Road to San Felipe :: Mountains to Desert to Sea

Flowering Tree in Ensenada

The night before we were planning to leave Ensenada we found out that one of Baja’s three largest off-road rally races was happening that weekend in San Felipe, which was our next destination.

What that meant for us was that the normally quiet and traffic-free Highway 3 heading east would be lined with a steady stream of cars full of people and trucks hauling trailers full of race cars.  The thought of the quiet landscape being taken over by obnoxious vehicles tearing up the desert and doing it all in the name of fun reminded us of our experience near Pismo Beach, California and was not something we wanted to revisit.  Beyond that, every campsite and hotel room near San Felipe would be filled just as we were due to arrive there.  We could have continued south down Highway 1 instead of insisting on sticking with our plan of taking Highway 3 east but neither one of us wanted to miss out on the experience of travelling over the Sierra San Pedro Mártir range and through the Sonoran Desert to the Sea of Cortez and we were trying to stay off of the famed no-shoulder and busy Highway 1 for as long as possible.  So, we reluctantly delayed our leaving by another few days to avoid the race crowd and stick to our original route plan.

We finally left Ensenada on March 11th and, to be honest, our first hour out was a rude reintroduction to cycling after being off the road for such a long period of time.  The first few miles out of town consisted of us dodging – dodging potholes, dodging double lanes of spastic traffic and dodging unexpected, unfriendly, yelling and hand signals from a few of the locals.  All this was done while also huffing and puffing up a fairly decent ascent.  Not an ideal start for someone who had just rigorously examined the pros and cons of long-term cycling and questioned whether or not it was the life for her!

But, as has been proven in the past, once we got past the first five miles and were heading out of town, traffic was replaced with the sound of our breathing and an expansive view of the mountains ahead of us.  Although our bodies were paying for the time spent off of our saddles, it felt like we were being welcomed back into the fold.

Kai, Highway 3 on the way out of Ensenada

Kai, Highway 3 on the way out of Ensenada

Viva Aqua sign on hillside.

Viva Aqua (Water Lives) sign on hillside.

Self-portrait, Sheila and Bicycles
Stopping for a break, Hwy 3 leaving Ensenada
Finally, some downhill!  Hwy 3, leaving Ensenada

Since we had started really late (early afternoon) and had been ascending all day we decided to set up a wild camp rather than try to continue on to the hotel in the valley of Ojos Negros.  Our bodies were reeling from the re-entry to cycling, more specifically, to climbing, so we decided it best to stop while we were ahead.  We found a not-ideal-but-would-do wild camp site off a side road just off the main road, the problem being that there weren’t many tall and dense bushes to hide amongst in that part of Baja.  We made do and hunkered down for the evening, falling fast asleep only to be awoken a few hours later by a tenacious desert mouse climbing into one of our panniers in our tent vestibule.  Apparently, he was after the bag of salt that Kai inadvertently left in the food pannier!  So after having a face-off with the cutie we placed the salt in a small OPSAK bag outside the tent (we store all of our food overnight in two medium size OPSAK‘s which we place inside a GrubPak “C” which we locate outside the tent, usually carabiner’d to a bike) and resumed sleep, not to be bothered again that evening.

Wild Camp off Highway 3

Wild Camp off Highway 3

Wild Camping off Hwy 3

As stealthy as we could get.

Highway 3, heading toward Ojos Negros

Boulder-laden mountains

The next day we made the short ride into the valley of Ojos Negros, stopping at a military checkpoint where I was asked to unpack a couple of my panniers to show them what I was carrying, then grabbing lunch at Rosarita Restaurant and spending the rest of the day recuperating and stretching at the one hotel in town.

Hotel in Ojos Negros

Hotel in Ojos Negros

Making dinner outside hotel, Ojos Negros

Making dinner outside hotel, Ojos Negros

Broken bottle fences

Broken bottles line fence-tops.

