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

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

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 Trip reports, North America, Mexico, Baja California

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 204-211, 31Jan-7feb 09. Sea life around the Monterey Bay

February 9, 2009 by  
Filed under Trip reports, North America, USA, California

Is this the end?

The sign on the left brought some reality into vision.

Could we continue with the current state of my knees or was this really the end?

There was only one way to find out.

31st Jan 2008: SF – Half Moon Bay, about 50km

I kept the Rohloff in low gear all the time and promised Ivana that I would get off the bike and push when it was getting steep. Ivana also had taken more weight than before, so my load would be lighter.

There were only two real hills but they were steep. First we slowly climbed 200 meters (650ft) from the sunny shores into the windy and cold rolling fog on the top of Daly City. Pushing the bike actually hurt my knee more, so I tried to cycle with just one leg doing all the work and that worked out quite well.

The next hill was steep but also so narrow that pushing would be too dangerous. We had arrived at the infamous ‘Devil’s Slide’, notorious for cyclists for the shoulder-less road with its blind corners leading from a dark forest to a scorching hot pass, 150m (500ft) higher.

The good thing was of course the downhill. As there was still not much shoulder, there was no choice but to full speed in the middle of the road…

We reached the state park campsite just before dark and could see the sunset from Half Moon Bay. The regular campsite was full at $25 per spot, but fortunately, almost every Californian State Park has a small ‘Hiker-Biker’ area, which has no hook-ups, but generally costs only $3-5 per person. This was completely empty and for $6 we had more space and were more secluded than all the RV’s. It was nice to be in our tent and in the open air again after a month of CouchSurfing in the city.

1-2 Feb 2008: Half Moon Bay – Santa Cruz via Ano Nuevo

The knee was not too bad, so we decided to do two more days of about 40-50km each. The first was a nice sunny day and we cycled relaxed. I had seen the recommendation to visit the Ano Nuevo State reserve in our guidebook (“Bicycling The Pacific Coast: A Complete Route Guide, Canada To Mexico“.

We had been using this book from Vancouver and though we varied a our route many times, the times we were on the ‘official route’, it was worth every cent. We used up one page at a time (in our see-through map cover of the Ortlieb handlebar-bag), so the book got lighter every day 🙂 Next time we need a Kindle version to save paper:

There was no official place to stay, so we went to ask the farmers; for the first time in our trip, we were sent away from not 1 but 2 farms, each with loads of space. The caretakers were not the owners and everybody seems to be terrified of getting sued for anything…

It is a shame, as all we needed was a few square meters of grass; we could even have shared some great stories with them… Anyway, we ended up camping secretly on some grass near the farms behind some old buildings and made sure we were ready to go in the early morning.

Ano Nuevo ParkOnly a mile down the road was the Ano Nuevo park, home of the biggest colony of Elephant Seals. As it was breeding season, we could not go to the seals without a guide, and as all tours were reserved, we had some time for a relaxed breakfast in the sun, next to some deer.

The friendly people in the Visitor Centre not only found us a spot in a group, but they also waived the fee for us, after hearing about our trip and low daily budget! We ended up watching the Seals and their young with a very nice group of elderly people from San Jose (see their ‘leader’ Don here). They were on their weekly hiking trip (!) and enjoyed the seals and the entertaining stories of the docent/guide.

After the tour we had lunch with them (thanks for the salmon sandwich!) and when saying goodbye several members of the group surprised us by giving us some cash donations! We were not quite sure what to say, but it was appreciated, as we had to replace our mattresses and their generosity covered that exactly.

Fanny and DidierWe also met two other biketravellers, originally from Switzerland, living in Vancouver. Fanny & Didier were on their way from Vancouver to Phoenix, from where they would return home. They nearly had an accident on the Devil’s Slide when Fanny hit a stick with her pannier. We gave them some Ortlieb repair kit and continued our way, while they went to see the seals, but they caught up with us a few hours later.

We had not had much internet the past days, so we only found out in Santa Cruz that we had offers from several ‘WarmShowers’. Ivana went out to find the cyclists again, so they could ‘use’ one of the address that had reacted later.

