El agua es vida
“El agua es Vida,” said Raul, one of the two men we found holding down the fort, or rather ranch, at Rancho Escondido. The statement was prompted by my query about the source of water at the ranch (it’s a well, and they have two), and also about how frequently it rains in that area (almost never – only in September and October – remember this part for later in the post). While riding through the desert in the summertime, we have become intimately familiar with how important water is. In fact, almost all of our travels have been dictated by water. As Raul said, Water is Life!
After a hearty breakfast, we left Bahia de Los Angeles (BOLA), our last stopping point, at 7:00 AM. The reported next source of water was 70 miles away, so we carried what we thought would allow us to reach that place in two days time, intending to camp approximately half way there on the route somewhere. The road leading away from BOLA started off reasonable, and we pedaled up a slight uphill grade in the increasingly hot sun. As we did so, and started to consume our supplies, and sweat, it became apparent that rationing our water was going to be tough.
Baja is way more mountainous than I think most people realize.
Being surrounded by these hills almost always means that we have some climbing to do.
This was either a jail cell, or a horse stable.
After a couple of hours of riding, we were overtaken by a pair of pickup trucks, both of which stopped to make sure that we were OK. For the record, vehicles stopping like that seems to be the norm here, perhaps because we always pull over to the side of road and wait for the cars to pass us. The driver of the first truck asked if we were OK and I replied that we were, but seeing the passenger with a big bottle of cold water (I could tell it was cold by the frostiness of the plastic bottle) prompted me to ask if they had any extra to spare. This goes against my nature – asking for help when I wasn’t really in any dire need of it – but I knew that many others do ask for water, and so I decided to see if they had some to share. As you might imagine, they were more than happy to give us some, and passed over a nice 1.5L bottle before wishing us well and continuing on their way.
Uncharacteristically, there was a bit of traffic on the road we were traveling, partially due to the fact that there was some road work being completed down the way. We repeated the ask-for-water scenario two more times that day, but still felt as though we were dehydrated. Although I’m sure that we ultimately would have been OK, we really underestimated our water requirements for that section of the route. In our defense, it’s pretty easy to do as the heat affects how much we drink, as does the difficulty of the riding, which we never really know until we get out there.
In spite of our water challenges, we made exceptional time in the morning, completing our goal of 25 miles before noon. We found a big shade tree to have lunch under, and following that, proceeded to take a siesta until 2:00 PM. We should have waited even longer as riding in the afternoon is really not productive, but with the idea that we might be able to make it all the way to San Rafael, a beach-side location 46.4 miles from BOLA, we decided to push on early.
Our welcome return to the Sea of Cortez.
Pancho’s Beach is just up ahead.
Like virtually every location we have visited, San Rafael has a gatekeeper of sorts. A gatekeeper which makes the final miles into the location more difficult than you would expect. In San Rafael’s case, it was an extremely washboarded road, with some steep hills thrown in for good measure. In other spots, we’ve had to deal with very rocky sections, or deep sand, or in the case of Santa Rosalillita, where the approach road was actually smooth pavement, we were subjected to a 30-40 knot headwind. Yes, seriously, I’m pretty good at judging wind speed!
San Rafael has one permanent resident, Pancho, a former mariner who we learned has lived in that location for 31 years. He’s been there so long that our chart doesn’t even say San Rafael… it says Pancho’s Beach! When we arrived to his home, which I should add, overlooks a beautiful bay, he immediately welcomed us, showing us where we could store our bikes and where we could camp. He also immediately offered us coffee, and later, dinner. Additionally, after sharing our water dilemma, he also handed us a brand new, store-bought 5L bottle of purified water! How is that for hospitality! We spent the evening chatting, as best as our Spanish would allow, and enjoyed a dolphin show while we did so, no doubt put on just for our benefit.
Our tent in the foreground, and Pancho’s house in the distance.
Our own private dolphin show.
They were being extremely playful.
