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?
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.
- where to go to, from Vallarta,
- where to sleep…
- 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.
When 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…
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.
That 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.
Just 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
We 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.
A 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.
There 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
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.
An 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
The 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.
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.
Armed 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.
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!
- Mangos 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:
Day 292-297, 29 April – 4 May 2009: Baja California Sur, pt2: Hot roads, Bahia Concepcion, hidden gems and cruisers
29 April 2009: Mulege – Buenaventura beach, 43km, 500m up and down
Once 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.
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.
30th April 2009: Buenaventura beach – Bahia Concepcion South, 20 km, 150 m up/down
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.
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…
Though 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.
The 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.
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.
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…
It 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.
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!
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…
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.
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.
We 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…
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.
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.
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.
We 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…
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…
We 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…
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…
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
We 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.
Halfway 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.
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.
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…