Touring Baja Divide
By Hannah Johnston
Photos by Hannah Johnston & Alexis Mincer
“What resort did you stay in” the leathered, middle-aged woman sitting to my right asked. Our plane back from Cabo was filled with a mix of hung over college co-eds returning from spring break and what I assumed were newly retired condo owners.
“Mostly we slept in the desert,” I responded. As the woman turned her head, I could see the folds in her neck stretch to show just how tan she really was. She looked confused and I silently congratulated myself on my very thorough hand-laundering abilities, taking the exchange as an indicator that I hadn’t completely offended the olfactory glands of those seated in my vicinity. “It was a mountain bike trip” I said, and our conversation quickly concluded.
10 days earlier I had arrived in Cabo San Jose on the 30th birthday of one of my oldest friends. Alexis and I had met in kindergarten, and in the 25 years of our friendship, we had been on many adventures together. She was a strong cyclist though had never been on a bike tour. My touring resume included a few long trips but nothing extensive in the backcountry.
We chose Baja for a few reasons.
Ultra endurance cyclist Lael Wilcox and her partner Nick Carmen had just released their Baja Divide route. They spent three months over the 2015-16 winters putting together an amazing 1,700 mile route from San Diego, California to San Jose del Cabo. I had spent the early winter months drooling over the social media posts from the grand depart that left San Diego on January 2nd to ride the route.
The pictures looked beautiful, the weather was warm, and the route was dirt. I had recently received a new GT Zaskar as part of the That’s What She’d Shred competition run through Pretty Damned Fast and was hoping to get more acquainted with the bike, and I was finishing up a long winter up north where the trails had been covered with ice and snow for months. Plus tacos, plus adventures, plus getting an early start on crisp cycling tan lines for the 2017 summer season.
At the southern end of the Baja Divide is the 250 mile “Cape Loop”. With 8 days of riding, we concluded this was the perfect trip, and it was.
The route was amazing and as we waiting for our bikes to at the oversized luggage carousel I mentioned to Alexis that I’d do it again in a second. But it wasn’t all easy and we learned some good lessons.
1. Don’t be polite. When someone offers you water in the desert, take it. Always.
We spent our first night at the Cactus Inn Hotel a mile south of the airport. Recommended in the Baja Divide notes, we found the hotel to be a great base – both for the start and the end of our trip. The hotel runs 600 pesos a night and has the same owner as the Cactus Car Rental who can provide transportation to and from the Los Cabos International airport. Monica, who runs the hotel agreed to keep our bike boxes so that we could use them for our return, and provided a wealth of knowledge on local festivals, local bus travel to the downtown center, and more.
Staying at the Cactus Inn gave us a great opportunity to build up our bikes, purchase groceries, and load up on water before our departure to Todos Santos. We left with about 5 litres of water each and planned to make the trip in two days. By the middle of the day, just as we neared the second pass, four Americans pulled up on dirt bikes. We joked about how much easier the climbing must be with a motor and they asked if we needed anything – offering their water as they were headed directly to a small store. “No” we responded modestly.
By that evening we were down to two litres each and by our departure the next day, one and a half. Unfamiliar with the territory and baking in the sun, by the time 11am rolled around we were kicking ourselves for not taking up the Americans on their offer the previous day. Alexis flagged down a delivery truck. Erazmo filled us up with two litres of water and a slew of life advice. He encouraged us to reach out to knock on a door if we needed anything. “Ese gente te ayuda” he said. “Pregunten por lo que necessitan”. We spent the rest of the trip hauling more water than we probably needed, but daily sighting of cow skeletons were an important reminder: in a place of extreme temperatures, the stakes are high.
2. For those who have never spent time in the desert, it is hard to get comfortable.
I had never been to the desert. Not only were the days unbelievably hot, but the nights were ridiculously cold. It was the end of March and my summer 50-degree bag wasn’t cutting it. By our fourth night, I had realized I had to dawn every article of clothing I brought. Two pairs of socks, a jacked, a long sleeve shirt, and t-shit. A quick dry towel wrapped around my waist, two Benadryl and I could get a sort-of-decent sleep.
The Baja Divide website states the best time to ride the route is between November and March. The wet season would render much of the route unrideable and probably pretty frightening. Canyon descents with boulders the size of car tires strewn along either side of jeep tracks had me imagining dangerous raging rivers after a storm. The March advisory should also be heeded. Temperatures much higher than what we experienced (low and mid-nineties) would be equally unpleasant.
I suspect that temperature acclimation is as real a phenomenon as elevation acclimation, and I’m sure there is great research out there somewhere on it.
3. Baja is beautiful, especially on social media.
Baja is beautiful. The desert is a vibrant and magical place. You can spend hours perusing the #bajadivide hashtag on Instagram for thousands of pictures that hint at just how fun riding bikes down there is. However, keep in mind as you’re sifting through beautiful images that it is our collective societal tendency to post beautiful photos of great moments that we hope to preserve. But those photos don’t tell the whole story.
What social media won’t tell you is that the Baja Divide is challenging. The grades are steep and when it isn’t steep, it often sandy. The pictures (ours included) won’t show folks pushing their bikes through sandy track too loose to ride, even though those moments do exist. The notes offered by Lael and Nick focus more on descriptions of the actual trail rather than any sort of qualitative assessment of difficulty. We were glad to have found blog entries by a couple who biked a route similar to ours in December. It gave us a better sense of what to expect for each day with respect to climbs, sand, and coordinates on where they camped. As more people ride the route, blog entries will proliferate and offer future information helpful to other aspiring travelers.
What social media also won’t tell you is that while the route is overwhelmingly beautiful, there are also moments where it’s not. There are sections that pass through areas bestrewn with garbage; riders we met who had traveled the whole length spoke about a mile section up north that passed through a smoldering dump. Those moments, however, are brief.
The overwhelming consensus – not only between Alexis and I – but also of all the others we met, is that the Baja Divide is characterized by hard and rewarding riding. Lael and Nick did an awesome job with the route. For anyone with a free week next winter and the means and inclination to ride some dirt, head down and do the cape loop.