The next day we woke early and cycled till a couple of hours before dark, choosing to stop at a great wild campsite just off the road and on the edge of a plateau.  Our surroundings were beautiful, desert plants and huge sandstones surrounding us, with views of the highest mountain on Baja. That night when the moon rose and bathed our tent in its cool light I woke to see tarantulas scurrying over the outside of our inner tent.  With the natural theatre lighting I watched them crawl around, looking for an entry into the warm cocoon that we inhabited.  I was both horrified and fascinated at the same time.  After checking to make sure all zippers were tightly in place, I felt my eyelids grow heavier, noticed the complete silence that surrounded us, and despite the fact that a couple of gargantuan spiders were staking out our home, I was sure that I was in one of the safest places I could be at that moment.  With that thought gently settling in, I fell back to sleep, grateful for the silence, the moonlight, the fresh air, and for the opportunity to see nature so up close and personally.

Of course, I’ll be the first to admit that if one of the tarantulas had made it inside the tent, and I had awoken to one gingerly perched upon my nose or happily snuggled between my toes, I would have torn our tent to shreds in my haste to escape.  Oh yes, and I would most likely have had a less rosy interpretation of nature being so “up close and personal”.

Highway 3, going toward San Felipe

Highway 3, going toward San Felipe

Wild Campsite, between Ojos Negros and San Felipe

Wild Campsite, between Ojos Negros and San Felipe

Desert plants
Desert Grasses

The next morning we continued climbing until we were rewarded with a gorgeous descent into the Valle de Trinidad.  We stopped for lunch at a cafe just off the road, filled our water bottles plus one of our Ortlieb water bladders in anticipation of crossing the Sonoran desert for two days, and then continued on, trying to add another 20 or so miles to the 26 we had already cycled that morning.  As we rode out of the Valley and climbed over the mountains, the landscape began changing, sand replacing dirt and cactus replacing trees.

Hwy 3, Riding to San Felipe

Hwy 3, Riding to San Felipe

Hwy 3, Heading east into the desert
Desert, Hwy 3, heading east
Desert, Hwy 3, heading east
Desert, Hwy 3, heading east
Desert, Hwy 3, heading east

Toward dark we scouted out a campsite just off the main road, having to carry our panniers and bicycles down a slope into a dry riverbed and back into a completely hidden and quiet spot in the desert.  Although we were exhausted by the time we made the several trips from the road to our site, it was a beautiful place to linger for the night!

Wild campsite in the desert, Hwy 3

Wild campsite in the desert, Hwy 3

Desert, off Highway 3, Our wild campsite
Wild campsite in the desert, Hwy 3
Desert scenes/plants, Off Hwy 3
Desert Plants, Hwy 3
Desert Plants
Desert Plants, Hwy 3
Desert Plants

The next day we rode through the Sonoran desert, making sure to slather on our sunscreen.  It’s winter here but it was still hot out there and the landscape didn’t provide many shady spots to rest.  That, combined with the fact that we were over 30 miles from any water source and that there was little traffic to wave down in case we needed something, made us ultra aware of how valuable our water was and how vulnerable you are in the desert.  With that thought in mind, we rounded a curve to see a truck parked alongside the road and when we came closer a man jumped out to say “Hello, I’ve been waiting for you.”.  With a smile he reached into the cab and grabbed a huge container of water, offering to fill our water bottles!  He had already passed us that morning going in the opposite direction and now was on his way back to San Felipe, on his regular route, and he had been waiting on the side of the road for us for awhile, concerned that we might be dehydrated.  After we chatted and Oscar made sure we had enough water, we parted ways, his truck disappearing quickly over the horizon, leaving us with another good feeling about the people who live here.

About 30 miles later we passed through a military checkpoint where we were met with incredulous looks when I told them how far we had cycled.  As Kai filled up our water bottles with the last remaining water they had on hand, I spoke to the guards in broken Spanish, trying to answer their questions.  “How many days did it take you to cycle from Ensenada?  How many kilometers have you travelled in total?  You are going around the world?  No, it’s not possible!”