We stayed with Deb & Tom, a very friendly couple with a nice house and enthusiastic young dog! We had joked before that after 2 nights of camping, we were ready for a soft bed again and our wish was granted 😉

3-4 Feb 2008: Santa Cruz – Monterey, via Sunset Beach, 35 + 60km

The next morning we first went to visit the gallery of one of my nature and landscape favourite photographers who lives near Santa Cruz: Frans Lanting, scroll the books below for some of his classics:

Unfortunately Frans was not there himself, but it was great to see the full-size prints of his classic shots, that are for sale in his gallery..

Ivana and cactustree in Monterey BayWe continued our way through the maze of Santa Cruz, guided by the book until we suddenly left the city for a more rural surrounding. Fields and fields of strawberries were being planted by dozens of Mexican labourers. We had had more small hills than expected; my knee was hurting and we decided to call it a day at the Hiker-Biker site of Sunset Beach eating around a campfire of pinecones…

Seal parkingThe next morning we started out ok, meandering through the fields, seeing more strawberry fields and a huge parking garage for seals. But just when the strawberries gave way to the artichokes a super strong wind blew in our face and we had to fight our way into it.

Artichokes in Monterey bay (2)There are some nice bike lanes closer to Monterey, though our positive feelings were overshadowed by a posted warning sign that mentioned that a jogger was attacked and that we should not cycle or run alone on this trail…

Artichokes grow hereMonterey is quite a nice town, with beaches, a pier and a touristy centre. We had time to cycle and look around the famous Canary Wharf before heading back to the pier for nearly unlimited samples of clam chowder 🙂

We checked the famous aquarium, but the $30 per person entrance fee was outside our budget, so we went to look for the free sea wildlife instead.

We spotted an otter far away, but later we saw him again, close to the shore, eating away his seafood dinner, while the seals were sleeping on the rocks and the birds were waiting for leftovers. It is great that the shores of Monterey bay are a protected reserve, else these scenes would only be visible inside the aquarium…

Seaotter with seafood Seagull in Monterey

Monterey birdsSleeping Seal

We stayed two nights with Nathan, a young outdoor sports lover. We were his first CouchSurfing guests, but I think he enjoyed it!

He was very nice, helped us with some errands (we bought new mattresses from our donation money) and let us stay during the day, so we could catch up with some work.

Ivana lost herself in a new miniseries we had not seen before: Weeds, which was quite an interesting way to look at some aspects of US culture.. It was fun to see as well, we had not been watching any TV for several months.

In the evening we went to a bar in town and met up with our next hosts: biketraveller Diego and his friends. We moved to their house in Pacific Grove the next day through a terrible rain shower and arrived soaked.

We stayed a few days with them, and went for a 40km circular ride to the monarch butterfly gardens, the coast and along the famous ‘17 Mile Drive’. The latter was a bit overrated in our view as it is just a collection of too big houses, (of which half were for sale) and the rest of the area are endless golf courses filled with old, unhappy looking guys with funny pants, and some deer… Still some of the views were nice and it was relexed to cycle without luggage:

Goose on the beach, Monterey View from 17 Mile drive

View from 17 Mile drive (2) Deer on the 17 Mile Drive

An afternoon in the aquarium

When he heard that we did not visit is because of the high entrance fee, Diego contacted a friend of his that works at the Aquarium. He arranged that we could come in for a brief visit close to closing time, for free!

Monterey Aquarium fishies Montery Seahorse

Though we do not enjoy captive animals, the aquarium was quite impressive. The otters (both river- as sea otters) were our favourites again, but we were completely mesmerized by the hypnotic display of bright orange jellyfish in blue water:

Jellyfish Jellyfish (3)

Jellyfish (5) Jellyfish (6)

Kowalski! Status Report!

Seaotter in aquarium

My knee was not getting better, but also not much worse. It was very painful after resting and sitting, but not too bad during actual cycling…

It was time to say goodbye to Diego, Rose and Ximena and continue our way South to the famous names like Big Sur, Santa Barbara, Santa Monica and of course: Los Angeles!