There’s more to biking in Baja than the Divide
Twenty minutes after sunset and the sky has a glowing ember look. Night is taking over. In the distance — in the hills — you can see the front and rear lights of a bike. At first, it seems like it must be a motorcycle, but there’s no noise. It’s a mountain bike. The rider zooms up and down small climbs and descents, and then flies past us in a cloud of dust we can’t quite see, but can smell. The person on the bike, whoever they are, is having a great time.
I’m driving the entirety of Baja — with my husband and our dog — from Mexicali to Todos Santos. We started in Colorado. All in, the trip south is over 2,000 miles. We camp a lot — in a little van we built out last year. It’s great, but not quite van life. More, a step up from tent life. We’ve got our mountain bikes — an Ibis Mojo and a Revel Ranger — and a lot of peanut butter.
San Felipe is a common first stop for anyone traveling from the north to the south in Baja — it’s about a 2-hour drive from the border, and the first real town you hit after crossing into Mexico. Like a lot of Baja towns, it’s easy to miss the gems in San Felipe. Many of these places aren’t polished, and some are seemingly not memorable. But you just need to look a little harder. Maybe wonder a little more.
The morning after seeing the mountain biker whizzing around the coastal desert hills, we set out to find some trails. There’s a lot of driving to do to get to Baja Sur, but we have to see what’s out there. At first all we find are rough Jeep roads, but eventually we find a line of singletrack. Then we start seeing rocks with green arrows spray-painted on them. Then it’s there. A maze of tracks, up and down the rocky hills. Small climbs and flowy, fun drops. None of it on TrailForks: no Strava segments. Just trails because someone — or a small group of people — wanted to ride.
Twelve hours later we’re in Loreto. The Spanish mission influence resonates down the brick roads. Plenty of ex-pats. Five of the 7 beers on tap at the local brewery are IPAs. Enough said. Outside of town, after riding a dusty road past a prison, we find another small tangle of trails — this one has some signage. La Liebre this way, El Gato the other way. Almost 7-miles all-in. At the top, is what looks like an adult version of a clubhouse. There’s a grill and a bar, but no one is around. After making a couple wrong turns we’re back on the steep and sandy climbs, matched with hang-on-and-pray loose descents. But fun. Like San Felipe, these trails feel like a necessity — someone needed trails to ride, so they made them.
Five more hours and we’re in the promised land — Todos Santos. Dotted with galleries and coffee shops, this place is still mainly thought of as a surf town, or a day trip from Cabo. But it’s got some gem mountain biking trails, and a core group of local enthusiasts. Dave Thompson and Ann Patsy run the local bike shop, Over the Edge. It’s one in a family of shops started by Troy Rarick. Todos Santos is the newest member of the OTE family, joining Fruita, Colorado, Hurricane, Utah, Lake Tahoe, California, and Melrose, Australia. Just the fact that the store is here is a testament that it’s worth riding.
The trails in Todos Santos are unique because the town is wedged between the foothills of the Sierra de la Laguna mountains and the rolling sand dunes of the Pacific Ocean. Riding the trails gives you nonstop views of both. There’s sand, of course — there’s no escaping it — but not as much as you might assume. Or, not the stop-you-in-your-tracks deep sand that brings cursing. Very little time is spent not riding your bike when you’re riding your bike on these trails. Sierra Madre is the bread and butter. Starting just a few blocks from the bike shop, it climbs first, and then meanders around the giant Cardón cacti for more than 9-miles. Counterclockwise isn’t enforced, but it’s largely treated as a one-way trail, which means you almost never see anyone else — it always feels like you’ve got the place to yourself. There are a few different options to extend the loop, and one shortcut. Even though you’re exhausted when you make your way back to town, you still kind of want to do it again. Sunrise or sunset are ideal. You’ll see every color that exists as the sun comes up or disappears into the Pacific.
Across the highway from Sierra Madre, connected by the recreation path, is a climb up to the old port where remnants of the town’s boom in sugar cane can be seen. From the late 1800s to the 1960s, Todos Santos was the sugar cane capital of Baja. But a severe drought caused the plantations to wither. Today, the port has one of the most epic views in the area. A wide trail takes you from the beach up about 500 feet in a mile. Then various trails and Jeep roads show off views of Las Palmas Beach, the surrounding cliffs, and whales playing in the water off the coast if you’re lucky. It’s a popular path to walk up from the swanky Hotel San Cristóbal. And not uncommon to see photo shoots — everyone wants to capture the cliffs and the impossibly blue water. I probably rode up there 15 times and never failed to snap a few pictures myself.
El Sargento / La Ventana
The thing you might not expect if you’ve never been to Baja is how vast the wilderness is, and how much of it is mountainous. It’ll remind you of Utah and Colorado and Arizona all at once. El Sargento and La Ventana are connected beach communities less than an hour’s drive from La Paz, but fully out in the wild. It’s easy to camp just about anywhere on the beach. El Sargento Campground even has new, clean bathrooms with showers. The pace is calm. Lots of folks down for the whole winter, or playing it all by ear. It’s easy to strike up a conversation with other travelers who clearly love to have the same conversion over and over. “Did you build it out yourself? How long did it take you to get down?” Eight o’clock is the Baja midnight. People make food or get take-out. Sit around chatting for a bit. But once it’s good and dark, you might as well sleep.
