Up and Over the Sierra de la Giganta

A walkway in Loreto’s tourist section.

The day brought a mix of emotions.  We had just spent some time intensely examining both our relationship to our travelling around the world by bicycle as well as our relationship with each other and those around us.  We were ready to get back on our bicycles, feeling more secure in our intentions for the future but we were also feeling a little raw and exposed.  We were in need of some inspiration.

The road out of Loreto offered us a smooth transition.  After weeks off the bicycle, the gently rolling hills with occasional views of the Sea of Cortez were perfect companions.  A continuous breeze made the sun’s heat bearable.  Once again, Mother Nature provided us exactly what we needed at that moment.

Streets of Loreto

Streets of Loreto

Building in Loreto

Old building in Loreto

Loreto

View of the Sea of Cortez from Loreto’s Malecon.

Sea of Cortez, South of Loreto

Beautiful view of the Sea.

Hwy 1 South Loreto, Sand Mining

Just outside of town we see another example of riverbed mining for sand.

Eight miles outside of town we come upon the suburb of Nopolo where the McMansion-style housing, created specifically for gringos/tourists, and newly paved streets offer up a startlingly severe contrast to the dirt roads, shacks and smaller homes that make up most of native Loreto.  A bit further down the road from the gated community we come upon a finely maintained and watered golf course, complete with tiny pools full of water and walking bridges, its miles of manicured and pesticide-laden land butting up against the Sea.  The multi-level resort adjacent to the course shows little sign of occupancy and the green way is eerily void of people.  We are in disbelief over the unsustainable nature of the entire development.  Who could ever think this was a good idea for a population already struggling with water issues?!  [Kristian Beadle aptly describes the issues, including how the master minds behind the project used green-washing to sell it, in her article for Pacific Standard, Sustainable or Sick: the Growth of Loreto.]

Hwy 1 South of Loreto

Kai on the way out of Loreto, looking forward to climbing the Sierra de la Giganta ahead of us.

Golf Gourse/Resort, South of Loreto

The greenest patches in Baja are found on golf courses made for gringos/tourists.

Finding Shade

We often found ourselves hugging roadside cut-outs, the only shady spots we could find for miles and miles.

About half way through the day’s ride we stop to take a water break and check our maps at an intersection leading to Punto Escondido.  After looking at the elevation charts for our route to Cuidad Constitucion we know we’re going to run into a hefty climb around mile  29 so we decide we’ll start looking for a place to camp around mile 25, near the town of Ligui, only 5 or 6 miles down the road.  We want to make the climb in the morning, with fresh legs and before the heat of the day is fully upon us.

I find myself worrying out loud about drunk drivers (again).  I’ve witnessed people throwing their empties out their window as they pass me, I’ve noticed that at every mini-market men are often purchasing beer then hopping back in to their vehicles to continue down the road, and I’ve seen people drink all day then disperse a fresh round of drinks just before hopping into a car to drive somewhere.  With almost every single person we’ve met having offered us a cold beer from a cooler in their back seat, I’ve become particularly paranoid about being plowed down by a drunk driver in Baja.

As Kai’s telling me not to worry about it, that there aren’t any drunk drivers on this road, a guy in a truck pulls off of the highway and offers us a ride to the Point.  Once he finds out we’re headed to the next town of Ligui he graciously offers us a ride there too but we decline.  In a last ditch effort to offer us something he pulls an open beer can up from between his legs, eyebrows raised.  Do we need a beer?  I turn to glare at Kai.  No drunk drivers around, eh?!

Dinner at wild camp.  Beer courtesy of last passing vehicle.

The beer of choice in Baja.

