, Santo Thomas, Mexico (2)We did more climbing than expected and as Ivana started feeling some pain, we decided to call it a day in a small town of Santa Thomas. The local campsite wanted more cash than the hiker-biker sites in the USA, so we continued down the road to ask for a suitable place to pitch a tent.

We found a small local hospital where a nice doctor was teaching the local and rural population about birth control, AIDS, nutrition and more.

She did not only share a nice ‘sopa de mariscos’ (seafood soup), but offered us the office to put our mattresses, so we did not even have to pitch a tent.

16th April, Santo Thomas – Colonet, 76km

We got our first taste of Baja climbing today, slowly climbing over a 450m high slope. The road was not too busy, but once we hit the steepest part, the road curved and we realized that although we could hear them coming from a kilometre away, the big trucks could not see us, so mostly we waited on the side of the road to let them pass.

Mexican DinnigIvana riding the transpeninsular

We had seen many signs depicting ‘campsite’ along the way, but they never had any direction, explanation, name or distance attached to them, so we never actually saw one.

The town of Colonet seemed to be nothing more than just a few dusty convenience stores along the highway, but when we went in one of the side roads we found a nice central Plaza, where we could ask the Police for a place to camp.

We entered to see about 5 guys lounging lazily in comfortable chairs, watching some soap opera on TV. One managed to get up and showed us a place in the backyard, where we could sleep. When we headed to a nearby mini-market to buy our totopos (nacho chips!) and salsa and to refill our water bottles (cheaper and more ecological than buying bottles), we got a lot of positive comments from kids and elders.

One family that apparently already had seen us on the road got so excited that they invited us to their house for dinner. As they could not explain much more than ‘up and behind that steep hill’, we decided to put our bikes in their van and -after letting the police know that we wouldn’t be staying- off we went.

Gerardo and his family lived outside of town in a small place, erected by a church group. Around it a few dogs were keeping the cows away from the food for the pigs and the chickens. They also had a campervan, which was normally reserved for his 3 girls to study, but now they insisted that we use the bed inside after we shared our totopos and some quesedillas, sharing mutual stories, 7 people around the light of 2 candles…

Areli, Colonet, Mexico (2)Our home in Colonet, Mexico

17th April 2009: Colonet – past san Quintin

Gerardo, his wife and 2 daughters left at 6 in the morning to catch the bus that would take them to work on the fields, paying about $10 per person per day. We spent some time with the 3rd daughter, Areli and then headed out on the bumpy road, back to Highway 1.

Mexico Highway 1 is just a two lane-road, exactly 2 trucks wide, divided in half by a mostly uninterrupted non-passing line. As with all traffic signals (stop signs, speed limits and even distances to the next town), this is merely a polite suggestion, and rarely appreciated.,There is no room for a bicycle if two vehicles are passing each other, so we had to be watchful all the time and our little rear-view mirrors were lifesavers.

Fortunately a large part of todays trip, a small part beside the road was paved, creating a narrow shoulder as wide as 1-2 feet, just enough to make cycling a bit more relaxed.

We passed some busy parts, the area called San Quintin was full of large and small trucks, but right after, traffic was much rarer and the wind was finally in our back for a while. We noticed some regular patterns around the road: trash every meter, ripped car tires every 10 meters and a memorial sign looking like a grave amidst car debris every kilometre or so…

This area was home to many tomato & strawberry growers and we ended up camping at a rest area between big farms, while big trucks were roaming around non-stop.

Tomorrow: Part 2 of Baja California Norte!

Middle of nowhere minimarketYet another ghost-river Desert boy, Mexico Yet another fatal car crash

Day 227-230, 23-26Feb09: US parking part1: Death Valley, Las Vegas & Zion

February 28, 2009 by  
Filed under California, North America, Trip reports, USA

We did not want to leave without seeing the marvellous natural wonders of the South-western US. It would take more than 6 weeks to visit all the places on a bicycle, which would probably ruin my knees and we would be in trouble as our visa was running out.

So we opted to rent a car instead. It was a tough trade-off: polluting the nature because we wanted to see the beauty of it… Let’s hope that my images can inspire some people to realize that these and other grand places still exist and that they need to be respected, preserved and protected for future generations.

