Words and photos by Jona and Franzi Wernsing of Tales on Tyres
I have always been fascinated by borders. Separating land and people, cultures and traditions. Letting you dive into a completely different world within seconds by crossing an invisible line drawn between two countries. All you have to do is, walk past border controls and wire fences and getting an approved nod and stamp from an officer. And then, there you are. Unfortunately what has always excited me, also challenges my beliefs. Some people never get to cross borders like that, they are prisoners in their own countries because they not ‘allowed in’ anywhere else.
We leave San Diego quite late in the morning, it is the starting point for the Baja Divide Route which will take us to Mexico and all the way across the peninsula of Baja California to La Paz in the next seven weeks. A 1700 mile bikepacking route mainly following dirt roads and long forgotten jeep tracks. Established by Nicholas Carman and Leal Wilcox, who spent most of their time in the past years not in their hometown in Alaska, but rather connecting lines and dots down in Mexico, this route is the perfect winter escape for many bikepackers.
Our late start and the first kilometers of navigating through San Diego’s heavy traffic, forces us to sleep the night very close to the border. We decided not to pitch our tent and to just sleep outside on the ground. It is warm enough and we feel a little uneasy, wondering if sleeping so close to the border will cause any problems. Pictures and scenes I have seen in movies and TV shows throughout the years are rushing through my mind. I see people with torn up shirts and pants crawling through the prickly dry bushes, desperate but full of hope, while others are whispering sharp orders and I just hope that there won’t be anything like that tonight. In the night, we hardly get to sleep, every ten minutes cars from the border control are passing us, taking their turns and patrolling the area. I keep my passport close but they never stop. I wonder if they might already know who we are or if, what I can’t imagine, haven’t seen us.
The next morning, we feel tired and after a quick coffee we continue our way to Tecate, our first stop in Mexico. The border crossing goes smoothly and before we know it we find ourselves south of the border. The smell of freshly made Tacos is hanging in the air, the plaza is filled with people and a band is playing somewhere. We stop for a while and let the atmosphere sink in. Everyone around us speaks Spanish. Finding a supermarket or asking for direction is difficult, we hardly understand anything and we hardly can express ourselves. But I look forward to this challenge, I always wanted to learn to speak Spanish.
Weeks before we had been talking over Instagram to Przemek and Saska, two fellow bikepackers who wanted to join us for the Baja Divide Route. We loosely arranged to meet somewhere behind Tecate. Before we veer off the trail we make sure that we leave clearly recognizable tire tracks. Only two hours later we can already hear two cyclist approaching. That night instead of listening to the driving of border patrol, we are sharing stories over a couple of lukewarm beers. Our gang is complete and the ride can begin.
The first days we take it slow, not on intention more accidentally. The heat invites us to stop often and rest. Additional to that, we have many stories to share. It feels like we are on holiday. We start late in the day after cups of coffee and cycle slowly, having a beer or two when we come pass a shop and often stop early in the evening to watch the sun go down over the dramatic landscape. We spent our days posing with over dimensional cacti and making friends with stray dogs.
Most of the beginning of the route cuts through pretty remote parts of Baja California. Water is rare and hard to find. Luckily, far out in the desert you can find some lonesome Ranchos. And this is when Mexico, the country everyone has warned us about turns out to be nothing like it. The act of simply asking for some water, can turn into an invite to taste some homemade Mexican food and to leave again with bags stuffed full of oranges and limes from the orchards of the Ranchos. The people don’t seem to care about our lack of Spanish and even if the communication is far from fluid, it is filled with laughter, kindness and jokes. And even if the Baja Divide is more about being in the nature and out there, it makes the kind encounters with the people even more worthwhile.
The further South we are heading, the more intense becomes the heat. During midday, cycling is nearly impossible, the heat is draining our energy levels but some days we don’t have a choice. The amount of kilometers we manage to cover seems to shrink everyday. The often hilly landscape of the North has changed to being more flat but cut through with stretches of deep sand. We ride 2.8” tires, Saska and Przemek only 2.4”. The small difference has a big impact. Covering distances, half pushing half riding, feeling like the weight of your bicycle has doubled, challenges all of us.
The days, drinking beers and watching sunsets are over. Distances between towns and Ranchos grow further apart. Which means for us that we need to carry more water but also enjoy nights watching a million stars sparkle against the dark, black sky with no other soul around. During these days, we feel we have really left civilization behind. This is what we had hoped to find riding the Baja Divide: Solitude.
But the remoteness has its price and I personally get to experience it. While climbing out of a valley, a wasp get stuck in my helmet. While I try to get it out somehow, the one thing happened, that I wanted to avoid at all costs. It stings me, but not in my arm or leg, no right above my eye. It swells up fast and only two hours later I can’t open my eye anymore at all. It gets worse overnight. I am worried but we are way too far from the next town to get any help and the last car we have seen was 2 days ago. Our first aid kit is basic and includes nothing we could use in this case. There is no other option than to keep on riding. Though it wasn’t easy with one eye, especially on uneven ground. I struggle and push some parts but 4 hours later we finally reach a small petrol station. All of us are relieved, we have made it back into civilization.
It only takes a few more days and the sting disappears but it was definitely a good reminder that we had to be careful and maybe better prepared for emergencies next time.
After a few more weeks, we reach the southern part of the Baja Divide and once more the landscape and the surroundings change. The long, remote desert stretches get once more replaced by tracks which lead us through small mission towns. The cobbled stone streets and beautiful adorned house facades reminding of different times. Long gone but still present. It is very different of what we seen so far of Mexico and we are fascinated already about the diversity this little stretch had offered us. With La Paz moving closer, all of us feel like we want to keep on riding, we don’t want to reach the finish line. These seven weeks have been more than we had hoped for when we had left San Diego. We have made new friends, explored a new country and have spent a great amount of time in absolute solitude.
In La Paz we drink a last beer together, Saska and Przemek are heading back home while we continue riding through Mexico. While we sip this cold beer, looking at the ocean, we all agree that no doubt in a few years we would have to meet up again to ride the Baja Divide one more time. Maybe this time South to North. Just for a change!
Interested in riding the Baja Divide? Head over to https://bajadivide.com/ for more informations about the route.