Having water made available to us was an important factor as our route resupply list didn’t indicate that it would be. This, I think, is one of the benefits of traveling in Baja off season. I have to imagine that if 40 riders showed up to Pancho’s place, he would not have been able to dole out water to every person, but since we are the only people around at this time of year, he was in a position to share. With water on hand, we decided to take an entire day off at San Rafael rather than push on the next day. And coincidentally, the day off coincided with our 14th wedding anniversary, and there was no better place to spend it!
Sunrise as viewed from our tent.
Not a bad camping spot, eh?
There were a few pangas, belonging to local fishermen, on the beach.
Too bad this wasn’t fresh water.
Rebecca’s creation. Isn’t she sweet?
As the day progressed, we had to keep rotating around this shack to avoid the sun.
Our day off was spent relaxing, with much of it either hiding from the sun and reading, or swimming in the sea. Rebecca also managed to squeeze in a bit of hiking and exploring. We spent the evening hours visiting with Pancho, and his friend Oscar, a road engineer working on the nearby project. Coincidentally, Oscar was one of the people who gave us water back on the road, and he brought us another 5L from BOLA! Our final night at Pancho’s was spent at his house where Rebecca cooked us all dinner from our food supplies. We then ended the evening by playing poker for bottle caps. A perfect anniversary!
Can you see the woman in the distant hills?
Rebecca preparing dinner for us.
We are extremely happy that we got to spend time with Pancho.
With a full supply of water, we pushed on the next day towards Rancho Escondido. We knew that there would be a climb involved in getting there, and once on the road, we were extremely happy that we put in the extra miles the days before. The road was terrible! I wrote about our experience with washboarded roads before, and this one, and in fact, most of the road since BOLA, was similarly damaged. That was, in fact, what Oscar and his crew were working to repair, regrading the road until it was level again. Sadly, I imagine it’ll only be a matter of time until it is just as bad as before.
Sunrise before setting off to Rancho Escondido.
It’s difficult to see but the green area is all very large cacti.
After another hot and sweaty day of riding, we pulled up to Rancho Escondido, and were stunned by how picturesque a location it was. We honestly had no idea what to expect, but I know that neither of us had imagined such a scenic spot in the middle of the desert. As it turned out though, there was virtually no one there. No guests, as you might expect in the summertime, but also almost no staff. Raul and Sicho (sp?) were the only two present, but in spite of that, they made us feel welcome.
We made it!
It’s a beautiful estate, with an overlook up on the hill behind the house.
Fantastic shady spot up on the rock hills, overlooking the ranch.
The ranch is pristine.
Some of the local residents.
Which came first?
Not quite like the big jack rabbits we see running in the desert!
Usually the first thing we can see when approaching a ranch.
As I mentioned earlier, I’m sure that traveling off season is giving us a much less-typical experience. We shared snacks and drinks (homemade wine and tequila) with the guys, and played dominoes together in the afternoon. As the sun set, Raul asked if we’d like to take a walk to a nearby ranch, which was “just over there” he said. Of course, we agreed, only to find out that “just over there” equated to at least a mile or more down a deep sand path, in the dark! When we arrived at the ranch, we found that the entire reason for visiting it was to acquire a bottle of champagne, champagne which was to help celebrate Rebecca’s birthday, a detail which I let slip earlier in the day. Pretty cool, eh?
As I took this image, the sun was setting on another day.
Taken during our evening champagne stroll.
Our next intended stopping point was another ranch, Piedra Blanca, approximately 19 miles down the road. Even though we left Rancho Escondido early, it wasn’t long before we were riding in the intense heat again. On a washboarded road. Fortunately, with such a relatively short distance to travel, we were able to arrive at our destination just after noon. Upon doing so, we rehydrated, purchasing cold drinks at their little snack stand, and then did what both man and beast were doing at the ranch, hiding in the shade until the sun had done most of its damage for the day.
Raul and Sicho. They look like real cowboys, don’t they!
Before we left Rancho Escondido they loaded us up with fresh mangoes and cucumbers.
A paved ascent in the distance. We were not expecting to see that!
The small oval sections are called tuna, a kiwi-like fruit that we have come to enjoy.
