Into the Gran Desierto de Altar with La Ruta Chichimeca Bike Tour

The 1st of July marks the start date for the most awaited cycling event of the year. Tens of cyclists from different origins gather to dedicate the next weeks of their lives to riding a different route every day, with a rest day every week. Those who manage to finish the route will have over 4000 kilometers under their legs. We’re not talking about the Tour de France here, this is La Ruta Chichimeca!

La Ruta Chichimeca

It is said that nineteen years ago, in 2003, a handful of teachers on summer vacation decided to ride their bikes across México, starting the farthest north they could and finishing the farthest south possible. This meant starting in the city of Tijuana, right at the USA-México border, and finishing in Chiapas, the state at the border with Guatemala. La Ruta Chichimeca has been happening every year since, with about 80 people starting this year, and around 120 last year. With variations depending on the edition, la Ruta Chichimeca – or RuChi for the homies – typically travels down the Baja California peninsula to then go inland towards Mexico City and finish at one of the several crossing points into Guatemala or Belize.

The RuChi requires no subscription fee and is semi-organized by a group of volunteers but it’s still highly self-sufficient: a suggested itinerary is provided with daily distances and destinations, but each participant is responsible for their own expenses, daily start time and pace, and free to join or leave the Ruta whenever they want, which opens the chance to make segments of the route if doing the whole thing isn’t possible. The organizing team manages places for the group to stay, although it’s good to be ready for some improvisation especially when the Ruta detours from its original course.

La Ruta Chichimeca is a group ride open to all kinds of cyclists, and non-cyclists too: on the fourth day of the ride I talked to a young man who had broken up with his girlfriend and was looking for a way to get out of town for a while. His younger brother told him about the RuChi, he got a bike a month before the start which he rode every day to acquire some fitness, and there he was, about to start pedaling through the Desierto de Altar on the longest stretch of highway without resupply of the route; I didn’t tell him, but I’m not sure riding 150 km of lonely desert helps to “forget”.

But La Ruta Chichimeca is not just a long ass bike ride: besides being a project for knowing the biological and cultural diversity of Mexico, it promotes the use of the bicycle as a sustainable means of transport that is friendlier with the planet and with the people, spreading the idea that every road in Mexico should be, and is a bike path. Along the way, it connects with local cycling groups which play a big part in assisting with route logistics and accommodations, creating a national network of support among cyclists.

La RuChi is named after the “Chichimecas”, a term used since pre Colonial times by the Nahua Natives to designate a diversity of indigenous groups that inhabited a vast expanse of land in the north of Mesoamerica, in the Central Mexican Plateau, who were associated with nomadic practices and being fierce warriors, and whose descendants live in what nowadays is the state of Guanajuato. During the Colonial Era, the Chichimecas represented the longest armed conflict the Spanish Colony had to face against an indigenous group, which ended up with a forty year campaign nowadays known as The Great Chichimeca War. After almost fifty years and no progress, the Colony realized it was very expensive to continue at war with the Chichimecas and decided for a different, less violent approach: negotiation of peace and assimilation of the Chichimecas into other tribes which were sedentary and had converted to Catholicism and the lifestyle of the Colony.

Let’s Talk Numbers

The year 2022 marks the 19th edition of the RuChi. Doing the whole route usually requires over two months, with this year being 72 days in total from which 58 are of riding and 13 are rest days, spread every five to seven days. The total distance is a little over 4700 km, with 80 to 100 km of daily riding, although it’s not unusual to have days of over 100 km. The Chichimecas, as the riders call themselves during the route, start crossing the northwest of the country with temperatures above 35C, this year even reaching 45C on their way through the state of Sonora; once the desert is left behind they go into a region in monsoon season, where the heat cedes the throne to humidity; if something is clear, it is that the Chichimecas will sweat a lot during their trip. It could be said that they chose the worst possible weather of the year to make a cross-country ride, but it was when the founders of the Ruta Chichimeca had their long vacation and the start date is kept nowadays.

