The next day we woke early, with intentions of getting well stuck into the big climb that awaited us almost on our doorstep. After several hours of faffing – figuring out for the first time with a vengeance where exactly everything went on our bikes, we eventually rolled out to start our Baja Divide…
Our guesthouse was right on the route, which meant that after a very short downhill roll, we veered off the main road and onto singletrack – something of a baptism of fire, getting accustomed to the handling of the weighty bikes on a winding trail. A short section back on the road and we found ourselves at the foot of one of the Divide’s biggest climbs – Otay Mountain! 800m to climb, up to just over 1000m of altitude. We’re both accustomed to big climbs on our road bikes, but given our relative lack of cycling in the months leading up to going away, our fitness left something to be desired and the gravel track offered up some steep pitches. It was very much a matter of just getting the head down and getting stuck in. A few bends up, we passed a family coming down the track in a dune buggy, who stopped to warn us that there was an angry rattlesnake round the next corner in the bushes that they ‘might have prodded with a stick’! Marvellous. Confident that we’d have opportunities for interactions with less angry rattlesnakes in the future, we gave the aforementioned bush a wide berth and cracked on!
Keen to keep our weight down for the climb and wary of our poor form, we’d carried relatively meagre amounts of water which, after a hot climb for two unacclimatised Brits, began to run low on the descent. We had a fair way on dirt tracks until we linked back up with the main road and the very welcome Barrett Junction diner, each of us happily sinking back about a litre of Coke. An early reminder that water is not the best place to start when trying to save weight!
Another, shorter, climb and we found ourselves rolling down to the border and straight to the Mexican Customs. Clearly the US is really not interested in who is leaving the country! For that matter, we could have just walked straight through the gate into Mexico too, but decided to search out somebody to stamp our passports. After a few formalities, we were ushered through the gate and, there we were in the Mexican border town of Tecate. Our first international border crossing of the trip. It’s funny how crossing an international border on a bicycle really does remind you of the arbitrary nature of our self-imposed nation states. As inhabitants of an island nation, I think we Brits do have a slightly different relationship with borders. Going abroad (and I’m not including trips to Scotland and Wales here!) has always involved a train, ferry or plane journey. Our borders are relatively clearly defined by geography (with the obvious exception of Northern Ireland, but let’s not get into that). I’m not arguing that they are any more justified or appropriate, but that the experience of crossing them on foot or two wheels is certainly different than for citizens of those nations with land neighbours. Walking or cycling across a border, especially when you throw in a change of language and/or economic development to the mix, makes those lines in the sand seem even crazier.
We headed to a hostel in town to relax and then went out for a wander to do our first Mexican food shop. This is always an amusing prospect, working out what the predominant foods are, what can be carried for several days on a bike in potentially quite hot temperatures and how you make those ingredients into calorie-rich and reasonably edible meals! It looked like this leg of the trip would be heavily dependent on tortillas, avocados, refried beans and cheese, with the occasional foray into pasta and sauce when water could be spared for cooking. With that done, we proceeded to ignore the classic guidebook rule of “no street food” and found a taco stand offering a wide variety of meat-based options. It was clear that meat would be a core component of the cuisine here in Mexico, so we might as well suspend our quasi-vegetarianism and get stuck in. It wouldn’t be until a couple of nights later, with a much more helpful taco stand owner, that we properly deciphered the menu and learnt which ones were the best to order!
The first few miles out of Tecate the next morning were on the main road out of town, before we grabbed a final cold drink at one of the omni-present Oxxo convenience stores and headed off onto the dirt. From this point on, our journey down the peninsular would be about 98% on dirt roads.
If we needed reminding that we were riding straight out into the wilderness, it was made clear a short time later. Riding round a corner, Sarah pulled alongside me and we began to chat about something. Taking my eyes off the road for a moment, I looked down again as Sarah exclaimed “snake!”, and rode clean over the tail of a coiled brown snake! Needless to say, we rolled on a few metres, before stopping to glimpse back at what we could now see was clearly an angry rattlesnake hissing in an aggressive position. Note to self: keep your eyes on the road at all times! That doesn’t happen too often on the quiet country lanes of Essex.
That afternoon took us up and across relatively green scrubland and through several leafy green meadows, which didn’t exactly conform with the pictures that we had in our minds of Mexico. We didn’t take it for granted, however, knowing that shade like this would be much more scarce further south. Amusingly, as we were embarking on our journey down into the arid desert of Baja California, we both remarked how much we liked trees and the sound as the wind gently wafts through them (yes, Matt/Tim, their psithurism). Oh well, Colombia will surely have plenty of trees!
That evening, we pulled off the track and found a nice quiet spot away from the road, perfect for Sarah’s first night of wild camping. Having put up the tent and wolfed down some food, we climbed some nearby rocks to get a view of the sunset. A great first evening…