23 February 2009: Death Valley

Often overlooked, yet so close to LA. I had been here before while working on the Dutch TV show the PlanetRace and I like it. It takes a while to get used to the place, but then the barren beauty will grip you. It is best to visit in winter as in summer it can get over 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees F) easily…

Cyclist in Death valleyZabriskie Point, Death Valley

Us in Death ValleyPainter's palette, Death Valley

Lone hiker, Death ValleyBadwater, Death Valley, lowest point in US

28 February – 1March 2009: Las Vegas

Dante's View, Death Valley We had stayed with Steven, a CouchSurfing host that works as a biologist in the park. After breakfast we went to see 2 more viewing points, Zabriskie Point (see pix above) and Dante’s View (left).

It is only a short ride through the desert from Death Valley to Las Vegas. Suddenly this huge city pops up, in the middle of dry mountains.

After meeting our new host, CouchSurfing Michael, we decided to drive to the famous Hoover Dam first. It was not so impressive, the new bridge they were building high in the sky (to take the loads of the dam road) was actually much more interesting.

Lake Mead, NevadaWe stopped for a moment to eat our lunch at Lake Mead, the artificial lake that was the result of the Hoover Dam, now a popular boating place. It was clear that the water level had been slowly falling, not sure if it will fill up again…

We headed back into Vegas and did a small tour of the casinos as Ivana had never seen anything like it. All places are kept dark (no windows) and the exit is the hardest thing to find. Everything is designed to keep you glued to your seat so you gamble and lose more.

We never gamble, but Ivana had saved up some quarters in change so we thought we’d give it a try. But though 5 years ago, you could hear the familiar (and stimulating!) sound of quarters in all slot machines, they had now all been changed. All machines only accepted paper money, credit card or paper vouchers. The latter was also the only thing you could win!

Ivana plays the horses, Las VegasWe checked several casinos, but no machine would accept our handful of quarters! Finally, in the MGM Grand we discovered that the small ‘Horseracing’ table would accept it and we spent an hour chasing plastic horses to the finish.

Every time we won, even for just 3 or 4 quarters, we paid out, so we could hear the ‘dink-cling-ting’ of the quarters. You could see from the faces of all the visitors that everybody thought this was much more fun than feeding credit cards underneath computer screens, but apparently Vegas is not about having fun.

Sad lion, MGM GrandIt turned out that the MGM Grand had a real live lion inside, though it looked so sad and drugged that ‘live’ maybe was an exaggeration, it was a pain to watch.

In the evening we went to visit Michael, as he works in a bar Downtown. He told us about the lightshow in the pedestrian zone, and it was great to see and hear.

A huge projection screen covering the entire street showed images of Queen and musical symbols, while ‘We are the Champions’ played from speakers everywhere.

We ended with viewing the famous light and fountain show at the Bellagio and headed back into the suburbs where Michael lives.

Here is a little overview of ‘Sin City’:

New York, New York, Las VegasIvana and New York, New York, Las Vegas

The Strip, Las VegasIvana and Excalibur, Las Vegas

Queen Light Show, Las Vegas (2)Fountains, Bellagio, Las Vegas (2)

25-26 February 2009: Las Vegas – Zion national Park

The next morning we visited the Venetian Hotel, which was beautiful in some ways, but –especially if you have been in the real Venice, and I do not mean LA- it was just grotesque and terrible..

Hikers in Zion NPWe managed to find our way out and entered the dry dusty desert again. It was already late and we were too late to buy our park permit for Zion National Park, so we decided to camp out and headed for the campsite. It was quite pricey, so we drove around to see if we could find some small tent, which we could share a place with. Just when I pointed out a small blue tent, Ivana said: Hey that are Fanny & Didier!

Weeping Rock, Zion NPShe was right, it was the cycling couple we had met a few weeks ago in Ano Nuevo.though they were supposed to be in Phoenix Arizona by now, they had been on such bad roads (the traffic was bad and there were no shoulders or other places to cycle), that they turned back and decided to rent a car instead…

However sad the reason, it was fun to see each other again and we made some nice pasta together before heading into our tent.

The next morning we bought our Annual National Park Permit pass. It costs about $80 but allows entrance into all parks and though it easy to dodge the entrance fees by arriving after dark, the money is well spent so we were happy to contribute a bit back.

Zion is a small park, but with a very nice quiet dead-end road, offering many routes for hiking or just to sit and watch the mountains. Due to my knee we could not do a longer hike, so we went out through a long tunnel and enjoyed a few stops on the East side of the park, admiring the orange and red rock formations.

Zion National Park (3)Zion National Park (8)

Zion National Park (14) Zion National Park (15)

Zion National Park (5) Zion National Park (7)

Next: Part 2: Bryce Canyon, Horseshoe Bend and Wire Pass Slot Canyon!

The next park was only a few hours away, Bryce Canyon was waiting for us, see the pix in the next report, coming up very soon…