This year included the state of Sonora for the first time in its itinerary, which Karla and I call home. Because of this, we decided to join the Ruta Chichimeca from its beginning in Tijuana and tag along through our home state. We are not very inclined to do long distances (over 80 km for us) on a day-to-day basis, and would rather be on dirt roads. But, after knowing about and following the event through social media for a few years now, it was good to finally get a first-hand experience.

A New Comfort Zone

We got to Tijuana a couple of days before the start date, met up with new and old friends, and enjoyed the nice weather. On the morning of the departure, we rode our loaded bikes to the start point where people were moving luggage around their bikes, fiddling with derailleurs, or just hanging out. It kinda felt like the first day of school, where everybody arrives freshly combed, with shiny new shoes, and nobody knows anybody. We got there two hours before the departure time because I had a goal in mind: to leave my fears aside and ask people for their photo. For as long as I’ve been documenting my trips, I’ve always felt ashamed of asking strangers if I can take a photo of them, but I decided to take a step towards overcoming that and started walking around talking to people and taking their portrait. Luckily, the Chichimecas were very enthusiastic about having their photo taken which made my work much easier!

“I had never ridden my bike with a load until the ride to get me here from the hotel,” a guy in his fifties told me.

Another one said his bike was heavy beyond being rideable and he got rid of a lot of gear at the last minute, then a relative came to pick it up. “I don’t think I’d be able to start hadn’t I had someone to pick up my stuff. I just had too much!”

At 10 am everybody jumped on their bike, it was time to go. The group was so big and it stretched for so long that we stopped traffic like a funeral would, where all vehicles halted to allow the procession to remain together. Stuff that wasn’t properly packed was falling off, I avoided a few water bottles that someone probably missed later, and I noticed several people with wobbly handlebars caused by having all the weight on the back — it was chaotic and beautiful at the same time. The group of volunteers did their best to keep the pack together, and, after several regrouping stops at the end of the day, we finally made it out of the city and reached our first camp spot. It was a place with pools just outside the town of Tecate. With very noisy and careless neighbors and no silent hours enforced, it was the first of several nights of bad sleep I had on this trip.

Long Days, High Temps

The second day was when the group split in two. While most of the Chichimecas were interested in crossing Sonora, a state not many people visit without having to, a group had decided to go down the Baja California peninsula, following the traditional route of La Ruta Chichimeca. Our group moved on towards the town of La Rumorosa, where we spent the night at 1200 meters of elevation before leaving the nice weather behind to go into the oven that is Mexicali, a city with sections of it sitting a few meters below sea level.

We left La Rumorosa at 4:00 am and enjoyed sunrise going downhill for 20 km in one of the most beautiful stretches of highway I’ve gone through in Mexico, which I’ve done going up twice but this was the first time going down; personally, not as fun. But once at the bottom, we went through a curtain that increased the temperatures by 20 degrees Celsius. Karla and I got in time trial mode to make it to Mexicali before noon. Mexicali is a decent-sized border city and the local authorities had set us up for the night in a migrant shelter that had enough available bunk beds for our group. Once again, it was hard for me to fall asleep because of all the movement and noise; this was barely the third night and I was already wishing Karla and I were by ourselves sleeping in the desert.

Starting from here, daily distances would get longer and temperatures higher, as we were approaching the desert, namely the Gran Desierto de Altar. Karla and I agreed that from here on we’d wake up at 3:00 am to get on the road at 4:00 and make some kilometers before the sun released all its power on us. In the border city of San Luis Rio Colorado we stayed with a family I befriended on my first bike trip through here in 2016, where we were able to get a very much-needed good night’s sleep. The next morning we crossed crop fields in the dark, and, by 6:00 am, we had covered a third of the 120 km we needed to make it to the town of Golfo de Santa Clara. We were then optimistic about our arrival time.

But as the sun rose, so did the wind and it blew on our faces for the rest or the ride. After so many years of riding together, Karla has become an expert in drafting behind me to the point that sometimes I don’t see her if I don’t turn my head a full 90 degrees. This technique came in especially handy for this trip, which was all paved and mostly flat. But ten kilometers before making it to our destination of the day I bonked hard; Karla noticed it so she got in front of me and brought us to Golfo de Santa Clara, settled right next to where the Colorado River once joined the Gulf of California, in an area with a rich biodiversity and a very particular mix of ecosystems.