We set out early to beat the heat. It’s a rare cloudy day, which is even better for keeping cool. The humidity is always heavy, but the towns on the gulf have more of a breeze than on the Pacific. We’ve gotten advice to go up Pista Pista — a 1.5-mile, 600-foot climb — and down Mala Mujer. It’s good advice. We make the loop 3 times in a row like kids at the playground discovering the slide for the first time. Just flowy fun, which is not necessarily common in Baja.
If you keep climbing after Pista Pista, you’ll join Las Minitas, which climbs some more, up to 1,700 feet above the sea below. There’s even a paraglider launch at the top. It’s a decent amount of exposure, and once you start, you’re pretty committed, but the views are worth it. Punta Gorda runs right along the Sea of Cortez. If you’re not used to such epic views of the coast, sometimes it’s tough to concentrate on your line. These trails get a good amount of traffic but never seem busy.
And then there’s the first-class version of El Sargento. Rancho Cacachilas, a sustainable eco-and-adventure resort that’s gated and requires a day pass or an all-inclusive glamp stay. The property has more than 30-miles of premium trails. If you’ve got $80, it’s worth checking out. You’re met at the bike shop in El Sargento, and escorted down several miles on a private dirt road. Eventually, you reach a huge expanse of largely undeveloped land in the Sierra Cacachilas Mountains. A giant playground. The XC trails have punchy climbs and descents, and nothing too technical. The ranch is the brainchild of Christy Walton, one of the heirs to the Walmart fortune. The Waltons have famously invested in bicycling throughout the U.S., but perhaps most notably in northwest Arkansas. The Rancho Cacachilas trails were designed by the same folks who created the trails in Bentonville. And beyond the premium trail system, Walton has established the ranch as an eco-resort. All of the food is local, and they work with local ranchers to teach sustainable farming habits. It’s easy to see this as exclusive or polished, but it’s actually quite the opposite. They’re creating memorable adventures, and pumping the money back into helping the entire area.
Most flock to the water in Baja Sur – the gulf and the Pacific aren’t very far apart – and something about seeing the sea while riding makes it seem even more extravagant. Riding on the very edge of the world. But El Triunfo is solidly in the middle of the peninsula — an old mining town. It’s like no other place in Baja Sur. More like a Colorado mining town. Cobble roads, mining equipment, and remnants of a boom that once was. You automatically slow down when you drive through — and then automatically get compelled to stop. So many of these little spots require some patience. If it seems like there’s nothing there, pull off the main road and explore a little.
Silver and gold were found here in 1862, not long after the California gold rush. Many original structures have been converted into restaurants and shops. Bar El Minero is in a building that, 120 years ago, was a laboratory for the mines. And there are several beautiful museums, including a piano museum, from when Triunfo supplied many musicians from around the world with pianos and other instruments. At its heyday more than 10,000 miners lived in Triunfo. Today the population is around 325.
They’ve also got some hidden gems for biking. Area mountain biking teams often train and race there. And the town is an important stop on the Cape Divide Loop — the last section of the Baja Divide that circles the southern end of the peninsula. In other words, you won’t get strange looks on a bike in El Triunfo — you’ll probably get offered water and snacks.
Los Barriles is another gulf town that thrives on wind. From any beach you’ll see a scattering of kite surfers dancing around the sea. There are also several resort RV camps full of retirees from Canada and Washington. Our van is tiny compared to many of their rigs. But it’s nice to “camp” near the water with bathrooms and showers. In Baja, you always feel salty and sandy. The trail system is a mile and a half outside of town — it’s been maintained for years, and has also been used for racing. The trails are sort of all over the place — tons of options and off-shoots — just keep climbing. Up Scotty’s, Calle Facile, Vista, Lejos, to the top. The views are more and more beautiful the higher you get. After taking it in and snapping some photos, we get to descend. Down Jupiter and Ceilo. It’s Saturday at 9:30am and we finally see another person. Then a couple more as we make our way down. There are cattle guards every so often that are arched in such a way that you pretty much have to turn them into jumps. The ocean is getting closer. We get tangled up in a few wrong turns but make it back to the start. This is the kind of trail system that, on the second take, you know the place like your own backyard — because of all the wrong turns you made the first time.
There are a lot of Americans in Los Barriles — everyone at the restaurants speak English. A family from California, sitting next to us at Rice & Beans — a great open-air spot with good tacos and live music — catches up with a waiter. They’ve clearly been coming down for years.
There’s still a general misconception that Baja is unsafe — that there are dark areas and places to avoid because of crime. Certainly it’s not without ugliness, but for the most part, Baja is very safe. Bike shop owners and locals wholeheartedly encourage big adventures and riding just about anywhere to anyone. And no matter where you are in Baja Sur it feels like a bit of a secret — something you stumble upon. Go down an unnamed dirt road and you might discover a tiny restaurant with a classically trained chef. Stop at the corner fruit stand and you’ll likely find the best dates you’ve ever eaten. Wander along the animal tracks to the water and you probably end up at a perfect secret beach. Many head to Baja — and Mexico in general — because it feels like there are no rules, like anything goes. In some ways that’s true, but more than that, it feels like if you let go of plans and expectations, you get to live at a different pace and frame of mind. You get to be a kid again.