The name “California” was first given around 1535 to what’s now Baja California Sur when it was rediscovered by the Spanish conquistadores, and the term didn’t extend to the now USA-California until 85 years later, a territory commonly referred to as New Albion. Some years later for land management purposes the former was then named Antigua (old) or Baja (lower) California, and the latter Nueva (new) or Alta (higher) California; in 1848 as a result of the Mexican-American War, Alta California becomes the American state of California. Then in the 1970s a trend is born: Newcalifornians start calling peninsular California simply “Baja”, as a brand name for investing in commercial, touristic and real estate development.
This conveniently short name has since been adopted by many Baja California residents, especially those who rely on dollars to make a living. But as history teaches us, the intangible loss of identity is just one step before the very tangible loss of territory, as the innumerable signs of “Private property” in Baja California’s beaches demonstrate.
The point is, out of respect for the land we are visiting and its people, let’s make an effort to call it Baja California, Peninsula of California, Mexican California, or anything but the empty, soulless “Baja”.
After a few days in Vicente Guerrero Karla and I hit the road for the next section of the route, the Valle de los Cirios. Past San Quintín we make it to the coast, where we ride on the beach with the Pacific Ocean’s waves breaking right under our tires, a quite magical moment. Then we see an odd shaped object in the distance that turns to be a dead young whale stranded in the sand, measuring about 6 meters long. We walk around it in amazement and then ride away, with the smell of the rotting corpse floating around us for a while. A local tells us it’s been there for about a month, and that it’s not a rare event to see stranded whales in the area.
Beyond Nueva Odisea the ride is mostly uphill with some sections of pushing, but the second day pays the effort with a downhill at sunset into the most quintessential Valle de los Cirios landscape, making us forget our exhaustion. We make it to the GPS point marked as “abandoned ranch”, but to our surprise there are people in it: four men are making dinner and invite us to spend the night inside the house. They work in the extraction of yuca, a small tree endemic to this area and the southwest of the USA, “It’s used as food for cattle but also Coca-cola buys it, it sells at a very high price. But don’t you think that we are exploiting the local flora, this is a regulated activity and you need a permit for it.” Yucas are then transported to the USA where their extraction is not permitted. After a horribly sleepless night due to a snoring orchestra we leave the ranch, kindly declining their invitations to stay for another day.
On the way we spot wild burros and horses and when we make it to El Sacrificio we decide to stick to the highway until Cataviña where spend a couple days getting ready for the longest stretch without resupply on the whole route. We visit a collective of local women who make art with the remains of the area’s iconic flora: cirios, cardones, torote, and seashells are carved into key holders, earrings, lamps, chairs, tables, among other things. Operated by a mother and her daughters, while filing a cardón carcass the mother tells us she was born in the sierra in northern Baja California and is descendant of the Kumiai natives, but ended up in Cataviña in the 1970s when the Carretera Transpeninsular was being built and her husband was called in for work. They are currently located in a small unsigned building at the entrance of town, but anybody can tell you where it is if you decide to take with you a little souvenir and support the local economy.
After Cataviña comes the infamous section of 190 km without resupply point until El Cardón at kilometer 160, where water should be available and which at our pace translates into three days, so I load my bike with 4 days of food for two people and 17 liters of water. We visit the Indian paintings just north of town and then ride towards San José del Faro but after 15 km I notice my rear tire is low. I find a leak on the bead and despite my eagerness to continue, we decide to play smart and go back to Cataviña where the people at Restaurante La Enramada, known for assisting bike travelers, allow us to leave the bikes there. In the morning we take a bus back to Vicente Guerrero where we meet for a second time with Chava at FASS Bike.
-What happened to you?- he says when he sees me coming in with my wheels in my hand.
-What happened to YOU?- I reply when I see him wearing a cervical collar.
He shows me a cracked rim and helmet and I show him the leaking bead, and after replacing both tires Karla and I take a bus back to Cataviña. Despite feeling bummed I tell myself that a Baja California Divide experience isn’t complete without a revisit to FASS Bike with a broken something in your hands, that’s just how rough this route is. So we get back on track and after riding through the dense desert forest, the next day gets us to San José del Faro where nobody seems to be at the moment. From here the route goes away from the coast which means pedaling up hills, many of them too rough to ride with a load like mine so it takes quite a bit of pushing. At the end of the day, we go back to the coast where the Pacific amazes us for the thousandth time on this trip and we make camp on top of a small hill.
The third day on this segment finally takes us to Rancho El Cardón where we meet the owner Don Raúl, and we listen to his stories while sipping water from a container he put outside so cyclists can use it. “Cyclists from many countries come, they say somebody on internet told them there’s water here but I bring it from town, the water from the well is good for everything except for drinking and making beans”. At 85 years old, Raúl is a Mexican-American veteran who in the 70’s acquired the land he calls “Cardolandia”, and tells his life antics with a mischievous smile and his feet up on the table. “President Echeverría came and said that we could own all the land our eyes could see, so I grabbed my binoculars and went up that hill”. Despite saying that he likes it here because he’s away from people, he is very fond of his friends and family and offers us an RV to spend the night. The next morning after a 30 km ride of non-stop washboard we arrive to Santa Rosaliíta, where we celebrate finishing this segment by taking a day off and enjoying the goods that civilization has to offer.
After Santa Rosaliíta we camp at a restaurant in El Nuevo Rosarito where a lady tells us there’s a man living in Misión San Borja who used to be her brother-in-law but her sister left him because he mistreated her. “He invents a lot of stories to make money out of visitors.” The following day we make it to the Misión and see him: a long haired middle-aged man with a walking stick, who tells us he’s descendant of the Cochimí natives, that this land was of his people hence he has now the rights to it and that no authority can remove him from here. We look around while he emphasizes how much work he’s put into preserving the site and offers a full tour of the place, but we give him a tip and leave. After one of my favorite rides of the route we make it to Bahía de los Ángeles, where we meet with friends I made the first time I was here in 2016. After a couple days we get back on the bikes and notice that now temperatures are above 30°C and riding at noon is harsh. Three days later we are riding towards El Arco and the sun is weighing on us. We stop for a break under a palo verde tree and it becomes clear that heat is just making harder a ride that is already hard by itself. A little later a truck shows up and we ask for a ride, they are going to Guerrero Negro and we agree to tag along. When they drop us off in the city we decide to find a way back home and for now, our Baja California Divide trip will be paused until the next bike touring season.