The city had arranged for us to stay in a community hall in a park and as glad as I was of making it to the goal of the day, it didn’t take too long before I started feeling increasingly uncomfortable by the sight of trash everywhere. I’ve been touring Mexico for a while now so I’ve gotten used to seeing trash even in the most remote places, but this town took the prize. I saw a man walk with an empty soda bottle in his hand, heading towards a trash can, but he walked by and just threw the bottle on an already big pile of trash. Later, a group of teenagers crossed the park and one of them kicked a fixed trash can so that it flipped upside down, vomiting its contents, and the group continued their walk clearly not impressed in any way.

A feeling of sadness clouded my mind and I couldn’t wait to fall asleep so we could leave already, but another night of sharing a space with 40 people proved that I’m too much of a light sleeper for these kinds of things. As I was sweating my ass off laying on my inflatable pad, I envied the people I saw peacefully snoring while a guy talked loudly on his phone and somebody unloaded metal folding chairs from a truck, so I took my mattress and went outside the building, where I was able to sleep after removing pieces of broken glass from the sand.

Three hours later my alarm rang and I found myself laying on the ground, so something must have punctured my mattress despite my efforts, but at least it was easier to pack. Some people started getting ready to leave at 3:00 am like us; a few had already left, and some others were not in much of a rush. It’s 150 km to Puerto Peñasco and the schedule had it split in two days. Some of us, however, decided to make it all in one day and trade it for a day off in Puerto Peñasco. It was a risky decision, because Karla and I had never done a distance like that before. Triple digits are already out of our comfort zone, but having done 120 km the day before we thought 30 more shouldn’t be too much harder.

Gran Desierto de Altar Finale

Despite the lack of sleep, the excitement was enough to wake us up because the segment for that day was one of the reasons Karla and I came for: to follow the road that crosses the sand dunes of the Gran Desierto de Altar. We left Santa Clara and my sadness behind, and we rode with a small group that quickly dispersed, leaving Karla and I alone. Once we were far from the town’s skyglow, we stopped and turned our lights off: after our pupils adjusted, we found ourselves under one of the clearest views of the Milky Way we’ve ever had. After soaking up the view and the feelings in silence, we came back to reality, turned our lights back on, and resumed pedaling. We were making good progress on an almost windless morning, and we saw the sun rise behind the Pinacate Peaks, a group of extinct volcanoes located in the Biosphere Reserve El Pinacate.

But again, with the sun came the wind and after 6:00 am our pace slowed down quite a bit, but we tried focusing on the magic of the place we were crossing: the sand swallowed the road at times, and the dunes extended as far as the eye could see. We tried keeping it steady and not stopping too much, but still the kilometers went slow and the minutes fast. Knowing we had already done 100 km but that it was barely two thirds of the route was a bit demoralizing, but we were still feeling good enough. A volunteer support vehicle passed us twice and we declined it, we had made a non verbal agreement to finish this segment on our own.

My mind started playing games and after a 60 km straight line through flat land with no point of reference in any direction I felt like I was in an eternal loop, a sort of glitch in a video game, until the last 10 km where we could see the city’s tall hotel buildings. By this point we had cried a little and I had a saddle sore that was making me sit on my thigh, but we finally reached the entrance of Puerto Peñasco where the city had arranged an ambulance with a crew ready to treat heat stroke and a police car that escorted us to a campground where a local cycling group had food prepared for us. With the last of our strength Karla and I made it to the campground and collapsed under a shade, leaning on each other.

For half an hour we just sat there, assimilating that we had made it out of the glitch, incapable of getting up, while we saw the rest of the group eagerly get multiple rounds of tacos and talking casually, like it was just another day. And for them, it really was: this was barely day six of an expected seventy two day trip.

In my eyes, the Chichimecas are made of something else, and Karla and I were happy about finally having a first hand experience. We were proud of our new achievement unlocked, but we were equally happy that it had ended. Karla had an appointment for a passport renewal so she had programmed to pause her trip here. Seeing that after two days my sore didn’t heal enough for going back to long days on the saddle, we took a night bus back to Hermosillo, where I had the best sleep I’d had in a week.