After answering all their questions, we hunkered down and rode on the boring Highway 5 to San Felipe, arriving just at nightfall.  It had been our longest day of riding yet, 61 miles (98 km).  After a huge dinner we fell fast asleep and the next morning awoke to find a grand view of the Sea of Cortez from our hotel’s patio area.  We’ve spent a couple of days taking in the town, catching up on email and even taking time to sip on a couple of Margaritas.  Tomorrow we hit the road again, taking Highway 5 on to Puertecitos and then riding on to Gonzaga Bay, famed for its beauty.  We’ll have about 40 miles of dirt/sand riding into the Bay and then on to Highway 1, so it should be quite the adventure!

In the Tent, Early Morning

Sleepy-head

Hwy 3, Riding to San Felipe

Hwy 3, Riding to San Felipe

Our one-chance stop for water at Heroes de la Independencia, before heading into the desert

Our one-chance stop for water at Heroes de la Independencia, before heading into the desert.

Hwy 3, Riding East through the desert, toward San Felipe

Hwy 3, Riding East through the desert, toward San Felipe

Kai, Riding through the Desert, Hwy 3

Kai, Riding through the Desert, Hwy 3

Riding through the Desert, Hwy 3

Sonoran Desert

Lunch off Highway 3, finding the only shade in miles.

Lunch off Highway 3, finding the only shade in miles.

Highway 3, Desert Cactus

Desert Cactus

Hwy 3, Riding East through the desert, toward San Felipe

desert

San Felipe, View from our Hotel's outdoor Bar/Restaurant

San Felipe

Fish dinner w/tortillas, Baja del Mar Restaurant (part of Hotel Pescador)

Good Food for Good Cyclists!

Don’t forget to check out more photos at our Flickr site.

Our route from Ensenada to San Felipe

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5 comments to Road to San Felipe :: Mountains to Desert to Sea

  • I’m really enjoying reading your blog, after seeing it linked on the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree Mexico site.

    You have more courage, and especially more energy, than I have or ever had.

    I am pleased that you treat yourselves to a good, comfortable hotel night or two, but the wild desert campsites also have their appeal.

    Saludos,
    Don Cuevas

  • Yes, Don, we like to combine both. Seems that the grass is always greener though – after a few days out wild camping we yearn for a room but once in the room we yearn for the great outdoors. Funny, that way.

  • Ohuanachain

    Hi Guys,

    Thanks so much for this post! I’m resting up in Ensenada before taking off for San Felipe tomorrow.

    Your description of the route, and more importantly, elevation guide have been invaluable.

    I’ll be sure to keep all food outside and keep the tent zips closed at night.

    I have a bit of low-level dread going on about the next few days, but am sure it will be exhilarating as well as tough. I will be sure to fill my Ortlieb water bladder at Hereos de la Independencia.

    Thanks so much.

    • Have a blast Ochuanachain! It’s a gorgeous ride.

      If you didn’t see this already it may be helpful as well – our cycling Baja guide: http://www.bajainsider.com/baja-california-travel/baja-adventures/bicycling/bicyclingbaja.html

      Also, we’ve been told by others (those driving) that since we blogged the road has been paved all the way to Gonzaga Bay so if you’re taking that route, it will be a lot less difficult. Make sure to get enough water in Gonzaga Bay though as we’re not sure if Coco is still in the mountains.

      Let us know how it works out for you. Good luck and wishing you tail winds.

      • Ohuanachain

        Thanks for the update and the good wishes.

        I had been scouring the internet over the last while to get an update on the road south from Puertocitos and did see that it was paved as far as Gonzaga Bay. I had read, on other blogs, that Coco’s health had deteriorated over the last while. I hope to be able report seeing him fighting fit at l’Esquina Coco, however.

        I’ll post a full update on the Mex 5 route to the Mex 1 Laguna Chapala Junction, if I, God-permitting, complete it. 🙂

        Thanks again guys.

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