Just after we assume our positions on the highway and start picking up speed we hear a couple of friendly honks in the distance.  I turn to see the guy we just talked to pulling up to the the highway back at the intersection.  Thinking he’s just tooting a friendly goodbye, I offer a big wave goodbye and we continue on.  But five minutes later I see him approaching in my rear view mirror and I hear his honks.  Kai starts laughing and asks if its the same guy.  I yell, “Yes!” and start laughing myself.  Now he’s on my tail, trying to go as slowly as possible without hitting me, flashers blinking.  I smile and wave and report back to Kai that I think he might be with us for the rest of our ride.  Just then, a tractor trailer comes up on us from behind and passes us at full speed.  With our new friend right behind me I couldn’t see the truck approaching and now I realize this isn’t necessarily the safest of situations.  While balancing cigarette and beer can in one hand, his other hand on the wheel, our friend pulls into the opposite lane and follows alongside us, joyfully yelling something in Spanish.  We don’t understand a word he’s saying so I smile, nod and keep cycling, as does Kai.  This is getting more dangerous by the minute.  Eventually he makes his way ahead of us and without much notice swiftly pulls in front of Kai and stops as far to the right of the road as possible, his flashers still blinking, blinking, blinking.  Kai instinctually swerves to the left to miss hitting his truck.  At this point I stop so I can find out what the guy wants.  He’s intent on giving us a ride to Ligui.  Perhaps he thinks its too hot out for us to ride, I can’t understand him but eventually I convince him that we’ll be fine and that we prefer to ride our bicycles.  Finally he relents, shakes my hand and wishes us good luck.  We wait for him to pull out in front of us, watch him pick up speed and then let out a sigh of relief as we see him disappear over the horizon.

As we approach the tiny town of Ligui we keep our eyes peeled for an RV park we thought existed here but it never materializes.  We pull off the road near an empty escuela (school).  A huge faded billboard describes the rules of the “Loreto Bay National Park” and mentions “camping in designated areas only” so we look around.  We don’t see any signs indicating where the park is and we don’t see anyone to ask for directions so we ride down a road that is lined with white rocks and that seems to point toward the Sea (which we haven’t seen for awhile now).  We pass a few people’s homes, mostly small shacks made with plywood and other scraps, and a few dogs come out barking up a storm.  Fences line the road on both sides and a politician has plastered huge signs of himself wearing his best smile in between posts made from cactus.  Occasional sections of thick sand alternate with washboard conditions but overall the road is decent.  We cycle for about a mile until we pop up over a small hill and, suddenly, the Sea is before us!  Our road ends and a long sand beach takes its place.  We leave our bikes and walk around to check it out and find that the beach is deserted.  Small islands populate the water and our backs are flanked by looming mountains.  Palapas line the beach and there’s a pit toilet.  A few fishermen have left their empty trucks with boat trailers parked near the shore but otherwise, there are no signs of other humans.  We didn’t even know this park existed and we’re smiling from ear to ear over our good luck.

It doesn’t take us long to push our bicycles through the hot, dark sand to our palapa and change into our bathing suits.  Once in the water we cool down quickly.  As Kai heads back to the palapa to dry off and start dinner, I roll on to my back and float for a long time, relaxing in to the place.  Eventually I return to reality and I walk my prune-y fingers and toes back up to our perch under the shade.

IMG_5924Ligui, Beach

The deserted beach in Ligui, Loreto Bay National Park.

Ligui, Beach <Ligui, BeachLigui, Beach

Ligui

Close up of islands off shore.

Ligui Swimming

Just when I’m changing my clothes, thinking I have more than enough privacy, we hear peals of laughter waft up from the road leading to the beach.  I quickly dress and by the time I’m decent again a group of high school kids come in to sight.  We can’t believe our eyes.  Are they actually holding trash bags?!  Could they be collecting trash from the roads and beach?!!  This would be highly unlikely considering the way people in Baja generally seem to deal with their trash, which is to simply let it fall from their hands to the ground, regardless of where they stand.  We’ve seen kids in mothers arms drop empty juice bottles on to the streets, people walking from the mercados throwing plastic film (that covers everything you buy nowadays) in to the wind and drivers throwing a variation of trash from their windows in to the roadside ditches, all done without reprecussion.  Neither children nor adults make an effort to pick the trash back up and throw it in to a proper receptacle and even if they wanted to, trash cans would be hard to find.  They appear to be rare and, if found, overflowing.

But it IS REAL.  These kids DO have trash bags and they ARE collecting trash.  They smile and wave to us, continuing down the beach, occasionally stopping to take photos of the trash they’re collecting.  This is one of those moments that I wish I had a better handle on the language.  I would love to be able to find out if they’re doing this for a special project or if this is something they do regularly.  But all we can do is give a thumb’s up and nod in approval.  We yell a “Gracias!” to them as they leave, just before dusk.

Ligui

A group of teenagers collecting trash on the beach.

