Biking Baja

Three Amigos pedal 350 miles around Baja Sur, encountering Girl Surgeons, gall stones in a jar, a monkey nursing kittens, and more

was like finding yourself inside a beer commercial. I was in the Mexican desert — on my bike and about three hours outside of Todos Santos — when I ran out of water. It was ninety degrees in the baking Baja sun. Not more than a mile back, I had pedaled past several cartoon-like but very real vultures, feasting on the carcass of a cow. Then, in my rearview mirror, I saw a white Volkswagen convertible come speeding over the horizon. Inside were two stunning women in bathing suits. They stopped and held out a gallon container of water: “Trust us,” they said, “we’re doctors.” I looked heavenward. I expected to see a two-hundred-foot bottle of beer descending from the sky.

“Evian” and “Crystal” — who, for good reasons, do not want their real names used — were, in fact, real doctors: surgical residents at a prestigious Pacific Northwest medical facility. We had met two nights before on the infamous “Booze Cruise” out of Cabo San Lucas when, late in the evening, the five of us had done an absolutely drop-dead dance routine to James Brown’s “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.” I should add: this is no small feat after several hours of unlimited access to an open bar and while holding on to a guy wire of a trimaran lurching up and down in the moonlit Pacific. On the other hand, we were professionals and good. Damn good!

But what had led to this fateful rendezvous in the desert of Mexico’s southern Baja? By happenstance, the “Girl Surgeons” (as they called themselves) had also decided to go to Todos Santos. On the other hand, the “Three Amigos” (as we called ourselves) were in the desert for another reason: we were on a mission.

A few months before, Tom Wilson (a Pacific Bell executive), Stewart Sale (a construction engineer), and myself (a university professor) had planned a nine-day bike trip in southern Baja. Our plan was to fly into the Los Cabos Airport, bike up the Pacific Coast to Todos Santos, turn inland to La Paz, then cycle down the eastern or Gulf coast, and finally returning to the airport — altogether, about 350 miles on our mountain bikes.

Francisco Becerra gave us a lift from the airport into Cabo San Lucas. When we pulled up to the hotel, he finally asked his burning question: “Why by bikes?” What he meant was something like: “Couldn’t you afford to rent a car?” or even “Why don’t you just tape your legs together and hop 350 miles?”

Francisco’s question was a good one. You could certainly make our trip by car and be far more comfortable. All I can say is this: making the journey by bicycle forced us into a different plane of perceptions. Instead of a country seen from an air-conditioned car speeding through the landscape, we traveled at a pace of about 14 mph and came to know the Baja in an almost microscopic fashion — up close and personal. Frequently needing water and occasionally needing food, we were often obliged to stop at places that less intrepid tourists might avoid.

For example: Sweaty, exhausted, and out of water, we stopped one afternoon at a cluster of shacks in the middle of the desert that passed for a restaurant. There, two ancient Mexicans greeted us, invited us into the shade of their patio, sold us cokes, and befriended us. After an hour or two of jokes and banter, one of the men got up from his chair and came back with his treasure — two gall stones in a glass jar. Clearly, as I explained to my companions, we were now family. But what we took away from that meeting was also something else: an answer to Francisco’s question about why were doing this trip by bike.

started in “Cabo” (Cabo San Lucas), the international tourist zone where visitors spend their days lounging at the beach. But Cabo really comes alive at night. Then the streets are thronged with sunburned merrymakers who wander from one rock-and-roll bar to the next. The Jimmy Buffet crowd heads to Latitude 24. The Van Halen crowd goes to the Cabo Wabo Cantina. Just about everybody else goes to the Giggling Marlin: which is where we ended up, after our sunset sail on the Pacific and our smashing James Brown routine with the Girl Surgeons.

Of course, it’s not a good idea to begin a bike journey with a hangover, but our reservations required us to take off the next day for Todos Santos; and after some 50 hot miles, we finally arrived. In town, we bumped into the Girl Surgeons. They took us to the beach in their VW convertible and we watched another extraordinary sunset. We repaid the favor by taking them to dinner at the well known, five-star restaurant called the Cafe Santa Fe.

Another late night, a leisurely breakfast the next morning, and the Three Amigos saddled up and headed for La Paz on the eastern side of the Baja Peninsula. It was a long, hot haul through the desert — punctuated only by the comic interlude when the Girl Surgeons came rolling over the horizon in their convertible in what seemed like a reenactment of a beer commercial. Some sixty miles later, however, we finally had our first glimpse of the Gulf of California — exchanging views of desert cacti for palm trees, of vultures picking at road kills for Canadians playing volleyball on the beach. We spent the day doing bike repairs and the evening on the patio of La Perla Hotel, watching families and lovers stroll along the seaside walk of the malecon.

Because of the connection between niacin and muscles, bananas are the food of choice for cyclists. So, the morning we left La Paz, we were both pleased and amused to encounter a small store that sold bananas and nothing else. This would be our hardest and longest day of riding yet: taking us up over coastal mountains, past the summit in El Triunfo, then to miles of wonderful downhill coasting as we headed to the Gulf coast on the eastern side of the peninsula.

os Barriles is a town dedicated to sportsfishing and, we gathered from the stares, the arrival of three sweaty cyclists was an oddity. Sensing that, a vacationing American tile contractor (a cyclist himself) took us under his wing and marched us out to an abandoned building on the perimeter of one of the town’s resorts. There we spent the early evening playing squash, on a court where jungle vines crept in the air vents and ran down the walls. Later, we drifted over to a local fair and met the Corona Beer Girls, two professional models serving as royalty at this Baja version of a country fair.

The next morning, learning that I was a writer, waiters at our hotel took us to a scene which they insisted should be featured in the National Enquirer: a pet monkey nursing four motherless kittens. We obliged them, honoring “Monkey Mama” with a “photo session,” then saddled up and headed back to Cabo. Two more days of merrymaking and snorkeling followed, then it was time to pack up our bikes and head back to the airport. Before checking out, however, we puzzled the hotel staff by requesting a candle.

When we had first arrived and made our way from the airport to Cabo, Francisco had taken the time to stop his van and show us a roadside shrine. It was a small, painted, concrete affair with a picture of the Virgin, and surrounded by flowers and candles. When there had been a flash flood in this area, Francisco explained, everything else had been destroyed; but in the midst of the devastation, this little shrine stood intact. That was considered a miracle, Francisco continued, and now people make offerings to Our Lady of the Highways.

So, on our way back to the airport for our departure, even though it puzzled the other passengers on the shuttle bus, we asked the driver to stop at the shrine. We lit the candle. After all, we were grateful for a trip that had provided so many unsought blessings.

A more sober account of this trip appeared in “Alaska Airlines Magazine” (December 1994). For another glimpse of adventure traveling in Baja, see my essay “Kayaking 101.”

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Writer/critic/professor/journalist: children’s literature, culture, film, travel. Seven books, 100's of essays in NY&LA Times.