A couple of store-bought tuna with the pointy bits removed. You cut off the skin and eat the inside.
Piedra Blanca is a real working ranch. There were horses and cows, and cowboys to tend to them. I regret not having taken more photos there, but the truth is, we didn’t want to leave the safety of our shade tree. Speaking of shade, I commented on Facebook that I have become a lot more comfortable with two things:
- Bees. They are everywhere that there is fresh water, which admittedly is quite rare, but if we want water, we have to contend with them. For example, I had to turn on a tap that had at least 20 bees on the handle, along with another hundred or so flying nearby. Happily, they are not aggressive.
- Cow poo. It is under virtually every shade tree (cows are apparently smarter than cyclists) so if you want to hide from the sun, and you DO want to hide from it, you get used to having it in close proximity.
I regret not having pics of the cowboys dealing with the cattle. They were pros!
The nights have been so warm that, as we did at Rancho Escondido, we simply slept on our sleeping pads under a palapa, sans tent. In this case, it was quite fortunate that the palapa was waterproof because, guess what, it rained during the night! Not a lot of water, mind you, but enough, and it was accompanied by a good assortment of thunder and lightning. And as it turned out, that rain paved the way for an exceptional next day of riding!
Leaving Piedra Blanca under a dark, cloudy sky.
The clouds were ominous, and there was still the odd bit of thunder and lightning.
The rain brought our some more of the flowers.
The photo may not show it well but everything looked much more green.
As before, we planned to split the distance from Piedra Blanca and Vizcaino, our next big destination, into two 25-mile days. Once we started riding though, the cooler weather and the improved road conditions (still corrugated, and still sandy, but better, and slightly downhill) allowed us to make stellar time. We had thought that we’d reach El Arco by noon hour but instead, rolled into town before 9:00 AM! Using the word town to describe El Arco is perhaps a bit of an exaggeration as there are presently only 4 inhabitants, but we were warmly welcomed, and permitted to top up our water supply before pushing on.
Just outside of El Arco.
Lower tire pressure to ride through the sand.
We found the worst of the sand south of Guillermo Prieto.
Fueled by such an early success, we were inspired to try to make it all the way to Vizcaino, but it was still another 30 miles away. And unfortunately, the road between the two spots was reported to deteriorate rapidly, until ultimately becoming “a purely sandy track traveling dead straight 7-10 miles.” Riding in deep sand is difficult, especially on heavy bikes like ours, and we were counseled to lower the pressure in our tires to make the job less difficult.
In spite of our misgivings about this section of the trail, it actually turned out to be not too bad, or at least, the part that we thought was going to be tough wasn’t. It ultimately did get difficult, but not until closer to our destination (gatekeeper, remember?), and by then, the appeal of a hotel room with a shower was too great to stop us! On a related note, we were confused to see that the time on our iPhones changed while transiting this section of the route. Apparently, as we crossed the line between Baja North to Baja South, which is just south of El Arco, we lost an hour. Who knew?
Re-inflating the tires before hitting the next rocky section.
We met Kodiak and Vane, who are also heading south, in Vizcaino.
After a 48 mile day, our biggest so far, we pulled into the highway town of Vizcaino, just before 5:00 PM. Surprisingly, just as we were approaching the highway from a right angle, having arrived on a back road from the hills, we both spotted a couple of cyclists go by on the highway, with what we thought were panniers on their bikes. We both asked the question, “Were they cycle tourers?” As it turned out, they spotted us too, and asked a similar question before circling back to greet us. Kodiak and Vane, from Mexico City, are also traveling north to south in Baja, but are taking a more pavement-oriented route than we are. Sharing dinner with the two of them was fun, and they now hold the distinction of being the very first cycle tourers that we have met in our travels!
- Bahia de los Angeles to San Rafael – 42.14 km, 6:42 hours
- San Rafael to Rancho Escondido – 41.62 km, 6:39 hours
- Rancho Escondido to Rancho Piedra Blanca – 32.88 km, 5:16 hours
- Rancho Piedra Blanca to Vizcaino – 77.39 km, 9:44 hours