As the day begins to fade, boats that appear as tiny specks on the waves grow larger, fishermen coming back in with their daily catch.  The popularity of the beach seems to pick up.  A handful of trucks speed down a path to the end of the beach and then back fifteen minutes later, despite large signs prohibiting vehicular traffic.  Just as we’re starting to wonder out loud if this is a safe place to stay for the night an older gentleman in a pick up truck, with a label of “Town of Ligui Water Works” on the door, pulls up to our palapa, turns off his engine and says, “Buenas Tardes”.  He wears an obviously well-loved cowboy hat and hangs one arm casually over his open window, smiling warmly.  We respond in kind and then he rattles something off in Spanish so quickly that I must rise from my walk-stool and walk toward him, repeating my most-used Spanish phrases:  “Lo siento, no hablo espanol muy bien pero hablo un poquito.  Puedes hablar mas despacio por favor?”  (I’m sorry, I don’t speak Spanish very well but I speak a little.  Are you able to speak more slowly, please?)  And when he does speak more slowly I can still only make out about every third word.  He tells us the beach is very safe and that we have nothing to worry about.  We will have no problems sleeping here, he says.  After he finds out where we’re from and where we’re going he describes the color and location of his house in town and tells us we’re welcome to sleep at his home if we want to and that he has water if we need it.  If we need anything at all, he says, come see him.  And with a wave, he’s off again.

Ligui, Beach

The last fishermen coming in for the day.

Ligui, Beach Campsite Ligui  National Park Beach Ligui, Beach P1030372Ligui

The next morning we feel groggy due to winds that kept us up all night but we force ourselves out of bed before the sun rises, intent upon finishing the majority of the climb before the heat makes things painful.  Our climb ends up being a very steep grade with at least five switchbacks.  They don’t call this mountain range the Sierra de la Giganta for nothing!

Leaving Ligui

Kai stretching before we begin climbing.

We’re grateful to find ourselves mostly in the shadows of the mountains for the first half of the climb but by the time we make it to the upper part of the pass we’re feeling zonked by the workout and the intensity of the sun is making us a bit woozy.  I’m pacing myself and am feeling pretty strong which surprises me, considering I’d been out of the saddle for so long.  Kai is having a harder time with the heat and his face is boiling red.  We decide to take an impromptu rest and snack break.  Finding shade where we can get it, we lean our bicycles against a cut-out cliff side along the road.  Kai makes himself a couple of avocado and tomato wraps and we both snack on cucumbers and carrots and drink a ton of water to re-hydrate our bodies.  Once we feel normal again we continue the climbing.

Climbing South of Ligui

Get ready to climb the switchbacks!!

Climbing South of Ligui

Near the top of the pass over the Sierra de la Giganta. That dirt road in the background is a narrow path. The road we just climbed is below that and out of view.

Climbing South of Ligui

Thankfully we got an early enough start to find bits of shade for the first half of the climb.

As we make our final push over the highest part of the peak we coast down into a valley.  Its mid-day, when the sun is the hottest, and we know there is another shorter but steep climb ahead of us.   Not being in a rush or willing to fry under the sun, we begin to look for a shady spot to sit for a few hours.  We’ve finally decided to take up the Mexican tradition of taking siesta!  Shady spots are few and far between so we continue riding until we come upon a small restaurant adjacent to a road leading to the small town of “Aqua Verde”.  It’s big patio is covered with a palm-frond roof and I start to salivate thinking about quesadillas.  We decide our best bet for a shady and comfortable break is here.  As soon as we roll our bikes up on to the shaded porch a cute little girl of around three years of age appears with her brother, probably around 7 years old.  He sits on a cot on the porch and watches us intently as the girl swirls around me, talking a mile a minute in a language I can’t keep up with.  Even after I tell her I don’t speak Spanish very well she continues unperturbed.  She makes wild gestures while talking and holds up her hands in front of her.  I wonder out loud.  “Ten?”  “You’re ten years old?”  She says “Si!” but I know that can’t be true.  Just as I’ve secured my brakes and parked my bicycle I turn to look in through the door off the porch and I suddenly understand.  We just rode right up onto their home’s porch and the little girl is trying to tell me it is their home, not the restaurant.  I’m horrified, and although I’m sure it’s not the first time someone has made the mistake (the house has RESTAURANT painted right above the doorway, after all) I turn to a woman standing down below us in what is the actual restaurant and quickly apologize and ask if it’s ok that we leave our bikes on the porch.  She laughs and says “Si, por supuesto!” (Yes, of course!).

Restaurant, South of Ligui

Our siesta spot/restaurant and the cutest little girl ever!

We spend the afternoon lounging at a table in the cool shade, snacking on quesadillas and bean burritos while the rest of the family gathers in an area behind the counter, chattering away.  The girl and her brother join in a game of hide and seek with a couple of other children that arrive via car, their parents joining the other adults in conversation.  A couple of trucks stop and a group of seven or eight men take over flat surfaces on the patio, some even lying down for a bit.  They ask us questions about our trip, a couple of them speak a little English and we try to answer their questions in Spanish as best we can.  We end up pulling out our “phamplet”, which we created in Ensenada.  It’s a two-sided 8×11 sheet of paper containing a photo of our planned route, photos of us with our families, of us building our house and a short description in Spanish of what we’re doing (we translated our writing to Spanish via Google Translate).  The men smile and start joking, teasing each other about riding bicycles.  It’s clear they think we’re mad but when they collect the coffee they ordered, they smile, several shake Kai’s hand and they wish us good luck before piling back into their trucks and departing.

 

Our one page phamplet in Spanish

Eventually the little girl I met on the porch makes her way back to me, placing her elbows on my legs and her chin in her palms as she watches me repair the cloth bag I keep my safety glasses in.  As I stitch up the seam that holds the drawstring in place she talks to me as if I understand her every word, big eyes looking up at me.  I struggle to understand anything she’s saying.  I repeat her phrases out loud, first in Spanish, then slowly break down what I think she said in English.  Each time I do she responds with a surprised smile and an enthusiastic “Si!”.   I smile back and begin to feel more confident in my ability to translate.  She giggles and continues chattering away.  But after awhile I realize that everything I say is being met with a resounding “Si!” and a look of certainty that I understand her every word.  I start translating completely silly things and her response stays the same so I finally ask, “Hablas ingles?!” (Do you speak English?) and she emphatically shakes her head.  No.  I let out a hearty laugh.  Then we continue to babble incoherently with each other, feigning surprise and delight in each and every thing the other says.

Around 3:30 we get back on the road and as we ride we’re not seeing many great places to wild camp.  When we hit our last peak in the route and find ourselves on a plateau, we look down into a valley that rolls for miles.  No matter where we would camp in that valley, we would be seen by all traffic heading toward La Paz.

South of Ligui

Back on the road after siesta and over the last part of the pass. The mountains turn to plateaus and the road brings rolling hills to flatlands.

When we spot a dirt and rock road off the highway that leads down to a couple of microwave towers, we take it.  The land here is packed to the gills with cacti and other desert plants that shield us nicely from the highway and only one side of the road is bordered by barbed wire fence, leaving the other side available for possible camping.  The first few sections of partly barren land we come upon have been used by people as what looks like impromptu dump sites.  Further down the road we find a small but clean, sandy section of land just off the road that would allow for our bikes and a tent so we stop.  Since we’d literally be setting up just off the road, in full view of anyone who drove down it, we briefly discuss cycling to the end of the road to make sure it only leads to the towers and isn’t a through road but we quickly decide it’s not worth it.  The road looks barely used and the chances of anyone coming through would be low.  We set up camp and eat an early dinner.

Trash off Hwy 1, South of Ligui

Trash found just off the highway on a side road.

Campsite off Hwy 1, South of Ligui

Finally we find an open spot off the side of the road.

Just as we’re cleaning up from dinner and getting ready for bed I hear Kai call out, “Someone’s coming down the road!”.  “There is?” I ask but continue on with my task at hand.  When I hear the motor of a truck approaching and rocks crunching I look up to see a family passing by.  Papa is driving, mama has a baby on her lap and two young ones are in the back seat.  The mother is smiling from ear to ear and waving and she’s obviously telling the kids in the back to look at us because they suddenly jump to life.  They plant their faces right up against the window pane, staring.  I laugh and wave, as does Kai and they grin and wave back as they slowly pass by.  Soon they are gone and we’re alone again.

As I take a few last minute photos of Kai working in the light of the sunset he begins chuckling.

“What?!” I ask.

“I was just thinking.  Six months ago you would have had a panic attack about that car coming down this road.  And today, you didn’t even blink an eye.”

I laugh and contemplate what he said.

“I guess I’ve mellowed out a little,” and I smile at the thought of it.  Maybe, just maybe…I’m learning how to better accept my vulnerability and overcome some of my fears.

Cactus Hwy 1, South of Ligui

Morning photos of the flowering cactus surrounding our tent.

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